Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.

Bertrand Russell On Toddlers, The ‘Little Devils’

In ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed’ (Unpopular Essays, 1960; Routledge Classics 2009, pp. 60-61), Bertrand Russell writes,

Children, after being limbs of Satan in traditional theology and mystically illuminated angels in the minds of education reformers, have reverted to being little devils–not theological demons inspired by the Evil One, but scientific Freudian abominations inspired by the Unconscious. They are, it must be said, far more wicked than they were in the diatribes of the monks; they display, in modern textbooks, an ingenuity and persistence in sinful imaginings to which in the past there was nothing comparable except St. Anthony.  [link added]

Lord Russell is here inclined to be skeptical of the notion of the ‘innocent monster’ that is suggested to us by the Freudian notion of the child being all Id and nothing but the Id–with no regulation by the Ego or the Super Ego–but I wonder if that was because he had little experience with toddlers, especially two-year olds. (Russell had four children–two sons and two daughters–but I cannot recall if he spent much time rearing them.)

The ‘terrible twos‘ is a modern child-rearing cliché; prospective parents are warned about it–with bloodcurdling tales–by those that have passed through its terrible gauntlet. My wife and I are almost there, for our daughter is almost two, but I’m inclined to think the Terror began a little earlier, around the eighteen-month mark. By then, our daughter had grown, and her increasing physical maturity brought in its wake many interesting embellishments of important behavioral patterns.

Her crying, for instance, became louder and lustier, reaching impressive decibel levels capable of alarming neighbors; she could now strike and scratch out with greater vigor; she could buck and convulse her body with greater force (one such bucking escapade, prompted by her reluctance to be changed out of her night-clothes–or perhaps it was a diaper change–resulted in her headbutting my wife and cutting her lip), and of course, she had learned to say ‘no’ loudly and emphatically (and endlessly) for just about everything (including, of course, that perennially popular target of rejection, life-sustaining and growth-producing food.)

My wife is far more patient and understanding, far more possessed of forbearance, than I. So it is with some wonder and considerable respect that I observe her interactions with my daughter, as she skilfully and gracefully negotiates the temperamental meltdowns that often occur these days. In contrast, all too often, I have to walk away from an encounter with my child, alarmed and apprehensive at the thought that I might be approaching an explosive outer expression of my inner feelings.

I should not overstate the monstrous aspects of my daughter, of course. She continues to amaze and astonish us everyday; she is learning new words all the time; she has learned some habits that I hope will persist into her adult life (like sitting in her play space by herself, ‘reading’ her many books); and in her dealings with other toddlers,  she is, by and large, not an aggressor or ‘snatcher.’

As I noted here a while ago, she will continue to change and acquire new identities; there will be a point in the not-so-distant future when we will look back, with the usual selective nostalgia, at even this often-trying stage of her continuing development.

 

Biological And Adoptive Parents

There was a time when I did not understand how adoption worked. Didn’t you have to have a biological tie with your offspring to be truly, deeply, emotionally bound to it? Over the years, I came to think not–at an intellectual level. But like many other theses, I became convinced of its truth only after a visceral personal experience, that of becoming a biological father: relationships between parents and offspring did not seem to have a magical biological basis to them.

My relationship with my daughter–now twenty months old–has evolved. When my daughter was born my strongest relationship was still with her mother; a great deal of the affection and protection I sent my daughter’s way was because I loved her mother so much. I did not feel instantaneous bonds forming with her; I did not get a free pass in her affections toward me either; the biological bond between us did not neatly translate into an automatic love on her part. I felt protective about her, fiercely determined to guard her from all harm. But I think I would have done the same for any helpless one placed in my care the way she had been.

As she has grown, more dimensions have emerged in our relationship. She responds to me verbally and physically; she calls me ‘Papa’; she looks for me; she calls out to me. It is these responses and interactions with me that seem determinative of the quality of our relationship, not necessarily our genetic commonality. You could say it is that which brings about her responses to me, but I doubt it; at times, she is even more attached to one of her daycare providers, an affectionate, caring, young woman, with whom she has developed a bond strong enough to occasionally make my wife jealous too.

My wife’s relationship to our daughter has a stronger biological basis; she bore her pregnancy for nine months and developed a special intimacy on a daily basis thanks to her breast-feeding (which continues to this day.) I had no such physical contact with my daughter; I had to rely on hugs and close holding–some of which, she now, in her toddler phase, occasionally rejects–and naps together.

Sometimes when I look at her, I can see, in her facial features, hints and glimmers of my family: sometimes my father’s features, sometime my brother’s, sometime my nephew’s. Those are uncanny reminders of a connection grounded in biological markers and I enjoy the connection they enable with those who came before me. But, ultimately, what brings the two of us closer to each other, I think,  is that we live together, we spend time together, that I care and nurture for her (in many inadequate ways, compared to the time and effort my wife puts in). What motivates these actions of mine is a sense of loyalty to my partner, my commitment to this shared enterprise, my desire to make my family grow, my growing sense of a bond developing between her and me.  I think I would do the same even if the As, Ts, and Gs didn’t match up exactly.

Lucid Dreaming: A Pleasant Side-Effect of Sleep Disruption

A disrupted night’s sleep is one of the unfortunate concomitants of parenthood; rumor has it that so terrible is the toll that it extracts that some are scared off procreation altogether. Rare is the parent of the infant or toddler who has not tendered a complaint about sleep deprivation to his bored, unsympathetic, childless friends and family. (The wise ones tell it to the ‘been there, done that’ crowd.)

But like most of life’s dispensations, this one is not unmixed in the blessings and curses it tenders. As but a trivial example, a disturbed morning’s sleep means that I can rise early to catch the opening session of the live telecast of a cricket game being played six time-zones away. But by far the most pleasurable side-effect of disrupted sleep are the lucid dreams that result when you do manage to fall asleep again. An amateur chemist scheming to produce a new best-selling psychotropic drug might do well in aiming to produce some of these effects in his  intended product.

I first noticed the intense imagery and quasi-hallucinatory sensations present in the dreaming during a sleep session following disruption in the most unfortunate of ways: during painful, hungover mornings. On those occasions, I would awake early in the morning, my head pounding, my mouth cotton-dry, and stumble out to the kitchen to partake of painkillers and water, and then stumble back into bed to sleep it off. Then, I noticed that as I would fall asleep, I would be entertained by all manners of colorful, vivid dreams; their most startling feature was, almost invariably, the sensation of flight.

Somehow, magically, I would have acquired the powers of airborne locomotion; I could swoop, plummet, hover, soar, dive; I would acquire aerial perspectives on familiar landscapes; so realistic were some of these episodes that I would also experience the sickening vertigo that I unfortunately suffer from when confronted with heights. But the lucidity of these dreams quickly conquered the vertigo, for I was able to reassure myself that no harm could come to me during the dream.

The lucidity of these dreams very quickly enhanced their pleasures; as the dream begins, I feel a rush of pleasurable anticipation; I know a familiar, and yet endlessly varied, pleasure lies ahead. The pleasure at the dream-borne flights that soon follow is considerably enhanced by my knowledge that it is only in these dreams that I will be able to enjoy the pleasures that the considerably more intrepid than me enjoy during activities like hang-gliding or para-sailing.  Because the dreams are lucid, I enjoy greater control over my flight, and often, even over the visual effects I seem able to produce in my dreamscapes.

So pleasurable are these dreams that I am able to comfort myself, as I cast about, hoping to fall asleep after I have been awakened by a few wails that even if I will have been denied my rightful allotment of hours of sleep, the few that will come my way will be pleasurably entertaining and continuously edificatory about the mysteries of human phenomenal experience.

 

Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.

 

The Vale of Tears: From Babe to Adult – II

A year or so ago, I wrote a post on how my infant daughter’s crying sometimes provoked, in me, thoughts that seemed considerably weightier than those one might have imagined as being occasioned then. On Monday, a spell of night-time crying triggered a chain of reflection that felt similarly cosmic.

A little background: my daughter is quite well sleep-trained; she follows  a reasonably structured nap schedule at day-care and at home; her evening routine is pretty much set in stone–dinner, bath, bedtime reading, followed by sleep-time. She does not cry when we put her down for the night, and is only occasionally disturbed enough to call out to us by wailing. On those occasions, she soothes herself back to sleep quite soon. But: she is vulnerable to disruptions of these schedules, and can take a little while to get back to normal.

On Monday night, my wife and I found ourselves facing just such an occasion. We had traveled recently to California, where my daughter had come down a viral fever. The jet-lag, the illness, the disturbed sleep at night–these had all contributed to a radical perturbation of her sleeping hours and required a great deal of intervention from–and co-sleeping with–her mother. Over a week or two, our daughter’s sleeping routines slowly unraveled. As seemingly, did my wife’s equanimity, as she grew progressively more exhausted. Our daughter was now becoming dependent on the night-time feed, and on being comforted by her mother. Her alone; my ministrations were neither sought nor welcome. This condition persisted even after she had recovered from her illness; she liked the new set-up and cared little whether it kept her mother awake and depleted.

So, that night, we decided we would not visit our daughter when she called, and would try to get her back to her normal sleeping habits. We knew it was going to be hard; our daughter’s lungs are well-developed and she can belt out high-decibel wails without breaking a sweat.

Sometime after midnight, it began. The crying was piercing enough to begin with and all too quickly it became louder and more insistent, tinged with a distinctive irritation and pique: why am I not being picked up? Next door, in our bedroom, my wife and I lay awake, desperately riding out the storm. It did not abate; the cries grew louder, and then, most painfully, I heard sobs and whimpers. I thrust my face deeper into the pillow, trying to cover my ears, to blot out the shrieks and wails that were now progressively more desperate. As I began muttering about this ‘torture’ my wife reminded me of our decision, made earlier that night, to not go to her; she might even have asked me to ‘snap out of it.’

And as I tossed and turned, as I realized there was no relief forthcoming, it occurred to me my daughter’s crying and our situation seemed to instantiate some abstract facts about the human condition. My daughter was not going to be comforted that night;  my wife could not dare take the chance of perpetuating a system that was destroying everyone’s sleep and sanity; my daughter wanted only one kind of relief, her mother’s company and thus, would not be assuaged by my going to her; indeed, had I gone to her and tried to comfort her, she would have wailed even louder. There was no way out for her but through; and it was too, in some twisted way, a situation of her own making: had she ever indicated she would respond favorably to my cooing and rocking, I would have gone to her that night, over-riding my earlier determination to get her sleep-trained again.

It was, in short, the sort of gigantic clusterfuck that the universe seems to specialize in putting on for our benefit–just to remind us of the existence of the all too common no-win situation.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.