Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Baby's First Groove

How come when we talk about baby milestones, we talk about their first smile, crawl, steps, words, and poop in the potty—but I haven’t heard much about baby’s first dance? Why not?  Dancing is ingrained deep in our psyche. Even if we’re completely inept and uncoordinated, some particularly hoping music will get even the most reluctant person tapping a toe, moving their head, or clapping their hands.  Sometimes we don’t even know it, driving along and some particularly funkilicious tune comes on the radio or ipod or 8-track tape or whatever you’re listening to, and you groove.  No matter who you are or where you’re from, you groove, just a little bit.  It’s no different than taking a deep breath of fresh air or biting into a particularly scrumptious piece of food.  You just do it because that’s what you do.

So why do we dance, anyway?  We’re not the only species to dance—there are all sorts of birds and fish and lizards and other mammals that do it.  Even insects.  Typically, they dance to get mates or establish dominance with other members of their species.  Sometimes, we do that too, though more often than not for the males of our species, we end up looking like a flatulating penguin keeping semi-step with the music—not particularly sexy or scary (or perhaps that’s just me?).

There are in fact, many explanations for why humans make music, appreciate music, and then move their bodies in ways that attempt to keep time with that music.  Most of these explanations involve some sort of communication.  First and foremost, communicating sexiness (or lack thereof).  Other explanations include communicating to enhance social bonds within a community and/or to ward off would-be attackers.  How else can you explain break-dancing?  If that dude can spin around on his head like that, no way I’m gonna mess with him.
But it seems like there’s more to it than just communication.  From listening to Mozart while still in the womb to listening to giant purple dinosaurs and other colorful characters singing, music is supposed to help our brains develop as we grow.  But why?  And why do we dance to that music when we’re not attracting mates or fending off enemies (or even learning to do those things)?  Why do we dance just to feel funky?

A couple of weeks ago, Jack started to show signs of getting funky.  I was driving around town, and he was in his carseat.  We were listening to ABBA, and all of a sudden he’s smiling and flailing his arms and legs.  He’s never heard ABBA, and never really seen anyone dance (at least dance well), and there he is grooving in the carseat with no prompting.  Is ABBAs ‘Dancing Queen’ some throwback to tunes we played on the savannas of Africa during the dawn of our species?  But I couldn’t be sure he was really dancing or just flailing his arms and legs around in a way that appeared randomly timed to the tune (kind of like when I dance). 

In the intervening weeks, he’s been getting more and more bold with his funkitude, and it’s become clear that this isn’t random flailing, but he’s dancing to the music.  But as I think about it, he’s never really watched us dance.  Certainly not much.  And we’ve never really tried to teach him to dance, nor has he watched any TV or videos with dancing.  So, he hears music, and just wants to dance.  Check out the video below for one of the first unquestionable grooves of Jack's from a couple days ago.
video

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve generally been able to find satisfying answers to most of my questions about why we do what we do from a scientific perspective within a few minutes of Google-ing around the internet; why we eat what we eat, and love how we love.  Even for most types of art, there are decent explanations for why we do it and appreciate it.  But music and dancing seem different.  Certainly, there’s lots of evidence about what music does for our brains, that it makes us happy, more intelligent, and the like.  But, why?  I am not yet satisfied by the explanations that exist, particularly as I observe Jack developing his own sense of funk.  Aside from communicating love and war, why are we so into music and dancing? 

Apologies for the incompleteness of this post—Jack and I have to go off to do some more research before we can reach a satisfying conclusion about the science of funkitology.  What do ya say, Jack, wanna hit the clubs tonight? 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The SAHD-vocate

Usually Americans aren’t very jealous of their Swedish cousins.  Except for a couple of weeks every four-years when the winter Olympics come around.  Then, the Swedes rule.  No one is better at cross country skiing and then stopping to shoot stuff than the Swedes (unless you’re Norwegian or Finnish).  But I’ve recently become very jealous of Sweden’s child-leave policies. You see, in Sweden, working parents are entitled to 16 months paid leave per child, so long as at least 2 of those months are used by the ‘minority’ parent (usually the dad).  So, Dads can get 2-14 months of paid leave per kid, depending on how they work it out with their spouse.   

Sure, guys can take a bit of unpaid leave in the U.S.  Six-weeks or so, depending on your state and employer.  And maybe even a bit of it could be paid with very generous employers. But most men don’t take it—either because they can’t afford it, or they don’t want to lose the momentum of their careers.  I was in the latter category.  When Jack was born it didn’t even occur to me that I should really take real time off.  I could barely keep my career on the track I wanted working 10 hour days, and I had to cut way back when Jack was born.  No way was I about to take any real leave.  That’s not to say I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. Jack’s mom and I both kept him with us all day long, while trying to maintain our work as well.  But it wasn’t quite the same.  I never turned ‘it’ off just to be with my son with nothing else to do.  And after a few months, when he was no longer happy sitting in boring meetings, we got a nanny and went back to work without him (though it was agonizing at first). 

Before Jack came into my life, I knew guys—especially from other countries with more liberal polices—who took considerable paternity leave.  I thought they were pansies.  I knew a dude from Sweden who seemed to take years off as they had kid after kid after kid.  How could you sacrifice your career for such a whiny little poop machine? 

As of this week, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) for three months.  And I think I get it now.  I think I get the value of taking paternity leave or even quitting your job to stay at home.  And not just a week or two vacation time, but some real hardcore and deep time with the baby.  And I have a new respect for SAHDs and SAHMs out there.  Seriously, this is the hardest, but most rewarding, job I’ve ever done. 

While I was still working, I always tried to be a very involved dad to Jack, and I like to think I was pretty good at it.  I held him, changed him, napped with him, played with him, etc. every second I got.  But I have to be honest, I was still never really comfortable having him all day long for several days in a row.  Now, I think I’ve got it pretty well figured out, and I can’t really imagine life any other way.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the science of love; while writing that post, I thought a lot about hormones and how they influence our behavior.  In particular, baby-cuddling and other such interactions ‘stimulate’ certain hormones (oxytocin being the main one), which express themselves as feelings of love.  The more interactions, the more love and the more comfortable you get with one another; the more addicted you get to one another.  That’s not to say I didn’t love Jack before, or that I don’t appreciate an hour or two break from him every once in awhile.  But I think being a SAHD for these past few months has fundamentally changed me even more than I was changed after Jack was born but I was still working—and I was already pretty changed then. 

In science, we sometimes talk about hysteresis, whereby a system depends not just on its current environment but on its past environment because it can exist in more than one possible state. But once you get to a state, you’re stuck there—at least until something pushes you away from that state.  There are many examples of hysteresis in physics, biology, and economics—I think love and child-rearing is another example, particularly for men.  Three months of constant barraging by these love hormones all day every day, and I’m a different person.  I can’t go back.

Although being at home has been hard because of the circumstances that got me here, I will be forever changed because of this time I’ve been home with Jack.  My brain is now officially wired differently.  If someone were to offer me a well-paying job in my field that started tomorrow, I’d take it for financial reasons; but there’d be more than a little bit of remorse in losing this precious SAHD-time Jack and I have had together.   

I really wish everyone could have the opportunity to take this sort of time with their young kids.  To put their careers on hold, but be able to jump right back in.  To be able to afford to do so financially and emotionally.  And, if you can afford to do so, I would strongly advocate it.  A week, a month, a year.  Take whatever you can.  If every dad could be a SAHD and every mom a SAHM for at least some extended period of time, I think the world would be a happier place.

P.S. As I wrote this post, I had a considerable amount of guilt for the situation in which I’ve found myself.  This is because as a result of some very unfortunate circumstances that I created, I get to spend all of this time at home with Jack and blog about us and take him on adventures (like to the playground and the Home Depot) while his beautiful and loving mother has to work extra hard to take care of both her innocent and adorable little parasite (Jack) as well as her bigger, balder, and dumber parasite (me).  I hope that some day I'll be able to make it all up to her.  Or, better yet, maybe we could move to Sweden so that both of us could spend time with him.  All we gotta do is learn to ski.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Parenting with the iPhone (may it rest in peace)


My iPhone 3GS died today at 8:35 am.  It was one month away from being 2 years old.  One minute, it was playing ‘Flashlight’ as Jack was holding it in his arms with a wide smile on his face and a groovy shake in his booty.  He was dancing and running all over the bedroom while I was putting away clothes.  Jack went into the bathroom, which is fine, he always goes in there.  Loves climbing into his mom’s shower.  Then, just as Parliament was pleading to “Help him find the funk”, the unthinkable happened.

Kersplash!

I ran to the bathroom to find the iPhone at the bottom of the toilet bowl, with Jack looking longingly inside.  You see Jack is obsessed with putting stuff inside of other stuff, and garbage cans, toilets, and any other open object have become the receptacle for his stuff. 

With reckless abandon, I thrust my hands deep into the toilet water and grabbed the phone.  It was still sputtering…much softer now.

 “Now I lay me down to sleep, I guess I’ll go count the sheep, Oh but I will never dance”.

And those were the last words I heard from that sweet sweet smartphone. 

I rushed downstairs, took it out of its case, and helplessly tried to push the button.  Nothing.  I tried to plug it in, and the little apple came on, ever so faintly.  If the little apple came on, maybe it’ll be OK, right?  Then it went blank. 

In pure desperation, I grabbed a blow-dryer and the tool box and went down to the basement.  How in the heck do you open those things anyway?  Just as a doctor has to break a few ribs to get to the heart when someone is in cardiac arrest, I cracked open that case as best I could, turned the blow-dryer on cool, and let it run in a hopeless and vain attempt to resurrect it. 

Three hours on blow-dryer life support, and still no signs of life.  Jack woke up from his morning nap, I threw him in the car with a handful of Cheerios to stave his hunger, and we tore off to the Apple store at the mall. 

“What happened”, they asked, as I showed them the mangled phone which was now missing a volume and on button as a result of my heroic life-saving attempts.  I pointed to Jack and muttered something about the toilet, trying to hold back my tears.  They laughed, but said it was pretty much useless. I guess the iPhone 3GS was so old that it has a do not resuscitate (DNR) order. 

All day, I’ve been reminiscing about that phone.  Having flashbacks.  I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about it, and how it was single-handedly the best tool we’ve had for raising Jack this past year.  In fact, I kept notes of posts I wanted to write right on the iPhone for quick access when the thought occurred to me.
Here’s a list of the things I remember most about the iPhone and Jack:
  • The background picture I had on my phone, with all the apps in the foreground, was Jack’s beautiful mom smiling while sitting on a volcanic black sand beach in Hawaii.  She was glowing, having been pregnant with Jack for a little over a month; at that point, life was perfect.
  • During Jack’s pre-natal development, every Sunday morning, Jack’s mom and I would read about his development on ‘What to Expect’s pregnancy tracker app’.  We’d read about what organs were developing, what fruit he was the size of that week (an olive, peach, melon), and other fun facts.  It was one of the highlights of our week.  Then we'd take a picture of her growing belly with the iPhone to add to the album.
  • In the delivery room, just as Jack emerged all covered in goo and was whisked over to get weighed and measured, I wiped out my iPhone and snapped some pictures.
  • Throughout the early months of Jack’s life, we were pretty much permanently attached to him.  He slept on us, ate on us, peed on us, you name it.  Without that iPhone, I’d have gone insane.  Playing Angry Birds for hours on end, doing email, surfing the web, reading, whatever. 
  • Jack was terrible in the car seat.  He hated it so much, that even a 20 minute drive was an eternity.  The only thing that helped was YouTube videos of Baby Einstein played on the iPhone
  • Every picture and video I’ve taken of Jack from the time he was born ‘til this morning was taken on my iPhone.  I can text/email them to grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and whomever in seconds flat so that it seems like we’re not so far away.  For his 1 year birthday I made a slideshow of all of the pictures and a collage video of all of the videos, and it was awesome.
  • When traveling or otherwise on the go, we use a ‘baby monitor’ app so that you can place one iPhone next to Jack while he’s sleeping and it’ll call another phone when he wakes up.  (disclaimer, this does not mean you can go out for dinner and drinks).
  • Google on the iPhone is consulted for every issue, every malady, every question about the baby
  • The iPhone GPS gets us to every playground in a 5 mile radius or pretty much anywhere else we have to go.
I left the store with a new iPhone 3GS for $50. The clerk tried to get me to upgrade to an iPhone 4, and I could have even waited for the 5 to come out.  But, I loved that 3GS so much; it carried with it so many memories of this early part of Jack’s life. So, I've decided that I’m going to put the new one in the same case as the old one, download the backup onto it, and pretend this morning never happened… 

Except that Jack no long gets to play with the iPhone while we’re grooving to Parliament.



Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Population Bomb?

Sure, we can use cloth instead of disposable diapers.  We can avoid using bottled water.  We can walk or bike instead of drive, and buy hybrid or electric cars when we do have to drive.  We can eat organic foods low on the food chain, install low flow showers and regulate our toilet flushing behavior (if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down).  Sure, we can think, act, and live ‘green’.  But, the bottom-line is that, at least according to most staunch environmentalists (myself included), no matter how much we curb our own wasteful activities, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and human overpopulation is the primary cause!  (By the way, what in the hell is a hand-basket anyway?)

Thomas Malthus first told us of the impending doom that would arise from the unbridled growth of the human species in the 1700s. The core of Malthus’ idea was that there was some carrying capacity to our species.  There’s only so much corn and potatoes and rice and wheat and beef and pork and chicken and apples and oranges and carrots and peanut butter and butternut squash and M&Ms and beans and fish and chips (for you UK readers), and well you get the picture-- out there in the world.  Once we have so many people that we’re eating all of the food that we can produce--not to mention use all of our fossil fuels, clear all of our forests, and use all of the silicon out there for our laptops, iPads, and Game Boys--we’re full.  We’re at carrying capacity, and we can’t add another person onto the planet without causing severe hardships for others.  Malthus’ ideas were revolutionary, and provided the foundation for understanding how populations of species are regulated; they even gave Darwin the fundamental insight he needed to derive his initial theories of evolution by natural selection.  Malthus is often championed as a hero in the environmental movement. 

Turns out that Malthus wasn’t quite the environmental hero that I always imagined.  He was kind of a creepy dude who used his ideas, which were fundamentally sound, to push a rather dark agenda, not the least of which led to the brutal starvation of thousands of Irish during the Irish Potato famine.  They had to starve, you see, because we humans had exceeded our carrying capacity, and all would suffer if they were given aid.  Sound familiar?  It should. Very similar reasoning has been used to justify such lovely parts of our human past as Eugenics and the genocide in Rwanda, among others. 

Fast forward a couple hundred years, and one of my personal heros, Paul Ehrlich, a butterfly ecologist, and his wife Anne, wrote an impassioned plea for people to stop having so many kids in the ‘Population Bomb’, making a series of stark predictions that helped  to spark the environmental movement of the 1970s .  While very influential, and certainly not as dark as their Malthusian predecessors, the Ehrlich predictions also were criticized for a series of errors in calculation, primarily because their predicted disasters, famine, and pestilence never came true.

In all of these cases, the biggest error people have made in their gloomy predictions was in assuming that carrying capacity did not change.  The industrial revolution occurred just after Malthus and the green revolution just after Ehrlich.  Human ingenuity is always increasing our carrying capacity, our ability to extract and create resources, and all the while increasing our own standard of living and longevity (for the most part). 

So, why the heck am I droning on and on about overpopulation and environmental problems?  This blog is supposed to be about a wonderful little baby named Jack, and me, his SAHD, trying to figure out just what life is all about.  Right?  Shut up already, and show us some cute videos or pictures, or at least talk about the baby.  Well, I’ll tell you why I’m droning on and on about populations. It’s because Jack’s a year old now, and I'm starting to think I could do this again.  I could have another baby.  We love Jack so much.  He’s getting more and more fun.  He’s walking now, he’s interacting and playing and pulling out the computer cord when he wants me to pay attention to him rather than whatever I’m working on. He's even started to dance a little bit (stay tuned for a post about that as soon as I can capture his funkiness on video).  But, both his mom and I have started to talk about how much we miss the helpless little baby he used to be.  We miss his smushed face and fat legs.  We miss cuddling with him while he slept.  We even miss the spit-up and the sleepless nights—well, maybe not that much, but seriously, these love/parenting hormones are powerful powerful things.

Maybe it’s not an accident that siblings in the U.S. are on average 2.5 years apart.  Sometime between the first and second year of a child’s life, the parents decide to go for it all over again.  Of course, sometimes it’s not necessarily a decision but an accident, and sometimes religion and/or culture certainly play a role on the intervals between kids and the number of kids.  Monty Python’s take on this issue can be seen below in one of the all-time best musical satires ever.



I’ve said before that I was pretty reluctant to have kids.  I just didn’t think I could squeeze it into my already full life of doing nothing but science.  I justified this because there were already too many people in the world.  And, after Jack was born, I was pretty certain he was all I wanted.  I could barely manage my life and my career was taking a huge hit. Not to mention how much our carbon footprint skyrocketed by bringing a new life into this world. That’s it, that’s all I want…no more kids.  Who needs siblings anyway?  Older ones at least.  They are better than you at everything you try to do, sports, school, girls; they hold you down and threatened to spit on your face; they steal your parents love and affection.  Only children can grow up just fine.  They can learn social skills and sharing and such without having that sibling dynamic.  Right?   

Or at least, that’s what I thought until about 3 months ago.  Now I think we have this kid thing figured out. Now I’m addicted to giving and receiving unconditional love. Now I could totally do this again.  In reality, we might not have more kids for a variety of reasons, but I’m totally up for it, and in fact, really want it.  And in doing so, I guess I’ll increase my carbon footprint even more, and leave this planet more in the shitter than it already is, right? 

Well, maybe not.  Maybe we can be a bit more optimistic.  I have to be honest, I’ve always been rather pessimistic about our species, about its impact on this planet, and about our future.  But now that I can see the world through Jack’s eyes, I’m starting to think about the world pretty differently.  I think Jack, and maybe even a younger sister or brother, will live long and happy lives. They’ll see things that we can’t even imagine now, but it’s still worth bringing them into this world.  Life is a gift and even though there are many more lives on this planet now than there ever have been before, there’s reason for optimism.  In fact, the growth rate of the human population is declining, having peaked in the 1960s.  There’s an interesting new book that Jack’s mom turned me onto that discusses the possibility—even likelihood—of our population declining in numbers very soon (The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce).  Europe is already seeing these trends, and in Singapore, people (especially women) are working and enjoying their lives so much that their birth rates are drastically low; so low, that the government has initiated their own matchmaking service to get people to hook up and make some more babies (so romantic!).  Of course, with fewer young people overall, the economy and society as a whole suffers as us old farts continue to age and suck off the proverbial teat of the younger generation. 

So, what’s this mean?  Should we all go out there and have more babies?  Should we counter the declining trend?  Who knows? This is tough stuff at the interface of sustainability, demography, economy, agriculture, sociology and politics—way beyond my comprehension to derive a simple answer.  At least until I get myself another double espresso.  But it’s a much more complicated problem then Malthus or Ehrlich thought, and certainly much more complicated than I ever thought before Jack entered my life and I realized that having kids wasn’t evil planet-killing behavior, but rather the expression of our love, the living of our lives to their fullest, and the passing on of a bit of who we are to the future world. 

Maybe someday Jack will have a little brother or sister to play with, to spit upon, and/or to watch over and protect.  Or maybe he won’t.  But regardless, I no longer feel guilty about bringing a child (or children) into this world, and hope that Jack, along with the approximately 130 million other kids on this planet who are 1 year old, figure out how to live happy, healthy, and prosperous lives without driving this planet to hell in a hand-basket.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Science of Love

Dude, I need a fix of vasopressin. I’m tripping on this prolactin, give me another hit.  Man that oxytocin was awesome, but now I’ve got the munchies…where are the Cheetos?  I’m completely addicted to those drugs….the drugs of love.  Yep, as the immortal words of Robert Palmer, along with a bunch of scary looking women with slicked-back hair, told me in 1986:

Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff,
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love.


I was 16 then, and I didn’t really know what love was.  Yes, I loved my family, but they were always there and around so I didn’t really know it was an addiction.  Sure, I’m addicted to Oxygen too, but it’s just a part of life, and they’ll always be there for me.  No, I didn’t really start to know what love was until Jack’s mom came into my life over a decade after Robert Palmer spoke (sung) those immortal words.  I’m not talking about the initial stages of love—those are great stages induced by testosterone and estrogen (Stage 1. Lust) or dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin (Stage 2. Attraction).  No, I’m talking about that deep love that the scientists call ‘Stage 3. Attachment’, but you and I call it real love. The love that makes you want  to be together forever.  In sickness and in health.  The love that makes you want to be with that person all of the time. That person is a part of you and you are a part of them.  You suffer when they suffer.  You’re happy when they’re happy.  You want them to achieve the best they can, no matter what, and you miss them when they’re gone.  Addiction.  Well, the neuroendocrinologists tell us it’s an addiction to oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin.  Not very romantic, huh?

“Do you take this woman to be your wife, to cuddle with in order to stimulate oxytocin and to take care of your offspring in order to pass your genes onto the next generation?”

“I do.”

So, what about love for your children?  When a child is born, love is instantaneous.  Of course, the mother has been awash with hormones for 9 months, and so perhaps that’s not too surprising.  And, it turns out Dads are also building hormone levels during this time, and losing their testosterone  (so that’s the reason I’m growing breasts).  All preparing to help this pooping and crying helpless little creature make it in this crazy world.  Two parts oxytocin, a sprinkle of vasopressin, a dash of prolactin…blend, heat at 98.6 degrees for 9 months, and instant love. Serves 2.  In fact, recent studies suggest that the increasing proportion of fathers in the birthing room, and the resulting hormones they get from that experience, have increased their overall participation in the child-rearing process (but there’s obviously a chicken and egg problem here).  Yep, notice that those same hormones I talked about above, especially good old oxytocin, are there.  The love you have for your spouse is stimulated by the same hormones that stimulate the love you have for your baby. 

But as men, why do we love our spouses and children so much?  Doesn’t evolutionary theory suggest we should go out there and spread our seed as far and wide as possible?  Have as many offspring as we can?  Yes, there’s a certain drive to do that among many species, and even in some human cultures.  But think about it.  How hard is it to raise a child by yourself?  Many many people do it, and do a wonderful job--and I have so much respect for those people.  But most need a hand from family, from daycare, from a babysitter, from someone.  Heck, sometimes we need two people just to get Jack dressed and fed in the morning.

Human babies are among the most helpless, for the longest period of time, of any species in the animal kingdom.  I mean, seriously, if we let Jack out on his own right now, in about 5 minutes he’d be running around in a busy street with a bunch of wood chips in his mouth and a pair of scissors in his hands (and yes, he’s done each of these on several occasions, just not all at the same time).  The only reason we’ve all made it through life as far as we have is because of our parents and the other folks who kept us out of trouble for many years.  In evolutionary speak, if we want our genes to make it to the next generation, so that they can procreate themselves, we have to protect them.  And, right now, half of my genes are inside of a tiny human who’s more adorable than I can say (see picture to the right), but is as stupid as he is helpless, and I have to protect him.  I have to cuddle with him.  I have to be with him and love him all of the time. 

Oxytocin is just a stimulant to help me accomplish what I need to accomplish as a father and husband, just like caffeine is a stimulant to help me accomplish pretty much anything that has to do with using my brain.  But unlike caffeine, which I can get anytime I need from the espresso machine, I get my oxytocin from touch, from cuddling, and from being near my loved ones. 

I’ve always loved Jack, from the second he was born (and before).  But after doing a bit of research on the chemistry of love, I think I have a bit of a better understanding of my feelings.  According to some statistics, fathers in the U.S. spent on average ~15 minutes a day with their children in 1975.  Seriously, 15 minutes?  I spend that much time every day wiping Jack’s butt (if I haven’t mentioned it, he poops a lot).  In 1995, it was more like 2 hours a day.  I’m not sure what the numbers are today, or where these numbers came from--they are a bit hard to believe--but I would suspect that on average, fathers are spending much more time with their kids now.  And what this means is that they’re stimulating more of those powerful love drugs and becoming more addicted to being with their families; it’s a positive feedback. For me, I think the fact that we co-slept with Jack for the first several months of his life, and I carried him around in the Baby Bjorn all of the time really got my oxytocin going.  Now that I’m a stay-at-home dad, I spend at least 90% of his awake time with him (sadly, he no longer wants to nap on top of me), and my addiction is through the roof.

In pragmatic terms, evolutionary biologists talk about ‘kin selection’.  We want to help those around us who share our genes in order to help those genes make it on to the next generation.  Many of our social behaviors, including feelings of love, can be explained by this principle.  When talking of kin selection, the evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, famously said he’d lay down his life for 2 brothers or 8 cousins, referring to the fact that we, on average, share 50% of our genes with our siblings and 12.5% with our cousins.  

While the principles of kin selection might be relevant on average, over thousands of generations and millions of people, who really acts like this on a day-to-day basis?  When I first learned the principles of kin selection and other arguments about human behavior, I remember getting into late night arguments with friends about altruism. There was no such thing as true altruism, I thought.  Everyone wants something in return for their actions.  Mother Teresa?  Nope, not even her, I argued.  But I think I was wrong.  These hormones that we are so addicted to have us so madly in love with our spouses, with our children, with our families, that we’d do things that anyone doing the math of genetics would say do not make sense. These hormones betray our genes.

The human species needs cooperation.  For raising babies, for getting food and making shelter, and for creating this fall’s line-up of reality TV shows and sitcoms.  So it makes sense that love has evolved deep in our psyche.  To have our attachment to our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins.  To have us so hopelessly intertwined and in love with our spouse that we stick around to help raise the children.  To have us raise our own children, and to protect them at all costs.

But the expression of love doesn’t always make logical sense.  We can’t titer our hormones to say “my child shares 50% of my genes, so I’ll love him 50% as much as I love myself”.  This is the kind of love we often call ‘unconditional’.  Unconditional love doesn’t seem to make sense evolutionarily.  It is something bigger and broader than that.  Maybe it’s the expression of our hormones out of control, or maybe it’s something beyond the constraints of genetics and neuroendocronology.  Maybe unconditional love is the stuff of faith, inspiration, and belief in some higher power.  And when we have it, and we have it good, we get addicted to it.  We want to be with that person, we want to help that person, we want to right any wrongs that we have done, we’ll do anything we can do to keep that love going and are terrified to lose it.  We need that fix because it’s the very essence of who we are.

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to love……

….now where are those damn Cheetos?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Separation Anxiety

There are probably at least 325,947 blog posts about remembering 9/11 today, on the 10th anniversary of that terrible day.  It’s pretty much what everyone in the U.S.  is thinking about today (and countless others throughout the world). And certainly millions more tweets, facebook posts, and other social media outlets are taking up extra bandwidth today for people to acknowledge a day that really did transform our day-to-day consciousness.  Of course, these venues didn’t even exist on 9/11, which seems like an eternity ago. Heck, I didn’t even have a cell phone then. So I apologize for being a bit redundant, and I promise this post is really about Jack and me and fatherhood and all that sappy stuff I’ve been writing about for the past month or so. 

Jack was not even in my sub-sub-sub-sub conscience on 9/11.  Babies were not in my plan to be the best scientist ever.  However, 10 years later, the tragedy that happened then makes me realize how profound having a child is, and how devastating that day must have been for thousands and thousands of people who lost their children and other loved ones, whether they were 1 or 41.  I was working that day…because, well, I worked every day.  I didn’t even know about the attacks until mid-afternoon because I was working at home, engrossed in some sort of science which was everything to me then, but now seems rather trivial.  When I found out, I became glued to the TV, watching 24 h solid of CNN just like everyone else. Whatever it was I was working on was neglected for a few days.  But it was more surreal than real.  Terrible, yes. Terrifying, yes.  But I didn’t really know anyone who was directly affected by the attacks. So I don’t think I internalized it as much as perhaps I should have. The tragedy felt by so many people by having lost loved-ones, children, parents. 

No more Swiss Army knives being taken onto planes, no more seeing people off and picking them up at the gate, and always having to take my damn laptop out of its case.  These were the things that most affected me in the wake of 9/11.  In fact, a week after 9/11, I went to a travel agent (this was in the dark ages, before Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, Priceline, etc) to book a ticket to Sweden for a work trip. The travel agent stared at me through glassy eyes, obviously not having seen a soul in her office since the tragedy; she looked at me incredulously when I told her what I needed. No one was buying airplane tickets right now. Sure, we’re at war. Sure, air travel is a bit scarier. But heck, I’ve got to get to Sweden—their economy might collapse and the world would follow if I don’t give a couple of seminars about my research on pond scum, meet with a bunch of graduate students over beer (at Noon!), and eat their god-awful food (I still have nightmares about the Moose-blood sausage and Reindeer Heart they made me eat).

So, fast forward 10 years, and here I am.  A stay-at-home dad who’s life has become completely transformed by a 1-year old.  Mind you, he’s the best 1-year old that ever stepped foot on this planet, but still.  What would the 31 year-old me think of the 41-year old me?  He’d have thought I was a washed-up has-been who’s thrown away his career for absolutely idiotic reasons (which is true) and now has nothing better to do than while away the time chasing after a wobbly toddler who loves grabbing for the knives in the dishwasher (which is also true, but it’s been so much more awesome than I ever imagined). 

I think today I’m more deeply affected by thinking about the tragedy that happened on 9/11 than I was at the time.  Not that I wasn’t horrified by what happened.  I was.  But, it wasn’t focused, it wasn’t specific, I didn’t have any direct connection to those events. 

There is a possibility that I might have to be separated from Jack for awhile soon. I’m not sure how likely that possibility is, but it’s possible.  And, I sob every time I think about it. But he’s healthy, he’s happy, and he’s fine.  Now that I have Jack, now that I’m so completely in love with him, and now that there’s a chance I might have to be apart from him for a while, I think I have a teeny-tiny bit of a better idea of what those who survived loved ones in the 9/11 tragedy must have gone through.  Or frankly, any other tragedy where a loved one is lost. 

I know that what I’m dealing with is nothing compared to what they had to deal with, but I think I’ve figured out what falling so deeply in love with your spouse and children does to your basic anatomy and physiology.  But like most scientific truths, Dr. Suess figured it out long ago.  Remember when the Grinch’s heart grew 3 sizes?  I know the cardiologists out there will deny it, but I think that’s what happens when you fall so deeply in love with your spouse and when you have a child.  You don’t just fill up your old heart with love—your heart grows and you fill that up too.  And when something tragic happens, it has that much more profound of an effect on you.

Jack has made me realize how important family is.  Not just parents and offspring, but all family.  We live far away from our families. Now, I love my family, but honestly, the distance never really bothered me that much.  I was too busy with work to hang with them anyway, so what’s it matter?  I no longer feel that way.  I wish we could see my parents more than a few times a year and they could really get to know Jack.  I wish my brothers and aunts were just in the next town over and we could have dinner or watch a football game together.  I wish Jack could really get to know his cousins.

So, here I am, crying as I type. 10 years after one of the most profound and tragic events in my adult life, thinking about my loving family, my amazing wife, my wonderful baby.  Hoping that we can all be together forever.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Guest Post: Raising a child to be a global citizen

Today, I have a guest post over on Tired Mum of Two's Blog over in Britain.  But I've copied it below for posterity (and because I like the post).


My first guest blog! An American on a British blog. Let me start warm up with some US-UK translation. Analyze (=Analyse), Color (=Colour), Lou (=bathroom, restroom, etc), flat (=apartment). Quick question: Why don’t you spell it bloug? Ok, now that’s covered, I think we’re ready to go!

What to write about on a guest blog? My little boy Jack (1-year old) and I have only been doing this blogging thing for a month or so now, since I’ve been staying home with him. And I have to say that although he’s the inspiration for much of what we write about, Jack’s not very helpful with the actual writing. His grammar’s off, and he has no sense of structure. His main contributions to the blog are grabbing the wireless mouse, unplugging the computer, and typing various combinations of aehfao;ehg;ahg jahsjdfhasd . So, when we sat down this morning to brainstorm about what to write in this guest blog, you can imagine that his input was not quite of equal contribution. Here’s what he wanted to say…”da da da da da da da mumumummumumumumum…pppppppbbbbbbsssssttt”. So, I told him I’d find a way to work it in. There ya go Jack.

But, I digress. When Tired-Mummy (that’s Mommy for any U.S. readers out there…really don’t know why all the extra U’s) asked me if I’d be interested in doing a guest blog, I thought it’d be fun to think about raising a child to be an international citizen. This world is changing so rapidly, melding of cultures, of languages, of food, of religion. Jack’s mom and I never really travelled outside of the country when we were growing up. And Chinese food was pretty much the only ethnic food we were exposed to (unless you count Italian). And we’re not even talking real Chinese food. You know the stuff they bring around on the Dim Sum cart and when they come by our table, and you ask what it is and they just look at you, shake their head and say “not for you”. Turns out Americans don’t usually like turtle and chicken-feet for Sunday brunch. No, this was Americanized Chinese food. Deep-fried General Tsao’s chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, and the like.

When Jack’s mom and I grew up and became scientists, we were exposed us to many great new international things. Food: Sushi, Thai, Ethiopian. Travel: to other countries for work and having foreign-people travel to the U.S. to work with us. Culture: Even cultures as similar as the US vs. UK have a great many differences—more so than just your fetish for extra U’s and your aversion to the letter z (=zed), let alone the differences among non-western cultures.

The world in which Jack is going to be an adult is going to be a very different one than it is right now and very very different from when we grew up. Like it or not, we’re becoming a more and more homogenized planet. It’s easy to see this happening in the U.S. You could be in the deserts of Arizona, the Mountains of Colorado, the plains of Nebraska, or the urbanized east coast. But 90% of what you see looks exactly the same. Green lawns of grass all cut to ½ an inch, houses built just a few years ago that all look the same and are the same shade of Taupe; Home Depot and Lowe’s to buy your home improvement stuff; Target and Walmart to buy everything else; TGI Fridays and Applebees for dinner. Seriously, it’s all becoming the same. And it’s spreading. I was on Crete last winter—pretty much as deep into the Mediterranean sea as you can go before you hit Africa. I was at a conference, looking for a really strong Greek Coffee (you know, the stuff that’s more grounds than liquid) to get me through an afternoon of very boring talks. Asked someone on the street where I could get a good coffee, and speaking very little English, he pointed me to the Starbucks across the street. Ugh.

We’re simultaneously becoming a more diverse international community—More types of people, more types of food, more types of culture and language in any one place—and a less diverse one—Starbucks and MacDonald’s on every corner, English being taught to kids in grammar school in most countries across the world. It might be argued that the increased connectivity in our society has on occasion caused increasing conflict. And one of the unintentional consequences of increasing the connectivity among cultures and languages and such is that some of those are lost as we move towards a homogenous global society (some languages and dialects are going extinct just like animals and plants do). However, I am hopeful that the increased internationalization of our society will ultimately decrease conflict. Humans are innately tribal. We support individuals that are part of our tribe, and sometimes fight with individuals that are parts of other tribes. As the global community becomes more and more interconnected, perhaps the differences that we see amongst one another will no longer seem like differences. If we’re exposed to those differences from early childhood, we can all become part of the same global tribe.

The children of today, our little Jack, Tired Mummy’s little Elizabeth and Alison, and all the other little kids out there are going to have to navigate this world in a way that we have never had to navigate it before. We want Jack to be exposed to diverse languages; we want him to be exposed to diverse foods; we want him to be exposed to diverse cultures and people. We believe that exposure at an early age will enable him to be a better global citizen in a world which will undoubtedly be a very different place than what it is today. And, maybe someday when we’re all at Dim Sum on a Sunday morning, he can speak Chinese to the servers, and we’ll finally get them to serve us that fried turtle—just to see if we like it.
Jack’s Dad (with a little help from Jack)

Read the original post here.