Published in Poets & Writers, January/February, 2012.
Other expectant parents worry about diapers, sleepless nights, deciphering the hungry cry from the tired cry, but as I awaited our first child I had a more awesome responsibility in mind: the Naming of the World. I finally saw how my skills as a writer would pay off. I’d soon be called upon to name all the animals and metal and graffiti in our Brooklyn neighborhood, and not only would it be Good, it would form the foundation of how my son sees the world. I was starting to wonder, though, whether I was really qualified to be Namer of Names when my wife turned to me outside our subway stop one afternoon.
“You don’t know the difference between trash and garbage — do you?”
I was so preoccupied with how important I was going to be that I had no idea how the question came up. It was clear, though, that I was about to embarrass myself, so I flipped through all the permutations in my mind. Trash collector, garbage collector. Trash can, garbage can . . .
“The words are interchangeable, aren’t they?”
“Not completely, no.”
My job as Namer of Names only existed in my mind, but I took it seriously. I knew there were words I didn’t understand. I knew there were words that didn’t even exist when I was growing up, and was already steeling myself for hours of late-night research. I’d heard, for example, that the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, the crush of my kindergarten year, had been supplanted in children’s minds by something called a Giganotosaurus. I knew nothing about this bigger, badder dinosaur, except that it could surely tear the head off a T. Rex in a celebrity death match. But now, as we returned home from the subway, I wondered if I knew the meaning of words I used everyday. Not only did the Late Cretaceous Period no longer resemble the one I imagined growing up, our street suddenly appeared like a foreign landscape. What’s the sidewalk made of? Cement or concrete? And the tree beside me? Beech, maybe? I had no idea. The last leaf I identified was on the Canadian flag.
I tugged at my hair. What’s hair?
It was a long walk home.
I teach expository writing to freshmen young enough to be my children, who enrolled at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU to become the next Lady Gaga, Scorsese, or Olsen twin (I’m not sure which one). Instead, they walk into my class and learn about Montaigne and Seneca, the father and grandfather of the essay, whose musings often start with a simple question — What’s vanity? Or noise? Or a “good” life? — that suggests an essay, at its core, is an attempt to define words. If we try, I tell them, we might come to understand Verfremdungseffekt (hard) or the People’s Choice Awards (very hard), but we should start by acknowledging that the more we think about the words we use every day, like trash or garbage, the less we understand them.
“Really?” a British student responded one day. “It all sounds like rubbish to me.”
Apparently, my concern was not a universal concern. As our laughter died, I realized words felt more important to me than ever, but I didn’t have the words to say why.
When my son was born, as I struggled to decipher the hungry cry from the tired cry, I realized my long-standing insomnia had been an ineffective training for parenthood. Not sleeping for your own reason is different from not sleeping for someone else’s. I also realized my concern over providing my son with the right Nouns To Live By was really a problem of advanced parenting. My wife and I were stuck in what paleontologists call the Second Preverbal, in which the infant sucks the ability to speak from everyone in the house. The last conversation I recall having with my wife concerned the Counting Of the Diapers, the first ritual of parenthood in which you tape a spreadsheet to the wall and, with scientific rigor, keep track of soiled diapers to ensure that your child is feeding enough. We failed miserably at this because we couldn’t agree on a definition for the word day. My wife counted from the time he was born at 1:51 PM, which made sense but was too hard for me, so I started at midnight, grousing that our son didn’t deserve his own definition for the word day but would have to live in the same day as everyone else. My wife and I crossed out and re-added each other’s numbers for a week before we realized what was going on. From there we communicated with grunts, half-grunts, and gestures. I’d stumble into the kitchen, rinse the French press, then dump whole coffee beans inside, haunted by the feeling that something was wrong, till I realized I’d reached a paradoxical state in which I’d have to make coffee in order to make coffee. My wife would patter in later, spooned loose tea on the counter, then stared at it, scratching her head.
Stuck in the Second Preverbal, my vocabulary was surprisingly limited. I seldom had the right grunt for the occasion. Told that one of the great joys of parenthood would be reading to my son, I discovered our board books contained nothing but farm animals, which might be scintillating if you live on a farm but meant my son kept staring at things he’d never see. I was no help making the animals come alive. Not only did I not know the sound dads make in the wild, I kept confusing my sheep and my goats — which one says maa and which one says baa? I avoided the lions and tigers and bears for similar reasons, then hit a low point when I realized the elephant and owl, pictured side by side in a book, made the same demented ooo coming from my lips.
One night I left my son’s room in a fog to find our incontinent cat cleaning herself on our furniture, then turned to see four — no, five — mice dancing around the gas burner and emerging from our dishwasher. I had discovered what looked like a suspicious amount of ground pepper on the counter recently and surmised, with the addled reasoning of a new parent, that someone was sneaking into our kitchen at night to turn the pepper grinder. It turned out to be mouse scat. Everywhere. As if our apartment had been hit by the same asteroid that ended the Mesozoic Era, calling forth the small mammals to populate the world.
If you keep stepping back into prehistory, you’ll reach a point at which almost any movement at all is a step forward, and a few months later I suspected an act of communication had taken place in our apartment when we bathed our son on the kitchen counter. He made eyes at me and cooed till I smiled lovingly at him, then turned to flirt with the outlet to see if he got a similar response. I’d grown up with a single mom who worked at a nursing home and was surprised how flirtatious the residents were when I visited her there — the same smile, the same ooh, the sideways glance before turning away — as if a Third Preverbal awaits some of us at the end of life when we have no words left for our memories. As if flirting isn’t just an adolescent obsession but one of the first and last ways we make contact with the world and convince others to take care of us.
I had always abhorred baby talk and pledged, before I knew better, to speak in complete sentences to my son using Latinate words I last encountered on the SAT. He stared at me dumbly, though, till one day in frustration I repeated the sound he was making. He looked at me, startled. Soon we were bahhing in the most annoying voices, a habit we continued for months. I have no idea what we were saying — I think we were communicating the fact that we could communicate — and it’s made me suspect that we master the form of conversation long before the content. Definitions are of secondary importance. Content doesn’t carry much content. Despite my concern about words, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. After “making conversation” at dinner parties for years by trading bon mots, that pleasant remark that helps you get through the night without saying anything, I’d realized how far you can get in life by concentrating on form alone. For some, flirting with meaning is more pleasurable than meaning itself.
It was jolting, then, to turn to my students’ papers and see descriptions about stuff and references to writers who said things (about other stuff), as if words were the original interchangeable parts. I wanted to explain, in some elusive way, that if they hadn’t yet used words to convey meaning they couldn’t discover the joy of leaving meaning behind altogether for a moment while playing on a living room carpet.
That’s where I discovered my son’s favorite joke. It goes like this: “Rah rah rah rah rah rah — bah!” It’s less the content of the pattern than the pattern itself — and its disruption — that makes him squeal. Who knew that flirting and jokes predate language and could form the basis of a relationship? I thought I’d retreated from the world only to discover I was building one. Most days it seemed pretty Good, and there were no words in it anywhere.
Some nights my son, now older, comes to me in a dream, holding the class pet he’s going to care for over the weekend.
“Dad, what’s a gerbil?” he asks.
“Funny . . . I have no idea.”
Then, once the cat gets to it. Or it’s jumped by the mice.
“Dad, what’s death?”
“I have no idea.”
Then, after finding a secluded section of Prospect Park, we hold a ceremony, improvising a ritual to call on a Great Being we can’t define, referred to by some as the Unnameable, then dig a grave by the herny-wing trees.
After dinner each night I carry my son down the hall to his bath and engage in a secret plan called Say Dada First, trying to teach him my name by pointing at a picture of me and saying “da-da” over and over. (Anyone who thinks the way children learn is miraculous does not know what repetition means.) Unfortunately, the clean-cut man in my wedding photos, taken four years ago, no longer resembles me now that I have shoulder-length hair and a speckled beard. I’m introducing my son to a past neither of us recognizes, so when I put my arms out and ask triumphantly “Where’s dada?” he points at a picture on the wall. I inadvertently taught him I’m a two-dimensional photo.
Sometimes he points to a picture of my dad holding me when I was two. It was taken by my great Aunt Edith, a spinster who ate peas canned before the war because she’d lost her sense of taste and thought, heck, one pea is as good as another. I’m not sure how to say to my son this man was your grandfather but died and now someone else has his name.
My father passed away when he was twenty-six. He gave me little besides my name. I still recall my disappointment when I contacted his college classmates to help me define who he’d been, and they, as if squinting through a fog, always arrived at the same phrase: “Al . . . nice guy.” I was surprised that no one could describe him. And after hearing my grandmother refer to him properly as “Allan” for decades I realized I hadn’t known what name he used once he ventured into the world.
I have visions not only of Naming the World for my son but also rehearsing with him before he sleeps all the things we’ve seen each day, so he might develop a memory for the world but also remember who was standing beside him and pointing. I’m trying to be memorable, I guess. To be precise. To name names. Starting, I suppose, with our portraits on the wall.
A friend once told me you can start with dirty soap and dirty water, and, with a little scrubbing, still end up with clean hands. Choosing the wrong word over and over, based on our skewed views of the world, with definitions that drift over time and are reshaped by the listener, can still capture the imprint of our minds. In misnaming the world, we name ourselves. This act feels both necessary and absurd, and there’s a price in not looking, a cost for treating your words like cans in a pantry that you can grab without a glance.
When my son is done with his bath, I get him ready for bed and show him the quilt hanging over the twin bed he’ll sleep in someday, adorned with realistic lobsters and dreamlike animals that may have existed only in my Aunt Edith’s mind. She had decided to make a quilt for him when I myself was only nine years old because I was so fascinated by watching her work. As she laid out her quilts on the dining room table, I kept fingering the pin marks in the corner, like some inverted Braille, and asked what she was doing. It occurs to me, as my son points at the animals and makes a sound — Da? — to ask their names, that he existed in Edith’s imagination long before he existed in mine, and that we’re in a relationship with others, even if that relationship is hard to define, before we know who we are.
My son’s held in an embrace of words, though he doesn’t recognize his own reflection, and I’m held in a similar way, though I no longer recognize mine. To recognize is a funny word. It means to identify based on a previous encounter, but it also means to know or learn again. I think, looking at Edith’s quilt, that I’ve started to recognize something in her for the first time more than a decade after she died. I wonder, someday, if some of my students might realize I wasn’t talking garbage about the anxiety of finding the right word.
Each night I name all the animals I can for my son: the shrimp, the bird, the dove, the polka-dotted brontosaurus, and others even more mysterious, hoping, whether they have names or not, that if we gaze long enough they will come to inhabit his dreams. Then we say goodnight to the cars out the window, and look down at the herny-wing trees, and the graffiti on the sidewalk that, no matter how you turn your head, keeps hovering between an asterisk and an angel.