Thursday, June 28, 2018


Learning to walk and talk are recognized by most people as crucial steps in growing. We are less aware -- unless we are parents -- of the smaller steps in an infant's life: focusing eyes, grasping, controlling the heavy head, rolling over, kicking, and finally "motivating," either by scooting on the bottom while sitting or face-down with four limbs extended and crawling.  Finally pulling upright.  (Motivated.)

Forming the throat, tongue and mouth to produce specific sounds which are then managed into words is trickier and takes a long time, but the fire siren sounds of distress are a survival necessity.  Likewise, the coos and gurgles that soon become interaction will help a baby survive by reinforcing bonding which is the continuation of gestation, still one person enclosed within another -- this time in an emotional and social way.

Learning to walk and talk are skills accompanied by pattern recognition, which appear to be connected to movement.  The theory is that it arises from hunting in which the shapes of plants and animals become significant to all mammals.  One strong method of learning a new language is to "embody" it with gestures, maybe explicit sign-language sorts of movement like gesturing for someone to come closer, maybe putting a hand on the part named.  In the first two or three years of life, besides walking and talking, pattern recognitions in the form of the alphabet become a precursor to literacy, a complex set of coding metaphors: the letter A is the upside-down face of a horned animal, A is the first pattern in the "English" alphabet line, A can be a figure in a Pilobolus dance.  In an oral society A is not a shape but a sound.

Words can be oral or written.  The grammatical organization of words is arguably innate rather than found in the world, but it's a pattern.  Learning this pattern -- or allowing it to arise in a process -- is another early task.  If Lakoff is right -- that metaphor is the basic code strategy for thought and therefore words -- it's a continuation of matching correlating codes in meaningful patterns.  Again, this is social and requires other people.  It is also a physiological window in learning that is controversially limited to the earliest years and shut down later, possibly in the teens but maybe as early as the beginning of adrenarche, a time when skills and identity consolidate before the onset of puberty.  Some cultures begin to treat children as adults in these years, making them work or attend school, which is also work.

A famous pediatrician wrote a book about temperament mismatches between mothers and their children.  A dynamic, intense woman -- due to the vagaries of the recombining genome and how it is shaped by gestation and afterwards -- could have a quiet, somnolent infant who will be challenged by such a mother.  But a peaceful accommodating mother might have an active, demanding baby and unwittingly frustrate it.  Mismatches can be painful but sameness also has consequences that will push development in another way.

One could propose that oral culture requires other people, socializing and communicating, but that written culture is a way of evading oversight and therefore more closely identified with the writer, an access to the inner concepts (even wordless) of a unique mind.  The desire to get people to understand contends with a desire to belong to oneself.  And so later we create diaries and hide them or lock them or write them in code.  This is especially likely when caregivers are too busy to listen to babbling and then talking.  If the caregiver is unsympathetic or punishing, this can have strong effects on vulnerable developing persons who might withdraw or might attack.

On quiet afternoons while my infant brother slept, my mother would bring her letter-writing equipment to the cleared dining room table, a monster my parents bought from my paternal grandparents as a way to give them money.  She always had real stationary and used a mottled green fountain pen with golden nib and clip.  Her handwriting was unusually big but she wrote in straight lines, very legibly.  She wrote to her mother, who was dying of cancer in Roseburg, in hopes of helping her cope.  She wrote emotionally but the result was plain and cheerful.

Picking up on the electricity of emotion, I brought my newsprint (no one in my family was ever denied paper) and stood on a chair at the next side.  Using a pencil, I made loops and scribbles in the style I had grasped from watching:  left to right in lines, occasional loops up or down.  I don't remember punctuating or making parentheses.  I remember the sensation, the marks unrolling under the pencil tip, the impossibility of keeping the horizontal so that my lines slanted a bit.

I was emotionless in any reflexive way.  I didn't know what percieved emotion was except for laughing or crying.  I had Theory of Mind, the ability to predict what another would do, but not why.  I could feel my mother's determination and sadness.  I did not know that some blamed my mother for her mother's cancer, thinking that cancer is caused by distress and that her distress was from my mother's marriage to my father who announced dramatically he was an atheist.  (His parents were more community-style patriots, though they had lived in Canada for years.)  It was all too confusing for a kid anyway.  Mostly fantasized in attempts to control each other.

Even now, even keyboarding through the day, sometimes I want to take out paper and use my best ballpoint (since I don't have a fountain pen anymore).  In true tight spots I use a yellow legal pad and add a colored liner to my black-ink ballpoint.  Draw a line top-to-bottom down the middle.  Pro on one side/con on the other.  The writing is often equal in length.  I try to stop fooling myself.  I believe that writing it out will reduce it to rational.

When we went to Roseburg and visited at my grandmother's house, I took my paperdolls and played with them beside my grandmother's bed, making them talk, walk around, bow, and talk some more.  Watching made her smile.  She was in the hospital near the end and we went too suddenly for me to take a doll.  

My grandfather, who was ferocious but always slipped away from fights, handed me a thin board.  "Draw a person," he said and I did in that paperdoll way with arms held out and a lot of scribbly hair like mine.  He cut out mini-me with a coping saw.  I played with her a long time.  She said polite conventional things, but no one heard her inner confused defiance except me.  Even as a toddler, I could feel what was hidden behind writing and tried to write it into the open so I could understand.

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