Family Man, by Calvin Trillin

Family Man

Family Man is a collection of essays by Calvin Trillin on child raising and family matters.

I first started subscribing to The Nation in the early 1980s, and I always enjoyed Trillin’s humor column. Unfortunately, though, that’s been gone for decades. Since then he has instead contributed a joke poem to each issue of the magazine, which I regard as about 5% as valuable as his columns.

In Family Man he does make a few references to some of my favorite characters and incidents from those old columns, which is much appreciated. How can you not love Harold the Committed, for instance, Trillin’s caricature of the aging humorless leftist obsessed with making sure that no one forgets the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and that people spend every available moment doing all they can to forestall nuclear war? Hal the C, as Trillin calls him for short, doesn’t share Trillin’s family’s love of Halloween, unless it is used as an occasion to make an appropriate political statement. He suggested one year, for instance, that Trillin’s daughter Abigail consider trick-or-treating as “the dangers posed to our society by the military-industrial complex.” (Trillin’s response: “Harold, I don’t think we have anyone at home who can sew that well.”)

One wonders if Trillin is perhaps not quite as committed to leftist causes as Harold and some other Nation aficionados, given that his explanation for how he came to write for the venerable liberal publication is that “it was the closest magazine to my house.”

Not that Trillin has by any means retired from comedy writing (or writing in general—some of his work, while still somewhat whimsical, is quite serious) since the demise of his Nation column. Some of the essays in this book, for instance, first appeared in one form or another in The New Yorker or other publications. I come across his stuff far, far less often now than when he was writing weekly in a magazine I subscribe to, but I consistently enjoy it when I do come across it.

Family Man is certainly no exception. It’s terrifically funny at times, and even if the rate of laugh out loud moments per page is less than in the best of his past writings that I remember, what makes up for it is all the heartwarming moments intermixed with the humor. Indeed, not uncommonly his remarks are funny and heartwarming at the same time.

In some ways I’m something of a maverick about child raising. It’s one of many areas of life where I’m inclined to think outside the box, to think that the best way to do something likely bears virtually no resemblance to the most common ways it’s done. On the other hand, I’ve also said that whatever your precise philosophy and methodology of parenting is, if you truly love a child, and the way you parent manifests that, you’re probably at least 80%-90% of the way to being a fine parent. That’s the foundation that I’m always heartened to see in a parent. The rest is just details. Not totally unimportant details certainly, but I’ve seen many, many different styles of parenting, and as long as they had that foundation I’ve felt at least pretty good about them.

Trillin has a line in Family Man that sums that up beautifully for me. When pressed for advice about parenting, he admits that he’s not very good at coming up with specifics—since every child, every situation, is different—but what it boils down to, he says, is “Your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.” (Actually the first bit of advice he says he came up with in response to such questions is “Try to get one that doesn’t spit up,” which is also a great line.) Bingo. He gets it. As long as you’re committed to a child the way Harold is committed to social justice for transgendered Eskimos and to correctly choosing between Trotskyism and anti-Trotskyism, there is plenty of room for the details to vary.

The point is reiterated in the lovely closing paragraph:

On some occasions when I’m asked for child-rearing advice from young couples, I find myself deviating just a bit from my standard answer of “Try to get one that doesn’t spit up.” I finally figured that it was O.K. to remind them—this was a reminder, not a piece of advice—that a school play was more important than anything else they might have had scheduled for that evening. I realized that school plays were invented partly to give parents an easy opportunity to demonstrate their priorities. If they can get off work for the Thursday matinee, I tell them, all the better.

There’s not much more I can say about Family Man, beyond citing what I thought were the funniest or most insightful passages, which I hesitate to overdo since I’d rather people read the book without my giving away all the highlights. But I’ll mention just one more that I got a kick out of.

Trillin, wife Alice, and young daughters Abigail and Sarah have just been to a ballet at Lincoln Center and are now enjoying a light snack at a classy restaurant. Whatever fears the parents might have had of ill behavior have dissipated—“The girls were entranced. No one got restless or cranky, not even me”—and the children’s behavior has remained impeccable following their foray into the fine arts. Everyone is happy and feeling close. It is a moment of true warmth, when you realize with no little pride that you must be pretty good at this parenting stuff after all.

Just as our tea was ending, Sarah suddenly said, “You know, our family is different from other families.”

Alice beamed. I may have beamed myself. I’m not much of a beamer, but it was, I thought, a special moment. I suppose Alice and I had been thinking thoughts not that far removed from what Sarah had expressed. We were feeling fortunate.

“Some families put a lot of toothpaste on their toothbrushes,” Sarah continued, “But in our family, we don’t put very much.”

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