If you’ve never read Calvin Trillin, you’re really missing out on something — specifically, the personal embarrassment suffered by laughing out loud in public.
Over the past 60 years, Trillin has published hundreds of articles, essays, and books as a journalist, novelist, chronicler of Americana, memoirist, humorist, doggerel poet, and general “grump for the ages.” While he has covered many serious topics with unique insight (he came to prominence in 1963, reporting for the New Yorker on the integration of the University of Georgia), he is probably most admired for his understated, incisive humor. As a satirist, he has pilloried generations of American politicians of all stripes; as a travel and food writer, he has written hilariously about Buffalo wings, parking in New York City, and the French tradition of bullfighting in swimming pools.
Trillin is also known for being a family man (also the title of one of his most famous books); he is the father of two daughters, Abigail and Sarah, who have inspired much of his work, and a grandfather of four. And while Trillin is not necessarily inclined to dispense parenting advice — aside from noting that none of his progeny has, as he put it to MensHealth.com, “done serious jail time” — his observations on navigating the responsibilities of fatherhood and grandfatherhood provide a singular guide to those of us who realize we are only guessing.
To commemorate Father’s Day, Clifford S. Dickson, a father (of MensHealth.com editor Ej Dickson) and new grandpa himself, spoke with Trillin about being an iconic family man, the best advice he ever got from his father, raising daughters in the age of #MeToo, and what, exactly, he thinks of our President’s parenting style.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Let me start with the big question: what do you think are the differences between fathering and grandfathering?
We have a rule in our family called “the grandparent rule”: when you’re with your grandfather, there are no rules. That’s the only rule. I assume my job is to spoil them, and as a father, I didn’t feel that was my responsibility. But as a grandfather, it seems that’s what I’m supposed to do.
Someone told me before I was a grandfather that being a grandparent is the one thing in life that’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and I think that’s sort of true.
You found that to be true? I’m only a year in as a grandfather, but so far, so good.
It’ll get even better.
Do you ever feel guilty about being the spoiling grandfather and want to take a stand and impose some discipline?
Definitely not. I think that’s up to their parents. When I have them by myself, I always say, “It’s chocolate for breakfast if you like, guys.” But they don’t seem to take advantage of that.
“Being a grandparent is the one thing in life that’s everything it’s cracked up to be.”
In your book, Messages From My Father, you wrote that all families have themes. You’ve characterized the theme of your family as, “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, you are being raised in Kansas City.”
Yes, that’s exactly it. I think if you talk to people about their childhoods, a theme sort of emerges. An example would be, “You must always uphold the noble name of our family,” or, “We’re miserable because your father deserted us.” I always thought that even though we lived in the Village [Greenwich Village, in downtown Manhattan], we had a white picket fence going around the house; metaphorically, not literally. I like to think of them as growing up in Kansas City, but they happened to live here.
Do your grandchildren think of themselves as Village kids, in the same sense that you tried to make your children think they were Kansas City kids?
I don’t think they have that same kind of home base feeling, but my grandsons who live in semi-rural New Jersey love coming to the city. Now my 14-year-old grandson is old enough to wander around with a friend, although they often end up in the NBA merchandise store. One of my daughters put a device on my cell phone so I can find out where he is when he’s wandering around. It shows a little map. I can spy on him if I want to.
You’ve written about our current president. Do you have an opinion about his parenting style?
I’m not so much interested in his parenting style, since his was in the divorced daddy model, but his parents’ parenting style. I’d be interested to know what the people were like who raised him. For instance, who raised him to boast that much?
I wrote once that if you’ve raised a few kids who haven’t done any serious jail time, you’re sometimes asked by expectant parents for child-rearing advice. I always say, “Try to get one who doesn’t spit up. Otherwise you’re on your own.” [But] I sometimes wonder about him. I think if you came to most dinner tables and started bragging about how you’re the smartest and everything — all the things you try to tell your kids not to do — your mother would at least talk to you about the value of humility, and your father might give you a little swat. So I’ve thought a lot more about his parents’ parenting than his.
“I’d be interested to know what the people were like who raised [Trump]. For instance, who raised him to boast that much?”
Now that you’re a father-in law, do you find yourself resisting the temptation to give advice on fathering?
I try to, yeah. I think grandparents should try to show a little restraint. I hope I do. I happen to have really good daddies for sons-in-law. I call them “good stewards of my genetic material.”
Even when they were babies, I was hands-on as a father. My girls were born at a time when there was an argument about whether it was OK for fathers to go into the labor room, or whether the father should do diapers. But I always did diapers because I figured there might be a tense time down the road where I wanted to be able to say, “Hey, listen. I changed your diapers.” But I think my sons-in-law are more involved even than I was. I guess it’s partly generational.
You’ve observed, at this point, three generations of fathers: your dad, yourself and your sons-in-law. How has fathering changed in three generations? You mention, for instance, that level of involvement has increased in later generations.
In a way, that’s kind of a superficial thing. I mean, I’m sure my father never changed a diaper. But that was true of his age. Men just didn’t do it then. I never had those heart-to-heart talks with my father that you see in the movies where the judge tells Andy Hardy to come into his study because he had something to talk to him about. I’m not sure if anybody did that except the judge and Andy Hardy. My father was uncomfortable with that sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good father. He made me feel that I was a special case. That’s really important for a kid. I don’t know how he did it, but we could make many millions of dollars if we knew how to do it. And he didn’t do it by telling me that all the time, [he] just took it for granted. So he was a good father. The styles are different just because of the culture, the age.
One of the things I remember from reading what you wrote about your dad was the admonition, ‘You might as well be a mensch.’ [Ed. note: “Mensch” is the Yiddish word for a person with integrity; basically, an all-around decent guy.]
I was thinking about this the other day, coincidentally. The other phrase of his that really impressed me and stuck with me was the phrase “big knaker.” It’s a derisive form of “big shot.” If someone was a show off or something like that, my father only needed to say two words, “big knaker.” It stuck with me. I didn’t want anyone to look at me and say “big knaker,” because my father made it sound like a phrase of fantastic contempt.
You wrote about your father’s honesty and rectitude. How do you feel like he tried to impart those values to you? And how did you try to teach them to your kids?
He never had to preach it. Kids see you enough to take their cues from you, no matter what your formal policy is on bedtime rules or things like that. You can’t really hide who you are. My wife and I had slightly different feelings about how much of how your kids turn out was due to you and your parental teachings, and how much was the just luck of the draw. She always said the important thing was what she called the “big things,” like the values they get from their parents. I think that’s true, although we all know terrible people who had nice parents and vice versa.
I don’t know if they would ever express it to you, but do your daughters feel the same way? Do they feel like you have passed on those values to them?
Yeah, I’m sure they do — particularly about things like honesty. Oddly enough, they attribute that to my father, although they never met him. I remember one of my daughters scraped a car in a parking lot and left a note on the car’s window about who she was and how she could be reached. She said, “I know that’s what your father would have said.” And she never met him. He died before she was born. I realized how amazing it was that that got through.
I think there are certain things communicated to your children without lectures. Somehow, Trump’s parents did not communicate those to him.
“If you’ve raised a few kids who haven’t done any serious jail time, you’re sometimes asked by expectant parents for child-rearing advice. I always say, ‘Try to get one who doesn’t spit up. Otherwise you’re on your own.’
Have you spoken with your daughters ever about the #MeToo kind of stuff?
I have a little bit with my younger daughter. I think most men, however sympathetic they are on the subject in general, are a little concerned that we be careful about degrees; that patting someone on the backside once is not the same as Harvey Weinstein. If someone used the wrong language or something like that, you’d say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is that a life sentence or can he get a job next year?’ I think women hold more to the view that this stuff has been going on for years and it’s horrible and it has to stop and then we’ll sort it out about the spectrum of offenses. But I think we basically agree on it.
It’s not that people my age, even if we behaved ourselves, are not complicit in all of this. The whole idea of the casting couch was a joke to us. The magazine I worked for used to have an editor who was unfortunately shaped and was known to be chasing people around the desk. He was known as the horny avocado, and we thought that was funny. But, in fact, it wasn’t funny to the people he was chasing. Even if we didn’t participate in that sort of thing … So they’re right that the culture has to change and then we’ll figure it out. I sympathize with the view that it’s all got to stop and then we’ll see who’s who and which punishment goes with which crime.
Do you think you passed any of your routines, or schtick, down through the generations?
I don’t know if there are specific things. [My children and grandchildren] all have some sense of irony, at least. Maybe not as strong as mine. I always say that mathematics was my worst subject because I couldn’t persuade the teachers that many of my answers were meant ironically. I don’t think their sense of irony is that strong.
In a more serious vein, when your wife passed away, did you find that that changed your role as a father? [Trillin’s wife Alice died in 2001, prior to the birth of her grandchildren.]
[At the time], my girls were grown. I suppose it made me more active as a grandfather, since I figured that I was the only one left. But I think I would have been active as a grandfather, anyway. It’s sort of a bittersweet feeling with the [grand]kids now, that she missed all that.
In your writing, you always portrayed her as being the practical or down-to-earth member of the family. Did you pick that role up after she passed away?
She certainly was the sensible one. Somebody once introduced us when we were both speaking at some English teachers’ conference and said, “They’re like George Burns and Gracie Allen except that he’s Gracie and she’s George.” But no, I haven’t taken on that quality. Otherwise, I wouldn’t let my grandkids have chocolate for breakfast.
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