The other night our baby of the moment, still bald and in a high chair, put her head down on her tray and wept like a man broken by life. We were all out to dinner, meaning her two parents and her aunt, her brothers busy making art on their plates with their ketchup, and we her grandparents.
It was something about the cup the restaurant gave her for her water: It was plastic, with a lid perforated by a straw that was twice as tall as the cup itself, thus presenting her with a physics problem beyond her ability to solve.
In her eager baby thirst, she hoisted the thing, poked herself in the eye with the straw, and saw the lid pop off, causing a floodtide of water to wash down off her head and get into her eyes, her nose and even her mouth.
And oh how she cried, her head resting in the puddle!
I would’ve cried too. It’s awful when you find yourself in a world governed by rules you don’t grasp, in this case the ones involving gravity.
Think of the times you didn’t know the rules and floundered around, trying to figure them out. I can think of lots of times I’ve been in that position:
On first attending Catholic services as a very small child I remember coming to understand that you must not talk but rather sit or kneel while contemplating the top of the pew in front of you. (In those little-kid years, I think I mostly stood and licked it.) But then I was faced with an altogether different expectation when, with my college boyfriend, I began attending a Protestant church where everyone turned clear around in their seats and gabbed away until the service started.
I also remember my first year at summer camp when I was the first one ‘up’ in schlagball but did not know in the least how the game was played never mind what the rules were. As I recall I faked a faint and got mercifully toted by my armpits to the infirmary. (But why wouldn’t the counselors make sure at the outset that we were all familiar with this game? Did they enjoy watching some of us struggle, as when adults get their little kids to recite the words to patriotic songs so they can laugh when they get those words wrong? I mean MAYBE it’s funny when the kids sing about “the bums bursting in air” but do they have to try getting them to sing it over and over, just for their own amusement?)
It’s a dark impulse, this desire to laugh at others. It’s a darker impulse yet to maintain whole sets of rules and expectations that are somehow a secret kept from all but the people already ‘in the know’.
I remember when my sister first moved to Florida, and settled into a development with many unstated ‘rules’. How she pitied that other new family that hung their bed linens outside in the fresh air, only to have whole teams of neighborhood busybodies tut-tutting about them behind their backs.
All this did I reflect on as I watched our baby, who was instantly plucked up out of her soggy seat and comforted by all seven family members.
Some rules are the Universe’s rules, like gravity, and must be obeyed.
Other rules you just sometimes wonder: Who are they serving really?