Bit Part

There’s nothing quite like the ringing sense of disorientation and excitement experienced the first time you’re boarding a flight with your own child in tow and you hear the ‘Now boarding families with small children announcement’ and realize that this entitlement now applies to you.

Yesterday, we returned home from our third transatlantic trip in Felix’s short life, arriving back in Berlin in a twisted heap. Our son managed to wait until a few moments after getting off the final plane to start vomiting copiously; then we arrived home to find that our car had been towed due to street work while we’d been gone. These all seem such stereotypical ‘thwarted Dad’ moments that I can hardly recognize myself as an actor in them. I feel like I ought to be practicing saying God damn it! in my best authoritarian-1950s-Dad voice, just to fit in.

It turns out that, when your car is towed in Berlin, they simply take it to the nearest parking space they can find and leave it there. Only, they won’t tell you where it is until you pay them some money. Ostensibly, if you were desperate, you could ride your bike around the neighborhood to locate it. In any case: no Gulag-like apparatus of the impound lot, etc. Très gentil!

Das Moveable Feast

Two recent sightings from opposite poles of Berlin’s cultural zeitgeist:

1. Not-So-Little Cleveland Indian

Last week, I was biking home from a basketball game in early evening and ran into this, looming over Alexanderplatz:

What? Aha, it turns out that this is art— an installation by French media artist Cyprien Gaillard, exploring the legacy and exploitation of arcane, tribal imagery in contemporary advertising culture. As icing on the cake, the installation sits on a soon-to-be-demolished former Stasi building, das Haus der Statistik. Not that Gaillard is blaming the Stasi for the exploitation of Native Americans. At least, I don’t think he is.

2. Homespun Family Circus

A few days later, we took our son to a circus in a remote place called Falkensee, which lies just outside the super-uncool, westernmost part of Berlin, Spandau. Once you get outside of Berlin’s hipness sphere-of-influence, things instantly revert to the basic hapless, redneck-y mundanity that links together all of Central Europe. Indeed, this circus experience wound up being much more of a sobering tale of family values and heartland tenacity than I had been expecting.

First, consider the poster:

It turns out that, if you run a circus and you make a poster featuring elephants and giraffes, you are not implicitly promising that there are elephants and giraffes at your circus— you are simply invoking the pleasures of the circus atmosphere in a general, non-specfic sense. In this case, there were no such exotic animals on site, and it was apparent at first glance that the whole event was going to be somewhat more small-scale than advertised:

We quickly learned that the Circus Piccolino is a family circus whose patriarch used to perform in the major, large circuses that travel around Europe but then decided to stop once he had kids. Instead, to spare his family the rigors of constant travel, he started his own weeny circus with only the members of his family, a few road-hands and one vulgarian clown whom I took to be a hired mercenary (but might possibly be a cousin). The Circus Piccolino performs only in Germany, thus allowing his daughters to keep up with school and live fairly normal lives when they are not manipulating hula-hoops for the benefit of a tent full of strangers:

The backstory of the Circus Piccolino was legitimately interesting and inspirational as a tale of adaptation to the realities of family life. Yet it also seemed to be invoked a little too often throughout the show, as an excuse for every dropped hula hoop, every repetitious act involving a lesser family member, every tawdry cut corner (‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen goats performing at a circus before,’ my wife whispered as we watched various barnyard animals jump from table to table). In the end, it started to feel like an over-share that diminished the normal suspension-of-reality that one hopes to achieve while at a circus.

The ultimate buzz-kill moment happened once the performance ended: as we filed out of the big top, you could immediately see the Family Piccolino heading towards their trailer home that was parked right next to the tent, everyone curiously out of character and already half-disrobed from their outfits. While the whole afternoon provided an education glimpse into the realities of the family circus scene, I still would have appreciated if, at the end, the principals could have humored us by dematerializing into a cloud of smoke, or exiting in some comparably romantic manner.

Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]

Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.

Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.

Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:

My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.

Hi, There!

My son is now a shade over two years old and continues to call me Hi, There!

As far as he’s concerned, this is my only name, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Even if we painstakingly recite ‘Mama… Papa… ‘ with pointing, he’ll happily repeat back, ‘Mama… Hi, There!’ Now that he’s started saying a lot more, there are combinations like ‘Buh-bye, Hi There!’ Even during moments of relative anguish, he’ll wail ‘Hiyyyyyyyy, Theeerrrrre‘ beseechingly from another room.

This has been going on long enough now that I’m forced to confront the possibility that maybe he’ll never grow out of it. I try to imagine a disaffected teenager walking into the room to ask, ‘Hey, Hi There, can I borrow the car tonight?’ or whatever.

This Week In Lego

As a parent, I feel it’s very important that my child understand and appreciate fully man’s dominion over the animal kingdom. So, over the weekend, I built this educational three-dimensional installation to help explain the concept to him:

Here’s how it works:

1. Wild animals— represented here as polar bear, elephant, and giraffe– are part of the scene, but demoted to the lowest plain, fenced in by man’s ingenuity and inanely distracted by a few plastic flowers placed in their midst.

2. Domestic animals— cat and dog– are one step closer to man’s likeness, and therefore get boosted up into ‘second place’, as it were, on the pedestal beside him.

3. At the top, exalted, and ruling over “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”, is man. Just to make it clear what his relationship is to the animals, he’s also a zoo keeper (as shown in rear view). If possible, I would have placed him in a leather overcoat, just to make the pecking order totally overt, but it seems that Lego doesn’t produce this piece.

In terms of my architectural influences, I would say I’m pretty close to Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of drawing inspiration from non-traditional forms such as pre-Columbian Mayan temples and Japanese concepts of space.

See also: Osama Bin Lego.

Personal Jesus?

My wife handed me three CDs from her teenage collection last night and asked, “Which one of these do you want our son to listen to in the car?” (She’s going nuts listening to the same album of kiddie songs over and over again, thus wants to introduce some variety). The options:

A. The Who’s Greatest Hits
B. Suzanne Vega
C. Depeche Mode

After a moment of serious reflection, I heard myself saying, “Depeche Mode. I want my one year-old son to ride around town listening to Depeche Mode.”

Paul the Octopus, and the like

Nice World Cup final. My only regret is that when Iniesta scored and the Spanish team began celebrating, the producers didn’t cut to a split-screen view of Paul the Octopus being deliriously mobbed by other octopii in recognition of his prefect record of prognostication. (Above: artist’s conception of what this might have looked like, using a still from the Japanese TV series Gimmie Gimmie Octopus.)

In other news: my wife and kid are out of town this week on another mom-and-little-tyke retreat, giving me a chance to recover from the vicious case of Dad Back ™ I contracted during the previous family-filled weekend that involved picking my kid up roughly 200 times. As of Friday evening, I was moving around like a mummy, to the point that my visiting older relatives were raptly warning me about oncoming disk problems and writing down URLs of recommended back pain therapy tip sites. Fast-forward to today, and – presto – it’s all better. (Although I’m still probably in for a world of disk problems).

For those of you without kids, I liken the situation to this: imagine that you’re going about your normal business at home, making coffee, doing Sudoku puzzles, whatever… and virtually every minute, a 30-pound bowling ball is rolling across the floor and its your job to make sure that the bowling ball doesn’t crash into anything. And so you’re constantly grabbing the bowling ball in awkward positions while also handling coffee filters and lucky Soduku pencils or whatever. Also, you have to imagine that the bowling ball is conveniently greased up and often tries to wriggle out of your grasp, and you start to get the picture.

I would tell you more, but I just back from the dentist where I received a mammoth shot of novocaine that’s starting to creep up into my brain and numb various frontal lobes. I feel like the writer in this great recent piece by Oliver Sacks who suffered a stroke and suddenly lost all ability to read but bizarrely retained the ability to write fluently. He just couldn’t read anything he wrote… weird.

The Zen of crying

This past week, our kid has gotten full-blown sick for the first time in his young life– throwing up, feverish, the whole nine yards. This has introduced us to a routine that is familiar to a great many people but thankfully new to us, the Sleepless Night With Sick Baby. Much like getting married, taking a driving test or spending a night in jail, this is one of the familiar set pieces of human experience– you’ve either heard about it, read about it, or seen Ted Danson do it enough times in sitcoms that it feels like you’re acting out a script even as you’re perhaps having a very individualized experience. The Sleepless Night With Sick Baby scenario has an extra bewildering, gothic aspect compared to these others in the sense that it erupts at sporadic intervals in the middle of the night, but the basic familiarity lingers and makes you feel as though you’re trapped inside a trope while it’s happening.

An interesting part in this bleary drama is the moment when you simply decide to let the poor kid cry, because there’s nothing you can do to help him. This is sad, obviously… but once you make the switch, there’s also weird sense of release: its like the moment of being caught in a rain storm when you eventually get so wet that you stop hurrying to get out of the rain as fast as possible and instead just accept the situation. Listening to it in the darkness last night, the sound of crying began to loose its contours and become this weird formless thing, like when you repeat a word over and over again. As a thought experiment, I tried imagining that the crying was not in fact crying but rather some challenging musical performance that I had paid good money to attend, maybe involving one of those awful, discordant one string Chinese zither instruments. I could half-imagine myself sitting in an auditorium chair, trying to take to accept the music on its own terms but nonetheless getting impatient for the concert to end.

In general, we haven’t been hit too hard by the parenting exhaustion stick… but I’ve had enough spotty nights to notice something interesting about sleep deprivation that I couldn’t have noticed before, which is that there’s a strong moral component in terms of how I experience it. If I’m underslept because of my kid, there’s no way it could have been otherwise, so there’s a feeling of non-responsibility (so sue me’) as I’m perhaps stumbling through a bad presentation at work the next day, or delivering a garbled lecture to my students, or writing an incomprehensible blog post. Interestingly, the sense of not being responsible for one’s tiredness makes it much more negligible somehow. It’s the times when I stayed up too late the night before watching the episode of the Wire where Avon and Stringer get into their fight for the fourth time– or any of the other dumb reasons I used to have for not getting enough sleep– that the sensation of tiredness feels particularly impairing–that is, when it comes with the feeling of having engineered one’s own demise.

(Photo: gratuitous-cute-kid shot taken in normal, healthy times– right now, he looks considerably more dazed, sad to say)

Total Quality Management

Felix turned six months old on Friday. As it fell on a Friday, I allowed the family a rare dress-down casual day and we celebrated with some local hemp microbrews in the conference room.

As I’ve written about many times before, I strongly believe in raising a family according to the same principles that you would use to build a successful corporation. With this in mind, it this seemed like an appropriate time to give Felix his first performance review to make sure we’re all on the same page moving forward. I’m happy to report that he met or surpassed nearly all of his expectations for Q3 and Q4 of 2009. Overall, his high performance scores indicate that he’ll be a valuable member of our “team” in the coming years. I did, however, lay out a few “growth areas” for him to work on over the next two quarters, especially regarding his erratic and sometimes tardy attendance record for our Monday morning staff meetings. I’m confident that he will be able to address these points in time for his next review.

(Sample performance review for a previous employee, no longer with the family)

My wife refused to participate in the review process, saying something about how it’s “wrong to treat a 6 month old child like an employee.” Whatever. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the occasional skepticism she’s voiced in the past about my family-as-corporation analogy. I can understand her perspective to a point, but it does disappoint me that Felix didn’t get the benefit of a full “360 degree performance review” so favored by today’s top management consultants.