Priceless moments

Maybe people are like the tai chi diagram, one half light and one half dark, but the problem is that the dark side seems to be all there from the beginning, whereas the light side has to be gradually constructed over time. This is why babies tend to be more polarizing than Reagonomics, although few people would openly admit to disliking them. I think when confronted with this mucousy little being screaming its bloody head off in front of you, with the implicit demand that you read its mind and give it whatever it is that it wants, you can really only either be attracted through the nurturing instinct…or repelled. In my first grade music class I remember watching a film that informed us that the babies in some African village or other don’t cry, but I don’t believe it, not unless they were doping them up like the gypsy beggars in the metro do, and it seems to me that, directed as it was at six-year-olds, the message was probably mostly either wistfulness or accusation, although at this remove I can’t really recall which.

And I don’t really know how you go from repulsion to nurturing attraction, though I have a feeling it generally has something to do with a certain rather precise and immediate process known as “becoming a parent.” Although in fact from what I can tell it’s much easier to idolatrize babies and parenthood when you’re not in the throes of this condition of being a 24 on-call nurse yourself. For example, yesterday I got full six hours of joy sitting next to two parents with a baby and toddler on a plane (well, next to the mom and behind the dad). The mother spent half the trip just quietly hissing curses at the father. I, in the full path of the screaming and constantly getting pawed by the baby, kind of like the reverse of a Catholic priest and altar boy, was thinking occasional homicidal thoughts but still got satisfying mental applause for keeping an eye on the baby and catching it when the mother fell asleep and almost let it fall on the floor. Then there was the flight attendant, one of those over-dramatizers who made a big show of pulling me aside like a doctor consulting the family about someone’s terminal illness to ask me gravely if I would give up my window seat to the mom, who, because there weren’t enough oxygen masks for them to all sit together, had become “separated from her family” by a whole one row of seats, as if this were exile to Siberia or something. And since he only had to listen to them once every half an hour he was constantly beaming at them like he was witnessing the Beatific Vision. Voilà the mythologization of parenthood in two airplane seats worth of distance.

Evolutionary psychologists inform us that our liking for small, fuzzy animals is just a proxy for an evolutionarily beneficial fondness for babies. But generally I find small, fuzzy animals to be cuter than babies, probably because animals don’t usually demand demand demand like babies do (and if they do, what do you know, they stop being cute pretty quickly). So they offer a chance for the free exercise of generosity in a way that babies don’t, and as Rousseau noted, altruism quickly becomes onerous when it stops being freely given and becomes a mere obligation, though whether this had anything to do with his abandoning his own children to the orphanage and popularizing laissez-faire parenting is unclear. Because babies are like bananas: although bananas are not bad in their own right, when you combine their flavor with anything else, like when you get a bit of water on cloth shoes, it soaks right through and the whole thing just tastes like bananas. So you might like babies, but, like slime-covered little emperors, they will quickly seize and dominate any other situation or activity where they are present and turn it into a veneration of themselves. It’s the Napoleonic Principle: the smaller they are, the more they tyrannize.

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