Courtesy Steve Almond
Steve Almond wrote one of my top 10 books of the twenty-first century, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. More recently, he published another book that I like quite a lot, the memoir Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. But I truly became a Steve Almond fan when he started writing columns about how fatherhood had changed his perspective on politics. In this piece for Salon.com, for example, he explains why he “totally loves tax day.” Here’s reason number two, “Children, It Turns Out, Are Extremely Fragile”:
This hadn't occurred to me until I had two of my own. I now spend a lot of time worrying about stuff that I never used to worry about. Such as: the quality of my drinking water and food and local public schools and parks and playgrounds and roads. And thus the notion that my taxes actually pay for things required by my fragile children has managed to burrow its way through my thick American skull. Paying a small portion of my income for these collective benefits is not only a basic civic duty, in other words, but it is in my interest.Since I’m also a dad and since I also totally love taxes, it seemed obvious to me that I should meet this person Steve Almond. That actually hasn’t yet happened, but this past December I did interview him over email. Here are the results, exclusively for you Daddy Dialectic readers:
JAS: Do you have in your mind any image of an ideal father? Are there any dads in real life or popular culture or literature that you see as being someone for you to emulate?
SA: Most parents have some hallowed vision of the perfect parent—who loves unconditionally but also sets limits, who overcomes his bullshit for the sake of the kids. But these visions are mostly self-punishment. My own sense is that nobody knows what the hell they're doing, especially today, with so many roles having shifted. I know for a fact that I screw up every day, mostly out of my own emotional neediness. I try to please the kids too much. I lose my cool. I send mixed messages. And so on. The problem with parenting in the precincts of plenty is that fathers (and even more so mothers) hold themselves up to this impossible ideal.
As for the pastures of literature, it doesn't contain a lot of ideal dads. Nor does popular culture. The reality is that being a parent is an incredibly private, day-to-day business. It's a million little moments and decisions, not some calibrated Hollywood plot. The person I admire the most, and try to emulate, is my wife.
JAS: What does she do that you try to emulate?
SA: She's just a lot more patient and thoughtful, better able to control her frustration, more organized. Etc. There are exceptions, but generally speaking most dads would do really well to emulate moms. Not saying moms are perfect -- nor should they be held to some higher standard. I just think they're better equipped emotionally to deal with kids, who are basically lovable but also irrational creatures.
JAS: What pisses you off about fatherhood, if anything? I don't mean what pisses you off about being a father--I mean about the idea of fatherhood. Or to put it a different way, do you ever feel like the kind of father you're trying to be is at odds with what kind of father the rest of society wants you to be?
SA: Again, the main thing that pisses me off is my own weaknesses and failings. I'm not inclined to blame "society" for that. About the only large-scale thing that society wants people to be—at least in America— is consumers. But that applies to everyone.
JAS: Sure. So how do you raise your kids to not be little consumers without turning them into total freaks in the eyes of their peers?
SA: Yeah, my kids are small enough that peer pressure—at least to buy stuff—isn't a factor yet. So I'm not speaking as some kind of authority. But one pretty common sense thing would be to throw your TV out the window. It's not doing anyone any favors spiritually. We have computers and let the kids watch videos, but no commercials. We try to limit the over-stimulation in general. Honestly, I'm not sure what sort of kid would consider another kid "a total freak" because they don't own enough junk. That sounds kind of crazy.
JAS: Hmmm. I think you're underestimating the crazy that's coming your way; I'm especially conscious of this right now because of Christmas. Now that my son's in elementary school, I see kids routinely tease or even ostracize each other based on the stuff they don't own. "What? You don't have a wii? What a dork!" There’s shame in not owning the latest crap. And actually, I think the refusal (or inability) to consume is perceived as very challenging in both the adult and kid worlds. Lots of people think my wife and I are slightly freakish for not owning a car or a TV; they seem to see it as some sort of failure—maybe I’m being paranoid and insecure, I often think some see it specifically as my failure as the father, since the father is supposed to be the breadwinner and thus the provider of junk. Our natural response has been to surround ourselves with people who also don't own cars and TVs and other crap, though of course then you start to live in a bubble. This to me is a classic parenting dilemma, for people across the political and cultural spectrum: how do you raise a child so that they can resist the negative aspects of the culture while still being equipped to thrive in that culture?
SA: Yeah, sounds like you're facing the same dilemma we are. And you're deeper into the disconnect. I can see why you feel you're living in a bubble, but to me the slavish devotion to material crapola is the ultimate bubble. It keeps people insulated from what really matters. I'm pretty sure I'm not saying anything Christ didn't say in his Sermon on the Mount. My argument would be that, as a parent, if you're troubled by the values of the dominant culture, you should seek to change that culture, in whatever humble ways you can, and to urge your children to do the same thing. I hear you on being a breadwinner. But part of my larger point is that fathers are also moral actors, both in the small but crucial world of the family, and in the larger world.
JAS: I haven’t made a systematic study of it or anything, but my perception is that your writing has taken a more political turn in recent years. Is that a wrong impression? If it's true, was the political turn influenced at all by becoming a dad?
SA: Absolutely. Look, I've got skin in the game now. Back when I was single, it just didn't matter to me as much that we had a bunch greedy, deluded maniacs holding this country's moral progress hostage. Now it does. They're fucking with my kids' future. A lot of parents—particularly prosperous, over-determined, parents like myself—get sucked inward by parenting. It's a trap, because our apathy and moral disengagement is going to cost our kids in the long run.
JAS: Ok, so, how do you escape from that trap?
SA: Again, I'm not an expert, just a concerned loudmouth. My kids are quite young. But I'm guessing, based on my limited experience, that the biggest thing is the example you set. I'm not saying we read our kids the Marx/Engel Reader at night, and ask that they recycle their poop, but we do try to send them the message that we're pretty lucky to have all the great stuff we have, that we shouldn't take it for granted, and that one of their big jobs is to learn to share. It will get more complicated as their awareness of the world grows. The idea is not to hide them from reality, or vice versa. But that's really a process, and an inconvenient one. Most parents are so exhausted by parenting that they tend to turn away from social responsibility, and toward convenience. That's just what Madison Avenue wants. Get the juice box. Get the SUV. Get the mollifying toy. I'm not suggesting that we do things perfectly. We don't. But we're trying in the ways we can.
JAS: In an op-ed you wrote for the Boston Globe back in 2009, you argue that all good parents are "de facto socialists," because they are constantly trying teach kids to share their stuff. What kind of response did you get to that column?
SA: Just what you'd expect. A few people saying, "Hey, yeah, that sounds reasonable." And a ton of folks saying, "Kill that commie!" That's American discourse at the moment.
JAS: At the end of the piece you ask—but don't really answer—"Why are Americans afraid to express their morality in the political arena in the same way they do as parents?" Why indeed? Where does that disconnect occur?
SA: In large part because our entire culture (and economy) is predicated on keeping all citizens in a state of insecurity and overstimulation and exhaustion. Also because the political system is fueled by special interest money, folks who are paid, in essence, to make sure a genuine morality doesn't intrude on the business of the government. We saw a brilliant example in the extension of the Bush tax cuts. That was about greed, pure and simple, and virtually nobody would say that. The Fourth Estate, which also runs on a for-profit model, is in the business of making money, not serving as the peoples' representative in Washington. I think most Americans see "politics" as some kind of absurd sport played on cable TV. It's become unmoored from issues of morality. And, like I say, most parents simply want to get through the day however they can. Amid the inconvenience of children, they don't want the further inconvenience of having to consider themselves moral actors.
JAS: You write a lot about your (sometimes raunchy) life, and you’ve blogged for Babble about your first child’s life as a baby. Has the relationship between your life and your writing changed because of fatherhood—for example, do you feel yourself to be reluctant to write down certain experiences? As your kids get older, how are their lives going to fit into your writing, if at all?
SA: The more pressing question for me is how my writing is going to fit into their lives. And I don't entirely know the answer. Obviously, I've written a good deal about my life. But there is a realm of privacy, both for me and for my wife and kids, and that's something I take seriously. It's part of the reason I stopped blogging for Babble. And I'm sure I'll hold back on writing more and more stuff as they and their friends become readers. Nobody wants to go through adolescence with their dad taking notes and writing "humorous" columns about them. That being said, my wife and I hope we're raising the sort of kids who recognize the value of storytelling. (We had considered not teaching the children to read, but they seem to be picking it up pretty quickly.) My hunch is that they'll want nothing to do with our work. But we certainly can't hide what we do. Honesty is always the best policy. Or at least, the inevitable one.