Tuesday, August 21, 2007
The Funny Button
The Spot has a funny button. Finding it is one of the things that makes my day worthwhile. What makes it interesting is that the funny button changes size, shape and location on what can seem like a daily basis, making my best efforts of the previous afternoon stale or ineffective the next morning.
Sometimes the funny button is activated by getting on my stomach and barking like a seal. Sometimes I hit it by tugging his legs when he's strapped into his stroller. There's the classic Pillsbury Dough Boy push my belly-button button, and the occasional inexplicable "What's so funny?" button. So far, the most famous funny button, and one that has become legendary in our family, with possible life-altering ramifications, is Spot's joy at playing the piano. Or, more precisely, sitting in my lap with his hands on the table while I move them around as if he were playing the piano. This elicited such cackles of glee the first time around that Spot's grandmother is now convinced he is destined for Carnegie Hall and his grandfather is compiling a list of local piano teachers. Neither seem deterred by the fact that once Spot's recital is over he attempts to eat the tablecloth.
The potentially subversive implication is that I have found a socially sanctioned time and space within which to act like a total goofball. The goofier the behavior, after all, the higher the hit rate. He certainly seems interested and stimulated when mom and dad have a conversation, or when dad is joshing with his friends. But for the big-points, flashing pinball machine pay-off, hitting a funny button is required, and these often seem to involve some deviation from what to us, and maybe even already to him, is "normal" behavior.
My wife is very tolerant of what I call my "inner goofball," and I would argue that this is one of the main reasons our marriage works. Most men have one, I think; at least according to the occasional essay in Parenting Magazine: What Matters to Moms. In fact, the male goofball seems to the one item that shows up consistently in the rather thin lists of male parenting contributions whenever Parenting or similar magazines decide to take an inventory. Occasionally it's linked to negative tendencies, like the failure to mature, or to a false sense of lightness resulting from too much time watching the game and not enough time doing housework. But the mommy mags seem to recognize, in their good-faith effort to find reasons for women to keep their husbands, that a little goofiness may be one of dad's more worthy feats of parenting.
For a while now I thought my inner goofball had more or less retired, scorned one too many times by past romantic partners and beaten down by the grim realities of a sad and violent world. But, though she may loathe to admit it, my wife has played her part in keeping the goofball on a survival diet for several years now, just long enough for it to find its true purpose: spending time with Spot. Spot doesn't judge the goofball. Spot doesn't (yet) get embarrassed by the goofball. Spot really seems to dig the goofball, and in a wholehearted, unselfconscious way that my wife is capable of only when she's tipsy.
There may be a clinical name for the adult goofball phenomenon: pscyhological neotony. A few psychiatrists argue that adults -- men and women -- are retaining traits that we associate with childishness long into biological maturity. What is rewarded most of all in modern society is adaptability -- to changing social and economic circumstances, to new information and behaviors. What was once thought of as a state of unfinishedness -- childishness -- is now as asset in the form of plasticity. Its behavioral mark can range from the unflattering traits of short attention span and lack of depth, to a more appealing interest in novelty and enthusiasm. In a review of Ashley Montagu's book on neoteny, Growing Young, a commentator on the neoteny buzz writes:
"[T]he human organism is designed by nature to retain the experimentalism and flexibility of the child all through life ... We have traditionally rushed, he says, into what we call maturity, but what he describes as psychosclerosis, or hardening of the psyche. We can hardly wait to get rid of our spontaneity and our sense of wonder, in order to acquire the cool restrictive lineaments of sophistication or ''maturity''... Most adults, the author says, are deteriorated children and genius is ''the recovery of childhood at will.''"
After many years in the wilderness, my inner goofball can now be hitched to a respectable social scientific wagon. There are probably far goofier parents in the generations coming up behind me, if the neotenologists are correct. They may be great parents of infants and young children.
I do know, however, that the goofball will have a limited lifespan. It's one habitus out of many, one role we play in the course of a day, but not something that necessarily casts the form of our personality. Spot's great gift to me right now, among other things, is a chance to step outside my narrow, adult way of being. It opens up a window on a dormant sensibility that is deeply refreshing. This should be no surprise -- any grandmother at the play park that eagerly accepts an offer to hold your baby and spend a few minutes cooing along with it knows all about how to be forever young.