Family Man


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

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
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
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
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
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: 9781568956978
  • Publisher: Cengage Gale
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Series: Large Print Book Series
  • Pages: 214

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.


As a religion reporter, Calvin Trillin showed himself as something of a Doubting Thomas.

He was working for Time in the 1960s, and he didn't much like his assigned beat. So, he turned to one of the standard tricks of a good reporter: He hedged. "I finally got out of that by prefacing everything with 'alleged,' " he told Publishers Weekly. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

Fans of Trillin's writing -- his snapshots of ordinary U.S. life for The New Yorker, his political poetry in the Nation, his search for the ideal meal with his wife good-naturedly in tow -- will recognize his style in this early exercise in subversion. He is warm, gentle, and human, but there can be a dash of mischievousness for taste. Even the unwelcome sight of a brussels sprout at a buffet provoked his ire. Turning to his wife, he said, "The English have a lot to answer for."

Humorist Mark Russell took note in the pages of The New York Times in 1987: "Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and [S. J.] Perelman are dead, but Calvin Trillin is right there with the post-funeral cocktail to assure us that life goes on."

Born in Kansas City but transplanted to the West Village of New York City, Trillin has kept in touch with his midwestern roots for much of his writing. A collection of articles from The New Yorker on so-called ordinary murders from around the country became the book Killings, called by The Wall Street Journal "one of the most low-key, dispassionate, matter-of-fact books on murder ever produced."

In its review, the Los Angeles Times said: "He may be The New Yorker's finest stylist, and his writing is quite different from the careful accretion of detail that characterizes much of the magazine's writing. Trillin omits as much as he possibly can; he leaves spaces for resonating, like a guitar string stopped and kept mute to sound the overtone from the next string down."

In Travels with Alice he writes of looking for hamburgers on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Even in a classic New York story, Tepper Isn't Going Out, he writes not of theater or restaurants or even a rent-controlled apartment equidistant between Zabar's and Central Park. Instead he seeks out deeper pleasures: finding the perfect parking space, and holding onto it.

Humor is a Trillin trademark. He began writing a humor column for The Nation in the late 1970s called Uncivil Liberties that became two book collections. In 1980, The New York Times chuckled gratefully at his first novel, writing that "the antics around the nameless news magazine in...Floater are as funny as The Front Page and as absurd as playground pranks."

In 1990, he began treating Nation readers to a new column, a weekly spot of verse on the political hijinks of the day, pieces with names like "If You Knew What Sununu." This, too, became a book, The Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist. He even shares insights into the creative process: "A fool is fine. A pompous fool's sublime. / It also helps if they have names that rhyme."

Trillin's résumé has a sense of elasticity: journalist, novelist, humorist, satirist, poet. But there is a commonality to his work: It's approachable. And The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley points out that, for a journalist, this may be the toughest feat of all.

"Calvin Trillin is like an old shoe," he wrote in a 1998 review of Trillin's Family Man. "Whatever he may be writing about, he always makes you want to slip into it and get comfy. This may seem like a modest compliment, but it is a high one indeed. Few tricks are more difficult for the journalist to pull off than being consistently likable and engaging, making oneself and one's little world interesting and appealing to others."

Good To Know

Growing up in Kansas City, Calvin Marshall Trillin was known as Buddy.

The family name was originally Trilinsky.

He staged two one-man shows showcasing his humor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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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

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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