Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Not Harmless

I once went to Australia to speak at a conference. (This is in a previous life, when I jetted all over the place talking about independent media.)

The organizers put me in the same room as comic-book artist Madison Clell, who is now a good friend. At this time, however, she was a complete stranger.

Apparently they thought “Madison” was a guy and didn’t think much of sticking us in beds a few feet apart.

“Should we get a new room for you?” our female handler asked Madison.

Madison and I had met only an hour before. She looked me over with a cool and penetrating gaze. Then she turned back to our handler.

“Nah,” she said with a smile. “He’s harmless.”

Harmless…Madison meant that she didn’t think I would, er, take advantage of the situation, and I suppose her remark could be taken as a compliment.

But, of course, no guy wants to be told he’s “harmless.” Instead, in our beastly heart of hearts, we all want to be James Bond… you know, sexy and dangerous. Tempting to the ladies. Good with flying cars and machine guns disguised as umbrellas.


I thought of this incident when I received my contributor’s copy of the new anthology, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, edited by Shira Tarrant. I would be blogging about this anthology even if I weren’t a contributor. Consisting of essays by pro-feminist guys on many dimensions of the male experience—I wrote about fatherhood, of course—Men Speak Out is unique in covering issues near and dear to the heart of Daddy Dialectic.

I felt a little flutter of anxiety as I opened the covers. You see, I have a special angst about antisexist, pro-feminist writing by guys. I worry about the possibility it could be deemed “harmless”—that is to say, bland, pious, wimpy. I want male pro-feminist writing to be muscular, confrontational, and courageous—not in a flashy superficial sense, but in a way that shows the writer has really dived into the heart of his own experience.

I can’t stand antisexist writing in which the writer portrays himself as a hero in the struggle against a sexist world—I want to see the writer lose as well as win, because that’s what’s going to happen when you pit yourself against centuries of traditions that live on inside of you as well as outside. I don’t want to see the antisexist guy frame it as someone else’s struggle—I want to hear about his struggle, with himself as well as both men and women.

I don’t want the antisexist guy to reflexively agree with everything a woman and “feminism” says. I want to see him battle for understanding and stand up for his own ideas and tell the truth about his life. The purpose of antisexist male writing is not to curry favor with feminists. Its purpose to hold up a mirror to individual men and ask them to change their lives--and better yet, show them how to change their lives, and to be proud of progress when it happens.

I am relieved to report that most of the essays in Men Speak Out do that, and much more besides. The best essays helped me to see my own experience and ideas in a new light, and that’s the most you can ask writing to do. You can buy it here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Four Characters I Encountered (One in Absence) this Morning as I Dropped Liko off at School

The Barista: Had she been born in Russia in 1906, she would have become the muse of Constructivists and Bolshevik poster-artists. Slim and angular and dark, she never loses her knowing smile; you imagine her in vivid red and black on the walls of St. Petersburg and Moscow, beckoning the masses toward revolution. After the revolution, she would have been arrested, tried, and sent to Siberia, where she would have died of malnutrition and consumption. We'd see her name in biographies of Dziga Vertov and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Instead, she was born in the 1980s in the United States and now she sits near the espresso machine, reading a battered copy of "Gravity's Rainbow." Both my wife and I have a crush on her, but we have no posters on which to put her.

The Wealthy, World-Famous Writer: He's my age, the bastard, and his son is the same age as my son and the boys go to the same preschool. I see him enter every morning holding his boy's hand, and his arrogant swagger seems to offer contrast to his little boy's lopsided gallop. He nods a cool greeting to me; there's a peculiar confidence in his eyes and he always sports a different T-shirt, usually advertising bands you've never heard of or hardware stores in places like Omaha. His life has unfolded as he has always imagined it would, a succession of book and movie deals, famous friends, ironic evenings. He knows the J-curve of his life will terminate one day, abruptly or on a downward slope, but that does not trouble him. He knows, better than most people, that everything must come to an end. His wealth and name will pass down his son, who will never have to struggle to survive. He imagines his son as an old man, dying without having accomplished anything. It is this prospect that keeps him up at night.

The Story-Telling Codger: He was at the coffee shop every morning and he always gave Liko dollar coins, and he told the stories of the different faces on the coins, repeating the same ones over and over, and each time Liko would listen as if hearing it all for the first time, eyes wide and staring at the coin, and I would make polite noises. "Put that in your piggy bank!" said the story-telling codger. "Save up for college!" After I dropped Liko off at school, I used the coins for bus money. A month ago, the story-telling codger stopped coming to the coffee shop. I asked after him. "He's sick," his friend, who once played violin in the Davis symphony, whispered to me. Then he raised his voice and said to Liko, "He's just resting. He'll be back." Liko nods and waits.

The Little Boy: In his room superheroes and robots come alive and in their melodramas the fate of the world is at stake, and his private world is destroyed and renewed, destroyed and renewed, and each time it is born a little bit larger than it was before. Outside on the street everything is alive and everything has something to say to him: the clouds and trees, the rain puddles and shadows, street signs and manhole covers, all of them whispering stories and shouting praise and muttering ridicule. As he enters school the walls glow and the doors vibrate and his teachers loom as large as giants. If all goes well and he survives and keeps growing, one day the clouds and streets will fall silent and his teachers will seem small and superheroes will not exist.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Birthday #1

About a year and a half ago, I took a long trip. It involved one of the world's lengthier voyages by air. When I returned a few weeks later, after a cramped period of imprisonment in a poorly-ventilated aluminum tube, full of annoying adolescents, a few suffering toddlers, and a missionary or two, I muttered to my traveling companion, as we collected our bags, that I never wanted to have children.

"Guess what?" asked my wife, as soon as we met outside customs, on a fine summer morning at O'Hare International Airport. "I'm pregnant."

A year and a half later, or about a week ago, we celebrated Spot's first birthday, in the depths of the Chicago winter. To mark the occasion, she baked a dozen cupcakes. My wife and I then ate them all, mostly while Spot was sleeping, which is still most of the time. Of course we offered him one, but as is the case with so many things in life, what we hoped he would want, and what he truly did want, did not quite match. He took an experimental bite for the camera, and then resumed his project of obsessively gnawing a ceramic egg purchased by his grandfather in Poland.

Looking back on that moment at the airport, one thing now seems clear. I was a fool. I probably still am. But now at least I know I was a fool to have muttered to my travel companion, as I did by the baggage carousel, that I never wanted to have children.

My companion on that trip happened to be my father. At one point, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I asked him why anyone would want to have kids in the first place.

"Because," he answered with great philosophical wisdom, "it's fun."

I should make one thing clear. It's not foolish to want what I thought I wanted: to remain an unencumbered adult, childless. What was foolish was to think that I knew what I wanted at all. It's a realization that gets beyond the issue of parenthood and children, because it could apply to anything. We thought Spot might want a cupcake. Instead, he wanted a ceramic egg. My wife frequently reminds me that she had no intention of marrying someone like me, and I usually return the compliment. The point is that many decent and intelligent people can go for a long time believing that they have themselves, the world, and what they want, like, and dislike all figured out. Without having really experienced much of it.

And then things change. And there is no way they could possibly foresee what comes next.

I have to give my dad credit. It's something I do a lot now, since I'm at the stage in life where he's reaping interest on all the credit I denied him when I was 13. He was right. It is indeed fun to be Spot's dad. Spot cracks me up, and he can't even talk. I don't know why I never saw this possibility. For all these years I've been so wrapped up in my own recollections of childhood that I haven't troubled myself about what it must have been like to be a parent.

Well, now I know a little bit more. It's a lot of work, and a tremendous adjustment, but it's endlessly entertaining. It's also fun to be the husband of Spot's mom, and watch her be a mother; it's fun to be a family; to be friends with other families; a parent with friends who are not parents; to be the apprentices of empty-nesters and advisers to the newly-partnered; and to be the bearers of a priceless gift to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and to strangers at the play park. It's so much fun, in fact, that I can't imagine how I could possibly have come close to letting myself not go down this road.

It only now occurs to me that my father's reply on the airplane was a sort of compliment. He hadn't become my father because he was naturally appointed to be the highest authority on earth and the ultimate framework of the universe. He must have grown emotionally through parenthood, and enjoyed it. But I'm not sure if I would have understood it that way, if my wife hadn't had some news for me at the airport, news that a few months later sat up and looked at me, laughed, and forced me to change the way I think about myself, the way I must have done to a different set of parents 38 years before.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One Utopia

In my ideal world, mothers, rich and poor, will be able to take at least the first year of their child's life off of work. Affluent mothers will have their professional jobs held for them. Lower income mothers will receive state support.

At the end of the first year, it will be dad's turn. The transition will be marked with a rite of passage. There will be a party at the office; that night, the dad's buddies will throw him a celebration that very much resembles a bachelor's party. Beer and liquor will flow, joints will be smoked, and ribald jokes will be told.

The next morning, Dad will wake up to a new life. His partner will go back to work and he will be alone with the baby. His life will be hard at first; no utopia can ease the passage to full-time parenthood. He'll struggle with juggling a hundred tasks and losing time for himself. He'll start out as an incompetent slob, like most new parents, but he will learn.

In this utopia, he won't be lonely. The playgrounds will have at least as many dads as moms. Their will be playgroups, support groups, and places for him to go if he really needs help. Relatives will provide what support they can, and no one will give him a hard time: In fact, the stage of his caregiving will be validated and valorized.

In this egalitarian utopia, parents might still sort themselves according to gender. Some moms will prefer to hang with moms, some dads will want male company, but there will also be mixed-gender groups of parents who aren't that hung up on sexual differences--groups that will almost certainly include many gay and lesbian parents. There will be flirting: sex and sexual difference will not disappear, only inequality based on differences. People will just have to deal with it.

At the same time, Mom will also get the support she needs as new breadwinner. She'll be welcomed back to the office with a reverse rite of passage, and there will be procedures in place to help her get up to speed. Just as her partner is struggling with his new role, she will probably struggle with feelings of guilt and separation. Her need for flexibility will be informally understood by colleagues and formally supported by a combination of workplace and government policy. Violations will occur, but in this utopia, the state will be on the side of parents, not employers.

This will be equally true for men: policies will be gender neutral and defined by an understanding that both parents will serve as caregivers at some point, and the working parent ought to make time for children and provide support to partners who are currently caregiving. Of course, many couples will prefer to split paid work and childcare fifty-fifty from the beginning. Others will prefer more traditional and reverse-traditional arrangements where one parent specializes, especially when they have more than one child. Choice and negotiation will define a world where the division of labor is not gendered.

No utopia can guarantee a happy partnership. Some relationships will decline and dissolve. But in this world, fathers will rarely abandon their children, because they will have developed a deep attachment during the year or two in which they served as primary caregivers. Mothers will not be condemned to poverty by divorce. In a context of gender equality, the post-divorce couple will be able to build new, cooperative relationship as co-parents. New families will form, and be understood as a kind of extended family.

Girls will be raised to one day serve as breadwinners as well as caregivers. Boys will be psychologically and practically prepared to one day take care of children. Even so, individual preferences and proclivities will emerge. As these girls and boys grow up and start dating and contemplate parenthood, the division of labor will be negotiated, not imposed.

What do you think? Would you want to live in this world?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Peeing in the Bath

I've been thinking about posting on this topic for a while now. I just haven't had the courage. It wouldn't be about me peeing in the bath, you don't have to worry about that. It would be about Spot peeing in the bath. But it would also be about much more.

It would be about the body. It would be about water. It would be about bodies, water, freedom and youth. It would be about the Phallus and Lacan. Well, maybe not so much about Phalluses and Lacan , although I'll keep them both in the subtext for those who are interested. It would be about having a son and not a daughter, being an at-home-dad with a boyhood of his own to project onto someone else, who happens to be a son, and a projected boyhood that included peeing in the bath. And other places.

There is no story or plot, just an event: some happy splashing in the early evening, and then that perky little arc that emerges from the surface, rises, and falls back down again into the clear water with the little yellow duckies. I don't know why I think it's so cool that Spot pees in the bath. Maybe if I bathed more often, I would. It seems wonderfully life-affirming, a sign of riches, of male fecundity, and of Peter Greenaway's outrageous and mind-bending Shakespearean meditation, full of acrobatically pissing cherubs and called by some the worst movie of all time, Prospero's Books.

Because Spot pees in the bath, and because it makes me chuckle, and think about all the times I've gone skinny-dipping, peed on a mountain top or in the trackless reaches of some Canadian forest, it makes me wonder what sort of bond I would have if Spot were a girl. I have a script for Spot peeing in the bath. In this script, there is a long list of things I want to do with Spot, various places we can go to pee in the woods as he gets older. They are mostly replays of things I did, loved, and haven't been able to do much since, but they also include new things. A lot of them are boyish things. It's not the rupture in expectations and familiarity it would have been if Spot were a girl. There must be some equivalent for girls to peeing in the bath, but I confess I don't know what it is.

But oh, the freedom to splash and be free and not worry about what you should be wearing. Or having to frantically race through a foreign city looking for a culturally appropriate place to relieve yourself. I know some people who home-school their kids and live on a farm where the children run around naked. I suppose that's the logical extension of what I'm talking about. But I'd be satisfied with much less. A little skinny-dipping here and there, the unforgettable jump into the icy waters of Lake Superior, or marking a desert rock somewhere else.

Spot may turn out not to have the same childhood concerns that I had, doing my best to replenish the Midwestern prairie soils by peeing in the grass out under the astounding starry sky that enclosed my parents' backyard every evening. It's all part of the negotiated future that lies ahead of us, as he writes he own script, and I try to remember the lines from my own.

At the very least, I seem to remember, happily, that a few of those lines cue for "peeing in the bath."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Going in Reverse

An engineer once told me that the reason cars make that strange-but-cool noise in reverse gear is that they aren't designed to move that way. At least not very fast or very far. Going in reverse, for automobiles, is a limited proposition. It's designed strictly for short-term, utilitarian maneuvers.

I only mention this because, through Daddy Dialectic, I've learned that the label "reverse traditional" applies to my family. Which means, if my flippant analogy holds, that the clutch should be dropping out any minute now, and I should have a nasty kink in my neck from driving in a constant shoulder-check position.

Fortunately, this analogy has no application. We're a "reverse traditional" family, but we're not going backwards. And I'm not sure that we're the reverse of anything that was ever really traditional. But if we buy into the myth -- nicely taken apart elsewhere on this blog -- that the postwar, middle class, male-headed household is "traditional," then it does make some sense to consider ourselves reversed, inverted, flipped, or perhaps even commutative.

The novelty with us is a combination of the gender of the primary breadwinner, together with the fact that in the current global economy we can get by on one income -- my wife's. It's for this reason that she prefers the more media-savvy label, "X-treme reverse traditional," as if this family type comes with bungee cords and a reality-TV crew. But this rubric really just highlights how little money I make when compared to my wife, the upshot of which is our current household dispensation. This situation just so happens to support a family model that calls for daddies to be dialectical -- the opposite of what they thought they were.

In some ways things really have just inverted. My wife and I find ourselves doing the figurative equivalent of parental cross-dressing. She brings home the bacon. I fry it up in a pan. And then I never ever let her forget she's a woman. Sometimes it's as if we had simply traded the chores, anxieties and desires of the single breadwinner model.

Spot's mom, for example, worries all the time about losing her job, but especially about losing her (and our) health insurance. A common fear for everyone, but one magnified by the knowledge that she's carrying not just her load, but the financial weight of the whole family. The psychological result can bear an eerie resemblance to the irritable and pensive father of yore, sitting alone in his armchair after dinner, mulling over a bad day at the office, ignoring the children and snapping at his wife.

For my part, it can be challenging to muster the courage required to throw my identity entirely into child rearing. Partly because I know I may have to shift gears abruptly and scramble to find my footing in the job market, and partly because, even if I remain a full-time dad indefinitely, little Spot will eventually leave the nest, and take a good chunk of my sense of purpose with him. Now I have reason to ponder, in a much more personal way, how many intelligent and hardworking mothers have struggled to master anxieties over their dependency, their yearning for self-development, and the squelching of their ambition.

But in other ways, the template hasn't flipped. Instead, like a kaleidoscope, the same crystal grains are arranged in new configurations. My male identity persists in some ways that generate new dynamics and potentially new parenting benefits in the context of at-home-daddom.

I recognize, for example, that I'm not nearly the social networker that my wife is, or that most moms appear to be. At the same time, while I certainly try to emulate the feminine model of parental sociability, I also appreciate the independence that comes more naturally to me, and spares me the pressure of constantly judging myself by the measure of others.

I also don't feel guilty about trying to have a life apart from dadding, and this in turn seems to stem from the more masculine-gendered aspect of my personality that wants to engage in the world, to pursue lasting achievements and accomplishments. (Is a well-raised child not a lasting accomplishment? asks the rabbi in my head, dialectically.)

But apart from these aspirations, I have an intuition that it is to Spot's benefit, as well as to myself and my marriage, that I maintain elements of my pre-dad career interests and activities. Junking these all in the pursuit of a chimerical ideal of perfect parenthood -- something which mothers often feel overwhelming pressure to do -- has no attraction for me.

These dynamics among at-home-dads may represent a blend of more conventionally masculine gender behaviors within the relatively novel context of full-time parenting, with unexpected and possibly beneficial results. But there is no doubt about the fact that the "extreme reverse traditional" family model exacts a particular toll all its own. It is less flexible than the proliferating varieties of work-life arrangements that typically require two full-time incomes in order to support a family.

The equally-shared parenting model, unlike the reverse traditional, can allow either partner to change roles, stay at home, go back to work, change careers, go to school, or suffer unemployment while the other picks up the slack. Whatever a partner's dissatisfaction may be in a reverse traditional model, in contrast, they're going to have to nurse it for a while.

Unless the breadwinning mom loses her job. Which could always happen, anytime. It just happened to one of my wife's coworkers. Then everything changes, and we shift from the reverse traditional to equally shared anxiety model.

But if one thing is becoming clearer as I go along -- and Daddy Dialectic has contributed enormously to this realization -- it's that no one family model suits everybody, nor should it. What's important is creating the social framework within which creative and equitable family models can be supported through all the twists and turns of life and employment. Each model is inevitably accompanied by its own dissatisfactions.

That is a standing dilemma of modern life that parenting really brings home, and where wisdom is most called for: there is no one perfect arrangement, and yet no given arrangement is perfect.

This is what progressive family policy looks like

One recent study by a conservative British think-tank questioned whether men would ever use extended paternity leave, because their study revealed that professional British men seldom cut back on their hours after becoming dads. "It seems that fathers don't want to work fewer hours," said lead author Esther Dermott--not taking into account larger cultural factors and penalties fathers might face at work if they took advantage of leave policies.

But men's behavior will evolve in response to changing conditions, and so will workplaces. The social democracies of northern Europe have offered generous family leave benefits for quite some time, but recently Germany started offering a hefty subsidy to stay-at-home parents of both genders. "A parent taking time off work to care for a newborn is paid two-thirds of his or her net monthly salary, up to a maximum of 1,800 euros, tax-free for 12 months. The other parent can take a further two months off to extend the benefit to 14 months," reports Reuters. The article continues:

German fathers are staying home with their newborn babies in unexpectedly high numbers in the first year of a generous government subsidy meant to boost the country's low birth rate, officials said on Friday...

Fathers accounted for about 10 percent of subsidy beneficiaries in the third quarter of this year, a major shift in the attitude of German men taking time off work for their children, officials said...

"It's becoming much more acceptable for someone just starting out in his career to take some time off to be with his kids," Families Minister Ursula von der Leyen said...

The unexpected surge in fathers seeking benefits could signal a significant change in the way Germans divide the labour of childrearing, said Nicola Huelskamp, consultant for the German Economic Institute in Cologne.

"This arrangement could mean not only women are held accountable," Huelskamp said.

[Thanks to "Curt," this crazy dude who posted practically the entire article on Rebeldad, for pointing me to this.]

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Remember the Future

Happy New Year!

Or is it?

For decades, the conventional wisdom has said that we're getting dumber, society is disintegrating, and the world is becoming more dangerous. Each new year, it seems, has carried us one step closer to the abyss. Why would anyone want to have children?

There's just one problem with this feeling: It's totally contradicted by the evidence.

Are we getting dumber? Not according to IQ tests, which show each new generation of Americans being smarter than the previous one. But isn't our culture dumbed down by TV? Not really. Have you ever sat down and looked at the pop culture of previous eras? I have. It's filled with racist and sexist stereotypes, cruel jokes, simplistic morality, and banal ideas. Even TV has improved dramatically. Compare shows like The Sopranos to the best TV dramas of the 50s, 60s, and 70s--The Sopranos beats them all in psychological, moral, and artistic sophistication. And The Sopranos isn't alone--the best TV these days is really, really good, and reflects a wiser, more self-aware culture.

Is society disintegrating? To be sure, there is less social capital in the United States today than there was fifty years ago. People are spending less time together; politics is polarized. But are things really worse than they were, say, in the decades leading up to the Civil War? Are people angrier now than they they were the 1930s or more polarized than in the 1960s? The answer is no. America today is more egalitarian, more tolerant, and more diverse than in any previous era.

Is the world more dangerous? Recently, crime in America has declined; so has domestic violence. Infant mortality is down; people are living longer. Scientists like Stephen Pinker, Douglas Fry, and Robert M. Sapolsky have argued that communal, political violence has gone down over the past few centuries--way down. Writes Pinker:

Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

Of course, there's plenty to feel anxious about in 2008. Expenses and debt are up; inequality is growing. The nightmare occupation of Iraq continues. The globe is warming. Those are things to struggle against, personally and politically--and we might lose. But you know what? People in the past fought to make life better for us today--and many of their efforts succeeded. We have an obligation to the do the same for future generations.

That's my New Year's resolution: Remember the future.

[Cross-posted with the Greater Good blog.]