Let's Be Specific About Stuff

Sad Dad Syndrome

I’ve been hearing people casually throw the term 'Sad Dad' into conversations lately. (If you’ve not heard it, do a quick google of 'Sad Dads' or better still, a googling of 'Sad Dad Poetry'; it yields earnestly written Jack Handey haikus wherein guys pull lines from Harry Chapin songs.)

Whenever I hear it, my default is to picture character actor, and walking warm hug, Jason Robards.

Aside from his having been an ambulatory affirmation of saggy-faced gravitas, I feel like there’s a true void in the absence of men like Jason Robards. It’s manifest in all the ways he signified that it was once okay to be a little more world-wearied and worn as a Dad; there was no cause for alarm if you had a pear-shaped pops. These physical hallmarks of the 'Sad Dad' have, in the modern era, come to symbolize all that’s wrong with the institutional malaise of marriage. “My Dad totally took his foot off the gas after marriage but, not me man, I won’t be no Sad Dad.”; said the fictional stereotype with bad grammar I just made up.

Where once there was a warm, familiar, soft-bellied and dog-eared Dad archetype that seemed to embody a softer, more comforting masculinity, now those words - soft and masculine - sit uneasily beside each other. (Honestly, I’d way prefer my Dad to have a belly made of tapioca to spending a childhood warily slurping from your cereal bowl while Dad does crunches in the commercial breaks between Two And A Half Men. Although, that is how Chuck Sheen watches it.)

— I’ll just quickly add that I do have a Dad who was present for solid chunks of my childhood, so this isn’t one of those laments for my own Atticus Finch father-figure. I taught myself to shave and drive a car and write pointless pieces like this on my own, so we don’t need to bring my Dad into this, alright. —

We’re in a masculinity state of emergency (isn’t that a Big Daddy Kane lyric?). Seriously boys and girls, you can’t eternally stay vital and pert boys and girls. It’s like there’s a bat signal being cast into the sky but, in place of the familiar menacing winged rodent, there should be a real Dad; maybe he’s got the top buttons of his pants undone, maybe he’s drooped into his recliner with the papers pulled up over his face like it’s his Sunday fun-day before it’s back to the box factory.

This Mr. Belvedere-shaped beacon might well shine every time we emasculate a Dad who isn’t somehow simultaneously a shredded P90-X advertisement with sleeve tattoos. (Quick aside; to the Dads who wear tight Tap Out t-shirts to the Sunday afternoon gymnastics classes where I take my niece… I assume you’re wrestling your wife and children in life’s octagon and there’s no room for Marquis Of Queensbury boxer’s civility I suppose, when your family has put your hopes and dreams in a leg lock. So, in between sets of bench pressing that burden off your chest, you take time out to quizzically sit and watch your kids do sixty straight somersaults but dude… stop drinking muscle milk and “hollering at yer boyz” on your iPhone long enough and maybe you’ll open up to the somersaulting spirit.)

It’s possibly best articulated in that scene from “Parenthood” where Robards has to coach his own Steve Martin-shaped son (unnecessary) through his parental exasperation; he famously reminds him that “there is no finish line” and, as such, it would seem to me that there’s not much point in power lifting your way to an Olympic sprinter physique. Put another way, staying ever vigilant and holding all the muscles in your body in a constant state of tension aren’t nearly the same thing and that is probably the most exhausting strategy for the lifetime marathon of being a father. Sha-na-na-naa.

(It’s only from an overwhelming feeling of warmth and endearment he fosters in me that I point out how much Robards looked like a slumped zoo Orangutan in his later life. And therein lay his charm and his power;  making times when he played against type as menacing or threatening doubly potent. Just looking at his face in Philadelphia, with his old school bow tie and oversize glasses holding up a jowly frowny face. I know he’s playing a wrongfully terminating lawyer and gay-hating bigot but, that’s the most huggable bigotry you’re likely to see. RIP Robards… pour out a little liquor.)

Sad Dad syndrome is society throwing a bone to the fallout fathers quietly reap amidst a lady’s extraordinarily destructive post-partem depression and amidst your basic marital blahs;   picture two people sitting in a boat, facing opposite directions and paddling as fast as they can… all else being equal, the average man should be able to muscle things in their direction but, the x-factor is if he’s brow-beaten enough to pull his oars out of the water completely. The moral, of course, is that you should get on the same page or outright cancel that couple’s canoe trip in the Algonquins. Besides, I read somewhere that their periods attract Bears, Bears Can Smell the Menstruation. I’m kidding, I’m functionally Illiterate, I must’ve seen that in a movie.

Movies and TV stilt and pretty up our picture of what a good married couple should look and act like but, I think we can all agree that sex betwixt consenting septuagenarians is gross. Although, sex between people with weird, uber-realistic body shapes is an HBO show, but that’s not cable it’s HBO. I picture an older person who has given over to the inevitability of middle age as a more fitting form for a man holding onto adolescence. (And, we’ve all seen the rapping Granny from that Adam Sandler movie, so we know the same holds true for a lady.) I like the dumpy and frumpy but defiantly immature dude most of all.

In “A Thousand Clowns”, Jason Robards played unemployed television writer and role model Murray Burns;  a carefree middle-aged dreamer saddled with his sister’s son to raise who wanted no part of the distasteful aspects of adulthood, going off to an office to eat shit sandwiches five days a week. Again what makes this a transcendent performance is - well, a script based on a brilliant stage play - a male role model that’s earnestly against type. He’s not a shirtless, hulking Matthew McConaughey or the only other option on the spectrum, the doughy cereal-binging pothead. Nor is he a Sad Dad. (In fact, the character is infectiously fun and upbeat.) But what most separates him from our time is that Murray Burns is a man-shaped manchild… or kidult, if your prefer.

(I don’t know what you’re doing with your time that’s more worthwhile than watching “A Thousand Clowns”? And it’s not watching the world’s longest karaoke competition, so don’t even start. I once had radio personality Jesse Thorn of “The Sound Of Young America” on a podcast and prodded him into a little aria on this film. This all before he had a child and subsequently felt he was too old to host “The Sound Of Young America”… no less excellent now titled “Bullseye With Jesse Thorn.” Don’t dig too hard for his unreleased episode of the LBSAS podcast. If I get the urge to embarrass myself on iTunes, I’ll put it up.)

I don’t think Sad Dads need my help or give a toss about my opinions (too sad to muster an opinion of heir own), I just think the saddest of all Dads are the ones fighting inevitability a little too hard. I can’t hug you Dad, when your lats get that big. "Aaaand, the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon.."

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