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Monday, March 28, 2011

I Am the Real Life Lois Lane

Intended in the most modest, strictly observational of ways, I used to be a fairly attractive person, and I frequently had men attempt to hit on me. Not only have I had my fair share of free drinks at bars, but for a while during my attractive phase (thank you, child-production for abruptly booting me out of that era), it was often common for men to strike up conversations with me practically anywhere. I'm not trying to brag or gloat, but this is important to know as background for this story. Really, I promise. But I was pretty hot...

So one day, about halfway through my senior year of high school, my dad was returning from a business trip, and he'd asked me to pick him up at the airport. I was probably wearing some tight-fitting, revealing outfit (I was 18, after all), and while I stood in the terminal waiting (this was pre-9/11, when we could go up to the gates, still), I noticed several men trying to sneak looks at me as they passed. I didn't think anything of it, because, like I said, I was fairly used to getting the attentions of gentlemen. I looked away casually, not trying to actively draw anyone's attention (believe it or not, I actually had really low self-esteem, and it made me nervous for men to approach me and talk to me - thank you, anxiety disorder).

My dad's flight finally landed, and people started to make their way past me, out of the gate. I kept glancing down the jetway, scanning the faces for my dad. Suddenly, a middle-aged man caught my eye. I didn't know him, so I looked away quickly, embarrassed to have made eye contact with him. After a few seconds, I looked back down the jetway, searching for my dad, again. The man was closer now, and still staring right at me. Smiling. I awkwardly turned my head away again quickly. He wasn't unattractive, at first glance, but it was making me feel slightly uncomfortable. I wished my dad would hurry up.

As the man got closer and closer to me, I kept my head turned away, so as to not encourage his attention. I tried to briefly scan the crowd in the hopes my dad would be in view and save me from any interaction with this man who was still smiling, still staring right at me, and almost close enough to engage in conversation. I mentally willed my dad to appear immediately in front of me.

Before I knew it, the man was right next to me. I looked past him, down the jetway, feeling the panic starting to set in, and my dad was still nowhere in sight. I refused to turn my head to face the inevitable - the man had stopped right next to me.

"Hi, Laura," he said.

How could he possibly know me?! I'd never seen this man before in my life. My heart was beating through my chest. I took one last pleading glance down the jetway, swallowed hard, and turned to face my evident stalker.

"Oh... hi, Dad." The strange man, the one I'd never seen before, was, in fact, my father. The man who had given me life and lived with me for the entire 18 years of my life. But I didn't recognize him as he got off the plane, simply because he'd shaved off his beard.

Now I know what you're thinking: a beard can be a very identifying characteristic. It's not entirely unreasonable to not recognize someone, even a familiar someone, without the beard they'd had for as long as you've known them. And while that may be true, it should also be noted that my dad had shaved his beard off several weeks before, and I'd lived with him for at least two full beardless weeks.

Why wasn't I able to recognize my own dad?

Have you ever watched or read any Superman movies, shows, or comic books and wondered how it was possible that Lois Lane didn't realize that Clark Kent was, in fact, none other than Superman? Other than the glasses and the suit, he looks exactly the same. But she was fooled every time. How could it be that removing a simple pair of glasses made it impossible for Lois to recognize the love of her life?

Simple. She suffered from a bizarre disorder, known as prosopagnosia, or "face blindness." In this regard, I also believe I have a strong commonality with Lois, aside from our insatiable lust for men in skin-tight blue spandex, in that I, evidently, also suffer from a mild case of prosopagnosia.

For the most part, this doesn't disrupt my life too greatly, except in a few key aspects.

Meeting people in public places. In combination with my anxiety disorder, this incredibly simple act of human interaction is practically a nightmare for me. I dread meeting people for fear I won't recognize them. Consequently, I try to plan the meeting down to the most specific details, so that I'll be able to find the person, based solely on the exact location (three steps to the left of the due north side of the fountain) and time (precisely 7:34pm). If I'm still unsure, I resort to my fool-proof method of smiling in an inviting, friendly manner at everyone, in the hopes that the person I'm meeting will think I recognized them and approach me first. So far, this method hasn't let me down.

If I've ever met you in a public place, and you're now concerned that I wouldn't have known who you were (in spite of our being friends for many years), rest assured that, after the successful meeting, I've always felt confident that I would, in fact, have recognized you, after all.

Watching movies. This hasn't proven to be overly frustrating for me, but, unfortunately, I can't say the same for my poor husband. He, more often than not, has to pause the movie to explain who main characters are, even 3/4ths of the way through the movie (especially if they, God forbid, change clothes). If there are two blond, white women in a film, even if they look nothing alike and are over 30 years apart, I have no hope of distinguishing them. This has made watching WWII movies extremely difficult. Put all the characters in uniforms with short, dark hair, and I can't help but wonder why that one German guy keeps getting killed, coming back to life, and shooting at himself in an American uniform. It just doesn't seem like a very well-written movie, in my opinion...

Meeting my husband in a public place after he gets finished with work. This is basically a combination of the first two situations. Mix the dreaded fear of meeting people in public with the inability to distinguish men in uniform (Husband is in the Army), and I'm hopeless. I rely on two characteristics to get me through this (assuming he's too far away to read his name tape). First is his individual gait. Luckily, I learned early in our relationship that my husband has a somewhat particular gait. I've gotten quite good at distinguishing it from all other men in uniforms'. The second telling trait is his mustache. Thankfully, not too many soldiers have small, black mustaches. However, if you put my husband next to five other soldiers in uniform, all with black mustaches, I might have a serious problem.

"Hi, honey! So good to see you. Hey, when did you become a Staff Sergeant? ...And why did you change your last name to 'Thompson?' Oh well, I know it must be you because you're in an Army uniform and you have a small, black mustache. Give me a big kiss, and let's go home."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Babies Are Stupid: The Miracle of Life

Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment for anyone. I've been babysitting and nannying since I was around 11 years old (for other people's kids, not just my little brother), so I'd spent a good amount of time with kids of all ages for many years before I became a parent. I thought I had a good idea of what real parenthood would be like. I didn't even have a clue. There is nothing that can really prepare you for being the sole provider to a completely vulnerable and utterly incompetent newborn human. Of all the major adjustments I had to undergo in my process of becoming a decent mother, I think the most surprising was the realization that I was responsible for teaching this little blob of screaming flesh everything it had to learn. Everything. When I sat back and starting really thinking about it, I became overwhelmed at the things you have to teach a baby. Holding this fragile little life in my arms - knowing its survival, its successes and failures, its understanding of the world and life in its entirety, EVERYTHING - was in my hands, I realized, babies are really stupid.

I think it's safe to assume that most everyone knows you have to teach babies the basic things. Language, walking, how to pee and poop in a toilet, sarcasm, manners, basic hygiene like washing our bodies and brushing our teeth, how to drive a car, etc. Parents look forward to teaching their kids certain things, like throwing a ball, riding a bike, swimming. We spend hours every week teaching our preschoolers the alphabet, colors, and numbers, so they can learn to read and count and function in society. We know that becoming a parent also means becoming a life-long teacher, showing our kids how to do the things we learned from our own parents, like checking the oil in the car, cleaning out a refrigerator, doing laundry, mowing the lawn - things they'll need to know someday so they can have stable homes and lives, and eventually teach their own kids. Since I'm a relatively new mom, I haven't spent the years teaching my children all the things yet to come, but it's truly astounding how much I've already had to teach my kids. When you sit back and really think about the things kids must be taught, it's kind of astounding that our species has survived at all.

Most babies are born knowing how to eat - sucking is an inherent instinct. But get this - some babies don't even know how to do this. That's right. You could give birth to a screaming flesh-blob that can't even do this most basic life function. Breastfeeding isn't as natural as the general public would have you believe. There are multiple products out there that help babies learn how to latch on correctly (be it to a real or synthetic nipple), because this is a common enough issue that people can make money off it. Lactation consultants, breastfeeding product companies, and all the dozens of different bottle companies making their dozens of different style nipples, all with one purpose - teaching your little idiot how to eat. In nature, when things are born and they can't eat, they die. Natural selection would have it so things that are too stupid to know how to do this at birth don't survive long enough to reproduce. But not humans! We've defeated natural selection. Take that, Nature!

Once your baby has mastered eating, you face the next big educational obstacle: teaching them how to sleep. Some babies are born as really good sleepers. They already know the difference between day and night, and they have no problem sleeping for 9-12 hours overnight, right off the bat. But don't get your hopes up, because that won't be your baby. Brace yourself for having a baby like mine. My two year old didn't sleep for 6 consecutive hours until he was 14 months old. I spent countless hours reading half a dozen books from "sleep experts," teaching me how to teach my son how to sleep. We tried at least 4 different methods. My five month old daughter will only sleep in an infant bouncer seat, and rarely sleeps longer than 45 min at a stretch, even overnight. I'm dreading the day I have to start trying to train her to sleep flat on a bed, much less for longer than an hour.

So you've taught your baby how to eat and how to sleep, and now she's six months old, and ready to start eating solid foods. Back to square one on teaching her how to eat. Because eating solid food is also not an inherent skill, you have to buy a plethora of "learning" utensils, plates, and bowls, and teach your baby how to use each of these. Starting with a mush of "cereal" that is effectively just thickened formula or milk, you have to work a baby up to eating actual solids, teaching them how to chew and swallow without choking. You have to teach them how to drink from a cup, too. There's a whole series of "learning" cups on the market so you can teach them in stages, from bottle (or boob) all the way up to drinking out of a normal cup like a grown-up in a civilized society.

When I started out as a new mom with my son, I didn't realize any of this wasn't just instinct. It was a real struggle for me to learn how to teach all of this and have the patience to do it correctly. But I knew being a parent wouldn't be easy, so I didn't mind (too much), spending hours upon hours every day, working with my son so he could learn to sleep in a bed or swallow some mush. But as the months passed, I stumbled upon some other weird things that babies don't know how to do and, consequently, have to be taught. I'll share a few of the ones that really stand out in my mind (mostly because I had to learn how to teach each of these - not an easy feat by itself, let alone then translating it into toddler to teach my son).

How to wear shoes. Ant learned how to walk around 9 months. He got really good at it, really quickly, so he wanted to try it outside. I had a pair of shoes for him, so I put them on. He turned into a cat in slippers, froze, started crying, then fell over. I went through three pairs of shoes before I found some that were soft-soled enough for him to learn to stand in them, then we had to gradually move to harder soles, and eventually to actual shoes.

How to wear clothes. At first, babies just wear clothes because you put them in them. But then they start to have opinions about their bodies, and, sometimes, they don't want to wear clothes. You also have to teach them how to take off their clothes. Then you have to teach them when it's appropriate to take off their clothes, and when it is absolutely not appropriate. We're still working with Ant on wearing shoes during Church and pants in Walmart (though sometimes I get the feeling I'm in the minority trying to teach this one).

Holding hands. This one was really surprising to me. We spent an entire day at SeaWorld, fighting over walking and holding hands vs being carried against his will. I had to continually negotiate with him: "you can walk by yourself, IF you hold my hand. Otherwise, I have to carry you." We'd take two steps holding hands, and he'd dramatically hurl himself onto the ground in a fit of rage, while the people behind us had to stumble around to keep from tripping over us. It took about 4 hours, but eventually, he learned how to do it without a rage-attack.

Regulating emotions. We're still working on this one (I think most people have to work on this one their entire lives), but it's much more pronounced with a toddler. First, you have to teach them the names for emotions. Then you have to be consistent, every single day, with how to handle each emotion. We use "time out" solely as a means to control emotions - frustration and anger, mostly - that get out of hand. Babies and children don't know how to "self-soothe." Learning that is a central key to many of life's secrets, including sleeping and functioning in a normal society.

Not getting yourself killed. This is another one of those life-long struggles for most of us. It starts with things like not rolling off a tall bed and landing on your head, or not running into the street and getting run over, or not just walking off the tall platforms on playgrounds. Surprisingly, babies have absolutely no survival instinct when it comes to things like this. Squirrels are terrified of loud trucks barreling down on them. But human babies? They'll just sit there and be smooshed.

The list goes on and on. Learning how to sit upright, then sitting in a high chair, stroller, booster seat, shopping cart, etc. How to open things - all things - doors, cabinets, lids, bins. How to go up stairs. How to stay upright in water (including the bathtub). How to turn lights on and off (at one point, we taught Ant that he could turn lights on and off by stomping his foot on the ground while we secretly hit the switch whenever he did it - that led to a world of disappointment when we weren't ready and standing at the light switch when he decided the lights should be on one day). How to stand still and wait for mom or dad (which is closely related to "how to not get run over by that big, loud truck barreling down on you).

The real miracle of life isn't the evolution of humankind, the way we're conceived, our gestation process, and the fact that we're born into this world as little replicas of our parents. No, the real miracle of life is that our parents are patient enough to teach us how to do absolutely everything so that we can eventually grow up to be somewhat functional humans, spawn our own babies, and start the cycle all over again. It's truly a miracle that, as a species, we have tricked ourselves into thinking it's normal to dedicate at least 18 years of our own life to teaching children what it took our own parents 18+ years to teach us - and that we're entirely okay with this process. If our parents abandoned us as infants, the way many other species do, we would most certainly no longer be on the top of the food chain. We're far, far too stupid for that.