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Measuring Up

Today’s theme is “measuring up”.

Part I: Physically measuring up

Simon had his one year check-up Wednesday. The vital stats are:

  • Height, 29 ½ inches, putting him in the 40th percentile (so not a basketball player)
  • Weight, 20 pounds, 2 ounces, putting him in the 15th percentile (so not a football player, but enough to turn the car seat around)
  • Head Circumference: 19 inches, putting him in the 92nd percentile (so possibly an A student)

The trip was notable for the amazing screaming fit Simon threw when Dr. Newstadt cleaned out his ears and checked them. He was not just uncomfortable, he was mad. Hopping mad. Crazy mad. Tonsils-baring mad. I haven’t heard him scream so loudly since I tried to discuss his possible colic with Dr. Abrams on a particularly bad day last fall. He wasn’t even this loud when he was catheterized last February. This was ear shattering.

I handled things differently than in previous trips, though: this time I laughed. I mean, I was sorry for the fellow and all, but his reaction was so extreme and ear piercing that it bypassed upsetting and moved straight to amusing. I’m sure it won’t be funny when screaming takes the form of a toddler tantrum, and I certainly won’t be laughing if Dr. Newstadt sues me for causing hearing damage and/or tinnitus. But Wednesday, I kept thinking of the importance of proportionality in one’s reactions (be one a nation or a person) and how out of balance Simon got.

Part II:  Behaviorally measuring up

From early months on, I’ve been delighted that Simon is a friendly, outgoing child. He’s had very mild stranger anxiety, and he greets most with a huge smile and bright eyes. Since I’m a social person, this makes me happy. More than that, it makes me proud, as I like to think that sociability is a good feature to have and to pass down.

Saturday Simon met one of his two possible new sitters. Her name is Christine, and I met her through friends of the Whitworths. She’s a Sudanese refugee going to school locally, and she came to Louisville after being born in the Sudan, growing up in Kenya and Uganda, and moving to South Dakota two years ago. She’s 23, the oldest of 8 children, and she raised 6 of her 7 younger siblings and therefore knows much more about babies than I do.

Based on her personal history, there was no question she was qualified. As Simon typically loves women, especially young and pretty women, I figured they’d hit it off right away. And yet, when Christine first saw Simon and opened her arms to him, he uncharacteristically looked wary, turned towards me, and fussed.

Christine laughed and said, “Oh, you are scared of me right now. OK.” And I immediately started to blather on about stranger anxiety, about how it peaks at 9-18 months, about how he’s slower to like people these days, etc., etc., etc.

Then Simon promptly gave lie to all of that by looking very happy to see Christine’s American sponsor, a woman he last saw January 1. At that point, the flop sweat showed up.

For I think-and I can think of no other explanation for this-that Simon was afraid of Christine because of how she looks. He hasn’t seen many black people, and the black people he has seen don’t look like Christine. She has a very distinctive sub-Saharan African look, featuring extremely dark skin, very high cheek bones, bright teeth, and dark hair worn in tiny braids.

Like many a liberal white, I can pretend all I want to not notice race. But Simon can’t play that game. All he knew was that this woman looked like no other person he had seen before, and so he was scared. And I was stammering and blathering to cover this, and own embarrassment at this situation, and my irrational fear that somehow I had created a racist baby (as if such a thing were possible).

Then I remembered a family story about my grandfather, who came to the US at the age of 17 from a small city in Belarus. Upon his arrival, he caught sight of a black stevedore working at the docks and, never having seen anyone of African descent before, was frightened by him. Honestly, the man may as well have been green. That story always embarrassed me a bit, too (“Grandpa, how could you be afraid of someone just because they were black?”), but I couldn’t expect my uneducated Russian grandfather to understand about Africans almost 100 years ago any more than I can expect my infant son to now. After all, this is the same man who tried to eat a banana peel and all.

In fact, you could argue that the Christine incident is a fine argument for the importance of my finding a way to expose Simon to a wider array of humanity. Until or unless my own social circle-quite diverse in San Francisco but pretty homogeneous in Louisville-gets wider, it’s time to get Simon out more. That means, I think, more of my trips to the mall, the grocery, and the post office will include a baby companion.

Also, Simon is getting not one but TWO sitters of color. Christine will be joining us on Wednesdays, after a successful trial run Wednesday. He was wary for a bit, but warmed up quickly. And Jean will be joining us the Monday after next, replacing Emily. We first met Jean in the nursery at Keneseth Israel on Yom Kippur. She’s African American, a grandmotherly figure, and Simon warmed to her instantly.

I’m sure in the coming years Simon will embarrass me plenty by noticing and publicly commenting on blind folks, wheel-chair using folks, old folks, bald folks, and any other manner of people that don’t look like me or Matt. But since black-white race relations are our national obsession, I’m hoping on at least this score to get him to behaviorally measure up to my ideal and not have it be his.

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