Message in a Bottle


By a calendrical coincidence, this year’s Father’s Day is an especially literary one. It falls on June 16th, which is celebrated annually, at least by English majors, as Bloomsday. That’s the day on which Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, peregrinates around Dublin, and it’s the day on which Joyce’s ardent fans don period garb and recreate that journey by traipsing across the city in Bloom’s footsteps. On this side of the globe we just hoist a Guinness or two and affect an Irish accent for a few hours.

Ulysses has a lot to do with fatherhood, actually. Some representative quotes: 

  • A father, said Stephen, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.
  • Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?  
  • [A son’s] growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

Sheesh. No wonder people drink on Bloomsday. Lighten up, Mr. Joyce.

imageMaybe yours is the rare dad who enjoys massive modernist classics about the torments of fatherhood. Or like me, maybe you are that dad. If so, you can visit Seattle’s Town Hall for an afternoon of live performance. Professional actors will be reading selections from Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners along with some excerpts of Ulysses. It shouldn’t be all that depressing, in fact. Joyce was never afraid of confronting the harshness of life, but he’s also one of the most inquisitive and accepting authors of all time. Leopold Bloom shares the open nature of his creator, and Ulysses is famous for its triumphant conclusion, when Leopold’s wife Molly unfurls an all-embracing soliloquy like none other:

…and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

For Joyce, the final word of any philosophical argument was … well, you know.

One doesn’t usually think of a monumental writer in the context of domestic life, but Joyce was devoted to his children and indulgent of their whims. He had a close rapport with his artistic but troubled daughter, and at least one biography (Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake) claims her as a major inspiration for his work. Perhaps the best elucidation of their complex relationship can be found in a graphic novel by Bryan and Mary Talbot called Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is another famous figure of fiction who was familiar with family life. Given the times in which he lived, he wasn’t exactly a primary caregiver, but he did spend considerable quality time with the kids. When his wife and daughters traveled to visit relatives, Hawthorne was left alone for three weeks with his five-year-old son, and the experience resulted in a charming diary called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. This isn’t a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child narrative by a patriarch, but a story by a gentle, fun-loving parent that wouldn’t be out of place on a contemporary daddy blog.

An even briefer, yet equally profound depiction of a father and child can be found in a short story by Donald Barthelme that I’ve written about before. It’s called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong" and can be read in its entirety in about a minute. Its silliness only partly masks real feeling, and there’s a useful reminder in there too: "That is one of the satisfying things about being a parent—you’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold."

My move this Father’s Day will be to grab some books in one arm and my kids in the other. If there’s room in there somewhere for an Irish stout so I can toast Mr. Joyce, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Barthelme, and all the other dads out there, so much the better.


Where Do Babies Come From?

(continued from part one)

In a way, it was a book that led me into parenting in the first place. I’d always been fond of children and had never had that fear of them that some young men seem to have. Will I break it if I hold it? What if it cries? Why is it looking at me? During college and shortly thereafter, I worked on and off in a daycare and a preschool. I was a manny before someone smug coined that word, come to think of it. Despite all this, the idea of having kids of my own seemed no less far-fetched than the idea of my one day becoming Emperor of Gondwanaland. Fatherhood was too life-changing a thing, especially for someone with creative aspirations like someday writing for a bookstore blog.

About ten years ago, though, I read Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker who spent several years reporting for the magazine from France, and while the collection impressed me with its insightful, humorous take on Parisian culture through expatriate eyes, what struck me most was its depiction of domestic life. Gopnik moved to Paris with his wife and young son, and they’re never far from view. He covers high art, but then, amid the crowd on a holiday shopping excursion, there’s his son in his stroller, swaying to the music like “a cobra in mittens.” Between bites at the brasserie, there’s equal talk of education and national politics, and even bedtime stories—about a phenom preschool pitcher facing off against Ty Cobb at the Polo Grounds, whiffing him with the aid of a doctored “bottle-ball”—get serious consideration. While the family was abroad, they added to their little clan with the birth of a daughter, and the chapter on that experience is one of the highlights of the book.

I’d never read (or didn’t register it if I had) anything that so well integrated intellectual life with private life, and balanced adult concerns with childish ones. Paris to the Moon was the first book, the first experience of any kind that made me think that parenthood was possible for me, maybe even desirable. Until reading it, thinking about having children meant wondering about the compensations for all the diapering and the sleepless nights. Afterward, I realized that evaluating “compensations” is a pretty petty, immature way of trying to tackle this particular decision. I’m still not sure I could explain exactly how that decision should be made, but make it I did—not immediately, mind you. Five years later, I became an expectant father for the first time, and it worked out so well I went through it again. A boy and then a girl, just like in the book. No, I didn’t do it all on my own, if that’s what this sounds like. My wife undoubtedly has her own version of this tale, but she’ll have to write her own post to tell it. 

Now, I might have stumbled onto something else that would have provoked the same kind of epiphany (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, which I read a few years later, could have done the trick) but I’m not sure that I’d be a dad today without Adam Gopnik’s example. I do know that without him, I wouldn’t have as good a name for how fatherhood feels. During his wife’s second pregnancy, he learns the French expression used when a firstborn son is followed by a daughter, and reading his book taught it to me. It’s le choix du rois—the choice of kings.



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