The Duck-Rabbit (A Short Story)

Note: The form is taken from David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.


There were nine months to prepare; but of course no preparation would ever be enough. You know? It feels as if there’s this bright hue over everything. I know it sounds cliche and everything but that is my best attempt at describing it. Well, I’m not literally seeing this ‘hue’. It’s more like a metaphor. Have you ever seen that picture of the Duck-Rabbit? Wittgenstein talked about it—how our minds manage to impose different meanings onto the same information. That’s sort of the feeling, when you first see that the duck—hah!—is also a rabbit. Lordy. A baby? Just like that, boom! Some new thing that’s both you and not. You see, for Marx, labour is what distinguishes humans from animals. And Labour, other than the ‘reproduction of one’s own life’, produces also ‘foreign life’. Imagine if you poop out something that moves. That’s sort of how it feels. Yourself in this clump of meat. Incidentally, if labour is what makes us human, and an inseparable part of labour is this production of ‘foreign life’, then you’re not truly human until you’ve had a baby. Now thinking about it, actually, the poop analogy is not accurate… You want to kiss and hug and tell bedtime stories to him instead of flush him away. You want to give him all of you, love him more than you can ever love anyone else, care for him more than you can care for yourself—the usual platitudes. This’s when you finally grow, when you submit your own desires to the desires of your baby. That’ll be the Christian sacrifice, but also—you know the Ancient Greeks, how they had this Democracy called the Polis? Where each men (and I say men because there were really only men there, for complex historical reasons that I don’t wish to get into, which mainly consists of the separation of the private sphere of the labouring for biological necessity that was the role of women, and the public sphere of the Polis—where men submit themselves for the world outside of the family) acted in the interest of the polis, instead of themselves. And it is in participating in the polis, of being able to care for someone more than you care for yourself, that you finally become not an animal, but human. (This is, incidentally, why Aristotle said that slaves—who were barred out of the polis—are not human, and why humans are, in his famous phrase, zoons politikons: political animals.) What I’m trying to get at—and I don’t think I’m making it clear by referring to all these philosophers—is that to have him and to raise him makes me more Human. In like capital H Human in Hu-ma-ni-ty (or, since I’m feeling a bit fancy today, Humanitas). It’s the best feeling, to just look at Ben lying there smiling randomly at the ceiling. Of course, too, a lot of hard work. He’s especially brutal during the night. Actually, he reminds me of the pet Hamster I owned when I was a child who would just run on his wheel non-stop all the time (but the Benster is infinitely worse). But of course the whole thing is fulfilling and humanizing exactly because of the hard work. I’m real lucky that I’ve got Helen. She’s fabulous. You’ve not met her? You must do! She’s the most delightful person. This is what one works for at the end of the day, you know, your wife and your child. Just feel them being there. Hug them, kiss them. Talk with them, laugh with them. Feeling how mysteriously their existence tangibly connects to your’s. You’d think, What the hell, life is pretty good! 

When I say ‘you’, I’m of course referring to myself. This is just a thing that I have, saying ‘you’ all the time when I mean ‘me’. Perhaps a Freudian can find some complexes hidden down there, the angst of post-industrial man under Late Capitalism, or something like that. Perhaps. 


It all went well. I was there waiting and I got so incredibly anxious that I probably made it much harder for her. It was incredibly hot and humid in the hospital because the AC stopped working, which is bad news for me since I’m a natural sweater (as you can see). There, she lying half-dead with exhaustion. I could hear my heart beating—Dome-Dome-Dome-Dome- —going faster and slower with my inhale and exhale. You know how sometimes you can feel almost your heart beating along with your body? Incidentally, it’s very easy to measure your pulse if you push down on the Short Head (i.e., the inner portion) of your Biceps, yes, here, you see? God, I was half-dead from sitting there for so long. The doctors were really nice and seemed to know their stuff. But of course one cannot cease to be anxious. Cease! That is a word I like to use. It sounds very smart. There’s a 0.03 percent chance of death from labour, statistically. It sounds small, but that’s what, one out of three-thousand? There, the most important person in your life until now and the most important person to you in the future, bound together by a cord and a procedure. And to contemplate the possibility of them ceasing. That’s just… You know? 

This is pretty irrelevant, but one of my friends uses cease to mean Stop. As in, ‘Cease!’, when anyone remotely normal would stay: ‘Hey, please stop doing that’. Looking back I didn’t know all about love and responsibility and they were mainly just empty words with no real stuff inside. That’s what I meant when I talked about the Humanitas in being a parent. Have you read A Farewell to Arms? You remember how it ends? The infant, dead, out of the womb, of suffocation. The mother, dead, soon afterwards, from hemorrhage. I just kept on thinking about the scene sitting there waiting for Ben (I didn’t know that he was going to be called ‘Ben’ yet, but do give me some artistic license) to arrive. You know the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th? Da, dadada, da, da—da, dadada, da, da… That is the kind of anxiety, waiting for Ben. A slow, steady silence. A bit fearful but at the same time filled with hope and life… Hemingway wrote 47 endings to that book. We were there for nine or so hours already and I was getting real nauseous waiting there. The smell of the hospital’s a mixture of fresh paint and chlorine. I got out to the cafe and had tea and a brownie. It was incredible. The taste. And the moment of peace vibrating through me. If I could, I would stay there forever—relegate all of my responsibilities and drown there in the sun. They called me—that the baby’s going to come out—as I was enjoying this supreme feeling of tranquility and serenity. Things, of course, always happen at the worst times. And Ba-Boom! Did the world change—from the Rabbit to the Duck. I could just about see David, his forehead poking out. Big beautiful black eyes just like his mother. I ran as fast as I could—pushing past people, saying sorry, sorry, can you please let me pass, please, please, this is an emergency, my boy, my boy!—to the room. It’s on the third floor. The elevator took forever (or so it seemed) to arrive. I did cut the line—proudly so. They probably thought that I was a bit strange. But boy, you don’t feel embarrassed or anything when it’s your baby. I guess you’re entitled to shout and scream and run naked across the street, whatever you like. Your baby… Oh Jee! You see, Heaven just opens up. Maybe our second baby—if we’re going to have one, which we’d like to, although we still have to settle down and take care of this bad boy here before we do anything crazy like that—could parallel anything that I felt at the moment. But I’ll be expecting the whole thing, there will be an image in my head of what it should feel like, what counts as having the ‘right’ feelings when your baby’s coming and it won’t be the same. I’m not saying that I won’t love my second kid as much as my first. But the feeling would not be real anymore—any more than kids’ expectation of what it’s like to be old is real. I went in and saw Helen and Dave lying there, connected by the white cord. True happiness comes from taking on responsibility and caring for others. And love is the form of responsibility. You’ve ever heard of hormesis? I was listening to Joe Rogan the other day, and I think he’s damn right, about this hormesis thing. What doesn’t break you makes you, is this new slogan that I thought of the other day. Boy, it’s really a shame that I decided to go for American Constitutional Thought and Jurisprudence and Japanese language and East Asian Popular Culture Studies instead of Philosophy in College. 


It is less that my world’d crumbled than it’d just sort of cut itself into pieces and stitched again differently together. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’, is what Kennedy said; ‘Ask not what your baby can do for you but what you can do for your baby’, is how I felt. You see, without sacrifice there’s no love. And although it’s much harder to think about what you can do for the baby than what the baby can do for you, the other option—to not love—is awfully lonely. Where was I? Yes, The Benster lying there. He looked like a deformed 80 year old compressed into a baby’s body. In an ugly but cute way. Don’t we all want to be like them… no baggage to carry, no one forcing us to choose, no responsibility to love but still constantly loved? Everything exciting, the world all wonderful and new? I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents before they passed away. Which, especially now that I’ve got Ben, makes me really sad. That is one thing I cannot forgive myself for. And I just hope that it would be different between me and Ben in the future. I guess you have to first get mad at your parents some sort, to become truly independent—to go from that kid who is only loved to someone who’s capable of loving others; to not only be taken care of but also capable of giving care. I guess, to be loved is all good and fine, but the other half of the equation, what is behind the equal sign, is when you start loving others. 


They asked me to cut the cord. I looked at Helen and she looked back at me. She had a light smile on her face but was too tired to move. She’s the most beautiful person, like more beautiful than anything I can dream of. And there she was, lying half-fainted on the white bed, holding Ben. Arms folded around his fat little wrinkly body. Everything felt divine—if there is ever an occasion that the word is fitting. I could just about feel God, the Tao, the Buddha, whatever, there with me. The cord is really quite tough. They gave me a very long scissor, the ones you use to cut raw meat. They marked the place where I should cut and I just pressed the scissor down. You have to do it at an angle, push the cord into the scissor before you cut. That makes it easier—although I don’t understand the physics behind it at all. You can feel the cord getting thinner and thinner. It cuts easier at the start but becomes really quite tough at the end, like when you’re cutting a very thin piece of string. There, the last few strands of tissue hanging on. It seems like one of those rituals that you do. Preparing you for this new phase of your life as your Wedding or Baptism does for another. Now thinking about it, Parenthood is there, all in the cutting—the separation of the child with the parent, the sending of them into the world. To love your kid, and still, send them out into the world of danger, knowing that they may get hurt but still let them out because to not do so is to not let them grow, and that is no better choice… 

Every year, I’ve read, there are a few mothers who refuse to be separated from their child physically. That is sad but understandable. I guess, though, with love comes responsibility—the responsibility of not only saying Yes, but also No, of hugging your child, but also letting them go. 

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