How Much Is that Baby in the Window?

The past few weeks have seen a number of milestones. For one, Jayden has begun crawling, which has seriously decreased my ability to do any work during his waking hours. For another, he has learned to speak his first word, dog, though if he were telling this story he would say that I am the one doing the learning. His greatest frustration is that Sean and I act like we do not understand his perfect baby speak.

The third milestone is not exactly Jayden-related, but it explains the lag since my last post. This past week, I submitted and defended my dissertation proposal. It was the most challenging document I have ever written, but my committee is awesome, and I passed the defense without needing to make any major revisions. Now, I move on to the most important PhD project, the dissertation, and since that deadline is rather distant (spring 2015), I can also resume blog-writing without feeling guilty about it. I have a couple of drafts that I hope to finish within the next several days.

To keep your interest until then, I thought I would share a new picture.

Baby in the window

This is the window in Jayden’s room, and it looks out onto the street. Now that he is crawling, I am learning what places in the house he likes best. Early favorites include the dogs’ food and water dishes (yuck!) and this window, where he can peer out at joggers, our neighbors trimming yards, and garbage trucks hoisting cans into the air. Now and then, when someone passes by, he will pound on the glass and call out (in his perfect baby speak, of course). This little boy has the whole world waiting for him, and I am glad to see how eager he is to be out in it.

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Review: Olivia (2000)

Olivia2For this first review, I decided to write on a book that has become something of a modern classic.

Ian Falconer’s Olivia, which chronicles a day in the life of the titular pig-girl, was a Caldecott finalist in 2001, and in 2007 the National Education Association ranked it in the top half of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” It has also inspired about ten sequels and a TV show. Had I read Olivia when it debuted, I would not have guessed it would generate this kind of phenomenon, but I doubt the fame comes as any surprise to our precocious title character. If you need to know one thing about Olivia, it is that she knows she is fated for greatness.

And if you need to know one thing about the book, it is that it is smart — smarter, that is, than it lets on at first. Like the best picture books, it is a blessing for parents in that it feels richer, not emptier, the more times you read it.

The character Olivia is based, I am not sure how loosely, on the author’s niece. She is a two-and-a-half-foot diva, and her day is remarkable not for what she does, but for the personality with which she does it. After she wakes, she lugs the cat that is almost her same size to the bathroom, where she brushes her teeth and combs her ears, and then she lugs him back to her bedroom, where she tries on every garment in her possession, earmuffs included. When it is bedtime, she insists her exasperated mother read her not one, but three, separate stories.

If the book is funny, it is because these examples of Olivia’s excess are narrated with glib understatement. My favorite, I think, is Olivia’s trip to the beach. The narrator tells us she has “got pretty good” at building sandcastles, while in the picture we see that Olivia has constructed a perfect replica of the Empire State Building. The narrator tells us that when Olivia’s mother sees that she has had enough sun, they go home, while in the picture — the only one to include a color other than black, white, or red — we see that Olivia is a stunning shade of pink.

I confess that my first impression was that the book’s illustrations, like its plot, were uncomplicated. It surprised me that Falconer’s sparse, mostly monochromatic drawings would receive Caldecott’s stamp of honor. Sure, they are cute, and I think it says something that the artist-author is able to capture Olivia’s cantankerousness in the face and body of a more or less anatomically correct piglet. However, they are very unlike the lush expansiveness of, say, Jumanji or The Polar Express.

Olivia

But that was only my first impression. Now having read Olivia somewhere in the vicinity of twenty times, I have decided its illustrations are, in fact, its best feature. They are what make the book memorable; they are how Falconer conveys the force of Olivia’s personality. The Empire State sand sculpture is one example. It stands out on the page in size (it towers), but also in style. The shaded drawing contrasts with the simpler, sketchier Olivia, and thus we understand Olivia’s perception of her own creation. Her sculpture does not just look like the Empire State Building, it is an architectural wonder on par with the Empire State Building.

Like I mentioned before, if I had read Olivia in 2000, I would have been unable to predict that by 2013 she would have become such a cultural mainstay. But, based on this first interaction with her — I have not yet picked up the sequels or tuned into the TV show — I am thankful for her presence. In addition to the quality of the book, I am glad for a pop culture character I bet a lot of kids, boys and girls alike, can relate to. She may have hooves and a snout, but Olivia is a lot more human than, say, any of the characters in Disney’s shameless princess chain.

But perhaps I speak to soon. Olivia was just a toddler when this book propelled her to stardom, and now she is a full-fledged teenager. As Miley Cyrus recently reminded us, teen starlets do not always grow into ideal role models.

Fortunately, Olivia has somebody to look up to. Question is, does she like frogs?

Miss Piggy3

The Bottom Line: Dusty recommends this book. Jayden, who is not very attentive yet to drawings, is impartial. He prefers Pete the Cat.

No-Name Games

Some time ago a friend of mine asked what games Jayden and I liked to play together. I wanted to answer pretentiously because (a) it is common knowledge that if you want your child to become “somebody” you had better set to work on their GRE score the moment they are born, and (b) you are only a good parent if your child seems on track to becoming “somebody.”

“My baby and I enjoy matching wits in Gin and Battleship, but only when we’re not reading One Thousand and One Nights in the original Arabic.”

But I had to confess that the games we played together were rather, well, infantile. I would be hard pressed even to give them names. “Shout AHH Back and Forth,” for example? “Giggle When I Brush the Stuffed Duck against Your Face”?

Now that Jayden is a little older, we have started playing more recognizable games, the majority of them variations on “Peek-A-Boo.”

One no-name game we played then that we both still enjoy now, though, involves banging things on hard surfaces — fist on table, bo-bo on shopping cart, you get the idea. Initially, I wanted to justify the game as an exercise in algebraic reasoning (i.e., counting), but the results are inconclusive. I bang my hand on the high chair three times, and he bangs his twice. Wait. He jerks his hand loosely in the direction of the tray. Is this his attempted third bang? MY, WHAT A SMART BABY.

No-Name Games 1

“Bang Hard Surface” may not push the needle on Jayden’s GRE score, assuming he someday takes the GRE, but I am not ready to concede that it is without utility. Here are a few life activities that also involve banging things on hard surfaces:

  • knocking on doors
  • putting things together (hammering)
  • breaking things apart (jack-hammering)
  • playing the drums, xylophone, or triangle
  • playing sports that involve volleying an object between players or from one player to a kind of goal (soccer, baseball, badminton, etc.)
  • restoring the Cable signal to an old TV set
  • hitting gophers on the head with rubber mallets

Put to clever use, I suppose any of these skills could transform somebody into “somebody,” even the last two. Point is, when my friend inquired about the games I played with little Jayden, I should not have felt that I had been backed into a dark corner of abominable parenting. Point is, “parenting culture” pushes parents to justify every action as a strategic play in the game of their child’s predetermined greatness. As a result, we explain our actions, down to the games we play, in a language of fear and competition, rather than one of love or enjoyment.

Why not play “Bang Hard Surface” simply because it is fun?

After all, any game could arguably develop in a child a skill, or a passion, that could someday push him or her to do something great, and ultimately what is most important is that Jayden and I do play games, and that we enjoy them.

You’re Only One Once

Today, my little boy turns one.

We held a party this past weekend, and so many people came to celebrate, bringing kind words and gifts — one more example of the love and generosity with which our friends and family have overwhelmed us this last wonderful, difficult year.  Our theme was mustaches, but it was the hat from Aunt Mary that stole the show.

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Jayden’s first birthday seemed an opportune time to do what I had been thinking about doing for awhile now, and that is begin a blog about parenting. Not that I claim any expertise whatsoever on the topic. My boyfriend, Sean, and I became parents on a moment’s notice last December, when his niece, Jayden’s mother, asked us to take him for a short time. This is a topic I will expand upon in later posts.

Of course, I should give credit where credit is due: It was my friend, Tricia, who suggested I collect my insta-parenting experiences in writing. As I recall, the conversation at Red’s Porch went something like this:

Tricia (drinking sweet tea): “You’re going to think this the lamest, stupidest idea ever, but you should write a blog. I would love reading about you and Jayden.”

Dusty (drinking a beer): “When do I have time to write a blog?”

Personally, I suspect she just wanted to collect more pictures of Jayden being adorable, which, as you see, he does often and effortlessly.

What direction shall this blog take? What contributions shall it make? These questions I have yet to answer for myself, though I have ideas. What I do know is that if you are here for tips on flawless parenting you are in the wrong place.

But if you are here for anecdotes of parental ineptitude or reflections on what I can only describe as the shock of finding myself suddenly in the midst of parenting culture — adrift in an unknown land of fluids, rubber nipples, and babysitters (oh my!) — then maybe you will find my ramblings worth reading after all.

So, stay tuned. I will return Thursday with the first installment in what I hope will be a weekly series of brief reviews of children’s books.