Like surprisingly many people, I have always held a vague abhorrence for Neal Pollack. Could it be his claim to be the “Greatest Living American Writer”? His penchant for putting his name in his book titles? Or his jokey, sexist piggishness – supposedly the ironic mantle of a true feminist, but I really have my doubts? I think it’s just him.Well, we learn in Alternadad, there are a few people who do like him, and whom he likes back: his wife, his kid, his family of origin and his in-laws. Which is the book’s main flaw. The big shock is supposed to be that, despite being punk rock, Jewish, an unseemly writer, and despised by pockets of lit people throughout the globe – and I mean, who isn’t at least some of those? – Neal Pollack is the opposite of abhorrent at home. His family is what Tolstoy warned readers about: the happy one, whose story is all the same, and not very interesting.
Reading Alternadad, I felt jealous (of his unbroken, compatible family) and bored (of his unbroken, compatible family). I don’t care about how he and his wife came to agreements about circumcision, private vs. public preschool and biting. In fact, I don’t care about anyone’s family but my own, really. And I try not to burden my readers by believing for a second that they care about how cute and intelligent and unusual my children are. And since I don’t know what else to say about my children, I generally don’t say anything at all.
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 sacredness. 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.
Neal obviously thinks he’s so wild because he talks about shit-storms. But every parent of every child in the world, as well as dog-owners and workers in various segments of the service industry, have experienced shit flung at inconvenient moments, eaten, or worse. Babble blogger Steve Almond suffers the Alternadad malaise: “Look at me, I used to write about sex, yet I have a kid!” Dude, you’re forty. Of course you have a kid. It’s not ironic to have children. Yes, yes, I am a near-forty punk-rock sex writer writing about my kids, too. Until we get a handle on the awe and the tragedy that is having children, I think we should stick to magazines. But my editor makes me (and Steve)! This is a parenting magazine! No one made Neal write that book. A further distinction: I try to let my kids speak for themselves, as human beings, to express their own ideas, instead of me going on and on about the miracle of first haircut (barf!).
Until we get a handle on the awe and the tragedy that is having children, I think we should stick to magazines. Because, I mean, we shouldn’t just shut up either, just because we’re raw and awkward. Online magazines are the perfect place to make our mistakes and not have it matter. Because if our reader opens one article and it’s crappy, they can just hit “close” and click on something else.
This week, my two favorite articles on Babble were both by non-parents. The essay by John Freeman – on wanting children but being with a woman who doesn’t – is not any of the things that bug me about Alternadad: predictable, self-satisfied, trying to be funny. In fact, it ends with about the opposite-est you can get from all that, with John realizing that this “untethered sense of existence feels like betrayal.” I learned something new (yet somehow familiar) about the human condition then. I didn’t learn anything new from Lisa Gabriele’s W.C. Fields-y column, my other favorite Babble moment, but I did relate more to the way she relates to children – with black humor and a borderline vicious honesty that I can’t imagine any child psychologist advocating – than I ever did to another actual mom.
Why do parents bullshit/candycoat so much? I think because we’re scared. Scared of having our parenting or our children criticized or ostracized even an itty, bitty bit. As thinkers, the thing we are now thinking about is so very precious to us that we have become uncertain and sensitive. We suck!
And yes, the moms are even worse than the dads – if for no other reason than the dads are at least trying to be more involved in their children’s lives than past generations of fathers. But that’s great for culture, not for literature. I take it back. The moms aren’t even worse. The message of Neal’s book (and the avalanche of new fatherhood books) is: “Hey, I’m a good daddy! Me! Can you believe it?” Yes, I do believe Neal Pollack is a good dad. But I don’t think he should charge people $23.95 to find that out.
Conversely, the not-quite-as-new “momoirs” (I started noticing these about three years ago) – in which chicklitists finally snag that ex-band member/current mid-level-something-respectable-yet-still-creative man and the fruit of their conjoined loins come out, are cute for five minutes, teach their parents about adulthood and infinite love, and then completely destroy life as mom knew it – each I did read an actual book about parenting that I liked once, about twenty years ago.make the same spectacular confession: “Hey, I’m not a perfect mom! Really! I’m not! Isn’t that kind of funny?”
It feels to the author as if she’s taking a risk to admit to sometimes wondering if she’s a bad parent, because society is still clinging to these anachronistic expectations for the woman to suppress or abandon her individuality when she becomes part of a family. That prejudice is just a bad habit; it has no power anymore. No one is really surprised at someone admitting to, say, when exhausted, leaving puke to dry under the couch all day and your child could have (gasp) gone and grabbed a chunk and eaten it (but didn’t). I think one owes one or the other to one’s readers, whether writing about finance, the Middle East, or parenting: either be elegant and glamorous with language or else tell a truth in any manner as long as it’s a truth that isn’t already being already part of a zeitgeist flood, and therefore watered down and useless to awaken.
You know who I would read a parenting book by, regardless of the quality of the writing? Tiger Lady and Jigsaw Man.
I did read an actual book about parenting that I liked once, about twenty years ago. It was by a woman who was utterly unpretentious, almost without any style at all, because she was of a generation acclimated to the idea of raising children before they even popped out, so she didn’t have to question her identity as a mother all book long – she just got on with the story. Neal Pollack’s publicist calls the book “a hysterical read.” It’s not.Her husband – a farmer, I think – died, and she wrote about how she pickled things and killed pigs and kept her six children alive through the Maine winter. A neighbor helped her plow her long mud driveway in the spring; one thing led to another, and right away they married and had two more kids, much to the consternation of the neighbors. Also, one of the kids was autistic, and when he turned into a teenager, he became violent, and she described putting him into an institution, what it felt like to drive away as the guards locked the metal doors behind her.
On a final, petty-but-I-have-no-self control note, Neal Pollack’s publicist calls the book “a hysterical read.” First of all, it’s not. Secondly, it’s “an” hysterical. Thirdly, no one should say that, ever. I won’t even order a meal if the menu calls it “melt-in-your-mouth delicious.” Because how do they know? They’re not in my mouth. Taste is subjective, just like humor. I don’t care for my senses being coerced. Fascists.