Finals week where I teach* was last week, which means I’m now on summer break. Also known as Dad Time. It’s another summer full of me and the Squatch, only this time he’s mobile and stir crazy. This could get interesting.
*Well, I should say “taught” now. I’m not going to be back there in the fall, but I can’t quite admit it to myself yet. Just let me have this, okay?
This crazy school year being over means three other things, though:
- More time to spend with you, the fine people of the Bloggy-verse.
- Working on the shift from being the one nobody’s noticing at the front of the class to one of the many in seats playing on Facebook. Or as it’s known more colloquially, from teacher to student.
- Reading. Lots and lots of reading.
I’m going to spend a couple of posts focusing on that third one (well, and the first one, obviously) because it’s summer and I’m about to go get all doctored in literature, so it just makes sense. And I don’t need to justify my reasons for posting this stuff anyway. It’s my party and I’ll talk about books if I want to.
A couple weeks ago, I got a package in the mail courtesy of Brian Gresko*, who I know from the DadBloggers Facebook group. It should be no surprise to you by this point in the post that inside was a book—one he edited, in fact, called When I First Held You. It’s an anthology of essays on fatherhood by a bunch of critically acclaimed authors. It came out yesterday, and now that grading’s done, I finally got a chance to read it.
*First, I’ll just say that Gresko is already pretty awesome in my book because his son’s name is Felix, and that’s my kid’s name. So you already know he’s got taste.
Probably my favorite book on fatherhood is by one of my favorite authors—Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not entirely about being a dad, but it factors into large parts of the book, so I feel comfortable saying it’s about fatherhood. I find it interesting and strange to read what an author whose work I admire so much has to say about being a dad. When you come to enjoy an author’s work, frequently it’s because you’re drawn to something in that work you can identify with; somewhere inside your head, you’re saying, “Me too,” and “I get that,” and “That’s so true.” And often you don’t stop to think necessarily about that author as a person and about those other ways in which you also connect to them.
I’d read many of the authors in When I First Held You previously, and—like with Chabon’s book—I hadn’t really considered that other part of their lives, the part away from the keyboard full of peanut butter sandwiches and Target runs and squeezing little feet into little shoes. So I enjoyed that this book gave the chance to experience, particularly as someone who fancies himself in the same profession as these admittedly more successful gentlemen, that other side of the writing life—the one that doesn’t always show up on the pages of novels, at least not overtly.
Much in the way I do with those novels I go back to time and time again, I found myself doing the same internal agreement dance. When Lev Grossman says, “[T]here’s no point in holding things back. Babies don’t hold anything back. […] You can’t bullshit a baby,” I nod my head. When Ben Percy says, “Becoming a parent fundamentally changed my vision. I cannot help but see the world in sharp angles. I walk into a room and itemize the woodstove, the electrical socket, the scissors, the open window, the bottle of bleach—whatever can hurt. Everything’s a hazard,” my alligator brain answers back, “Me too.”
This book is full of moments like these, where the authors manage to pin down the myriad of quirks and joys and failures of being a parent. That might be one of the traps held in a book like this—these moments are incredibly beholden to the audience they’re reaching. To the childless, the essays in the book might feel a little self-indulgent or mundane. Talking about the existential crises of becoming a parent is fairly hard to pull off in a way that’s enjoyable to those who haven’t experienced it, and many of the authors in When I First Held You manage to do just that. But in the hands of a parent, these essays are a series of co-conspiratorial nods to the reader that cut right to the heart of what it means to be in the care of a little life-changing being. Poignant, engaging, and frequently on-the-nose, the essays in this book are well-crafted and thoughtful reflections on probably the most ubiquitous of life-changing experiences.
The one glaring knock on the anthology is the relative lack of diversity in the authors presented—of the 22 fathers, 18 are straight, white men, though there are some divorced guys in there to provide a little variation in perspective. This certainly isn’t a knock on the quality of the writing, which is largely great. With any anthology, there are certainly some entries that are stronger than others, though this one is full of such high caliber writers that it’s hard to find a true weak point in the writing itself.
I did enjoy the chance to learn new authors I might enjoy, especially in the light of seeing them as a dad first. My favorite was Ben Greenman’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which tackles the very idea of what parenthood means and laments the myriad of things you won’t remember no matter how much you want to keep it all. I definitely appreciated the essays by Dennis Lehane and Ben Percy for both their resolute honesty and the way they changed the way I see those writers in my head.
Though When I First Held You is a book by dads, it’s certainly not exclusively for dads. Parents, regardless of genitalia, will identify with the men who wrote this book, their many worries and challenges, and—ultimately—the mixed bag of emotions that come along with the raising of children.
Next time, I’ll talk about books some more, but I’ll get Squatch’s help. Stay tuned.