What Are the Alternatives?
Neal Pollack, who has written for "Vanity Fair," among other publications, recently released a book called "Alternadad," recommended to me by Flush Puppy. "Oh, great," I thought. "Here's another book I should have written but was too lazy and/or screwed-up to do it before someone else got the idea.
So I went to Neal's web site to learn a little bit more about what an "alternadad" is. When the Jawa first entered our world, I assumed that I would be something like an "alternadad," that is, in my opinion, a dad unlike the mainstream of "normal" dads. As I had spent so much energy making sure to not appear a part of any "normal" world pre-parenthood, I would continue to remain visually unusual, culturally vital. I would not don the strangely-cut "dad jeans." I would force feed "cool" music into my culturally ambiguous child's ears. The walls of his room would be covered with Keith Haring prints and pictures of motorcycles. In doing this I would separate myself from the oh-so-boring masses and retain the feelings of shallow superiority that had somehow carried me through 10 post-college years of career failure.
And it worked, for awhile. The Jawa, three weeks old, sat in his cool, oversize-wheeled stroller and caught the Ramones. I continued to ride a motorcycle, or rather more accurately, continued to own a motorcycle. We lived in a cool apartment in a cool neighborhood and strolled him, in his cool little black Adidas, to the restaurant with outdoor seating so we could eat nachos and have a beer while he slept.
When your child is small, especially now, there is plenty of support for parents who want to hang onto their cool. You don' t have to automatically give up your mojo, start dressing like a schlub and bore people with endless stories about formula and first steps. Neal Pollack articulates that, with great support from the people who write into his website, offering up tips on the best cities to raise cool, urban kids (Portland, judging by their responses), best art scenes, etc. Former alterna-dudes like Dan Zanes helpfully provide a soundtrack for cool parents, cranking out kid's albums one after the other. Nobody has to listen to Barney anymore. Nor are they prisoners of Disney.
It's really easy to be an "alternaparent," in fact. They gave us minivans to avoid, for one, as easy a target as frat boys were in college. No minivan = no giving in. The path was absolutely over-greased by the generation before us, who devoted most of their lives to avoiding becoming adults, remaining cutting edge and hip before suddenly and without warning emerging as twinkly-eyed creatures from nursery rhymes.
When the Jawa was almost 3, we moved to San Francisco, which made being cool, at least for me, much more difficult. One night, a couple of years after we moved, I took the Jawa to a burger place on Valencia Street. In our cool shoes, we took BART and moved like a hip urban generational team through the Mission.
There were other cool dads at Burger Joint that night. None of us were anything like our own fathers, who left early in the morning wearing uncomfortable suits, then returned home, present but in their own world, interested in dad things and, importantly, I guess, boring dad music.
My dad was into folk music. I'm not sure if he still is, but my childhood was spent to a soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel, The Kingston Trio, and occasionally more eclectic artists like Richard Dyer Bennett, whose "Essential" LP we picked up while on vacation in Carmel, to the great ironic delight of my mother, my sisters and I. Dad's music was something to endure, to ridicule, to eventually, begrudgingly, appreciate.
Same with his taste in art, which in my case ran to abstraction, with a specific focus on Joan Miro.
Back at Burger Joint, all of us cool dads were lined up, waiting to order. Since my Jawa was older, he was already back at the table, singing along with whatever baby boomer tunes they had playing.
Cool is what you make it.
One of the other dads, who was wearing the uniform of the literate cool dad (vintage sport coat, scarf), was teaching his kids the lyrics to the Beatles' song playing. The Jawa, also singing along, though I have no idea where he learned the words, got a shout-out from the other cool dad (blue collar artist genre), who said to me, "Yeah, my kids listen to cool music, too. Isn't it great not to have to listen to bad kids' music?"
Before you jump on me as an elitist, let me clear one thing up: I am an elitist. Yes, I am better than everyone else. And worse. Aren't we all?
And yes, I have donned many of the costumes of the cool dad, and have beamed with pride when my passenger has noticed that my 3-year-old is singing along with the Pixies in the back seat. However, at that moment I decided that at some point there was something fundamentally wrong with having "alternative" as a stated purpose in your life as a parent.
For one, what is there to separate the "altnadad" from the boomer who slaps a tie-dye on his kid as a billboard advertisement of the distance he has traveled from the "uptight" world of his own dad? And how about the 80s lover who insists all of his boys sport rattails like his? I saw this guy in the park one day. All four of 'em with the hair hanging over their collars. I silently cursed him for making my life as a parent more difficult.
In the end, it's not a value decision, however. As I realized again while checking out Neal Pollack's next reading, the Pipqueak A-Go-Go here in San Francisco this Sunday. It's fun and dancing for kids of all ages! Some of San Francisco's "alternakid" bands will probably be there, like the Sippy Cups. But even if I did want to go -- and no, I don't, but it has nothing to do with the cloying, "I may get older buy I'll never grow up!" tone of the listing -- I don't think we're invited. It just doesn't sound like something a nine-year-old would be into.
No Dan Zanes, no Pipsqueak-A-Go-Go, no Sippy Cups.
First of all, I don't get to make those decisions anymore. That stopped right around first grade. Shortly after that, he decided the motorcycles and primary colored Keith Haring prints in no way reflected his own interests. In their place went posters for Godzilla moves and pictures of Pokemons.
Music went next. After several years of forcing my will into him, I managed to get him interested in music, but his taste, when it finally emerged, had little to do with mine, or with the taste I imagined he should have. No more popcore, no more punk. Yesterday he mused, "I'm probably the funkiest kid in school," as he sung along to Parliament while building something intense with Legos. I won't argue with that. For a little Jewish kid, he's got the funk. Not on the level of the Beasties or anything, but then again, he's only 9.
If it sounds like I'm bragging, it's because I am. Once I realized that no matter how hip I considered myself, he was going to do his own thing, I was free to just sit back and watch, and then try like mad to just keep up.
I have a pretty good grip on popular culture. I should, given that I've generally devoted my life to absorbing it instead of having some kind of rewarding career. And I'm as guilty as anyone of being hyper-aware of what is "hip" at any given time. Not so hip that I would create an entire blog devoted to my attempts to remain "hip" even after having a kid. Maybe, as the new wave of cool parents' kids get older, they, like me, may learn that it's pointless. Your kid's going to be cooler than you. He'll be listening to Cut Chemist while you're looking in the used CD bins at Amoeba for some weird country thing, your own 21st century "Essential Richard Dyer Bennett."
Maybe the truth is that you can hang on to hipness for the first few years of parenthood. After that, it runs out, rather quickly, and you find yourself firmly placed in the adult world, giving way to the one person in your life who deserves to take the lead, your kid. It's at that point that being cool and alternative is replaced by hanging on for dear life.