Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Now he's double the trouble

Sonny has now more than recovered from his recent bout of the flu, even though his nose is still runny. We say "more than" advisedly, since something in the air here in Abu Dhabi (or maybe it's the presence of his cousin, older by roughly a year) has amped up his energy levels. Or perhaps babies naturally rally after a brief period of being a bit mopey and sniffly, undergoing some sort of growth spurt.

Whatever the reason, the little fella is now quite the little terror. He crawls so fast you might imagine all four limbs leaving the ground at the same time, like a racehorse or cartoon character. He has taken to cackling with glee for no apparent reason, his eyes flitting from person to person as though inviting everyone to join the merriment. New to his repertoire of actions are a cheery clapping of his hands and a tendency to vigorously slap another person's cheek or head (something which his cousin is much discomfited by).

Naturally, the accelerated rate at which he gums away at, then discards, toys (and anything else, given half a chance) means he is roaming farther afield in search of fresh amusements. The apartment of Pa's brother is pleasantly roomy, so Sonny is given a freer rein of the place than back home in Singapore: Suitably appreciative, he has a knack of appearing under the table half way through a round of mah jong and chomping lustily at slippers. There can also be no doubt that he is in league with his cousin to launch two-in-one sob-a-thons, creating a disconcerting counterpoint calculated to drive any parent wild.

For now, at least, Sonny isn't able to speak yet - though now that he's scuttled into his tenth month with us, that time is presumably not too far in the offing. As such, he isn't yet able to give us any lip, make specific demands or attempt to do any bargaining (all of which a young fella of less than three years can do with no compunction whatsoever, going by our recent observations). Put another way, he will soon have more means at his disposal to keep us on the hop.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Falling (really) ill for the first time

"Hullo, it's me again, Sonny.

"We are in a place that is completely foreign to me, called Abu Dhabi. My parents kept telling me that "we were going to take a take a ride on a big iron bird", as though I was a complete idiot and didn't know what an aeroplane was. In case you'd like a refresher, it's not a bird, is not alive and does not flap its wings: It uses engines that suck in air to burn fuel. Everyone knows that.

"Maybe I sound a bit grumpy. The truth is, I have been unwell. I was nursing a nasty fever and my nose is still running like a faucet. Ugh. This was probably the most extended and unpleasant bout of illness I have encountered. Previously, my parents have occasionally gotten all het up after taking readings with one of those thermometer things they cart around everywhere, even though I didn't even really know what the fuss was about. This time, though, I felt rotten, like I had been fed less-than-fresh milk.

"I don't think I much like "being ill" if this is what it feels like it. Maybe my parents can take better care to ensure it doesn't happen again. I ought to lodge a complaint or something. Then again, apparently, the "very small wicked things" that cause illness (yes, I'm supposedly too young to understand what a pathogen or a germ is) come from other people. And since I mingle with a good number of other children at the infant care centre, that means I can't really be well protected.

"Or so my parents say. I smell an excuse here. Surely there is some sort of injection or pill that could prevent me from falling ill? After all, people are always going on about how wonderfully "modern" and "advanced" human society is these days. Well, I wouldn't say we were all that advanced if we couldn't even keep a baby from falling prey to germs! So what if you have aeroplanes, or even spaceships? I'm talking about the important things in life.

"Anyway, I think I am recovering now. This place is quite interesting even though people dress funny: Most folks are very friendly towards me and will try to talk to me or at least smile. This shows that they are civilised. Or that's my own personal yardstick of civilisation anyway: The degree to which people show proper conduct towards the very young. Hey, we are your future, after all."

Best wishes,

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making the desert bloom and other absurdities

Our posting is going to be rather scatter-shot over the next fortnight or so, as we are presently in the arid sandlands of Arabia, visiting Pa's brother and his little brood.

Wait, did we say 'arid'?

If you fly into Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and hug the coast, you might believe that all this talk about 'the deserts of the Middle East' is so much hokum dreamt up by racist propagadists. Foliage blooms in wild profusion, trees hug the broad avenues and fountains leap in piazzas and at random traffic roundabouts. Look closer, however (or be alerted by your host, as we were), and you'll realise that a grand con is being perpetrated. A hidden network of pipes and sprinklers delivers water to keep all that greenery from promptly browning. Venture further into the interior, away from the arterial roads that are kept lovingly lush, and the desert sands assert their rightful claim to the terrain.

There are parents we know, as it happens, who are operating very much the same confidence game. It's all about projecting a front, erecting a false facade that suggests you are not quite what you really are. But there's a distinction that bears making. The folks in this part of the world have money oozing out their follicles: The gulf states of Arabia earn so much from oil that they can make vast financial investments yet be left with enough play money to tart up their cities, prettify their environment and just darn shout their wealth to anyone within hearing distance. It's not subtle - but there's no rule anywhere that says everyone should be discreet about splashing their money about.

With plenty of parents, similarly, stocking up on brand-name kidswear, piles of extravagant toys and all the rest could well be a way of camouflaging a certain poverty of the spirit; neglect is dressed up as 'earning enough to keep the family in provender' and lack of self respect shows itself in displays of ersatz plenty. In its own way, it could be a little morally distressing, but on the other hand there's no doubt that such monied Mas and Pas possess fat enough pocketbooks.

There are those parents, however, who aren't really all that well-off, but who are seduced by the displays of material comfort by others into thinking that they are somehow trapped in some essential race to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of making sensible provision for the future, they spend more than they should to keep their offspring excessively clad and equipped. It's transparently short-term thinking, but not thereby unheard-of. And who should we blame, is the obvious follow-on question? Those whose initial expression of wealth ignited the silly comparative race to begin with or those who should have known better than to join in?

Luckily, those of us who may observe at a distance, with perhaps wry expressions and hopefully with a little compassion, are at no obligation to ladle out guilty verdicts. The fountains are pretty over here, the greenery is easy on the eye. We're not paying for it - but in some parts of the world, the grand monuments and impressive sights are literally squeezed from the weak, voiceless and oppressed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Going a little crazy is good for you

The other day, we were flailing from shop to shop in Singapore's Chinatown district, hunting with growing desperation for ancient attire.

Chinese New Year is almost upon us, and Mum had decided it would be wildly amusing to dress up both Sonny and his cousin (older by roughly 13 months) in flowing robes from China's imperial era. Never mind that the clothes would be utterly impractical for ordinary use and would likely be worn only a couple of times. The hilarity would be worth the expense - plus, it would be a fitting way to welcome in the Year of the Ox.

All of which goes to show that, sometimes, we all go a little barmy and do ridiculous things. We never did find garb that would both fit the little ones and "look right", but that's neither here nor there. A certain aptitude for the absurd, one would argue, would seem to be an absolute prerequisite to parenting: It comes, really, as a needed release from the futility of trying to impose one's will on a wailing almost-nine-month-old, or to keep insanity at bay as the orderliness of the household is fatally compromised by his rampaging curiosity.

Yet there's a broader aspect to this. Life in general can throw up nasty surprises and unexpected reverses. And these can best be borne with an eye to the absurd. In this time of economic hardship, as jobs vanish like the twinkling of exploding stars and investment portfolios melt like candles in the sun, taking things too seriously is liable to lead to a breakdown and a visit to a shrink. Bashing yourself against the walls thrown up by fate might, in other words, result in the forced application of many rolls of bandages and multiple ice packs. Yet the parent who has tried for two months straight to convince his infant not to gobble up those smelly slippers will have learnt a thing or two about how some things are just beyond us. And he would also probably have come to laugh at that fact - or else to generate good humour by his own doings. In any case, amusement - bitter, perhaps - can usually be found in the core of any scenario: Sonny biting blissfully into Pa's footwear - having eluded parental patrols and umpteenth warnings - presents a madly comic aspect to any observer not blind to it.

Should anyone be in need of advice, then, for what should be a challenging year, "Go ahead and be silly once in a while" would pass for a decent serving. One doesn't need to have a child by way of a prop - though it sure makes things a heck of a lot easier: Anyone can hurtle down a busy street trying to imitate a plane trying to take off, for instance. Not that one should take complete leave of one's senses or abdicate our responsibilities entirely.

We're talking controlled doses of nuttiness, by way of a corrective to excessive sombreness.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The cuts that appeared from nowhere

One day, Sonny's wrist were pristine. The next, ugly red slashes were screaming for our attention.

Not too long ago, we had to grapple with bruising that we could never properly account for (click here for more). But these painful lesions presented an even more frightening twist. You have to remember that the little fella, now less than a fortnight away from completing nine months with us, is an active critter who's forever exploring surfaces with tongue and hand. So when we discovered the marks, it wasn't just concern or sympathy that filled our minds.

It was mystification. The problem was this: Where in our home was there a dangerously sharp surface that could leave Sonny with such cuts? Things worsened when, a day on, new slashes appeared. It appeared as though he was still touching the mystery surface, with the scars to show for it. It was the weekend, and we hadn't really gone anywhere with the young 'un, so our home was really the only "area of interest", as police investigators might put it.

You might wonder why Sonny didn't simply avoid any place that could sting him so. But he's not very good at processing such "lessons": He may have fallen twice from beds, suffering nasty bumps on the head, yet he still barrels merrily along to the edge of any high surface (chair, bed, et cetera) - as though desperate to topple again.

We have to report that we still haven't pinpointed the guilty surface. However, our exhaustive search has reminded us again of the many dangerous spots that litter our apparently-innocuous home. There are nasty corners and edges where a spill could have unfortunate consequences. There are objects (like our tower fans) that Sonny could push over without too much effort. Less-than-clean items abound that he could seize and lick.

In short, our apartment is a nothing more and nothing less than a collection of traps and threats to the unwary baby, especially one that isn't being trailed closely by a gimlet-eyed parent. So although we have yet to identify the cause of the cuts that appeared from nowhere, at least we've had a reminder of how much baby-proofing still needs to be done.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pa's name minefield

The names of the babies in this post have been changed to protect their privacy. Though, if we're being honest, Pa probably couldn't remember their names aright anyway.

Not too many years ago, Pa used to make great sport of his own father's notorious inability to correctly put a name to a face. Whether it's some lineal vengeance or genetic quirk, however, this embarrassing failure has now boomeranged. Just this morning, for instance, Pa delivered Sonny to the infant care centre and then paused to tickle one of the other inmates.

"Ah, that's Jake, right?" he offered sagely.

"Er... no, that's Jim," replied one of the staff, her eyes darting meaningfully to the left. Pa followed the glance, and realised that Jim's parents - with whom we are on 'how-do-you-do' terms - were still hovering. It was obviously time for a very expeditious exit, so of course Pa tried manfully to recover.

"Well... Jake's... eh, John's.... not as fat as he used to be, don't you think," he managed to stammer, realising he had made multiple faux pas when the parents' already unmistakable frowns began to mutate into masks of displeasure.

The thing was, this had all happened before. Though the number of babies who were enrolled around the same time as Sonny in the infant care centre could be numbered on one hand, Pa continually gets their names jumbled (when he remembers the names at all). Mum, on the other hand, annoyingly has no such trouble and has even gotten pally with most of the other parents, so that they are always calling Sonny - correctly - by name.

As you have seen, however, Pa's name-weakness isn't the end of the story. Worse, he has a tendency to compensate by applying rather tart descriptors, which can be very dangerous if not accompanied by careful sweeps-of-the-area to ensure that no one else is about. For instance, the other day, both of us were at the care centre spending a few seconds with a frisky playmate of Sonny's.

"This one... yes, this is the vicious one, right? Manny or Mangy or whatever his name is", Pa said to Mum, a tad too loudly.

"Oi, keep it down," shushed Mum. "The name is..."

"Well, whatever, Mongo or something," interrupted Pa. "But he's the vicious one, I'm sure of it."

At this point, Vicious Baby's parents materialised (real name: Mindy), though it was unclear if they had overheard the exchange. We scuttled off and luckily no breakable objects were thrown.

Sometimes, it can seem a blessing we decided to refer to our son as "Sonny" for the purposes of this blog. Otherwise, chances are high Pa would get his name wrong as well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Outbreak... and after

For parents of toddlers in Singapore, it's right up there with sudden fires or wicked child kidnappers.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is an endemic childhood ailment that visits thousands every year - usually lasting only a few days. However, a handful of truly unfortunate victims never recover: When word breaks that a kindergarten, creche or other care centre has seen a case, the place clears out faster than you can say, 'Aa-ti-shoo'.

Just a few days ago, Sonny's infant care centre fell under the shadow. The first victims had been enrolled in the facility for older children next door, but then two of the little fella's playmates became confirmed HFMD statistics. We were sombrely told that it was best Sonny be kept at home for a few days while the place received a thorough wipedown, since HFMD can be spread through saliva left on shared toys.

Luckily, Mum happened to be clearing her leave and it was near the weekend anyway. Still, we suddenly had Sonny with us for a more prolonged spell than we ever envisioned. For the next couple of days, he tagged along as we embarked on various excursions - to condominiums in our ongoing research for a possible purchase, to eateries and the library. It was the longest continuous spell we had spent with him, and it seemed to us it stoked his clingy side: He became, if it were possible, even more dangerously attached to Mum and even more inclined to break into tears if left to himself. For our part, we scrutinised every newly-discovered pimple or freckle, wondering if these were the first harbingers of the disease: We even absented ourselves from a friend's party, not wishing to be responsible for Sonny innocently transmitting HFMD to one of the other tots there.

The next week, of course, Sonny was re-deposited at the infant care centre. Yet his increased propensity for tears hasn't yet abated. A doctor Pa chatted up told us that we ought to soothe him as soon as possible, but we are still occasionally letting him cry just to see how long he can keep it up. So far, the answer seems to be: For as long as it takes, which is bad news for the 'shun-him-to-discipline-him' school of thought. But we're now eyeing our upcoming holiday to the Arabian peninsula with some trepidation. If two days was enough to make the little fella extra-needy, 10 unbroken days with us might push him into some new and even more frenzied dimension.

At least, though, the HFMD scare gave us a warning of what might come. You know what they say about silver linings and clouds...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sonny marches to own tune - and eternal rhythm

So it's back to normalcy again, after the controlled madness of the year-end holiday season. Just take this blog: We've posted far less regularly than in previous months as we balanced see-sawing schedule disruptions at work and at home.

But one thing hasn't altered: The steady rhythm of Sonny's acquisition of new skills and blooming interests. He can't walk yet, but with the steadying help of a few friendly surfaces, he's already taking his first dodgy steps - albeit swaying like a drunk and with many a yip of concentration. His first tooth is all the way out (and sinking into Mum's soft flesh all too regularly), with reinforcements clearly champing at the bit. And he's begun directly mimicking our actions - a frightening reminder that we must soon be very careful with our gestures and words.

In short, then, the little fella - now just about a fortnight short of completing nine full months with us - is impelled by his own programme and schedule, one that does not give a hoot about our job timetables, vacation chaos or ever-so-important career milestones. It's a catch-it-or-miss-it situation: "Sonny's Growing-up" is a 24-hour reality show that does not repeat, ever: Snatches caught on videocam or on photographs don't count, though we've been very tardy even in that department.

You might think, then, that such reflections - coupled with the hoary traditions of each New Year - would lead us to rather mawkishly resolve to attend more closely to the little fella's adventure. After all, he already spends much of every weekday in the embrace of professionals at his infant care centre, leaving Mum to spend the evenings with him and Pa to re-engage late at night or over the weekends. But a little humility is always a useful corrective. Sonny isn't growing up for our benefit: He isn't a show for us to enjoy, so that we must be sure not to miss the next exciting instalment. He's been launched on a voyage powered by Nature's millenia-old rhythms - and we're only along for the ride: We may be able to decisively influence its course, but we are not its be-all and end-all.

Really, then, the point isn't that we should be there to enjoy the myriad parenting highlights. It is that we should be doing what we can to ensure the highlights hit the true heights; that we should be executing our responsibilities so that he learns the right lessons during these early years.

Happy New Year.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Farewell, faithful fan

A sad end has come for someone who'd become part of our little family.

Even as a new year dawned upon us, we had to say goodbye to Ivy, our clip-on fan with the flexible neck, soft blades and fascinating light patterns. She was could have been tailor-made to amuse and cool down our Sonny, but - alas - perhaps too much so. The little fella made it his personal project to explore Ivy extensively using his main research tools - his chomp-happy mouth and destructive fingers.

As chronicled previously (click here), Ivy duly lost one of her blades to Sonny's ministrations, yet kept on whirring bravely. From then on, we tried our best to keep her from harm's way. But inevitably, Sonny found a chink in our defences, darted in and ripped off another blade. A one-bladed fan isn't much good for much, though Mum tried one last move. She dismantled our valiant fan and sought to purchase some fabric so as to make new blades - but had to admit defeat after hunting around our neighbourhood shops.

Yesterday, therefore, she unveiled Cab, Ivy's replacement. She looks very similar, though more blocky of construction and clad in green rather than Ivy's purple one-piece. There's an ever-changing light-pattern too - with even more possible combinations than with Ivy's. Still, it won't be the same. Some might wonder how we could ever become attached to a Made-in-China mass of plastic, wires and circuitry. But half the time, it isn't so much the charm or personality of someone or something that matters as the emotional investment we are ourselves willing to extend: How much we see in it, rather than what it exhibits in and of itself.

Some philosophers like to remind us that anything we observe and encounter in the world is never "the thing itself", but rather a sort of joint project between our own inclinations and observational powers, and what is presented to us to be observed. Looked at it that way, there's no reason why a rock, or a tree or a fan, should not come to be seen as idiosyncratic, quirky or crammed with character. In fact, it pretty much follows that when we find someone, someplace or something bland or boring, it would be a reflection - not a flattering one - of our own failings and flatness of soul.