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Being, Nothingness and the Grocery List

The toilet paper’s completely gone, the toothpaste tube’s been squeezed almost entirely into its cap, and the laundry has forwarded an official notice of secession and run one of my more brightly colored shirts up the wall as a banner of sovereignty. I’ve conceded to it the far corner of the bedroom behind the old steamer trunk, and—just between you and me—I’d probably give up the stretch of floor where the unused NordicTrack sits (some sweatpants have already established a squatter’s foothold settlement there). It’s a siege state.

Recently, I’ve been living on delivery and nibbles of whatever food is left on my daughter’s highchair tray after she’s finished mauling it and/or testing its aerodynamic properties (she’s a budding Galileo, that girl). I should probably take some kind of stand, assert authority over my apartment but, for whatever reason, I am for the moment the Neville Chamberlain of household chores. In the daily negotiations with clutter and mess and disorganization, I’ve been a wishy-washy diplomat. I admit, I’ve been a collaborationist with chaos. Secretly, I suspect it may be even more severe than that: I think I’ve been wondering, if I let it go on long enough, if I disregard the petty rituals of upkeep, if I let deteriorate the decorous prophylaxis of Palmolive and Tide, will I be absorbed into the chaos? Will I be assimilated? Is this what happens to nihilism when it’s run through the filter of a single dad’s domestic responsibilities?

In my life these days, the café tables are few and far between, though there’s a two-foot-high, purple-and-orange, molded-
plastic table and chair set pushed against one wall in my kitchen (on which rests some pretty precocious works of abstract expressionism, in Crayola washable marker); there’s no cigarette smoke in the house anymore, and the candles are lit only after the tyke is safely cribbed; it takes a lot longer than it once did to fill the recyclables bin with wine bottles; and discussions are less likely to revolve around free will v. determinism than Fisher-Price Little People v. Bear in the Big Blue House. Camus’ The Stranger gave way to Sendak’s Mickey in the Night Kitchen (pretty strange in its own right) long ago, and though I’m still suspicious that Sartre was right on and that hell is, in fact, other people, I’m absolutely sure that Krauss was right and a hole is to dig, and that mashed potatoes are to give everyone enough. Pretty heartening thoughts, actually.

So, ennui isn’t really an option when there’s a two-year-old around, however naturally it may come to you. How can you be consistently world-weary and blasé when your wriggling kid answers the question “Hey, what are you doing? Are you dancing?” with a knowing grin and the statement, “I shake a booty, Daddy”? In that scenario, by the way, a panic-inducing, marrow-chilling flash forward to an abdomen-baring T-shirt somewhere in a writhing, sweaty throng on a future dance club’s floor may be a likely response—but ennui likely won’t enter into it.

When schooled in disaffection, and suddenly thrust into a world of great—even overwhelming—affection you may stammer, searching for a more apt vocabulary. Your universe has shifted and, in mirroring it, you find that indifference, however benign, can be a tough guise to maintain. Still, a smirk is often easier than a smile, and the quips and criticisms seem fleeter than the confidences or the compliments. So, at large, you can remain gimlet-eyed and cranky, but it takes more and more effort and seems less and less convincing. You just get tired of marching in line as the standard-bearer for the “nasty, brutish and short” theory of life—which, though true, is every bit as boring as a gig in any other doctrinaire parade. You get weary of protesting too much, of offering only autopsies, so to speak. But you’re not quite ready to start dotting your i’s with little hearts just yet.

So, as a part-time parent and half-assed existentialist, you stage little rebellions, little bursts of targeted misanthropy and symbolic (i.e., really pretty pointless) non-conformist actions: You stop cooking for yourself for days, dining on handfuls of mixed nuts, leftover lo mein, your daughter’s string-cheese snacks, vitamins and the dregs of juice boxes; you color-coordinate your kid’s socks to her belt, and go to work in your pajamas; on your free nights you counterbalance your intellectual diet of children’s literature with bleak works from the likes of Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog or Darren Aronofsky. You satiate your affectedly dark appetites with somber music and reading, and gloom it up. You mope and sulk in a way that Stanley or Spongebob or Dexter or Madeleine or Olivia just won’t seem to allow. You strike a pose in an outdated stereotype.

And then the cycle shifts and your kid comes back, or wakes up, and you realize that you’ve got stuff to do; it dawns on you that no one else is paying enough attention to notice whether you’ve been absorbed into the banal and staid life of a responsible parent or into your laundry hamper. So—with a tinge of something like regret and something like embarrassment—you kill the Sisters of Mercy and you scour the house for your cardigan and your fatherly wisdom. You mop the bathroom floor, and you beat the dirty clothes into a cowering, cooperative mass and do six hours of laundry. You go online for recipes, dragging the laptop out into the living room so as to better oversee the construction of the Lego fortress or the strawberry-yogurt defilement of the couch’s still-fabric-softener-redolent slipcover.

And you make a note to pick up toilet paper and you check to make sure your AdvantEdge card is in your wallet, in its regular place by your kid’s insurance cards and the picture of her dancing like a little maniac in the living room.

—John Rodat

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