The Rough Day

by Patrick Dubuque

Crayones de cera

Dear Sylvie,

The evening ended the way it always does: I picked you up and gave you a hug and a kiss, and you patted my left arm roughly and told me, “hug.” Then you sat down with your mother to read your books before bed, and we blew each other kisses as I backed out the door into the darkened hallway.

I went downstairs to catch the end of the game on the radio, but it was already over. I’d missed a win, the first in a while. It was a quarter to ten: a blue, featureless night. I set the alarm to 5:30 and brushed my teeth, and slumped onto the couch. It had been a rough day.

It had started with promise. I came home from work to find you in the possession of new crayons, stronger than your old ones, and you sat at the table and scribbled lines onto paper. The cat jumped up on the table to check this out, and mood altered. “No!” you called out. “No no gato. My picture.” You began to cry. The cat was a visible threat, despite the fact that he wanted nothing to do with your drawing other than perhaps to sit on it and receive pets. But you couldn’t risk that. You couldn’t risk the possibility that he might force you, in some way, to share.

Everything is yours, right now. “My book,” you tell us when we try to read to you. “My milk.” When your mother hugged you and said “My Sylvie,” you answered, flustered: “No. My me.”

You are nearly two years old. Now that objects have gained permanence, they’ve also earned the possibility of absence, and it’s terrifying. This is much a part of you as the omnipresent tears dangling above reddish stain of your chapped cheeks, where the molars stab at you, or the placemat you knock off the table to watch it fall to the floor, or the five plates of food, rice and plums and strawberries and pasta and beans, that spent the evening simmering in the lukewarm air.

“Ice ceam,” you demanded during one gentle sortie, staring at the most recent offering at your altar. “Me ice ceam.”
“One, dinner,” I said, employing your new knowledge of numbers to introduce cause and effect. “Two, ice cream.”
“One ice ceam,” you answered.
It’s working well.

Before the lights went off I read some more Montaigne, one of his shortest essays: “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another.” He’s railing against a long-dead Athenian, who put a mortician to death for profiteering on the death of his colleagues. “A judgment that appears to be ill-grounded,” he argues, “forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another.” He lists professions who do well when times are bad: doctors in plagues, architects by earthquakes, merchants by the sin of greed. Curiously, he fails to mention his own line of work.

Baseball is equally bad about this. It’s diverting to render baseball as a metaphor for life, but one of its more troubling translations is in the competition: that for all the aesthetic merits, the end results are zero-sum. In last night’s game, for example, Fernando Rodney had his own bad day. In one inning he gave up a warning track fly ball, a home run, a sharp line drive out, a walk, and a caught stealing to escape the game. The natural reaction was that Rodney was terrible, and he probably was; the troubling concept is that it wasn’t really imaginable for him to be fine but the opponents better. Someone has to be bad, to lose. That’s how the game, all games, generally are.

Sometimes, teaching you anything feels impossible; it’s like reading the definition of a word and finding more words you don’t know. I can handle yellow and cat and squash, but causality or sharing seem utterly beyond my capabilities. If Montaigne can’t figure out how trading can help both sides, what chance does a toddler have? How do you teach cooperation in a culture steeped in winning and its obligatory counterpart?

Maybe it’s just a matter of providing examples, a thousand instances of a posteriori to build your values on. Maybe you just have to learn. That sharing makes us feel better about ourselves, that other people being happy is okay, and that losers don’t always have to feel bad about the way they lose. And that your father might still love you even when he doesn’t give you ice cream.