Friday, 12 October 2012

12/10/12 - Blank Canvas

If you gave me a set of comprehensive instructions, all of the correct component parts and the equipment necessary to carry out the task, I still don’t think there’s any way I’d be able to make a functioning human kidney. So it astonishes me that my wife managed to perform such a task from scratch, using little more than her warm, accommodating mid-section and a liberal dusting from my gentleman’s dandelion clock. And not just a sole kidney, but an entire person – knees, corneas, fingernails, alveoli, the works. It’s incredible. What’s more, she’s able to make delicious, nourishing food for the little scamp which just squirts out of her knockers, a set of cushiony delights hitherto merely enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities that have suddenly found a new life as an on-demand dairy bar. Amazing.
She’s a thorough and methodical soul, my wife, and dashed pretty to boot, so when our nipper popped out, I was most pleased to discover that the enormous drag factor of my own ham-fisted cretinousness and gargoylish features hadn’t carried through in too obvious a manner. Indeed, we were both gobsmacked to discover that we’d created something so perfect, so flawless. Still are. We’d never made a person before; we’d made Ikea shelves and cheesecakes and holiday plans, but never a functioning creature. Incredibly, we nailed it on the first attempt.

Being a dad is ace. I really like it, and maintain that the project was a Good Idea. (Just as well really – after seven months or thereabouts, she’s got a bit too big to push back in.)
The interesting thing about babies is that they don’t know anything. They’re not stupid, they just aren’t aware of such useful things as context or precedent. This is still taking me some time to wrap my head around. Every now and then while we’re hanging out together on the living room floor, as I babble on to her about nothing in particular – she’s pretty much the first person not to tell me to shut up, meaning we’re now firm friends – I’ll catch myself making some cultural reference which needs explaining, and every one of them ends up in an encyclopaedic knowledge spiral. Let’s say, for example, that I point out that one of her toys looks like Bart Simpson’s head. She’s never seen The Simpsons, so I have to explain who Bart is and what shape his head is, then give some context of the family and the show overall, then explain that it’s a cartoon and try to illustrate what a cartoon is, then move on to what television is (its history, its place in society, its place in the corner of our living room), until I discover – after quite some time – that I’m going into tedious detail about something entirely inconsequential and unrelated, and the poor little lamb is borderline comatose. Or, more likely, clawing at my eyes and bashing me in the face with a small plastic train in a desperate attempt to stop the irritating droning noise. 

The fact that she’s never seen The Simpsons is, in itself, a bit of a mindblower. We grow up communicating with our peers about the new things we’re discovering which, at school age, is a bit of an arms race – if you haven’t heard the latest single by [insert contemporary reference] then you’re shunned by your classmates; by the time you’ve reached adulthood you have many years of ingrained cultural references to call upon. Starting from scratch with a whole new person is, frankly, a bloody daunting task. Where do you start? I mean, everyone’s seen The Simpsons, it’s always on. But, of course, my teeny-tiny daughter is a blank canvas. She’s never watched The Simpsons. She’s never seen Goodfellas or Back to the Future either. She’s never heard of Justin Bieber or Arthur Scargill or Amelia Earhart or Madonna or Jesse Owens. She’s never eaten a hot dog, seen the Eiffel Tower, attempted to operate a skateboard, wound the tape back into a cassette with a pencil, got Blu-Tack under her fingernail, put tinsel on a Christmas tree, tried to wash biro ink off her hand, played Tetris, scratched the soft wood of a beer garden table with her thumb, torn a sheet of paper (deliberately), popped a balloon, jumped on a trampoline, iced a cake, fallen in the snow, hidden in a cupboard, peeled the paper from a Black Jack, scraped burnt rice from a saucepan, operated a petrol pump, spun a coin, thrown a tennis ball at a wall, or even said ‘hello’. All of these things are a total mystery. So with this yawning vacuum of knowledge and experience, where do you start? How can you impart wisdom when everything has to be explained by something else, which has to be explained by a further thing, which… we’re back to the knowledge spiral again. It’s a life’s work.

But anyway, back to the living room floor. As I’m babbling away merrily to her about everything and nothing, it may as well be white noise. Without language, all of my explanations are basically meaningless, because until she learns to process these sounds as individual nuggets of reason and logic, it’s just clusters of sounds. And I think that’s my favourite thing of all right now – the sounds that she gives back. She hears us bigger people making noises at each other and assumes that this is how people communicate, by simply making noise. ‘Waawaweewoahwoahwoah,’ she’ll say, ‘ha! Woahwoahwoahwaaa’. It’s enormously cute, and immediately disarming. And all I can do is stop banging on about carburettors or Kevin Spacey or whatever subject I’ve ambled into, and just echo the sounds back at her. Which is, of course, far more fun. Yes, her first words will be momentous, thrilling and spectacular, and will represent a massive step-change in perception and cognition, but for now I’m happy with the random noises. And the day she realises that her toys aren’t also sentient beings that may respond to the ‘woahwoahwaawoah’-ing will be a sad one indeed.

I love that she doesn’t know anything. I’m really going to enjoy helping her figure it all out. What a brilliantly weird project.

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