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Our take on the great Alternadad debate of '07.

By Ada Calhoun |

Now on Babble: Lisa Carver’s review of Alternadad and Neal Pollack’s response.Here’s the backstory:

Last spring, when we at Nerve Media were just starting to put Babble together, a friend at New York magazine (where I used to work) called to ask me, then five months pregnant, if I wanted to be in a photo shoot for an article about urban parents. As I suspected New York‘s position would be that the subjects were in some way making fools of themselves and I had marathons of Law & Order to watch, I declined.

When the article in question came out, it featured pages of pictures of parents and pregnant people dressed in sneakers and hoodies, T-shirts and jeans. They were labeled “grups” – Adam Sternbergh’s Star Trek-derived designation for parents who haven’t grown up themselves. Other designations: “yupster (yuppie + hipster), yindie (yuppie + indie), and alterna-yuppie.”

The article’s argument: There’s no more generation gap, because people in their forties like the same fashion and music as people in their twenties. Urban-dwelling people of procreating age who dress down at work and like indie music are a new kind of grown-up, one with some combination of too much money, fanatical musical taste and a disregard for authority.

The implication: much of this new generation of urban parents is vain, shallow and ch ildish – ill-equipped to provide their progeny with anything but an appreciation for Bloc Party, a collection of $34 Ramones onesies and a sure future as the most straight-laced 9-to-5ers since Alex P. Keaton.

In his quotes for the New York magazine story and in his new memoir, Alternadad, Neal Pollack has positioned himself the grup poster child. Pollack has bragged about his toddler son’s High Fidelity-worthy musical taste (he likes the Hives). “There’s no shame, when your kid’s watching a show, and you don’t like it, in telling him it sucks,” Pollack told Sternbergh. “If you start telling him it sucks, maybe he might develop an aesthetic.”

Babble’s December 12th launch included nothing, we hope, snickering or posturing or alternative like Sternbergh’s stereotype. Shalom Auslander did write about hating Maisy the Mouse, but for him the goal wasn’t building an aesthetic; rather he hoped to preserve his son’s sense of wonder and joy in spite of his own cynicism.

Kori Gardner, of the wonderful indie band Mates of State, writes Babble’s travel column “Band on the Diaper Run” about how she and her husband / band mate, Jason, take their daughter on tour. Reference is made to encounters with, yes, Death Cab for Cutie, among others. You don’t get hipper than that, but there’s nothing arrogant about that utterly endearing column.

Also in Babble’s first days: Walter Kirn wrote about his kids’ fear of death. Jennifer Baumgardner wrote about doing everything wrong as a mother. Steven Johnson wrote about how the city opens up when you have a kid. Hardly a litany of adolescent whining. But, yes, Babble does uphold the grup stereotype in one way: Sternbergh writes, “Being a grup . . . is about reimagining adulthood as a period defined by promise, rather than compromise.” It is true that our generation wants to live rich adult lives and to be good parents at the same time.

Babble has been equated with Alternadad repeatedly (in USA Today, for example). It makes sense: Generation X is having kids – here’s the book about it; here’s the magazine. We asked author and new parent Steve Almond, who does the Babble blog “Baby Daddy,” to review Alternadad. He declined, citing conflict of interest.

We then asked Lisa Crystal Carver, the counter-culture icon, memoirist and mother of two – Wolf, twelve, and Sadie, four (together, they review DVDs for Babble) – to take a look.

Lisa read the book and, well, hated it. Last week, we ran her essay, “The Ironic Thing: Why I hate parenting memoirs like Alternadad,” in which she says some harsh things about Neal Pollack, the writer and man (to be fair, he has conflated the two throughout his career), and some (we believe) profound things about our generation’s efforts to write about parenting. For example:

“As a generation (X), what we know for sure is how to be sarcastic and irreverent. Parenthood is bigger than that. It inspires thankfulness, humility, rage, unfixable guilt over what we may be doing to our children, unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age, wonder and a quiet sense of sacredneNeal and Lisa are like our very own Trump and Rosie.ss. These emotions are so foreign to us, it took me twelve years (that’s how old my eldest is) to even realize that’s what was happening. Figuring out how to translate these new feelings and outlooks into literature, and still keep it amusing and intriguing and true, will probably take me another twelve. In the meantime, how pathetic to try to use the tools of yesterday (irony, dirty words, random reference to sex and gross things) to try to tell the story of this new kind of relationship and life we find ourselves in.”

The feedback board lit up, mostly with readers defending Pollack’s book.

Neal, too, emailed us to express his displeasure. We said we’d be happy to offer him space to respond. He quickly crafted “The Ironic Thing II: In Defense of Alternadad.” An excerpt:

“I think ironic humor is a perfectly acceptable mode of expression when it comes to describing parenthood. When the first thing you do in the morning is deal with the fact that your son has just pissed in his Barrel O’Monkeys, is there any other way to respond than with irony and humor? I’m sorry, but ‘unfixable sorrow over what we now understand for sure was done to us when we were their age’ doesn’t apply here, and ‘thankfulness’ is also, certainly, out of the question. I’ll give Carver a small dose of “rage,” but as for a “quiet sense of sacredness,” well, I’ve never been particularly quiet in any situation, and I don’t hold very much sacred.”

So there you have it: the great “alternaparent” debate of ’07! Neal and Lisa are like our very own Trump and Rosie.

To play Barbara Walters for a second, I have to say, I think Lisa said something that really needed to be said: “It’s not ironic to have children.”

The irony label (like “grup”) is dismissive and cheap. We in our twenties and thirties and forties having kids right now have plenty of issues, very few of which have to do with iTunes or Bugaboos: issues like the pressure to breastfeed, the quest for domestic happiness and the miseries of sleep-training. The rush to cry “hipster” undermines the opportunity to talk about what’s thrilling and funny and lonely and scary about having kids. So let’s get on that. Please leave your thoughts in feedback.

More on Babble

About Ada Calhoun

bcadacalhoun

Ada Calhoun

Ada Calhoun has written for The New York Times, Time, Salon.com, Nerve.com, and New York magazine. She is the author of "Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids" and "Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making it Work" with Tim Gunn. For more on Ada, visit adacalhoun.com.

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22 thoughts on “Babble

  1. Momma says:

    “Neal Pollack has positioned himself the grup poster child,” except that in that horrific NYTimes mag article, “Grups” are defined as shallow fashion plates who are incredibly wealthy. Pollack is neither a fashion plate, nor wealthy, and  in his book Alternadad, he is hardly shallow, documenting his family’s middle-class struggles with housing, health insurance, and quality schooling. Nowhere does he mention $700 ripped jeans or Bugaboo strollers.The editor seems wary enough of that article to admit having avoided being quoted in it herself, yet she seems to swallow the bit about Pollack hook, line, and sinker. Having read  Alternadad, I do not believe that Pollack’s portrayal in that article is fair or accurate. It’s media. As Ms Calhoun suggests, the whole gist of that article is to dismiss Gen X parents as vain, shallow, and childish. While Pollack’s persona of past may fit that bill, the Pollack we see at the end of Alternadad is a responsible, civic-minded, playful, affectionate – albeit still free-thinking- daddy.This is why I have a hard time believing that people who are dismissing Pollack as just a self-centered ass have actually read the entire book. Over the course of the book, Pollack grows up a little with his son. He’s honest and skilled  enough to make use of his own lesser qualities as fodder for his humor. Just because he maintains a humorous and sarcastic tone while  describing his family life, does mean his feelings are shallow or lacking. Quite the opposite.

  2. Momma says:

    oops. “…does NOT mean his feelings are shallow or lacking.” 

  3. Dutch says:

    death cab for cutie fuckin rocks! woo hoooooo! ben gibbard is sooooooooooo cute.

  4. bogmonster says:

    Yeah, I got a real kick out of Pollack’s chapter about the Smithfield ham.  This is the same guy who, after his wife suffered every indignity she feared during the childbirthing process, stomped all over her wish not to have his son circumcised simply because upper class Mommy and Daddy told him he wouldn’t be a good Jewish son if he didn’t comply with their view of the world.  And then the ham.  He sure reads like a sympathetic, ironic character.  It’s tired.  He’s like a dimestore Woody Allen/David Sedaris wannabe.

  5. jmv says:

    I questioned whether Carver had read all of Pollack’s book when I read
    her silly review, but I don’t have to question whether Ada Calhoun read
    it; it’s clear she didn’t. It’s almost as if she didn’t even read
    Pollack’s response either. Instead this stinks of a new editor of a new
    magazine clumsily rushing to defend one of her writers who’s so very
    clearly incapable of defending herself, at the same time denigrating an
    author who’d be an asset to the magazine and alienating all who’ve
    connected with Pollack’s writing, the very people this site is
    attempting to reach. As a reader in general and a Neal Pollack fan
    specifically, I’ve found Babble’s part in this entire episode to be be
    sloppy and tacky from start to finish. It’s a shame too. I’ve enjoyed
    Nerve for a long time and as a young parent had high-hopes for the new
    site. Unfortunately, I’m only left with a bad taste in my mouth.

  6. JasonAvant says:

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. Really?  My understanding – and maybe this is crazy talk – was that there are a whole myriad of parenting experiences, from the funny/ironic to the tragic. Don’t like Pollack? Don’t read him. Pollack’s take is, in his words, “a perfectly acceptable mode of expression.”  Key word being “A”, not “the”. And if irony isn’t Babble’s bag, might be a good idea to change the press release:”Babble may be the first magazine that takes time to enjoy the silly side of parenting. We find it extraordinary that none of the parenting magazines we’ve seen none of them! convey the humor and irony  (emphasis is mine) surrounding the modern parenting experience.”

  7. GetOffMyLawn says:

    JasonAvant:
     
    You’re addressing the reaction of a single reviewer and attributing it to an entire publication.  Lisa Carver did read Alternadad.  She didn’t like it.  She was paid to write about why she didn’t like it.  Given Pollack’s ironic veneer, it’s a sure thing that people’s mileage will vary.
     
    I agree that irony is an acceptable mode of expression.  However, too much of it in certain contexts can become tiresome.  After reading several chapters of Alternadad, I grew weary of the voice.  And irony isn’t a license to be intolerant.  I strongly disliked the way that Pollack attacks and dismisses people who don’t live the same way he does or whose views are not consistent with his own.  He comes across as being incredibly judgmental.  He does appear to think he’s something special, irrespective of whether he pokes mild fun at himself.  He thus sets himself up for articles like Lisa Carver’s.  As an erstwhile satirist, he must know that a first principle of satire is to create an inflated, excessive persona that can be deflated.  He’s ripe for deflating.
     
    In the end, a publishing house is promoting Alternadad because it participates in a trend and people are interested.  Babble participates in the same dubious trend.  They’re both making money. 
     
    All I can really say is, by the time I got to the end of the book, I found myself saying, “So what?”  But, as I said, other people’s mileage may vary.

  8. catstaff says:

    Wow, Neal Pollack has a lot of friends who went through the bother to
    get Babble accounts just to defend his honor! That’s clearly where 95%
    of these comments and those on Lisa Carver’s original review come from.
    I think you can all relax. Neal Pollack is rich. You all get a gold
    star for  this White Knight act; let’s hope it gets you a thank
    you in the next book he writes.  So I think all of you guys can go
    crack open an imported beer at Neal’s and toast a job, if not well,
    then thoroughly done.
    PS – I loved and totally idientified with the review and the whole impulse behind it.

  9. Momma says:

    Babble wants a cat fight to stir up readership. That’s what this is really about.

    Since when is a non best-selling author rich? Do you have any idea how book contracts work? Pollack supports himself on his writing – good for him. But unless this book becomes a best-seller (and wouldn’t you just loove that- it would give you something to whine about for months!) he’s hardly rich. Honestly, the bitter, jealousy that seethes from many of these comments is boring me. Have a nice day.

  10. Papaganoose says:

    i think there are two different issues being discussed here. The first is the book itself — is it good? Some like it, some don’t — disagreement on the personal appeal of the book is to be expected. The second is what the book represents and how its being discussed by the media. There is a stereotype of “hip” urban parents that is small minded and reinforced, somewhat, by this book. That is the larger issue that Lisa Carver and Ada appear to be tackling. I don’t think its about Neal, at the end of the day, or even his book — it’s about the cartoonification of urban parents.

  11. markingtime says:

    Alternative=Hip=urban=urbane=ironic=postmodern=judgmental= “above it all”, almost by definition.   And yes, I’m simplifying things. But hasn’t “tastemaking” and a lot of journalism been about all those things for decades now? Beatniks had kids. Hippies had kids. Neal had a kid (a risk in itself to his hipster reputation) and so did Carver and Ada (both of whom I admittedly know nothing about, as one of those new Babble accounts, here to see what’s up with the debate). Neal’s is a quirky personal vision, and yes he probably does reinforce certain stereotypes. So what? Snarkiness is not for the faint of heart, even in the era of The Simpsons. While magazines have the right to run a negative review, I also question motive in this case, like generating some “heat” for the sake of promoting Babble. If Carver or Babble were looking for another Erma Bombeck, they should have known going in that Neal ain’t that guy, and shouldn’t try to hold him to that standard of conventionality. It’s a very personal statement, and opinions are bound to differ about both his writing style and the choices he describes. Irony may well be the main technique that my generation uses to hide, or to deflect serious issues. But there’s a lot to hide from, and I suspect Pollack represents a large portion of the uncomfortable middle class who also grapple with what it takes to “grow up” nowadays.

  12. Doppelganger says:

    The rush to cry “hipster” undermines the opportunity to talk about
    what’s thrilling and funny and lonely and scary about having kids.
    No kidding. And yet that what this whole “debate” seems to be built around. The only thing that’s remotely new in this artificially constructed parents-versus-parents kerfuffle is that, for a change, it’s not pitting mothers against mothers, which the media has been aggressively doing for decades in a transparent ploy to boost readership. Now fathers are in the mix. Hip-hip-fucking-hooray. How progressive. Did I say “progressive”? Whoops. I meant “boring.”Let me tell you something: if I hear/read the word “hipster” used in this smug, derogatory way one more time, I’m going to totally lose my cool. Jesus christ, people. Imagine if your kids could hear you. And yet you probably plan to preach tolerance at them some day. Nice work. Get a good head start on that.Wear the clothes you want. Listen to the music you want. Read the books and magazines and websites you want. Be a little self-satisfied. IT’S OKAY. Be a hipster. Be a nerd. Be a badass. Don’t take it all so friggin seriously. We can still get along. Did Breakfast Club teach us nothing? Somewhere, John Hughes is weeping silent tears because his entire ouevre was for naught.

  13. Doppelganger says:

    The rush to cry “hipster” undermines the opportunity to talk about
    what’s thrilling and funny and lonely and scary about having kids.
    No kidding. And yet that what this whole “debate” seems to be built around. The only thing that’s remotely new in this artificially constructed parents-versus-parents kerfuffle is that, for a change, it’s not pitting mothers against mothers, which the media has been aggressively doing for decades in a transparent ploy to boost readership. Now fathers are in the mix. Hip-hip-fucking-hooray. How progressive. Did I say “progressive”? Whoops. I meant “boring.”Let me tell you something: if I hear/read the word “hipster” used in this smug, derogatory way one more time, I’m going to totally lose my cool. Jesus christ, people. Imagine if your kids could hear you. And yet you probably plan to preach tolerance at them some day. Nice work. Get a good head start on that.Wear the clothes you want. Listen to the music you want. Read the books and magazines and websites you want. Be a little self-satisfied. IT’S OKAY. Be a hipster. Be a nerd. Be a badass. Don’t take it all so friggin seriously. We can still get along. Did Breakfast Club teach us nothing? Somewhere, John Hughes is weeping silent tears because his entire ouevre was for naught.

  14. Doppelganger says:

    Hey, what’s that double-post doing there? I didn’t even hit the “submit” button twice. I call shenanigans on this forum software. Shenanigans! Where’s my broom?But hey, since it’s there, read my post twice… the second time aloud. (Third reading is ptional.) Then quiver at my wisdom.

  15. GetOffMyLawn says:

    John Hughes molests collies.

  16. Maujer says:

    I didn’t see a ton of difference between Carver and Pollack, although possibly sleep deprivation has frayed my keen analytical sense.The largest irony I see about this urban parenting buzz is that it excludes everyone not within its demographic and its demographic — (which I admit I can’t escape, hell I am practically a poster child, or would be, if I could shed this baby weight) — is cynical, insecure and jaded pretty much by definition. And awful. I want to hit its demographic with a stick and tell it to stop whining. It’s wonderful that there are so many cute new baby products catering to us, but get a grip. I don’t care that parenting is a jaw-dropping, life-changing experience. No shit, really? Duh. What I want to know is how your nanny is taking care of her kids and yours. Why no one raises an eyebrow that healthcare for a family now costs more than my rent did five years ago. Why my wages didn’t increase. Why, although in some circles it’s generally accepted that plastic bottles will give my kid brain damage, no one is actually concerned about that enough to stop plastic bottles from being used by everyone. When we became a generation of “at-least-my-kid-wont-be-autistic-and-slow-like-yours-because-I-dont-give-her-tap-water.”Address more of the serious issues of parenting today. Like, childcare. Like healthcare. Like, how the hell do poor urban parents do it? Like, when did a private school education become required? Like, why is television evil? And, finally, why is Daddy writing about parenthood considered to be such a marketable thingie? Is there some wage-earner theorizing going on there? One assumes. It is perfectly normal for every generation to assume they’ve invented parenthood. Grow pedantic on the issue. Tiresome. But ours seems to be doing so, much as they do everything, really really annoyingly.

  17. Mieke says:

    Having just finished “Alternadad”, I wanted to respond. Seems Carver and Calhoun both are criticizing Neal Pollack for not holding parenthood sacred enough, and whip off that being a parent is “not ironic”. Did you guys indeed read his book? I think it’s fairly clear in the book that becoming a parent and his love for his wife and child are the most profound things that have ever happened in his life. Elijah is the most “sacred” thing in his life. But therein lies the irony, and you guys know what that means. Because when you are cleaning your child’s smeared feces off a wall or, yes, he/she pisses in his barrel of monkeys, to run with that example, don’t tell me that you are thinking about the sacredness of parenthood. The crazy, absurd, sometimes shitty day-to-dayness of being a parent is ironic because it is born (no pun) of commitment and love, and that is what Neal Pollack’s memoir is about. To quote him from a scenario in Alternadad, where he finds himself singing in a gymnastics class singing “Ride the Brown Pony” with a baby and cracking a joke:             “For pity’s sake, couldn’t a guy make a cocaine joke in mixed company anymore? Was                   there no other parent in this place who thought it was ridiculous that a dozen grown                 people were guiding kids who could barely walk across a balance beam while singing a song               called ‘Ride the Brown Pony’?”Give me a friggin’ break, people. That’s all he’s saying. He wouldn’t be there in the first place if he wasn’t committed to being a good parent. And to address “Maujer”: I know you haven’t read “Alternadad”, because worries over healthcare, stagnant wages, and the environment are major themes in the book, as is the avoidance of nannies in their household. It seems to me that Neal Pollack has been slapped with some sort of fabricated label by a certain contingent in the parenting community in order to give parents someone to rail at, and I think that label is way off. After having read comments here, I was expecting a book that was somewhat cynical and irreverant of parenthood. Instead, I read a very honest and touching depiction of someone struggling to retain an individual identity and balance a life in the 21st century with being a loving parent. It’s kind of an everyman’s (everydad’s?) story for this day and age. Sorry if he’s not alternative enough for you, like “jigsaw man”, or is he too alternative, as others seem to think? I can’t quite figure out what the exact bone is. I think it’s something most readers on Babble can identify with, so I can’t really figure out where all the vitriol is coming from. What’s the resentment all about? A little self-analysis may be in order here, methinks.

  18. GetOffMyLawn says:

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  They may not mean to, but they do.They fill you with the faults they had  And add some extra, just for you.But they were fucked up in their turn  By fools in old-style hats and coats,Who half the time were soppy-stern  And half at one another’s throats.Man hands on misery to man.  It deepens like a coastal shelf.Get out as early as you can,  And don’t have any kids yourself.
    Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”
    FTW
     
    You all suck.

  19. Dutch says:

    goddamn that is one ugly way to look at the world, asshole.

  20. bubbles76angel says:

    What’s wrong with a little irony?  Life is full of ironies and parenting is no exception.  Carver has a right to her opinion, which is what she wrote – she did not right a review of Alternadad – as do all the people who commented on her article.  Shouldn’t we all be allowed to parent under whatever pretext we want, provided that we are not harming our children?  I didn’t realize there is some textbook way to parent.  I’m learning it as I go.  Hell, if I could get paid big bucks to write a book on parenting, I’d jump at the chance, whether or not people liked it.  In that sense, more power to Neal Pollack for doing that.  Babble pays its staff to blog, how is that any different from a publishing company paying auth (except for the difference in dollars)?  I thought Babble was supposed to cool. 

  21. Bill7718 says:

    I absolutely hate when critics who don’t like Science Fiction, for example, review Sci Fi movies.  It’s not their thing, and they’re going to be unnecessarily prejudiced against it. 
     
    I’m not a Neal Pollack fan, but it seems to me that the same thing is happening here.  Carver says right off the bat, in the title of her piece, that she hates parenting memoirs like Alternadad.  She’s just not the sort of person who sees irony as a valid form of expression of parenthood.  Fine.  But as a result, she should have passed on the job knowing she’d go into it with a preconceived grudge. 
     
    I DO see irony as not only valid in an expression of parenthood, but essential!  And that has nothing to do with our generation, or hipsters, etc.  I guarantee most of our parents found a great deal of irony in brining up their kids, they just didn’t have the need to constantly label themselves and then whine about modern malaise.  Neal has a vaild point of view for some, and others will find him tiresome.  So if it’s your thing, cool, and if not, go read (and review) something else.  It’s not such a big, damn deal!

  22. smartygirl says:

    re “Ride the Brown Pony” : I have a cousin who is a teacher (Grade 1 or Kindergarten… I can’t remember). One of the songs they sing is the “Beaver Song” which she finds it nearly impossible to keep a straight face through… I can’t remember all the words, but it goes “Beaver one, beaver two, something-something-rhymes-with-two…” etc. with some unintentionally hilarious rhymes along the way… the one that sticks in my mind is”Beaver six, Beaver seven, let’s all go to Beaver heaven”Yikes! I guess modern times are just like the ‘sixties, when all of the children’s songs and cartoons were produced by people who were obviously out of their heads on LSD…

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