I was a young father raising a toddler in New York City. I was also a broke, miserable student buried under an avalanche of student loans. In my filthy, sleep-deprived condition I suddenly remembered Thomas Hobbes’s description of life, which I’d read years earlier. What was the line? Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and…something else. Awful? Horrendous? Ridiculously terrible? Whatever. It all fit.
“Hobbes?” my wife said, shaking her head like someone watching a child board a roller coaster that will be too much for him. “Now you’ve got that in your head?”
“Look around! Solitary! Poor! Nasty! Brutish! And something else I can’t remember! It’s all right here, on display.”
“I don’t feel poor. The average couple raising a child in Manhattan makes four hundred thousand dollars a year. I just read that in the Times.”
“Well, we’re not average. In fact, the average was a lot higher before we arrived.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. We fit in just fine.”
“Fit in? Four hundred thousand dollars? Last year we made minus sixty.”
She lifted our son to give him a hug—and to remind me that we had riches beyond compare. No sleep and a miserable existence, but riches beyond compare. That was parenting. Or so I had heard.
My son’s legs were churning; she set him down again. He was in a stage of perpetual motion and happily bounced off walls. I guessed our apartment seemed big to him because he was tiny. That wouldn’t last forever.
“So we’re technically poor…” she began.
“Literally poor,” I said. “Actually poor.”
“Doesn’t state of mind count…?”
“No, it doesn’t. We don’t live in the Matrix, my dear.”
She ignored this. “…and isn’t poverty really just a state of mind…?”
“Not when it’s a mind that can’t remember we’re drowning in debt,” I said crabbily.
“Fine, fine…” She held up her hands.
It was not a discussion we needed to have again. We both knew what we were doing: pouring everything into tuition now for me and the boy, with the rewards to come later. For him, a solid preschool launching pad to a sensational education and a glorious career as something respectable, like a doctor or a scientist. For me, short-term survival leading to…well, we weren’t sure. Not prosperity—it was far too late for that—but some measure of comfort. Breathing room. Eventually. Maybe. Of course, at the rate we were going he would be finished with school before I was.
I could tell she was ticking through the rest of Hobbes’s list in her mind. “What’s the something else?”
“I can’t remember. I think it might be tough.”
“Maybe it’s insane.” My wife smiled in a way that made me uncomfortable.
“I think it’s only one syllable. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and mmpf.”
“Daft?” Her smile grew larger. “Nuts? Hopeless? Oh, right, that’s two syllables.” Her nose crinkled, the surest sign of all that she was suppressing laughter. “Doomed? Listen, you do remember there’s an Internet, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to look it up.”
“You’re too lazy?” She cocked an eyebrow; her nose was crinkled in three places. “Too lazy to google?”
“No. Too afraid.”
My wife rolled her eyes and went to pack goldfish crackers in a travel cup. Part of me felt bad for emphasizing our condition, but then again, my wife did not exactly dispute the list.
Solitary? Everyone in New York knows what it’s like to feel alone even when you’re surrounded by millions of people. The crowd can do that to you: it pushes on you feelings of anonymity and vulnerability. What were the three of us in this ocean of humanity? Tiny drops. Ignored. Indistinguishable. Transitory.
But it was worse than that! Drops in an ocean seemed like a nice thing to be, compared with our actual lives. Our apartment was terrible, and no one could help us get another one. Our living room (slash dining room slash bedroom) was so blocked by a metal security grate that no sunlight reached us, ever.
Nasty? Wasn’t living in artificial light nasty? One didn’t try to raise children in a casino or a submarine.
For Valentine’s Day I had bought my wife flowers. They shut tight and never opened, mocking us for trying to live in darkness.
“It’s okay,” my wife had said after a few days. “They’re nice.” Then she made the face she makes when she feels sorry for me: half sympathetic, half trying not to laugh. “They’re the nicest sticks I’ve ever gotten.”
And at that my son started laughing, because even though he was too little to understand what she was saying, he could sense when she was trying not to laugh and that always made him burst into laughter, and then she started laughing, because now she could pretend she was laughing with him and not at me.
The two of them had done this practically since the day he was born. It was uncanny.
So that had been their Valentine’s Day. Cracking each other up at my expense. I had to admit they were a well-matched pair, inspiring in their ability to make the best of a miserable scenario, and I was glad for that. Not everyone had to live in my Hobbesian state, adding up forthcoming tuition payments and calculating repayment plans on the backs of grocery receipts. Sometimes it was better to be deluded. Things were happier that way.
Even though it was truly nasty here. My wife did not dispute this. How could she, after she had expressed such panic over the tiny ants that crawled all over our kitchen, and such outrage at my (well-intentioned) joke that maybe our son would come to view them as pets? And after she had nearly collapsed in the elevator at the news that the neighbors on either side of us had bed bugs?
“We must be next,” she had said, sagging against the stroller, her eyes lost and spooky. “They’re closing in.”
“Maybe not. Our apartment might be too horrible for them. I’m sure they have their limits.”
Our apartment: dark and not fit for vermin. But we lived there. With a beautiful three-year-old boy who smiled through it all. He had no idea what life was truly like. I let him watch Elmo and kept him away from Hobbes. Hobbes was my pain to bear alone.
Solitary? Check. Poor? Check. Nasty? Check.
“Brutish?” my wife called from the kitchen. “You know Hobbes was talking about life in a state of nature, right? This is New York! The apex of civilization!”
“Have you seen the subway at rush hour?”
I heard cupboard doors closing; she obviously had no response. Brutish? Check. That was the entire list. Well, except for the something else, whatever that was.
The missing term nagged at me as I cleaned up the animal flashcards my son had strewn across the floor. Until my wife’s reminder, I had forgotten that Hobbes had been describing life in a state of nature and not life in general. That was important for figuring out the rest of the list. Nature, nature, nature… Dark? Cold?
Dark we had covered. We were all over dark.
Maybe it was cold. Our apartment was insufferably hot in the summer. In the winter, though, I had left my coffee on the counter next to the kitchen window and came home to find that it had iced over. So we had cold, at least for six months. Half right.
My son was at my feet. He’d pushed his stroller to the door, his sign that he wanted to take a trip to the museum. My wife put the goldfish crackers in my hand and a diaper bag around my shoulder. And I put on my game face and smiled, because the least I could do was to try to make sure that he grew up in a normal way even if his father was daft and nuts and hopeless and insane and doomed. And cold, six months a year.
Outside I felt a little better. That was New York’s trick. You didn’t notice how bad things were because you could always go somewhere else. Like everyone else we used the city as an extension of our apartment. Coffee shops replaced the study we didn’t have. Parks were our backyard.
And our playroom was the American Museum of Natural History. It was here that I felt like I was succeeding as a parent. We went there several times a week that year; my son took to the big halls and wide open spaces like—well, like a flower to sunlight. And my own heart lifted to see him run down an abandoned corridor and turn into a dramatic new hall, flooded with natural light.
Here it was hard to believe we were only three subway stops away from that wretched closet we lived in. Here there were no neighbors with bedbugs, or tiny ants crawling around in spite of the all-natural spray made from toddler-safe orange peels with which we flooded our kitchen. Here there was just open, empty space and ceilings that soared overhead like a secular cathedral. And knowledge to absorb, even if neither of us fully comprehended what we were seeing. Somehow it felt edifying and uplifting, even if my son had no time for exhibits.
Here we were! My son jumped out of his straps and buckles and I pushed an empty stroller, marveling at how fast he had grown and how fast he could run. He was running from our apartment, maybe. Even if he didn’t know it.
On the second floor we encountered a guide standing in front of a box that held replicas of dinosaur teeth. This woman was a scientist – our dream! – donating her time in order to show kids something educational. He was a little young, but it was a weekday and hardly anyone was at the museum that day. I felt like we should take advantage of the opportunity.
“Stop, wait!” I said, wrapping my son in a two-armed hug to slow him down. His feet churned below. “Look at these dinosaur teeth!”
His eyes widened as the museum guide lowered the box to his eye level and invited him to hold one.
“And what did dinosaurs EAT with those big TEETH?” I sang.
The guide stared at me. I stared back, waiting for her to answer. My son started to squirm. Didn’t she know she had to answer quickly?
Finally she spoke. “Are you talking to me, sir?”
“Ah, yes, I was,” I said. “Sorry. I forget that adults don’t talk to each other like that. Hey, do you happen to remember what Hobbes said about life in a state of nature? Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and something else—what was the something else? I’ve forgotten.”
She stared at me like I was a homeless person screaming about Jesus. “And how would I know that?” she said quietly.
“I thought…life in a state of nature…you know…Museum of Natural History…”
“I’m not a philosopher, sir. Or a park ranger.”
I nodded. I did not know what to say. Their patron saint was Teddy Roosevelt. Not Thomas Hobbes. I remembered that now.
She sighed and glanced around, as if I had used my allotted time and should move along so other people could look at the teeth. I understood, but even so it was mildly insulting. There were no other people in this hall.
I stood frozen in place, struck dumb.
Aha! Dumb! Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish…and dumb? Hmm…
My kid ended the conversation by leaning away from my hand on his shoulder, letting me know he was ready to go, then running in place for a moment, getting revved up until finally I lifted my hand to release him like a gate swinging up on a racehorse. And we were off again, both of us happy to be alone with one another, hardly stopping for breath, power walking through the entire empty museum from top to bottom, every hall, every floor.
There wasn’t much learning. But who cared? This was an experience. I valued the fossils on pedestals, the interesting corners, the long empty hallways, the gray stone, the high windows, the velvet ropes, the lit exhibits, everything. The vast and the tiny and the juxtaposition of the two. Everything here – the space, the light, the feel – was being soaked up by that young brain of his. I could see it happening.
And then, just when I was exhausted to the point of despair, he jumped in a folding chair and watched a short film narrated by Meryl Streep. He didn’t need to ask permission. This, too, was part of our routine.
The movie was about cladograms, those diagrams that chart different species and how they’re connected on an evolutionary ladder. Sort of a family tree for life forms, with branching lines where, say, fish diverged from mammals, or where birds grew feathers, or where Neanderthals bit the dust.
Cladograms were educational! But that didn’t matter too much. Fifteen minutes of anything on a big screen kept him in place. I sat next to him, catching my breath and gearing up for the rest of the museum and the trip back to the wretched closet. Anything old Meryl had to teach me was frosting on the cake.
And of course, the concepts of the movie were way beyond a three-year-old’s comprehension.
Or so I thought.
The next day I came home from school to find he and his mother working on a project, a big piece of paper with lines drawn with magic marker and animal flashcards gobbed on with wads of crisscrossed tape.
“It looks like a cladogram,” I said. “Wow.”
“That’s what it is, Daddy!” my son chirped.
My wife looked at me with astonishment. “A clay-dough-what?” she asked. “I didn’t know what he was saying. I thought he was making up a word.”
I marveled at the lines, straighter than any I had ever been able to draw. A surge of pride shot through me. I felt like the Father of the Year. I smiled at my wife. “What did you think he was drawing?”
“The security bars of our window.”
“Security bars? Ha! See how those trips to the museum have paid off? He’s going to be a scientist after all!”
“He’s three,” she reminded me.
“That’s not too early to show interests and tendencies,” I said in a knowing voice, as if I’d heard that somewhere official.
In response, she pointed to the branch of the cladogram where he had taped a fish to a monkey.
“Baby steps,” I said. Fish, monkey, who cared. The concept was there; the details could come later. The interest was what was important—and here it was! Undeniable! And I had done my part!
I stared at my son’s little head, fascinated by the activity going on in that little brain of his. This scientist would be my legacy. My gift to the world. I would watch him grow, and win honors, and someday toward the end of my long life, I’d watch him receive the Nobel Prize in something or other. Biology, or Chemistry, or some new field that he would himself have a hand in inventing.
And in his acceptance speech he’d thank his dear old dad, who couldn’t make it to the ceremony because he was almost a hundred, but who was watching from home on his hologram machine—but speaking of his dear old dad, he wanted everyone to know that this prize, this career, the planet he had just saved, owed everything to some early trips to the American Museum of Natural History, which had instilled in him a lifelong love of science…
And I would swell with pride: finally, finally, I’d done something positive. That was my new plan for my life. I just needed to hang around long enough for him to shower me with reflected glory.
But I was getting ahead of myself. There would be time to work on the acceptance speech. First I had to work on the science. “What’s this?” I asked, tapping the cards.
“A fish monkey,” said my son. “He’s a supervillain.”
My stomach sank. This was not what I wanted to hear.
“How about a superhero?” I tried. “Don’t you like those? Good guys? We like good guys, right?”
“Fishmonkey can destroy every superhero,” he said.
“He can?” My voice cracked. Suddenly we were not at the Nobel Prize ceremony. We were on the Island of Dr. Moreau. I was the old man pretending to smile at my adult son who ran the place, overlooking the fact that he was diabolical.
My stomach had been replaced by a swarm of butterflies. An evil scientist? That’s what I had? That was my gift to the world?
“Even Batman?” I said softly. Batman had been my son’s favorite superhero as recently as last fall.
“Especially Batman.” He chuckled like a maniac.
I nodded and swallowed hard, terrified by what I had created. All that museum-going, turned to evil purposes!
But then my wife shot me a look, and I softened, because he was so tiny and cute, and because I had an overactive imagination. I went back to admiring the rest of the cladogram.
“I like this part!” I said, tapping the paper where he had taped pictures of our family.
He glanced over at his previous work and nodded. “Mommy and me!” he cried. The photo of the two of them was the highest on the page. The right place for human beings! Maybe this was an accident, but maybe not. Maybe he had intuited that this was how cladograms worked, that this was what they were intended to show. As you worked your way up, you got closer to the present day, and the highest and most complex forms of life.
I put superheroes out of my mind. That heroes and villains stuff was a normal, healthy phase, which would pass. Those were cartoons. This was actual knowledge! How many three-year-olds could know this? I was Superdad again. Progenitor of genius. You’re welcome, world!
Then I saw my picture. I was at the Bronx zoo, trying to smile in subzero weather. It was not the best picture of me. My nose was running. My teeth looked gray.
Of more immediate significance: my picture was not where I thought it should be.
“Hey buddy,” I said, trying to be helpful. “Why am I not on the same branch as you and Mom?”
“It’s a cladogram!” he said brightly.
“I get that. But why are the two of you together on the top of this branch? And I’m over here, by myself? With a line that leads to an X?”
He laughed. “It’s a cladogram, Daddy!”
I stared at the X until suddenly it hit me.
That was the end to the Hobbes line. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Life was short. It was horrible and then it ended early. That’s why Hobbes was so frightening.
As a young man I had found this almost thrilling. Short, yes, inevitable death, yes, yes, yes, I got all that, it was part of being human. But back then, there was a sort of joy to thinking of life as being for the young. The reality of it had filled me with gusto. Carpe diem!
But now we had this beautiful boy! I wanted to live forever, to watch him grow up. The Nobel Prize was a father’s dream, but it was not my dream for him, not really. I just wanted to see him thrive, and have kids of his own, and grandkids. He’d have a beautiful retirement, no doubt, after a long and satisfying career, and after an education that did not drag on like my own. He would live in apartments grand enough to have an operable window that actually permitted sunlight! And I would be there to smile and pretend that I had made all this possible.
But why wasn’t I on the cladogram with him and his mother? Why was I down here?
I swallowed hard. What was this X for?
It looked like death. It looked like death. It looked like death. My death. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish…and dead… good lord, it was too hard to take.
“But—this black X?” I laughed gently, acting like I was teaching him something. “That’s not even an animal! What’s that supposed to mean?” My voice died in my throat. “Does it mean that…that I’m dead?”
My mouth was dry. My wife was sighing again but this didn’t involve her. It was between me and my boy. And his X. His X that looked black and thick. And final. I couldn’t move on. I needed to know.
“What’s it mean?” I whispered. “That… That I’m going to die?”
Smiling, my son shook his head. Silly Daddy.
“Okay, good, good,” I said, immediately regretting that I had introduced Death into his happy world. He knew about Death already, of course, and as a scientist it would no doubt be something he would one day view with clinical detachment. But for now he was just a boy, a young, fragile boy, and a father’s death—that was a lot to throw at his young mind.
My mouth was frozen in an awkward half-smile. I sniffed, embarrassed at how close I had come to crying, right there in front of him, right there on his cladogram.
Oh, life, life, life. Sweet, precious life. The moments that don’t last! The time that runs out! I felt like a runner who had just finished a long race and was looking around, eyes wide, gasping for breath, body heaving. Trying to inhale the oxygen, to absorb all the air there was—to get it all inside me, as fast as I could take it in and as much as I could hold.
Then I exhaled. This was reality. This was happening. Here. Now. My son and I had each other, for the time being and the foreseeable future. Life was good, and by understanding that, the way we feel about each other, we can stretch it out.
Screw you, Hobbes. Life was good, and it was not short. My son had taught me that. My beautiful young son had—
“It means you’ll be extinct!” my son said.
And he went on his merry way, filling in brackets, making a combination of a bird and a T. Rex. More destruction for the universe lay ahead.
I nodded. A draft rushed through the bottom of the window that didn’t fit in its frame, chilling my neck and arms and ankles. We were sitting on a pile of blue mats, elevated to place us beyond the reach of the invisible vermin. Our security gate reflected our lamp and shone with a dull glare. Everything smelled like rotten oranges.
Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish…? God yes. All those things.
And short? I looked again at the photo of my smiling face, and the line above it, and the thick black X that had been drawn by my heir.
My heart was skipping beats. It felt like Hobbes was reaching across time to seize my heart in his ghostly, icy grip. Clenching it just for fun. Life is this ha ha life is this ha ha life is this ha ha…
I shivered. Life was good. Solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish. But good. And short.
Oh dear God, it was short. Short! Short was the worst of all. Ending early offered no comfort to the struggles of life: its brutal reality compounded everything.
My wife started cleaning up. I stayed where I was, staring at my son. Yes, yes, Mr. Hobbes. Sorry to have doubted you. Life was solitary, and poor, and nasty, and brutish, and short—far, far, far, far, far too short. That was how it was, and that was how it would be.
For those of you new to the Object series, you can find links to all the others at the 100 Objects page. Or you can run through this list:
- #26 – The Offering – stumbling through parenthood like a fox
- #25 – The Equation – trying to prove the Great Unprovable
- #24 – The Rope – falling up
- #23 – The Passage – a literary genius and a wise professor knock some literature into my head
- #22 – The Sound – two young lovers don’t believe their apartment is haunted…and then they hear a noise…
- #21 – The Speed Trap – a boy, a dad, a grampa, and the long arm of the law
- #20 – The Sign – the consequences of demanding a little more from the Deity
- #19 – My Roommate’s Books – Philosophy welcomes a disciple with ambitions
- #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece – want faith with that?
- #17 – The Shirts and Skins – three small lessons in shame, compliments of two small basketball players and their earnest coach
- #16 – The Laundry – summer job turns into an unexpected (and somewhat tragic) love story
- #15 – The Coffepot – smart kid throws the spelling bee, gets more than he bargained for
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise emerges from Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the Chinese furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with an assist from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Books are at Amazon.com and some other places. Podcast episodes 1 and 2 and 3 are here. Everything is free if you know how to work the system. The podcast is free naturally, and the books are free if you’d like to review one of them rather than spend the 99 cents to five bucks or so they cost. Just shoot me an email or leave me a comment and I’ll ship a review copy your way.
Take care, everyone. Be good to others. Connect where you can. And do try to go onward, when possible, and upward, where it makes sense to do so.