Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bro!

Today is my brother's birthday. And though I'm going to call him and everything, I thought I'd use this little piece of the Internets to mark the occasion in an Internets kind of way. What's gotten to be a long time ago, he and I had this tradition of sending our parents to bed and watching the movie The Sure Thing. I don't know how many times we've seen it, but I still know most of the dialogue by heart. (With a cast including the likes of John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Anthony Edwards, Matthew Modine, Tim Robbins, and with Rob Reiner directing, it holds up pretty well considering.)

I don't see my brother as much as I'd like, and we haven't watched The Sure Thing — together anyway — for ages. And it might be a little while until we get to see it again.

In the meantime, I offer a little nostalgia courtesy of YouTube, complete with VHS look and feel:

Happy Birthday, Bro: I'm talking to you cordless.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It starts early

Today I came across a study by Genyue Fu and Kang Lee, nicely titled "Social Grooming in the Kindergarten: The Emergence of Flattery Behavior." (Read an abstract of their paper here, if you like.) In their study, they asked children between ages 3 and 6 to rate drawings by classmates, and both unknown and known adults, including their teachers. Kids ranked drawings both when the artist was present and when absent. Fu and Lee found that the youngest children ranked drawings the same regardless of whether the artist was present or absent, child or adult, known or unknown. Three-year-olds will, in other words, tell you straight up that your drawing is no good no matter who you are. (My own anecdotal evidence supports this finding, for what it's worth.)

By the time children reach age five or six, however, ratings differ dramatically according to whether the artist is present and known. (They tend to flatter children and adults equally, though.) Fu and Lee's four-year-olds proved to be a mixed group — with some inflating ratings when artists were present, some not — and they conclude that age four might be the transitional point where flattery and other "ingratiating behaviors" (as they're known in the literature) begin to emerge. They also point out that children tended to flatter those they know, "suggesting preschoolers' emerging sensitivity to social contexts in which flattery behavior is best deployed" (p. 263). (Interestingly — and unexpectedly, in my opinion — they don't at this point show a tendency to flatter adults over their peers or even their teachers over other adults. I would have thought they'd be good at working us known adults over in particular, given what we can give them if talked to just right.)

This study leapt up at me mainly because we've seen a little emergence of social forces lately with The Boy. His teachers encourage parents to visit class to discuss what they like, and my wife volunteered to give a little presentation about Vietnamese (Lunar) New Year. She's going to bring traditional treats, read books about Tết, and pass out red envelopes hiding little gifts. Q gets to go, too, and my wife asked both Q and The Boy whether they wanted to wear their áo dài, or traditional Vietnamese outfits. Q jumped at the chance, but The Boy hedged despite usually loving to look like a prince in the blue silk. After a little prodding, he explained that his friends at school could look at Q and see what he would look like if he wore his own. However much we flattered him, he wouldn't come around to wearing one with his sister.

This isn't an instance of emerging flattery but rather its opposite. My wife and I believe that he worries about the social impact of looking so different in front of his peers and teachers (note his reference to what his friends would see). With sensitivity to social context — borne out in the emergence of flattery at about his age — comes the constant curse of awkwardness and the threat of ridicule that basically no one ends up avoiding entirely. On a more positive note, I'd like to think that this kind of sensitivity also makes room for children to be, well, sensitive towards others — to consider the feelings of those they interact with and judge. Perhaps that attitude is overly optimistic, but it's a pleasant enough thought to linger on, and I'd like to think I can see the rise of this kind of empathy in him.

In any event, I suppose, here comes junior high.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It's a Brand New Year — eventually

My wife recently had a weekday with the kids, just a few days into 2008. On the way to drop off The Boy at school, Q interjected, "Mom, I think we forgot something — my backpack." My wife apologized for the oversight but didn't think much more about it; Q often wants to bring a backpack to The Boy's school just like he does, usually with a blanket and Purple Rabbit (or some other stuffed buddy) ensconced within.

A little later at the door of The Boy's classroom, Q took off her coat, calmly handed it to my wife, and then started after her brother into class. When my wife pulled her back out, Q was confused: "You said I get to go to school next year. Isn't it next year now?" (She really does talk like this. Honest.)

Q does have a point. It is in fact next year, so to speak, and we will send her to school, so to speak, in 2008. (She's ready, obviously.) She will turn 3 and The Boy 5. He will graduate to Real School, which is to say kindergarten. We will have and attend many parties. We will craft costumes for Halloween. We will give thanks and eat too much, probably more than once. We will make and cross off lists for Christmas. My wife and I will get achingly closer to forty and no doubt come to know our bones better.

All of this will likely happen. Eventually.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, a favorite author of mine who writes the exquisite "Rural Life" series for the New York Times, catches the New Year's moment like this:
There is something deeply gratifying about joining the horses in their pasture a few minutes before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. What makes the night exceptional, in their eyes and mine, is my presence among them, not the lapsing of an old year.

It’s worth standing out in the snow just to savor the anticlimax of midnight, just to acknowledge that out of the tens of millions of species on this planet, only one bothers to celebrate not the passing of time, but the way it has chosen to mark the passing of time. I remember the resolutions I made when I was younger. I find myself thinking that one way to describe nature is a realm where resolutions have no meaning.

It’s not that time isn’t passing or that the night doesn’t show it. The stars are wheeling around Polaris, and the sugar maples that frame the pasture are laying down another cellular increment in their annual rings. The geese stir in the poultry yard. A hemlock sheds its snow. No two nights are ever the same.

I always wonder what it would be like to belong to a species — just for a while — that isn’t so busy indexing its life, that lives wholly within the single long strand of its being. I will never have even an idea of what that’s like.

I know because when I stand among the horses tonight, I will feel a change once midnight has come. Some need will have vanished, and I will walk back to the house — lights burning, smoke coming from the wood stove — as if something had been accomplished, some episode closed.
I think he's right that as a species — our minds designed to track and explain — we can't help but make passings into passages. Language has even taken to remembering such things for us, as when we call the markers of growth milestones, after an old means of measuring distance traveled.

Still, I don't feel the pull of the New Year like I used to. I've abandoned resolutions and callings. These days I like January 1 because we're always all together all day, wherever it falls in the week. And in any event, since kids have been in the house they've become the calendar we chart by, the determiners of rhythm. If anything, my wife and I represent something like the "single long strand of being" Klinkenborg mentions; birthdays and school and far-off family and nearly everything else can't come fast enough for Q and The Boy. We embody an age that they can't quite grasp right now, reminding them that things take time, as they probably should.

I've got this Swiss Railway Watch, made by the same company that supplies all the train stations over there with the hyper-accurate and hyper-beautiful clocks. Its date dial runs to 39 before it flips over by itself, and I woke up on New Year's Day to it reading 32. It may — for that reason alone — be the most accurate timepiece I've ever owned.

Happy New Year.

(I knew I'd get around to wishing that eventually.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Please Stand By ...

It's been a little while since I've up a post. Work, the holidays, guests, weather, and other excuse-level events. And it turns out that though we've managed to live without a car for going on fourteen years, we're definitely a Two Computer Family. And our laptop finally went under.

Once we get ourselves fixed up with another machine, I'll be back to work on this site, for better or worse. (Perhaps we'll even pick up one of those ultraportable Macs that everyone's chatting about.)