My five-year-old and I are in the kitchen, seated next to each other, facing the window. The early-spring Sun is setting, but its light has been advancing across the tabletop and our arms, to my chest and her forehead. She’s drawing a mysterious purple object spreading slowly across the page. I want to roll around on the floor, but the kid is serious about art and doesn’t like to wrinkle her neat clothes. In fact, her appreciation for neatness worries me somewhat because new clothes and ironed garments make me uncomfortable. A connoisseur of funk, I never owned an iron and hadn’t used one, before the dawn of the era of Diane—my better half, as the record demonstrates. In a few months she’ll be a doctor of psychology while I gave up trying to be a doctor of philosophy because music took over me and brought us a lot of unexpected money. Ian, a college roommate whom I helped out of a difficult situation fifteen years ago, became an advertising executive who convinced his company to buy some of my music. Then, Ian the Grateful introduced me to an independent-film producer in a perpetual need of affordable original music. As a result, my savings account now contains more cash than ever, so I don’t have to teach anymore. A proud stay-at-home dad I am, but my kid behaves better than I do.
“Are you…? How do you feel? Are you bored or anything?”
“No, papa, I’m not bored.”
“You want a chocolate sundae?”
“No, thank you.”
“I thought you liked chocolate sundaes.”
“It’s not that I don’t like chocolate sundaes, papa. I had a chocolate bar a while ago,
“That’s okay. You can have a chocolate sundae if you want.”
“No, thank you. I promised mamma I won’t eat junk food.”
“Good idea,” I agree with the five-year-old logician. Some mind, our Kate. Categorical syllogisms aligning themselves, premises flying in close formation toward valid conclusions. How stupid of me. Simply because she doesn’t want a chocolate sundae right now doesn’t mean she doesn’t like chocolate sundaes in general. Diane is really applying her studies—turning our munchkin into a logician. In the midst of my anti-bourgeois phase, I once laughed at her for wanting to apply theory. Our first class together: Dr. Barnard’s Foundations of Set Theory. Right there in class I laughed at my future wife because, hey, I was a philosopher, she a mere psychologist. Barnard heard my laugh and steered the discussion to Diane, who just sat there, in her trademark friendly coolness that seduced me into falling in love with her, articulating what I dismissed as an ethics for pigs. Here I am—oinking it out and enjoying it: a humbler and wiser man, for I am now a devout worshipper of the strength and wisdom of women, especially sexy ones like her Highness Diane. Ready I am to score a major film, do serious interviews, and extol on national TV feminism’s countless benefits for all.
“Kate, oh, Kate, I am bored. Let’s do something. Let’s play. I’ll play drums this time, you piano, like you did the other day. What you say?”
“But, papa, we have to watch the soup. Mamma will be home soon.”
“I know. Let’s surprise her. Let’s go wait for her to get out of class, and then we can go for pizza.”
“We had pizza yesterday, papa. We can’t have it every day.”
“Why not, Kate? Pizza is delicious, is it not?”
“Yes, it is, papa, but mamma says we must eat more vegetables, beans, tofu, and other nutritious stuff. Pizza is a treat. We can have it only once a week.” She continues to draw with mature poise that impresses me but also worries me somewhat because she’s a bit too well- behaved. Diane thinks Kate’s impressive demeanor is mostly natural and only partly environmental. The environment does articulate genetics, we both agree, but inheritance is primary, according to the soon-to-be Doctor Diane. Her claim baffles me because she’s a psychologist who thinks nurturing secondary—a perspective more apt for evolutionary biologists. I disagree. Nurturing is more important than genetics, extremes notwithstanding: genetic diseases and abusive parents. Here’s proof: Imagine a set of healthy twins—one raised outdoors by chimps, the other indoors by humans. The chimp-raised twin will behave like a chimp, the human-raised twin like a human.
“Our Diane is one deep mamma, isn’t she?”
“You always say that, papa.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Yes. Mamma smiles when you say it. She likes it.”
“Truth is beautiful and precious. Remember why?”
“Because it’s rare, papa. You and mamma always say that.”
We also say that our child is the best student we ever had: conscientious, creative, hard- working, and so on but a bit too serious. Maybe I should run to the liquor store, buy the most expensive bottle of cognac, and pour it in the soup to loosen up mother and daughter. Kate will probably scold me afterward. Diane will probably love it—improvise, smile, laugh, and then ask me to read a chapter or two to see if she can use them in her dissertation. Then, they’ll both kiss me and retire after telling me not to stay up too late and to use headphones because my studio isn’t completely soundproofed.
“Papa, we forgot the mushrooms.”
“They’re in that bowl—cut up and everything. I’ll add them shortly. Thanks for the reminder. What’s that purple?”
“The sky, papa. And this is mamma writing her dissertation, and you and me are singing along with the birds.”
“And you and I are singing along with the birds, you mean, right?”
“Yes, papa. Thank you.”
“What’s that up there—a green table?” I look around, lips puckered and right eye squinting.
“No, silly. It’s our piano.”
“Last time I looked, our piano was brown. Do you think we should paint it green?”
“Not necessarily,” says the child.
“What, then? Are you trying to confuse your own papa?”
“No, silly. I’m being metaphorical.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, impressed by the child’s poise.
“I’m not sure. You and mamma say that a lot.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Good. What’s the opposite of metaphorical? Diane and I often use the two words together: metaphorical and its opposite. Remember the opposite of metaphorical?”
“Lateral?” Kate asks.
“Lateral means on the side, but you’re very close. It’s an L-word.”
“Bingo!” I yell like a fool while the child keeps drawing. I want to tickle her, lift her up high, and wrestle with her on the floor, but I dare not wrinkle her clothes and disrupt her creativity. I look again at her drawing, which looks cubist: several simultaneous perspectives— frontal, sideways, aerial. “Whom are you drawing atop our piano?”
“Yo mamma!” my child says and laughs.
“I beg your pardon,” I reply in mock seriousness. “Where did you hear that?”
“You said it to Ian, the other day, papa, and you both laughed, remember?”
I put my left index finger on my chin, look at the ceiling, and declare, “I don’t recall. Are you sure I said it?”
“Yes, papa. Ian called you a total bohemian homebody, and you told him, ‘Yo mamma, sir,’ and you both laughed.”
“Wait, wait,” I utter, touch my temples, and close my eyes. “The scene is coming back to me…. However, I don’t remember you being present, you little spy….” I open my eyes, point at her, and raise my left eyebrow. “What gives? Where were you?”
“Right here, papa—drawing Friendship. Remember that?”
“The doozie that adorns the side of our piano? It’s about you and Claire, right?”
“Yes, but it’s also about you and Ian.”
“How old are you, Kate?”
“Five years and seven months, papa. You know that.”
“I’m not so sure, love. You are so serious…. Kids your age run around all day, roll on the ground, mess up their clothes, and so on.”
“We go to the playground every day, papa, remember?”
“Oh, yes. I love that place. The labyrinth is awesome—a bit claustrophobic but exciting, nevertheless.”
“It’s for kids, papa.”
“Kids come in all shapes and sizes, little sister. Moreover, some people who have lived fewer than six years are already mature adults….”
She puts down her crayons, smiles to me, screams for several seconds like a baby with a full diaper load, stops, smiles again, and resumes her drawing.
“Thank you,” I say, breathe a sigh of relief, rise, add the mushrooms, stir the soup, and lower the temperature. Then, I stand across the table from Kate and look at her masterpiece from another perspective.
A blue crayon in one hand, a yellow in the other, she is drawing Grandma Calliope on one side and the Sun on the other, back and forth, not at all self-conscious—a photogenic natural who will leave us in about a decade, for college and graduate school, all the way to a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies, her parents’ favorite. I turn on a light, open the window a bit more, breathe the fresh air, listen to the street sounds, and look at Kate—an ambassador of a wiser future humanity powered by renewable energy sources fueling settlements on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. NASA’s website is one of our most favorites. The gut-wrenching amusement-park rides that scare me amuse her, and she has 20/10 vision—astronaut material, we all think, including Ian, whose own daughter, Claire, behaves much better in Kate’s company, he says. Kate and I became Claire’s main babysitters after her mother (an intense woman burdened with guilt) joined an NGO in Iraq, two years ago. The other day, after Claire had expressed her fear of also losing her father, Kate told her, “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. You’ll stay here with us.”
A key is turning over at our front door: our warrior queen back after another day of civilizing pagans.
“Mamma, mamma!” Kate says, jumps down, and heads for the front door, her little arms
raised. I follow her.
Diane the Magnificent smiling like the morning Sun, Kate around her neck and waist.
I blow my wife a kiss and say, “The soup is almost ready.”
Diane the Wondrous nods and blows me a kiss.
“Papa offered me a chocolate sundae, mamma, but I didn’t take it.”
Diane smiles and kisses the child’s forehead.
“How was Dr. Wiseman?” I ask Diane about her favorite professor after we kiss.
“Freire 0, Wiseman 17,” replies Diane.
“The whole class rejected Freire’s allegation that all lecturing falls in his banking model of education?”
“Yes. We all agree that Dr. Wiseman’s method teaches us how to do phenomenology. She doesn’t deposit anything in our minds, which aren’t Freire’s allegedly-empty vessels, anyway. Moreover, we are free to interrupt her at any moment: ask questions, make statements, and so on.”
“Not even the class Marxist defended Freire?”
“Chatwick? He adores Dr. Wiseman.”
“I adore you, mamma!” Kate says.
Diane caresses the child’s back, returns the sentiment, and walks toward the kitchen while I close the front door, take Diane’s book bag, open it, and retrieve the portable digital recorder she uses to record Dr. Wiseman’s “think-alouds,” as everyone refers to her lectures.
“Go ahead,” Diane tells me. “I’ll keep an eye on the soup.”
“Mamma, mamma, come see what I drew.”
I lie on the couch so that I can watch Kate and Diane in our open kitchen-living-room, and I turn on the digital recorder:
Heidegger dedicated his Being and Time to his teacher Husserl “in friendship and admiration” and then spent about 500 pages to render Dasein—human reality. However, he failed to finish his book and failed to render Dasein, for several reasons, including the fact that Dasein changes when we focus on it. In short, Heidegger was ignorant of the uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics. In fact, frontal assaults on being can take us only so far because the uncertainty increases as the object changes when scrutinized. Sideways approaches may take us considerably farther….
“See, mamma?” Kate says and shows her drawing to Diane. “That’s you, and that’s me, and that’s papa, and that’s Grandma Calliope. She’s on our piano. Papa thought it was a table.”
I pause the recorder to study the mother-daughter interaction. Diane’s casual tenderness is unmatched in the annals of Western philosophy and psychology.
“How did the piano fly up there?”
“Grandma Calliope made it.”
Diane kisses Kate again, stirs the soup, turns off the heat, and heads for our bedroom, Kate following her around like a puppy. They will soak in the tub for a while, and then we will dine together….
Sideways approaches don’t waste time wondering if human reality is a trickster creator’s dream—a notion that reeks of dogma. Even if it were true, it would be irrelevant because we could exit the trickster creator’s dream only via death. Consequently, assaulting reality frontally amounts to using a microscope to zoom in on the fabric of the natural world, which is a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope, anyway….
I pause the recorder and look for my cell phone, expecting my mother to call and wondering why Kate thinks my mother made our piano fly…. I try to remember the last time Kate, Diane, or I brought up my mother, who hasn’t called us this month…. What’s going on? Does Kate sense unconsciously that Grandma Calliope will call, any day now…?
Here we are, then. We want to take a step, but the landing entails ideology or faith, so let’s survey the terrain before we jump. Happy children and wise adults spend most of their time enjoying their being here. However, epistemologists’ job is to explore uncharted territory by marching through it. Unfortunately, any series of premises leading to a conclusion entails a degree of faith in the ability of language and faith to describe primal phenomena….
Remember the circular nature of thinking: The premises of any syllogism’s conclusion often presuppose the conclusion itself, in a circular pattern that gives rise to chicken/egg type paradoxes. Epistemologists urge us to move on because the circular nature of thinking is a Gordian knot that not even Alexander the Great could undo. The consensus is that philosophy begins after the circular nature of thinking is acknowledged. However, since we are looking for a sideways approach, let’s consider epistemologists’ advice a historical coat, and let’s take it off….
Pause the recorder because I love my historical coats and because Dr. Wiseman is giving me an existential flashback complete with the dread and angst I used to live with before Diane the Splendorous saved me from the clutches of self-indulgence…. Breathe…. Get out of Nausea Lane now. We donated our black-and-leather wardrobe to the Salvation Army, remember? The rainbow now reigns supreme in our Zen love-shack. Watch your language, too. Kate is a tie-dye sponge…. You forgot the oregano, too….
Rise and walk to the sink, stay-at-home dad…. Count your blessings…. Enjoy the free air and this easy life…. Wash your hands, dry them, stir the soup, and add some of yo mamma’s oregano but not too much because bitterness will ensue…. I must’ve been a chef a in my previous life because I love to cook…. Time to prepare the salad: sweet tomatoes, crisp romaine lettuce, fragrant basil leaves, Boston lettuce, onions, cucumber, extra-virgin olive oil, and Mother Earth’s other gifts…. Turn the recorder back on, listen closely to the existential siren, and count your blessings….
What do we see? Not much beyond the boundaries of language, right? Let’s look closer. But wait. Closer presupposes geometry and math—another coat? Let’s see. We can certainly manipulate the world better with technology and math, but technology and math are historical phenomena. Moreover, closer asserts a spatial relationship, a mathematical vector, so it doesn’t extend into the primal terrain we are trying to reach….
Ah, grad school: dervishes chasing their tail, spinning faster and faster in hope of shooting ahead of common time…. Speaking of time, we should send Dr. Wiseman an email suggesting that music can take her deeper into the fabric of spacetime and the collective unconscious…. Philosophy is a closed loop that nobody can exit without music, psychology, paleoanthropology, sociology, and so on….
Have you ever noticed the emphasis we put on foundations? We often ask one another, “Where do you base your conclusion?”
“What is the basis of your argument?” After all, the premises of a syllogism buttress the conclusion, right? Gravity, in other words. Having evolved on a planet whose existence necessitates gravity, we presuppose that our reasoning abides by the law of gravity….
“Papa, papa, we forgot the oregano,” says Kate when she and Diane come out of the tub, looking fresh and smelling sublime.
I turn off the recorder, look at my daughter and wife, point at the oregano, and ask, “Who loves you two, eh?”
“You do, papa,” says Kate and sits on her high chair, ready to eat.
Diane arranges the china and utensils on the table while I serve the side dishes: eggplant salad with walnuts, roasted red peppers, three kinds of olives, tsatsiki (plain yogurt with fresh dill, garlic, and cucumber), feta cheese, and so on. Praise the Eternal Now…. Thirty years ago, in my mother’s kitchen, a little boy shorter than the table—the Aegean nearby, the walk to the beach an extended pleasure through an olive grove’s serenity, oregano bushes everywhere…. Hot but dry, the salty breeze precious and invigorating, the sky and the sea two ephemeral eternities improvising brilliantly with each other while the parched greenery prays quietly for rain…. Warm sand and the entire beach to ourselves…. Then, the glorious splashing in the sunny water, unable to get enough of my father’s raising me high and throwing me back in, exhilarated about being able to swim and hold my breath long enough to see little fish darting off toward deeper water, the sandy bottom sloping off into the abyss, where Poseidon schemes to keep Odysseus away from Ithaca…. Nirvana in samsara, and vice versa—Heaven on Earth despite the fact that grandpa died at fifty-five and one of my first cousins never saw his twenty-eighth birthday…. Nuns’ Beach the locals call the little cove that doesn’t appear on any map. Only the lost can find it because the nuns are reclusive and the locals protective of natural treasures…. Drivers are so focused on navigating the narrow two-lane road that they miss the winding path that leads to the beach…. Crossing the road is a rush because no light or sign exists to stop traffic. Listen you must for several seconds, and then cross as fast as possible—calmly because if you fall down, you may never rise in this world again. Luckily, the natural serenity enables you to hear approaching vehicles long before they appear—unless you’re deaf, of course. The locals claim that a deaf nun tried to cross the road, many years ago, but when she was halfway across, a truck appeared. However, she was such a pure soul that God dispatched Gabriel, who swept the nun up to Heaven. Her body was never found because Gabriel transformed it into holy water and sprinkled it on the nearby olive grove, whose church-like ambiance reminded me of the anonymous deaf nun when I crossed it, last summer…. On the way back, Kate was asleep in my arms, and her peaceful countenance reminded me of the sweet exhaustion I had felt in my mother’s arms thirty years before, the keen hunger, and the overwhelming anticipation for the bounty on our family table…. Praise the Eternal Now….
Feeling like a priest preparing the holy sacrament, I pour some olive on the feta cheese and sprinkle some oregano.
“Thank God for grandma’s oregano,” says Kate, and I realize that the child has been telling me unconsciously to call my mother, not to wait for her or my father to call us, as they do once a month….
* * *
John Likides is the author of Foundations of Meaning: Stories and Essays on Being in the Eternal Now (2013), Eros Triumphant (2010), Infinite Sustain (2007), and Out of the Labyrinth (2003). He has an MFA in English from the City College of CUNY, and his work appeared in Confrontation, The Portable Lower East Side, Downtown Brooklyn, and other journals.