Sunday, December 2, 2012

What go in compost?

"What go in compost?" Bug asked me last night. On our recent visit to Tucson, there was much discussion of compost, as his Aunt Mimi had just started composting.

"Scraps from food you would otherwise throw in the trash," I said.

Little Bug lacks the vocabulary to out and out correct me. "What go in compost?' he asked again.

"Egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetable peels," I tried.

"What go in compost?"

I can't imagine parenting before the age of the instantly accessible YouTube "how-to" video. Bug spent much of the trip studying one on how to make a water fountain in your backyard.

"Do you want to find a how-to video on compost?" I ask.

Score. "La!" he says with great enthusiasm.

Sure enough, I have forgotten the brown stuff, the straw and dead leaves that compose the majority of a good compost. After we watch a while, he nods as they add the food scraps to the leaves. "That the trash," he points out, gently pointing out to me of the inadequacy of my answer.

It is humbling, this raising of a child. He reminds me, as all children remind their parents, of the insufficiency of what I know, and how quickly his curiosity can outstrip my map of the world.

We've been listening to The Nutcracker, as we did last year, in the vain hope that familiarity with the music will keep him engaged and in his seat next week when we go see his cousin dance in it. But as music has replaced trucks in his repertoire of obsessions, his interest in it has changed this year.

"What that?" he asks, pointing to his ear, asking what he is hearing.

"Those are the violins," I say, feeling mildly virtuous that I know the answer.

"What that?"

"Um, clarinets?" I'm on shaky ground. I'm not sure I have the ear for this.

"That tuba?" he asks. He loves tubas.

"Hmm, I think trombone? Maybe we should watch an orchestra play it on YouTube?"

"Laa!" Great enthusiasm. We learn that for some reason, it is mainly Japanese and Korean orchestras in the corner of YouTube that we find. Also that there appear to be no tubas in Tchaikovsky's score. Either that, or not in these particular orchestras. No matter. We begin a wild chase through Internet images of oboes and bassoons.

"What that?" he challenges Mama Jennifer when she comes over, pointing to a strange drawing we have found.

"An oboe?"

"Old Russian bassoon!!" he announces triumphantly. Show off.

 I still know a little more than he does about a few things, which is reassuring. His Aunt Ana and Michi gave him children's hand bells as a gift, and I line them up in a scale. He picks them up one by one. "What that sound called?"

"It's a C." I can still read better than he can.

I pick each one up and try to sing the note back. He follows suit. I feel like I'm winning, like I've taught him something, though I'm not sure what.

I remember surprisingly far back in my own early childhood, to almost his age. I remember something about this hunger for words and knowledge of things. He isn't at the "why" stage yet, but I remember how I loved that questioning of my parents, how satisfying it was that why questions had answers, and the world could be put in order. Later I learned that it couldn't, and that was tremendously disappointing.

Maybe music questions will keep him busy for a while. He has a lot of instruments, which he loves, so there's a coordination piece and a knowledge piece to keep him occupied. There's also clearly an emotion piece--he walks around singing happy tunes of his own invention, but if we ask him to identify what a piece of music makes him feel, he can say happy or sad or scared. Or maybe soon we'll be on to dinosaurs, and learning all their names. I do admit to being glad we're done with trucks, which were boring me silly, although I tried not to let on as he proudly named every construction vehicle on a site.

But I love his sturdy self-confidence that he can learn everything important about a subject, and when I'm not slightly annoyed, I am grateful for our access to Internet information streams that let him extend his questions beyond what we know.

Some things, though, you can't learn on the Web. The other night he was hanging on Jennifer's leg, and announced: "I love Mama Jennifer." He looked over at me, and added sweetly, "I love Mama Laura, too." Then he patted himself on his tummy. "And I love myself."

Oh Bug, I think, as I try not to let on that I've just teared up. I don't know where you came from, but I am so happy that you have that gift, that right now at least, so many things are working right for you.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Another Country

Susan Sontag once famously said that illness is another country. So too is childhood, or, better, it is a journey through a different place, populated quite differently than the more mundane dwelling places of ordinary adults. 

I have an absorbing an interesting job that I like a lot, but when I see Little Bug, I sometimes feel like I've wandered onto a livelier and certainly funnier planet. Yesterday Jennifer drove me and a colleague home, which put me in the back seat with a Bug who was completely uninterested in the grown-up conversation in the front seat. Soon he started moving his fingers and making funny sounds. 

"Are you playing a pretend trumpet?" I asked.

"Tuba," he explained.

"Like, whomp! Whomp?" I  asked

"Lup. Now, clarinet," he explained stretching out his fingers and making higher pitched sounds.

Then he made a sound that started high and went low, moving one hand down in a slide.

"That's a trombone!" I cheered.  

He chuckled. "Listen, Mama Laura. Trumpet," he added, wriggling his fingers and going high. 

He patted his legs rapidly and loudly. "That drums!"

How many adults get to ride home with a whole pretend marching band?

There's also the work of learning, mapping a whole world and at least one language, which seems to be happening so quickly I marvel that he has time to sleep. I don't know the actual number, but surely they learn three quarters of the words in a language before they ever start school. I've said this before, but early childhood learning puts college students to shame. 

Little Bug loves every word of it, and so we all turn into teachers in his presence (I found myself explaining how plumbing carries clean water into houses and waste water out before breakfast this morning, and Jennifer told him about the important role of hot water heaters if you want a bath. He was rapt.)

But the funniest part is how he also notices how the pedagogical role works. "What's this,  Mama Laura?" he asked, holding up a picture.

"That's a lobster," I answered cautiously, suspecting  from his tone that something was afoot.

"Good job, Mama Laura!" He pointed to his mouth. "Eat it. Yum!"

He got every part of the teacherly encounter in his gentle teasing.  Ask the question, evaluate and reward the answer, and then expand on the information. I was in hysterics. 

He did it again last night as he got me to accompany him on his drum with me playing the cymbals. He let me try for a while and then asked for them. "Try like this," he said, showing me how to lower one onto the edge of the other like finger cymbals. They did indeed make a sweeter sound, and he smiled encouragement at my efforts and went back to his drum.

Planet Bug is full of music, for sure, new words, and also other wonders. The full range of construction vehicles, pay loaders, cement mixers, excavators, bulldozers, crane trucks, and his beloved, the backhoe. 

It's the source of his really truly awful favorite 2-year old joke. "Bug, do you want soup or a bagel for lunch?" You say. "Backhoe," he says with a smart-ass look. Whoever writes parenting advice books that suggest giving your toddler forced choices to give them the illusion of control has clearly not contended with the fact of who really is in charge. Backhoe.

He's also adopted a sullen teen thing. "What did you do today?" I ask, hoping for something charming or at least interesting. "Nothing," he says, with a look that would be a smirk if he had more irony in him. Today I said,  "I want you to wear a hat today. It's cold out." 
"Whatever," he said back, only a shade less than sarcastic. 

Made me miss "Backhoe."

But mostly his landscape is still bright and funny, as even this mock-sullenness is played for laughs. It's part of becoming his own person, this defiance, as much as having his own personal favorite color (brown) and favorite number, or rather, related pair--"six upside down nine! Nine upside down six!" He doesn't tire of this marvel, even carrying around the floaty six and nine from the bathtub to demonstrate. "Six!" Flips it over. "Nine!"

He has his obsessions, which have moved on from fireworks to water fountains. Like fireworks after the Fourth of July, this is a slightly sad thing to love fiercely in New England with winter approaching. I offered to take him to his favorite park this weekend, but he answered wistfully, "No go Look Park. Little Bug sad water fountains off."

This other country he roams around in, and sometimes lets us visit, is above all is own--about the dinosaurs, the playdoh, the adventures in Mama Jennifer's stories of Bob the Backhoe, Dave the Dump Truck, and their good friend, Rocky Raccoon. Colors have alternate names--red can also be "Elmo," blue, "Cookie Monster," and yellow, you guessed it, "Big Bird." Whatever the educational television content of his imagination, he's made it his.  He eats pretend cupcakes--cookie monster color.

This is the wisdom I think of stories like Alice in Wonderland and songs like Puff the Magic Dragon. We wander around in this marvelous country for quite some time, until we are lured out by the foolish ambitious to become a grown up. When we try to go back, we find ourselves without the keys any longer. But this is what they don't tell you about parenthood: if you're lucky, you'll find a guide who will let you back in.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Little Bug Talking!

Little Bug and some friends.
  A friend who remembers Little Bug's first two weeks of life in NICU said recently, as we were talking about Bug's articulation disorder: he's just a bulldozer. He doesn't let anything stop him.
  Bug would undoubtedly like the metaphor; bulldozers follow closely behind backhoes as his favorite things on earth.
  But I was thinking about that as I finally got to read his 24-month language assessment from the speech therapist: she rated his language skills as above average for his age. It's hard to remember that he was hardly talking at all at 20 months, 4 words and a lot of animal sounds. And hundreds of signs.
  But I realized today how much he was listening all those months. I was reading a book to him, and he correctly identified all sorts of things I didn't know he had words for.
  "That sailboat."
  I turned the page. He did it again. "Oars, propeller, lighthouse."
  "Wow, little guy, you sure know a lot of words."
  "Little Bug talking!" he said, all proud.
  He wasn't just talking. He had a meta-narrative about this whole process, a name for this as a developmental stage in contrast with a previous one. Talking. And, I suspect, he'd also been listening all those months when he wasn't to the conversations about him not talking. I guess this was his announcement that we are done with all that.
  Then he added, "Little bug sitting on ottoman."
  Show off.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Happy boy

  You could make the case that these are just hard, cruel times, and by extension, that we are just a species riddled with meanness. Aggression, intimidation, and dishonesty are called "presidential-ness." Some businesses have turned to a "profit above all else" ethic--an employee at Bank of America recently told someone I know to lie about her income so she could stay on food stamps and pay the bank with her food money. While the average family lost 40% of their net income in the years  2007-10, some people turned a profit. The number of millionaires in the U.S. grew by 8% in the same period.
  But watching Little Bug reminds me that there is hope for us. Many things give him joy. The other day he spotted a VW bug, really looked at one for the first time, and laughed out loud, which reminded me that this was effectively the point of them, or was until they became some expensive retro status symbol. But they still are hilarious-looking cars.
  He loves his friends. He likes holding hands, hugging, kissing. This goes for human friends, dogs, and stuffed animals, too.
  Falling leaves make him jump up and down with excitement, and (as in the picture above) running with the last gone-to-seed dandelions of the season, found unexpectedly at a park near here, is unbelievably fun, especially if you are going down hill, get over your feet, and tumble into a giggling heap at the bottom.
  But the thing that most made me notice recently that humans are an astonishingly generous and kind species, too, was when I was lying on the bed with my ankle on a pillow, quite down in the mouth about a sprain. Bug grabbed his Raffi-Taffy stuffed dog, a Yorkie with a pink felt-lined zebra-striped jacket, and started gently walking him across my head. "Raffi-Taffy jump on Mama Laura!" he said, in the exact same trying-to-coax a smile voice you would use with a sick kid. "Oh! Fall off!" He laughed. He stroked my arm gently.
  I was struck by how different this was than his usual play. He's rarely a real pain, but often if I or we are trying to read or otherwise preoccupied, as I was then with my ankle, he'll try to entertain himself by exploring, eventually getting into something he shouldn't; he'll try to get our attention by messing with something or trying to get us to read to him or play a game. This wasn't any of that. He was trying to make me laugh.
  "Mickey jump with Jackson!" he said, wrapping his arms around the oversized Mickey Mouse doll his cousins had brought back from Disneyland the year before. He jumped on the bed, launching himself in the air and falling down. He was trying so hard I had to laugh. As I laughed, he did. Pretty soon he got down on the floor, throwing Mickey into the air and himself on the floor so he disappeared from my sight line on the bed. We had discovered Vaudeville's slipping on a bannana peel joke, right there in the bedroom. I laughed until I choked up. Here was this little guy, so full of empathy at two that he was incredibly invested in amusing me, a point that came home to me every time he got up, ruefully rubbing whatever part of his body he had landed on.
  I think this is a lot of the appeal of being around children, and why those of us who have them find them addictively interesting. Some exceptions notwithstanding, they almost all laugh. They make you laugh. They dance. They are the best cure for pessimism I have found.


Sunday, August 26, 2012


At two, Little Bug is getting to be recognizably human at a dizzying pace. He brushes his teeth at the sink. He's considering using a potty (although after one humiliating episode in which he peed on the floor, neat-boy is reconsidering this. He looked up at me with soulful eyes under the masses of hair he's sprouted and said, very solemnly, "Whoops."). He's sleeping in the big-guy bed at nap time. He's building ridiculously huge sets of train tracks all over the living room--albeit with lots of help from Mama Jennifer.

But mostly--at last--he's talking! A lot of it is hilarious, and, sturdy and self-confident character that Bug is, he doesn't mind if we laugh. He laughs with us. Tonight at dinner it was "abamoof." And when we couldn't get it, he just got louder, like all good English-speakers, he assumed that if he just yelled everyone could understand him. He put his water glass down.


As his volume increased, so did his speed, ABAMOOFABAMOOFABAMOOFABAMOOF!

We guessed a few things, but finally were reduced to hysterics by his insistence and complete incomprehensibility. Finally he pointed at the window. Inspired, or desperate, I said, "Are you saying, 'Half a moon?'"

"Yes! Half a moof!" He said it with great patience, as if he was trying to be good-natured with the idiots he was saddled with for parents. Somewhere in there the f's were interfering with each other, but that wasn't his problem.

My absolute favorite, gone  for a few weeks now sadly, was his word for bulldozer for a while: "Bordello." Clear as a bell. Also "L'amour" for his beloved toy, the lawnmower.

He's adding A's to the ends of lots of words, too. If he wants to scare you, he jumps out and says, "Boo-a!" The number after one is "two-a" and if you look at his foot you will see a "toe-a." Cracks me up.

The characters from Thomas the Tank Engine are taking up a lot of his imaginative energy, but he lacks a certain linguistic precision with their names. Gordon is Gorna, Percy is Pusu, and Duncan is Duncna. As his babysitter said, you sort of imagine Gordon and Gorna sneaking out on dates.

He's also taken to announcing to the strangers who ask (including Dora the Explorer) that his name is Jack. While I've taken pains to not use his name in this public blog, it's not Jack. He has his own private life going on, apparently, under the name of Jack.

That's not his only invention. Tonight he announced that he was a backhoe. Named Jackhoe. Oh, the tabloid Michael Jackson jokes that ran horribly through my mind. 

He's also got a problem with terminal O's. They just go on and on. Cheerioo-o-o-o-s. Risotto is Ris-to-o-o-o-o.

And one I fear he'll never lose, because we've all taken it up, is "la" for yes. It was one of his first words, but he's not fixed it. Instead, he's adding to it. Recently, he's picked up an ever-so-casual "yup." Except he says it "lup." Now we all walk around saying "lup."

Context is still everything with understanding him, as with little kids generally I think. When he did his speech evaluation last week, one of the things he had to do was respond to a whole lot of language prompts in a book. It was kind of mean--drop a curious guy in the middle of a room with toys everywhere, mostly at eye-level, and then ask him to sit at a table in a chair and look at cartoonish drawings of kids doing boring things. As we kept trying to redirect him to the book, I thought, exasperated, about the parents who feel like school-teachers unfairly identify their kids as ADHD. Really, I wanted to argue with the speech therapist, he's two. Let him play with your trucks and doll house.

Finally, he got some of his attention directed at the exam instrument. "This boy is hungry! What should he do!" asked the therapist, Bev.

Bug wanted to help her. He's a good guy, and she seemed so excited. "Eat," he said.

"This girl is cold! What should she do!"

Wound up by all the exclamation points in her tone, he tried to match her. "Backhoe shirt!" he shouted.

Mamas cracked up, while Bev looked completely puzzled. "He's got a long-sleeved shirt with a backhoe on it," we said, when we could stop laughing. "It's what he wears when it gets cold."

"This boy is tired! What should he do!"

"Na-Na!" (nurse--so he can fall asleep.)

I have no idea how she coded that one.

One thing I'm sure of is that he failed all the prompts for a gerund, an -ing word. We weren't surprised. We hadn't heard one.

One minute after we got home, he repeated something I had said months ago were the important rules:

"No fighting, no biting, no hitting, no spitting."

Seriously, dude, you couldn't have said that five minutes earlier? You don't know that your mamas are achievers and that was a test? He spent the rest of the day riffing with gerunds. He stuck his head in the office--"Mama working!" He'd announce, "Running!" as he went off to do some. "Barking" of the dog. It was torture.

But the good news in all this mangled English is that it's where he should be, or close enough. The speech therapist wants to see us back in six months, but no speech therapy, no need to worry about an articulation disorder, at least not at the moment. And that is good news indeed. Lup. Sure is.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer fun

The last month has certainly been eventful, in that way that summer almost always is for children and then rarely is again. It began with him really figuring out the names of letters, and one day just leaving this piece of art for us in the living room while we were busy making breakfast--matching the refrigerator magnet letter to the squishy tile puzzle letter in the living room.

Sometimes, it's the things that happen when you're not looking that blow you away the most.

There was a wonderful visit from Adele from back in Arizona, in which we learned that the factor limiting how high a tower he could build was just his height--this one made it to 19 blocks before it fell!
Then there was perfecting his party-boy skills, dancing in a restaurant with a friend.

And learning how to use the camera himself

 Building really big ramps on the beach with his cousins, where he tried to direct the work while they built to his specifications, and especially
seeing his beloved grandparents.

But perhaps most remarkable has been the explosion of his language, from a handful of words to more than I can count. He's almost stopped signing, which I kind of miss--he was a lot more comprehensible as a signer, and the most heartbreaking thing is when we can't understand his words, and he'll try and try, and then finally just put his head in his hands and weep. We'll see if this is just regular toddler incomprehensibility, or something associated with the articulation disorder. Besides, he was such a poet with his handful of signs, of necessity. When he first saw fireworks, he kept signing "the light broke," as we watched the single flare go up and burst into a thousand colors. "Stars," he signed. "The light broke into stars."

But there are other times when his new-found language is just pure pleasure. The other night we were out doing errands, which turned into going out for pizza, then a family soccer game in a nearby park, and then darkness was falling and somehow it was 9 pm.

We piled into the car, and in the dark Jennifer made a wrong turn onto a four lane limited access highway. As soon as she got onto the entrance ramp, she said, "Crap!"

"Cwap!" added a small voice in the back seat.

We knew, of course, that we couldn't react. If he knew this was a super-charged word, especially out of the mouths of babes, he'd never stop saying it. We held our breath for a millisecond, and burst out laughing. Little Bug was delighted. "Cwap!" he said again.

But under the hilarity, we were also going the wrong way in a rapidly moving car.

"I think it's a long way to an exit," said Jennifer.

"Cwap!" said Bug. Of course we laughed.

"There are no streetlights on this road."


"This is the kind of road I hate driving, disappearing into woods and nowhere."


"I still don't see a place to turn around."


Every time he said "cwap," we laughed harder, and his comic timing was precise. Maybe he was just imitating a sound he heard, but he sure used it well.

Eventually we got ourselves turned around and going in the right direction, and headed to try to do one last errand that had to be finished that night. We got almost home, and turned into the grocery store parking lot. A small wail came from the back seat, as Little Bug realized he still wasn't going to get to bed. Tired and a whiny, he said the only thing that could fully convey his unhappiness:


Monday, June 18, 2012

Ramps and cars

     If you ask, Little Bug will tell you that his favorite thing to play is "ramps and cars." As you might imagine, this involves using his blocks to make a ramp for his cars.  
    I have a clear idea of how this should be done. When he asks me to play with him, I always build the same one. It looks like the one below:

      Bug does not think much of this ramp. He'll usually let me run a car or two down it just to be nice, but he'll quickly begin to offer other suggestions. This is impressive given the limits of his words. He will, for example, stand up and step away and jump in the air to suggest it should have a jump. 
     He thinks my ramps are boring. 
     So I asked what he would build instead. This is what he made:

    I though this exhibited a poor understanding of ramps and engineering, so I asked what would happen if a car fell of the top of the tower. He drew curlicues in the air to demonstrate how the car would somersault, then smashed his hands together and said, "boom!" It would crash. That was the point.
   "Do drivers like to crash?" I asked, trying not to pre-worry the fact that he could get his license a mere 14 years from now. He sighed. Grown-ups are hard to explain things to.
  So then he built me this one:

    I admired how it went in multiple directions, had a jump, and a wall you could crash into. He relaxed a bit. Perhaps I could see the good parts of ramps and cars. He invited me to get down to his level and work with him by patting the floor beside him. I said I wanted to see what he built. He patted more insistently. I came and sat down.
  Little Bug had a plan. He started showing me how my ramp could be fixed. All these months I thought he didn't know how to build a gently sloping ramp that you could let go your car at the top of, but I was wrong. He started building my ramp. On steroids. With jumps.
     I made suggestions and showed him some tricks, which he sometimes accepted. We ran cars down it and problem-solved together why the cars didn't make it. I'd suggest a two-block jump. He said three (three fingers, carefully held up after counting off with the other hand). He persuaded me that he's actually right: three blocks lets a car complete a somersault, where it just crashes from a height of two. This is a carefully calibrated art.
     He talks like a comic book. "Bam! Pow!"when there were crashes. "Zippo!" is what he shouts when it makes it.
     We worked on it from before dinner until bedtime. I got more and more excited. Finally, this is what he built:
      I took pictures. We called Mama Jennifer. I showed her how a car would go all the way down, negotiate that top (3-block) jump, that final one-block jump, and shoot through the double arch. "Zippo!" I shouted, pumping my arms.
      There's a great, middle-ground ramp that he's learned to build, I thought, keeping his sense of adventure but creating something that works better.
      Still, I was a little wistful for his crazy architectural features, thinking sadly that I'd inculcated my little guy into the boring world of stereotypical but functional figures. I shouldn't have worried. This morning, he got up and built this ramp:
Zippo. Boom.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Numbers and words

  I thought I had seen some persistence and hard work in 15 years of teaching college students, but now that I have a toddler, it's becoming clear to me that I didn't know anything about the subject before. Little Bug wants to learn numbers, and he's not going to quit--or release any of his nearby teachers--until he's succeeded.
  It started a couple of weeks ago, when we broke out a number puzzle our friend Cathleen had given him for Christmas. I felt a little foolish--at 1 year nine months, there's no urgency about him learning numbers, and I'm not even sure if it's developmentally appropriate yet. I wondered if I was like some striving parent trying to get their toddler ready for Harvard through relentless drilling in facts and skills--you know, the kind that advocates of free play think kills creativity and destroys the joy of childhood. But these same folks say let your toddler lead--and Bug proceeded to keep me sitting at the table for two hours, well past bedtime, as I demonstrated counting and he fit the numbers into the puzzles with little fingers barely coordinated enough for the task. We finally quit because I was exhausted--he would've kept going.
  Since then, it's been all about the numbers. Finding the numbers on the squishy play tiles in the living room. Trying to learn how to hold the other fingers down so he can hold up two and three fingers. His favorite song is "Numbers Rumba," where he can jump up and down and hold up the number of fingers in the verse (I can't imagine how sick the neighbors must be of that song, since he asks for it every morning). More number puzzles, including a clock one, and refrigerator magnets. Most recently, he's become obsessed with Charles Blow's editorial in the New York Times last Friday, which recaps the numbers (in a large column to the side) from a recent Times-Picayune series about how many people are incarcerated in Louisiana's obscene for-profit prison system--1,619 per 100,000 residents, more than double the rate for the U.S. as a whole (730). For each of the past four mornings, Little Bug has poured over that column of numbers, asking me to ask him to find the 1s, the 2s, and so on. Talk about a gut-rippingly poignant moment in contemporary childhood.
  But the other thing that makes it poignant is that he still can't say the numbers. A month ago, he got diagnosed with an articulation disorder--a speech problem that has to do with his awareness of and coordination in his mouth and tongue. There was plenty of good news in the assessment of the early childhood development specialists. He's not a late talker because of a cognitive or neurological problem--in fact, he tested out as very bright and super-coordinated. This has nothing to do with his difficult start in life, being intubated for his first 11 days, or not getting oxygen around his birth. It will get better, probably before he's three, but not on its own. He can start speech therapy at two, and in the meantime, we can teach him names of parts of his mouth, practice blowing bubbles and any instrument you can blow, and ask for more speech. It's working--he can follow directions like, "put your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth to say 't'." He's gotten good with train whistles and harmonicas and a recorder. His first tries at words are often astonishingly bad, "Sa!" for yes--but he's adding words by rote, learning the parts one by one. "Llama" and "no no" have gotten really good, while "dog" and "bubbles" and a host of others are coming along. That first night he kept me up with number puzzles he astonished me with a sentence--as he signed for the ten millionth time that he heard a car on the street outside the window, and I obligingly verbalized--slightly numb from the repetition--"did you hear a car go by?" He popped out with "go by!" Startled, I said, "did you say, go by?" and he replied, "Car go by!" grinning from ear to ear.
  He is stunningly not-fazed by his struggles to talk. He is an exuberant and confident communicator, certain that if he is just inventive enough we'll understand him. Last night he wanted us to hand him some of the bark that was providing soft material underneath the play structure at the park so he could throw it and watch it go down the slide. He signed "barf" (he made that one up, but we knew it). We were confused and asked if he felt sick. He barked like a dog. We guessed it and laughed. Jennifer took him over to a tree and showed him where bark came from, and explained that it was a different word from barf. He climbed to the top of the slide again, and signed "tree" and "barf." He wanted some tree barf. Perfectly clear.
  As his thoughts get more complicated, though, we're increasingly frustrated, even if he's not. We're approaching the horizon of our baby sign and ASL skills. Our apps and signing videos have 100-150 signs, but he needs more words, and the grammar and syntax are beyond us. We feel incredibly lucky that we started down the baby sign path--the first thing speech therapists often do with articulation-disorder kids when they are two is to start teaching them sign, because by then toddlers have sometimes developed pervasive communication disorders, have poor receptive language, little ability to communicate with others, and are sometimes tantrum-ing, frustrated kids who go on to develop reading problems, too. We don't (knock on wood) seem to have any of that.
  It just seems increasingly like we are always playing charades with Little Bug. For example: Bug was looking at a picture of naked newborn in a Times article about home births (yes, he spends too much time reading the newspaper. We're not advocating it to him--it's just that it's there at the breakfast table, so he looks at it). He signed "poop." I squinted at the picture. I said, "that baby isn't pooping!" He shook his head no. I haven't understood. He pointed at his diaper. I squinted at him. I said, "that baby isn't wearing a diaper, either." He signed "poop." "Oh," I say, "do you mean, that baby should be wearing a diaper, in case he poops?" Little bug squeals in delight and claps. One point for Mama Laura's team in toddler charades. He points at the picture and frowns. Our stern little sanitarian does not approve of naked-bottomed babies.
  Once he learns how to make the sounds, the speech specialist assured us, Little Bug will get from 50 words to 350 in no time.
  In the meantime, we'll keep trying words by rote. Today's word? Two, of course.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Little bug of spring

Little Bug is in love with the moon this spring. And stars. Also robins, squirrels, flowers and sometimes sparrows. He's maybe a little fickle about the sparrows.

The moon thing started gradually, but then one warm, early spring night we were out walking and the moon was nearly full, and when Bug saw it, he shrieked with delight. This was heartwarming and completely adorable the first six or seven times, but by the fortieth, Jennifer was imploring me to put the carrier on my back so she could be a few feet further away from our shrieking little lunatic.

I remembered why we taught him to sign. Because we needed an alternative to him shouting at us.

It took a couple of days to teach him the sign for moon and stars--moon is hard, involving cupping your fingers in a crescent shape, holding it by your eye and then extending your hand into the sky. Stars are easy, a lot like socks only directed up instead of down. Once we gave him signs, the shrieking stopped, but the excitement didn't. I found him standing on a radiator, peering out the window at the moon. We were walking down a city street, and he was so thrilled by the moon and the stars that he couldn't hold hands. In fact, he couldn't walk. He just stood there, completely enrapt, signing moon-stars-moon-stars-moon-stars. I thought he was going to bruise his head he was hitting his "moon" signs so hard and fast.

He sees moons and stars everywhere, now. In a book his sister gave him, he turns eagerly to the moon and star pages (there are a surprising number of these in board books, since most little-kid books are written with bedtime in mind). We found a baby shower present we had put away until he got older, a turtle that projects stars and moons, and he looks forward to night-time so he can turn it on. He notices stars and moons on awnings, clothing, billboards. He shouted when we drove by Macy's, with its star logo. His eyes are constantly scanning the skies.

I remember when my friend Adela told me about how when they were little her girls loved the moon. I thought that was sweet, but I think I know a little better what she meant, now. This is no mild crush. This is completely, head-over-heels, can't get enough moons and stars.

He loves all the new life of spring in the same way, shouting with pleasure at the new birds that haven't been here since fall, fat robins on the lawn, red-tailed hawks in the sky, flashes of red cardinals. He notices every new flower coming up. I told him that when the Spring Peepers sing, you know the snow won't come again, and the sound of their song means goodbye winter, hello to spring. The next day we wandered again into some boggy spot and were greeted by a chorus of peepers, and he shouted, full of delight, "Bye-bye!"

The funny thing is, I find his seriousness as moving as his delight. He was helping me in the kitchen today, gravely putting big bags of onions in the cabinet, then vacuuming with great seriousness with the hand vacuum, asking advice about the bigger pieces of popcorn on the floor. He carefully smelled the herbs for the soup, and chopped the onion in the cuisinart with brows furrowed in concentration (that's not as dangerous as it sounds. Cuisinart, in their effort to produce an idiot-proof design that adults couldn't lose a finger in, actually created something safe even for toddlers.) Not that he can't laugh--he joked around, pretended that the smell of the onions was so strong that it knocked him backward. But I am moved by this very droll little person, taking ever-so-seriously this work for our family with which he has been entrusted, hard-working and proud of what he can do.

I watch something in him reach out to the life bursting out all around him, in this, his first New England spring. I had forgotten how my heart could thrill to robins and peepers, but Bug reminds me. The world is so full of marvelous things for him, unacquainted as he is with cynicism, irony, bitterness.

He's not broken yet. Maybe he won't be for at least a few more springs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


  So, true confessions: when we went to Little Bug's pediatrician appointment for his 18-month old well-baby checkup, we asked her if she thought his language was ok. We talked about how he only had 19 words (he added "ta-da" in the last couple of weeks--as in, yay, I did that, look at me!), and she said she thought he was fine. We talked about whether we wanted him evaluated anyway, because given his rough start in life, we feel we're entitled to be neurotic; we weren't sure. She pointed to 50 (!) discrete signs as good evidence that there was nothing wrong with his language, and was interested in his innovation with them, like how after we showed him how to make his hands move around each other for the "Wheels on the Bus" song, he used the same motion as a sign for "roll."
  The visit went on for a while after that, discussing all the usual toddler things--a rash, vaccines, throwing toys, considering daycare, brushing teeth, whether he gets enough Vitamin D. Jackson enduring this--standing around in his diaper while we talked--bravely, looking at books and throwing a ball around, but then he got bored. He took his straw cup and rolled it at me, and said "Mama! Wawa!" and signed "roll."
  Our pediatrician laughed at us. There's nothing wrong with Bug's language, she said. He's acquiring language like a baby in a bilingual household. He just put together a three word sentence, which is advanced language development for his age.
  He's got sentences. I totally somehow didn't hear them. Now I hear them all the time. Leaving for work? I get a whole family geography:  Mama. Raura. bye-bye vroom-vroom. Mumma nana. (Mama Laura goes bye-bye in the car; Mama Jennifer [stays home and] nurses me.) Packing bags to go to grandparents? Raura Mumma [sign for baby] bye-bye (Mama Laura, Mama Jennifer, and Little Bug are going away). Hands by his side with palms up, Mumma? Where is Mama Jennifer?
  I used to feel totally superior to the parents who said that their little ones had words that they didn't identify as words until later (not only am I paying close attention to words, I can even work out his signs.)
  I just missed his sentences.

Monday, January 30, 2012


Little Bug is coming up on his 18 month birthday, and his Mama Laura has been driving him crazy about whether he shouldn't be saying more words. This weekend, when I started my "What's your word for...?" game, he put a block in his mouth and looked at me, somewhere between cross and amused. He may not be able to say, "Can you please chill out about that," in words, but he can sure convey it clearly.

And I know better. One of my favorite things that I've read about toddler's language acquisition is Kenn Apel and Julie Masterson's Beyond Baby Talk, where Apel confesses to having the following conversation with his son Nick when Nick was about Bug's age.

Nick, like Little Bug, was what language specialists call a "noun-leaver," a baby who emphasizes actions over things. So when Bug, for example, sees my coat--even when it's hanging up--he says "bye bye," because when you put on your coat, you leave. Similarly, in the following passage, Nick is using dada to mean juice, to refer to the action of carrying the juice over to him.

"Nick used the word dada to say juice, regardless of who happened to have juice or where the juice was. In other words, it was true word, even though it did not seem to be close at all to the actual adult pronunciation.
Nick (pointing at juice): "Dada."
Dad: "Juice? Say Juice."
Nick: "Dada."
Dad: (emphasizing the pronunciation more): Juuuuice."
Nick: "Dada."
Dad: (becoming a little impatient and forceful): Juuuuiiccee!"
Nick: "Daaaa daaaa!"

When I read it, this story left me howling with laughter. It is perfect. It reminds me of two things. First, toddlers are not imitating. Babies imitate; toddlers are learning language. And they are putting it together with their own incredible intelligence and logic. Nick is not interested in his Dad's word for juice; he has his own. The second is that what the development people mean when they say that a little one should have 20 words by 18 months is loose; bye-bye can count for coat, da-da for juice. Those outside your immediate circle might understand about 25% of what you say.

So being the slightly insane parent that I am, I set out to count Bug's words (and signs, just for fun: 37 reliable signs with clear meanings. But this is a post about words; signs don't count for the 18 month race for 20 words). So listening carefully to Apel, I am letting him have his own words for things.

Me: Do you have a word for sheep?
Bug: Baa.
Me: Do you have a word for go?
Bug: Gogogo!
Me: Do you have a word for something fell on the floor?
Bug: Uh-oh.

and so on. Through 10 or 15 words. So I'm relating all this to Jennifer, with my pen and list in hand, and Bug is standing beside me.  Zoe the cat jumps up on the radiator. "Oh!" I say. "I forgot cat! He says meow for cat," and I go to write it on my intense-mama list.

A little hand pats my thigh. I look down. 'Mona, he says, 'Mona.

I've forgotten that he switched from saying meow to (Ra)mona for the kitties, and he reminds me.

Did I mention that my sweet little guy doesn't miss anything? And that whether my list gets from 18 to 20 words in the next two weeks, when he turns 18 months, he is doing just fine.

It's his mama we need to worry about.