February 2014

Entertaining Your Baby

Steven J. Moss

Babies remember nothing. Their short-term memory lasts as long as a soap bubble, which pops and disappears almost immediately after it’s formed. This characteristic makes them well-known suckers for visual humor, of the peak-a-boo variety.

When my nephew, Asa, was about 18-months old, he started fussing during a religious service my extended family was attending. Looking for just such an opportunity to escape the repetitive chanting, I carried him out of the synagogue, onto the street, in search of something engaging to do. I spotted a row of mechanical parking meters and strolled over, thinking that he might be amused by the whirling of the knob, and the clicking sound made by the purchase of time.

With a magician’s flare, I produced a quarter from my pocket, waved it in front of him, slid it into the coin slot, and twisted the knob. The quarter disappeared into the machine, but, without changing the meter time, it immediately popped out of a return slot. Startled, I grabbed the coin as it flew towards the pavement. Asa shrieked with laughter.

I grinned at him. My trick had been a hit, though mostly because of the unexpectedly broken meter. Even I was amused. Asa quickly settled back into a look of edgy boredom. I held the coin up to him again, slid it back into the meter, and twisted the knob. As it flew from the return slot Asa broke into a whole body giggle. I stuck the coin in again; more liquid laughter from Asa. I repeated the trick a half-dozen times. Each time Asa was delighted, as if he’d just seen the funniest thing in his life.

As far as I could tell, I could’ve stood at that meter, twisted the knob, and sparked Asa’s uninhibited laughter, forever, or at least until he turned three.  But I do have short-term memory. I got bored. After one more hilarious spin cycle, I carried Asa back into the crowded synagogue and sat down. He fell asleep in my arms in a satisfied stupor.

Mindful of this experience, when Sara was fussing at around the same age I devised a new trick. I stuffed a tissue in my hand, and pretended to sneeze, blowing the soft paper into the air. Sara burst out laughing. I did it again; same results. I tried it a third time, but the tissue didn’t fly quite as high. Sara stared at me, her head slightly bobbling.

“Tough audience,” I said, as I stuffed the paper into my hand for another attempt. I “sneezed,” and the tissue floated high above Sara’s head. She shrieked with laughter.

I deployed this trick repeatedly throughout Sara’s toddlerhood. But if I didn’t do it right, she’d look at me blankly, continue her screaming, or turn away and grab at a toy. Ever mindful that I needed new material, I continued to hone the comedy of the abrupt: having a stuffed animal suddenly burp, producing an object from nowhere, stumbling or falling.

Soon enough, physical humor gave way to blunt word play. Like George Carlin’s seven words you can never say on network television, until she was close to six, Sara responded with various levels of laughter to any of the following terms, if timed correctly or placed in the right context: butt, booger, poop, fart (as a sound effect), pee-pee, and cack (as in a cat coughing up a hairball).

As she got closer to adolescence, word play became increasingly sophisticated, moving from knock-knock jokes, to puns, until finally, on a long road trip, we stumbled on a game we’d pull out anytime we were driving, and needed something to do.

“Beep, beep, beep, boop, beep, beep, boop. Ring, ring! Ring, ring!” I’d say.

“9.1.1., What’s your emergency,” answered Sara, in a nasal drawl she thought mimicked what a seen-it-all operator might sound like.

“Um, um, I need to go to the bathroom, and I don’t know where the toilet is.”

“Sir, this is 9.1.1. Do you have an emergency?” Sara drawled, in mock exasperation.

“Yes, I told you, I need to go, really, badly.”

“Then go in the bushes!” She “slammed” the phone down angrily.

We’d go through several rounds of this joke, taking a turn as the caller— “I’m hungry, can you get me a snack;” “I’m feeling a little chilly, can you help me,” “Uh, who am I calling?”—or the initially bored but helpful, and then angry, 911 operator. Each of us would try to get the biggest laugh possible, until finally, we’d go happily silent.

Handbook Tips: Games Daddy’s Play

• There are plenty of comic ideas out there; just think like Jim Carey or the Three Stooges and you’ll be fine. Keep in mind, though, that just as suddenly as the tricks work, at some point —when your baby becomes a toddler; as they emerge into adolescence— they won’t anymore, and you’ll need to change your material again.

• When Sara got older we invented the “hug or punch” game. It’s easy to play: spot an actor, guy dressed up in a stuffed animal costume, or even relative and whisper “hug or punch?” The other player will choose based on what emotion the subject inspires. Caution: no actual punching! Though running up and hugging someone is generally encouraged.

This is an excerpt from The Daddy Handbook, a book by View editor Steven Moss, sections from which will appear in the paper throughout 2014. He’s looking for a publisher for this work; fellow parents are encouraged to write in with their experiences: editor@potreroview.net.


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