Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Breaking the milk barrier

At the polyclinic today, where Sonny was getting his latest inoculation, we were reminded that we should start introducing the little fella to solid food.

Well, 'solid' is probably too grand a term for it: Mashed-up grain, whether self-blended or from a packet, is but a mere mushy peg above milk. Still, Mum - who obtained the necessary ingredients weeks ago, so they have been burning a hole in one of our kitchen shelves - can't wait to see how Sonny will respond. We may have previously called the young 'un a milk connoisseur (click here for the post), but he must surely be desperate for an expansion of his diet.

Except, of course, chances are he will reject the cereal at first, and otherwise insist at teary length on sticking to what he knows. For that's the way with adults too, of course. Once we get used to something, we forget how we are slowly being chained to the wheel of habit. There's the famous Chinese tale of the scholar who would pace his room so regularly that, over the years, he wore down the flooring without realising it. It was only after someone kindheartedly levelled the surface that he had a shock, stumbling over perfect flatness because he had trained his feet to correct for a rut he had himself created.

Similarly, then, Sonny probably has no idea how one-dimensional his diet is (sure, we've said he can distinguish between different textures and tastes of milk, but - when all is said and done - it's all much of a muchness, isn't it?). Being forced to begin to broaden his gastronomic horizons, so to speak, will be a jarring experience.

He'll thank us eventually, of course. He's now a step closer to trying junk food.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Preparing for Bandit Sonny

In medieval times, there would come a time in a manor home or fortress when the alarm would be sounded: "Bandits! Bandits!" The populace will scatter to bring in their prize possessions as the drawbridge is drawn up, windows slammed shut, weapons readied and water levels in the moat carefully checked.

We're at pretty much at that level of organised panic, as Sonny lumbers ever closer towards being able to range beyond his little mattress. Already, with utmost effort and heavy breathing, he can half-crawl, half-roll his way towards us when he sees us sipping our evening coffees. His eyes dart everywhere, just like that of a highwayman seeking booty. And it won't be long before he'll be galumphing about our home, grabbing any thing he can reach and testing it with his busy lips.

So what are we doing about it? Pretty much what you might expect. Sharp objects are being withdrawn into drawers and high shelves while we now have a little supply of gadgets designed to 'baby-proof' dangerous edges and corners. We are probably going to have to vacuum the floor much more regularly, to remove any tempting morsels that are not fit for human consumption. And any object can be easily toppled by a curious shove is being redeployed to harder-to-get-at nooks.

People always imagine parents eagerly egging their children on to the next level of achievement, to speaking at an earlier age, mastering their ABCs and running about like mini-tornadoes. Maybe we're just lazy, or - as we prefer to see it - perhaps we're just so well-adjusted we want Sonny to take his time in savouring each mini-stage in his march towards ever-widening awareness and sentience. We're not desperately trying to fast-forward things to when we won't be able to enjoy a cuppa without springing up at least once to stop Sonny from slithering into the shoes. We've seen friends' children (and our own nephew) barging about - and even climbing about - too many times for the prospect to hold any charm.

After all, who ever heard of anyone welcoming the depredations of a bandit?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Five reasons why babies outclass adults

People are always cooing about how babies are 'oh so helpless' and unable to do anything without the constant assistance of parents, maids and assorted other care-givers. But there are not a few categories in which Sonny - into his sixth month now - can outmatch his parents without even trying:

1) Noise, what noise: Once Sonny drifts off, he seems able to sleep his way through the equivalent of a house collapsing (sure, we know that 'Shhh, you'll wake the baby' is one of the ten most-commonly uttered domestic phrases, but someone forgot to programme 'easy-to-wake' into Sonny's genetic code). Many a time, we've gone to eateries where the clash of plates, buzz of conversation and roar of passing traffic have spiked unhealthily. But Sonny has had no trouble snoozing on: His parents could never have napped through such decibel levels.

2) Bend it like Sonny: Just today, Pa was trying to balance Sonny in his lap while engaging the safety belt in a relative's car. That's when he realised that Sonny had remained completely unconcerned while Pa had accidentally bent him more than double while trying to ram in the belt lock. And consider how the little fella contorts himself happily into positions that might freak out a fakir, just so he can enjoy a ride in Mum's chest-slung sarong. The absurd flexibility of the very young is easy to envy when Mum needs regular massage to soothe her cricks and creaking joints.

3) Everything's exciting: A defining characteristic of adulthood is how there can seem to be so little that can really be startling, and therefore interesting. In our cynical age, we might read the newspaper from cover to cover without a peep of surprise being raised. As we trundle through the working day, every minute can seem pre-programmed, so that dreariness oozes through the pores of our routine. Not for Sonny: Every little thing he comes across is marvellously new, from the peculiar ways in which the working parts of his body respond to each other to the mad, colourful elements of the world that he progressively encounters. Lucky chap!

4) Speedo-learning: Over three years of lessons, Mum and Pa were able to advance their command of the German language from zero to pathetic (to use a technical term). Sonny, without even really trying and from a starting point that might be characterised as 'less-than-zero', can expect to make stunning advances in mastering a clutch of languages, as well as gaining control of his own body and beginning to understand how the world works. If we stop to think about it, his learning curve would outmatch that of a supercomputer. Of course, by the time he gets to be his parents' age, he'll be bumbling along with the magic pace of his toddlerhood long forgotten.

5) Flush away the blues: If we hear some bad news, it can upset our equilibrium for the whole day. Sonny? If his feeding session is a little late, he can explode into a typhoon of tears, as though wronged beyond redemption. Ten seconds on, however, he can be so cheery that it would be as though the storm had never blown up. Giggling and chuckling, life looks as happy as it could be. And the best thing is, he can go through a dozen crying jags a day, and yet recover from each as quickly as the previous one. Our emotions are far less supple, alas.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A baby who can't stop smiling

Back in mid-May, we blogged about how we would go into occasional paroxysms of pleasure whenever our then-less-than-a-month-old son let slip a fleeting smile (click here for that post). These occasions were then the flowering of a rare blossom, a window into a future when a little thing that was essentially a crying, eating and sleeping houseplant would begin to interact more actively with people.

Well, whole fields of the smile-flower spring up ceaselessly these days, and sometimes it can seem rather a wild weed. Sonny, now pushing into his sixth month, isn't just flashing toothless grins at every other person he comes into contact with. He gurgles with apparent pleasure, batters his feet at the floor and emits piercing baby-shrieks as though he's won some huge diaper lottery. He gets so excited when a new face hovers into view, he can't keep his food down - to the horror of vomit-averse Mum. As far as we can tell, the only person Sonny doesn't automatically go into smile-like-mad mode for is Mum (which, as you can imagine, does not amuse her one bit).

Anyway, we're told that we should be grateful for being dealt an essentially good-natured young fella by Fate. We've even been congratulated by a security guard who thinks we had executed a cunning strategy from the start - of taking Sonny out on regular excursions so as to familiarise him with a revolving-door of strangers and fresh experiences ("Some babies, they're kept cooped up at home so much, they bawl when they see a foreign face or enter foreign surroundings", we were told approvingly. We lapped up the undeserved compliment and scooted guiltily off). But we're figuring that it's early days yet. Cheery toddlers can become glum two-year-olds, or six-year-olds or what have you. Just like sourpuss infants might cast off their ill humour with time.

Further, we figure that having a relentlessly cheery disposition needs to be coupled with an ability to realistically appraise the situation before one. Optimism can shade into a dangerous blindness to threats, after all; pessimists, at least, are proof against this sort of blundering good-naturedness. It's all right to be always ready with a sunny smile and upbeat remark for all and sundry - but one should remember that not every stranger can be trusted, or be trusted under all circumstances, and that sometimes things can be truly sobering, or dire, or worrying.

But that's for later. At the moment, we'll take smiles over tears any day. Though Mum would still rather more of the former were flashed her way.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quietly weird hobbies

Some folks have innately spectacular or at least social hobbies: Climbing every hill above a certain height in Scotland, say (the so-called 'Munro-bagging' bug) or collecting coasters from bars and pubs.

Then there are really quiet pursuits that can confer relaxation and calm, but seem utterly bizarre - in a quiet, modest way - to everyone else. There was an uncle of ours, for instance, who rather enjoyed washing-up after meals, and did so to exacting standards. Pa, in a similar vein, likes to fold and put away the laundry. After the clothes emerge from the dryer and washing line, good and dry, he tosses it all into an untidy pile on an armchair. It is imperative that everything be crumpled and creased, since the joy to be derived is in turning the mess into well-ordered, sorted-out rows, everything folded just so and organised according to type of garment, owner and size.

Anyway, the earliest signs are emerging that Sonny may just be taking after Pa in this regard. Having blogged extensively on his habit of gathering his toys before playing with them (click here for the post), we ventured to suggest that this showed an innate tendency with humans to 'claim ownership'. But there could be a less high-falutin' explanation at work: That Sonny is simply naturally inclined to favour organisation, and was gathering the toys into a neat pile before commencing to eat them.

It would seem that a love for making order out of chaos is the driving force behind a vast number of disparate pursuits. It might animate the fervour of stamp collectors, coin collectors and others of that ilk. It would, of course, not explain why some seeking wild adventure, parasailing and that sort of thing. But then people are different after all.

Perhaps we could try and categorise and organise the different types...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What's the fun in pretending to walk?

Sonny, at five months, likes to walk. He likes to hop upwards from perch to ever-higher perch, and chuckles as he skips from foot to foot.

All right, since Sonny hasn't even mastered crawling yet, he can't be gambolling about as described. Not unassisted. For the little fella's favourite game these days is what Pa calls 'Walk Walk'. He'll look at Pa, a wide smile forming, and raise both hands in unmistakable invitation. Pa grips him just below the armpits so Sonny can be raised to a standing position. His feet will begin to hunt for a grip and, with Pa's help, he starts to stride forward, his legs firmly pushing downwards in turn, as his eyes flash from side to side.

One might wonder why we don't play 'Crawl crawl' instead, but Sonny doesn't seem to be signalling that he wants help with his efforts there. Not that he isn't trying; as we've reported in multiple posts, he's forever exerting himself in an effort to propel himself forward on his chest, and can already do it when asleep (yep, that's right: Click here for details). But he doesn't seem to be getting any joy out of it; rather, it comes across as a grim but necessary effort. He'll emit loud yells from time to time and even howls of frustration as he fails to close the two-centimetre gap that keeps a toy just out of his grasp.

Why, then, has Sonny already set his sights on walking? We're figuring that humans are just built that way: Instead of focusing on and savouring that which is within reach (such as beginning to walk), we want that which is outside the realm of the possible, too pricey for our budget or impractical given other constraints (like striding along). The current American housing calamity is just this home truth spun out into a massive object lesson: Too many families took on too heavy a debt load so they could enjoy a house that's unnecessarily luxurious, or funded spending sprees backed by the value of a property they assumed could only be worth ever more.

None of this means Pa plans to curtail Sonny's happy Walk Walks through some misguided fanaticism. In fact, perhaps he'll become so enamoured of ambulation that he'll insist on walking rather than crawling, as apparently some babies do. Truth be told, this is sort of a secret wish of ours: It would then take him a lot longer before he'll be able to get around, meaning we'll have a longer reprieve before he becomes a bigger pest.

But we're probably hoping for too much here...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ahoy, Mr Communist: Selfishness starts young

The other day, a friend gave Sonny a pack of four little bath toys: Miniature animals that float and can be used to squirt water. Mum, sniggering, handed them over to the our five-month-old to see what he would make of them. In truth, she expected him to just try and eat them, since his standard greeting - extended towards all surfaces, people and items - is to get gummin'.

Sonny, however, gathered Little Cow, Little Frog, Little Pig and Little Hen to himself, all but lying on top of them before beginning to fiddle with them. Mum's jaws dropped. Apparently, some primitive notion of ownership was at work: The little fella was establishing boundaries of sorts, marking the toys out as 'his' before proceeding to explore (and, sure enough, chomp away).

Unreconstructed communists or anyone with an abiding hatred for the concept of private property might be hopping mad by now. But as far as we can tell, we had never given Sonny the impression that any part of the reality he was encountering was somehow his to own. We'd shown him around our little flat, introduced him to Mac the stroller and so on, but only as aspects of the broader world that he would be interacting with more or less regularly. His apparent identification of certain items as 'within his realm of control' seems entirely instinctive.

Is this a body blow to Marxism? Not really, since there are lots of 'social' arguments for why private property might be considered a great evil, on account of its encouraging wickedly selfish behaviour or dividing person from person so as to create unfortunate dichotomies. But the suggestion that common ownership is the natural way of things (prior to flawed individuals claiming specific things) surely takes a knock. Not to build too much upon the actions of an infant, but it would seem we are hard-wired, genetically, to 'own stuff'. Or so we might interpret Sonny's unprompted reaction to the squirt animals.

Naturally, more observation is required. We'll be leaving the toys about in various configurations, apparently haphazard but deliberately placed, to see whether a change in positioning disrupts Sonny's in-gathering predilections. Perhaps he will only 'claim' those items closest to himself, or only clusters of objects rather than individual items (and what on earth would that tell us, one wonders). And maybe timing is critical too: After a good meal, say, he might desultorily fiddle with objects that - when hungry - he automatically harvests.

It could be we're just being a tad silly. But why deprive us of our adult fun? Don't be selfish now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

We are magicians now

When Pa was a child, he enjoyed watching magicians make doves disappear or pour an endless stream of tea from tiny pots. With his clumsy fingers, he never did master any David Blaine-type tricks: And he didn't have to. Becoming a parent, it turns out, confers upon one the ability to perform impossible illusions. Unfortunately, you don't necessarily get to choose when these moments of magic will come.

The other morning, for instance, Mum was wondering where her little handkerchief was - the one she uses to wipe Sonny's mouth after he performs his own bit of dribble magic (so much saliva overflows onto clothes, toys and assorted people, there must be a huge tank hidden somewhere on his person). Anyway, abracadabra and all that, our once-tidy house was suddenly overflowing with handkerchiefs. They poked out of every pocket and corner. All of them soiled, of course, although Mum couldn't for the life of her remember when she had used so many. We even seemed to have ended up with more handkerchiefs than we started out with. Applause!

Our real forte, however, is disappearing tricks. Two days ago, Sonny was beginning to fidget and fuss. Recently, the only sure way to soothe him has been to put his new best friend - Rainbow the multi-coloured fish - in his hands. Except - fanfare, please - it was Vanishing Time. Though both Mum and Pa had only just seen Rainbow lying peaceably atop the toy box, it took only a Shazam! for it to wink out of existence. Mum scoured Sonny's play area, rummaged through the toy box and then began methodically turning the flat upside down. No Rainbow (plenty fussing, alas). When Pa got home, Mum told a dramatic tale of a disappearing fish. Ah, but it was time for our magic again. Zap! Pa opens the toy box, and there's Rainbow nestled next to Wordster the cloth book. Looking innocent as a saint, too.

We're aware that these are relatively small-scale feats and are expecting our repertoire to expand as Sonny (who is, of course, the talisman that makes it all possible) gets older. We've already seen his more or less magical ability to flit across his mattress while asleep, even though he can't even crawl when awake (read 'Sleep-crawler alert' for details). Like the great Houdini, too, he's hard to truss up nowadays (as Pa used to, to keep him from sucking his thumb): Pa's knots are increasingly no match for Sonny's wriggling skills. But as a taste of the little fella's sorcerous potential, we're already seeing some cosmic time-bending performances. However many minutes we might allot beforehand to readying him for an excursion, it's never enough: When the deadline is reached for departure, there is always an emergency toilet visit, a spill or some critical item gone missing from his pack.

Now if he could only make some of our bills vanish...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Najib Razak might just have to seize his chance

There are things that we are usually quite happy to do, but from which we shy away if the circumstances seem unpropitious.

For instance, as reported in 'Every hero has his weakness', Mum is ever ready to tend to Sonny's needs and wants, unless he happens to be regurgitating his dinner: Vomit is especially repellant to her. Well, it's pretty much like that, we suspect, with the current Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. The prospect of rising to the top job is probably agreeable to him; with a long apprenticeship in politics behind him and his lineage being what it is (he is the son of one former premier and nephew of another), he probably feels as much entitled to it as anyone else.

But oh dear, the rotten timing of it. The ruling coalition he would helm as Prime Minister is teetering on the brink of disaster, with enough lawmaker-members possibly willing to defect to an opposition grouping to throw control of the government to the other side. His own party is split amongst (a) an ever-diminishing rump still loyal to his boss, current prime minister Abdullah Badawi; (b) a faction that wants to boot Abdullah out in December's party elections in favour of a coterie of veterans led by a dissident prince and (c) his own supporters, many of whom want him in charge yesterday.

In short, viewed dispassionately, this is the perfect time to take cover behind your superior, let him stagger under the hits in trying to reform the party (so as to reclaim lost electoral ground) and await calmer seas before reaching for the tiller. Who would want to be known as the captain who was serving when a cruise of over 50 years (for that's how long Malaysia has been in existence, with no changeover in government) is abruptly terminated by passengers who could no longer stomach the crew? The problem, of course, is that more and more members of the crew want the current captain to walk the plank, sharpish: If Najib doesn't step up to take command, however much his instincts may counsel prudence, support might coalesce around someone else altogether.

Right now, then, Najib's doing the best he can: He's hedging like crazy. He's expressing support for a transition plan under which he would contest the party polls with Abdullah, as a team, in exchange for a 2010 handover of power. If enough of his supporters, potential and actual, are willing to hold off for a couple of years, it's the best deal for him: The storm would hopefully have calmed by then, leaving his coalition either consigned to the opposition benches - in which case he can start with a clean slate and new realities - or with a firmer grasp of the situation, meaning he wouldn't have to expend his store of early goodwill squelching crisis after crisis. However, acknowledging that the drumbeat for change might prove be too insistent, he has also indicated that 'it is up to the party grassroots to signal acceptance of the transition plan': In short, if they insist on telling him that he must either be party boss or has-been, he would throw Abdullah over the side and wear the captain's cap.

It's a cautious enough strategy and might work out in his favour. But when Sonny takes it into his head to upchuck his dinner, it's normally sooner rather than later that Mum has to overcome her aversion and approach with cleaning cloth and tissue. Otherwise, a rather unpleasant smell may infect the entire environs, and Sonny's soiled clothes will become much harder to clean.

So it may prove with Najib. Chances are, it's the captain's cabin for him, sharpish.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sleep-crawler alert!

When Sonny's awake, he's a flop. When effectively asleep, he's a champ.

We're talking here about crawling. That's right, as the little fella completes a round five months with us, he's often to be found trying desperately to propel himself along on his own steam. He flips his body about haphazardly, his legs pedal away at an invisible bicycle - yet for all the effort put in, there's little to no forward motion chalked up.

But after Sonny's given up and drifted off, then when he's just returning once more to the world of the wide-awake, something bizarre happens. Somehow, he finds the right height and angles for his pedal-action, and - as Mom and Pa look on in something akin to horror - begins scampering along with some speed, traversing the length of his mattress in seconds. All this, with his eyes shut.

Sleep-crawling is not something we've come across in our childcare-related reading. It stands to reason that Sonny will next learn, and soon, to crawl while awake: Though we used to dread the prospect of his curiosity then sending him into harm's way, now we can't wait for him to restrict his explorations to his eyes-open hours. For, of course, he's presently an even greater danger to himself than ever: Blindly whizzing along, he could quite easily slam into the piano, a wall or the TV console, depending on the direction that he takes off in. At least, were he awake, he might at least try to avoid obstacles in his path.

It's tempting to see here a child-level instantiation of a more general truth: All too often, we blunder our about wreaking havoc through being unaware of the dangers around us. It's a charge we might level against ignorant politicians or policymakers, for instance. But it is true that sometimes, were our eyes so wide open that we could take in the full range of risks, threats and potential barriers before us, we would be too discouraged or plain terrified to actually get going. Brash young upstarts can achieve outperform wised-up veterans precisely because it hasn't yet gotten into their heads that such-and-such a target cannot reasonably be achieved, or that a certain risk is simply too frightening to run.

So sleep-crawl away, Sonny, if that's the only way you can come ultimately to crawl while fully conscious. It's even rather amusing to watch a half-asleep baby on the march. But it's a joke that could grow really old, really soon.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Interviewed by The Malay Mail

Over a month ago, we were interviewed via e-mail by Malaysia's The Malay Mail for their Blogspot column. We hereby suspend our fruitless efforts to post a facsimile of the hard-copy interview, which had some nice visuals, and reproduce below the text (which you can also access by clicking here) with the newspaper's kind permission:

Newbie parents, newbie bloggers
By GABEY GOH July 29, 2008 Categories: Blogspot

THE first step into parenthood is marked by a multitude of decisions to be made – a process many would agree will have no true end. A husband-and-wife blogging combo based in Singapore, who go by the simple names of “Mum and Pa”, delve into this area in their blog, Mum’s the Word (or Pa) (http://mumsthewordorpa. blogspot.com). They chronicle their journey with insight and wit, infused with the exhausted joy felt by many first-time parents. The trials and tribulations of parenting has never had a more entertaining voice.

How and when did you start to blog?
Our son was born about three months ago, around the time we were sort of casting around for a project to keep the old brain cells from dying out prematurely. So you could say the stars aligned themselves. Mum’s the Word (or Pa) went live about two weeks after Sonny arrived. As readers will realise, it’s not purely about our experiences with Sonny; we also use these as a lens through which to write about other things that interest us, or would interest parents. Our casual readership seems to be in the range of... well, let’s just say that, some days, it can seem that we’re writing for ourselves, which was never the idea. But other times, there’ll be spikes in readership, and folks will even leave comments, which can make our day.

What have you achieved through blogging?

Well, another reason we wanted to blog was so we could meet other folks, and that’s happened. The most remarkable encounter has been the incredible blogging grandmother, who can be found at http://blog.nonanitasnook. com/. We also wanted to transmit some of the things we’d hopefully learnt as parents, and occasionally, from the comments we get, that’s happened too. This includes not just the anxieties but also the funny side of parenting, which has often recharged us as diapers flew and infant screaming crested. But we’re very, very new to both parenting and blogging; there’s no being egotistical about it: We’ve benefited far more from advice received and ideas gleaned from other blogs than we’ve been able to convey to others by way of parenting tips and the like.

The “Blogosphere”. What does it mean to you?

It’s like the ‘Soup of the Day’ at a restaurant. It changes every day, not just the ingredients but sometimes the way they are combined. The blogosphere is such a rapidly changing thing; something happens and bloggers rush in to give their spin on it. Keeps it exciting. It’s also a restaurant where everyone sees himself as being on a first-name basis with the chef, since bloggers tend to wear their personalities on their sleeves, and the ‘Comment’ button allows feedback loops and discussion to flow. Which is all to the good.

Tips for newbies who want to blog?
Well, newbie to newbie, we’d say you shouldn’t just sign up and start bashing out stuff. Have a little think-through over what your blog is going to be about: There should be some minimal thematic coherence, unless you think your daily thoughts on all topics at once, are of such vast interest. Set yourself some targets (a post every day, or three days) and keep to it, since by all accounts the great majority of blogs peter out after two months or so, and we wouldn’t want to be deprived of your subtle thinking so quickly, do we?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anwar Ibrahim is playing Sonny's game

All too many times in the course of these ramblings, we've recounted how our son, on the cusp of turning five months old, toys with us: He'll give every indication that he's ready for his milk, then do a quick-change when Mum hurries over in anticipation. Maybe later, Sonny's expression says as he pushes Mum and her milk-tap aside, at most giving a quick taste before dismissing her.

Well, Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition supremo who has been promising to stage a parliamentary coup for months now, is playing Sonny's game. As everybody knows, the man was able to lead a motley alliance of opposition parties to stunning gains in the March elections, when they came within 30 seats of capturing a majority in Parliament. Ever since then, he's vowed to win over enough Members of Parliament (MP) from the current ruling coalition to kick out Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and form the new government.

The whole country, and observers from around the world, have been waiting for him to do just that ever since. A news report will announce that he's reached the magic number of 30 defecting MPs, there'll be a flurry of interest, but then nothing happens and everything settles. A few weeks on comes another declaration of victory, followed by slow deflation of the balloon. A couple of days ago, Anwar missed the deadline he had set himself for seizing power - the anniversary of the founding of modern Malaysia. But he now insists even more stridently that he has the 30 turncoats he needs, and more. He's asking to meet the Prime Minister to arrange a peaceful transfer of power - yet he will not reveal who this mob of defecting MPs are.

With Sonny, at least, you knew that - after spurning us a dozen times - there comes the point when he absolutely has to drink. It's that or starve, little fella, and he knows it, so eventually he'll be gulping away. One can only hope that Anwar realises that he has put himself in the same position. People are able to buy his many excuses for not putting his cards on the table for only so long: That revealing the names of the MPs might bring about instant retribution from the government, that they might be pressured into recanting, and so forth. Politics is a bare-knuckle sport, it must be admitted, so you don't give away any advantages until you have to. Still, at some point, you have to follow through with your promises - especially if you keep repeating them, and insisting that you already have the wherewithal to fulfil them.

Anwar's opponents, and more cynical commentators, will note that Anwar faces a charge of sodomising an aide, and claim that he's just distracting everyone from the coming trial. More plausibly, by presenting a position of apparent strength (even when he doesn't quite have enough MPs yet), he might draw more undecideds to commit to his legal putsch. In both cases, to be honest, he would only be exercising political dexterity. It is really up to the beleaguered ruling coalition to neutralise him by getting the people onto their side, by stabilising the wobbly economy, presenting credible reforms and settling their very public internal conflicts. The problem, of course, is that these folks are scuttling about without a coherent strategy and reaching - worryingly - for old-fashioned tactics like a warning that Anwar is now a "threat to national security". Such ham-handed moves just make it seem that Anwar really is on the cusp of victory.

It's really quite simple. Anwar has to deliver. Milking time is overdue, though there could be sound tactical reasons for why he's taking it one step at a time. Of course, it could all be a fraudster's shtick and he may never follow through.

But remember: If so, he'll eventually be starved of support.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mum's affection roller-coaster

One benefit to having a baby: There's no need to shell out good money to climb aboard a roller-coaster. With Mum, at any rate, every day brings a dizzying series of ups and downs - on her very own Affection Ride. Strap yourselves in, folks...

Slow clanking start: Things start creakily as Mum awakes at about 6 am and clears the sleep from her eyes. Sonny is just stirring, but will soon need a feed if he isn't to become distinctly grumpy. For the moment, both mother and son are in low gear.

Uphill climb: As Mum readies Sonny so Pa can haul him off to the childcare centre, she is struck by how terribly cute her little one is. She feels a growing warmth as she fusses over him and wonders why - sometimes - she can't always summon up such positive vibes. He looks ever so adorable! So helpless!

Down, down we go: All too soon, Mum is on the train to work. A half-dozen silly worries assail her. Are the people at the infant care centre doing their job properly? Can Pa be counted on to get Sonny there safely? Wouldn't it be wonderful if Sonny were just a few steps away? Darn, she misses the little fella terribly. And there are so many hours to go at the office before she can get home...

Dreary stretch, chugging along: Twice a day, Mum has to squeeze herself into a store room to express milk with her pump. She must lug bottles and motor and what have you to and from work. What a bore. She loses a good hour that could be more productively spent at her desk. The minutes tick by towards a reunion with Sonny, but they tick so very slowly...

Up we go again: Quitting time flashes past and Mum is hurrying, hurrying. Get to the train (huff! puff!), catch the minibus back to the condo (huff! puff!)... she'll soon be collecting Sonny. Mum's spirits are soaring. Sonny's smile-happy mien flashes before her as she grabs Mac the stroller from his station by the front door and scuttles to the infant care centre. Hooray! Hang on, Sonny, Mum is almost there!

Some exhilarating spins: At last. Sonny is in Mum's arms once more. He's burbling something meaningless but irresistibly cute. A nice bath, then a cuddle and a dip into the nursery-rhyme book from the library. Wonderful! Sonny must be the cutest baby in the world... Well, all right, Mum's beginning to feel a little tired and the little mons... creature seems fresh as a daisy. But it's all worth it to see him chuckle and chew on his toy fish and try to crawl, but only spin his legs like a misshapen top.

Downhill, downhill...: Why is it that Sonny gets crankier as the evening wears on? For no reason, he breaks out into crying fits. The tears, the howls - Mum can't understand why he's upset but the volume is beginning to drive her to distraction. Maybe the fella just needs a little sleep, except he won't nod off. And Mum can't really leave him alone because he's causing such a racket. She's utterly exhausted and it's past 10 pm but every time she closes her eyes, Sonny starts up again. Insists on a feed, then has a few dainty sucks before dismissing Mum like a lowly servant. Where's the respect? And did her friends say that it will only get worse as he gets older? She has years and years and years of this to go?

Bumpy end: Sometime after 11 pm, Pa gets home to find a fiercely grumpy Mum trapped between wakefulness and sleep, as well as a baby that has apparently just checked into dreamland. He even looks rather cute again. Over the next few hours, Sonny may wake up a time or two for a wee-hours snack, to be delivered by a groggy Mum who's become used to these zombie feeding sessions. Her affections are drained by the day's ups and downs. Sleep is needed to recharged the engine.

But somehow, by the time the sun gets to rising, the roller-coaster is always ready to go again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The sudden sucking frenzy

The sucking frenzy had broken out on a quiet weekend night, with Mum out with friends and Pa warming up a nice bottle of milk for Sonny.

It had been some weeks since we'd had to deploy the bottle on the little fella, but Pa wasn't expecting difficulties: After all, shouldn't our son be thoroughly accustomed by now to bottle-feeding at the infant care centre? But as Pa cradled Sonny and prepared to manoeuvre the bottle into his mouth, things went crazy in a hurry.

Sonny's hands lashed out to grasp the bottle, like the tentacles of an attacking octopus. Before Pa could react, the little monster had his mouth latched on to the teat, and fearsomely loud sucking sounds issued. The fella was drinking in air, as best as Pa could tell! Frantically, Pa tried to lean Sonny back and position the bottle at an angle that would allow milk to flow in. Bad move: Sonny's mouth was detached from the teat. Instantly, he began to thrash about as though zapped by a Taser gun. His hands yanked at the bottle, but so clumsily that the teat swished at his nose and eyes rather than docking with his lips.

After a several seconds of this domestic comedy routine, Pa finally rammed the bottle into Sonny's mouth. Briefly, order was restored to the world. The little fella noisily gulped down milk. But then he released and began bawling tragically. It appeared he was unhappy that he wasn't being allowed to drink milk "his own way", and would rather go without than suffer the indignity of being force-fed.

Following this disconcerting incident, a full investigation was launched. It turned out that infant care staff had told Mum some time ago that they were teaching Sonny how to feed on his own. He's just a week shy now of hitting five full months and therefore, in his caregivers' judgement, ready to embrace the initial taste of independence. It would appear, however, that Sonny is presently caught in a sort of milky no-man's-land. Left to his own devices, his arms and hands are not yet strong or skilled enough for him to grasp a milk bottle, then raise it to his lips in such a way as to draw milk into his mouth. Yet he clearly so savours the illusion of liberty that Pa's attempts to feed him in the old manner of positioning the bottle over his head would no longer do. No, Sonny wanted to have some control over the proceedings - even if it meant sucking in air.

Anyway, we're now shopping for age-appropriate drink receptacles so as to respect the young fella's burgeoning need to assert himself. Some containers come with straws, for instance, so that his penchant for enthusiastic sucking might be put to good use. In the meantime, luckily, Sonny 2.0 hasn't yet manifested any bizarre new preferences when being breastfed by Mum.

Heaven knows what might be percolating in his weird little mind.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A-smuggling we will go...

We keeping delaying the start date of our life of crime. Call it a lack of imagination.

There's a bit of secret background that you need to know about Pa: He has long hoped to rear chickens. Some people hunger for a Ferrari or a fine watch. Maybe your secret dream is to pilot your own yacht. Pa just wants to be able to have a little brood of chickens, enough to supply the family with breakfast eggs and the occasional roast bird. And he wants Sonny to grow up with a similar familiarity with these feathered friends.

There are two obstacles to this bucolic idyll, however. First, we live in a condo where the keeping of pets is tightly regulated and where loud clucking and cock-a-doodling would likely trigger mass unrest. Second, after a regional outbreak of bird flu, Singapore did away with pet hens, so that there is simply no supply from which to begin an illicit brood. We went as far as identifying a half-way home for drug addicts that had an impressive flock of Siamese midget chickens. These were especially quiet birds that might have gotten us round the problem of noise. But as we were swooping in for the final purchase, the government got there ahead of us.

We're now trying to decide how best to bring in chickens from across the Causeway. We know of friends who've been able to coolly stroll through Customs with squirrels concealed in belt pouches, but the problem is that squirrels are pretty much voiceless whereas even young chickens emit cheery peepings. Had we a car, we might be able to conceal two chicks in the boot (but then again, there might be an unacceptably high risk of injury or death). It hasn't helped that the scourge of global terrorism has seen the introduction of scanners and stricter checks. While our research is incomplete, it is likely that being caught smuggling fowl would land us in jail, or at least guarantee hefty fines.

Pa is increasingly resigned to the fact that, barring a relaxing of rules, his chicken dreams won't be hatching for a while. Pitifully, our home is littered with chicken-substitutes like a piggy-bank that looks like a (rather dim-witted) hen, a chicken radio, a chicken wind-up toy and so forth. Sonny sports rompers overrun by little chicks (though they could be ducklings). And as he grows up, the little fella can expect special excursions to wet markets in Malaysia so he will have close-up exposure to various types of chickens. All preparations, of course, for that blessed day when the fetters of fate are shattered and the chance for a coop finally opens up.

Cluck-mania? Pa has a dream...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Over-dependence a creeping danger

When Sonny is a few years older, we'll be sure to get him to watch Wall-E, the shiny new movie from animation specialists Pixar. Its hero is a spunky robot who labours to crush-and-stack the mountains of trash still clogging a deserted Earth. The love interest is a drone deployed in search of biological life.

So far so bizarre. And the humans? Well, they are marooned in gigantic cruise ships in space and have grown monstrously fat from being flown everywhere on floating chairs, their every whim catered to by droids. There is an intriguing subtext of servitude and class subjection in this depiction of robot life - potentially the most original facet of this movie - but of course, it never gets developed. Still, Wall-E brims with many clever ideas, with nods to movies as diverse as Star Wars and old musicals.

We'd want Sonny to become familiar with Wall-E primarily so he can absorb the thought that too much convenience can lead to mental imprisonment. That's one theme that is dwelt on in the film: The human beings are so dependent on technology that they they speak to screens rather than to each other and find the concept of literally standing on their own feet (never mind walk) utterly novel. We are half-way there today, what with the Internet, and videoconferencing, and the Sedgeway. Things will only deteriorate (or progress) further. Of course, all of these tools are useful in their own way (we recently blogged on the importance of employing the right child-rearing resources, in 'Madame Duck-chopper and her trusty blade'). But by small degrees we can become so accustomed to the use of certain supports that they become crutches. If and when they are not suddenly not available, we are crippled.

And there's more to it than that. Sometimes, excessive reliance on certain aids can lead to us to fail to develop other, perhaps related skills. Already, today's Internet crowd have little conception of the importance of decent handwriting, since more or more of what they do - at school, at work and in what passes for correspondence - is keyed into some computer or other. With the widespread use of calculators, it is often alleged that the mental agility of students in performing calculations in their heads has declined precipitously. Or to take the most obvious example of all, a child who always relies on his parents to solve his problems for him will never gain the broader habit of independence. Watching Wall-E with Sonny would be a safeguard against our own best parental instincts, taken too far.

Sadly, the $2 crystal ball that passes for our predictive powers can't tell us what other dangers await as we migrate more and more of our lives onto computers. Thomas Payne, we are told, warned us that the price of freedom was eternal vigilance. He meant this in the stirring context of political liberty and the glories of democracy. But it's just as true a sentiment when applied to our daily acquisition of skills and abilities.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Little logic to dress sense

A few days ago, we visited Pa's old secondary school in his hometown, so he took the opportunity to buy himself a T-shirt printed in the school colours. Today, he wore it out to town and felt like a million bucks. Which may seem strange to some.

Admittedly, now that we're back in Singapore, nobody within a few hundred miles would have heard of the school - the name of which, in any case, wasn't even emblazoned on the otherwise nondescript T-shirt. It was, basically, a boring white and green affair, adorned with an anonymous crest recognisable only to die-hard school loyalists. Pa's feeling chuffed might make sense, some folks may suggest, if the garment could function as a form of identification, signalling to others a sense of shared identity and pride. But since even this factor was absent, whence comes the satisfaction derived by Pa?

But is there really any mystery to this? By wearing that T-shirt, he probably opened up some psychic channel to every pleasurable schoolday memory still half-submerged in his subconscious. Beyond the basic needs of shielding ourselves from injury or weather-related harm, we wear what makes us "feel good". Some people choose clothes - or dress their own children - so as to announce that they have "arrived", socially or financially. Others put a premium on comfort. Sometimes, though, things are murkier. But that's why people are more interesting than computer programmes.

What, then, is our approach to dressing Sonny? The little fella, still shy of entering his sixth month, wishes only that whatever coverings are provided be pleasantly chewable. We're not adhering to any rigid blue-because-he's-a-boy stipulations, though it's true that he only has one pink shirt (with a cute cartoon Highland Cow). Basically, we prefer clothes that can be easily put on and removed when drenched with milk or saliva. And nothing long-sleeved, please - as much because that puts far too much fabric within gumming reach as on account of the tropical weather.

A boring litany? We'll wait till he gets old enough, and he can make up for it by being a true-blue fashion eccentric. Whatever makes him "feel good", eh?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Our baby, our balloon

That babies "grow very fast" is not a particularly original observation. But our baby seems to grow, then ungrow, then grow, then ungrow...

Many weeks ago, we blogged that Sonny was getting rather round (click here to read that post). However, the young fella has since been behaving like a balloon: Some days, he seems to have inflated as though someone had blown air into him; other days, he looks somehow slimmer, as though the balloon had sprung a leak. This morning was an air-in day: As Pa was handing Sonny over to the folks at the infant care centre, he was struck by how roly-poly our son appeared to be. His cheeks were round and juicy and his drumstick thighs ready for the barbecue. Yet just a week or so ago, he'd been looking positively lean.

Could this be? Sonny, who's less than a fortnight away from starting his sixth month with us, seems to specialise in implausible growth patterns. Mum has an even more extreme observation to report: Every other day, she will tell Pa, straight-faced, that Sonny has "grown overnight". If this were true for each time she's voiced this, and even if we assumed the tiniest of mini-upsizings, Sonny would be busting the ceiling and weighing more than his parents. Yet we know that he's not really a giant baby: There's another infant, more or less his contemporary at the infant care centre, who's as swollen as a melon and so fat he gives Pa mild nightmares. Yet there's something vaguely unearthly about the way Sonny's plumpness quotient seems to fluctuate.

Mind you, during our monthly visits to the polyclinic, when the nurse takes her measurements, the results show a regular, unremarkable increase. So all's well, physically. We're familiar with the idea that babies do not grow at a slow but steady pace, but rather in spurts, with 'lull growth periods' in between. So we have to assume that he's entering - perhaps unsteadily - spurt mode. Two related factors may further explain his recent 'expansion': A lingering cold, that has been bothering him for weeks, seems to have been finally banished. He also seems to have recovered his appetite for milk, which had had slackened off at the end of July (as reported in 'Less food, more worry').

Maybe we should be worrying instead about Pa's own weight, which has been creeping up rather more steadily...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fighting back as accents run amok

Poor Sonny must be confused as all-heck.

This morning, when Pa dropped him off at the infant care centre, the strains of a kiddy-song were playing. It was 'Mary had a little lamb', which is as innocuous as it gets, but what struck Pa was the heavy Australian or Kiwi accent of whoever recorded the ditty.

"Meery had a leedle laymb, his fleece wuz wyde as sna-ow", chorused the youthful singers charmingly. Ah well, it was just another element in the already confusing vocal environment that Sonny, and his contemporaries in Singapore, must adjust to. His care-givers, of course, will be retailing radically different, thoroughly-Southeast Asian accents in their interaction with him. Meanwhile, the television blares out yet another welter of differing ways of pronouncing and speaking what is ostensibly the same language: American, British and other localised inflections compete with Pa's horrifying 'Scottish Papa' tendencies (click here for enlightenment).

What sort of all-in-one creature will emerge from this primordial soup of speech patterns? Oddly enough, most youngsters exposed to the melange of accents emerge speaking recognisably 'Singaporean' (or 'Malaysian') English. There will be little traction for the Singapore government's half-hearted efforts to impose 'proper' pronunciation, which aim to limit both usage of 'lahs' or 'lehs' and the garbled grammar of the local patois ("Where can like that one?"). Fleeting campaigns from on high cannot withstand the crushing weight of day-to-day usage and social reinforcement.

So do we have a preference for how Sonny will sound? Well, we want to say this: So far, his crying rhythms have shown no proclivity towards being of a British, American, 'local' or any other variety. We expect the trend to continue. But there is a certain attraction in the idea of encouraging a wildly crazy-quilt English, where some phrases and sentences attract a 'US-style' colouring while others come across sounding 'British-like' - all of it salted with strategic applications of 'lahs'. We're told that it is a good thing for youngsters not to be sheep, that they should not simply follow the crowd instead of thinking for themselves. Well, if a child could fearlessly sound different, that would surely be a start.

Of course, the ideal these days seems to be code-switching, whereby one is able to modulate smoothly between different accents depending on the crowd one is currently with. Useful as this sounds (if Sonny could acquire the skill, it should also make him mentally more supple and able to perform other forms of intellectual gymnastics), it isn't what we're talking about here. We'll let Sonny be as original as he likes in borrowing from the various linguistic currents. Perhaps he'll even develop a crazy logic to his unique strain of Sonnyish: The proportion of US-sounding, British-sounding and other regional-sounding phraseology will vary according to the shares of the world economy commanded by the source nations. Indian English, for instance, would claim a larger slice as that country booms, while Sonny would have to splice in a Chinese influence. In this way, as we listen to Sonny speak, we would be able to grasp the latest economic trends.

Crazy? Just blame the way the English language has taken firm root in so many lands.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Money-mindedness should know its place

In one of our very earliest posts (click here to read it), we reported opening a bank account so that cash gifts from friends or relatives that are meant for Sonny could be hoarded. Thing is, we used an account in our own names. It seemed fairer that Sonny get an account of his very own - so today, Pa toddled over to the bank.

Of course, it'll be years before the little fella will grasp the concepts that underlie the banking system. Or savings. Or, indeed, money itself. He's operating for now on the ultimate in socialised living: All of his needs are provided without anything being demanded of him in return. Still, the conventional advice we receive is to get our young 'un hooked on saving as soon as possible, so he begins to appreciate the value of dollars and cents at the earliest possible juncture.

One wonders, however, whether this risks creating a monster of sorts. It might be argued that, even more central to life than always husbanding your resources and making sure you're not expending them needlessly should be an instinct to give selflessly of yourself. That is to say, shouldn't we be geared towards helping others without thought of reward, rather than learn to help only within the prior context of a 'prudence' that teeters towards becoming a calculating meanness? Embedding an awareness of 'dollar value' too early on would seem the ideal route towards distorting the wellsprings of generosity.

None of this, it ought to go without saying, is to denigrate the importance of spending within one's means, being sensible financially and so forth. What is at issue is only the relative importance of such concepts within a young child's core understanding of how the world works, and ought to work. It is widely accepted that, for most people, what we imbibe when very young becomes the deepest part of who we are.

So we're not going to ply Sonny with messages, subtle, crude or subliminal, to save and be cost-conscious just yet. In a society so utterly money-driven, there'll be plenty of time for such lessons.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A uniform from the get-go

You occasionally read about how some American parents are uncomfortable with the idea of sending their children to schools where uniforms are worn. It's seen as the first step to a sinister groupthink, where free expression is discouraged and the spark of individuality is snuffed out.

Boy would these parents explode if they visited Sonny's infant care centre. In our son's cohort (ooh, that sounds militaristic already), nobody is older than 18 months, and everyone sports the same green and white uniform. It's a romper - easily soiled, if truth be told - in a cotton fabric for easy washing. Parents bring their children in dressed in civvies but pack two sets of the uniform; centre staff bathe the babies before each kit change.

Now, why might babies need to wear uniforms? There are arguments, of course, for why schoolchildren should be dressed alike: It gives them a certain pride, cancels out differences in parental income since everyone looks the same and reinforces shared values (the uniforms typically sport the school crest, or motto, or the like). But none of these would seem to be very relevant to infants and toddlers, most of whom are still trying to learn the forbidden secret of crawling.

Rather than doing anything as conventional as asking the centre, we've figured out a couple of possible explanations. For one thing, the centre is linked to an adjacent nursery and kindergarten. These older children wear uniforms of the same colour combination, so there would simply be a pleasing consistency and continuity in tricking out even the 'pre-kindergartners' in essentially the same get-up. It's probably also a case of branding: Other parents might notice the striking uniform, replicated across the age spectrum, and make inquiries. In less time than it takes to darn a sock, they might become paying customers!

And what do we, Mum and Pa, think about the uniform requirement (since, as we've observed before, we chose the centre primarily because it is sited next to our condominium, and not because of its reputation, activity mix or the like?) Well, mainly, we're a little annoyed. Since all the children wear the same uniform, and everyone gets two baths and uniform changes a day, the clothes get mixed up. Our nice set of fresh rompers has already been confused with those of other children who've obviously been at the centre longer, so that we've ended up with crinkly, spotted clothes belonging to strangers.

Thank goodness the caregivers are going to be stencilling Sonny's name onto his romper soon (though maybe it's too late). Even though that sounds suspiciously close to wearing name tags - and so marks a further step down the road to militaristic Big Brotherism.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Madame Duck-chopper and her trusty blade

Half the world these days seems sold on Chinese martial-arts films, in which people clad in flowing robes flit about like sparrows and cross blades with balletic grace. But for some real skill, there's always our neighbourhood roast and braised duck seller.

With some of Mum's relatives coming round for Sunday lunch, she again visited the stall this morning for a fat braised duck. And not for the first time, her breath was taken away by the speed and artistry with which the sweet-natured proprietor transformed a whole bird into delicious, bite-sized hunks of flesh. There was visual poetry in the way she wielded her cleaver in economical motions, varying force and angle as she manoeuvred the diminishing duck around her wooden chopping board to slice off chunks for further processing.

Yet after several deep bows of admiration, it must be said the display would have been a lot less impressive had she not had the right tool to employ. Suppose she had to hand only a blunt paring knife. Chances are the stylish slicing motions would have to be replaced by laboured sawing interludes. Bone and sinew might cause embarrassing hiccoughs, jagged shreds of meat might occasionally be hacked off, disrupting the ceaseless production of smooth-edged medallions.

The fact that even the best artisan is limited by the tools available for his use applies to our child-raising efforts. As Sonny approaches a level of intelligence that allows him to interact with us, our skill in engaging and teaching him will certainly make a difference to his intellectual progress. The experience and ability of his infant care teachers will be another crucial determinant. Yet, equally, much will also surely depend on the resources that can be brought to bear for the task. Imagine the care centre stripped of board, radio, charts and all other learning aids. The teachers would likely be left floundering. Let's take another example: In our recent encounter with Sonny's bright-spark older cousin, we were struck by a high-tech, kid-friendly musical instrument that he was learning to manipulate. You could carry a tune with its keys, but the device could also play back pre-recorded tunes and even politely announce that it was shutting down. The employment of the right toy-tools would no doubt improve the odds of happy days that also yield steady maturity gains.

The root insight of this meditation, of course, isn't that we should go and clean out the local Toys 'R' Us in a pursuit of high-tech gewgaws. It is simply that we should not hesitate to learn - through conversation, reading and trial and error - what tools can maximise and magnify our efforts to keep our young fella healthy, happy and half-way intelligent. We can't all be master duck-slicers, but it's easier to do a half-decent job of carving when you at least have a sharp knife.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

An unlikely pack of liars

There are many sorts of liars: Uninhibited truth-benders, reluctant fibbers and cautious white-lie purveyors. Since the addition to our family, however, we've been introduced to a whole new category: The sudden-switchers.

Who are these folks? In our case, they are the acquaintances or relatives who - very early on - warned us ominously never to give in to a baby's bawling. "Let the young fella cry. If you pick him up at the first sob, you'll never get a moment's peace", went one fairly typical admonition. The impression from these early encounters was that we'd somehow gathered a group of hard-hearted disciplinarians for family and friends, who preached a stern strain of parenting drawn from military-school-type manuals.

But a strange thing happened as the weeks passed, leaving Sonny a fortnight shy of his sixth month. All these 'let-'im-learn toughies have all become complete pushovers. All Sonny needs do is to whimper and we'll be urgently told to comfort and cuddle. When Pa ties the young fella up like a package at the fish market, to keep him from sucking his thumb, some of these tough guys have been known to break down in tears at the "inhumane treatment". Even when it comes to Sonny dropping off to sleep, we're being told we ought to rock him and soothe him till he drifts away to la-la-land. This, from people who were urging that the baby be dumped in a cot in the next room, so he can cry and learn to "sleep on his own".

Since it's unlikely these folks had a mass change of heart, we have to assume that they were peddling a line they didn't really believe in. Once confronted with its logical consequences, they then broke down and switched camps. In a way, this is symptomatic of a broader tendency in human beings: To boldly proclaim adherence to a unyielding creed, then crumple once the sacrifices required become more apparent. In this case, to be fair, it is people's kindliest tendencies that are to blame: They can't take it when they see an infant apparently suffering.

It was a lot easier when discipline was just an abstract principle.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A mighty meltdown

When anyone tells you that babies are cute, you may want to quickly correct him by adding, 'except when cranky. Or ill. Or both'.

Sonny has been nursing what seems to be a cold for over two weeks now (we first blogged about it in 'Sonny the Showboat') but he has mostly been bearing with it heroically well. These last couple of days, however, have seen a couple of spectacular, high-volume meltdowns that sent us scurrying to the windows to see if any have cracked.

In each case, Sonny had been sniffling mightily before either dozing off or being comforted by a nice spell of suckling. Once woken up while being carried to his cot, or upon being detached from his personal drink faucet, he had gone berserk. Now, you might think that we're dramatising things (what, us?), but it seemed that Sonny's mouth expanded to allow for more crying power. His hollering reached dimensions never plumbed before. A river of tears gushed from his eyes and his limbs tightened into fixed stumps of quivering rage.

And that was just the warm-up routine. His nostrils were pretty much gummed up as something that looked like tears, but with a much thicker consistency, flowed out. His breathing half-seized, which of course threw him into a greater frenzy of distress. You see how a vicious cycle quickly took hold: The greater the distress, the wilder the wailing, which meant an even more blocked-up nose, ratcheted-up discomfort - and so a mightier outburst of crying...

We ran out of coping strategies very quickly. Silly singing, swaying, talking, shouting, a wet cloth - nothing made an impression. His baby mind had been blotted out temporarily by some all-out bawling instinct. Sheer exhaustion was probably what finally stoppered the outburst. Then, within seconds, it was back to the 'jolly baby' production, with cheery gurgling interrupted only by random sniffles.

What have we learned from these episodes (apart from a need to buy earplugs and install soundproofing)? Probably that we have to be exactingly careful when transiting Sonny from one activity to another, whether from drinking to sleeping, playing around to resting or the like. These bridging moments seem to be the instances of greatest risk, where his equilibrium is disturbed and a tipping-over to frenzy is most likely. We've heard about doctors who medicate their own children, feeding them a little something to knock them out and silence the screaming.

For fleeting moments, such drastic action actually seemed to make some sense...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lesson of the famous crabs

On our last night in Pa's hometown, we came to learn of a seafood joint of national repute, renowned for its barbecued crabs. We motored to the approximate location given by an Internet search, and found the eatery after a few false starts.

How delicious was the fare? The verdict was a generally positive one. But what really made an impression was how the existence of this 'famous eatery' had somehow eluded both Pa's mum, his brother and himself despite the compactness of the town and their long years in residence. It was Pa's sister-in-law, a complete foreigner to the place, who had heard of the restaurant from outsiders, who would drive in just to dine on the crabs.

It shows, if it shows anything at all, that you can't ever know something so well that some aspect or facet of it might yet come to light and surprise you. In fields of scholarship, even the greatest experts can be caught unawares by new knowledge. In life, too - to recycle a cliche - 'the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley', which is to say that the most careful strategising and plotting can be up-ended by some unexpected twist of fate.

In childcare, too, we figure, the same sentiments are worth holding onto. Poring through parenting tomes or making exhaustive Net trawls may give us a false sense of confidence, a belief that we've anticipated all the possible emergencies and surprises that infants might throw up. But whether it's some weird malady, or quirk of infant conduct, or something too surprising even to characterise in advance, it's better that we adopt the assumption that the unexpected will happen. It makes the whole childcare business more interesting anyway.

Rather like running across some hidden-away restaurant serving challenging, but appetising, fare.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sumo wrestler, smash that TV

Before a sumo bout gets underway, the protagonists go through a time-honoured ritual of crouching and thumping the ground loudly with their feet. Sonny hasn't actually seen any sumo fights, not even on television - yet he is often to be found enacting the ground-thumping.

Of course, since the little fella is only a week or so into his fifth month, and can't even stand unassisted, he doesn't really run through the whole process in the approved manner. But as he lies on his mattress, he will raise his foot and stamp it with startling authority and seriousness. Were he to put on a few pounds and be kitted out in a fancy loincloth, some folks might be willing to swear that he must have been studying sumo tapes using a VCR.

The assumption underlying all of this, of course, is that television programmes are the primary model for infant copycatting, outside of parental example-setting. And there's no doubt that the idiot box has assumed a frighteningly powerful role in 'bringing up' children, offering myriad ways of behaving, speaking, thinking and interacting. Many a parent we know is lulled by the usefulness of just slotting in a VCD or flicking to a cable channel, and having the resultant show hold the otherwise fidgety, fussy child in thrall.

It can be a nasty surprise, we understand, when their precious tots start to evince a disturbing lack of originality in their conduct and speech, but parrot only themes and lines from some yellow-suited, plastic-eyed creature and his ilk. Not that there aren't decent television programmes: It's how kids often unquestioningly imbibe what the boob tube blasts at them that's worrying. Many a year ago, Pa was surprised to meet an English gentleman who refused to have a television in his home, preferring that his daughter grow up in the company of books, fantasy friends and their invented adventures. It seemed an excessive step, but with the proliferation of cable or satellite channels since, and the way movies, television, games and other entertainment media have melded into one all-encompassing shaper of experience, it has sometimes seemed that the only way not to give in is to reject the whole shebang altogether.

Of course, parents can take a exacting middle road. They might exert stern discipline in ring-fencing no-TV times. Also, they might heavily promote other ways of spending time, be it reading, playing outdoor games, collecting stamps or creative conversing (chatting about world events, say). For our money, they might also make a game of inventing ways of dramatising to their children how staring blankly at a television for hours on end can turn their faculties to mush. It should be fairly amusing, and it's certainly true that television programmes can insidiously imprint thought patterns like a mould firmly pressed on soft clay.

Or make that the stomping of a sumo wrestler's foot.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Salty, sweet and Sonny

We're more than half way through our vacation in Pa's hometown - and it's given us the inspiration for an interesting, multi-year experiment, with Sonny as guinea pig.

While it's good to be revisiting one's own stomping grounds and breathe in familiar (if rather dust-laden) air, food is very much of the equation too. Sampling the local cuisine is a must. This may seem rather unnecessary to those with only a passing acquaintance with Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine, since many of the dishes have the same name, are cooked in broadly the same way and even seem to taste the same. But Pa's always insisted on the sweet/salty distinction as a distinguishing factor: A given food item (char kuay teow, say) will taste sweeter in an eatery in Singapore, and be saltier in Malaysia. But could it be that this is so only because Pa spent most of his formative years north of the Causeway, and so has had his taste buds trained in a certain way?

Mum, born and bred in the Republic, doesn't necessarily disagree with Pa's taste observations, but thinks he insists on it rather too much. Appealing to Pa's mother, brother or sister-in-law won't work either, since they are adults too. But Sonny's senses are uncontaminated. So long as we shuttle between Malaysia and Singapore with some regularity, exposing him to a range of foods, he'll be able to form his own opinions - and, in time, deliver his verdict on the salt/sweet rule.

Some might find all this plotting vastly premature, since Sonny is at the moment imbibing only milk, mum's milk and more of the same (as commented on in 'Our milk connoisseur'). The plan might even be held to be a symptom of the sort of hairsplitting that keeps political relations between the two countries perpetually a few speeches' away from a confrontation. Shouldn't we be stressing how similar the two nations are, instead of underlining differences even in food and drink?

Thing is, Sonny's been showing himself a right fussy eater, with distinct preferences as to how he prefers to be held while snacking, which breast he prefers and so on. In short, he might just be a food critic in the making - and keeping him in training to solve the sweet/salty conundrum might launch him onto the path of success. Who are we to prevent bar him?