Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June and so falls this year on June 19, sports a peculiar history. Although first proposed as a holiday in 1908 by Grace Clayton of West Virginia, and pushed later by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash., with the help of the YMCA, the YWCA, and various churches, the idea was greeted with derision by many. For years it was the object of satire, in large part because people feared its commercialization along the lines of Mother’s Day. Even the punctuation of the designated day — should it be Fathers’ Day or Father’s Day? — was an object of some debate. Not until 1972 did President Richard Nixon sign the bill that officially declared Father’s Day a national holiday.
Father’s Day also offers more of a dilemma to children than its maternal counterpart. Though we may have difficulty choosing a gift for mom, the bare essentials seem to include at least flowers and a meal which she doesn’t have to prepare herself. With dads the issue is more complicated. Flowers seem a trifle goofy, even by our loose conventions, and a special meal loses some of its meaning unless Dad is the household chef. Neckties, once the fallback gift for males on such occasions, are too much of a cliché and too little worn to be an option. So what’s left to progeny wishing to honor fatherhood?
Buy books, of course.
The easiest way to give Dad something to read is by means of a gift certificate. This option allows him the pleasures of shopping a bookstore and selecting a book which he will read. If a gift certificate seems a little chilly, however, there are many books that will appeal to Dad. Nearly all bookshops set up special displays for fathers this time of year, offering buyers a wide selection of purchases designed to offer Dad some diversion.
One of the stranger books found on one of these displays this year was Sh*t My Dad Says (ISBN 978-0-06-199270-4, $15.99). Here Justin Halpern gives us the profane paternal adages of his own father that make Pat Conroy’s Great Santini look like a sixth-grade altar boy. On Internet service, for example, Mr. Halpern comments: “I don’t want it … I understand what it does … Yes, I do. And I don’t give a sh*t if all your friends have it. All of your friends have dopey f*cking haircuts, too, but you don’t see me running to my barber.” On Bring-Your-Dad-To-School Day: “Who are all these f*cking parents who can take a day off? If I’m taking a day off, I ain’t gonna spend it sitting at some tiny desk with a bunch of eleven-year-olds.” On LEGOs: “Listen, I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but that thing you built there, it looks like a pile of sh*t.” On hair: “Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started f*cking.”
Sh*t My Dad Says is humorous when first perused, but after 10 or 15 pages of this short book some readers may find themselves not only appalled by the profanity and sarcasm of Mr. Helpern, but thankful that they themselves never had to suffer such a father. Mr. Halpern eventually comes across here as a real jerk, emotionally stunted, a man little and bitter in spirit whose profanity and bile make him even smaller than he already is.
Readers looking for a better gift for Father’s Day might take a look at Washington: A Life (ISBN 978-1-59420-256-7, $40). Biographer Ron Chernow, author of books about the Morgan family, Alexander Hamilton, and the senior Rockefeller, gives us a fine life of the father of our country. Whether writing about Washington’s New Jersey campaign or about his problems establishing some of the parameters of the newly-created office of president, Chernow delivers the man in crisp, lively prose. His feeling for the era of Washington and the manner in which he introduces the scores of other historical figures who surround the man easily make this one of the more readable and at the same time more accurate biographies of the past year.
Like our own age, Washington’s time boiled with political scandal and struggles over rights and powers, yet Washington himself “consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” He differed in many ways from many of the Founding Fathers: he had begun working as a teenager, deprived of the classical education given men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; he was a surveyor and planter rather than an attorney; he had placed himself again and again in the path of bullets and death; he truly disliked political intrigue and jockeying for political position. Critical of slavery, but caught up in an economic system which depended on such exploitation for its wealth, he ordered his slaves to be freed after his death.
Near the end of his study of Washington, Chernow shares with us one great secret of Washington’s effectiveness as a leader:
“George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest … History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country.”
Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. It Books, 2010. 176 pages