The Spot had no idea what was coming when he started rehearsing his routine for the future Olympic sport of synchronized water-disco on the pediatrician's examination table -- supine, rhythmical frog-kicks, accompanied by a succession of grandiose arm gestures cribbed from ballet (my wife's pre-natal influence, no doubt), all topped off with that silent, toothless smile -- none of this prepared him for the triple whammy of vaccination shots administered to his thighs. The lag between stimulus and response was shorter now than it had been before; this time, it only took him about three seconds to realize he had been double-crossed, that this wasn't water-disco, and that it really hurt.
Our pediatrician's nurse, a street-wise 30-something woman from Chicago's south-side, quickly withdrew each syringe from Spot's leg and slammed it into the vinyl-coated cushion of the examination table, leaving three hypodermics wavering on their long beaks like some kind of ancient marsh grass. While Spot was working to connect the sensation of pain in his leg to his sensation that his leg was a part of his body, I was thrown off as I tried to process the needles in the cushion, like arrows stuck in a straw target, or cutting knives on a butcher's block. None of it seemed to match the high-tech vision of a sterile medical utopia that I had brought with me that groggy morning.
Before I could sort out my own sensations, the nurse leaned over to Spot, still lost in his wasp-like fury, and advised him: "be a man!" Tongue-in-cheek, of course, given that it would be a challenge at this point for Spot to match the intelligence of a dog or the coordination of a chicken, let alone the fortitude of a "Man." But I marked the event. Here was a quite conspicuous intrusion of cultural conditioning. For all my friends who ponder why it is that boys just gravitate towards trucks or become aggressive on the playground, I can now point to this: just four months out of his mother's womb, and Spot was being told how to manage pain in a manner appropriate to his gender. No doubt the larger process of gender acculturation has already started, in a million ways that we are unaware of, interacting with all the hormonal feedback loops that go hand in hand with learning, socialization, and development.
Granted, there is great value to managing one's relfexes, to gaining discipline over one's sensations, control of one's body and its processes, and building a high tolerance for discomfort. But this is Spot we're talking about, not an advanced yoga guru or a Stoic philosopher. The pain may as well have come from an out-of-control nail-gun that threatened to perforate his entire bottom. Cries of alarm were entirely warranted, adults had to be notified, dangers removed.
So Spot and I decided to turn the tables on our well-meaning nurse. Rather than adopting the grim ideal of manly impassiveness -- admirable in its way, at certain times, in certain circumstances, by both men and women -- we turned on the power of babyhood. I got Spot up on his legs to work out the pain, and helped him do a little jig on the table. Before you know it, he was cooing and clucking, the toothless smile was back, and our nurse was down on her elbows, down in Spot's world. It is an enviable place, where there are no grudges, where the joy is in the moment, and a universe of fascination unfolds from the smallest thing. This is a baby, I thought, not a man, not even really a boy. He will become those things, or something else, or some combination of them all -- whatever they mean, whatever they are -- later, and hopefully of his own volition.