December 26, 2006


Bright-eyed, bundled

A couple of people have asked me what sort of camera we are using for all these baby pictures. I will sheepishly admit that I did get a new camera specifically for Elliot purposes. However, I am really a cheapskate about these things, as I will briefly describe.

We got a Nikon D50, which is the second-cheapest Nikon SLR (there is a new cheaper one called the D40 now). Body alone, no lens. The standard zoom lens they sell with these kinds of cameras is not bad, but not great.

Also, I already had a Nikon lens to use: a Nikkor 50mm lens (fixed, not a zoom lens) which, at about $90, is one of the cheaper lenses around. It's also among the sharpest. And it's great indoors, because it gathers a lot of light.

The name of the game in taking nice pictures, at least the ones I want to take, is natural light. To take natural light pictures, you have to be able to gather enough light to take a picture, without using the flash.

Zoom lenses are fun, of course, but there's this weird tradeoff -- zoom lenses only get to be zoom lenses by giving up something. That something is going to be either (a) light sensitivity or (b) mega $$$. (Or color quality, contrast, or sharpness.)

So by going with a simple non-zoom lens, we spent less than $500, and we get to take a lot of indoor natural-light pictures.

(I'm far from a photography buff, but I picked up some basics from this guy, and from, and from a class that I took.)


Baby Boom

In the first week of Elliot, my parents and I -- and then Sarah and I -- and then just me -- and then all of us -- etc. -- made pilgrimages to the new Target. It's a brand new two-story affair, clad in red brick and with a spotless parking lot *underneath* the building instead of sprawling all around it. An expensive asset for for the Target Corp., to be sure, and a sort of guilty-pleasure palace for the urban bo-hos (or is it bo-bos? -- whatever), the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the hipster-turned-breeders of far-north-side Chicago. Which is where we live. We used to have to go slum in the suburbs -- or grind it out through surface traffic all the way down to Clybourn Avenue -- if we wanted a good deal on a clever strand of lights, a medium-quality wine glass, or a cheap blue flower pot. But those days are at an end. We have our own big-box store just around the corner now, thank you very much.

Our Target has its big, spacious Starbucks mounted proudly out front, cantilevered right over Peterson Avenue. From this vantage, forty feet above the ground, the Starbucks provides a commanding view of an enormous cemetery -- hundred-year trees and swaths of veterans' graves -- across the street. Face that way, and the cemetery extends so far, and so broadly, you can't see beyond it. Turn around to face the other way now, and the consumer products extend so far and in such profusion, you can't see beyond them, either. In life as we are in death.

Every day of September last, we needed some item or other that we'd been unable to picture ourselves needing the previous September day. Often, we had never heard of, or conceived, the item itself. Imagination fails, somehow, in the face of the baby's proliferating demands. Then the necessity of a moment clarifies the mind. We do not know what he will require next. We simply know where to get it.

Mats to put under his bum on the changing table; an extra set of bottles; a pack of milk bags for the freezer; a little plastic cage to put bottle parts into so they can be run through the dishwasher; a four-pack of terrycloth bibs; a ten-pack of those fantastic terrycloth bibs. We bought a liquid vitamin supplement for him that the pediatrician recommended; but when we discovered that the vitamin bottle didn't come with its own dropper, we had to hoof it back over there for a dropper, because how much is .5 ml anyway? We bought baby wipes aplenty, an avalanche of wipes; but unless you want the baby wipes to dry out and wither on the vine (quelle horreur), you have got to have one of those airtight plastic boxes to dispense the wipes from. We realized that we had made it home with only the refill pack -- no box. Somebody run out and buy something that includes the box.

The uncanny part, though, the kink in this tale of abundance, is the story of the things I cannot get from Target, and the ones who did get them -- the others. The other parents. We see them at Target more than anywhere else (especially since the winter weather kicked in, and it's too cold to roam at the park for long).

We see them others in flared pants, ironic t-shirts, with a shaven head, or in a very long indie-rock plaid sweater (or is that a bathrobe?), or conservatively attired, or with cornrows, or with three children, or speaking Polish. There are many kinds, really, though it's the most odd to see the kinds that look the most like *us*, because how bizarre. Look what happened to them. Look what happened to us all. What a picture we make.

I see them in the diaper aisle, or sifting the kiddie clothes around the corner. I know the wall where the nursing tank tops are, and I know their cart will be there, unless they are blocking up the way down at the bottom of the laundry detergent section where the scentless baby soaps can be found. There are only about eight or nine little corners of the store, in fact, where the new-baby pilgrims genuflect as they make their new-baby rounds, and I have seen them in each one, at all hours. From among the vast grazing patterns of we Target-borne ruminants, you can bump into the same couple two or three times in a quarter of an hour. The moms, to a one, have D (for decaf) scrawled on the sides of their cups, because they know the score. In half an hour, they plan to be back home, nursing, and after that, maybe some rest.

And what is weird is that so many of the children of these parental others are *exactly* the age of my own child. That is, within a week or so. All through last September as I have said, we went to Target frequently, but this was as much out of its nearness as anything else, because in truth, Target's newborn supplies were eerily . . . depleted. A single lonely box of the little newborn-size Pampers Swaddlers remained . . . and yet all the other sizes were available. That box of freezer milk bags I mentioned? I think it wasn't actually there. I think I ended up making another stop at the grocery store to get it.

Odd as well is that this pattern went on, month after month, and is still in evidence. Pinpoint shortages, affecting only infants of a certain age. Last week I went to buy new, larger bottles to accomodate my boy's new, larger existence. I sought nipples also. It turns out that you have your newborn nipples (one hole), one-month nipples (two holes), three-month nipples (three holes), and so forth. But the others, the September parents, got there before me again, making it absolutely impossible to find the hoped-for three-month nipple. I checked every nipple. We had to make do with the one-monthers. It was either that, or get the six-month nipples, and risk drowning the child. That would be absurd.

It's no Shyamalan movie, but I must say that I continue to find the situation a little strange. What *happened* back in December 2005 within range of this particular -- at that time not yet completed -- Target store? (Besides the obvious.) Did they mix something magical into the concrete? Was it a coupon they sent? Were they broadcasting (Vast Quantities of Goods) subliminal (Not Costly In Dollars Or Cred) messages (Budding Bourgeois Householders Seize) to (Your) us (Chance)?

And so we find ourselves roaming the aisles, sipping coffee, gently bumping carts with our doppelgangers. Whatever they did to get us all here, whatever mysterious panic button pushed us all over the brink into this new cloudland, blinking under the bright lights of the big box -- it worked. They got us. So what are they planning to do with us?


December 18, 2006

The Travails of Fandom

Since becoming a mother, I have also become: a football fan. It's so weird. No one who knows me well knows what to make of this baffling new development. They all look at me like I imagine Anne Lammot's friends looked at her when she became a born-again Christian. Like her, I have found religion. What can I say? It's something to do on Sundays.

I have two explanations for this curious new interest. The first is more romantic, and it is this: the primal scenes of pregnancy and childbirth left me more sympathetic to ritualized expressions of animalistic behavior. The second, more logistical, is that it's just harder for me to leave the house these days, and so I take my drama where I can get it.*

Anyway, it's not like I've become a football expert or something: there are lots of basics I still don't fully understand. But I can say with some confidence that I think Reggie Bush is a better contender than Devin Hester for rookie of the year, and I'm genuinely interested in the outcome of tonights Colts/Bengals matchup. Who would have thought that the Bengals would be a serious threat?

So, the new football fan Sarah Mesle has something to say to the Chicago Bears. I would like to say: Jesus! Get it together! People, I am a new mother. I do not have the strength to watch you squander a 21 point lead over Tampa Bay. When you give up three unanswered touchdowns for no apparent reason, I start squawking, which upsets my infant child. Robbie Gould, when you miss a 37 yard field goal attempt, I become unwilling to ignore the fact that you prance around like an overgrown leprechan. You irritate me.



*A third possible reason is that I now read the NYT football coverage, which happily connects my normal interests to my new football interests by saying things like, "The Dallas defensive line was as inpenetrable as a symbolist poem." But I didn't really start reading the football coverage until after I started watching games, so I think the Times is more an enabling than a causal factor.

December 15, 2006

Cut every corner

My mom says that when you have a new baby, you have to cut corners. She said, you have to sing the song "Climb Every Mountain!" from The Sound of Music, except that you change the words to "Cut Every Corner!" So, we try to do that.

Here are some corners we have cut. I guess this is sort of like "tips," but a little different.

1: Paper plates. Hells yeah.
2: Plastic cups, especially for smoothies, because nothing is more demoralizing than finding a cup coated in dried-up smoothy, and then having to wash it.
3: Only one-piece clothing for le bebe. He is le bebe; he doesn't need coordinated outfits.
4: Automatic Car Transmission. This pains us both a little in theory. But it's so nice.
5: We totally use disposable diapers, but I hardly perceive this as cutting a corner, because the idea of using cloth diapers seems more complicated than I can fathom.
6: Brandon is growing a beard.


December 14, 2006

Things are okay!

I was just having the small realization: we're okay here. When I think about how foggy and weird we were when Elliot was first born, I am amazed by our progress. I'm puttering around, filling the water bottle and otherwise preparing for nighttime feedings; Brandon is sitting on the couch with Elliot, reading to him from the NYT Magazine "Ideas" issue. Ada's dozing on the floor by their feet. The Christmas lights are on.

We're tired, and we don't have many remaining inner resources, and we certainly have not finished our christmas shopping. But hey! We're doing alright.


December 13, 2006

Elliot's Brain

Babies are smart, kinda. Not to refute the conclusions of the famed Onion study on baby intelligence, but really: they are more smart than we thought. Interesting studies keep popping up showing very young babies able to do things like, for example, tell the difference between two different quantities of items -- i.e. count. Babies can experience both jealousy and empathy--which means that at some level they understand self, other, competition, and suffering.

...Victoria's mother is settling her daughter into a high chair, where she is the latest subject in an ongoing experiment aimed at understanding the way babies think. Hart [the researcher] hands Cheryl [the mother] a children's book and instructs her to engross herself in its pages. "Just have a conversation with me about the book," Hart tells her. "The most important thing is, do not look at Victoria." As the two women chat, Victoria looks around the room, impassive and little bored.

After a few minutes, Hart leaves the room and returns cradling a lifelike baby doll. Dramatically, Hart places it in Cheryl's arms, and tells her to cuddle the doll while continuing to ignore Victoria. "That's OK, little baby," Cheryl coos, hugging and rocking the doll. Victoria is not bored anymore. At first, she cracks her best smile, showcasing a lone stubby tooth. When that doesn't work, she begins kicking. But her mom pays her no mind. That's when Victoria loses it. Soon she's beet red and crying so hard it looks like she might spit up. Hart rushes in. "OK, we're done," she says, and takes back the doll. Cheryl goes to comfort her daughter. "I've never seen her react like that to anything," she says. Over the last 10 months, Hart has repeated the scenario hundreds of times. It's the same in nearly every case: tiny babies, overwhelmed with jealousy. Even Hart was stunned to find that infants could experience an emotion, which, until recently, was thought to be way beyond their grasp.

-- Newsweek

Freud made observations and claims about babies' conception of presence and absence, famously formulated in his analysis of the fort/da game. (We play a lot of fort/da around here, not much peekaboo.) But it turns out that babies have "object permanence" much, much earlier than previously suspected. People figure these things out by putting babies in dark rooms in front of little "stages", showing them little shows, and watching their reactions.

Each baby sees a duck on a stage. [The researcher] covers the duck, moves it across the stage and lifts the cover. Sometimes the duck is there. Other times, the duck disappears beneath a trapdoor. When they see the duck has gone missing, the babies stare intently at the empty stage, searching for it. "At 2 1/2 months," she says, "they already have the idea that the object continues to exist."

Other cool research tidbits:

Until a baby is 3 months old, he can recognize a scrambled photograph of his mother just as quickly as a photo in which everything appears in the right place. [Older babies actually lose this ability.]

. . .

At the University of Minnesota, neuroscientist Charles Nelson (now of Harvard) wanted to test how discerning infants really are. He showed a group of 6-month-old babies a photo of a chimpanzee, and gave them time to stare at it until they lost interest. They were then shown another chimp. The babies perked up and stared at the new photo. The infants easily recognized each chimp as an individual—they were fascinated by each new face. Now unless you spend a good chunk of your day hanging around the local zoo, chances are you couldn't tell the difference between a roomful of chimps at a glance. As it turned out, neither could babies just a few months older. By 9 months, those kids had lost the ability to tell chimps apart; but at the same time, they had increased their powers of observation when it came to human faces.

. . .

Michael Goldstein, a psychologist at Cornell University, gathered two groups of 8-month-olds and decked them out in overalls rigged up with wireless microphones and transmitters. One group of mothers was told to react immediately when their babies cooed or babbled, giving them big smiles and loving pats. The other group of parents was also told to smile at their kids, but randomly, unconnected to the babies' sounds. It came as no surprise that the babies who received immediate feedback babbled more and advanced quicker than those who didn't. But what interested Goldstein was the way in which the parents, without realizing it, raised the "babble bar" with their kids. "The kinds of simple sounds that get parents' attention at 4 months don't get the same reaction at 8 months," he says. "That motivates babies to experiment with different sound combinations until they find new ones that get noticed."

. . .

Kuhl put American 9-month-olds in a room with Mandarin-speaking adults, who showed them toys while talking to them. After 12 sessions, the babies had learned to detect subtle Mandarin phonetic sounds that couldn't be heard by a separate group of babies who were exposed only to English. Kuhl then repeated the experiment, but this time played the identical Mandarin —lessons to babies on video- and audiotape. That group of babies failed to learn any Mandarin. Kuhl says that without the emotional connection, the babies considered the tape recording just another background noise, like a vacuum cleaner.

But of course, this survey of research wouldn't be complete without also mentioning some of the Onion's results.

Another test, in which the infants were placed on a mound of dirt outdoors during a torrential downpour, produced similarly bleak results.

"The chicken, dog and even worm babies that we submitted to the test as a control group all had enough sense to come in from the rain or, at least, seek shelter under a leafy clump of vegetation or outcropping of rock," test supervisor Thomas Howell said. "The human babies, on the other hand, could not grasp even this incredibly basic concept, instead merely lying on the ground and making gurgling noises."

According to Howell, almost 60 percent of the infants tested in this manner eventually drowned.

Some of the babies tested were actually so stupid that they choked to death on pieces of Micronaut space toys. Others, unable to use such primitive instruments as can openers and spoons due to insufficient motor skills, simply starved to death, despite being surrounded by cabinets full of nutritious, life-giving Gerber-brand baby-food products.

Babies, the study concluded, are also too stupid to do the following: avoid getting their heads trapped in automatic car windows; use ice to alleviate the pain of burn injuries resulting from touching an open flame; master the skills required for scuba diving; and use a safety ladder to reach a window to escape from a room filled with cyanide gas.

"As a mother of four, I find these results very disheartening," Bentley told reporters. "I can honestly say that the effort I have expended trying to raise my children into intelligent beings may have been entirely wasted--a fool's dream, if you will."


December 10, 2006

William James

In much-quoted-out-of-context phrase, William James (Henry's brother, a great figure in pragmatic philosophy as well as psychology, and a supervisor of some really bizarre undergraduate research by Gertrude Stein) has written of the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of being Elliot. His sense of infancy as a muddle -- and later on, Piaget went much further down that road -- is slowly falling by the wayside. More and more, we are discovering just how structured babies' minds are (take that, Lacan), and how early. I'll quote some of the research onto the blog sometime. But for now, here is James from that ol' 19th century. With the tools he had, he was good. And a good writer, too.

The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. What makes impressions separate we have to study in this chapter. Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why "the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel."

We're now in the habit of asking Elliot, when he is querulous, what part of his Con-Fusion is causing him the trouble? Skin? Entrails? (Which end?) We haven't told him about Melanie Klein yet, because I think that would only confuse things further.



Now that our baby is a very mature three months old, we feel quite experienced. (Ha!) We have some tips to share. We welcome feedback on these tips, quite heartily.

1: Monitor the dangle angle! At all times. This is advice for parents of boys. We were warned to beware of stray urine streams during diaper changes, but not told that the wily male "dangle" can spray forth urine from a sealed diaper (for example, by going straight UPWARDS). To ward against this irritating circumstance, make sure that the dangle... dangles within the diaper. It needs to point down.

2: Just get the boppy, even if your body pillow does basically the same job. The boppy is tidier, and more portable. Also, Brandon says, you can refer to the boppy in the same pseduo-french accent in which Sacha Baron Cohen refers to "Ricky Bobby" in the movie Talledega Nights. This is not an incentive for me, but whatever.

3: Keep a laundry hamper right next to the changing table, because no matter how closely you monitor the dangle angle, there will be accidents.

4: Put extra, still-folded, garbage bags in the trash can underneath the garbage bag currently in use. Because if you tie up a full garbage bag, that is quite enough of a job for one person, and who needs to go all the way to the cupboard for a new bag?

4: When warming up a bottle, don't put the bottle in a bowl of warm water. Put it in a pub glass of warm water. Brandon does most of the bottle warming around here, and he says this is much better; it keeps the bottle from falling over, which can happen especially if there's not much milk in the bottle.

5: When it comes to the much feared "nipple confusion," I say: don't believe the hype. This is a contentious claim, I know, but I really think it's a load of crap. I mean, I definitely had a HUGE fear of nipple confusion, and it would have prevented me from giving Elliot a bottle for a long time had Elliot not required one for health purposes. And giving bottles is so wonderful! It made me enjoy breast feeding so much more, to know that I could have a break from it when I needed to. And if you wait too long, sometimes they don't take a bottle, and that would be THE WORST THING I COULD IMAGINE, because then what would you do? Just never have a break for six months, I guess. And who needs it? Breastfeeding is nice, but it's not that nice. For me, I mean. Some people really love it, so that's different. But still I say: everyone deserves a break, or at least the option of a break.

6: The best middle-of-the-night-nursing-snack that I've found is the "Naked" brand super-protein drink. It is a beverage, and so easy to consume with one hand (which is all you have when you're up in the night holding a baby), but it also has a whopping 38 grams of protein. Until my mom introduced me to the protein shake, I spent a lot of nights standing next to the open fridge door, gnawing messily on whatever hunks of meat were available, and it was totally gross, and also the light always shined right in Elliot's eyes, making him fussy and thus harder to put back to sleep. So protein shake it is: it tastes a little weird, because 38 grams of protein were never meant to be delivered in liquid form, and it's over-priced, but it is worth it.

7. Okay, that's all for now. But I'm sure there will be more.


December 08, 2006

like milk into baby

So, I know this has been hinted at before...but I am just completely knocked out that all of Elliot--his eyelashes, his calf muscles, his ears--all of Elliot is made of milk. For real! I just give him milk, and he can make more of himself. Forget turning water into wine: this seems to me like a really amazing miracle.

That's really all I have to say about that. But l'll add as a PS that Elliot eating always reminds me of Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World:
"Man's encounter with the world in the act of eating is joyful, triumphant; he triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself. The limits of the world are erased..." (281).

Bakhtin writes about eating as the most profound symbol of our humanness: it's how we, quite literally, make ourselves as individuals, but it also is a constant reminder that we are dependent upon, and a part of, the larger world.

I think he's right, of course. But these days I really wish I could have seen the book he would have written if he had been a breastfeeding mother.


December 06, 2006

Graham: December 6

Elliot has acquired another significant cousin-by-affection: Graham, a Bostonian. He is over nine pounds, according to reports, a strapping healthy boy.

He was borne of Whitney early this morning, a little after his due date but one day earlier than I had bet on (I was going for Pearl Harbor Day). Congratulations, Whitney and Jen! We are glad glad glad.


December 04, 2006

Variously Alien

Okay, now I don't want to jinx anything, but in the spirit of celebrating small victories, let me tell you all a secret:

Elliot slept seven hours for two nights in a row.

This trend may not continue, but while it does: boy! We feel better. We are feeling much more human.

Which is a perfect segue into a point I'd like to explore. Elliot seems to me...not quite human yet. This occured to me on the flight back from Salt Lake, during which I was rereading a sci-fi novel that put forth a theory of "alienness." Here is the taxonomy that book puts forth:

1: Framlings: framlings are like you, but they're from a different place. You're not the same, but you can totally understand each other.
2: Ramen: people who are ramen are really different from you. But you can learn to communicate with them, so your differences can be negotiated.
3: Varelse: people who are varelse are so alien that you can't even communicate with them. You might believe that they are intelligent and have reasons for what they do, but you have no way to learn those reasons. Encounters with the varelse are likely to go poorly.

So, your average baby: what sort of alien is s/he? When Elliot coughs or sneezes, it just sounds like a cough or a sneeze. It seems perfectly reasonable and human. And I think: total framling. But his yammering is pretty ramen. And when he is stricken by intense and unexplainable fits of rage, he is completely varelse. Completely! One hundred percent alien.

Really, try negotiating with a screaming baby for even an instant. You might as well just get your phasers and light sabers and just start firing.


Postscript by blwh

A few minutes after Sarah posted the entry above, Elliot and I had the following recorded conversation. Or interview, if you will. But it ain't Charlie Rose. No, on Elliot's home planet, an interview is considered incomplete if the subject (or did he think he was interviewing me?) fails to put his own fist in his mouth, gyrate his half-naked body, chuckle maniacally at odd times, and share his bodily fluids with the people at home.

Now that I think about it, maybe Elliot's home planet is called "The Sex Pistols".

Interestingly, the framling/ramen/varelse taxonomy is this blog's second reference to Orson Scott Card science fiction novels. We're not actually that into science fiction -- not that we're not into science fiction -- but I guess it's been a year, a set of events, that's about the things science fiction is about, (a quick paste from wikipedia):
in which the narrative world differs from our own present or historical reality in at least one significant way. This difference may be technological, physical, historical, sociological, philosophical, metaphysical, etc, but not magical (see Fantasy). Exploring the consequences of such differences (asking "What if...?") is the traditional purpose of science fiction, but there are also many science-fiction works in which an exotically alien setting is superimposed upon what would not otherwise be a science-fiction tale.