Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Inconceivable, Impossible.

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Earlier this month, a first-time breast-cancer test for my wife found something abnormal. I've since discovered that this is increasingly common: As doctors screen earlier and the technology gets better, they are finding more and more little white spots on mammograms that lead to more testing.

We waited two very brittle weeks until the results came back: The conditions for cancer are present, but nothing is happening at the moment. She now needs to get tested every six months.

But from what I understand, the most likely outcome is that nothing at all will develop, and, even it something does, chances are high that treatment will be successful. I'm probably more likely to get hit by a car in the foreseeable future than she is to advance to the next stage.

Curiously, the main thing Olli wanted to talk about while we waited for results was whom I could find to serve as a mother to Liko and a companion to me. She paired me off with various single friends; she debated pros and cons of each match; she imagined elaborate scenarios.

This was her way of exerting control over the situation, or one aspect of it; she was creating simulacra to take care of us in her imagined absence. As you might guess, these flights of doom-laden fantasy made me seethingly uncomfortable, and yet I did find myself following her down these hypothetical paths.

For me, however, they didn't go anywhere. It is not hard to imagine Liko and me alone together; that feels as possible to me as moving to another city. But life without Olli seems inconceivable, impossible. I'm sitting in the dark typing this; it's 4:30 in the morning. I can't sleep. I don't want to.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Words: Learning Them and Losing Them

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There are essentially two piles of books in our household: Spot's pile and my pile. My wife reads mostly magazines and trade journals, and listens to e-books on the daily commute. I try to read books during Spot's naps, but fear this habit may be facing extinction, which is a source of great stress to me.

So there are basically two piles of books, with smaller offshoot-piles developing in various rooms at any given moment, in addition to the reservoir of those that manage to stay in their assigned place on their assigned bookshelf. Spot's is the more motley pile, with books of all shapes, sizes, and textures -- rubber books, cardboard books, books that float, books with sandpaper and gauzy and scratch-and-sniff patches. At the top of his stack recently have been such titles as Boo-Hoo Baby, Goodnight Gorilla, and Pat the Bunny. In a separate, smaller pile is Llama Llama Mad at Mama, and somewhere under the crib is Bee-bim Bop!

Dad's pile is enough to scare any young mind away from the very prospect of literacy. It is certainly more massive, contains far fewer illustrations, and none of it floats. The royalties from the whole lot of my pile probably don't amount to a single check to the deserving author of Goodnight Gorilla, and in some municipalities might be considered a fire hazard.

Both piles are growing. What is disconcerting about my pile is that it contains a growing number of 600 page tomes that have yet to be opened, with titles like Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy; Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, and Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution.

A very amateur psychoanalyst friend had no trouble diagnosing me with the bookish version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the intellectual version of eating flies or walking backwards to the bus stop. Or a frustrated academic's version of grandma's cat hoarding. It's not rational. There's simply no way, given my current lifestyle, that I could possibly read these books at the rate that I am acquiring them. My desires are outstripping my abilities.

Meanwhile, Spot is making good use of everything he's got; in fact, it doesn't seem to be quite enough. In addition to chewing on his own books, and whipping the pages back and forth with demonic fervor, he occasionally strays into my pile, seems drawn to the Marxism shelf, and loves Gordon Craig's classic monograph on modern Germany because it falls off the shelf with such a massive, massive thud.

Like most children, Spot seems to want to read Chinese, or perhaps Hebrew; which is to say, upside down and backwards. This versatility will be quickly eliminated; what really counts is that he's figured out how to turn pages, and the mastery of this simple technology is really the key to the universe. He's soaking things up like a sponge, and although none of his frothy diphthongs or happy glottal clicks will find a place in modern English, the link between page, sign, sound (or mysteriously funny joke) is clearly there for him.

It's astounding to watch this act of coordination, and I try to focus on his progress in compensation for my own sense of steadily diminishing IQ, and the nagging sense that everything in my brain has been steam-pressed in the industrial diaper laundromat of fatherhood. Perhaps that accounts for the recent surge in tomes: if it can't be held in my brain, then maybe I can trap it in a book, and hold it down for a while. Until I can get it back.

On bad days all this business with words can seem like a purely Darwinian transfer of resources, from my brain to his: "Son, here is my vocabulary. Enjoy it. I won't be needing it anymore."

On good days, when we achieve something like family bliss, Spot sits in one place on the rug and quietly flips back and forth through all 700 pages of The Search for Modern China. The dog slumbers in a sunbeam, and I sit back in the armchair, feel my years, and reread the five pages I read the day before and have since forgotten.

What Do We Want? When Do We Want It?

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I usually mark the anniversary of the Iraq war with some kind of outraged call to action, but I can't think of a single thing to say this year. The war is a human, financial, cultural, and military disaster, and both America and Iraq will be paying for it for generations to come.

So instead of trying to write something new, I'll just share this short story that I published last year, which captures how I feel better than a blog entry could.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fun with Whinydad

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Today, the Whinydad Chronicles interviews me and Chicago Pop about Daddy Dialectic. You can find out all about the secret origin of Daddy Dialectic, the influence of our own fathers, what embarrasses our kids and how they influence our writing, what we've learned about fatherhood from blogging, and how to save the world from evil.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Joey's Story: Somebody There

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I am in the process of interviewing Bay Area families for a series of writing projects on non-traditional families, collected as the "21st Century Family Project." For the past year, I have periodically posted sketches of the families based on interviews, as a kind of public notebook of the work I am doing. What follows is the story of Joey and Angela Fernandez, who live in San Francisco's Mission district. Their last name has been changed.

Joey Fernandez was raised in San Francisco’s Mission district by Mexican-born parents. There’s little in his upbringing—which sounds tough, at least to my ears—that suggests Joey might have one day become a caregiving father. He was beaten, sometimes with belts or cords, for disobedience, and his father was the indisputable head of house.

But he says that most of his friends did not have fathers at all—they were dead, deported, jailed, or just out of the picture—and Joey loved, idolized, and feared his dad. “I had somebody there,” he says, “who was going to be there for me, that we could look up to, where the buck stopped." But when Joey was 16, his father was killed in a car crash. Today, Joey remembers him as "a great father."

Joey—who was once my neighbor in the Mission, and is still my friend—grew up to be a strong, handsome, and good-hearted man. He tends a bar while his wife Angela works as a waitress and dance teacher.

After their first child, Julius, was born, Joey wanted more than anything to be a part of his son’s life—and, unlike his father, he recognized that his wife’s work was important to her. Her dance teaching, especially, gave her a creative and social outlet, not to mention income.

And so instead of seeking full-time work, as most fathers do, Joey cut back on his hours so that Angela could keep her two jobs and they could share child care. This arrangement persisted after their second child was born, with each continuing to work complimentary shifts.

Their story illustrates a great deal of research into Latino families. When University of California, Riverside, sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane conducted a five-year longitudinal study of how Latino and Anglo families in Riverside cope with economic stress, they found that Latino families are often willing to accept much higher levels of material deprivation in exchange for time with children.

Parke, Coltrane, and their colleague Thomas Schofield discovered that the decision is based more on an anti-materialistic ideology of family togetherness (which academics call familialism) than it was on an ideology of male supremacy. In fact, contrary to stereotype, their study found that today's generation of Mexican-American fathers tend to be significantly more involved with children (though not necessarily housework) than their Anglo-American counterparts.

“I do the housework but he also helps,” one Mexican–American mother told Texas Tech University researcher Yvonne Caldrera in another study. “I go to work at 6 in the evening and from there on he's in charge of the house. He feeds the children dinner and he leaves the kitchen clean for me.”

Joey does leave much of the housework to his wife, but he is a highly involved, caregiving father. “Before he was born, the plan was that we would do as much of the parenting ourselves,” says Angela. “We didn’t even look into child care. Unless you’re making tons of money at work, it’s not worth it.” They both make it clear that staying home with their kids was not an economic decision. “The most important thing was that we wanted to be the ones to raise our kids,” says Joey.

But for Joey, parenting is not a vehicle for emotional growth. “We gain something, but parenting’s not really for our personal gain. It’s for them.” And yet Angela notes that since he started caring for his kids, Joey has become a more patient and thoughtful guy. “Now that he has to think about what children need, he’s much better about time management and being prepared,” she says. “He thinks about other people.”

Monday, March 03, 2008

What About Dad?

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I enjoy reading Parenting magazine, about the same way I enjoy reading Cosmopolitan or sitting around kibitzing about the stuff of daily life: parking, the weather, corrupt politicians, the movies, and corrupt politicians.

It's a cheap pleasure -- as it should be, considering I didn't pay for it, but cashed in some frequent flier miles for this and a subscription to Wine Spectator. And I have to admit that, all in all, Parenting has yielded more useful care giving tricks than Wine Spectator has helped me become a true connoisseur.

Like Cosmo, Parenting: What Matters to Moms gives this Dad a cozy and sometimes reassuring feeling of already knowing what everyone is talking about -- with the exception of breastfeeding and postpartum issues. Though, if you pay attention to your partner (assuming this person is a woman), it's not hard to get this stuff either. Aside from that, it's pretty basic. Feed your children. On a regular basis. Don't drop them, and make sure they have clothes. Do this every day for about 5 to 10 years, sometimes longer. Et cetera.

Of course, Parenting sometimes has very useful information that satisfies my desire not to read a 300 page book on every developmental issue known to the American Academy of Pediatrics. When, for example, children will begin to want privacy, all about food allergies, or what to do when Spot has a fever. In the end it's all fairly simple.

But unlike Cosmo, with which I have a fairly straightforward reader relationship, of being either completely uninterested in a given topic (I will never use that line of cosmetics), or feeling able to judge a matter based on some degree of personal experience ("13 Tricks to Jump-Start Your Sex Life"), when it comes to the place of "Dad" in Parenting, it's a much weirder relationship. As the title makes clear, they're not really talking to me, though they do try to keep me in mind.

Which is why, in just about every monthly issue, there is at least one article in which Dad makes an appearance, mostly as a sort of Appendix to whatever is being discussed.

One instance of Dad-As-Appendix appeared in an article on how to bond with your baby. Certainly something every mom wants to know. The article runs through some crazy and discredited theories from the 70's, and then, inducing a sigh of relief from the reader, goes on to summarize the current less-crazy theories. Part of what makes the new theories less crazy than the old ones, it turns out, is that they make room for dad -- a little bit. As the heading of the last section asks, "What about dad?"

Yes, well, what about dad? The answer is basically that "bonding can (and should) occur between father and child." Once that principle has been absorbed, the next thing to remember is that you can't be afraid to "dumb it down" a little bit. If mom really wants to make some progress, she should let go and just leave once in a while to let dad sort things out on his own.

I don't disagree with any of it, of course, except the "dumbing down" part; how difficult is this, really? To its credit, the Parenting piece recognizes that most dads have to go back to work shortly after their child's birth, and so aren't around to figure everything out through experience. But that's nothing that a little eagerness to be with your new, tiny hominid won't cure. And chances are it really doesn't have to be dumbed down that much; it's much easier than advanced calculus, or trying to get the perfect risotto.

But more importantly, I wonder what would happen if the editors of Parenting and similar magazines tried out a different marketing strategy: if they moved from being magazines about What Matters to Moms, with articles dealing with Dad-As-Appendix, to What Matters to Parents, with articles dealing with Dad-As-Half-The-Family-Situation. Would they lose the interest of the majority of their readers, or would they gain new ones? Does the orientation of Parenting magazine to Mom reflect the demographic reality, or reproduce it? Would it make business sense for anyone to launch a print "Dad" magazine?

It's nice to see yourself reflected somewhere in the culture, more or less accurately, once in a while. I don't expect to all the time, especially not in mass media. I can't afford the $500 bottle of Bordeaux that Wine Spectator wants me to know about, I don't really need Cycling to tell me how to train 50 miles a day for a criterium or which space-age composite bike to get. I'm not really into having my aspirations egged on, just my reality reflected back a little, once in a while.