Family Man

Family Man

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by Calvin Trillin

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Calvin Trillin begins his wise and charming ruminations on family by stating the sum total of his child-rearing advice: "Try to get one that doesn't spit up. Otherwise, you're on your own." Suspicious of any child-rearing theories beyond "Your children are either the center of your life or they're not," Trillin has clearly reveled in the role of family man.

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Calvin Trillin begins his wise and charming ruminations on family by stating the sum total of his child-rearing advice: "Try to get one that doesn't spit up. Otherwise, you're on your own." Suspicious of any child-rearing theories beyond "Your children are either the center of your life or they're not," Trillin has clearly reveled in the role of family man. Acknowledging the special perils to the privacy of people living with a writer who occasionally remarks, "I hope you're not under the impression that what you just said was off the record," Trillin deals with the subject of family in a way that is loving, honest, and wildly funny.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Trillin's] timing and delivery are perfect. He doesn't ring an off-key note.” —Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

“* A short celebration of the wonderfulness of family life . . . genial, generous and unstoppably wry.” —Adam Woog, The Seattle Times

“What you take away from Family Man are the depable joys of Trillin's prose-those clean, wry, perfectly constructed sentences -and his bedrock sense of what parenthood is all about.” —Dwight Garner, Newsday

Library Journal
For readers whose nerves are being shattered by all the feuds that are occurring in the human zoo in which we live and are willing to admit frankly that they'd like a little escapist reading, this book should be welcome. Those familiar with Trillin's (Messages from My Father, LJ 5/1/96) columns for Time and his poems in the Nation needn't be told that he can write with ease and spirit upon almost any subject. In this collection of 16 essays, he demonstrates once again that he thoroughly understands the difficult technique of clever light writing and that he can make a silk purse out of such routine merchandise as zipping and unzipping a snowsuit, changing diapers, celebrating Halloween, and eating Thanksgiving dinner--the plain things and everyday events of domestic life. Witty, spontaneously humorous at times, deliciously whimsical at others, and always kindly, Trillin's talk-fest offers a wonderful distraction. Recommended.--A.J. Anderson, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston
Kirkus Reviews
Trillin (Messages from My Father; Too Soon to Tell), ace reporter and effortless humorist that he is, turns to a decidedly domestic theme, luxorious and lovingly parental, in the latest of his score of entertaining texts. As it must to all funny men and women, family life becomes the subject of his easy jocularity. Trillin, of course, has written and talked about level-headed wife Alice and their girls many times. Drawing on prior wisdom, he does some light deconstruction of his previous remarks. The usual humorous suspects (pets, schooling, spousal differences, and diapers) are covered nicely with the author's accustomed aplomb. Advances in baby technology (like Snuglis) are reviewed. Family holiday traditions (like scary Halloween outfits) are recounted. Trillin continues his heroic campaign to replace turkey on the national Thanksgiving menu with spaghetti carbonara. He is a confessed master of Chinese take-out cuisine. There are two Nova Scotias in his world: the smoked-salmon sort and the island, where the Trillins spend their summers. At heart just a lad from Kansas City, he thrives in New York, where, he thinks, about 10 percent of the people walking around Greenwich Village would be stopped by the police if they were in most American cities, and another 10 or 15 percent would at least be interviewed by the local TV news. The two most evident enthusiasms, though, of this Homo domesticus are his daughters, who, happily, share the attributes of every father's girl: They are the brightest, most comely and clever of creatures. As to what may count in rearing children, "your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary."The commentary is all nimble and easygoing, almost coasting for a clever wordsmith. He lives up to the book's title.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.44(d)

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The Evil Eye, the Tiny Deflator

Even if I were more inclined than I am to hand out advice that may be inappropriate and would probably be ignored anyway, I would be constrained by another consideration: the Evil Eye. People who treat the Evil Eye with some respect can tell you that anyone dispensing advice about family -- and thus implying that he and his own family are so blessed, so close to perfection that it behooves them to share with others the secret of their success -- is asking for trouble. I am talking now simply about people who treat the Evil Eye with some respect; true believers in the Evil Eye might even look upon a statement that your children haven't done any jail time as a way to invite a late-night call from a bail bondsman.

    The Evil Eye is not spoken of much in modern American life. Among the young, you don't often even hear someone hedge his bet with a simple "knock on wood." The sort of public officials who are always lecturing us about family values seem not to fear the Evil Eye, any more than they seem to fear the possibility that some reporter might find it entertaining to uncover the circumstances of their last divorce or point out that they missed both of their children's high school graduation ceremonies. I'm not superstitious myself. I don't avoid black cats any more than I avoid cats of any color. Alice and I were married on Friday the 13th. I have never acknowledged that there is any superstition behind my policy of not resetting my watch until an airplane I'm flying in actually lands in the new time zone. To me, remaining on the old time until we're back on the ground is simply a technique for keeping the plane in the air -- a technique that has so far proven effective. Do I personally believe in the Evil Eye? Not exactly. All right, maybe a little bit.

    Once, at the annual antiquarian book fair of PS 3, the slightly cockamamie and ultimately splendid Greenwich Village grade school that both of our girls attended after the words not hands nursery school, I happened upon a thick, serious-looking English-Yiddish dictionary. Even though Spanish and Russian and Cantonese have become more common than Yiddish in New York subways, Yiddish remains for New Yorkers the language of contention. I've always thought that visitors to the city should be given Yiddish phrase books by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, except that instead of having phrases like "Could you please direct me to the nearest post office?" the New York phrase book would have phrases like "May boils break out on your liver!" or "May streetcars grow in the back of your throat!" At the time I spotted this dictionary, I owned two English-Yiddish dictionaries -- Leo Rosten's Joys of Yiddish and a volume called Dictionary Shmictionary -- but both of them are antic and anecdotal. I had never seen a serious English-Yiddish dictionary. I started leafing through it, and came to the word mees, which means ugly. (An ugly person is a meeskeit, rhyming with "geese bite"; there's a song by that name in Cabaret.) The first definition offered was, not surprisingly, "ugly." The second definition was "beautiful." That definition was followed by the explanation, in parentheses: "so as to fool the Evil Eye."

    I found myself with two immediate responses. One was "What a language!" It's no wonder that in New York Irish cops and Bangladeshi cabdrivers and Dominican grocers feel the need to employ it in stressful moments. It's no wonder so many people are horrified at the prospect of its dying out. In what other language could one word mean both ugly and beautiful? My other response was that the custom alluded to by the second definition -- calling someone who's beautiful, particularly a beautiful child, a meeskeit just in case the Evil Eye happens to be tuned in -- might not be such a bad idea. As the advertisements for the New York State Lottery say, "Hey, you never know."

    So have I never said anything about my children that might tempt the Evil Eye? It has to be said that there is a certain amount of tension between respect for the power of the Evil Eye and a parent's natural inclination to brag about his children. I happen to come from a tradition of bragging about children. My father -- a mild-mannered man who wouldn't have struck anyone as a boaster or a show-off -- used to travel a lot after he was more or less retired, and he often said to other travelers he met, "I'll show you a picture of my grandchildren if you promise that you won't go home and throw rocks at your own grandchildren." I've always been suspicious of parents who don't brag about their children. (When it comes to parents who routinely put down their children in conversations with casual acquaintances, I'm more than just suspicious. I think they should be arrested; if no charges stick, at least they'd have a chance of being roughed up at the station house.) If I run into someone who has a small child and is not carrying pictures, I start to wonder. "Has the kid turned mean and ugly, or what?" I ask. When someone I know becomes the father of a girl, I send him a sign that a kind man I knew in Tampa printed for me on a press he kept in his garage. On a light blue background is a quotation we've credited to President Franklin Pierce (he had so few): "Anyone who is not objectionable about his daughter is a pervert." Some of the new fathers put the sign on their office wall. Some of them use it as the center of a montage whose other elements are pictures of their daughter. Either way, it functions as an easement for excessive bragging.

    I've tried to show some restraint, particularly in print. (The Evil Eye is known to be a voracious reader.) I haven't always managed. When Abigail was about six months old, Alice and I went to a dinner party on the West Side and were drawn into a conversation with other parents about whether it was safe for people who lived in Manhattan to leave a baby in a carriage on the sidewalk for just a few seconds while ducking into a store for, say, a newspaper. Many years later, there was a brief flutter of publicity in New York about two or three incidents of European visitors leaving their children unattended -- in one case, in a baby carriage outside a bar -- while they went about their business, only to have concerned New Yorkers call 911. Commentators took the occasion to point out that Europeans did not have the intense interest Americans do in the protection and entertainment of children -- meaning that, depending on the way you look at it, either Europe is a more mature culture or Europeans miss out on a lot of fun. One of the European parents involved said that leaving your baby in a carriage outside a saloon was common practice in Copenhagen, Denmark, a position that was answered in one of the tabloids under the headline "From the Folks Who Brought You Flimsy Furniture."

    When the subject came up at the dinner party, I did not claim any cultural differences between the Village and the West Side. I said that it seemed to me to depend on the quality of the baby. "It would probably be O.K. if you had an ordinary baby," I heard myself saying. The other parents stared at me. It dawned on me that not many of them thought they had ordinary babies. Having already begun, though, I had to explain that a peek at my daughter in a baby carriage could trigger latent kidnapping instincts in the most saintly passerby. If I had already come across the English-Yiddish dictionary, I suppose I would have ended my explanation by winking at them conspiratorially and saying, "You see, she's a real meeskeit." If the contretemps involving the baby left outside of the bar had already taken place, I suppose I might have added, "The point is not that the mother couldn't have been much of a mother but that the baby couldn't have been much of a baby."

    The perils inherent in being self-satisfied about your family are not limited to the Evil Eye. The Tiny Deflator is also a threat -- that small voice from the backseat that makes you realize that what you just said was, upon reflection, pretentious or silly or, if we're being absolutely literal about it, not strictly true. Almost all children can take the role of the Tiny Deflator, although some play it better than others. It may help to be from the Planet Green. When our daughters were on the edge of being old enough to take to the ballet, we decided they might like a Sunday matinee program at Lincoln Center that included Parade -- a jolly piece, famous for its backdrops by Picasso. As it turned out, we were right. The girls were entranced. Nobody got restless or cranky, not even me. After the performance, Alice thought of going to the Seagram Building, so that we could show Abigail and Sarah the Picasso backdrop in the Four Seasons restaurant. We all loved that, too. After the viewing, we went downstairs to the Brasserie, the restaurant on the ground floor, and had tea -- which is to say, if it was a typical tea in our family in that era, Alice had tea, the girls had ice cream and I had a scotch. The girls, I have to say, were looking particularly fetching in their special-event clothes. It was a period when they looked so fetching in their special-event clothes that some neighbors we hardly knew who were holding a wedding in the courtyard next to our house asked if our daughters could come to the ceremony in some rather Victorian dresses the girls then had -- acting as what people in New Orleans sometimes call scene-boosters. 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." The beams must have faded involuntarily, and Sarah must have noticed. "Also," she began, trying to save the moment, "our family has a special tuna fish recipe."

    Twenty years or so after that outing, our entire family was in a hospital room, listening to the regimen the doctor expected me to follow when I went home to continue recuperating from heart bypass surgery -- how often I was to nap, how I was to avoid long periods at my desk. We all nodded soberly. When he had finished, I tried to look both brave and prudent. Then Abigail said, "I hate to say it, Daddy, but it's hard to see just how that differs from your regular routine." A Tiny Deflator, all grown up.

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Meet the Author

Calvin Trillin is the author of nineteen previous books. He writes a weekly column for Time and a weekly poem for The Nation. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 5, 1935
Place of Birth:
Kansas City, Missouri
B.A., Yale University, 1957

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Family Man 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jsymons More than 1 year ago
If, for some reason, you're reading this but have yet to read a Calvin Trilin book, do yourself a big favor and go out and get one.