Years ago, when Ben was a baby and my mom-friends and I started up a Monday playgroup, our husbands started gathering with the babies on Saturdays, and “Dadderday” was born: a break for the moms, social time for the dads, happiness all around.
Today was an inadvertent Dadderday. I’d spent the night up with a stomach bug and was in no shape to handle the kids, so Tony took over (though without the support of any other dads) and I laid in bed, first reading, then watching a movie. And my choices, really just the nearest things to hand, portray a couple men who are a sharp contrast to the dads I know.
First I read Geraldine Brooks’ March, a novel that imagines the story Louisa May Alcott refers to, but does not tell, in Little Women, about the father gone to war. She bases her portrait both on what’s known about Bronson Alcott and plenty of other historical research, so it’s very detailed and quite plausible but I was so put off by the flowery writing and melodramatic tone that halfway through I had to put it down, drag the computer into bed and email my sister to ask if it would get any better. She advised dropping the book, but I was too stubborn (and didn’t have much else within reach) so soldiered on, irritated both by the writing, and increasingly, by the portrayal of this man who abandons wife and family to assuage his guilt over slavery. Marmee gets a word in toward the end of the book, but it was too little, too late, for me. I finished the book glad I’m not a nineteenth century wife and mother.
Fast forward over a century to my movie choice, Sydney Pollack’s documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. Now, this is a fascinating movie. Two men, Pollack and Gehry, at the top of their game, talking about art and architecture. Often there’s a second camera on Pollack, so we can watch him filming Gehry while they talk, look at sketches and models, or walk around the incredible spaces that Gehry has designed; it’s a terrific portrait of two artists at work. And we see others: the plainspoken, regular-guy Ed Rauscha, as clear as his paintings, who contextualizes Gehry’s work for someone like me, makes the neophyte understand just what is so radical about it; or the flamboyant Julian Schnabel, resplendent in his white robe, gesturing with his brandy snifter; Dennis Hopper and Bob Geldoff and an array of other men (yes, with one exception, all men) all with interesting things to say about Gehry’s art.
But like many such portraits (Rivers and Tides, about the artist Andy Goldsworthy, comes to mind), I began to wonder about Gehry’s personal life. We hear about his childhood, the grandmother who played blocks with him (whom he credits for the idea that he could be an architect), how he changed his name (from Goldberg) to duck anti-Semitism. And then, in an interview with his therapist, we learn that early in Gehry’s career, he was at a crisis, financially and emotionally bankrupt, and the therapist advised Gehry to choose a path: leave work and devote himself to his wife and two daughters until he’d sorted himself out, or leave the family. And for a moment, I indulged a fantasy of Gehry as an artist who buried himself in his family and then emerged after a time, renewed, rejuvenated, ready to contribute again to the art world.
Like I said, a fantasy. He left the family. A second marriage is mentioned, in passing, later in the film, and that’s all we hear of the artist’s personal life.
So fine, not everyone’s cut out to be a parent, and certainly it’s difficult to combine a passionate commitment to anything (to political ideals, in March’s case; to art, in Gehry’s), with any kind of commitment to family. I’d just like to see more representations of men who try. In the meantime, I am newly grateful for Dadderday and the dads who make it happen.