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June 02, 2005

Out-Ayeleting Ayelet

Neil Pollack has written the definitive satire the of the "inept, entitled, but reflective parent" essay. The only question is whether Ayelet Waldman will send Pollack a sympathy card or horse's head.

Pollack pushed all the buttons, from "Our marriage suffers" to "Did I mention my mental illness?" to "I feel like a bad mother when my negligence ends in disaster."

You might have to watch an ad to read When Toddlers Get Fired, but it's worth it just for tidbits like these:

  • "Our son may be a mildly psychotic hothead, but he's also smart and cute and funny. The school certainly tried, and so did we, but we all ended up treating him as just another naughty kid. Instead of actual help, we had a series of quarter measures inevitably leading to a conference that detailed a disciplinary disaster."
  • "There's no cataloging the feeling of helplessness that washed over Regina and me then. Our child was being expelled. From preschool. What had we done wrong? I felt terribly guilty."
  • "Though I was never a biter, my own childhood was full of intermittent emotional outbursts, fights, visits to behavioral specialists when the schools made them available, and lots of muddled weeping. This continued well into adulthood, until about a year and a half ago when I started taking a pill that shall not be named here but that helped me a lot."
  • "On the drive home, Regina and I could barely keep from weeping. Our respective families were 1,000 miles away in either direction. We were terrified at the prospect of a summer without help. The irony was that we don't have the $1,500 it would have cost to warehouse Elijah through September, so we might have had to pull him out anyway. But now we've been forced into the challenge of caring for a smart, stubborn, high-strung 2-year-old. We love him very much, but that's not the kind of work either of us wants, at least not full time."
  • "One day last week, Regina dropped Elijah off at school. Teacher was standing there with a little girl. They looked very serious.

    "This is Sophie," teacher said.

    She lifted the girl's shirt. There was an enormous bite mark on Sophie's back that was just beginning to scab over. Sophie's dad had started calling the school. From here on, Elijah wouldn't be allowed anywhere near any of the other kids. That would be his last day."
  • At home, Regina had this to say, through tears. "I feel like a bad mother!" she said. "I don't want to spend all summer with him! He's difficult! He's a difficult child! He wants too much from me. And you're going to go crazy if he's around all the time. Our marriage always suffers when he's home!"

Hat tip to DC Media Girl.

Update: Maybe it's not satire after all. Thad still thinks it's satire.

Update 2: A reliable source vindicates Thad. Pollack had me going.


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People have been claiming that Pollack's reaction makes it clear this piece wasn't satirical, despite the fact that it's, well, Neal Pollack, and the piece is an excerpt from his upcoming memoir called "Daddy Was a Sinner."

I'm afraid can't say I see how this or, especially, this bolsters the not-satire case.

Maybe he was trying for satire. If so, he failed. He might have wanted to highlight the very real troubles with daycare, but instead, he highlighted the very real problem of parents with unreasonable expectations.

Two people who set their own hours, who do not need to worry about losing years climbing the corporate ladder, who have no bosses demands to satisfy, need daycare for their 2-year old? No, they don't. This is an article about how unpleasant it is not having everything in your life be perfect. There ARE people who need good daycare for their children. There are people who have had limited opportunities and little choice in their lives. This article was a disservice to them. It makes it seem like daycare is necessary so that whiney Bohemians can ignore their children to follow their muse. Yep. That's gonna twist the arms of those policy makers.

but instead, he highlighted the very real problem of parents with unreasonable expectations.

See, it's exactly that sense of yuppie parental entitlement I thought he was skewering. Especially with lines like:

Publicly funded schools have easier access to behavioral consultants, often as paid staff, who can step in to help teachers with difficult cases. But those of us who have their kids elsewhere are just shit out of luck.


At the same time, they showed the kids Barney videos while they were changing their diapers and gave them Country Time lemonade while calling it "juice." When we complained, the director ignored us.

Shouldn't satire be, in some way, distinguishable from the thing it is parodying? He's not exactly advocating eating the children here as a solution. The problem might be that he didn't "Out-Ayelet Ayelet". I found his sense of entitlement to be fairly subdued compared to some. The only outrageous aspect was combining it with a plea for better daycare.

If you wrote a parody of a president who was almost as poorly spoken as George Bush, would it work? No. People wouldn't know it was parody. People would think it was some kind of strange political statement.

Pollack, at his best, is really spot-on and funny. At his worst, he's just a hipster shibboleth factory, giving everyone a chance to prove how in on the joke they are.

I read it the same way that Lindsay did. The oblivious sense that having a child necessitates and end to the lifestyle one enjoyed while childless, and the inability to take any responsibility whatsoever is a pastiche of every Salon Mothers Who Think column ever.

Pollack makes it transparently clear that he understands what's going on with the child... he complains that he can't bear even the two hours he spends with his son each day, so he "warehouses" him in daycare, and then the child acts up specifically to get some personal attention. This is all written there on the page, and I read it as the wink that Pollack is sending out to indicate that it is all a satitical poke at the self-obsessed parents who write for Salon.

Has Neal Pollack ever written something that wasn't satire? Why would he write something serious now?

Shouldn't satire be, in some way, distinguishable from the thing it is parodying?

Tell that to Daily Show. Or The Onion. They get scooped by real life at least once a week.

"Has Neal Pollack ever written something that wasn't satire? Why would he write something serious now?"

Not everything intended as humor is satire.

Yes, but (once again) practically 100% of Neal Pollack's output as a writer is satire. You'll notice he teaches Salon's class on satirical writing.

Pollack's methods seems pretty different from TDS or the Onion, especially the Onion. The Onion doesn't seem to make the newspaper format its target most of the time - it just uses the format as a tool, so in some senses it's indistinguishable stylistically but that's because the stylistic perspective barely matters. TDS is openly attacking a format and its adherents, and it does so in a way that oscillates from either being completely, obviously over-the-top, or being very open about its criticisms. Obviously, very once in a while a really clueless infoconsumer will mistake TDS or the Onion for standard, non-satirical outlets, but it's rare and difficult.

Pollack, though, makes a point to keep large portions of his work completely indistinguishable from the work of his targets. There are long portions of the NPAoAL and especially of NMtP that, if taken alone, could just be pretensious late-mid-century literary journalism or rock journalism. Pollack's main tactic seems to be veering from these very straightfaced recreations into over-the-top caricature to try to demonstrate just how closely related the real thing and the caricature are (see, e.g., the title "Europe: the Forgotten Continent," which genuinely might be my favorite joke ever)...which is, for my money, a really fun and effective tool. It's a lot less smug than something like the Daily Show, but it's also a lot tougher to penetrate and often not quite as funny.

I've been defending the piece all over the place and I assure you, his tongue is firmly placed in his cheek. Neal is my neighbor, and I assure you, he's mocking himself.

The Onion is making fun of the newspaper format. About half its stories are mundane occurrences told in newspaper style. The joke is that a newspaper is running a story about a broken answering machine but using all the standard journalistic cliches.

Good insights, Eli.

[Although I have to say, I find this whole thing pretty funny in light of our previous discussion of authorial intent. Doesn't Pollack's whole schtick (especially this piece, obviously) hinge on authorial intent -- or at the very least our perception of authorial intent? When he's "veering from these very straightfaced recreations into over-the-top caricature," isn't he playing games with our perception of exactly how earnest he's being?]

;) I hate name-dropping, Lindsay, (actually I love it, but only in person) but in this case I think it necessary. My take on it was it was a sort of "we all turn into the thing we hate" piece.

Is it making fun of the newspaper format? It's certainly using the format as part of the joke ...I'm not sure if I've ever sensed a strong subtext of "take that, newspaper format!" or "X is wrong with newspaper format," although I guess you could cast every single "area man" story as some sort of criticism of human interest stories in general, which is fine and makes sense...and I guess it is somewhat critical, maybe, of standard AP structure or something like still seems like a pretty minor component compared to TDS or Pollack. I may be biased and assuming that a particular critique-through-satire stops being one and just becomes a piece of the format after the thousandth time it's used in a completely unaltered, unexpanded form.

Anyway, ever since the Watchmen comments debacle here, Area Man Doesn't Argue Authorial Intent at Lengths on the Internet. I'll concede having been overbroad.

OK, I'll concede it was satire.

I won't concede that it was good satire.

Satire that is indistinguishable from sincerity isn't satire, it's just being an asshole.

I'm sure Pollack is proud of himself. "I wrote irritiating crap, and people got irritated and thought it was crap! What genius, I!"

I didn't think it was satire. If it was he did not effectively skewer what it is that he thinks he was skewering. "Ha ha -- I was just making funny of all those stupid inwardly obsessed mothers Salon chooses to publish." So if it was satire it was mean and more than a little sexist to boot.

Eli, I see what you mean. The Daily Show is actively antagonistic towards the media, whereas The Onion is gently poking fun at newspaper cliches. If TO is making any substantive points about print journalism, they're doing so pretty obliquely.

NP's essay was brilliant because it hit all the formulaic notes, but it was just sufficiently over-the-top to keep you guessing about whether he's joking. It's funny to realize that Salon publishes stuff nearly this bad all the time.

I don't see anything sexist about making fun of Ayalet Waldman and her ilk. Mean, maybe, but not sexist.

Waldman's a self-indulgent exhibitionist. It's not her subject matter or her gender. It's the quality and tone of her work.

The blogosphere is full of terrific writing about home and family: Bitch PhD, and Belle Waring write great stuff about motherhood and child rearing. So do Lauren at feministe., Michael Berube, the folks at Wampum, and PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

I vote not satire. Having a kid unbalances you. You just are not objective about your own kids. This is probably a good thing. We want parents to throw some unconditional love to their kids.

The bloggers who produce the reasonable articles about parenthood are the ones who are faking it. Deep down they think their kids are the best thing since sliced bread, but they understand their audience will soon tire if they keep repeating it.

Some preschool kids bite. They are the bane of daycare, because the bites can cause serious damage. Alot of daycare systems have a two or three bites and you are out rule. What do you do if your kid is the one who bites? Fuck if I know, but you are still going to think your kid is pretty marvelous.

Hipsters have kids, and these kids can have the same problems as every other kid. Plus, Pollack retracted a sentence from the article. I don't recall Swift doing that.

The incidents described in this article are all very real, but he's making fun of himself for being neurotic. And I promise, I'm not parroting anything--that's how it reads to me. I poke my own self hard from time to time and yeah, about 50% of the readership just doesn't get it.

Hell, I just posted something poking at myself for being a bit of a hipster. $20 says someone whines that I think I'm sooooo coooool.

the onion's greatest strength is in its subtle but often perfect imitation of newspaper STYLE. i would refer one to the great "Marijuana linked to getting high, study says" not just because it is possibly the funniest headline ever written, but because in paragraph 3 of the story is the perfect parody of "now we will explain what we are talking about", used by newspapers worldwide, which went something like "marijuana is a leafy green plant that can be smoked".


as for neal, he's doen enough groundwork that it shouldn't matter any more if he's kidding. his life is his art, there are no divisions.

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