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...

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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.

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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

The New York Times Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

[Trillin's] timing and delivery are perfect. He doesn't ring an off-key note.
The Seattle Times Adam Woog

* "A short celebration of the wonderfulness of family life . . . genial, generous and unstoppably wry."
Newsday Dwight Garner

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.
Diane Johnson
Trilling's charming essays present a loving, idealized, funny view of parenthood, a hindsight look which transforms with humor the most anxious occasions, for instance when you hear too late that you should have talked to your infant during those vital first few months. -- New York Review of Books
Adam Woog
A short celebration of the wonderfulness of family life . . . genial, generous and unstoppably wry. -- The Seattle Times
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
[Trillin's] timing and delivery are perfect. He doesn't ring an off-key note. -- The New York Times
Suzanne Berne
Calvin Trillin comprehends the exuberance of exasperation precisely....Though he styles hyimself a master of complaint, he's truly the master of appreciation, in whose hands a hamburger can become a divine object. It's hard to think of another writer who so consistently manages to be acerbic without being mean, a literary Houdini act that has won Trillin legions of readers. -- New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
What you take away from Family Man are the dependable joys of Trillin's prose-those clean, wry, perfectly constructed sentences -and his bedrock sense of what parenthood is all about. -- 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
Jonathan Yardley
Calvin Trillin is like an old shoe. Whatever he may be writing about, he always makes you want to slip in to it and get comfy…few tricks are more difficult for the journalist to pull off.
&$151;The Washington Post
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

  • ISBN-13: 9780374525835
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 791,550
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Calvin Trillin

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.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Calvin Marshall Trillin (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Kansas City, Missouri
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1957

First Chapter


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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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, June 23, welcomed Calvin Trillin, author of FAMILY MAN.

Moderator: Welcome to the Auditorium, Calvin Trillin! We are so pleased to have you with us tonight. How are you this evening?

Calvin Trillin: I'm fine, thanks, and I'm pleased to be here.

Bernie from Wisconsin: I have always loved your books, especially your food excursions! What prompted this latest topic? Why now?

Calvin Trillin: My daughters are now 29 and 26. As I say in FAMILY MAN, they've made good on their implicit threat to grow up and lead lives of their own. I've told even the younger one that she has "many attributes of a grown-up." So I thought it might be a good time to look back on the years we qualified as a traditional American family according to the Census Bureau (a mother, a father, and at least one child under 18), although I still think we're a traditional American family -- sort of like a hockey team with a couple of players in the penalty box but essentially the same.

Max W. from Westchester, NY: Your book about your father talks much about many of the gifts he gave to you. If your daughters were to write the same book today about what you have given to them, what would they write?

Calvin Trillin: They're not going to write anything. When they were about five and eight, I had them sign a standard nondisclosure agreement. Nothing fancy, just a simple contract of the sort that Buckingham Palace has signed by new servants. They didn't want to sign at first, but I said, "You can trust your daddy."

William M. from Morrisville, NY: I loved MESSAGES FROM MY FATHER, and I am looking forward to FAMILY MAN. For those of us who haven't read it yet, could you tell us about this new book?

Calvin Trillin: It's a book about family and child-rearing, although not an advice book. It says right at the beginning that when I'm asked for child-rearing advice by people who are about to have a baby, the only advice I offer is, "Try to get one that doesn't spit up." It's not a very serious book. My wife says you can judge its seriousness by the fact that it has two chapters on Halloween. I would say one chapter on Halloween and one chapter on family rituals that leans pretty heavily on Halloween. I suppose it amounts to the same thing.

Jonas from Boston, MA: I read on the home page that your book has a song in it called "Uncle Max's Kids are Gross, Creepy, Dumb and Yucky." Could you give us a few stanzas of that song? What prompted you to write it? How do Uncle Max's kids feel about this?)

Calvin Trillin: This is a song from one of the movie musicals we used to make in the summer. It's to the tune of "I'm Always True to You Darling, in My Fashion." I can't give you a few stanzas but I think the chorus is "Uncle Max's Kids are gross, creepy, dumb and yucky. Uncle Max's kids are kids you just love to hate." There isn't any Uncle Max; he's fictional. So are his kids.

Hartley from Detroit, MI: I think it is interesting that the Census Bureau even came up with that statistic, don't you? With so many divorces, single mothers, stepchildren, etc. -- don't you think that the "typical" family is becoming a little atypical?

Calvin Trillin: I agree. It seemed odd that as soon as our younger daughter was 18 we were in the category with a lot of not exactly related people who live in a dirty house and have a lot of kids named Sunshine. On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned, people who live together and treat each other as family are family.

Hannah from Ann Arbor, MI: I have read your work for years, and your family has often appeared in one way or another in them. Is there a difference in writing this book about family -- the way they appear, the way you treat them -- than if they were incidentally appearing in a different type of article? I read a Salon article in which you talked about how Alice appears in your writing versus the way she is in real life. Is she presented differently in this book?

Calvin Trillin: Not exactly, although I suppose she's more herself than she was in the books I did about eating. She describes herself as being cast in those as a nutritionist with sensible shoes. I would say in my defense that there is nothing sensible about Alice's shoes.

Marla Mitchell from Greensboro, NC: How did you start writing the weekly poem for The Nation? How do you select your topics, and are these collected anywhere? I'm glad to see you online tonight! You are my favorite!

Calvin Trillin: I was inspired by John Sununu, a portly figure in the Bush White House. I've speculated that I am the only person ever to have been inspired to poetry by John Sununu. He was, of course, a tempting target, partly because his priority seemed to be to show that he was the smartest person in the room. I think it was Ed Rollins, the Republican political strategist, who said that Sununu was a lesson in the perils of telling your child that he has a high IQ. But what really inspired me was his name -- a euphonious and, I think, beautiful name. Sununu. I found myself repeating it as I went about my daily tasks, and sooner or later I heard myself say, "If You Knew What Sununu." That was obviously a poem, and I was on my way.

Jane P. from Roanoke, VA: Hello, Mr. Trillin. I love your work, and I just finished reading FAMILY MAN. For my own interests, in FAMILY MAN, you write, "For me -- and, I suspect, for a number of other moderates -- the line between what is on and off limits in writing about family has appeared naturally." I am interested in writing about my own family, but I was wondering if you could give some advice on some good guidelines to follow.

Calvin Trillin: If I may begin by adding to my answer to Marla Mitchell's question I neglected to say, in answer to your question, that a number of the poems I did for The Nation are included in a book called DEADLINE POET. It's not exactly a collection, more of an account of what it was like to write verse as commentary on the news.In answer to this question, I think what's off-limits in writing about family becomes pretty apparent. In FAMILY MAN, I mention the Dostoyevsky Rule, which is my answer to those conversations in which some writers argue that art is more important than the feelings of your family. My view is that it depends on the quality of the art. If you have reason to believe you're another Dostoyevsky, you can say anything you want to -- even if revealing that your mother once told you that she didn't really love your father makes life a bit awkward for them in the retirement village. The readers of the future deserve that. If you don't have reason to believe you're another Dostoyevsky, you can't.

Greg from NYC: I see you have an article in the debut issue of Content magazine. What do you think of the magazine?

Calvin Trillin: I haven't actually seen it yet. I was out of town when it came out, and the newsstands were sold out when I returned. I'm going by their office tomorrow to pick one up.

B.D.W. from Portsmouth, ME: How do you think your own experience as a father has compared with that of your dad's? How much of what you learned from him went into your decisions about your own children? How were they similar or different?

Calvin Trillin: There some obvious differences that have to do with the changing times. My father, for instance, never thought about changing a diaper. I was checked out on diapers right away, because I figured that 15 or 20 years down the road we might get into some tense conversations, and I wanted to be able to say, "Listen! I changed your diapers!" Also, my father was a grocer during most of my childhood and didn't have the luxury of spending a lot of time with his children. He got up at four every morning to go to the city market -- six days a week. On the other hand, he was a terrific father. He gave me a great gift -- the assumption that I was a special case. When I think of my childhood in Kansas City, I'm grateful. That's why I say in the book that when I think of what I wanted for the childhood of my kids, who were raised in Greenwich Village, the phrase that comes to mind is, "Despite all evidence to the contrary, you're being raised in Kansas City."

Susan Freeman from Athens, Ohio: What is a traditional Halloween in the Trillin household?

Calvin Trillin: In Greenwich Village, where we live, there has been a Halloween parade for the past 20 years or so. It has changed a lot, but I still go in it anyway. My girls used to come home from college for Halloween. These days, I usually have to find another kid to march with. I still spend a lot of time looking through the costume bag, and I still end up every year in my ax-murderer's mask.

Rachel V. from Berkley, CA: Hi, Calvin Trillin! I have just ordered your book, and I cannot wait to read it! It seems like your writing in recent years has taken a much more personal bent. Is this a change in interest, the merits of success that you get to write about yourself, or is it a new perspective that comes with experience?

Calvin Trillin: I think it's partly just happenstance. Seven or eight years ago, a college classmate of mine -- the classmate we used to kid (but half seriously) about becoming president -- committed suicide, and I decided to write a book about him. My father, to my surprise, sort of crept into that book, and the editor at Farrar, Straus suggested that I write more about my father. Now that I've written about my own daughters, I think I'm probably ready to go back to writing about strangers.

Melissa Robertson from Weston, CT: How has your family received FAMILY MAN?

Calvin Trillin: They claim to like it. They all read it in manuscript, with the understanding that I'd take out anything they found embarrassing. Maybe they're just humoring me -- sort of patting old Ozzie on the head and saying, "Sure, Pops, it's fine."

Christopher Myles from Indianapolis, IN: How has your midwestern upbringing influenced your writing? Your path as a writer? Do you think your voice is midwestern (although they say the midwestern dialect is pure American English, whatever that means)?

Calvin Trillin: I'm not certain that I would have concentrated on America so much if I hadn't grown up in the Midwest. It's difficult to know about where any writer's voice comes from. I hope mine is partly midwestern. When it comes to humor, there is certainly a tradition of people from the middle of the country using homey images to talk about what's happening in places like Washington and New York.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Calvin Trillin. We have enjoyed your company and your responses to our questions, and we hope we can persuade you to join us again with your next book. Before you go, any closing comments?

Calvin Trillin: I've enjoyed being here. This was my first experience with conversation on the Internet. I spend a lot of time on the net -- my daughters sometimes call me Net Boy -- but it's usually just gathering information from a newspaper archive or a research book. I hope I can join you some other time.

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  • Posted March 26, 2015

    If, for some reason, you're reading this but have yet to read a

    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.

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