the poison and the remedy

Posted by jdg | Friday, February 24, 2006 | , ,

Every day it seems like we watch the world form itself anew in her eyes. Synapses crackle, patterns emerge. Cresting Lone Mountain the other night on our way home from the Haight, the fullish moon emerges from its spot low on the eastern horizon and she is in the crook of my arm, pointing at the moon between some blunt apartments and St. Ignatius, and she says "ball" in a voice that is startlingly sure of itself.

That's right Juniper, it is a ball. So is the circle I draw in the condensation obscuring our favorite window every morning when we look out onto the quiet street. Just like the globe on the shelf at the coffee shop, and the stemless cherries in the last book we read before I let you turn off the light at night. Sometimes you see a ball when we're out walking somewhere, and I can't tell what you're talking about, your eyes filled with whole worlds I cannot see, though you still find words to define patterns; describe memories; create metaphors.

The barbaric yawps of your infancy have given way to words. No longer content to passively howl, begging for warmth and attention, you are finally able to control your world a little by naming the things you know. You coyly grin when you say something that makes sense, seeking acknowledgement and hugs.

The Greeks had a word for those who could not speak Greek: βαρβαρος (barbaros). It is often said the ancients listened to the languages of other tribes dragging their wares for trade from beyond the Caucuses and could discern little but the sound "bar bar." It came to mean "foreigner" to the Greeks, and came to us later as barbarian. But it all boils down to the Proto-Indo-European root "ba ba," a word "imitative of unarticulated speech," and also the root of our word baby. And babble. The Greeks were snobs. They believed anyone who didn't use their alphabet spoke like an infant. A word itself that comes down to us from the Latin infans, which means "incapable of speech."

Roman Jakobson once wrote that the sounds all babies first make to form words across all cultures arise from nursing, which is often "accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother's breast or to feeding bottle and the mouth is full." With time, that phonation is repeated and expanded as a manifestation of any desire. I think that makes sense considering the frustrating early declarations and demands that Juniper articulated as mmm-mmm-mmmms and nnn-nnn-nns. But now we are in new territory; Juniper has officially moved even beyond the bilabial plosive. Desire does not fully explain the tangible pride she gets from expressive speech, which seems to me less driven by desire than by self realization. Juniper has recently learned the word, "eye" and I can't help but wonder about its homonyms, both for affirmation and identity.

New words fall neatly into place in her burgeoning lexicon almost every day. Light. Hi. Bubble. Nouns make way for prepositions (up) which she also manages to use as an adverb, an adjective, and an imperative verb. "Up!" she barks at 6:40 a.m., seated between Wood and I in bed, banging her tiny fists against our bellies. "Up!" she orders, with her hands reaching into the air. "Up!" she exclaims when we climb stairs. Before we bring her to our bed, we hear her in her crib talking to herself, running through the list of words she knows like a college sophomore before a French quiz. She wakes to muted daylight and the desire to speak.

It is so exciting to watch Juniper brush aside the confusion and chaos of infancy. What a responsibility we have, in teaching her to communicate, in helping her to overcome frustration and express her desires, emotions, fears, and hopes. After so many months of speculating, I can't explain the joy that speech provides as a window into her untapped little mind.

But it is terribly frightening also. It is easy to gauge the progress of her expressive speech, but her receptive comprehension is more elusive. What does she understand about what we say? When Wood and I argue and she watches us, how much of the timbre and strange levity in my voice does she pick up as anger? Sometimes we'll say a word that sounds like frog and she'll dart her tongue out rapidly like we have taught her to do. If we say horse she bucks her body like a redneck on a mechanical bull. What an awesome responsibility it is, suddenly, to speak.

She is still very young, and there is so far to go. And yet the limits of her speech also show just how much she knows. The moon is a ball. The sun is a light. She sometimes calls our window dada because it is through that glass we wave goodbye each morning, over and over until I've crossed the street and disappeared, and it is through that glass that she watches, waiting for me to walk home from work in the evening, waving to her as I approach.

I love the San Francisco bus system, known as MUNI. When we no longer live here, I think I will miss MUNI more than anything else about the city. A lot of people complain about MUNI for breaking down all the time or being smelly, but I love it. MUNI really serves everyone from the homeless to the high-powered stock broker who doesn't see any sense paying $28 for a day's parking down in the financial district. If you have a MUNI pass, you don't need a car in this city. MUNI is to San Francisco what the subway is to Manhattan: essential for getting around on the cheap. And you know I'm cheap.

To me, there is no greater bus to exemplify all that is wonderful about MUNI than the 38 Geary. I've heard that it is the most heavily-used bus line on the planet. A bus comes every 5-7 minutes. It goes all the way from Land's End at the western tip of the city to the TransBay terminal at the heart of the financial district. So it goes through Russian and Chinese neighborhoods, the Fillmore, Japantown, the Tenderloin, and Union Square. Along the way it picks up some unusual characters. There's an Asian dude on it all the time who wears knit caps with holes that allow two very prominent antennae to pop out from the top of his head. They are technically his hair, but they look as stiff as pipe-cleaners. The day Alito was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, I heard the following very-typical MUNI conversation between two elderly black homeless ladies on the 38 Geary:

"I would want a range rover if I had a car."

"Girl, don't you know a land rover is much better than a range rover?"

"What'you talking about? Range rovers are better than land rovers."

I stop listening for a few moments, then I hear:

"Girl, you don't know what a filibuster is? That's when they just keep on talking and talking and talking so no one gets to vote."

I really wish I knew how they got from the Range Rover/Land Rover debate to a discussion of democratic cowardice on the Senate floor. But I'm sure it was very MUNI.

One of the greatest features of the 38 Geary is the bus itself. It is extra-long, and the middle of the bus bends like an accordion around corners. And you can stand in the bendy part! It's almost as cool as that place where you can stand in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all that the same time. The front of the bus is on Market Street while the back is on O'Farrell. Pretty cool. Wood and I love to take Juniper on the 38 Geary, so I made her this t-shirt where a photo I took of the bus goes across the middle, but at the accordion part it bends on the body:
Just throw this shirt on with some orange baby legs and set her down in front of some orange-colored graffiti. That's a recipe for a color-coordinated hipster baby right there. I am trying to teach this kid the word "bus" so that whenever she sees one she yells "bus" the same time she yells "ball!" everytime she sees something round or yells, "da da!" everytime she sees her mother. She can say, "up," "ready," "ball," "bubble," "apple," but even though I have repeated the word bus in her ear a thousand times while strangers look at me like I'm nuts, she still won't say it. So I'm going to dress her in bus clothes until she gets it right.

Remember, a custom-designed (by me) hipster baby t-shirt is one of the prizes in the First Annual Sweet Juniper Weird Search Hit Contest, which ends Monday night. There are already some hilarious entries there, so check them out if you haven't already.

When Jonathan Swift was 32 years old, he jotted down a list of resolutions that he entitled "When I come to be old." I copied these resolutions from a book when I was young, typed them out and have kept them above my desk ever since:

When I come to be old, I swear. . .

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep
young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fea
r of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me which of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

When I was a serious 19-year old scholar at Trinity College in Dublin, I spent hours trudging through the cavernous archives of the old library, searching through the ancient tomes and blowing dust off manuscripts by the light of a candle held aloft, quaffing mightily from a flagon of port and wiping its essence from my lips with my shirtsleeves. While in such nocturnal study, I once stumbled upon a small collection of books that were originally from the personal library of Dean Swift, and while thumbing through a leather-bound copy of the Elegiae of Propertius, out fell the handwritten draft of Swift's earlier resolutions, herebefore unknown, written in 1686 when he was just 19 years old. I now present them to you, dear readers:

When I come to be twenty-nine, I swear. . .

Never trust
a Fop in a powdered Wig or a Dandy with a tightly-cropped Head. I swear I shall manage these locks in the style of Henry Purcell for as long as I shall live.

Not to enter some field of Employment that I do not enjoy, purely fo
r the sake of half a Guinea in my Pocket.

Not to be driven too slowley in my equipage, nor own any but the sporteyest

Not fail to attend the Balls and Revelryes on Saturday Eve, nor miss any meeting of the Royal Stag Society, by reason of falling asleep at an early hour.

Not to forget that it is better for a Belly to burst than good Liquor be lost.

Not to retire to my own lodging from the exotick entertainements of the chocolate cofee-gaminghouses, the drawing-rooms, ale-houses, operas, levees, or the balum rancum &c.

Not to complain of the young lads at Oxford and Cambridge, or say they do nothing but drink ale and smoke tobacco.

Not to marry at all, but instead be a Batchelor all my Life and enjoy a diversity of Bunters and Doxies without the yoke of marital Bondage.

Not to dock in any Harlot without protecting my Thomas with a Cundum for fear of the curse of Venus or worse: a chit.

Not to get any short-heeled wench pregnant, for fear of a malingering chit howling for a wet-nurse and disrupting my study and pleasure with his babbling and paw paw tricks and his mouth full of pap.

But if I do sire a babe, not to hire a French tutor or any other wretched Pedagogue to teach him Latin or Greek, nor refuse to allow him to play with other boys, nor be wet in his feet, nor daub his clothes, nor allow him to spend too long poring on his Book, because he is subject to sore eyes, and of a weakley Constitution.

If I do end up with a suckling before I am thirty, I vow never, never, never to make him the subject of my writing,
or bore others with tales of his soiled pantaloons as if he were the omphalos of the Galaxey.


Tomorrow is my twenty-ninth birthday. At least I've still got my hair.