On Ugly Babies

Tonight, I came face-to-face with something no one really wants to talk about: ugly babies.

Our national lexicon for babies is swaddled with words like precious, snuggly, and awwwww. When we see babies, we coo, we twist our faces into expressions nowhere else employed, we seemingly regress in the presence of their indomitable cuteness. But, from time to time, we find ourselves in the presence of a baby that defies those conventions, a baby that, most certainly, even mothers have to strain to love.

And, so, there he was, bounding on someone’s knee, staring over a shoulder right at me. The Gerber baby was not worried about job security, and, as I munched on my sweet potato fries, I pondered the little chap in front of me. In fairness to him, he did have a face that one grows into. How I know that is a mystery, it’s just one of those instincts, like not eating rocks or hugging crocodiles. You just know. I’m sure the little tike will grow into a handsome man. Maybe he’s the next George Clooney, but, for now, he’s an ugly baby.

Being cute is, clearly, the number one rule for being a baby, but it’s not the only one. For example, a baby must also do adorable things like giggle, wear most of its food on its face, and fall asleep in your arms like a precious angel. This is what we think of, this is the baby job description. We must be genetically hard-wired to focus on these things, for, if anyone focused on the projectile vomit, sleepless nights, relentless crying, and hazmat-level dirty diapers, the human race would have said its goodbyes long ago.

Our penchant for focusing on the positive isn’t limited to babies. For most of us, we selectively recall the good moments, the big moments in our different phases of life, and the mind-numbingly boring or hard or painful stuff fades to the recesses of our minds. Now, we certainly remember and are shaped by tragedy and difficulty — life isn’t all cuddly babies and lollipops, but, when we consider having a child, or moving, or starting a new relationship, or even buying a new car, we tend not to focus on what could go wrong, on all the work necessary. Rather, we daydream in the romance of it all. The postcard moments. How it will all be just so wonderful. And that’s really all well and good, because life shouldn’t be all antiseptic spreadsheets and math. Everyone has to have some art, some music, some poetry to move them along.

And, so, in the face of this white-washing of life’s inconveniences, we encounter real consternation when reality vexes our idealized life — when the new car suddenly breaks down, when the new house is infested with mice, when the new job sucks too. And when the baby isn’t cute. We should be grateful for those moments, though. Until it gets real, you can’t get about the task of really loving it, really embracing it, really owning it. When you spend your time in the clouds dreaming about perfection and things being “just so,” you cheat yourself of appreciating what you have, of discovering hidden beauty and meaning in imperfection, and, most importantly, of understanding that, all too often, the things we want are neither real nor what we really need.

On Being A Good Little Boy

I can remember it like it was yesterday: sitting on the floor, listening to my second grade teacher, Ms. Dossett, read the class a story. I was wearing gray pants. I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to disturb her, and I didn’t want to disturb the class. I sat and listened to the story, and, perhaps at some dramatic point in the tale, I made the decision that peeing my pants was a better option than disturbing everyone.

Flash forward two years, and my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Bodkin, was in front of the class explaining a worksheet we were to complete. For reasons lost to me, I wasn’t paying attention. When the worksheet was passed out, I was overwhelmed by the realization that I didn’t know how to complete the assignment. I panicked, feigning illness, and had my dad come pick me up at school. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he knew something was up and quickly took me back to school.

To say I was a jumble of nerves as a young kid is probably an understatement. I nervously chewed on my shirtsleeves. I hated the first days of school, often crying because I missed my parents. Who knows why I was so nervous? I’m sure, like most things, it was multifactorial, but I am pretty sure about one factor. It was a factor that stayed with me even once I tamed my anxiety and learned that I could ask to go to the bathroom. From elementary school to middle school to high school, I was a good little boy.

As I got a little older, I excelled in school and, more importantly to my inner self, I excelled at being perfect. Or, well, some version of close to perfect. I behaved. I got perfect grades. I never missed school. I won awards. I didn’t make bad decisions. And, if you were older than me, you loved me. Teachers loved me. Church ladies loved me. Band directors loved me. Bosses loved me. I craved the affirmation, and I worked hard to earn it.

There’s a theory that young gay men will strive to be perfect to gain the acceptance from others that they know would be withheld from them if the truth was known. I don’t know about that, but I was young, gay, and loved excelling, getting perfect grades, and receiving attention for being just the best darn little boy there ever was. I’m sure my parents would quibble about my perfection, but, hey, it’s my blog entry.

As is surely apparent, the problem with being the best little boy in the world is that who you are is dictated by others’ expectations. You do things to get grades or win, not because you’re actually interested. You repress your feelings because, to admit when you’re sad or angry or hurt would make you not the best little boy in the world, and that’s the worst outcome possible. You evade, misdirect, dissemble, pretend — all in the pursuit of acceptance, compliments, and affirmations. Who you are becomes who you think others want you to be.

I still fight the impulses to always be right, to always be the best, to always be up and happy, to always be unobtrusive and comforting, to seek the affirmation of it all. Certainly going to college helped in that regard. I was not only surrounded by people as smart and smarter than I was,  but I also started to learn how to be honest with myself, about myself. To be the real me. I’m still a work in progress, as we all are. I’m sure I’m not unique in that, but I’m fairly certain that my dial to be the best little boy in the world was tuned a lot higher than most other kids’. But, hey, if I’m wrong about that, I can handle it now.

On the First Scuff

They say the first cut is the deepest, but that’s not quite right, is it? It’s the first scuff that’s the deepest.

Last week, I notice the first scuffs on our new car. A year old, I knew it was inevitable, but, still, as I rounded the corner in the garage, my heart skipped a beat when I saw the scuffs over the rear driver-side wheel. I didn’t run into anything, so I can only surmise a rock hit the car. The damage is minimal, and you wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out, but, still, I know. My wonderful, beautiful new car, well, it’s not ruined, but it felt that way for a moment.

We’ve all been there. If not with a car, after buying a great new pair of shoes. They look so clean and snazzy on your feet. The gleaming white, the spotless sole, the vibrant colors. And, then, after a trudge through the mall food court, you spot the black streak down the corner of the toe box. In that moment, something inside you dies.

Your love is never the same, is it? The funny thing is, it’s something of a relief when the first bump, the first scratch, the first scuff happens. You can finally exhale, no longer protecting its flawlessness. You can relax. It’s as if you achieve a healthy equilibrium, a healthy perspective on something that is, ultimately, not important. But, until that first scuff, all bets are off on rationality. We are the guardians of the unblemished.

We treat people the same way. As parents, we protect children from any and all harms. We know it’s a losing battle, but that doesn’t stop us from going above and beyond (and beyond that) to insulate little Timmy from all the ills of the world, physical, mental, and emotional. As neurotic as we are at keeping our kids unblemished, we oddly value adults that have been around the block a few times. That have a few scuffs and scrapes. We call it life experience. Wisdom.

I’ve never considered my shoes or car wise, but I have noticed that, once broken in, once stripped of the veneer of perfection, I actually enjoy them more. These things wear into a level of comfort, of ease that brings me happiness and satisfaction. You learn the feel of the car, and you love the feel of the shoe. Not perfect, but just right.

It’s a good reminder that, sometimes, the mistakes people make, the flaws they exhibit, well, that’s just their journey to wisdom. Their journey to being, feeling, and doing good.