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Friday, January 31, 2003

The Bath

So we decided last night to bathe the two urchins at the same time. Caleb, who will soon be three, sometimes gets a bath based not on his grubbiness, but on our need for some short-term containment.


"I tackled you on your stomach, daddy!"

"Actually it was a little lower, son."

"Let's tackle again!"

"Time for a bath!"

Caleb likes bubbles in his bath, and assorted plastic boats and creatures (and really, who doesn't?). The bath is a ritual. First, I get the temperature right (Caleb prefers that I do this, as his mother -- being a woman -- is under the impression that all baths with a temperature less than 400 degrees are "just a bit chilly"). While I do this, Caleb struggles to undress himself, which frequently involves panicked yelping once he gets his shirt stuck halfway over his head, or a Homer Simpsonesque "Doh!" when he bends over while pulling off his pants and whacks his forehead on the side of the tub.

The amount of bubbles is very important, and he always watches closely as I squeeze the purple plastic bottle of bubble juice at the tumbling stream of water.

"It needs more bubbles."

"Just give it a minute."

"It needs more. More daddy. More bubbles."

"Fine. More bubblas." (Caleb used to call them "bubblas." In some homes children learn from their parents to mispronounce words. In our home the parents learn it from their children.)

"Buuubbblles." Hurried scramble to strip off underwear and socks. Thump. "Doh!"

I used to pick him up and lower him into the tub, but now he likes to climb aboard himself. In the winter this is a delicate process, because the side of that tub is cold. Only a three-foot tall boy, you understand, can appreciate just how cold.

Last night we negotiated the ritual, and once Caleb was in the tub he happily chattered to his plastic teapot as he repeatedly filled it with water and emptied it. This, of course, led him to announce that he needed to tinkle, so I had to lift him, dripping warm bubbles, from the tub and place him on his potty for some quick relief. I returned him to the tub.

Then I had my brainstorm. Eli, you see, was still smelling like the Indian food we'd had the night before. The boy eats anything, even though he's only a year old. Wednesday night it had been spinach babagasomethingorother, and, frankly, the boy was beginning to smell like something you find hanging at a Bangladeshi meat market. "Hey," I said to the wife, "let's put Eli in the tub with Caleb."

She warily agreed, and so I brought Eli to the bathroom entrance and begin to peel off his layers of clothes. He quickly discerned what was in store, which made my job much harder, because he began to wiggle and strain to get to the bathtub. (Apparently the boy's smell had begun to offend even him.) The undressing became a moveable affair, as I alternately pinned him down and used his determined forward motion to assist in the clothes-peeling process.

He finally made it to the side of the tub, buck-naked, and squealed at his brother in triumph. Caleb was only too happy to share his big warm bubbly tub, and so I deposited Eli next to his big brother.

Eli likes to express his love for water by splashing it. Slap slap slap. Splash splash splash. He is undeterred by the fact that he is inevitably the greatest victim of this mayhem. Caleb joined in, but Caleb has water-in-the-eyes issues, so he held a washcloth in one hand, to dab at his eyes, while he splashed along with the other.

I had to restore order, as my socks were quickly becoming like two sponges left in the bottom of the sink. Eli decided to be an otter, slipping back and forth on his smooth narrow behind, nearly dunking himself several times. The wife watched as I managed all this, alternately laughing and exclaiming, "Oh, honey, don't let him go under!"

Apparently, babies do better above water. This, men, is why we need wives, to remind us not to drown the baby, or to let him stick his brother's fork in his eye, or to put hard liquor in his juice cup.

Eli was determined, however, to get a closer look at a toy underneath the water, and so he leaned forward and stuck his face beneath the surface. This did not last long, because my son is no idiot. He came up sputtering, and then gave me a big, bubbly-faced grin. One day, son, you'll have a sweet wife to remind you not to do that. Until then, you have us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Getting in Touch With Our Inner Crybaby

I recall that last September, ESPN promoted an "emotional interview with Randy Moss." You probably know to translate "emotional" into "teary," for the two have become synonymous in common parlance. There are differences, however, between grief and melodrama, between emotion and blubbering. I think many people have lost sight of the distinctions.

A consequence is that we have transformed crying into a spectator sport. You might think that this is a characteristic of a healthy nation, one that is in touch with its feelings, whatever that means. I think instead it is the outgrowth of our studied avoidance of the pain and heartache that are part of life.

Consider a typical farmer a hundred years ago. He toiled with his family to break the soil and pull life from it. Maybe one of his children died before adulthood. Hopes could come crashing down with a bad drought, or a brutal winter, or even the death of a horse. He and his small community endured against the elements, wept at funerals, sang in church. They frequently faced fear and rejoiced in small triumphs.

Now imagine that you transport this farmer to September, 2002, and make him endure an "emotional interview with Randy Moss." Do you think he would find it unseemly that a man sits in front of thousands of strangers, blubbering about his trials and tribulations as a young millionaire exempted from ordinary legal standards?

Ah, but the fans love it. Such displays are a safe substitute for real emotion. We can tear up for a bit, then have a chuckle as the interviewer breaks the tension. When we grow bored we can simply change the channel, perhaps to another artificial emotional spectacle, say, a Very Special Episode of "Frasier."

Sometimes I think we have become vampires -- not really alive, but needing the lifeblood of others for sustenance. We surround ourselves with distractions and take all manner of steps to insulate ourselves (and our children) from pain and disappointment. Yet we still crave emotional stimulation, so we immerse ourselves in the lives of real and fictional heroes.

Maybe this Vampire Hypothesis also explains our national obsession with seeing the victims of tragedy interviewed on television. By doing so we can glom on to their emotion, perhaps even have a good cry ourselves, without ever confronting the elements of their experience that horrify and fascinate us -- the meaning of death, the nature of pain, the purpose of life. By burrowing into the tragedies on our TV screen -- the film footage, the Oprah interview, the made-for-TV docudrama -- we hide from the tragedies in our own lives.

A consequence is that we embarrass ourselves when emotion becomes unavoidable. I'm thinking of some NYC firefighters, who in several months went from heroic to intolerably self-obsessed, willing to put on an emotional display at the pop of a camera light. I'm thinking also of the families of crime, and accident victims, who have been persuaded that it is acceptable to hold press conferences in the midst of their emotional shock, pouring out stream-of-consciousness eulogies interspersed with sobbing.

To be sure, public displays of emotion are often ennobling. Some newscasters could not contain their tears when reporting President Kennedy's assassination. More recently, I remember the look of horror and disgust on a CNN news anchorwoman's face when she reported that someone was producing an O.J. Simpson cutlery set. Such expressions are moving precisely because the people involved try to control themselves. Perhaps their restraint is a sign that their emotions are not shallow sentiment.

Furthermore, when embraced and endured, suffering and the intense emotion that accompanies it often find expression in beauty, be this an articulation, a creation, or simply a peaceful countenance. As a raw material, deep emotion can be ugly and frightening, as it should be, and so we properly share it in this form only with people we know and trust.

However, when we applaud -- without discrimination -- every display of emotion, we lose our sense of proportion. We also encourage skilled prevaricators. The most recent notable example, of course, is former President Clinton. I recall that the first President Bush was knocked, during the 1992 campaign, for failing to reveal enough about his feelings. A skilled crybaby was suddenly assumed to have more emotional depth than a WWII veteran who buried a child at age three.

If we continue to reward leaders for their capacity to spout tears as a means of expressing sentiment, we may soon, I fear, be just like the French, only without the cheese and three-month summer vacations. It's all so disheartening, this decline in national backbone, that I think I may just sit down and have a good cry. If I do, I'll be sure to snap a few pictures in the mirror and post them here tomorrow.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Why Life Remains Worth Living

Some of you know that I am doing some basement repair. I'm very happy it's not basement construction, you see, because that would fall under the purview of various county permitting and taxing authorities. Just a little basement repair. Unfortunately, I'm a bit slow at it, despite considerable help from my friend Lyndal.

It has been an educational experience, for me and for Caleb. Lyndal bought him a tool belt and kid-sized tools. Caleb likes this very much. He loads it up with tools and walks around the basement, whacking boards with his hammer ("No no, not the drywall Caleb!") and measuring things with his tape measure. Recently I turned to see him bent over a board, assessing it with his little plastic t-square. To complete the picture, understand that his pants were dragged down considerably by his tool belt.

That's right. My son has a crack problem.

Not only has he adopted the dress, Caleb has acquired the lingo. The other day he watched intently as I cut a piece of Sheetrock. I let him stand in front of me and help hold the box cutter as I stooped to run it along the broken edge. Then I guided his hand as we sanded the rough edge. Once the edge was smooth, I said, "Alright, man, good job. You know what happens now, don't you?"

He replied, "Glue and screw, my friend!"

So Caleb is down with the vernacular of a hip modern home repair dude like his father. Sometimes he is too down with it. Witness the following excerpt from last night's family trip to the grocery store:

Me: "Honey, can you help me remember that we need to get some up dog?"

Wife: "Hmm."


Me: "Hey Caleb, will you help me remember to buy up dog at the grocery store?"

Caleb: "Yes."

More silent brooding on my part.

Wife: "You know he isn't falling for that."

Me: "I know. He's too hip. But he'll still pull my finger."

Wife: "Ugh."

Eli, too, has some new lingo. He learned it from his brother: "broom, broom." It is a little boy's car sound. I frequently hear them playing together now.

"Broom, broom, bbbbbbrrrrooooom."

"Brooom. Stttppd."

"No, Eli, don't slobber me."


"Broom, broom, bbbbrrrrooooom."

"Broom. Stttppd. Brrrooom."

"No, Eli, that's my Mercedes. Here's your cement mixer."

"Gahh. Mmm."

"No, Eli, don't eat my Mercedes. Give it."



Eli is extremely proud of his new sound. If you aren't careful, he'll lay it on you when you are holding him close to your face. This invariably leads to a cry of disgust and desperate groping for a tissue. Eli has saliva issues.

But they are fun. Some people have more fulfilling careers or vacations or whatever. We have our children. It's a good trade-off. People who tell you there is no trade-off are idiots, or just not very good parents. So my children are wonderful, but let's be honest, parenting is an extreme imposition. That doesn't mean it is bad, but it is what it is.

My mother insists that she used to hide in the bathroom from my brothers and I, in order to enjoy a candy bar in peace. Somehow we could sense the presence of chocolate in the house, and would gather outside the locked door, banging on it and demanding entry. I suppose this must have been something like having the Huns at the city gates. My mother is now insane. I have this to look forward to, I suppose. Still, being a parent is worth it.

Last night we were running late getting the children to bed. The precious moments of privacy before sleep were dwindling. I impatiently instructed Caleb to pick out a short bedtime book. He walked over to the little wooden bookshelf in his bedroom, and returned with a multi-part epic about Franklin, and his trials and tribulations as a young turtle.

"No, Caleb, I said a short book. Take that back and pick again."

"Okay." He toddled back to the shelf. Presently he returned.

"Good lord, child, I said a short book."

"What did he pick?" Asked my wife, who had her back to us as she changed Eli.

"The Bible." There was a brief pause. "I hear you snickering over there."

Note to self: be sure to put ice cold hands on wife's back just as she drifts off to sleep tonight.

posted by Woodlief | link | (23) comments