It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I. Father-Acts, Intermediate
The morning after our daughter A's birth, S, my spouse, dispatched me to the sub-basement of Roosevelt Hospital. The midwives' birthing center was squeezed between John Jay College, where I taught cops when I first arrived in New York, and the dreadful deli where I ate soggy BLTs before my night classes. Underground, I quickly got disoriented, perhaps because I'd barely slept. A nametag stopped me: You must be looking for a placenta.
S still ridicules me for commandeering her bed for a catnap as she was nearing the apex of her contractions. That day, we'd paced for hours in the waiting room. It was September 10, one day shy of 11 years after the disaster. The maternity ward was packed, women rushing to beat the ominous date looming over their babies. The doula, our dear friend, defended my nap: You'll need the energy.
S ribs me too about the night, we guess, when A was conceived. Lightheaded, buzzed after drinks with friends, I had to pause at halftime—what a lousy time marker, a remnant of the locker room in my bloodline—scarfing down some pretzels in order to finish the act.
To prepare for the birth, I read Ina May Gaskin—Ina May home-birthing in the hills of Tennessee, Ina May who is to midwives as Alice Waters is to chefs, Ina May who told me the way it gets out is the way it got in. Enthralled, I devoured her book. Was it that I felt like an outsider? Or was I caught in the illusion of staking out a solitary island in the sea of patriarchy? I see now that I was seeking a language to think and write of fatherhood, a way to father without abandoning its container—that is, my own father and his before him, the very contours of the word in the world.
We paid a woman to "prepare" the placenta. Iron rich, it would stave off postpartum depression. She had a website, a business card. It was so Brooklyn even our Brooklyn friends were shocked. You did what? The woman cooked stock and made pills, our tiny kitchen reeking to high heaven. We dumped the steaming broth minutes after our chef bounded down the front stoop. The pills languished in the freezer, eventually crusting to the ice trays like barnacles to a pier.
Thanks to my union's fight, paid family leave made me that rarest of fathers—A's full-time caregiver, from age 4 months to a year. When S returned to her paying work, A wouldn't take the bottle. Three days of wailing and hand-wringing, A up in my arms, pacing the apartment. Such a strange locution, "take." He didn't take to parenting. She wouldn't take it anymore. So much talk of taking, much less of giving, even less of refusing.
Once she took what I had to give, we jetted about in one hipster contraption after another—Ergo, Baby Bjorn, the Baby Jogger—to "baby and me" yoga in Carroll Gardens. Always the only dude, I never shook the feeling that I was intruding on a private club. Afterward, I'd be stopped in the street, mat strapped to my back, A to my chest, a hailing that never happens to mothers: Good for you, what a great dad! This is a cliché, the stock-in-trade of Not a Father Like That literature.
"Recently, I've been wondering what distinguishes making from being—an artist, child, father? Not to be a dad, but to do fathering, to make a father-act, deeds and words as materials to make a mess of from one cobwebbed corner of the studio to the other."
Since rushing through the gross motor skills, A has been driven by a desire to do art. Recently, I've been wondering what distinguishes making from being—an artist, child, father? Not to be a dad, but to do fathering, to make a father-act, deeds and words as materials to make a mess of from one cobwebbed corner of the studio to the other. For a moment, apart from our household economy and the capitalist tornado. An urgent "Now."
II. Father-Acts, Beginner
In his contribution to Not a Father Like That lit, Michael Chabon puts it simply: "The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low." A few breaths later, the novelist humble-brags, "There's nothing I work harder at than being a good father." This begs the question: Why work so hard when minimal effort garners praise? I too have never worked harder at anything than co-parenting. Does fathering my ass off make me a hero? Or something more unassuming—an overachiever, a decent dude? More deferential, a fool? More radical, a socialist in training wheels?
I can't recall my father ever taking me to the doctor, or to any other appointment for that matter. Not for a shot, not for strep or a check-up. Self-employed, no boss but his nomadic father. Was his office a refuge from worry? Chabon describes this non-participation flatly: "My dad did what was expected of him, but like most men of the time, he didn't do very much apart from the traditional winning of bread." So, too, my dad, who is by many measures, including, counterintuitively, my own, a good father. But let's tackle those figures stalking Chabon's prose. Traditionally, across the world, women earn the wages, bring home the bread. Winning—let's dispense with metaphors of competition racing through our sentences like running backs. Bread—my father can't bake a loaf, can barely locate one in Kroger. Men of the time—does Chabon mean the endless present, the patriarchal now?
Raised in the mountain South, during the Father Knows Best '50s, my dad is meat and potatoes with a side of prude. Bewildered by yoga and vegetables, he can certainly "man" a grill. Recently, while making spicy marinara, I noticed the recipe calls for mothering the sauce a bit. For four hours. At the lowest simmer. What, I wondered, would fathering the sauce resemble? The splatter of neglect, a charred pan, the tinder for a house in flames? Or, the over-seasoning of a heavy hand?
Behind my father's office chair a statue was wedged between his binders. Two ivory bodies writhed atop a desk. The inscription: There's no place for sex in the office. Let's make one. I despised that statue, not because I squirmed imagining my father a sexual creature, but because it was so out of character that I'm not even sure he would recognize it as his own.
I admire my dad's distaste for good old boys' clubs and their locker room talk, even though his gag reflex—like my own—was sluggish. Whatever else, his distaste came honest. On his lone golf outing, he chopped the ball impossibly backwards from the first tee. It plopped in the county pool. On his sole hunting trip, his sidekick blew his load—spotted a wild turkey, squeezed before he aimed, blasted himself in the toe. The football coaches he's known for a lifetime never call him by his name. Though he's tired of hey bud, buddy, big guy—those placeholders for bystanders in old boys' clubs—he still loves to watch the game, half-asleep, sometimes alone. Reclined, his knees of bone-on-bone are wobbly capillaries in the American bloodstream. When they're replaced later this year, will he dream of running into a riot of helmets and pads?
"Simple competence—nay presence—is celebrated in fathers. Dividing 'women's work' from men's, patriarchy breeds ineptitude. Is that why I feel pulled to demand cheers for taking A to the doctor, a trophy for being her flu caretaker?"
Simple competence—nay, presence—is celebrated in fathers. Dividing "women's work" from men's, patriarchy breeds ineptitude. Is that why I feel pulled to demand cheers for taking A to the doctor, a trophy for being her flu caretaker? We say to dads, Step up. In the next breath, Don't bother, playing catch is enough. The tricks I'm learning: first, fling the scale of comparison in the river; then, deny the air I breathe, which oxygenates my brain with cheap praise.
How, then, to father from its present container—white, cishet yet radical-streaked, ally, anticapitalist, Public Enemy and Immortal Technique, somehow also Merle Haggard. Let's take inventory. I live in the kitchen, do the laundry, give baths, shoulder the worry, drop off and scoop at school. And like the bumbling-father, the know-nothing-dad, like my old man, I'm also the comic relief.
What I don't do well is discipline or decision making. My pitiful attempts are more punning than punitive or suitable for Sunday plans. Like my father's and each of my grandfather's spouses, S is fierce, resourceful, forgiving. In short, she does the dirty work. I inherited a rhetorical inversion: Wait until your mother gets home.
III. Father-Acts, Advanced
When A was 2, we left Brooklyn for New Haven. At 4, New Haven for South Carolina. Brooklyn to South Carolina isn't a punchline, though it's often taken for one, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. You escaped! Or, Why on earth? Like most anyone, we move due to jobs and money, returning South to be near our families. These are tradeoffs, distant cousins to the treaty.
Here, I've been testing metaphors and allegories for fathering apart from penance and pablum. My dad's language remains an ante- and anti-model; his is the male propriety code—your wife, your girls. His gentleness, his generosity, his big heart, remain my aspirations. Our divergent father-acts nevertheless amplify the mysteries between us. He assumes I still watch football; I assume he didn't vote for the fascist. In that way, wordless, we forgive and commune.
So it was I started thinking of my own trip South two decades ago, when friends and I plastered tape over a van's clock for a 26-hour haul from our college in southwest Virginia to South Padre Island. That spring break, the only one I'd ever take, lasted a day. Toeing a guiltscape lonely and dank, sown with cheap whiskey, the footing perilous as a strip mine, I sprinted that first night across a dark parking lot. When the landscape fence blasted my knee, I fell, my teeth skimming the gravel like a bit slipped from its drill. Soon, the police and EMTs were snapping Polaroids of my smashed grill, teeth stumps of ivory, sunburned cheeks now gravel mounds at a quarry. The cops wouldn't believe I hadn't been beaten to a pulp. To this day, I'd bet a paycheck my faux-mugshot hangs somewhere in a precinct on South Padre. Some cop has scribbled "most fucked up spring breaker 1997" where my neck should be.
At the hospital, I recall the young physician growing alarmed by my off-key politeness. Blood everywhere that counted, yet all yes sir and thank you doctor. In shock, witness my abject deference to authority. In terror, my obeisance to boys in blue, coats of starchy white, buildings with guards at the door. Stranded, I latched on to my need for elders. This time, I was rescued by my dad's plastic and his characteristic absence of scolding during my call home. On the plane, a flight attendant asked, motorcycle accident? Yes, I nodded, my shame amplified by her admiration of my masculinity.
My father must've recalled another crash when I quivered through the telling of mine. The previous year, his father—my grandfather—smashed his head in a brutal car accident. Born again in a trough of ditchwater, the baptism rammed a word down his throat. The word wasn't Jesus exactly. Laced with glass, acid rain, gasoline, and bacteria, it was a word he'd never said. A starved monosyllable. For him, it must've been a penance when he couldn't run the roads as he surely thought a man should. For my dad, at first the word was a grace. But after grandpa fed his son that tricky word—love—a thousand times following a lifetime of silence, the word became a farce.
I see now that my father rescues family, friends, and near-strangers, even or especially when they're errant. For some quirk of class or fate, this isn't something I'm asked to do. Perhaps he's driven by loyalty or duty, those imperatives baked into the crust of patriarchy. Yet I think he simply helps when he's called. Fathers, I believe, must be called more frequently to make advanced father-acts. Like the union that allowed me to father differently, we must make rigorous demands of those in power. When they don't answer, we must strike. And sometimes we must wildcat, disobeying all edicts of authority, demanding for all parents the resources to make their own tricky parent-acts.
IV. Father-Acts, All Levels
Here, I've also been thinking about treaties, spurred along by Standing Rock's water protectors and Layli Long Soldier's "whereas" poems. A treaty is a promise, formalized in "whereas" clauses, ending armaments, commencing engagement on other grounds. Yet, because its terms are rarely honored, a "broken" treaty is redundant. If a treaty's a story in which the victors prevail, stranded on islands of their own design, every dollar bill is a future sail from its sinking terms. Instead, my treaty will swear a public promise, a speech-act heeded and healing—an entreaty to make another world.
Treaty-thinking soon steered me toward other legal terms. Like treaty, abatement has a juridical register. For instance, an abatement order: do not enter these waters with your poisonous words. Consider the princess, that bane of leftist-feminist parents of a daughter. Against princesses we've erected barriers, staged diversions, but at preschool they line the air ducts, insulation, and studs—not unlike the asbestos in my 1980s elementary school. It has taken willpower not to play for A The Coup anthem "Wear Clean Draws"—"Tell your teacher I said princesses are evil / How they got all their money was they killed people." For now, S and I have a treaty. Or is treaty the wrong term? Perhaps asbestos is apropos. Like the carcinogen ubiquitous in buildings of an earlier era, our buildings need an abatement of princesses. Correction—of the Father, that white warden-king stalking our homes.
Because abatements remove toxins from structures, I've been isolating the three volatile words—South, Padre, and Island—wrenching them from the walls of their relations, making of them masses of poisoned materials for safe disposal. Then, I've been passing rescue vessels through the channels I've dredged—
Do not enter, poisonous words.
In South Carolina, the father-and-husband show is masked in self-effacing obedience. Men stop you in stores, wanting accomplices: Yeah, boy, better listen to your wife. She keeps you in line. Dads' nights, guys' getaways, old boys' networks. A friend once told me the South Carolina governor—McMaster, the plantation's franchise man—supposedly belongs to an alt-right country club. I replied, Aren't all country clubs?
"Patriarchy minds no treaty, no Mason-Dixon line, no gated country club."
In colloquial speech, "south" signifies a directional ethics, even a cosmological latitude for hell. South is below, down there where fortunes and codes of civilization unravel, as in: After they married, things went south in a hurry. This linguistic geography has always felt like a cop-out. Patriarchy minds no treaty, no Mason-Dixon line, no gated country club.
Pen of god, author of edicts, conqueror in robes, surrounded down there by buff 20-year olds, by endless highballs and cheap beers. Surrounded by calm, clear waters. Until the hurricane comes. Sometimes, the storm is a gust of ironic, icy humor. After less than a year in South Carolina, A came home from preschool calling me Sir, giggling, mockingly. Somehow, she knew sir would irk me. Insisting she stop, she doubled down, squawking back, Yes, Father.
Father as island. Island of the father. Like all islands, this one's an illusion made in language. And like all such illusions, this one has material consequences. Donne was right, "No man is an island / entire of itself." To this father, however, the exasperation in Muriel Rukeyser's "Islands" rings truer—"O for God's sake / they are connected / underneath."
One night while putting A to bed, she and I argued over whether she had to sit up as I combed the knots from her hair. Reclining, she asked, Why do I have to sit? Because, I said. She fired back—I don't want to know because I want to know why. I laughed, ceding ground, for we don't have a god the father. We don't have a padre. In South Carolina, we inhabit an island, with our own sandbags and flood zones. We have no recourse to the God of "why," nor the "because" of patriarchy. Our "because" is provisional, on-the-fly. What A and I struck, her nimble mind surpassing mine, was a treaty.
"In South Carolina, we inhabit an island, with our own sandbags and flood zones. We have no recourse to the God of 'why,' nor the because of 'patriarchy.' Our because is provisional, on-the-fly."
Against patriarchy, sometimes I punch wildly, sometimes I land blows. Sometimes, my tongue gives me away. Sometimes at home I wonder whether I've stranded myself, or worse, A, without a paddle. Yes, kiddo, down with the father, but please listen to me, now, if you're not careful you could wind up in the hospital.
When the politician utters "As a father of daughters…," the mother rattling inside my bones blisters, Not on your life, motherfucker. Does the father under my tongue, my dad without a daughter, who hardly changed a diaper, who adores A like no other, who knows how to lift the word love into the air, nod his grandfatherly assent?
Fifteen years after South Padre, gravel long gone from my temple, root canals long drilled, I became a parent. After 20, I'm raiding a grave and making hay from a misadventure I had buried. My writing's bringing my father to his knees, dragging my grandfather's bones through the ditch. I tell myself the island of guilt I'm building is essential, my love for them weaponized in pursuit of an "otherwise." Adrift on the patriarchy, A's generation needs a port in a hurry.
One island there's no way off of keeps me up at night. Tell me about your bad guys, A started asking S and me one winter. A few tales later, she'd probe deeper, Why won't they let all the kids have good schools, the women good doctors? Around that time, she also began sending smoke signals from the only-child island we've fortified together. Daddy, where was I when you and Mommy decided not to give me a sister? Of a brother, of a god to hold together our stories of good and evil, she has yet to inquire.