There is a truth about hanging with babies that nobody talks about. It can be fucking boring. Mind-crushingly, soul-poisoningly boring. But you don’t admit it because, you know, parenting is a sacred thing. Even if, no way around it, some days you just kind of find yourself sitting there, toddler on lap, feeling your brain turn to slush while you watch the 53,000th episode of Peter Rabbit.
It’s “The Greedy Fox” episode, where Mr. Tod, the vulpine pedophile, is yet again wanting to scoop up bunny children and put them in his pot. Mr. Tod is now trying to lure Cottontail, Peter’s little sister, back to his cottage. And Mr. Tod fancies skin-tight tan breeches with a purple plush waistcoat and over-ripe ascot, and is given to squealing in an effeminate manner when stressed. The dandy fox emits a low, pervy growl when he’s about to pounce. (Who doesn’t?)
I wonder about the people who write these things. I wonder about those days in the writer’s room, swilling coffee and cooking up plots for the pedophilic fox and the weirdly Jewish-seeming frog, Jeremy Fisher, who spends his days in a tight little three-piece suit, trying to write “the most magnificent symphony in the history of the world.” Imagine a froggy, liver-lipped little Oscar Levant. Minus the pills and cigarettes. Unlike the fey fox, Jeremy Fisher does not want to molest and devour the children. He only wants them to help him make strange sounds.
Clearly, I‘ve given the subject too much thought. But what else is there to do but obsess, speculate, and just kind of… endure. It’s horrible to say. But just because the bond between parent and child is sacred, that doesn’t mean you do not want to set your face on fire and run in front of a FedEx truck while you and your little one are reading Sesame Street Hide & Seek, looking for scorpions on the pyramid. The same scorpions that were there yesterday, and five months ago.
And that we’re looking for again right now—while simultaneously watching TV and eating, thereby endowing my little one with the life skills that got me through a rocky middle age, but which may not be the best thing on the menu for a two-year-old.
Mind you, after I dumped my BlackBerry—possibly the last man on earth to do so—and could surreptitiously suck up entire backlit novels while watching these Peter Rabbit reruns, something else happened. (Peter, by the way, spends his days stealing vegetables from a farmer, carrot-thieving, apparently, being another life skill worth cultivating. Separate issue.) Post iPhone 6, I stumbled into another crisis. Because, as mentioned ad nauseum, I’m one of those people who worry about the death rays emanating from my total convenience device, I’m convinced that my rereading Naked Lunch on a glowing screen next to my child’s tender head is going to give her cranial blastoma, or some other heinous malignancy. Maybe it’s just Burroughs. But I actually feel a little Mengelish exposing her to these possible side effects. I can’t help thinking—perseverating—that I’m microwaving her. As if, tip of the hell-hat to the Butcher of Auschwitz, I actually were putting her in an oven. In this case, literally cooking her skull, heating soft tissue inside her beautiful baby dome—thanks (according to Wikipedia, my source in all things life and death) to the rotations of polar molecules induced by the electromagnetic field. Brown and serve.
But, did I say brain? Brain’s part of it. But not all. Let me quote: “The brain’s blood circulation is capable of disposing of excess heat by increasing local blood flow. However, the cornea of the eye does not have this temperature regulation mechanism temperature regulation mechanism, and exposure of two to three hours duration has been reported to produce cataracts in rabbits’ eyes.”
Cancer and cataracts. Thanks Dad! (Note to self: do not jam training spoon into temple. It won’t help.)
My obsession with cell-phone cancer, I can’t lie, has blown up beyond all tolerable levels. My wife, who sometimes hangs with our little girl until she falls asleep, has had to bear my hectoring whenever I pop in and see the dim glow of her Android on the pillow, beside the pair of them. I will stride in, self-righteous as a tee-totaling preacher crashing an airport strip club, and launch into yet another litany of carcinogenic nightmares set loose by the mere proximity of a tiny device.
I feel like a dick. Maybe I am a dick. But then I think, Better be a dick with a non-neuroblastoma suffering three-year-old, than a swell guy with a cancer tot. You’ve seen the cancer tots. Bald, feisty, dying. I don’t know how people survive. The parents, I mean. The siblings. But I know—I feel—that survival would be made more hellish by knowledge that the torment was preventable. That the cancer was caused by what’s the word, convenience?
Has my marriage suffered? Has my self- esteem nose-dived? Do I hate myself like a subway masturbator seeing his face flashed on page thirteen of every newspaper in America? Sort of, yes and yes. But—always the real shame—I can’t stop! I see the phone, and even if it isn’t on the pillow, even if it’s on a table across the room, or in the closet, it doesn’t matter. I know. The thing can be in a lead case secured by cast iron dipped in liquid steel, I’d just worry about the lead while worrying about the radiation. The grim sensation that I’m microwaving baby frontal lobe simply trumps everything else.
Phobic or diligent? You be the judge. All fodder to feed into the Daddy neurosis machine. At least it keeps me from worrying about the pesticides in the water. Jeremy Fisher, in 2015, would likely have both male and female sexual organs. Among other mutations. Don’t get me started.
This essay will appear in Jerry Stahl’s forthcoming book, OG Dad, a collection of his Rumpus column along with new, previously unpublished installments. OG Dad will be released by Rare Bird Books on Father’s Day, June 21st.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.