Sunday, February 1, 2009

Crappy Dads

I've been thinking a lot about Henry Miller recently. Now, stick with me, I think this is going someplace.

Like most of us I have a fairly routine routine. I wake up every day at the same time, go to sleep more or less at the same time. I have a wife and child that depend on me, in every sense. I try to be reliable, responsible and loving. I live for them at least as much as I live for me. I do things that I think will improve all our lives. I do not do things, as far as I know, that I think will embarrass them. I do these things with love, and with all of my heart, grateful for my fascinating, extraordinary wife, and my daughter. We build our lives together, and I am so proud of all we have already done. And it just keeps getting better.

But, sometimes it's easy to fantasize about being Henry Miller.

Let's face it, the guy did everything wrong, and lived to tell the tale. He moved to Paris without a nickel, and sponged off friends for years, quite literally. He did what he wanted, period. He seemed to have utter confidence in himself as an artist and everything else was second to that belief: convention, responsibilities. He was free, or so it seems from the outside.

Sure, he was broke. Sure, he only got any kind of recognition about sixty years into his life, and after that he was still pretty much broke. Sure, he lived a life of tumult, with a string of bad marriages behind him. But Miller was pure, his art was pure. The kind of purity you can only get when you commit to your craft that totally. Without it you will never know how great an artist you can be.

So sometimes I wonder about that. But then I wonder about this: what must it have been like to be Henry Miller's daughter? Because he got married, even before he met the fabled June, to a piano teacher, and he had a daughter. That first marriage disintegrated, probably when he fell into's June's insane embrace, and then that marriage crumpled when he moved to Paris, penniless, to write.

But what about Miller's daughter? Her dad was a broke, shiftless, sometimes homeless bum. A deadbeat. Not there emotionally, financially or physically.

Now, I don't know what kind of relationship Miller had with his daughter. Or the other kids he had with other women/wives down the road. But that's kind of the point, right? You never find out what kind of parents most of these seemingly heroic figures are, because, it seems, no one cares.

Gauguin split for Tahiti, leaving his family behind, to screw his brains out with native women, and paint. But what about Gauguin's family? Didn't they miss him? Didn't they hate him? Did they ever reconcile?

Jerry Garcia spent a life honing his craft, bringing joy to millions of music fans and casting a spell across a generation. But his daughter, at his memorial service, seemed bitter and angry. Heroin addict, itinerant musician, baby daddy but not father, that was the other Jerry Garcia. What about Jerry Garcia's daughter? What does she think about her dad today?

Sometimes I think this is the untold story of the world: what about the kids that have to survive the so-called "great men?" Did this experience, being the child of the obsessed, the ego-maniac, the pure artist, cripple them in some ways?

Because the level of concentration you need to become truly great at something is not for the faint of heart. You can be great at something, but it's often to the exclusion of so much else. Including, it seems, a healthy family life. The countless hours working on your masterpiece, the selfishness that is so often required of top-flight careers, these things require you to become laser-focused.

And society values such people lavishly. We praise these great men. But we don't praise great fathers. In fact, it seems kind of like damning someone with faint praise. Like he's a patsy in the game, the family man, boring, mediocre.

And, I can see the other side. We all benefit from the obsessed. I read Miller and am glad for his ego-mania. I listen to Garcia and thank him for his life spent without his family. I look at the art of Gauguin, or Picasso, and it transports me. So I don't know what to say. I can't imagine not having these great works in my life.

But I know that raising a healthy child is a great work, too. In my opinion the greatest. And not one that everybody can do. And to do it right, your art, by definition will suffer. Because it's not all about you anymore. That's why so many rock bands become snoozers when the singer becomes a dad and starts singing about the kids. It's a death sentence for us. But a life sentence for him. The good kind, one would hope.

I feel if I can be the father I hope to be I can raise a child who will help heal the world with kindness, compassion and brains. A tall order, but that's my real hope. And that she will be joyful, too, as she goes through this life. What she becomes, ultimately, is not that important to me. But I hope that she believes in it, and does it for the right reasons, and strives for greatness. These are my desires and hopes as a parent. That my child is greater than I could ever be, and she will have the confidence and serenity that I find such a challenge. Tall order, I know, but that's how I see parenting. If I give less than my 100% toward making Stella the best person she can be, then I have failed, and the consequences are far more dire than the failure of anything I could ever write. In my life, Stella and Randi win. The rest fights for silver.

I have no answers, only questions, in this post. I know the ego maniacs will always be with us. I also know we all benefit from their ego mania. But often their families pay in a most spectacular fashion, and the children are innocent. I know where I side, but I enjoy that others can live that life for me.

So, I'm sorry Henry. Not that you'd notice!


Randi Skaggs said...

Wow. I am a lucky woman. And Stella might just be the luckiest kid on earth.

Anne Stesney said...

Your family is very lucky!

While I agree that being a great parent isn't exactly admired by society and that a lot of our celebrated artists are wacky, I think it's a myth that you have to be a selfish egomaniac in order to be great at a craft. It takes more work and a lot less sleep, but I don't believe anyone has to choose between being an artistic success and being a wonderful parent.

If there's one thing I want my son to see, it's me pursuing my passions outside of our family. I'm devoted to him, but I'm equally devoted to my own creativity and personal happiness. It's one of the greatest gifts I can give him, a living example of how to carve out a fulfilled life, of someone who is truly happy with her choices in career, relationships and hobbies.

David Serchuk said...

Hello Randi and Anne,

Well, I hope I can live up to such high praise!

Hi Anne,
I'd agree with you. I think the finer point I was trying to make is that you can't have the limitless self indulgence you had before. And I realize I may be rationalizing some of my own failings. So it's an ongoing battle. I definitely am not prepared to give up the creative fight just yet, including via this blog. But I just have to find ways to make it work along with my family and work life.

I think the lack of sleep part is the toughie for me, being a lifelong sleepyhead, and person who finds rising with the roosters about as fun as a hot coal enema. But it's either poop or get off the pot. And, I confess, I need to get pooping.


P.S. Also, on that ending note, please keep me informed, somehow, of your creative endeavors.

rachel leah said...

You make some really great points. I think about Andrew Giuliani standing next to his dad when he was sworn in as mayor and making headlines as the most poorly disciplined child in New York. And later, when his father ran for president, he spoke up about what a crappy father Rudy was. I guess that personal and professional success are certainly separate entities. Maybe some people are "good" at one, while others are good at the other. But there are people who manage both.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I stumbled in on this entry completely randomly. Great post!! :)

David Serchuk said...

Hi Rachel,
Yes, I think it's hard to find examples of people who can do both, but they are out there. Frank Zappa comes to mind. Great family, very close, and a fantastically prolific and committed musician and composer. He pretty much lived in his basement, rarely toured in the latter years of his life and made lots of music with his kids. It was such an ideal situation, albeit untraditional, that they even made a short-lived sitcom about it, starring his real kids, but not Frank. He's a role model!

Thanks for the kinds words. I hope you stick around! I plan to have a new post one of these days!


Kellygirlnyc said...

Dude, I know this isn't really constructive, but you're awesome. You seem to be good at everything you do and your wife and daughter are happy.

It's all about finding the balance between responsibility and impulsiveness, or maybe more accurately, "freedom." I'm sure that struggle will be something that I'll totally face when we have kids, but you can have one with the other. It's only been a year. If you knew a regular person this long, you'd barely know them. Once you and Stella get to know each other better you'll probably feel a little more at ease taking artistic chances because you'll have a better sense of where everyone's boundaries are. Hang in there. I'm told that this stuff with kids only gets better and better.

P.S. You ROCK! :)

David Serchuk said...

Hi Kelly,
Hearing I'm awesome is always constructive, worry not!

We are making plans (Randi and I) to each go out one night a week, so we have a little breathing room. We look forward to when we can go on more dates, though.

And you rock, too, and have the karaoke pipes to prove it!