Happy Slacker Father's Day

Harry Chapin lives in my head and is trying to kill me

Setting the bar ever higher for fatherhood heroics, The Day After Tomorrow's world-saving, career-obsessed father Dennis Quaid snowshoes across Armageddon to prove his love for his heretofore ignored son. It's the latest pop-cult guilt trip to be foisted upon fathers, similar to the one taken on by the would-be supermoms they love, who are also made to feel like miserable failures at parenting, because nothing they do is enough.

There is always someone--down the block or down in the pages of someone's family history--more committed, more comfortable with their choices, more perfect, more there.

Heaven forbid that a guy likes to work or play, or that he gets distracted by adult life, or that he simply sometimes finds kid stuff boring. And should any of those things happen, rest assured there will be an inner voice telling Dad he's a deadbeat, a creep, and a curmudgeon. The voice will nag. The voice will be a baritone. The voice will be accompanied by an acoustic guitar that sounds like a gong at a dad tribunal. The voice will belong not to God, or your father, but to Harry Chapin. (You remember Harry Chapin, the musician/activist killed in a car wreck a generation ago. One eulogist remembered him as a man who was bound to die with his hands on a steering wheel, if only because not even God would go near him when he had a guitar in his hands.)

In 1973, Chapin missed the birth of his son while on tour. To atone for his sin and share his misery with the world, he gave us "Cat's in the Cradle," a story-song inspired by a poem his wife had written. It hit the top of the charts and the nerve of a generation. With strident folkie morality, Chapin sang about a Type-A dad who is regularly too busy to play with his 10-year-old son. Still, the kid claims, "I wanna be just like you, Dad." By the end of the song, the dad is desperate for his grown son's love and it's the kid who's too busy to bother with his old man. "My boy was just like me," the singer croaks. "My son was just like me."

Horrors. Visions of one-room apartments and TV dinners and dusty family photos and Father's Day coming and going without so much as a phone call. All thanks to the Chapin chip that was planted in 1973 and resurrected by Ugly Kid Joe in 1993, and which looms large in men of a certain age. One friend of mine tells the story of his mother, who would hum the tune every time his doctor father professed to be too busy to hang out with him.

Another tells of hearing it on the car radio while driving with his father. After "years of brow-beating," father was now in the mood to encourage son, so as the song ended, the old man intoned magnanimously, "I don't want my boy to be just like me. I want him to be better than me." It might have been a Hallmark moment if not for the son's retort: "You missed the point. The father was an asshole and his son became an asshole, too." Dad responded, "Oh," and the two rode home in silence.

Last month, USA Today ran an article heralding "the slacker moms' movement," a reaction to all the hyper moms who traffic in designer baby rooms, educational toys, and Mozart tapes played in utero for their future Harvard grads. The piece, centering around Muffy Mead-Ferro's book Confessions of a Slacker Mom, quoted University of Michigan communications professor Susan Douglas: "There is something like an incipient mothers' movement out there. Mothers are really saying that they have had it with these standards of perfection."

Of course, no one from USA Today ever calls the good professor to talk about dads feeling "inadequate," or about the slacker dad movement, because there is none, because the phrase itself is a redundancy. Even though most of the dads I know are as involved with their kids as their wives are, dads are expected to be slackers, as every TV dad reminds every real-life slug on the couch and the women who hover over them. But in reality, there are a lot of trying-to-do-it-all dads out there who could use the Father's Day gift of Christie Mellor's The Three Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting. (Sample Chapters: "Bedtime: Is 5:30 Too Early?"; "Self-Esteem and Other Overrated Concepts"; "'Children's Music': Why?"; "When It Is Time to Leave," and, best of all, "The Amazing Hands-Off Daddy").

Another gift would be to exorcise, once and for all, the Chapin chip. In a normal day, kids will ask a parent to play catch, go to the moon, have a treat, scratch their backs, fix a toy, look at something they made, listen to a new song, answer a question--something like 7,000 times. Who could face it without diversions? Even the archetypal über-dad, Ward Cleaver, meted out his philosophy from behind a book or newspaper, not while sharing "quality time" with Wally and Beaver.

"Cat's in the Cradle" measured the change from those days to the ones of feminism and psychotherapy. The song made spending time with your kids a do-it-now-or-pay-later edict that was rendered laughable by a couple of eulogies I heard at two friends' fathers' funerals this year. At one, a father's son got up and talked not about all the time he spent with his dad, but about his dad's favorite saying, "Take it easy." He said it all the time, as if to remind his kids that life is too short to sweat the small stuff. At another, a father's daughter got up and fondly recounted what her dad said whenever someone got upset: "Sorry you got mad."

One of the things my own father has taught me is that guilt and regret are the two most useless motivators for anything--the very antithesis of the "Cat's in the Cradle" message--and so you do things for your own reasons. You tell yourself, "Take it easy," you do the best you can, and if that's not enough, you tell the world and your kids, "Sorry you got mad."

And then you see what happens. As I write this, my arms and legs are riddled with mosquito bites, my pores are sunburned and clogged with bug spray, sweat, and lake water. I've just returned from two days of camping with my nine-year-old son and 70 of his closest friends. It is very quiet where I am, here in the rubber room where camp chaperones go to recover.

But don't cry for me; I volunteered for the gig--and no, not to avoid being stood up by my son in some restaurant 30 years from now. That's not reason enough to scrunch yourself up on a bus full of crazed, atonal singers whose favorite song is "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." It isn't enough to make you sift through mud for bugs, or frighten children with starlight stories about the haunted house you grew up in. You don't do these things because you feel guilty, or because some book or columnist told you how to be a good dad.

You do it because you like to attack and sink other canoes; because you find the sight of bug-eyed, wide-mouthed kids looking for frogs, snakes, and turtles to be miraculous; because you like the first crunch of a perfectly blackened s'more in your mouth around a campfire; because the sound of a bunch of boys swapping insults in their bunks is a better song than anything Harry Chapin ever came up with, and because on the way home you like the way your son's hand feels in yours, the way his head rests in your lap, and because at some point you realize that no matter how busy you are, you really have nothing better to do.

 

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775.

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