I can't complain; for the most part, 2011 has been a pretty good year. In the past, I've shied away from talking too much about what I've learned as a new parent, but today I'm going to delve straight into it. Over half of the lessons listed below have to do with parenting, but that's because, as a stay-at-home dad, parenting has been the dominating factor of my life ever since Tommy came along. With that in mind, here's what I've learned in the last twelve months:
#1. Autism Awareness Has Gone Too Far
Apparently, the best place to learn about persistent developmental disorders is on the road
Pointing this out is no doubt going to piss some people off and earn me some frothing remarks in my comment section, but somebody has to talk about it. Yes, autism diagnoses are on the rise and early intervention is absolutely essential for autistic children. However, I want you to imagine for a minute that you are a new parent.
Children don't all develop in a predictable way, and it is inevitable that your child will not fit into a neat little pattern that can follow a long checklist of important developmental milestones. Therefore, it stands to reason that your child might have a delay in a few areas while simultaneously seeming advanced in others. Good parents will notice this and worry about it, which is perfectly normal. But nowadays, thanks to the Internet, if you, as a good parent, decide to surf around for information about how normal your child's progress is, it is also inevitable that you will be told--either directly or indirectly--that your child might be autistic and that you would be the most horrible being imaginable if you don't take your child immediately to a special neurologist.
Is your kid not saying ten words by 16 months? Does your kid walk around pigeon-toed? Does your child have an overactive imagination? Does your kid seem super smart sometimes and super slow other times? Does your child have "bad" tantrums? Does your child stare off into space sometimes? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child might be autistic.
Here's the thing about autism, though; it's an ill-defined spectrum disorder. On one end of the spectrum are extreme autistics, children who will never be able to live a long, normal life because they are unable to function the way the rest of us do, and they are all slightly different in how their autism presents. On the other end of the spectrum are normal kids who happen to have a few eccentricities, which means that, if you try hard enough, you can force any child into the loosely defined criteria of mild autism. Now, as I said, the autism awareness movement is a good thing in helping parents deal with truly autistic children (and my heart goes out to them), but it's also scaring the shit out of a much larger group of perfectly good parents of perfectly healthy children whose only sin is being a little paranoid.
Also, as a side note, there's no big mystery about why autism diagnoses are one the rise: it's because the diagnostic spectrum has been getting wider and wider, and oh yeah, there's a huge movement out there specifically designed to find more autistic children. Let me say that again, because it seems some people refuse to get the memo: autism is not spreading like a modern epidemic, autism diagnoses are.
#2. Parents Will Err on the Side of Caution
Okay, so maybe there are games you shouldn't play around toddlers
So obviously, that previous hypothetical was about me being a paranoid parent. There was once a time when I was laid back to a fault, not worrying about anything even as the walls of flames and screaming of innocents welled up around me. I was able to shrug off just about anything with a foolhardy confidence that life works itself out and the best response to bad things happening is to look on the bright side and move on. Then, one day, I had a child.
In Tommy's first two years of life, I worried about every bump and bruise, every developmental oddity, knowing full well that, if and when I screw up, it will affect him for the rest of his life, assuming he even survives having me for a father. But there were still things I didn't worry about, like watching violent movies or playing violent video games around him. I firmly believe, to this very day, that most children aren't badly affected by violent television, that the whole "controversy" over such things is just nonsense. It's nothing new, either; even Plato was worried about the extreme types of music and drama young people were exposed to.
Earlier this year, though, I found myself slouching on the couch with Tommy sitting on my hip while I played Grand Theft Auto III. I ran into a power-up that caused a bunch of Rastafarians to come out of the woodwork with baseball bats and start beating me within an inch of my life while I desperately tried to mow them all down with an assault rifle at close range. My son, watching this, started shouting "UH-OH! UH-OH! UH-OH!" It is likely that his brain didn't fully comprehend what he was seeing and that it didn't adversely traumatize him--especially since he acted totally normal after I shut the game off a few seconds later--but I think the episode definitely did some permanent damage to my brain. You see, for a few moments there, my beliefs and convictions were rendered utterly meaningless. Even if it's highly, ridiculously, unbelievably unlikely that violent programming will turn a child into a serial killer, it's still possible, isn't it?! So yeah, I don't play or watch anything too violent around him anymore. I even try not to say bad words, but that's pushing it.
#3. Parents are Easily Impressed
Aw, look, he knows to wear protective clothing when stupidly hurting himself!
I don't want you to think that parenting is all one big anxiety attack, although it certainly seems like it sometimes. You see, you can be at wits' end after hours of your kid screaming, demanding, and not eating anything but crayons, but even then, when you're frazzled and frayed and trying desperately not to be angry, your child will do something completely unremarkable that will make your whole day.
For example, he could take off his shoes. This most basic of everyday functions is hardly rocket science, but the first time your child does it on his own, for some reason, causes the clouds to part, the angelic choir to sing from on high, and your heart to melt in its chest into a puddle of warm, happy goo. You will call or text your spouse and your mother and they will all squeal happily at the news. "Oh, he took off his shoes by himself!" one of them might say, "I think I'm going to shed a tear." You'll mention it on Facebook with more enthusiasm than you mustered for the death of Bin Laden, tell your neighbor about it, and then remind your spouse of it before going to bed so that you can both go to sleep with a satisfied smile.
I freely admit that my son can't do calculus yet, but I'm as proud as a father can be that he can walk upright, eat with a spoon, brush his teeth, say "Bless you" when you sneeze, and count to twenty-nine. Heck, I've even been known to talk about how smart he is, even though, by adult standards, he wouldn't even qualify as functionally retarded.
#4. We're Weird Parents
Not even Purell can clean up the filthy thoughts of that kid on the right
Having already admitted that I'm a ludicrously paranoid parent, it might seem odd that my wife and I don't bathe our little guy in antiseptic gel five times a day. I happen to believe that children are supposed to be exposed to dirt and germs, that they need to build an immune system in order to cope with the grime-infested world out there. However, if you know any modern parents, you'll know that this makes me an abomination.
Every other 21st Century parent keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer in their pocket, purse, diaper bag, and car, not to mention the one you'll find in every single room of their house, sometimes installed as convenient wall dispensers like the place is a hospital. You might think I'm exaggerating, but I most emphatically assure you I am not. Everywhere I go, I see parents who spend five minutes scrubbing their children's hands, arms, and faces with the stuff like its sunscreen and we live on Mercury. They do this to their kids before and after they eat, several times while at the playground, anytime they happen to actually touch other human beings, and whenever one of them falls on the ground and gets a smudge of dirt on his or her cheek. When did germaphobia become a critical parenting tool? How do these parents think the human race survived as recently as ten years ago, when this stuff hadn't been invented yet?
It goes deeper than that, too; while I freak out when my kid gets sick, I don't automatically give him antibiotics every time he coughs, even though I'm crazy enough to think vaccines are essential and not part of some kind of Big Pharma conspiracy. It seems to me that, when the plague finally comes, my son is going to be the only person left whose immune system is strong enough to survive it. If you're reading this at the end of the world, I'm truly sorry, my son, for letting you be the one to witness the death of the human race alone. At least there's still an Internet.
#5. There's Always a Missing, Abused, or Murdered Child in the News
I'm sorry for bringing this back up, but really, did this woman deserve wall-to-wall coverage for two months?
Being paranoid and having an overactive imagination, I spend a lot of time worrying about bad things that could happen to my child. One of the few things that can take my mind off of concerns that maybe I used too much bleach when he was an infant and that the fumes must have caused irreparable brain damage is politics. Politics, for me, is like a huge sporting event, with two sides beating the crap out of each other and keeping score, with a super bowl every four years when there's a presidential election. Readers of this blog know that I follow it pretty religiously and tend to get enthusiastic about who's winning and losing. Therefore, when I need a distraction, I sometimes turn on the news (yes, I still like to watch news on television; crazy, right?), often turning to the most biased and amusing political networks like Fox News or MSNBC.
But then, instead of talking about the conservative congressman who was recently caught spanking a naked homosexual athiest in his office (maybe it'll happen tomorrow), the newscasters spend hours and hours talking about the latest little boy who went missing after his parent fell down the stairs and nearly died or the trial of a parent who drowned her kids because she thought they were possessed by demons after she was accidentally poisoned with a hallucinogen in her well water. One of these stories will dominate the headlines for weeks at a time and then, when it finally runs its course, another story just like it will take its place. There's no shortage of missing, abused, or murdered kids out there (if they reported every single one with just a five minute blurb, they wouldn't have time to talk about anything else), but why do news networks think we need to be reminded of it every single day? If you're not a parent, you probably don't see what the big deal is, but these stories are intensely disturbing to anyone who has children of his or her own, especially if they're paranoid and imaginative.
#6. I'm a Patient Parent
"You've been in the water for three whole minutes already! What do you mean you can't do a sidestroke and tuck into an underwater roll while keeping a lit blowtorch above water? God, Baby, you're so slow!"
Sometimes, I think I lack the proper disposition to be a stay-at-home father, that my personality isn't compatable with good parenting, even though by all objective measures, I'm doing just fine. Then I hang out with other parents and feel better about myself, because there's no better way to realize that everybody in the world is nuts and somehow millions of children still manage to turn out okay.
A good example of this happened in the summer, when I started taking Tommy to swim lessons. The lessons ran every day for a mere two weeks, so I wasn't expecting him to be an olympic swimmer by the time it was over. Apparently, though, these tempered expectations, like my theories on hygiene mentioned above, make me something of an unusual specimin among modern childrearers. On the first day of swim lessons, there were eight parents there with their children. On the second day, there were only four, and on the third day, there was just me and one other parent. For the entirety of the second week of classes, I was the only parent still coming. I asked the instructor if this happened a lot, and she told me that no, it was pretty unusual that one parent (namely, me) actually stuck with it long enough for his child to make significant progress.
It was clear that what I possessed and the other parents seemed to lack was patience, that I wasn't freaking out that it takes time and dedication to teach your child something as complex and difficult as swimming. I'm sure that this phenomenon isn't common all over--I was taking my kid to classes in a pretty hoity-toity, spoiled rich part of town--but it's still disturbing to know that so many parents lack something as critical to good parenting as basic patience. On the other hand, it gives me some solace whenever I start to lose mine.
#7. I'm a Hypochondriac
And for some reason, watching House reruns doesn't help
I was in my living room one sunny afternoon when I started to feel a bit dizzy. As a diabetic, I thought that maybe my blood sugar was dropping, even though that didn't make sense as I had just eaten something with a fair amount of sugar in it. My second thought was that I was having a stroke. I went down a mental checklist: blood pressure, ear infection, sudden migraine, brain tumor, etc. It took at least thirty seconds before I contemplated anything that didn't involve my body failing me. It turns out I was dizzy because the ground was shaking, because I was experiencing an earthquake.
This helped highlight something I've realized recently; I'm a hypochondriac. I don't know if I'm just getting older or if it's the natural result of my father's untimely death and my own stunningly early diabetes diagnosis, but the fact remains that there's a dark part of my mind that is absolutely convinced I'm going to die any day now. I find myself looking up the symptoms of rust poisoning because I happen to notice a spot of rust on the metal door I sometimes hang my towel on, or I bring on an anxiety attack by wondering if anxiety can be a symptom of brain cancer. It's just silly, but I can't stop myself. Does that mean there's something wrong with me? Should I see a doctor?
#8. Calorie Counting Works
Wait, these numbers actually mean something?
A good side effect of my hypochondria is that I'm doing something about it. 2011 saw me lose over thirty pounds, reach a healthy weight, and essentially wrestle my diabetes into submission for the time being. Whenever anybody asks me how I did it, I'm embarrassed to admit that it was nothing special; I just ate less and tried to exercize more.
By counting calories, I did something nobody does because they think it's too tedious, but in fact, it turned out to be pretty damn easy. Once you get used to tallying how many calories you're putting in--and you realize how bad that number is--it's surprisingly simple to get yourself to eat less. Once you do that, it becomes habit, and you'll find it hard to eat as much as you used to. I'm not going to say that this method will work for anyone--that's a sure way to start a flame war and I'm sure my thoughts on autism have already done that--but I will say it worked for me. My doctor is thrilled, I feel great, and my overall health has never been better.
#9. No Matter How Bad It Gets, Our Leaders Won't Take It Seriously
An inch to the right or an inch to the left? Oh, let's just compromise and do nothing about these deck chairs.
It shouldn't take a political independant to notice that our government is broken and corrupted by politics. On one end, you have a group of people who insist we have to cut government spending wherever we can, as long as it's not defense spending and as long as you don't increase taxes, and on the other end, you have a group of people who think the only way to fix unemployment is to tax rich people, as long as those rich people aren't politicians or union bosses. Depending on your affiliation, you think one side is buckling too much while trying desperately to stand up for its principles while the other side is full of intransigent idealogues who can't see reality through their biased lens of extreme political beliefs. I know some people hate it when I argue that both sides are to blame, but if you can't see that fact, you are blind.
Our government is gridlocked and bickering about things that are ultimately meaningless, all while our economy bounces along the bottom and our national debt rockets well beyond the record for the most money any entity has ever owed in the history of forever. Democrats want to tax "millionaires and billionaires," which would give the government a couple billion over a decade (assuming Laffer is wrong), and Republicans want to do away with the Department of Energy, which would save a couple billion over a decade, but a couple billion dollars is how much the government spends in a few hours, so saving it in the span of a decade is completely pointless.
The U.S. government spends a trillion dollars in the span of time it takes to debate how to cut a million. And yet our representatives duke it out like it's the most important issue of all time, spinning their view of reality so that it seems that a solution can only be achieved when the other side does absolutely everything they want. This isn't rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; this is debating whether or not to polish the tweezers you might use to pick a few errant hairs off of the brush you might use to dust off one of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Meanwhile, you have the president arguing that the only thing standing in the way of progress is Congress' unwillingness to compromise, but he'll be sure to veto anything that doesn't do exactly what he wants. Is it any wonder we're pissed off at the people in charge?
#10. Nintendo's Still Got It
This means you don't have to sand off those tattoos just yet
I've given the Big N a lot of crap in recent years, but there's really only one more thing that needs to be said about the Wii: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Man, this game rocks my world.
Of course, in my full review, I talk about how the game is reminiscent of an older style of gaming and not really a leap into the next generation, but it still proves that Nintendo hasn't completely lost touch with the gamers out there. People might treat the Wii like it's a kid's toy, but games like Skyward Sword prove that, beneath the family-friendly veneer, Nintendo is still better at designing good games than just about any other company out there.
Promises and expectations for their next console, the Wii-U, are high despite the awful name, and my inner fanboy is really hoping that Nintendo is able to deliver. Even more than that, though, here's hoping gamers haven't completely forsaken the Big N and will give the Wii-U a fair hearing.
#11. Holy Crap, It Actually Works!
A young woman with a giant clock for an eye eating a bleeding apple while her brain spills out of her forehead? Yeah, my work belongs there.
What's the best Christmas present you ever received? I only got a handful of presents this year--probably fewer than ever before--but one of them is definitely in the running for best ever. I'm talking, of course, about the fact that I'M GETTING PUBISHED! Testify! Ahem.
I got word just a few days ago, on Christmas Eve, that my story will be appearing in the January 2012 issue of Dark Moon Digest, available now through Amazon.com. As most of you know, I've been trying to get published for over a decade now, with no success. My strategy has largely been to send queries for my novels to agents and hope for the best, but this hasn't exactly worked. This year, I tried a new approach by entering some of my short fiction in various contests, including the Sci-Fi Horror Contest over at DMD (yeah, we're close now, so I can call it that). I'm not allowed to say whether or not I won, as the winners haven't been announced yet (and, to be honest, I don't know), but I do know that my story will be appearing as one of the finalists, which is awesome enough.
This is an important feather in my cap, and in theory, it will help me in my ultimate goal of getting a novel published (legitimately, thank you very much, not self-published or published though exclusively digital means--so please stop sending me the well-intentioned links to self-published success stories). Forgive the indulgent victory lap, but after beating my head against the wall for so long, it feels good to finally break through, even if it's just a little bit. What I have to do is slam on the accelerator now that my foot is in the door (and my metaphors are thoroughly mixed). Hopefully, this is the first step in a long journey.