Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I'm the sort of person who makes faces at babies.


I smiled at a little boy sprawled ridiculously over the back of his seat with an arm wedged under him such that it was sure to fall asleep should he stay propped there long, his head nearly upside-down, and he stared back at me with surprise: city strangers don't often make eye contact with him. I puffed out my cheeks, and he stared back coolly, earnestly interpreting to the best of his ability this standard interpersonal communication. Nothing in his eyes told me I was strange, or shallow, or desperate, which was appropriate because I was none of those things, and he knew. Smart eyes.

Why is it so much fun to make faces at babies? I thought about it for a while on the bus through greater Cambridge Mass this morning, and I think I may have a satisfactory answer.

Here's something that babies understand: give up something you value, incur some cost, if it might let you do something fun. Children get it, and by extension, so do you. This is why it is not possible to achieve 100% quiescent agreeable behavior during a flight of 6 hours: someone is going to crawl across someone else's Personal Bubble en route to the port window, hopping mad Moms and Dads notwithstanding, just to say hello to the cloud whales Sister says she sees. Or perhaps you'll transpose the spirit of the thing to any similar situation you can bring to mind. The tradeoff of wrath withstood to silliness undertaken is favorable, and always is, for sufficient silliness of action.

Now, as my acquaintance by gaze on the bus knows, this core idea generalizes to adult behavior as well. Drop $1000 on fireworks for a brilliant finish to an evening with friends on the beach, skip an important business meeting to attend a dance party, and you've traded just the same. What distinguishes the adult and child cases, other than age? Some say maturity, but I say cultural precedent only. Grown men and women don't have competitions to see how many times they can run back and forth between the swingsets, not because this thing is somehow less worthwhile than fireworks or dance parties, but because it is decidedly not an "adulty" thing to do. Certainly any child can perceive in the "games" adults make of dating and sex that maturity is not the commodity lacking among the former.

Making a face at a baby is a tiny little ironic joke between the expresser and the observer. The elder says, "This is fun, but I can only do it in public because you're giving me the pretense," and the younger says, "I know." The elder says, "To name silly faces immature without hypocrisy is to relinquish all frivolous and spontaneous forms of fun," and the younger says, "Obviously." One does not stoop to the baby's level, but rather one reaches up for a moment into a space of fun for fun's sake less restrained and arbitrarily hobbled by lifelong observation of what makes an adult. 

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