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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Alternadad!

As my son’s due date approached, I felt like I was cramming for the ultimate pop quiz. I grasped at anything that promised to calm my nerves, allay my insecurities and prepare me to be the perfect father.

This panicked search yielded a mishmash of facts and advice. I studied manuals with titles like Fatherhood—A Catalog of Rookie Mistakes and Their Consequences, and Don’t Ruin Your Baby’s Life (Or Your Own!). The authors often contradicted each other, but what they did agree on was this: You can be the perfect dad, provided you make the right call on every crucial decision.

This did not soothe me.

Just then, Alternadad (Pantheon, 2007) to the rescue! No great, wise father warning of scary pitfalls here. Instead, dedicated blogger, free-lance journalist and stay-at-home dad Neil Pollack writes an upbeat memoir about stumbling headlong through it all. Without offering advice, he describes how he tackled (or completely bungled) common parenting problems. The same weighty subjects that the authorities dealt with—from epidurals to Elmo-worship—are defused with wisecracks. He keeps thorny issues like the search for sleep, fear of inadequacy and loss of intimacy in perspective by insisting throughout that his main concern is to be, as he puts it, the “coolest dad.”

This quest for cool could be written off as just an exercise in vanity. Maybe a lust for fame has short-circuited the author’s common sense and led him to shirk his paternal duties. After all, who reinvents himself as a rock star mere months after becoming a father?

The answer is in the memoir’s tongue-in-cheek title: a superhero. These are the adventures of someone trying to go outside and above the norm, perhaps a mutant with gamma-ray-enhanced powers of mockery. Pollack struggles heroically against yesterday’s authoritarian stereotype. Becoming a caricature—like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, who claims to be all-knowing and all-powerful but is really just full of hot air—is a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Being the coolest dad also involves fearlessly chasing your dreams, resisting conformity and being honest about the results. He wants his son to truly know him, not just worship a hero. In this light Pollack’s exploits serve a valuable purpose: to expose a son to his very human father—his failures as much as his strengths, values and dreams. Perhaps a peyote binge at a poetry festival teaches a lesson about balancing fun and duty. Or maybe the chapter called “The Jew Who Cooked a Ham for Christmas” shows how personal beliefs can trump dogma. Pollack might not be dispensing life lessons, but he is reaching for total honesty, and to me that is definitely cool.

Neil Pollack is not quite my hero. Other readers might judge his antics in Alternadad more harshly—and consider making a call to Social Services. His judgment borders on recklessness some of the time, but I found his bravado inspiring. He may not be the perfect father, but is there such a thing? Pollack’s efforts to find out what kind of dad he is are engrossing, thought-provoking and hilarious.

Jon Dufort lives in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse with his wife and son.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York