THERE'S nothing particularly new about the style of parenting described in Neal Pollack's revelatory and funny new book, "Alternadad." Long before today's tattooed punks and indie-minded hipsters entered the final frontier of family life, those who might be called "cool parents" struggled to maintain their anti-establishment cred as they faced such deeply uncool concerns as diaper rash, separation anxiety and infant regurgitation. These were the parents who dragged their offspring to Jackson Browne shows in unfortunate combinations of denim and corduroy back in the '70s. They were the buyers of foam conflict-resolution bats, devotees of Marlo Thomas' "Free to Be You and Me" children's album and TV show, the dads and moms who rapped about Carl Sagan and nuclear freeze rallies while their kids ran wild at late-night potlucks.
Today's cool parents are no less noticeable. They're the stubbly stay-at-home dads balancing BabyBjorn-strapped infants and double lattes at the no-logo coffee bar. They're the ropy-armed post-feminists who trade couscous recipes at mommy-and-me yoga groups. And they're the expectant couples who arrive at the delivery room with a doula, organic unguents and carefully compiled mix CDs. All of this could easily make for an amusing pop culture survey: One could devote a sizable volume to "alternaparent"-approved hairstyles (the feathered shag, the ironic mullet); clothing (Che Guevara mini-Ts, kitschy cowboy duds); and music (They Might Be Giants, Dan Zanes). Indeed, Pollack spends a good deal of this book obsessing over such signifiers, detailing, for instance, his campaign to indoctrinate his 2-year-old son, Elijah, in worship for the Ramones and disdain for that TV punching bag of cool parents and their precocious kids, Barney.
Thankfully, Pollack digs a little deeper, dipping into a reservoir of aspirations and insecurities that informs the pop culture posturings of cool parents. To Pollack, being an "alternadad" is about "trying to retain a shred of pre-child identity" in a life stage that many of his childless peers regard as a cultural dead zone. It's about becoming a parent without giving up stuff you've always enjoyed, be it psycho polka or anime or high-grade marijuana. It's about calling into question aspects of childrearing that were previously accepted wholesale, including circumcision, nursing versus bottle feeding and whether it's Mom or Dad who gets up with the little one at 5 a.m. after a late night of margaritas.
Pollack touches on these thorny issues in what is, as square as it sounds, a straightforward parenting memoir. This is a nice surprise, coming as it does from a former star of the McSweeney's stable with two faux memoirs under his belt (in which he took clever jabs at rock music and celebrity under the guise of "Neal Pollack, America's greatest living writer"). Here, he forgoes the shtick and presents himself simply as a harried new dad, albeit a joking, clueless one who took his wife, nine months pregnant, to a Beck show in the hopes that their in utero infant would soak up their refined musical taste. After his wife's traumatic C-section, he writes of following his newborn son into the hospital nursery, where he introduced himself thusly: "Are you ready to rock? Are you ready to party? Are you ready to have a good time with daddy?"
That pretty much sums up Pollack's approach to fatherhood, at least in his son's first year. Three months after Elijah's birth, Pollack took off for a wild weekend in Amsterdam, where he got very high at a poetry conference, doused himself with a pitcher of water and delivered an ironic rant as the U.S. invasion of Iraq loomed that concluded with, "All hail the United States of America, where literature kicks big ass." Back home, he found himself suddenly consumed by a never-realized rock fantasy, formed a mediocre punk band called the Neal Pollack Experience and went on a doomed three-week tour of dive bars in the Northeast.
All this will certainly come off as deeply selfish and possibly pathetic. Even if you were raised by cool parents or think of yourself as cool, there's something reflexively off-putting -- wrong, really -- about parents who cling so desperately to their formative floundering years or worse, suffer from what Pollack calls "the corrosive notion of child as hip, wacky fashion accessory." Kids have enough to overcome without having to deal with their parents' efforts to cultivate an image of freethinking nonconformity as they shop for diapers at Target.
But Pollack is smart enough not to glorify his foolishness -- he's always the butt of his jokes. For instance, he cops to the absurdity of his suggestion that he and his wife hand out yellow and red cards when Elijah misbehaves for the ultimate punishment he renamed the "Penalty Box." "I just decided that 'time out' needed a cooler name," he writes. "Apparently, it had eluded me that punishment, by its nature, shouldn't be cool." He is self-aware enough to realize that it was probably a mistake to take the family to a sold-out jam-band festival in the height of summer. Although he'd never admit engaging in anything as dorky as soul searching, in "Alternadad," Pollack is writing about his gradual acceptance of and -- dare one say it -- maturation into fatherhood.
That growth takes Pollack to some unexpected places. The charming "authenticity" of his neighborhood on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, suddenly appears merely scary, prompting him to spearhead a neighborhood campaign to involve the police and drive out crime. An outburst that Elijah's teachers term an example of the boy's "poor impulse control" forces Pollack to negotiate the exquisitely complicated realm of preschool politics. Perhaps the nicest lessons he learns along the way involve Elijah. He writes deliciously of his son's malapropisms and imaginary playmates, of the intense satisfaction they get joking, moshing and telling stories. More traditional dads surely love their kids just as much, but rarely has the bond felt more moving than it does here.
Pollack ends "Alternadad" with Elijah still in preschool and his family's move to the cool burg of Highland Park in Los Angeles. You're left to wonder how this story will play out over the long term. Adolescence will inevitably arrive, and when it does, you can only guess what Elijah and all those other kids in their itty-bitty Doc Martens and tiny mohawks will find to rebel against. Perhaps their early exposure to power chords and organic food will reduce the chances that they'll hate their parents. But it isn't hard to imagine this generation of cool parents ushering forth a new wave of buttoned-down, stick-in-the-mud conservatives like "Family Ties' " Alex P. Keaton. In other words, if you dress your kids in Sex Pistols onesies, will they grow up Republican? *