Monday, August 27, 2007

My son's top five imaginary characters

1. Frank Lloyd Wright: During a visit to Chicago, we took Liko to see two Frank Lloyd Wright houses. We bought him a Frank Lloyd Wright doll. We had no inkling of what forces this would unleash: The kid is now obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright. During a later trip to New York City, he insisted that we see the Guggenheim--which he'd seen in posters and books. When he rushed into the lobby of the Guggenheim, he ran in ecstatic circles and tossed his Frank Lloyd Wright doll into the air and spoke in toddler-tongues. Now, when he builds things out of blocks and so forth, he becomes the personification of Frank Lloyd Wright. One of his favorite songs: Simon and Garfunkel's "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," which Liko listens to thoughtfully, making tight little circles with his hands. What's the source of his fascination? I can only guess, but I think Liko finds it amazing that people design houses and buildings, as opposed to them just growing right out of the ground like trees. I also believe that Liko just thinks that Wright's buildings are really neat.

2. Sally: That is to say, Sally from the very first 1969 episode of Sesame Street, the DVD of which my father gave Liko as a present. Liko becomes the little girl Sally (that's her, above, standing between Big Bird and Mr. Hooper) when he wants to be cuddled or put to bed. It's very sweet. I'm not sure why he fixated on Sally, the new girl in school whom Gordon shows around Sesame Street, introducing it for the very first time in the history of the world. As far as I know, Sally was never again seen on Sesame Street (foul play?), but Liko has shown no interest in becoming such beloved characters as Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, et al.--though Cookie Monster has made a few appearances at our dinner table. I should add that in that first episode you can see how very cool Sesame Street used to be: the cast consists almost entirely of African-Americans and Latinos, set on a gritty urban street (as opposed to the usual bucolic or trippy settings of children's TV), with TV's first openly gay couple -- I speak of Bert and Ernie, naturally. Plus, the music and graphics are terrific, vastly more creative that anything you see in today's Sesame Street, which is just a pale shadow of its former self.

3. Liesl von Trapp: Who the hell is Liesl von Trapp? She's sixteen years old and she don't need no stinking governess. She's the eldest daughter of the Trapp Family Singers, whose origins are fancifully depicted in the 1965 musical The Sound of Music. For two weeks after first seeing The Sound of Music, Liko would wake up in the morning, announce that today he was Liesl, belt out a few lines of "Do-Re-Me," and leap gracefully about the room. Liesl still makes regular appearances in our home. What's up with that? No idea. I just hope he doesn't decide to become family patriarch Captain Georg von Trapp and start singing "Edelweiss." If that happened, I'd have to jump out of the nearest window.

4. Mozart: This fantasy was triggered by Peter Sis's beautiful children's book, Play Mozart, Play. In Liko's mind, Mozart is some kind of MacGyver-like superhero. Last week, Mozart, as channeled by Liko, built (by hand!) a cargo plane out of couch cushions, filled the bay with musical instruments, flew it all to Africa, unloaded the plane, draped at least four instruments around himself using various straps, and gave an epic concert, performed on the stage that is our bed. Amazing. Ten times better than "Cats." Fifteen times better than "Phantom."

5. Spider-Man: Liko can pretty much do whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. He catches thieves just like flies. Look out, readers! Here comes Liko the Spider-Man. I once asked Liko why he likes Spider-Man so much. "I like his costume," said Liko. "And I like how he shoots things out of his hands and flies through the sky." I've since noticed that quite a few little kids like Spider-Man and I've started asking them the same question, and the answers are all more or less the same as Liko's. I also think Spider-Man is cool, but that has more to do with his origin as the world's first anti-authoritarian superhero and the wonderful emotional and philosophical dynamics of the series' main characters. Also, the costume. And the way he shoots webs out of his hands. During the aforementioned trip to New York, I kept imagining Spider-Man swinging around over our heads...and so did my son.

Runners-up: The Wicked Witch of the West; Glenda, the Good Witch; a "mean, scary pirate"; Superman; Doctor Baker (from Curious George Goes to the Hospital); Nurse Carol (Ibid.); Sigmund Freud (Liko has the action figure).

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.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Altruistic birds vs. altruistic humans

Reports the Washington Post:

A just-published study of birds reports new insights into the evolution of altruistic behavior. It suggests that sometimes the greatest beneficiaries are neither those giving or receiving alms, but those whose main job is the care and feeding of the neediest members of the population.

It is believed that about 10 percent of bird species show "cooperative breeding" behavior, in which one or more mated pairs produce chicks, which are then fed not only by the parents but by other birds sharing their territory. The helpers are usually nonbreeding males from the female's broods of the previous year - the brothers of the hatchlings they are helping to feed.

To find out what motivates this behavior, a team at the University of Cambridge in England "compared the eggs laid by females that had helpers with those laid by solo females":

They found that fairy-wrens with helpers produce eggs with less fat, protein and carbohydrate than eggs produced by females that do not have helpers. The hatchlings of those "lite" eggs are smaller than normal chicks, but their initial scrawniness is quickly overcome by the extra food brought by the nonbreeding helpers.

The one who benefits is the mother.

Cooperatively breeding females have a 1-in-5 chance of dying over the next year, compared with a 1-in-3 chance for females without helpers. This is presumably because they are slightly healthier and stronger, having expended less energy to produce their eggs and feed their young. Their longer life span, in turn, gives them a chance to leave more offspring behind, the ultimate measure of evolutionary success.

"The mothers are stealing child care from their current young and spending it on their future young," Kilner said.

What might this say about humans? Maybe nothing. It's simply another clue in solving the mystery of why altruism exists in nature and how cooperation emerges among members of a species.

However, there are parallels with human behavior. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has pointed out how cooperative child rearing has been essential at certain points in human history--for example, in hunter-gatherer societies--when fathers and adults besides the parents had to take a strong role in the care and feeding of young children. In an essay that will appear in the September issue of Greater Good magazine, I speculate that cooperative child rearing (or alloparenting) is making a comeback in American cities, driven by the geographic and social isolation of new families, rough economic parity between men and women, and the high cost of quality childcare. One thing is for sure: parenting is a social activity that no one should have to do alone.

(The photos that go with this entry depict my wife playing with other people's kids, namely Plum and Ezra. They're part of a photo essay on alloparenting by Jackie Adams that will go with my essay.)

On that note, I'd like to point readers to the blog Doodaddy, who writes about the loneliness of his early days as a stay-at-home dad and how he overcame it:

We have really good friends now... What surprised me, I think, is how intentional this social life had to be: there was nothing at all automatic about it, and if I didn’t pursue sociability, I could go days and hardly talk to anyone.

I’m not the only one shocked by how difficult it can be to be a social adult and a stay-at-home parent. Park Buddy and I ran into an old playground friend of hers at the zoo a couple of weeks ago. They’d moved out of San Francisco into the suburbs with their 2-year old girl; it’s an old story: they’d left behind urban stress and parking challenges for a bigger house and a yard and the cleanliness of the suburban landscape.

And you know what? She hated it. She was lonely, having to recreate a social life for herself and her daughter, a job that had been relatively easy in San Francisco. Out of her natural habitat, though, she was at a loss for how to manage it. Some days they don’t leave the house.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Way We Were vs. The Way We Are

This photo depicts the J. Bates home in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 1800s. Note the size of the family and the size of the porch they share. Families of this period were large, both because extended family stayed together and because children were still an economic necessity: more of them meant more hands to work in farms and shopfloors. Fathers and sons often worked side by side, and so did mothers and daughters. The economic and domestic were not separate spheres; though in the process of being eclipsed by large-scale enterprise, at this time the home economy was still America's fundamental economic unit.

As a consequence, marriage was primarily a business decision--as it had been throughout the world for thousands of years. For the lower, middle, and upper classes, people had little choice about whom to marry. Once married, they could divorce only in special or extreme circumstances. Fathers were the undisputed heads and masters of households, by both law and custom. Marital rape and wife-beating were, in most cases, perfectly legal.

Another thing to note about the J. Bates family: it is monoracial and was almost certainly monocultural. Though interracial marriage was more common than we might suppose--see Randall Kennedy's 2003 Interracial Intimacies--it was still widely condemned and illegal in many states. Nineteenth century families had more in common with previous generations than they might have with families today, but society was changing. The family as an economic unit declined; as a consequence, love rose in importance. Young people began to feel that when love dissolved, so should the marriage. Between 1880 and 1890 the divorce rate soared 70 percent.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, people left farms and small towns for cities. Extended families fragmented and the nuclear family emerged as the dominant family form. Children became more of an economic liability than an asset; as a result, sentimental attachment to them intensified. As the century wore on, child labor was abolished and universal schooling was made mandatory. Government programs like the GI Bill educated millions of American men and increased their social mobility.

By the middle of the century, postwar prosperity made the male breadwinner and female homemaker family possible. Most men worked in offices and factories far from home; they did not take care of children. The vast majority of mothers did not work and raised kids far from from extended family. Thus mothers were isolated and many children grew up without fathers, grandparents, aunts, or uncles as stable, regular presences. By the late 1950s, middle-class women--and their children--started to rebel against isolated, retricted lives. "It took more than 150 years to establish the love-based, male breadwinner marriage," writes family historian Stephanie Coontz. "It took less than 25 years to dismantle it."

At the beginning of the 21st century, families are egalitarian, diverse, isolated, and voluntary. Where once there was no choice at all, today we have too many choices. Take a look at this 2004 photo of Brian Brantner and Matt Fuller holding their 2-month-old adopted daughter, Audrey, in San Francisco. Their family could not have co-existed with the J. Bates family in 19th century Minnesota. The gay family is, in fact, something totally new under the sun, blossoming side by side with stepfamilies, female breadwinner/male homemaker families, multiracial families, and so on. Today, only 7 percent of families fit the 1950s mold of breadwinning father and homemaking mother.

At the same time, the American economy is far less stable and social mobility has declined dramatically; class barriers are much more rigid than they are anywhere else in the developed world. This means that family is more important than ever in determining a child's chances in life. Poor children are falling behind richer counterparts, a process that starts before they even enter school. Educated parents are investing large amounts of time and money in their small number of offspring; both husbands and wives are spending more time with kids and at work, and less time with each other or in the community, which puts tremendous strain on love-based marriages.

Surveying decades of research, the sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen writes, "What is now becoming clear is that the seeds of inequality are sown prior to school age on a host of crucial attributes such as health, cognitive and noncognitive abilities, motivation to learn, and, more generally, school preparedness." As marriages become more egalitarian, society becomes less so. We should celebrate the gains made in women's economic empowerment and male participation in domestic labor. At the same time, we should do what we can to resist rising inequality and social under-development.

Most of the photos above illustrate an article by Stephanie Coontz that will appear in the September issue of Greater Good magazine, which will focus on the relationship between the diversification of family types and the well-being of parents and children. I'm happy to provide a free copy to any blogger who promises to write about the issue. Send me an email at jeremyadamsmith (at)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Going Crazy

If we were to grab a coffee together, you probably wouldn't guess that I'm going crazy. You might not even suspect that you're the first person I've spoken with in, say, 24 hours, discounting purely functional exchanges with my wife as she heads out the door in the morning. I might look a little tired, a little dark under the eyes, and if I played my cards right my garbled mental functioning might come across as laid-back and mellow. Sitting back in my cafe chair, legs crossed, I would be ravenously pirating your social energy without you even knowing it.

But all told, you would be deceived. Because at that moment, I might indeed be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Married, yes, but lately coexisting in the same household, two flywheels of different diameters rotating past each other at different rates. And little Spot: is he the cause, or the cure of it all? Or perhaps both? He certainly is the focus of a new dispensation, one that alters perception in such a way as to make the days blur, to give me deeper happiness than I've known since my own childhood, to make me lie awake in the small hours of the morning wondering about our future relationship as Father and Son, about how old I'll be when he graduates college, what we'll do if my wife looses her job, what I've made of my life now that it's nearly half over, when the next war will come. That sort of thing.

Which is enough to make anyone lose some sleep and feel slightly batty. My own ethnographic "participant-observer" stint as an at-home parent helps me understand the supposed craze for Valium in the mythical hey-day of the bored 50s housewife, to say nothing of the pent-up and aching Victorian bourgeois woman chronicled so well by E. M. Forster. What energies and impulses are building in me that I am unaware of? For a few hours of the day, usually in the morning, I wheel the Spot through parks and down sidewalks, chatting to a few neighbors and savoring the sense of expansion in this limited time beyond the walls of our home.

Soon enough, it's back inside, and for Spot back to bed, which means I can't go far. I have plenty of work to do, but feeling slightly batty isn't always a productivity-booster. What will my son think, when he's old enough to ask me what I do? "Daddy," I can imagine him asking, "why don't you leave during the day like Johnny's dad?"

"Well, I do leave once in a while to teach, research in the libraries, and a lot of the time I'm in my home office working. But my primary job is to take care of the things at home, and to take care of you. Which means I can take you hiking or out for a sail-boat ride in the middle of the afternoon. And chances are, we'll have time to go to the beach more often in the summer."

My wife isn't worried at all about that. In fact, she's certain that Spot will have far more trouble understanding what mommy does all day and why she has to go away to do it: the sitting-in-a-cubicle-staring-at-a -computer-sending-emails-making-phone-calls-yet-earning
-all-sorts-of -cash world of knowledge-based office employment. What I do is much simpler.

My deeper worry, though, is battling my own isolation. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it's a matter of my own fatigue, of putting off for another day what seems like the chore of making phone calls to friends, catching up, arranging a get-together, making sure I keep up my existing guy-relationships in a world that seems to have been suddenly emptied of other men, and getting up the energy to build new relationships in the fields of female energy. Sometimes it's easier to retreat, let Spot take a nap, and catch up on my reading.

But ultimately, for him, that's not ideal. The more I'm out in the world, the more he gets to see of it, and any advance knowledge is a leg up. Just today, I built in some time to take him to the play-park mid-way between our home and his grandparents. Less than a mile from the University, shaded from the semi-tropical sunshine by tall maples and poplar, this particular jungle-gym and set of benches is populated with the mothers, grandparents, and children of Chinese graduate students conversing as if in Beijing, interspersed with various moms speaking Italian, German, Spanish, and all loosely tied together by the English lingua franca. And Spot in the middle of it all.

Two little boys, about 5 and 6 years old, saw that there was a new baby around and immediately came up to offer him their toys. My father-in-law held Spot up to take one, and the little boys laughed when he did. I had to pause to take in what just happened. I'm not the only one willing to help take care of Spot -- even these little boys, in a touching gesture, were offering to do their part. It seemed like they were waiting for him. That's his future, I just needed to bring him to it. These are just a few of the welcoming arms Spot has encountered. Part of my job is to do the work of building relationships that will let Spot find more of them. In the process, hopefully, I can also keep from going batty.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What Is a Father?

Here's an interesting set of first-person stories from four very different fathers. In a strange way, perhaps because I've never talked with anyone in this position, I thought the story of the sperm-donor dad was most interesting:

Several years after my divorce, I found the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site where donor offspring can find their half siblings and, sometimes, their donors. Rachael, one of the moms, had listed her two kids, Aaron and Leah, under my donor number. When I saw their names and their ages — 6 and 3 at the time — I got very weepy. Oh my God, these were my kids! Within hours, we were talking on the phone. Rachael asked, "Is it okay if they call you Dad? Would you prefer they call you Donor?" I was fine with Dad, and that's what they called me when Rachael brought them out to see me from Massachusetts. Today I have relationships with four of my children. My son in Southern California knows I'm his father, but he calls me Mike. More recently, I met Precious, my daughter in Hawaii. She never asked; she just called me Dad.

I assumed 99 percent of people who bought donor sperm would be infertile couples and that the kids would already have fathers. I didn't anticipate so many single moms. Of my known kids, none of them has a dad. Most of them don't have living grandfathers or uncles or any men in their lives, really.

A lot of men out there get married, have children, raise them for a year, and then take off. They are still very much these kids' fathers, even if another man moves in and takes over. The biological father could be a deadbeat dad, but he's still a dad. He could be an awful dad, but he's still a dad. Now I'm a donor dad, or an absentee dad. But for these kids, even though I don't live with them, or even near most of them, and I don't pick them up from school or help them with their homework, I'm the only dad they know. And the mother... until now, they had been complete strangers to me.

But I haven't been a complete stranger to them. They chose me. Granted, all I was to them was a donor profile and a tape recording, but that alone creates a persona in their minds. They carried their... my... our children, and of course they are madly in love with them, so the donor becomes a part of all that intense emotion. I think some of the moms have some issues, not with me, but with one another. I don't want to say there is a tug-of-war over my time, because no one has been demanding. But there is definitely tension.