This piece was originally published in the Crossref Staff Newsletter. I’m reasonably confident that you won’t have read it.
People ask me “how’s the boat?”. There are two easy answers to that, neither of them particularly satisfactory. The long answer, which involves sacrificial anodes and hinges, topcoats and oil changes, weeds and invasive species, though it answers the question, leaves the listener considerably dislocated from its starting point. The short answer, that it’s fine thank you, seems churlish and falls short of the spirit of the question. The trick is to find the middle ground: a short anecdote which illustrates the idiosyncrasies of living aboard, but which doesn’t descend into the weeds, or worse yet the bilges.
Life is, after all, just one thing after another. Day-to-day experience is teeming with fascinating little details, but rarely do they stand out at the time as noteworthy or interesting. Existence is amorphous. One must learn to feel for the edges of each experience and tease out the boundaries. No easy task before the first coffee of the day.
And so, when people ask how the boat is, I usually end up replying with something unsatisfactory and inane. The sheer joy of the life lived aboard remains unexpressed.
So it is with babies. “How’s your baby?” people have asked. “Doing well,” I say, or “feeding well”. Terse perhaps, but no-one really wants to hear about oil changes.
We are all on the same journey. Right from the start, the miniature life is one thing after another. Each proverbial thing is far from miniature though. Sensations loom large. Single-minded joy is all-consuming. Overwhelming and urgent passing discomfort overrides and displaces all. His task is to absorb the unending flood of amorphous sensation and find the edges for himself. Forget theory of mind and object permanence: first he must work out which hands are his, and in doing so encounter the concept of fingers.
I flatter myself that I have overcome most of the hurdles he currently faces. I can spot his passing pain, share in spontaneous joy, and on a good day even predict a sneeze with just enough time to get out of the way. I am finding some of the edges, as I see them.
I have been deeply touched by the kindness, generosity and understanding from my colleagues. I’ve been asked to write a bit about fatherhood, and I want to try and give a good answer.
How can I do this question justice? I could descend into a cascade of excitement about the procession of vowels and diphthongs that he is exploring. Compliment his strong legs, sparkly eyes, wet nose and and glossy coat. Try to share the unmatched joy of walking through the orchard in the morning, porridge in one hand, coffee in the other, with an attentive and companionable child contemplating the sky. But I fear that we are headed in the direction of the weeds.
With the benefit of time to think I have been contemplating a middle-ground answer to the question. Although I’m glad to have had the lead time, I wrote this at the very last minute, and I’m glad of that, as this is a very recent development. And so, to the topic in hand:
The topic in hand
Q: How is the baby?
A: He is capable of sticking both thumbs in his mouth at the same time. This makes me immensely proud.