Friday, May 27, 2011

Lady Gaga

Photo: Trixie Karinski
  I thought I was raising a jazz man. He's always been interested in Louis Armstrong's trumpet, and before he could sit up he would stop and pay attention when Hugh Masekela came round on the iPod. But I wondered today if we could have different ideas about music.
  Jennifer and I just got Lady Gaga's CD, Born This Way. We liked the drag-queen presentation, the startling aesthetics, and her voice. But when we put it on, we were unanimous. After a couple of songs, we just didn't like it that much.
  But then we looked over at Little Bug, standing in his playpen, looking adorable and a little rakish in just a T-shirt and a diaper. He was hanging on to the top of the play yard with one hand--he can't stand up on his own yet--and was listing seriously to the side, like a small drunk, resting his head against his arm, singing along with his eyes closed, at the top of his voice, "Da, da, da, da, da, da," lost and blissed out in the music.
  I thought we had a few more years before our musical tastes parted ways...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Truffle aioli

   I'm a foodie, and have the waistline to prove it. Highbrow, lowbrow, it doesn't matter--I have an adventurous palate and like to try new things. But Little Bug makes me look boring by comparison. The happiest time in my life as a cook and fan of good food has been the last three months, as Bug has discovered food. Watching him try something new for the first time is virtually cinematic--he gets a surprised look as he realizes he hasn't tasted it before, and then a frown as he concentrates on the flavor. When he was a little guy (say, two months ago) his whole body would jerk as he used his entire nervous system to register all the new parts of a taste. Now he just screws up his face, looking like you've just fed him something really foul. Then he relaxes and makes a decision about it. Sometimes it takes two or three tries before he comes to a conclusion about what he thinks. A really fine food can win drumming on the table, clapping, and a smile that lights up the room. Bad is when he pouts out his lips and rubs his face. I can watch his pure sensuous joy about food for an entire meal, sometimes realizing that I've forgotten to eat myself. He shouts and claps and gets wildly excited while we laugh.
  Tonight we went out with his godparents, and you can see from the picture what he thought about chocolate cream pie. He's got some whipped cream on his nose, and he's clowning around and grabbing the fork. I can't remember that I've ever experienced such pure joy in chocolate as he did tonight, which was I think was his first. But while pie was definitely the favorite, it certainly wasn't the only new food he expressed real appreciation for. Carmelized onions got a table bang of approval, and sweet potato fries with yogurt sauce won applause. The most exotic flavor of the evening was truffle aioli, which got serious approval. The one that surprised me the most, from earlier this week, was arugula, which is a startlingly bitter green that made him clap with delight.
  He's definitely what my mother would call a good eater, and there's a lot of comfort that comes from knowing he's breast feeding and it doesn't really matter what he eats, or doesn't, for nutrition. But still, I'm puzzled  in retrospect about most of what I read in the baby books about introducing your baby to solid foods. Brazelton tells you that they have total control of whether they will eat or not, and warns you not to get into power struggles with your baby. Really? People get into power struggles with babies? My mother's generation's Dr. Spock talks a lot about table manners. Say what? I read books about making your own that were full of carefully calibrated information about nutrition that made me anxious, and cookbooks that were very specific about when you could move from single food "meals" to mixed flavors. For the first couple of months we carefully followed the pediatrician's advice about introducing only one new food every three days so we could watch him for signs of allergies, but now he's got so many foods and no sign of allergies that we've stopped being vigilant about it. Besides, when we read Jerome Groopman's article in the New Yorker  about how allergists were no longer sure that delaying introducing certain foods to babies to prevent them from developing allergies wasn't causing the skyrocketing allergy rate, we decided we didn't know enough and stopped worrying. I'm sure there are babies that are picky about consistency, but when I read in What to Expect that you can start them on finger foods at 8 or 9 months, I was totally perplexed about the point of the baby food industry, if it's really just a matter of weeks that they need pureed foods. I ate ground food for longer when I had braces.
  I'm not sure where the sheer amount of anxiety we are being schooled to bring to feeding babies is coming from. But certain things Bug has taught me. Like that babies are astonishingly sensuous little beings, and food is fun. Especially when it's new, and you can put it in your hair.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Boy oh boy

   We went to the playground at the mall last night--a godawful, consumerist place to put a playground, I admit, but the only place to play indoors on a summer night in the desert--and I love meeting the other kids and parents. I was watching two little boys, about five or six, and liking them because they were gentle with Little Bug, sweet and friendly. Then I saw them hold hands out of their sheer enjoyment of each other, and one stroked the other gently on the arm. My heart lurched for them, as I looked around for the dad or the bigger boy who would beat them up. Nothing happened, but I learned something from my fear. Even--or I think especially--for little boys, masculinity precludes showing affection for each other. In fact, I thought as I watched them, this is why boys learn to hit each other--the only way they can legitimately touch each other is if it's shrouded in roughness.
   I find myself surprised at how much I want to shield Little Bug from the expectations of early childhood's version of masculinity. I remember the time Jennifer came home from looking all over town for a dress-up party outfit for Bug, and reported that there were endless opportunities to put him in camouflage, but almost nothing else. "Apparently little girls go to parties, and little boys go to war." I don't want him to go to war, especially not at nine months.
    One time we were talking with a developmental specialist about how our Little Bug was doing, and we told a favorite story about how he was. He was visiting his cousin, and he took his cousin's piano and investigated it fiercely--threw himself at it, flipped it over, gave it a bear hug. His cousin watched the entire proceeding with growing alarm, and finally his mom said, "Hey, little guy, do you want to show Bug how you play with it?" And his cousin crawled over, and using one finger, showed him how to plink a  key. We laughed as we told this, and the developmental specialist said, admiringly, "Yes, Little Bug is all boy." I wanted to say, as opposed to what? They're both boys, one bold, one mild in this particular interaction; the next time Little Bug is afraid, or gentle, or loving, will you say he is less a boy?
   In the rest of my life, gender has grown more complicated. Women who work out can show off their muscles (like Little Bug's tia in the picture)--female masculinity is no longer terrifying or subject to pop Freudianism, whether the women in question are lesbians or not. The men I ride bikes with worry out loud about whether they are fat. Transgender folks, especially youth, seem to challenge binary notions of gender without even fairly conventional folk getting too bent out of shape, at least in the southwestern city where we live. When I lift weights at the gym, it's still pretty much a boy space, and I get to overhear all sorts of fascinating conversations. Like the butch boy student who worried out loud to his friend about whether a young woman he met at a party had given him a wrong number on purpose or by accident, all vulnerable and hurt, and his friend asked him if had asked his mother what she thought. Some college students describe their gender as always needing enunciation ("my name is Chris and I identify as male.") Men I know embrace the concept of metrosexual, and have discovered that wearing flower prints and carrying a man-bag is a sure-fire way to pick up women.
   But in the pink and blue world of early childhood, it's still frighteningly about boys growing into the most caricatured versions of men. A whole slew of books--The Dangerous Book for Boys, Raising Cain, The Trouble with Boys--sell us a complex mixture of how young masculinity can be toxic and cruel together with an insistence that boys are completely different from girls. If I talk about how Little Bug likes to look at books again, apparently having reached an end, for now, of his perpetual motion phase, folks tell me that this is unusual for a boy. As good consumers of this literature of boyhood, we seem sold on the idea that boys can't accomplish the literary and attention-based tasks of childhood. Boys naturally play with guns (even in the historical period before there were guns? I want to ask), run wild, struggle to learn to read, and need frequent recess; girls are verbal, relational, and settle down easily. Despite all the good feminist scientific work debunking it, the difference between boys and girls turns out (surprise, surprise) to be all about brain structure.
   The thing I worry about, even beyond what we are doing to boys and girls, is that we are smuggling back into the wider culture really fixed notions of the relationship of male and female to masculinity and femininity. How, after all, are these youngsters who are so rigidly masculine or feminine supposed to grow up into the metrosexual men, the queers, the strong, jocky women, the gender-bending intellectuals and transgender folk I know as adults? When I was young (when I was a boy, as Dar Williams says in her song of that title) in the 1970s, movies and television featuring the likes of Kristy McNichols, Tatum O'Neal, and Jodie Foster, together with the flowering of a Free to Be You and Me feminism made it clear that  girls and sometimes boys fit really badly into the gendered expectations the culture had for them, and that there was something wild and fun about that. Despite the anxiety about homosexuality that lurked behind all this (remember that in Free to Be, it turns out that William wants a doll so he can be a heterosexual daddy some day), boys and girls had more space forty years ago to be complexly gendered, at least until they hit adolescence.
  I want better for Little Bug than camouflage and the expectation that he will hit people and struggle to learn to read on schedule. I want better for all our boys, and girls, than the belief that we know what's important about them from the minute we identify their genitals on an ultrasound. True story: when Jennifer got the 20-week ultrasound, the tech said: "There it is! We know the gender! He's a boy!" Jennifer replied, without missing a beat: "We know the sex. We won't know his gender for a long time." As the tech retreated into puzzled silence, I thought, yes, exactly. Let's hope gender is something he can feel safe to live out in complicated ways throughout his life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cuteness, family, and food

  Little Bug works at being cute. I used to think this was just something babies were, not something they did, but the more I watch him, the more convinced I am that he's doing it on purpose. Every time a camera comes out, if you can get him to stop wiggling and look at it, he smiles. I've seen him work a crowd, like the time he practiced his walking up and down an airplane aisle, and caught the eye of every single passenger. He wouldn't take no for an answer--if someone didn't look at him and smile, he'd stop, stare, and coo until he caught their eye and got a warm look from them. Last night, he stood on my lap on the porch of a pizza place and got every single stranger who walked by on the sidewalk to greet him. He's got a dimple, and he knows how to use it.
  Some of this seems poignant to me. Babies, in their physical helplessness, are built to draw affection and help to themselves. It's a reminder that nature, in her wisdom, never thought that parents were enough, that the nuclear families we imagine we raise children in are not sufficient.
  Kathleen Parker, in her Washington Post column this week, argued that the federal government didn't need to set standards for food quality or school lunches for children, because "as with most problems, the solution is family."
  Really? The answer to food quality is family? We're fanatical about food quality--Little Bug was exclusively breast fed until six months, and now is mostly so, but that was made much easier for us by class, and the fact that we've ducked the worst of the household impoverishment of the recession--we were able to afford Jennifer stopping working. We make a lot of organically grown, local food. But when we go out to dinner, Little Bug wants to be part of the fun, and we went out a lot last week when his grandparents were in town. So last night he ate chicken and artichoke pizza (mostly the cheese), and the night before it was a California roll with cooked scallops on top and a lot of miso soup. What do I know about the cucumber, the scallops, nori, miso, the cows and the artichokes? A lot less than I would like to. Or rather, I would like it if someone besides me would ensure that our food supply is sound and healthy, regulate factory farms, pesticide use, and regulate the antibiotic use and unsanitary conditions that may be affecting Little Bug's health when he eats, and certainly water quality in nearby communities. Some suggested that the swine flu pandemic of recent years began in the "manure lagoons" of pig farms operated by Smithfield farms in La Gloria, Mexico. What, exactly, are families supposed to do about that?
  And what about schools? When my oldest was diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago, in eighth grade, I was puzzled that she would come home with high blood sugars when we helped her pack healthy lunches and worked with the school nurse to make sure my daughter could follow her insulin regimen. After many trips to the endocrinologist and a lot of head scratching, her teacher finally figured out what was going--my daughter was persuading other kids to give her money so she could buy candy and soda at the store at school. While I shared her teacher's anger with my daughter for the  begging, bullying, and cheating on her diet, I was equally frustrated with the school: what do you MEAN candy and soda are being sold on a middle school campus? Shouldn't parents have some reasonable expectation that schools are at least not actively working against our efforts to get healthy food into our kids? But what are schools supposed to do, her teacher asked, albeit apologetically. We don't have enough money for classes, and soda and candy sales help. Kathleen Parker goes on about the "nanny state"--I worry about a state that has abandoned our kids.
  I learn a lot from Little Bug, smiling and making friends with strangers. I love all the casual conversations he gets me into, with people I would never have met otherwise. He also reminds me, though, of the disappearing civic art of relying on each other, and realizing that our fates are entwined.