Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Seussian Threshold

One of the gifts my little guy received upon turning 2, from my Little Bro, was the book Happy Birthday to You, by Dr. Seuss. Projecting my own personal knowledge and worldview outward, I’m going to go ahead and assume this is one of the good doctor’s lesser-known works, because I hadn’t really heard of it before. It certainly hasn’t caught on as a default perfect-to-the-occasion gift the way that Oh The Places You’ll Go has, and it isn’t instantly recognizable (even if you didn’t personally own them as a child) in the mold of The Sneetches or The Lorax. On the plus side, no one’s made an execrable live-action movie out of Happy Birthday To You such as the ones detrimental to the legacies of The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch.

Seriously, the Birthday Bird should be at least as beloved as Sam I Am
So it’s this weird little semi-forgotten artifact from fairly early in Seuss’s career (I know that should probably be Geisel’s career, but I don’t care) and it has some classic motifs that make it unmistakably of a kind with its better known brethren, while at the same time it has some strange vestigial traits that I think we’re all glad Seuss gave up on sooner than later. (To make the scansion of some of the couplets work, rather than come up with a better phrasing or even play with invented words, Seuss adds extra syllables to existing words, so Palace becomes Pal-alace and Association becomes Associ-Eye-Ay-Shun. Weird.) But it’s a happy, goofy whirlwind tour of an idealized little kid birthday wonderland where the entire day is wall-to-wall feasts, rides, expensive gifts which happen to be exotic pets, music, spectacle, and being tucked into bed at the end of it all, exhausted from nearly twenty-four hours of being the center of attention.

Which, perhaps minus the exotic-pets-as-gifts part, is a fairly accurate description of our little guy’s birthday. He really did love being the center of attention, and since he’s an only child and only grandchild, we let him milk it for all it was worth. He frequently requests that we sing songs with him – “Sing Itsy Itsy Spider?” “Sing A-B-C?” – and he started working “Happy Birthday” into the rotation about a week before the actual day, and during each rendition he would make overt and deliberate gestures in the form of pointing at his own chest when we would get to the third line where someone’s name gets mentioned, lest we forget to whom the musical paean was being addressed. On his real and true birthday we probably command-performed the birthday song nineteen times and he ate it up every single time.

Unsurprisingly, then, he looooooved the Happy Birthday To You book and asked for it at bedtime Saturday night, Sunday at naptime, Sunday night, Monday at naptime, Monday night … The thing is, it’s a fairly longish book and reading through the whole thing is a major time commitment, so some of those read-throughs got truncated versions (which fortunately we can still get away with). After lights out Monday night, I took Happy Birthday To You out of the little guy’s room and tucked it away on a shelf in my closet, before it could become a part of the bedtime ritual more integral than Ken-Ken the stuffed lion or the Cookie Monster toothbrush. Because, ok now, enough's enough.

Maybe the book will magically appear again in time for someone’s third birthday. It’s not a terrible book by any stretch (admittedly I am an easy mark for Seuss’s particular brand of giddy whimsy, but still) but my wife and I continue to navigate by gut feeling the waters of All Things In Moderation and as such think that allowing a child to be a tiny benevolent tyrant for a few days on either side of their birthday is probably fine, but a line has to be drawn somewhere to get back to normal once it’s no longer their birthday. And 2 is not an age at which subtle distinctions can be drawn, so better for the book to be out of sight and out of mind. But, again, it’s a good book, and what my initial encapsulation failed to reveal was that, interspersed amongst the descriptions of gourmet delicacies (like hot dogs on a spool!) and dancing, spelling herrings, the story includes taking several moments on the occasion of one’s birthday to revel in selfhood. The feted child in the book is told “No one in the world is more you-er than you” and exhorted to shout from the mountaintops “I am I!” Which, ideally, is something people should be happy enough about to say out loud, and by the time we got to Monday night or so the little guy had absorbed the gist just enough to yell “I am I!” along with his mother as she read that part, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t fill my heart with warm, melty goo of paternal pride.

There’s a certain (arguably unremarkable for my generational cohort) amount of self-loathing that my wife and I have been dealing with all our lives, separately at first and now together, which means that we both still grapple with internal struggles against excessive tearing down of ourselves but we also look at each other and scratch our heads and say “Why would you ever tear yourself down when you’re so unimpeachably wonderful?” (that is, when we’re not looking at ourselves and scratching our heads and then turning to each other and saying “Why in the world are you with me?”) and all of that is not exactly what I’m trying to address here and now so of course I’m hyper-oversimplifying to fit it into a minor tangent but the point is that man oh man it sure would be nice if we could somehow manage to help our son sidestep that particular mental minefield. So there’s a constant impetus to impart and reinforce these ideas in our child that he is really quite a nifty kid and more than good enough, deserving of our love, worthy of our respect, and on and on and on. If a book underscores the point, well then booyah.

But, but! Always a but. There’s forever the fear of overcompensating, isn’t there? Ideally we would like to raise a son who is satisfied with himself but not supremely self-satisfied, because the last thing the world needs is one more smug dickhead taking up space. So that’s really the tricky part, where we find ourselves saying yes, of course, it’s a good thing to read a book that tells our little guy he’s super special and entitled to anything and everything his crazy little heart might desire, but let’s not get carried away and read it to him every single day. Which is still more than a little strange, because it’s such a cerebral way of looking at an unknowable hypothetical future, and it’s in constant direct conflict with the visceral urge to just give everything and do everything for my biological progeny because … just because. Of course, you could argue, saying no sometimes and modeling the world in such a way that it does not revolve around your child is doing something positive for them, since it sets boundaries and manages expectations and all that, and that’s not an argument I’m inclined to tilt against. Although I will say that I think people can take that too far as well and basically behave as selfish and lazy morons who won’t lift a finger for their own children because, hey, life sucks and you gotta toughen up to make it out there, kid. And I do take exception to that, just so you know, just in case I ever encounter that particular strawman out there in the flesh (or the hay, as it were).

Of course the real test of how well (or not) we’ve handled the post-birthday comedown will be Christmas when there will once again be much feting and feasting (and quite possibly wassailing) and presents aplenty to unwrap … but some of the presents will be for people other than the little guy. Thankfully we have a few more months to prepare for that.

(Continuing tradition of talking about Christmas almost immediately after the conclusion of someone’s birthday … check!)

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