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Excerpt From: The English Disease

Kindertotenlieder or, daycare among the paste-eaters

Something about small children tends to make me sad.


I can barely drop Franny off at her day care without coming away from it mildly depressed. It has something to do, I think, with seeing them, these children, sitting in their little kneedimpling circles, their little hands manipulating their little tools: their miniature scissors, their cigar-fat markers, their squat jars of clumpy paste—the kind unhappy children used to eat (at least they did when I was little), running the paste-clotted stick, like a Thai hors d’oeuvre, across their bumpy tongues. Isabelle loses all patience with me when I speak of it, but we tend to treat our children as though we were preparing them for a life in an Aborigine village, with songs and papercrafts, little circle dances, and storytellers arriving on odd schedules. We allow and even encourage them to mark up their bodies, their faces, their hands, with free and colorful designs.


It’s no wonder so many of them will fail in later life. And Franny must feel the same way I do, because I have to struggle with her each day I drive her in, forcing her from my arms and into the little play group. She clings to my neck, strangling me on the days I wear a tie, screaming, “Daddy, Daddy, please, not yet!”


With her thick glasses and the little blank diary she carries, in lieu of a blanket, for reassurance, she resembles a nervous, a reluctant, anthropologist, afraid to have to fend for herself on this strange island of wild and happy primitives: Glue-Eaters’ Island!


I can’t help shuddering, even thinking of it.


And it’s my own fault, really. I allow her to sleep in. Neither Isabelle nor I have the heart to rouse her so early from her bed, as though she were a milkman! She’s only three, after all, and this way I can get a little work done before she wakes up and begins issuing her tiny, frazzling demands, standing in her crib like Mussolini on the balustrade.


(Who knew such a small child could be so imperious, so shrill?)


And invariably we are the last ones to arrive at her day care because of it, arriving literally hours after the tiny group has formally cohered, so that Franny’s entry into it each day is uncertain, causing her, each day, to cling to my neck and scream.


Her caregivers, summoned by this shrieking, approach us from all sides. Smiling knowingly, indulgently, not unsympathetically, they attempt to sever her from my arms. “No!—Daddy!—please!” Franny yowls or screams or rather in actual fact whispers. She whispers this plea, albeit shrilly and directly into my ear, her small teeth pressed hard against it, her forehead banging wildly into my temple; wanting above all not to be embarrassed, she whispers in an attempt to remind me privately of the bond we share, a blood tie that by rights must supercede the desires of these grasping others with their paltry claims to a pallid civic authority.


And what can I do, torn as I am between an instinctual need to protect her and a very real desire to immediately surrender her up to them? After all, I have oceans of work yet to swim through this morning. Long since promised to its publishers, my monograph on Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder remains hopelessly unfinished, my notes and drafts gnawing at me, like a rat trapped in my briefcase, suffocating for want of air. I do nothing, nothing. Or little. Very little. I smile back at them, these smiling teachers, the harried, embarrassed father, self-humiliating and ineffectual, clichés clinging to me like mussels to a pier, while Franny, oblivious to our adult complicities, continues to struggle between us, locked as if in a death grip, kicking and clawing, pinching at my shirt, trying to save herself. And from what?


From what?


From a carefree day of play with this merry, mucusy band of rascals, these parasitic blobs of protoplasm, these refugees from Glue-Eaters’ Island!


I can barely think of them without growing despondent, the penitential prayers my fellow Jews and I send up to Heaven every year on the Day of Atonement ringing like a death knell in my ear: Who by water? Who by fire? Who because he wore glasses or glanced at his nails like a girl? Who because, laughing , she slobbered milk through her nose?


(It’s their innocence, I realize, that depresses me most, their small and happy ignorance of their own abysmal fragility.)


Working now as a great gaggle, Franny’s teachers are able, finally, to snatch her from my arms. We’re adults, after all; we’re stronger; we outnumber her and, besides, we’re working against her from all sides, with me merely pretending to offer her my aid. Tears stream down her cheeks from behind her boxy black rims. Red-faced, she wails like a heretic being dragged down the corridors of the Inquisitor’s Palace. Her little fingers curled, her pudgy arms flailing, she reaches out but is unable to grasp me, her betraying father: whether for assistance or to slap me in the face, I cannot tell.


In the silence that follows her deportation from the room, the remaining teachers turn to me, presenting concerned and considerate faces. Possessing the bland equanimity of governmentsponsored torturers, they offer their reassurances.


“She’ll stop crying,” they say. “She always does.”


“Just as soon as you leave.”


But I don’t wait, not even long enough to wonder if I believe them or to see if what they say is true. Instead, I make a quick and embarrassed dash past the rat in the aquarium, past the twenty or so noodle-and-yarn-constructed portraits of the smiling sun, out the purple-and-yellow door, into the morning-drenched playground with its tire swings and its climbing ropes and its multileveled wooden platforms, through the thigh-high picket gate, its little tin bell tinkling as a warning against the possible intrusion of kidnappers, pederasts, child pornographers, arriving at my car, where I sit, gripping the steering wheel and staring at my hands, a plastic grin of gratitude plastered to my face, as though I myself had been eating glue and the silly grin had somehow gotten itself stuck there.