ZEN AND THE ART OF FATHERHOOD
By Steven Lewis
Dutton Books, $19.95
Reviewed by James Kaufmann
These days I'm either taking laps through the house trying to soothe a colicky 6-week-old baby or trying patiently to deal with an attitudinally-disabled eighth-grader new to probation, so I wondered: Could Steven Lewis, author of Zen and the Art of Fatherhood, share some wisdom distilled from his being Happy Father of seven, wisdom that would enable me to become a father who could avoid, subdue or, at the very least, rationalize Big Problems in Fatherhood?
The answer is no, not really. Lewis' effort is not a how-to meisterwerk nor is it a guidebook. Zen and the Art of Fatherhood is a confederation of 66 brief (and loosely organized) prose snapshots that are equal parts confessional, family history and declaration of love.
Of course, with seven children Lewis has a lot to love. In his occasional essays, he hits the highlights (and a few lowlights) of his life as a dad over the past 27 years. The subjects are mostly generic _ toilet training, adolescent dysfunction, family trips from hell, "facts-of-life" talks, mourning the loss of personal space _ and the voice of Lewis telling these tales is cheery and PG.
But what about that Zen business? Well, Zen concepts _ opposites are contained within each other, things both are and are not what they seem, etc. _ are an ideal sort of way of framing thinking (and thus not thinking) about being a father.
Because, says Lewis, being a father demands that you learn "how to not be there and be there all at the same time," that "wrong is sometimes right, and right is often wrong" and, also, it helps to learn "coachless coaching" of your kid's soccer team.
It's easy enough to throw darts at the ZenLite nature of some of Lewis' comments, but the basic wisdom of Zen and the Art of Fatherhood is solid enough. Boiled down, that wisdom is: You remember you're the parent and the child is the child, you love the child, and then you put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward, spiritually, forever.
For all the Zen talk, though, what Lewis' book really is, although it takes a while to see this, is an extended love song to his family. Lewis has a job, sure, but he admits late in this book, "I am a father. That is all I am." There are many worse things to be. And maybe none better.
James Kaufmann is a writer who lives in Iowa City.