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Men of a Few Words

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Fathers, forgive me, for I know not what you do; but I'm about to offer some sweeping generalizations in observance of our upcoming feast day.

A writer, who is ipso facto a reader, is not necessarily more driven to instill a love of books in his or her children than is a typical parent. And the typical parent, college-educated or otherwise, is not much of a reader in this dystopian age, at least not at anywhere near the depth at which he or she is a wage-earner, shopper, television-watcher, moviegoer, gamer, eater, exerciser or vacationer.

Just to leave empirical research utterly behind, I can tell you I've walked into countless homes nicer than my own and spotted, among the elegance and electronics, only token samples of grownup books -- best sellers and celebrity bios and such -- often neatly shelved, which is never a sign of book lust.

(Left) Dan and daughter Erin enjoyed a father-daughter moment along Boston's Freedom Trail during a long-ago family getaway. (Right) Taking his daughter trick-or-treating when she was a child, Dan also costumed up for many Halloweens. - MARY CARPENTER
  • Mary Carpenter
  • (Left) Dan and daughter Erin enjoyed a father-daughter moment along Boston's Freedom Trail during a long-ago family getaway. (Right) Taking his daughter trick-or-treating when she was a child, Dan also costumed up for many Halloweens.

But if the kids are small, I can expect stacks and piles of quality reading material, from the contemporary favorites with their dazzling illustrations to the enduring classics of Beatrix Potter, Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss. Scratch a parent who's too busy for Joyce Carol Oates and you'll find a fanatic who will be in line for whatever reincarnation of Harry Potter awaits us.

I did just that, twice, with my daughter back around the turn of the millennium, when, by poignant coincidence, I was near the end of my tenure as The Indianapolis Star's first and only full-time book editor. We both found it kind of silly, cooling our heels amid black-robed Hogwarts wannabes and sipping fake Butterbeer while midnight closed its distance.

I totally agreed with a bookseller friend who refused to throw Harry Potter release parties, insisting that the madly hyped blockbusters were just one good set of youth books among many.

But this was a bonding opportunity, of which fathers and daughters don't have all that wide a selection. And it did elevate us into a kind of elite, setting us apart from Mom and Brother with our own language and our well-earned handle on the workings of a whimsical world. Kind of cool.

It was that same conspiratorial joy of sharing that got us through our quest to read the entire Potter series aloud. It certainly wasn't unquenchable love of the books.

Setting aside J.K. Rowling's maddening addiction to adverbs, this was not merely one good youth read among many. It was a trilogy on steroids, bulked up to seven volumes. We did this thing for love -- of one another.

Now grown, my daughter and son read. They read books, including good ones. We still exchange them as gifts. But mostly, they don't read what I read. That's fine; in fact, it would be a little creepy otherwise, like going to rock concerts together. Satisfied I have carried out the parent's job of cultivating literacy, I've left literature pretty much to my own haphazard shelves.

By the same token, my children have left me to my own devices as a writer, even to the extent of raising no objection - and offering little in the way of reviews - when I make them my subjects.

In a snapshot from a vacation in Maine many years ago, Dan poses with his daughter Erin and son Patrick. - MARY CARPENTER
  • Mary Carpenter
  • In a snapshot from a vacation in Maine many years ago, Dan poses with his daughter Erin and son Patrick.

As a longtime practitioner of personal journalism and poetry, I've traded on my family's privacy to an extent not out of line for those genres but basically arrogant all the same. The jury's always out as to how much this exposure is tribute and tenderness, and how much is just self-indulgence.

Our secrets, now everybody's. As for the chances of getting the message across to all those strangers without distortion? Let's say slim. For example, who will realize, when they read

"the game he loves/ will f--k him over/ and make him rage"

that the poem, for all its gloom about my Little Leaguer and his Irish Hill ancestors, seeks to preserve a memory more sweet than bitter?

One of the most moving prose pieces I've ever read, entitled The Way We Are, was penned by the Michigan essayist and poet Thomas Lynch about his struggle with alcoholism, both his own and his then-teenage son's. Unsparing in its detail, from the school flameouts to the car wrecks to the manipulation of divorced enabling parents, the memoir closes with grim hopefulness (which later events have justified).

Yet, I couldn't imagine taking the worst trials of fatherhood and the soiled laundry of offspring to public viewing as he did, and I put that concern to Lynch in conversation. He got the family's permission, he answered; and I didn't have to ask whether he saw any shame in airing this heartfelt and heart-rending confession.

In his hands, fatherly writing can have a pretty lacerating edge without bloodying up the subjects or the sensitive reader. But his hands are bigger and nimbler than mine or most.

I tend to take a more conservative approach (even in my poem about my daughter, with the ill-tempered title "Token Liberal Columnist at Leisure"), steering wide of sentimentality and platitudes while stopping well short of tales that would require asking permission -- or forgiveness.

Writing about my own dad in the newspaper on a long-ago Father's Day, I remarked that he never saw the college where I picked up all those fancy words; yet, he distinguished himself from a : many men of our dissolute times by staying home, where his responsibilities lay.

If my book-learning, unlike my children's, came as an escape from an impoverished home life rather than an enhancement of middle-class upbringing, I still must credit my father's fundamental respect for education with keeping possibility aloft. That is, after all, what all those books do at their best.

He was a high school graduate when that meant much more than it does now, and he could quote a little Shakespeare. And once he admonished a child who sneered at a TV showing of Porgy and Bess, saying: "You may not realize it, Dear, but that's art."

Fathers and written remembrances. Many months ago I wrote a poem called If My Children Grow up to Be Poets, poking fun at the Writer's Almanac for publishing so many poets who go to that well. I submitted the poem to the Writer's Almanac. I'm still waiting to hear back. Anyway, it says, in part:

"I'll marvel/ at how this Dad shtick works;/ how my college, my contacts,/ even, hell, my own Dad odes/ could not shield me/ from the Harpies of succession,/ the intimacies of immortality,/ the poet paters' common oldfartness fate."

Please don't take this as raining on our Father's Day. Just a gentle reminder that our words, and theirs, will outlive us. Editing is futile; let it all be read.

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