May 2008 Message from Dan
Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
[Note: The following essay appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of WABASH Magazine, the alumni magazine of Wabash College. That issue’s theme was “Daughters” and the other articles and essays by alumni, faculty, former faculty, and daughters of all of the above were excellent. Perhaps what made that theme even more interesting is that Wabash College is one of the few remaining all-male liberal arts colleges in America. When my friend and WABASH Magazine editor Steve Charles first approached me to write the End Notes for this issue, I hesitated – for reasons explained below. But I’m glad that Steve convinced me to write the piece and I want to thank him for his persistence and for his editing skills. Wabash Magazine can be found at the official Wabash College web site at http://wabash.edu/ with back issues available at
I resisted writing this piece for several reasons.
First, there’s that whole Christmas Letter Syndrome thing. You know what I mean—parents bragging about their offspring or, that ultimate horror of horrors, new grandparents going ecstatically ballistic about their Brilliant Progeny. To brag is human and to brag about kids and grandkids is unavoidably human, but I confess to more than a little schadenfreude when that inevitable future Christmas letter mentions, quite offhandedly, that the Prodigy Progeny will be out on bail shortly after the New Year.
Second, there’s the John Ciardi thing.
Ciardi was a poet I much admired who translated Dante’s The Inferno in a way that I deeply enjoy (there’s that schadenfreude again). For years he was poetry editor of The Saturday Review and in January of 1972, a would-be poet known to us only as “N” submitted a sincere poem about the miracle of the birth of his daughter. (Oscar Wilde –“All bad poetry is sincere.”) When Ciardi rejected the poem, “N” objected strenuously and wrote Ciardi an outraged note explaining how important the birth of his daughter was to him.
Here is part of Ciardi’s open letter back to “N,” published in The Saturday Review on Feb. 5, 1972, ten years and ten days before my daughter Jane was born:
“ . . . I am not talking about the validity of your feelings. I am saying that poetry not only must start from feelings, but must then communicate those feelings by translating them into equivalents. All men feel. Poets not only feel but communicate. Let me go a step further and say that the joy of your new fatherhood is important to the poem only when you have made it important not within yourself, but within the poem.”
Ciardi softened the rejection a bit by adding, “Every man, I think, could find some medium within which he is wiser and better ordered than he is outside it.” Or, as I once heard Harlan Ellison (an absolutely honest if not overly diplomatic writer friend of mine) say while critiquing a hopeful novelist’s manuscript after being told that the man had been attempting to publish for 22 years—“Become a carpenter, pal. The human language is not your native tongue.”
Jane Kathryn Simmons’s birth and life have been important to me. My role as her father has been important to both of us. But I am no poet. This essay, as the Mercury astronauts used to say, could be one serious pooch-screw.
THE KID was born a few minutes after midnight on February 15, 1982. My wife Karen allowed herself to go through those extra few minutes of agonizing labor because we were both educators—me an elementary teacher, Karen an elementary counselor -- and we both knew we’d be shortchanging the Kid if she had to carry her little birthday cupcakes and treats to school for years on Valentine’s Day. No one would notice it was her birthday. So Karen bit the bullet—or in this case, my wrist—and waited those extra four minutes.
The medics in attendance cut the umbilical cord, quickly cleaned the Kid up a bit – I was reminded of a pro bowler buffing up a bowling ball -- and then the nurse handed her to me while they attended to Karen.
I wasn’t ready.
I’d thought I was ready. Between my dozen years of experience as an elementary teacher and the eight years of marriage looking forward to having a child, I thought I was sure I was ready. But I wasn’t.
I’d been told that newborns usually could not track with both of their eyes at the same time, so don’t be alarmed, they’d said, if your baby looks as goofy as Jerry Lewis doing one of his cross-eyed idiot bits. But the Kid’s eyes were working perfectly. Her gaze tracked around the room and then settled on my face. She looked at me. She looked into me. I’d been expecting a baby. What I got was an encounter with a new soul. A complete person, entire unto herself, who was staring inquisitively at me and obviously and clearly asking, “Yes? So what next?”
The first what-next was her name. After months of deliberation, Karen and I had decided that if we had a girl, her name would be Kathryn Jane. (There are three generations of Kathryns and Katies and Catherines in my family.) But one look at the Kid and I knew that this was no Kathryn. She told me so. And when we laid the baby next to Karen so she could get the benefit of that intense gaze, Karen immediately said, “Oops . . .this is no Kathryn Jane. This is definitely Jane.”
Thus Jane Kathryn Simmons was born.
THE KID WAS FOUR AND A HALF when she started reading. This was almost the cause of two serious auto accidents.
She’d been “almost reading” since she was three -- pouring over her books, remembering words and sounds, memorizing the entirety of Gorilla so that she could fake-read each page -- but in August of 1986, while I was driving us somewhere with Jane in the backseat, her inevitable stack of books next to her and one book open in her lap, she announced quietly, “I hear words in my head.”
I almost drove off the road. Sixteen years as an elementary educator obsessed with the strange phenomenon of reading acquisition and I finally had a captive subject to observe and I’d missed the crucial moment—the miracle transition from non-reader to reader that changes everything forever.
A few weeks later we were riding with friends in the Black Hills of South Dakota -- my sociologist pal Dan Peterson was driving -- and Jane was in the back seat again, with us this time, calmly reading all the billboards aloud when she said to Dan P., “That sign says Jellystone Park . . . shouldn’t it be Yellowstone?”
“Well, it’s sort of a play on words,” began the other Dan. “There’s this old cartoon show on TV called . . . Holy Shit! She’s reading!” With that he looked back over his shoulder and promptly swerved into the oncoming lane filled with Harleys and beer-gutted Harley riders. He swerved us back in time. If he hadn’t, I would have blamed the Kid for the ensuing carnage.
During the difficult pregnancy (Jane is an only child, but not by our choice), Karen and I avoided all opportunities to learn the gender of our baby. Karen was in the hospital with high blood pressure and other problems the last week before Jane was born, when a technician doing a test casually announced, “Oh, with this heart rate it’s a boy. All my experience supports that.” Karen and I looked at each other and realized that we were a little disappointed. We’d never admitted it to each other, but we both sort-of kind-of wanted a girl.
So when the Kid was born, it was me who was shouting, “It’s a girl!”
But Jane sensed that I wanted someone to throw a baseball around with. When she was pretty small she asked for a mitt and wanted to go out in the backyard and play catch. After a few years of this, I asked her straight out, “Do you really enjoy doing this?”
“You bet!” she said. “Besides, the only time I’ve ever seen you cry is during the last scene in Field of Dreams. Throw the ball, Dad.”
THERE'S A SCENE IN THE UNDERRATED MOVIE Popeye where Robin Williams playing Popeye is talking to a tied-up and dangling Ray Walston as his long-lost Pap, trying to convince his Pap that he’s his Pap.
“We gots the same squinky eye!” says Popeye.
“Don’t mean nothing,” says Pap.
“We gots the same bulgy muskul!” says Popeye.
“Don’t mean nothing,” says Pap.
“We gots the same pipe!” says Popeye.
“Ya idjut!” shouts Pap. “You can’t inherits a pipe!”
Watching your own DNA grow up raises similar issues.
One of the great lines written in the 20th Century was penned by Erma Bombeck: “I pulled a sweater on this morning and my mother’s arm came out through the sleeve.” While we turn into our parents, our children are turning into us. It’s scary.
I sometimes fear that Jane has inherited my sense of humor. (To which, I know for a certainty, she would reply—“Ya idjut! You can’t inherits a pipe!”)
She was not a showoff as a kid or adolescent—she knew when to listen when guests were at a dinner table – but she was a dialoguist. A well-known novelist whom I respect once commented to me after such a dinner, when the Kid was about 10, “I’ve known lots of kids who can be funny, but very, very few like Jane who are witty.” (Note to Self —put this in the next Christmas Letter.)
This sense of wit (“drollery” might be another word) has put her at an oblique angle to many of her peers, friends, classmates, and teachers. Having the Kid in the house was like having the painting “Bus Stop # 5” that Karen and I bought in 1976—artists and interesting people love it. Literalists, born-again types, salespeople, and those others who spend their entire lives in the comfortable regions of the banal just don’t get it.
Jane was our second barometer.
Now that she’s 25 and living on her own, we only have “Bus Stop # 5” to dip our guests in to see if they turn blue.
WE ALL GIVE STUPID ADVICE to our kids. I tried not to wax wise, but the few times I did with the Kid, it came back to bite me in the father-butt. When Jane was in middle school—perhaps deciding between classes or projects or some such benign thing—I told her, using the Full Father Projection of voice, something to the effect that when confronted with several alternatives, choosing the scariest one often has the richest rewards.
I wasn’t surprised when Jane joined an improv comedy group when she was a freshman—excuse me, first-year-student—at Hamilton College. But when she told us that she was doing a solo stand-up bit as a warm-up for a visiting professional comedian, I panicked. As a writer who makes the occasional public appearance to peddle my wares, I’m familiar with the life-stunting after-effects of even a few minutes of flop sweat. Not only was the Kid doing this solo stand-up when real crowds were coming from around the region to see this pro comic, but she was writing her own material!
So I panicked and phoned her with what I hoped sounded like (but wasn’t) a casual, “Hey, kiddo, are you sure you want to do this?” She was. It was the day of the performance and she casually mentioned that she wasn’t satisfied with her old routine and was going to write a completely new one before the evening event. “Okay, well . . . break a leg,” I said cheerily and hung up and toddled off to be tidily sick.
She did fine, of course. The comic was late getting to the venue so her 10 minutes turned into 25 or so. The professional saw enough of her bit to invite her to join him on tour as his full-time warm up act if she decided to drop out of school.
She didn’t drop out of school. She graduated from Hamilton in 2004 as a comparative literature major. When I asked her how she was going to use that training in the “real world,” she instantly replied, “When I ask the person across the counter, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ they’ll intuitively know that they’re getting those fries from the only person they’re likely to meet who’s read all of Proust. It’ll enhance their dining experience.”
As it turned out, she decided to try to become a documentary filmmaker. After heading off for instruction in film at the Maine Photographic Workshop (where her mother had done extraordinary work 25 years earlier), the Kid ended up as a writer and producer at a Boulder-based video company. It’s a step. And as she ponders her next step, she plays her cello—one of her prerequisites for choosing a college was that it had to allow her to pursue her cello-playing for four years without requiring her to become a music major— and continues deepening as a human being.
Karen and I celebrate the fact that she still lives near us. We enjoy the Kid quite a bit. She knows how to watch a movie—really watch it (a skill that is growing rarer and rarer) —and she’s almost always good for a laugh.
Sometimes lots of laughs.
My insides hurt whenever I think of her reenactment of how, on her first day at work, her boss, Carlos from Madrid, took her aside and explained, in his thick Spanish accent—“What you have to do with us mostly here, Yane, is focus” (only it didn’t come out “focus”). “Just focus, every day, focus all the time, whether you feel like it or not. If you focus well enough, Yane, everything will be all right.”
SO, ALL RIGHT, THIS ESSAY turned into a damned Christmas Letter. I knew it would.
But it does make me think of John Ciardi’s rejection letter -- “Every man, I think, could find some medium within which he is wiser and better ordered than he is outside it.”
I thought, before Jane was born, that my becoming a full-time writer might be that medium. I managed to do that, but I was wrong. That isn’t the primary medium in which I am —at least a little bit—wiser and better ordered than I am outside it.
It’s being a father. Who knew? Thanks, Kid.