Thursday, June 28, 2007

Proust's Dad

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At some point, I have to talk about Proust. I feel a deep sense of connection with the narrating character, so deep that I wonder if I can really write objectively about it. I could try to make the argument that he is the greatest novelist of all time. What I know for a fact is that reading him is an amazing cure for insomnia, especially when read in the original.

I recently grabbed the first volume of Proust’s massive novel for just this reason. Unable to sleep, worried about things I couldn’t identify, with nervous energy somehow liberated into my veins when it was least wanted, I lumbered downstairs in the middle of the night to retrieve Swann’s Way. In the next hour, while the Spot and wife slumbered away, I flew through the first fifty pages.

It wasn’t a random choice. There are other tomes on my bookshelf that would have done equally well as a soporific. But I recalled that the initial, justly famous section of Swann’s Way was about a man who was passing back and forth between consciousness and dreaming; about a man remembering himself as a child not being able to sleep; and about a small boy not being able to sleep because his father had sent him to bed early, expressly forbidding him to receive his nightly bedtime kiss from his mother. With all sorts of connections to my immediate experience, I had to get back in touch with this book.

This mundane little story about a boy anxious over his broken routine, his coping mechanisms as he frets alone in his bedroom, his desperation and increasingly bold plans to obtain his good-night kiss against the wishes of his father, all of it not only introduces a new style of literature, a new method of weaving together a narration drawn from various states of consciousness, but raises issues about the emotional life of children and the ways adults attempt to suppress it. Specifically, how fathers police the emotional life of sons.

When I first read this episode, I was struck by how closely it resembled, in novelistic form, Freud’s model of family dynamics. The boy is attached to his mother; the father senses this competition and bans it; the boy suffers, the mother’s allegiances are torn. Ultimately, in line with all good 19th century bourgeois fathers, the father prevails, the child encounters the “reality principle,” and begins to evolve away from attachment to the mother. And, as with Freud, the echo of this trauma of separation resounds forever after in the narrator's psyche.

It is a strong parallel. But what happens in the last pages of this episode breaks down Freud's schematic. The father, an emotionally obtuse, arbitrary, but benevolent tyrant, together with his wife, finds the boy standing at the top of the stairs, positioned to intercept his mother. It is a bald act of defiance. Both mother and child expect Mosaic chastisement from the father. Instead, the father senses the boy's distress, and with the kind of generosity that only tyrants are capable of, tells the mother to go with him and comfort him, spending the night on a spare bed beside him in his room. The father was not without heart, and the mother was complicit in wanting to wean the young boy perhaps too severely.

But their authorized, unexpected, and surely unrepeatable time together that night is what the little boy and the mother really had wanted all along. Their union, as he cries to sleep in her arms, is the first of many powerfully moving passages in this book. He began sobbing then, the narrator confesses, and never really stopped. There was something the boy was missing that only mother could provide.

But by then, it was too late; mother could not in that evening make up for years of emotional distancing. It was not only father's irritability with sentimental gestures like a goodnight kiss, but mother's determination to toughen her son, that had left the boy with an emotional hole that he carried with him into adulthood. "We can't habituate him to this," she tells father, after he has pardoned the boy. "We are not torturers here," father replies.

The reader is left with a literary taste of the classic patriarchal family, of the Father as Speaker of the Law, the One Who Says "No," the reality principle itself. This model was unquestioned as recently as my parent's generation. Today, according to conventional wisdom, it is overturned. But is it really? After all, at the heart of the patriarchal model of father-son relations is the principle of the father's authority to deny emotional satisfaction in family relationships, chiefly by denying communication of any kind. There is very little communication between the narrator's father and his son, only reporting.

"Boys will be boys," they say. But parents make boys boys, by talking to them less, by withdrawing affection sooner, by turning them into the creatures that their girlfriends and wives will later complain can't articulate their emotions, don't understand their impulses, get uncomfortable around babies, and feel that something is not right about a man caring for an infant. There's no way to avoid intensely physical communication when caring for a very young child, and this is difficult if you've been trained not to communicate with anyone.

Luckily Proust's semi-autobiographical little boy withstood the attempt to suppress his emotional life, in return producing one of the most extended tours of psychological interiority ever written. Is it a coincidence that the famous cup of tea, the one with the soggy cooky that triggered Proust's remembrance of things past, his connection to the world of his interiority, was handed him by his mother?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reading in Berkeley

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I'll be reading my short story “Same Street Twice” this Friday, June 29th, 7:30 PM at Pegasus Books, 2439 Shattuck Avenue, in Berkeley (two blocks from downtown Berkeley BART), for the release party of Instant City’s fabulous “Love” issue. Other readers include Benjamin Perez, Loren Rhoads, and Matt Rohrer.

If you go and you're a Daddy Dialectic reader, introduce yourself. I'd love to meet you.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bridging the Generations

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Spot has more female admirers at 5½ months than I’ve racked up in a lifetime. The curious thing about it is that most of them are over 65. Spot has managed to acquire his senior groupies in the course of regular visits to his grandparents’ retirement community a few blocks away, where he puts on his show a few mornings a week. It seems to be a straightforward win-win all around: Spot has more grandmas than can possibly be hugged and cooed at in one visit, and they, having already seen most of their own grandchildren reach adolescence and beyond, get to enjoy the hassle-free pleasure of having a baby around. When things start to turn sour, I’m there to wheel him offstage. He’s been called the community mascot and the community therapy baby. Who needs a dog when you can pass Spot around?

Less than a year before Spot was born, my wife and her brother, who are American-born Chinese, convinced their Chinese-born parents to do the unthinkable: defy an Asian-American law of cultural gravity and move east from the West Coast. There were a lot of good reasons for this reversal of the American Dream: they were by then retired, my wife’s mother was increasingly dependent and needed an affordable assisted-living environment -- which they weren’t going to find in the Bay Area -- and we were getting serious about starting a family. Even with all of these centripetal forces at work, it still took a good amount of cajoling. In the end, they gave in, and are now quite happily living within a mile of their only grandson.

So now the generations are reunited, and Spot has his groupies. And I am infinitely thankful for having one set of grand-folks very close by, and for the affection and enrichment they give him, to say nothing of the everyday practical assistance. I don’t know how long we’ll all be together, so I don’t know what he’ll remember, if anything, of these weeks and months when he joins the ladies of the club for late morning tea in the sun room, or finds a parking space between the variety of walkers and other contraptions during wheelchair aerobics, or listens to family gossip in Chinese. But he's being cared for by many hands; he's becoming familiar with faces of all shapes, sizes, and colors; he's learning to trust people, not just mom and dad, to get an early taste of the conversation of mankind.

But he's not the only one who is growing as a result. Now, not only do I find myself in the role of at home dad, constantly trying to process what that means and trying to adapt it to the odd assortment of personas that make up my identity; I find myself in a sort of team effort with none other than my father-in-law, who like me has blossomed into a huge "baby guy." It's a metamorphosis that has surprised his own adult children. My wife assures me it's a result of the physics of Confucian kinship structure: barred from overt displays of paternal affection to his immediate children, he is liberated with the arrival of a grandchild, who he is no longer directly responsible for. The upshot is that Spot is now getting a good chunk of his care from two men of different generations.

I don't know what it must look like from the outside when an underemployed academic historian (me) and a retired chemical engineer have a polite argument about whether Spot needs a new diaper, or when he and I huddle in the ill-equipped lobby restroom handling a major poopy blowout like two army field surgeons. I regularly grill him over how much sleep Spot had, how much he ate, and inspect their back bedroom to make sure it's being kept up to the highest nap-time standards. But recently Grandpa has completely trumped me: he's come up with big plans to fly kites on the beach next spring. I'm jealous. Three Cigars and a Playdate, anyone?

Of course I jest; I couldn't be happier that Spot has such an involved grandfather (to speak of only one half of the family) -- the more kites, the better, and I'm happy to let grandpa take the lead. I happen to enjoy kites. In fact, the inner boy in me perked up when I first heard this idea. "Wow," I thought, "I haven't done that since I was 10, and it's been way too long." Maybe it's something we can all do, the three of us, out there on the beach when the whitecaps roll in.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Poem after a summer morning stroll with my son

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And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels
And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds.

--Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Dudes and Diapers

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A few weeks ago my wife and I had the crazy idea to schlepp Spot to Lower Manhattan for a good friend's wedding. Spot was a good sport about the whole thing, as usual, asking only that certain minimal physiological requirements be met in exchange for enduring the horrendous inconvenience of air travel and the occasionally horrendous experience of a wedding reception. He slept profoundly through both ceremony and reception, attired in a navy blazer, khaki pants, and a pacifier stuck in his mouth like a cork in a jug.

But the wedding is not the point; the point is that on the way back to Chicago, Spot had his first in-flight poop. It was bound to happen; Spot has been raking up firsts of this sort all along the way, and shows no signs of slowing down. While he doesn't seem to care much for the act of pooping in and of itself, he certainly enjoys the aftermath. He really, really loves it. I can understand the obvious satisfaction of getting cleaned up, and if he's as much of a psychotic neat-freak as his father, then perhaps this is an early manifestation of my legacy. But there's more to it than that. He's into the whole Gestalt. Dropping Spot onto the changing table - or whatever equivalent we've contrived for the moment - is like dosing him with an enormous happy pill. We've had some of our best times there. My wife has had the same experience. Pooping, family, and happiness; how much better (or Freudian) can things get?

Without getting into the probable sources of his pleasure, I know that for me "doing a diaper" has joined the family of certain other elementary procedures, like changing a flat tire, sewing a button, or whipping up a white sauce, that are the mark of a generally competent adult. But beyond that, it's just fun. How could it not be, when Spot gets that giggly smile on his face and then cantilevers his legs into frog position on the changing-table, all while the seat-belt sign is blinking and the turbulence gets nasty? "Come on old man," he's saying to me, "let's see you get that diaper on me this time!" I'm the one who freaks out, he just enjoys the show.

I managed to keep Spot from sliding into either the sink or the toilet, and one day he'll thank me for this, but as I picked him up I bumped his head against the curved bulkhead and this he refused to tolerate. Fortunately, the jet engines were handy and did a fine job of muffling the wails, allowing us to return to our seats just a few minutes later with no one the wiser.

"How'd it go?" asked the guy next to me, an affable MBA with all sorts of interesting things to say about affordable housing in New York. I told him how I bumped Spot on the curved bulkhead and he lit up with a boyish smile. "That's what I'll tell my wife," he said, with what my own father would describe as a shit-eating grin. "I'm too tall, I can't change the diaper in-flight because I can't do all that in the airplane restroom." He seemed satisfied, like he had found something he had been looking for. I have no doubt that this fellow had changed his fair share of diapers, but he seemed to also know that he was expected not to like it, and not to want to do it, because he was a man, and that if he found just the right excuse, the world would let him off the hook.

The diaper thing seems to run pretty deep, and I have a feeling that it lies at the root of our gendered conceptions of labor. Women handle small dependent things. Men control big impersonal things. Women are closer to the raw, men to the cooked. Or so it goes. Personally, I don't quite get it when our babysitter tells us that "most men don't like to change diapers," something that's been repeated to me over and over again, mostly by women, who are in a position to know. Since most men, I assume, understand the importance of consistently wiping their own asses, I'm not sure what accounts for the hesitation to wipe someone else's, especially that of one's offspring.

My wife recently shared a statistic with me, which I can't source but I'm sure the readers of this blog can, indicating that among adult caregivers of elderly parents, 38% are daughters, while only 7% are sons. If diapering represents an aversion to infant dependency, this statistic suggests that the aversion reemerges in the presence of elderly dependency at the far end of life's trajectory. Caregiving is feminized, whether it be for the young, the old, the sick or anyone else.

But culture is full of contradictions and capable of endless permutations. Diapering could conceivably go the route of national barrista competitions, where what had once been a menial service operation is transformed into an artisanal skill that is subject to expert appreciation on the basis of speed, technical, and artistic merit. Had such a panel of judges viewed my in-flight performance, I'm sure I would have wilted as they raised their placards: 8.5, 7, 6.5. After all, making the baby cry is the equivalent of falling on your rear-end during a triple axel turn in figure skating.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day Redux

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Last year's Father's Day post, here reproduced in it's entirety.

Scenes from playgroup, Karen's house:

"No!" cried Nico, snatching a fire truck out of Liko's hands. "Nico! Nico!" he said, clutching the truck to his chest.

Nico's dad Stefano took him into a corner and held him close. For the 10th time that afternoon, Stefano patiently explained the concept of sharing to his toddler.

Nico twisted out of his dad’s arms and ran off. Stefano's shoulders slumped. Nico had been a handful; he was often a handful in playgroup, pushing other kids, throwing things, grabbing toys, requiring constant management. Stefano was plainly worn out and perhaps slightly embarrassed.

Among the parents, there was an uncomfortable moment of silence.

Suddenly Karen spoke: "You're doing a great job, Dad."

It struck me as just the right thing to say. "Yeah," I added. "Stefano, you're a really good dad."

Karen and I both meant it.

Stefano just put his head in hands and sighed heavily.

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The next day I was at a restaurant where Liko and I are regulars. Liko made himself at home, trying to get in every corner, touching everything, saying "Hi!" to everybody. It had been like that all day (and the day before, and the day before that...), him going a hundred miles an hour, me trying to keep up.

A professionally dressed middle-aged woman approached me during a respite, when Liko stopped to caress and sniff a row of flowers on the patio.

"I've been watching you two. I just wanted to say that you're doing a really great job."

"Uh, really?" I was taken aback and maybe a little guarded, uncomfortable with the idea that our antics had been so closely regarded.

She noticed my reaction, and tried to explain. "I raised two girls myself, and now they're both in their twenties. I've seen a lot of parents in action, and I wanted to say that you have a really nice touch."

"Really?"

"I can see you know him well and understand him. You have a really good sense of when it's time to let him be and when you have to hold him back."

"Thanks." I tried to make up for reacting like a dolt. "I really appreciate that."

Liko took off into the restaurant and the clanging, steam-filled kitchen. I dashed in and grabbed him; when we returned, the woman was gone.

Afterwards, I thought about her praise and my reaction. I was embarrassed, feeling unworthy, initially thinking, actually, that she was a little strange for watching us, and even patronizing me in going out of her way to deliver the praise.

Then I thought to myself: you are a shithead.

She was trying to make me feel good, just as Karen and I had tried to pat Stefano on the back; such acts make a better world. I tried to see myself as the woman might have seen me. I tried on the idea of seeing myself through her eyes, of dropping my guard and just basking in praise from a stranger. Why not?

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It's Father's Day, a day of praise for dads. Well, why not have such a day? Why not reflect the best in a dad back to him, so that he can see himself in some more exalted context than the diaper-changing, food-throwing, toddler-chasing reality in which he lives?

Is it just a greeting-card cliché to say that every dad is a hero? Maybe not. In parenthood, there's an element of evolutionary self-interest: animals that we are, we seek reproductive success. But as anyone who grew up reading comic books knows, heroes become heroes by ultimately transcending self-interest. It is always the villain who acts purely on self-interest, however deranged. The figure we call a hero acts on behalf of something greater than himself: an ideal, a tribe, a family.

Like Rilke's Apollo, the hero asks us to change our lives. The quest to become that hero is what we call commitment. Commitment - political and personal - creates an image that we chase all our lives and never reach, and yet there's something heroic in acts like caring for a child or marching against war, which defy distance and death.

We not just admit that to ourselves? Why not strive to be heroes, instead of the bunch of losers that we might feel ourselves to be? We need ideals. We need praise. "Our strongest weapons are our stories, the stories we tell our children, the ones we whisper to each other in beds of our own making, the myths that fill our imaginations," says Dialectical Daddy Tom in his June 17 post. "It is those weapons we must employ over and over to create the world we want."

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It's Father's Day. Praise to my father!

I won't share with the reader his many fine personal qualities - I don't expect you to care - but I will say that my dad modeled for me the kind of thoughtful heroism that I'm trying (and possibly failing) to describe.

No, he's not perfect. Of course not; I’m not even sure what “perfect” means. But he taught me through his actions how to take care of other people; even now he asks me to change my life. For that I'm grateful.

Monday, June 04, 2007

More Old vs. New

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Here's an interesting essay by Penelope Trunk entitled "Generation Y: Our American Dream." Trunk indulges in a little ahistorical generational warfare (something I'm not keen on, for what it's worth) in order to make a case I agree with:

The best of Generation X and Y are slow to move into the work force and quick to leave it. According to the department of labor, people in their 20s change jobs, on average, every two years. And Generation X is shifting in and out of the workplace in order to spend more time with kids. It's costing companies a lot of money, and they're paying millions of dollars a year in consulting fees to figure out how to decrease turnover.

There are many reasons for high turnover, but the most fundamental one is that baby boomers have set up a work place that uses financial bribes to get people to give up their time: Work 60 hours a week and we'll pay you six figures. Generation Y will not have this. To hold out money as a carrot is insulting to a generation raised to think personal development is the holy grail of time spent well.

Baby boomers are also baffled by women who grow large careers in their 20s and then dump them in order to spend time with kids. Newsflash: Generation X values their family more than their money. Our American Dream is not about buying a big house, our dream is about keeping a family together. You can tell a lot about values by the terms that are coined. When baby boomers were raising kids they invented the term latchkey kid and yuppie; we invented the terms shared care and stay-at-home-dad. The divorce rate for baby boomers was higher than any other generation. We can afford to have less money because most of us don't need to fund two separate households.


I don't like the way Trunk sets up Boomers as the enemy; it's self-righteous, and not an accurate reflection of reality. Generations are complex and contradictory, and I can point to lots of people my age who don't fit Trunk's vision of Generations X and Y. Moreover, struggles and trends initiated by previous generations made our choices possible. It's spoiled to think otherwise.

But, she's put her finger on something important and widespread, and perhaps she's not wrong to feel a certain degree of generational pride, or at least amplify the parts we should feel proud of.

Here's another link of interest: a new bill in California will make it easier for men to change their last names after marriage.