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Reinventing the Neal 

by Marrit Ingman

When I heard that former Austinite Neal Pollack was publishing a book about fatherhood and popular culture, I figured I’d review it for my other favorite market and help a brother out. I’d recently seen him take a drubbing in “Up With Grups,” a blogged-about article heralding the ostensibly sudden appearance of parents who like iPods, coffeeshops, current events, and popular music. Because it’s New York Magazine, these parents are also assumed to push $800 strollers and wear $450 distressed jeans, and their existence is said to mark “a seismic shift in intergenerational relationships,” which has certainly never happened before. The article’s author makes Pollack sound like a jerk (“I do occasionally wake up before nine these days,” he’s quoted as saying) and I wanted him to have a fair shake.

I dug around and found an excerpt from Pollack’s book, Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America, which will be published by Random House’s Pantheon imprint. But before I could fire up my request for a review copy, I read the excerpt, called “Preschool of Rock,” which ran in the New York Times this January.

Two things struck me. One is that “Preschool of Rock” seemed awfully familiar, right down to the music- lessons motif and “Iron Man” references. Why, I’d written this article myself in 2004, when it was syndicated on AlterNet and noted across the Web. Stung, I blogged links to both pieces and asked readers for their impressions. A couple of people encouraged me to investigate the similarities.*  Another reasoned that Pollack “probably just never considered any literature that deals with the parents’ perspective before he himself became a parent, and now he thinks he's inventing the wheel, or fire, so that we can all follow his light, admiring his insights.” In either case, Pollack’s piece seemed to confirm the bad rap he got in New York Magazine, and I was less inclined to defend him if what he wants is praise for serving beer and punk at playgroup.

The second point is the more obvious one: Pollack isn’t the first parent to struggle with the loss of self-identity. We all try to hold on to what we were doing before—personally, culturally, socially, politically, spiritually, professionally—because we recognize that raising a child isn’t the beginning and the end of us. It’s one very significant part of us, and while it is, at times, a sublime and uniquely transformative part, ideally we build on what we have already learned from our travels in life and share the fruits of our maturity with our curious and developing sidekicks: Taking turns is important, everything grows and dies, and the Strokes don’t actually rock despite appearances to the contrary. We teach our children how to find joy by modeling our appreciation of life, and that is critical.

(continued at right)

I have sympathy for Pollack. When a person becomes a parent for the first time, it feels like uncharted territory. Parenthood is isolating. Of course that experience is fair game for literature many times over. But when you sit down to write a book about the experience—and you give yourself a superhero name like "Alternadad”— you should make sure you know your history. You should reflect upon your experience and connect it to what other people are doing and feeling instead of fellating yourself.

Ariel Gore used to say children need interesting parents. At least from the excerpt, Pollack seems to never have read her, although he seems awfully attached to the zeitgeist she inaugurated with her writing. (Alternadad looks quite logically like a male counterpart to hipMama). There have always been punk and indie parents, but most of them don’t write for the Times and Salon.com. They make zines and write for BUST, like Ayun Halliday. They write columns for Slug & Lettuce and self-publish, like China Martens. Maia Rossini and Bee Lavender have been at this thing for years, but their anthology on cultural-creative parenting, Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, isn’t published by an imprint of Random House but by Soft Skull, an indie which began under the table at a Kinko’s in Manhattan. (Full disclosure: I published an essay in Mamaphonic.)

All this stuff is already out there, and a lot of it has an Austin connection. Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed for Pollack. Doesn’t he realize? Did he never meet Spike Gillespie, who could be the hardest-working freelancer in town? Has he never heard of Allison Crews, whose essay “When I Was Garbage” (featured in Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers) launched a teen-mom revolution? If Pollack ever walked into Monkeywrench Books he’d find a copy of PlacentaZine, Rosa-Maria DiDonato’s excellent communiqué on vegan punk parenting. And just yesterday I got an issue of Apron Strings, a great parenting zine by Robin Dutton-Cookston and her husband Jeff, both of whom went to college with me thirty miles north of here. There are parents at the Austinist and Metroblogging Austin, and there’s even an Austin version of Rock-n-Romp -- the backyard concert series for families -- taking off this summer. We’ve got a hell of a lot more than Music Together, but you have to look for it outside your own navel.

Perhaps Pollack preferred to associate with parents he could make fun of for liking Darius Rucker, but I’m surrounded by parents cooler than I am. Most of them aren’t big players in the publishing world (perhaps Pollack and I have different conceptions of “alternative,” as mine does not include the Old Gray Lady and Nerve.com) Instead of corporate advertising dollars, most of them have day jobs or student loans or some combination thereof. And yes, most of them are women, which might explain how they’re so easily ignored. At any rate I sure as hell don’t stir up shit with them by insinuating that they’re a bunch of Raffi-led sheep and appointing myself their liberator from the Disney corporation. And I don’t take potshots at Dan Zanes. If you founded the Del Fuegos, run your own label, and sing with Sandra Bernhard about thrift shopping, I respect you more than I do some crank-yanking author who doesn’t know his neighbors. Hell, at least Dan Zanes is trying something instead of sitting in the back row judging a credibility competition between parents on parade.

Therein lies the problem for me. I simply don’t tolerate pitting parents against each other. Not mothers against mothers, not fathers against fathers. When I meet other parents, I don’t run down a list of how we’re different and I am better. “Alternative parenting” isn’t about being the coolest kid in the room. It’s about coalition-building and rejecting the ready-made, not about bragging and slagging.

I fear that, in addition to the continuing existence of Caitlin Flanagan, we’re in store for more mass-market books purporting to be firsthand accounts of this “new” subcultural parenting, as if people haven’t been copying and stapling and mailing for fifteen years, as if people haven’t been congregating on message boards and blogs, meeting at alternative bookstores, and making bootleg baby shirts. The lifestyle the New York Magazine claims is “the convergence of downtown cool and easy, abundant money” has existed for years in cheaper cities among poorer people whose jeans are distressed naturally over time. Remember when grunge walked the runway? Maybe it’s like that: a new retail sensation that is neither original nor meaningfully alternative. Some people will make a lot of money from this. Perhaps Neal Pollack will be one of them, and he doesn’t need my help.

Note from the author: After receiving inquires about this column, I've changed a sentence to more clearly express that I think the similarities between the two essays cited are not intentional. They are, however, similar pieces, and the circumstances of their publication (mine was originally published in Brain, Child, then syndicated to Alternet.org and published in a small-market memoir) illustrate my larger point: that writing by mothers is marginalized despite its quality.
 About the Author:
Marrit Ingman
is a freelance writer, film critic, occasional educator, and constant mother. She is a frequent contributor to the Austin Chronicle, and her writing on popular culture has also appeared in Brain, Child, Fertile Ground, Alternet.org, Clamor, and Venus. Her first book, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health out with the Diapers, describes her experience with postpartum depression and was published in 2005 by Seal Press.


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