Conversation: Mike Finkel and The “Alternadad,” aka Neal Pollack

March 26th, 2007 by Michael Finkel

“I just wanted people to get a sense of what it’s really like, without any frippery or myth. The poop and pee stuff; the tired parent stuff; the trading sex for getting up with the kid stuff—that’s things that all parents have to deal with.”

So: You’re smart and creative and over-educated and under-funded. We know that. Overall, your life is pretty damn good. We know that, too. But what we don’t know is the answer to the ultimate question: Will having a child shatter all this goodness, or augment it? Neal Pollack, who has made a career out of writing wry, witty essays with a tone of mock solipsism (it is mock, right?), has attempted to wrestle with this question in his latest book, Alternadad.

I’m the father of a 15-month-old, and an aspiring alternadad myself. That is, someone who can enjoy a fulfilling life and, at the same time, act as a stellar parent. But, admittedly, I’m a little lost (and my daughter is about to have company). I decided to talk to an expert, albeit one with no official expertise, just a funny Jewish writer type guy who happened to write a book with a pierced duckie on the cover. In other words, a guy I can relate to. I phoned Pollack at his home in Los Angeles for guidance on fatherhood, what to expect when you’re expecting a second kid, and instructions on how to use the ultimate pot-smoking machine, the so-called Silver Surfer. —Michael Finkel

MF: I read your book with a background soundtrack of Elmo’s World—that’s what my daughter was watching. There’s now bits of pureed carrots on several pages. That’s what my daughter was eating.

NP: That’s perfect. The book was written with the parental attention span in mind. Or at least it was written because I have the parental attention span at this point.

MF: Let’s get to the most important topic. My favorite self-medication after stressful fathering days is a hit of weed. But I’ve never used a pot vaporizer. You write about how it changed your pot-smoking life. I’m still stuck using a one-hitter.

NP: Well, a one-hitter is still a part of the arsenal, for when I’m out. You can’t really carry the Silver Surfer with you. It’s heavy; you need an electric outlet. It’s a little more ritualistic. The culture of pot smoking is more highly evolved out here in L.A., with these dispensaries everywhere. The medical marijuana. Now everybody here has glaucoma. Twenty-two year-old guys are just coming down with glaucoma, left and right. It’s a terrible affliction. Arthritis, back pain, depression. Irritable bowel syndrome. If you’re a depressed person with irritable bowels, welcome to stoner heaven.

MF: Your son, Elijah, is now close to four-and-a-half, so you’re several years ahead of me on the fatherhood curve. I found myself nodding when I came across passages in your book like, “life, once so expansive, seemed to shrink as baby grew” and “life suddenly seemed comprised of decisions I didn’t want to make.” Since becoming a father, I’ve never felt so confined, at times, and—frankly—depressed. It was a relief to me, in a strange way, to read someone else saying these things.

NP: Here’s what you need to know: It gets less confining the older the kid gets. The kid turns into a real person, with activities. You’re not always doing everything that you would ideally want to do, but it’s not infantilizing once the kid is no longer an infant. There is light. You just have to break free of those difficult early years.

MF: In my mind, I sort of have this scale—the percentage of being a parent that sucks, percentage that’s great. At age three months, I was at 40 percent great, 60 percent sucks. At best. Just recently, I think, I’ve broken over the 50-50 barrier. Though last night, when the kid started throwing up just as we were about to leave her with a babysitter so we could finally have an adult dinner, it was 100 percent sucks.

NP: For me, at three months—well, as a Dad, you’re not really doing that much—so it was 60 percent great, 40 percent sucks. At a year, it was reverse—40 percent great, 60 percent sucks. At two years, it sucks 80 percent of the time. It just does. But now, at age four, it’s probably 75 percent great. But we had some tough times getting to this point.

MF: Yeah—I read about your son’s biting problem, and how he was kicked out of preschool because of it.

NP: Well, he doesn’t bite any more. Because he showed his dark side so early, we’ve been working with him for so long that it’s all starting to clear up and he’s turning into a really nice, sweet kid who has much better social skills than his father. At age two, kids are just cavepeople. They’re working off their lizard brains. I’m enjoying fatherhood almost all the time now. And if I don’t enjoy it, it’s because of external circumstances. Like the lack of space in our house, the lack of privacy. And politics.

MF: What about a second kid?

NP: No.

MF: Definitely not?

NP: Absolutely not. Unquestionably no—even though it’s almost weirder in our society to have one kid than to have none.

MF: I’ve been saying to people that zero or two both seem like good choices for kids.

NP: The cliché is that it’s tough for only kids because they don’t have anyone to play with around the house. But having multiple kids presents its own problems. Sometimes it’s easier to have one kid, sometimes it’s easier to have multiple kids. But I think that anyone who speaks in absolutes is fooling himself.

MF: My wife is pregnant right now. I feel like a tidal wave is about to descend on me.

NP: Yeah, well, it probably is. Two kids is four times the work.

MF: That’s the rumor.

NP: You’re going to have an infant and a toddler?

MF: And I travel for a living.

NP: Well, that’s good for you—at least you’ll get to sleep when you stay in hotels. But that puts a lot of extra pressure on your wife.

MF: Who also works. She’s a professor at the university here [in Bozeman, Montana].

NP: We just didn’t want another kid.

MF: Your book, I think, could act as a form of birth control.

NP: I just wanted people to get a sense of what it’s really like, without any frippery or myth. The poop and pee stuff; the tired parent stuff; the trading sex for getting up with the kid stuff—that’s things that all parents have to deal with. The stuff that’s most important in the book, I think, is the struggles we had getting Elijah into a decent preschool, and having a safe neighborhood to live in, and finding health care. These are the kinds of things you don’t think about, that the books don’t prepare you for.

MF: So what do you say to two people who have great, fulfilling, busy lives, who have good careers, and are not sure whether to have a kid?

NP: You can’t say don’t have a kid. If you’re a parent, you can never tell someone else not to have a kid. But you just say, ‘Really think about whether you want to give up all this freedom. It’s not necessary.’

MF: All the people I asked before my wife and I had a kid were filled with enthusiasm. No one even said one cautionary word. No one said that not having a kid isn’t a bad decision.

NP: It’s actually a good decision not to have a kid. There are enough people on this planet. There are way too many people, probably three times as many. You don’t need to make another. When people say, Oh, I really want to have a big family, I think: why? It’s almost irresponsible. But, but—my wife just said, ‘Ooh, better be careful there, bud’—at the same time, big families can be awful fun.

MF: Is your wife listening in?

NP: Regina monitors my interviews to make sure I don’t put my foot up my ass.

MF: Go ahead, put it up. What’s your position on kids and TV?

NP: We watch so much TV that it was inevitable that our kid was going to watch TV. I’m in favor of quality TV.

MF: I’ve been addicted to Entourage lately. I have no idea why.

NP: Because it’s a male sex fantasy. It’s a life we men with kids cannot lead.

MF: What are you going to say to your son when he reads this book?

NP: I don’t know. I’ll have to see how he responds to it.

MF: I think he’ll say, ‘Dad, man, you smoked a lot of weed.’

NP: Oh, probably. But I don’t think that stoner parents are that controversial any more.

MF: But there have been some vitriolic responses to your book.

NP: Not about weed. But when it comes to parenting, people can get really judgmental. Parenting books are a dime a dozen. But I think that, to some extent, I’ve captured a generational mood here.

MF: Or at least, you may have coined a term.

NP: I have been seeing “alternaparent”—and “alternamom” and “alternadad”—a lot more recently.

MF: I like the way you can spin the word sarcastically or seriously.

NP: It’s a play on alternative culture, which was marketed directly to you and me as a countercultural lifestyle. But really it was nothing—mostly crappy music and ugly fashion. Alternative: It was totally meaningless then, and it’s meaningless now.

MF: The last week, which has been a tough one for my baby, and her parents, I was thinking that if I could take it back, and not have a kid, I think I would. I just want to sleep till noon and not have to make 17 phone calls to arrange a simple dinner with my wife. But it sounds to me that you are squarely in the it’s-worth-it-to-have-a-kid camp.

NP: Oh, yeah. There’s no question. I love being a dad. I embrace the role wholeheartedly. I seem to have managed to find a way out of the darkness into a version of myself that I can tolerate. In other words, I’m a dad, but I’m still myself. And I think that’s the key. To stay true to who and what you were before you became a parent.

But you know what I’ve noticed? That, as I get older, 4:20 seems to be the time that the weed from the previous day wears off. You know how if you smoke a little bit, you wake up the next morning, you don’t feel so bad. But then around the middle of the day you start to sag a little bit.

MF: I have been getting pot hangovers lately.

NP: As you get older, you do start having those. But there are so many different varietals; you just need to find the one that’s perfectly attuned to your brain chemistry. If I smoke someone else’s swag, I can get really depressed, and really weird mentally. But if I have the right flower in my hip pocket, then I’m fine.

MF: You’re making me feel better, somehow—that, even though I’m having a second kid, things are going to get easier.

NP: Let’s put it this way: The next two or three years of your life are going to be a challenge, but eventually the weather will clear. And then you’ll have some fun.

MF: So what do you think is the more tease-worthy last name for a kid—Finkel or Pollock?

NP: Finkel is way worse. I had some Finkel friends when I was growing up, and they didn’t have too much trouble. I think in the end it comes down to the kid. If your kid ends up being a nebbish and a dork, then it’s going to be a long road. I had some trouble with Pollack when I was growing up, because I was kind of a dork. I don’t think my kid is going to be the same kind of dork, so I don’t think he’s going to have too much trouble. Especially when I’m already teaching him to call himself Poo-Lick.

MF: I’m going to have to work on the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Finkel. Don’t start singing that or I will have flashbacks to my youth. Well, I’m looking forward to reading how it all turns out with your son.

NP: Well, I hope there is a sequel in the offing.

MF: You could create our generation’s version of those 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up movies. I want to check in on Elijah and Neal every couple of years.

NP: That has a kind of nice ring to it, actually. I just hope that his life doesn’t take as many twists and turns as that one guy, who was in a mental institution, then he became a politician, then he was back in a mental institution. I don’t want Elijah to be that guy.

MF: All I’m hoping at this point is that the fucking Elmo’s World theme song gets the hell out of my head.

NP: Well, just stop showing her fucking Sesame Street if it’s bothering you, dude.

MF: Words to live by.


Michael Finkel is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Neal Pollack has been declared America’s greatest living writer, but he’s much happier as a daddy blogger.

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