The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting
X Is for Xuddam
After a few weeks of being a father, I have everything pretty much figured out and am certainly among the world’s foremost experts on the subject, but I am as yet undecided on which of the following theories should become the central pillar in my philosophy of fathering:
1. The Theory of Cancellation: To be a father, one must accept a large X across the version of oneself that existed up to the point of becoming a father.
2. The Theory of Total Upheaval: To be a father, one must accept that everything has been so completely upended that one’s anus is now one’s brain and vice versa, and in this upheaval nothing will really seem to work, and it will be as if one has been a right-handed pitcher all one’s life and is now being asked to escape late-inning jams while pitching left-handed.
Let me hasten to add that these theories, now that they are written out and not merely thoughts in my mind, both strike me as repugnant in that they focus self-pityingly on the father and not on the child or even the fathering of the child. I can’t help it, it seems. I have to complain, it seems. Acquaintances, friends, family members all ask about the baby, and while I may be able to briefly mouth a platitude about the child’s well-being and my genuine loving feelings for him, I then can’t help myself from trying to channel at least some of my darker thoughts into a conversational exchange set up to bear only platitudes.
“He doesn’t sleep,” I say.
Depending on my mood at the moment and on how well I know the person I’m speaking to, I might say this cheerfully, as if it’s just “one of those things,” or I might say it more weightily, like I’m trying to communicate over the phone that I am in a dire hostage situation, my captor pressing the barrel of a gun to my head.
My actual captor would not be able to hold a gun yet, but if you place a rattle near his fingers he’ll grab hold of it and grip it in his fist. He can’t control the rattle, but he’ll hold onto it pretty tightly. He usually ends up flailing his arm and bopping himself in the head with the thing. And yet, despite his inability to control a rattle or wield a gun, he’s got me wrapped up as securely as if I were mummified to a chair with several yards of duct tape. He doesn’t sleep, he wails, all day, all night, I hold him and stand and bounce and rock him in my arms and go “shhh” until my legs ache and I’m covered in sweat and I’m so low on saliva that my “shhh” sound is no more impactful than the scrape of a dry leaf on concrete several blocks away, and he’s still there, staring wide-eyed at the wall or up at me.
Here I am, he is saying.
It’s a statement that I am able to appreciate at certain times as the greatest gift of my entire life. The statement takes on a different meaning when I’ve been rocking him uselessly for a long time and my poor wife—who bears an exponentially larger amount of the brunt of the ravages of this sleepless hostage situation than I do—is staring at the wall like she just got carted home after storming the beach at Anzio. In those moments, which are so plentiful as to suggest themselves as the norm, my son’s “here I am” is more like the living, breathing embodiment of the kind of math problem that shows up in nightmares, an unsolvable complexity designed expressly to confound, frustrate, and defeat.
And another problem is that everything I try to write on this subject misses the mark. For example, just as I was finishing off the above paragraph, I heard my son making “talking” sounds upstairs with my wife, and I stopped writing and went upstairs and played with him on a blanket on the floor and took a video of him using his legs to push off his mom’s hands and slide across the blanket and smile. He has been trying to laugh lately, but he doesn’t quite know how to do it. He smiles and goes “uuuuh,” not getting how to break the sound up into laughs. Whenever he does this I laugh so hard my face hurts. I came back downstairs from that and the words I’ve written so far make me want to carve a big X over the writing. This is how the writing has been going lately—everything I say seems within moments like it deserves cancellation. Whatever used to work or appeared to work doesn’t work anymore. Parenting is like that for me. Whatever worked the day before doesn’t work today, so you have to write a big X through it and start over. One moment doesn’t seem to offer much relation or support to the next.
I had a moment on the bus a few days ago, coming home. I can’t really access it now, but the whole world seemed to be glowing and I was thinking about writing, thinking about how the way to do it is like Van Gogh and approach form in a siege of messy feeling instead of caution and hesitating care. I was thinking about my son, hoping and praying for him to have moments when the world is all possibility, a sunflower the same as a creator deity’s cupped hands full of brand-new stars. The bus groaned past a guy standing in a sandwich board in the growing dusk outside a muffler shop, advertising $10 off something, and even that or especially that in conjunction with an inexplicable burst of a memory of watching the sun set in China at dusk when I was 21 years old moved me almost to tears, to think that my son will have the feel of life inside him, the weight of a sandwich board on his shoulders, maybe, or the glow of a sunset in a faraway place, the memory of his mother’s soft words, all of it, the highs and lows, and I wanted to find words for this and started wondering whether I could find a way to use it in this post about Ekim Xuddam, left-handed unassuming pencil-mustached journeyman and representative of a world turned upside down.
The X in the surname of this player, Xuddam, is pronounced as an “sh” sound, as if it is an X in pinyin, the pronunciation system used for the rendering of the Chinese language into our alphabet. Also in keeping with the upside down nature of the player, and in line with the Chinese custom, this surname is listed first on the player’s card. I studied Chinese for a few months in Shanghai when I was 21, and this study pinnacled one day in a public park with a conversation I was able to hold, barely, with a Chinese toddler. Almost all the words I learned are gone from my mind now, cancelled like most things that come and go in a life. I sometimes worry about my memory, my purchase on life, my lack of expertise about anything, even baseball, that primary lifelong means of escape from life, but in a way it is good to be—at least in terms of baseball fandom—in possession of a porous, faulty memory, because it allows the game to retain the vastness and mystery it had when I was first discovering it. The day before my glowing bus-ride moment, when still trying to figure out who I could possibly write an “X is for” essay about in the world of baseball, I started casting around baseball-reference.com, and for several minutes I lingered on the player with the most X’s in his name in baseball history, plus a nickname (“Double X”—one of two nicknames, along with “The Beast”) that made reference to the X’s. As I was studying Jimmie Foxx’s page on baseball-reference.com I was remembering the particular pleasure or even joy in first discovering his numbers, back when I was a little boy just beginning to explore baseball history. I knew Ruth and Aaron and Dimaggio, but in those early days there was actually a moment when I loved baseball yet still didn’t know Jimmie Foxx, who was tucked away just a little, a surprise for the young baseball explorer to find. And what a find.
The game never stops offering up these surprises, though in different ways, no monumental icons like Foxx left to discover but plenty of other discoveries to be made, even in the recent past. I drift into and out of the game. Years go by where it seems in retrospect that I was hardly paying attention at all. I don’t know what the fuck else I was doing but somehow I couldn’t even get it together to grasp the details of whatever baseball season was unfolding somewhere beyond my personal fog. For example, after I left Jimmie Foxx’s page in order to search for more candidates for the “X is for” post, my search brought me to Xavier Nady, and though I then searched my shoebox for cards for this player and found I had none (and none for Xavier Hernandez, either), I lingered on the Xavier Nady page because I guess I don’t want to entirely cancel my former self in these strange new sleepless days and instead want to linger and digress and waste time, just a little, please, and I poked around Xavier Nady’s page until I got to his first at-bat, which turned out to be against a pitcher whose first name, incredibly, was Onan. What is incredible about this is that I had never heard of this Onan, despite his presence in box scores for a couple of years and despite Onanism being very near the foundation of the cluster of practices and habits and compulsions that have ferried me haphazardly through 43 years and that more or less make up the self that is known as Josh Wilker and that seem now under the duress and angst and joy of parenthood in need of either cancellation or total upheaval, depending upon which of my self-pitying theories of fatherhood is holding sway at any given time.
Oh Onan, I can’t believe I missed you. What am I missing now? I guess I never catch much on the first go-round anyway but only ever find anything in the detritus after the fact, little treasures left behind and forgotten. Onan was born in Hawaii but the name suggests Japanese descent. I was in Japan once, but only for a night, a stopover on my trip to Shanghai, the night after I wept in a weakened state at the in-flight movie Field of Dreams while thousands of feet above the Pacific. The next day I arrived in China and knew no words at all, not even hello. One of the words I learned early on, and one of the few that haven’t been X-ed out in the acid-bath barrel of my memory, is the word for thank you, which is written as “xie xie” in pinyin and is pronounced with the same “sh” sound that begins Xuddam, so the word to express gratitude sounds like waves or like the sound I use to try to get my son to sleep.
Here I am, he keeps telling me, eyes wide open.
Xie xie, I say. I’ll keep saying it. I’ll say it to him the rest of my life. I’ll never forget what it means.