I finally realised a while back why parents’ anecdotes about things their kids say and do struck me as so banal before I became one myself: it’s because you have no calibration for what’s remarkable.
Anyway, tonight as I read my two year-old daughter The Cat in the Hat at bedtime, when we got to the line “And look! With my tail! / I can hold a red fan!” she said, with some effort, “Daddy, the fan is like a butterfly! A zig-zag butterfly! Like [the butterfly in the garden she named] Dotty!” And I am undone.
If two cars reach an impasse in Britain, and one flashes its headlights to the other, it means “come on; I cede”. In France, it means “stay there; I’m going to push through”. Imagine the scene where a Brit in France or someone French in the UK gives or sees a flash and interprets it the wrong way, judged against the dominant convention in that place. There’s a crash, and both aggrieved parties leap out of their car, each thinking they’re in the right as they talk at each other, not only in a foreign language but from a completely different context.
Neither is right, neither is wrong; but both think both that they are right and the other is wrong, by sheer force of cultural conditioning. It’s not merely a question of perspectives, but of failing to realise that the lessons and values of your culture have been so subtly but fundamentally and perniciously codified into your worldview that you don’t think to ask if there could even be another perspective. What is this wanker doing? He flashed his lights for me to come on so I drove forward but then so did he and now there’s car on the ground and we’re both shouting at each other.
I think about this often.
I went to bed last night as Twitter was just starting to twitch with news of something happening around London Bridge, assuming that when I woke it would either have been jumbled mis-reporting or the latest in the capital’s history of terror attacks.
This morning, as we read and listened and reflected, my daughter was playing on some foam climbing blocks when she slightly overreached her balance and toppled slowly off, crying – mostly from surprise – when she hit the floor.
It is a trite point, but, curiously, a legitimate and profound one too, that ‘being safe’ doesn’t – rather, shouldn’t – mean that one must never come to physical or emotional harm; it means an environment wherein you are confident in exploring and playing and expressing yourself, knowing that if you overreach and come to harm, there is kindness, support and comfort.
‘Never coming to harm’ is a dangerous fiction, one that legitimises and excuses authoritarian behaviour and policies that actively damage those for whose lives you are responsible.
I’m only part joking when I say I bet the dramatic trope of creeping past a slumbering monster must have been originally written by parents who have tried not to wake a sleeping baby.
Had to pop stuff into Ada’s room tonight; crept stealthily in, but she stirred and sat up in bed. I immediately dropped down behind the solid end of the cot, out of sight. She seemed to resettle, but I couldn’t be sure, so I had to risk a peek. If she was awake and watching, catastrophe! But she was asleep! Creep, creep, set down qui-et-ly, creep, creep, pull door to at a tectonic rate – breathe sigh of relief. Properly cinematic.
Frankly, I’d take a rabid dragon or slavering Cerberus to sneak past any day; consequences are less dire.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved playing with Lego. The love hasn’t dimmed as I’ve gotten older; Lego’s role in my life has just changed. Where once it was about the stuff of play – about discovering how objects interact and about how I could at the same time give shape to and spark my imagination – as an adult I would occasionally turn to the calm, methodical accretion of a set’s blocks as a way of quieting stress and anxiety.
Our daughter got some Duplo for Christmas, and it’s been wonderful to play with her. Of course we play with her all the time, but it is usually asymmetrical. The pleasure my wife and I got from the play was meta-level; we enjoyed seeing Ada develop and become curious and then work to sate that curiosity, and of course we enjoyed the simple fact of the time together, but there wasn’t much enjoyment to be wrung for us from the activities and games themselves.
This is different, because while all that meta-pleasure is just as present, we’re both surprised by how much delight and fun we’re getting from the Duplo itself.
And it’s exactly because of that curiously cyclical sparking and feeding of imagination. Sometimes I’ll set out to reify an object that’s in my head, but more often than not I’m just noodling about with bricks – these big, coarse voxels in unexpectedly beautiful renderings of simple colours – and either end up creating pleasingly nonsense objects, or I’ll turn over what I have in my hands to find that it suddenly looks like a whale, or a truck, or an oddly stooping old lady. It’s something akin to pareidolia, or what the creator of those Lego ads was tapping into – another take on “the pictures are better on radio”.
It’s silly, I guess, to find this quiet joy surprising, since I can’t remember a time without Lego, but it is. It turns out I had simply forgotten that this was a thing Lego could be; not only a tool by which to construct a given object, whether realistic or fantastic, but also something that one almost has a dialogue with, something that you grip and manipulate and query and listen to as you play without direction – like a child does. And as I am rediscovering how to, thanks to my own.
Hey, Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, is pretty great! Chances are you know this already, though, either because you’ve been listening to it on heavy rotation since you discovered it, or because you have that one weird friend – hi there! – who is constantly telling you how great it is.
Yes, I love Hamilton. And further, I love that I love Hamilton. As I crash headlong toward middle-age, my fear of my tastes ossifying intensifies; I have betrayed much of what I thought and wanted when I was a kid, but that one sticks. I have always hated, and I hope I always will hate, the attitude that says modern media and culture is de facto worse than those that pervaded when one was young. I reserve the right to call any part of it god-awful, because there is always god-awful stuff among the quality, but to call it all god-awful is lazy and stupid, and robs you of the joy of discovering fresh delights.
I buy and enjoy new music, films, magazines all the time, but it’s particularly exhilarating to discover something like Hamilton; something that tilts my orbit, something that I want to evangelise, something that I feel such a weird and instantaneous sense of ownership of and kinship with. It gives me the same tingle I got when I discovered Douglas Adams as a kid, the first time I watched Cabaret as a kid, the first time I played Chuckie Egg as a kid; in other words, I love it like I loved stuff as a kid – and I love that.
When I was a kid, and because I was that sort of kid, I remember watching an Open University programme that explained emergent behaviour: that huge whirling flocks of birds and impossibly dazzling, twisting shoals of fish might seem complex, but each individual was following a couple of deeply simple rules about movement and maintaining a particular distance from others. I was particularly struck when some crude computer graphics demonstrated this; the simple points following these rules and moving through a 3D volume, big white pixels on a bulging CRT, did indeed look exactly like flocking animals as they wheeled and bunched and flowed round obstacles. The idea of emergence is one that I kept thinking about in the decades since, that from very simple rules awesome and seemingly unknowable complexity can arise.
Anyway; I was thinking about it again yesterday as I was using the iPhone’s turn-by-turn directions when driving; it’s not an example of emergence as such, but it suddenly occurred to me that the algorithm by which Maps decides when to hide and show labels and details – which are constantly shifting and changing as you move – probably has at its heart a flocking behaviour that governs optimal information density and stops labels crashing into each other.
Recently I got a parking fine. This was because I was parked somewhere at which I had to display a ticket (even for the allowed free duration) and I was not displaying a ticket, so the fine was completely correct. However, I appealed, sending the below covering note.
Hello, folks. We got a penalty notice yesterday, and I’m not challenging that the ticket is correct; we were parked and weren’t displaying a ticket, and if you reject this appeal of course I’ll pay. I would like to explain, though, that it wasn’t out of malice, and we were within the free parking period. My wife and I were taking our baby daughter swimming for the first time at the Olympia pool, and we were a bit stressed and anxious, and as we juggled bags, baby and plans for making the experience as smooth as possible for her as we got out of the car, we just forgot to get a ticket for free parking. About 45 minutes later we came out, went to Marks & Spencer to get lunch, and only as we were walking back to the car I spotted the pay stations and I suddenly realised I had forgotten to get a pay-and-display ticket. We were parked well within the free time allowed, but just forgot to get a ticket to confirm. Time-stamped receipt from pool attached; sorry, we didn’t take a receipt from M&S. Thanks for your time.
My appeal was rejected, and this was the explanatory letter I got from UK Parking Control Ltd.
Dear Mr Phin,
Thank you for your recent communication concerning the above Parking Charge. Please rest assured that our Appeals Manager has personally reviewed this case and carefully considered the various points raised. Our view, however, is that these particular circumstances are neither unreasonable nor unjust and so we will not be waiving this parking charge in full.
As per our client’s instruction, all vehicles must display a valid pay and display ticket to park within this area. Unfortunately when your vehicle was photographed no valid ticket was being displayed. Your vehicle was left unattended on Private Property, therefore giving you no authorisation to park. There are sufficient signs warning vehicle drivers that should they park their vehicle without displaying a valid ticket this will result in a Parking Charge being issued to the vehicle.
You will be aware from the Parking Charge that we offer a discount for parking charges paid within 14 days. As you lodged an appeal, we are prepared to extend this period for another 14 days from the date of this letter. But if we do not receive your remittance at the reduced rate of £60.00 within this period, the full amount will then become payable and we will put the matter in the hands of our Debt Recovery Agents.
We appreciate that this is not the outcome you will have hoped for. Unless you have any additional information that you have not already brought to our attention, this decision is final. Although further correspondence will be noted and filed, please do not expect any response from us except where you have provided new evidence to substantiate your case.
We hope you will take advantage of the extended discount period and will send your remittance promptly. Yours faithfully,
And so, of course, I paid the sixty quid, because to paraphrase The Dude, UKPC isn’t wrong; it’s just a shower of officious, unpleasant little assholes.
Our daughter turns one today. I have learned some things about babies, parenting, myself, my marriage, and my ability to form coherent blog posts in the 364 days since she was born, and so allow me to glug some of my brains out into this post.
- There is a point somewhere on the continuum between ‘it is hard’ and ‘we found it hard’ that is objectively true; a fulcrum whose position would tell me the extent to which we particularly just made heavy weather of the experience of the first few days, weeks, months, and to what extent it’s just a spectacularly challenging gig. But I’m jiggered if I know where it is.
- You forget what made it hard. You can call up impressionistic washes of anxiety and pettiness and novelty and failure (and happiness and delight), but you can’t remember the specifics. This is good, as it’s the only way our species doesn’t dwindle in a kind of reverse Fibonacci; you need people to forget so they voluntarily have more than one child to balance out eventually losing the two who made that first one.
- There will be a neat mathematical model too to describe the toughness of the challenge – some inverse square shit that I should be able to call to mind in a more specific way. Basically: it doesn’t get easier in a linear way. At least till now it’s gotten easier on some sort of accelerating curve. The first six weeks were black and the subsequent six months horribly difficult, but the last three months have brought increasing contentment and joy amidst the wrangling. The stage we’re only arriving at now is the one which I naively thought parenting-from-day-one was like: requires huge commitment, patience, hard work and attentiveness, but there’s a lovely, sweet, kind, curious little kid with a deliciously absurdist sense of humour and a killer chuckle in the middle of it all too. In the early days the sheer unremitting terror of being solely responsible for this new life was, for us at least, suffocatingly hard; you’re caring for a little thing that does not work like anything you’ve interacted with before, and it couldn’t matter more that, at best, you get this wrong only in small ways.
- Once you’ve worked out that mathematical model, you can apply it verbatim to your perception of time. I remember completely clearly, once we were discharged from maternity care, knowing that our next allotted chance to talk to a doctor was at our daughter’s 6-week checkup and thinking that was an insupportably, unimaginably long time to hold out. A day was lifetime, a week an aeon, a month an eternity, and if you’d asked me up even into the spring of this year to imagine her first birthday I wouldn’t have been able to in any but the most abstract terms. “Take each day at a time” isn’t glib, facetious advice; it’s a survival technique. Duties and time seemed to yawn relentlessly, chillingly out in front of us, but I am not intimidated by the idea of another year now; I’m excited.
- Caring for your child and watching them change and grow and learn every single day is a godsdamned privilege. I keep saying it; it keeps being true. This trusting, loving (grizzling, shitting) little thing has no agenda, no plan. It just is. It just be’s. And you’re there right alongside it, helping, yes, and guiding, supporting, sure, but most of all watching as before your eyes a person is building itself, by the accretion of a thousand tiny moments, interactions and decisions. Everyone else gets to see my daughter; I get to see how she figured out how to be herself.
- Parenthood strips you down. It forces you to confront often unsuspected truths about yourself, some of which you can draw great pride from, and some which are deeply shameful. I am ashamed of my temper and my pettiness, but I am proud that no matter how deep I’ve dug to just keep pushing forward, there has so far always been a deeper reserve I can scrape down to when something harder comes along.
- I keep discovering new ways in which to find my wife remarkable. I wouldn’t, couldn’t do this with a lesser woman.
- And here’s the most important thing I’ve discovered in the first year of my daughter’s life: she’s wonderful. She is full of wonders. That kazoo-like chuckle, deep and cheeky, that makes everyone else laugh too. The fact that she started proffering her toys and food to us to share without us even thinking to teach it, and being pleased when we enjoy them. The new tricks that astonish and delight us by their very unexpectedness: yesterday, plucking a tissue from a box, holding it to her nose and blowing a raspberry in mocking imitation of me with a cold – then looking at us all Fozzy Bear to see if we agreed that what she did was funny. The little curls at the back of her head. The perfect handprint on her face that persists for hours from where she slept with her head resting on overlapped hands, like a painting entitled The Sweet Purity of Youth. The tiny, tiny snores. Her saggy baby bum. And a hundred, a thousand more.
Friends, family, even total strangers who follow either of us on social media will know that we found being parents to a newborn gruelling, mystifying and disenfranchising. But it’s done now; check! Time – long overdue, you might say – to formally flick the switch and disable crisis mode. Time to realise that our life is not dazzlingly, incomprehensibly different to how it was before, it is now merely different to how it was before, and for the best of all possible reasons. Time, in other words, to start enjoying being parents. I love you so much, Jenny; I love you so much, Ada.
Vervet monkeys have a proto-language, a series of different calls they can make to warn the troop of a specific danger. The call for ‘eagle’, for example, triggers them to look up and to scamper for cover.
I’ve been thinking about the word ‘demagogue’, in light of the Brexit campaign and of Trump’s improbable rise. A demagogue is someone who builds power by appealing to emotions and prejudices rather than to reason, and it’s a word I knew but which had slipped from my mind.
As much as I find demagoguery distressing and worrisome, working as it does hand-in-glove with an unsettling and seemingly growing anti-intellectual rhetoric, I take comfort in the fact that we have a word for it. It says that, as a culture, we are on to you, sonny-jim. We recognise what you’re doing. We know its danger.
We might not all react in as sensible and predictable a way as the vervet monkeys do when one of their number shouts “Snake!” but at least we too have a word we can shout, because we’ve seen this slimy, venomous behaviour before.