Friday, May 28, 2010

Fatherhood and literature

He's taller, but I'm wider! (I said "wider," not "whiter.")

One of the interesting things about the past nine months or so is the effect the combination of having a baby and studying graduate English Lit is having on my relationship with my father.

It's not that we ever had a bad relationship; I think we have a very good one. It's just that, sometimes, it's hard to relate to problems you don't understand, or hard to discuss issues if one party isn't that knowledgeable about them. That was sometimes the case, and usually my fault, through a general ignorance of youth.

Now, with Baby Bear's arrival, I find myself turning to my father and mother for a different kind of advice sometimes, and, well, feeling bad about what these two loving people had to put up with from the time I was about 13 until I was... um... about 35?

(Not to mention turning to them for baby-sitting! One of the great joys of my life is seeing them react to their first grandchild, which I suppose I made them wait far too long for. Though Emma Claire's worth the wait, methinks.)

More interestingly, from an intellectual point of view, is that my father and I now have a common interest: English literature. My slowly growing knowledge-base has led to some truly fascinating conversations, and I find myself more interested in my father's work - he is a retired English professor, I should probably mention - and better able to learn from him.

As I've mentioned, I studied Creative Writing in college. Despite Dad telling me you have to read before you can write, what I wanted to do was write, and not read. Don't get me wrong, I read plenty. Just not the type of stuff you learn from. More like the type of stuff you read at the beach in the summer. I wasn't interested in English lit. Honestly, I didn't want to follow in my father's footsteps. I was a stubborn teenager, for one, and they're big footsteps to try to fill, for another (to mix a metaphor rather nicely).

But now, even though I still have almost no interest in teaching, I really do find myself enjoying learning. It's been a long time since I sat in a classroom (13 years between courses), and I didn't know what to expect. What I found was a stimulation of my mind that I haven't had since... well, maybe ever. As much as I've loved journalism and so forth, there is a rush, an immediacy to it. To give a text a close reading is something different. Something that stretches me, whether because of lack of experience, academic rustiness, or both.

It's fun to learn.

And it's more fun to really be able to talk with Dad about some of the nuances of literature. Sometimes, I feel like it's a conversation he's been waiting 35 years for. I still remember the day I came home from college at the end of a semester in which I'd taken Shakespeare. My Dad asked me about the final, and we had an intelligent conversation about literature. It was a first. It was like a bar mitzvah of the mind. I'll never forget it. It was one of the happiest days of my life, knowing I'd earned a small measure of intellectual respect.

Imagine how I feel talking with him about "City Comedies," a subgenre I'd never even heard of until this past semester. When I asked him about his doctoral dissertation (on Elizabethan Domestic Tragedy, another subgenre), for the first time, I actually understood exactly what he was talking about. As much fun as our yearly pilgrimage to see the New York Yankees is, this year's was even more fun, because it wasn't just talking baseball. It was talking baseball and talking literature.

It may have taken me 35 years to get to this point in my father-son relationship, but I am so very glad, every single conversation, that I have. I can only pray it doesn't take 35 years for me to be able to talk with Emma this way.

Of course, first Emma has to learn to talk...