Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Bad Dad

Daddy Is a Monster…Sometimes, Written and Illustrated by John Steptoe, J.B. Lippincott, 1980

My next door neighbor is a monster…to his kids. Yes, he’s away in the Reserves a lot, yes, he buys them large backyard playthings like a fancy electric pump swimming pool, a trampoline, and a swing set, but those are just bribes, I think, to get his kids to forget what a jerk he’s been. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him praise his kids or say anything to them nice. Maybe he does it inside when no one’s looking, maybe he tucks them in and kisses their little heads, and whispers, “Sweet dreams, my precious little darlings,” but I really seriously doubt it.

I’ve talked with the man maybe twice since we moved in two, going on three, years ago. The first time was just a hey there how ya doing, good to meet you kind of thing. Formalities, you might say. The second time, he came up to me and just started bad-mouthing his son for getting into a fight at school, losing said fight (which seemed to be almost the biggest gripe), and having his brand new glasses broken.

Once, when all the kids were in the pool, a robin landed on their yard. The son, six or seven years old, got all thrilled and started hopping up and down. “A bird, a bird,” he shouted in his excitement. “Shut up!” his father yelled. “You’ll make it fly away!”

Excuse me? It’s a friggin’ robbin. This wasn’t some rare and exotic species like a pilated woodpecker (of which there are two in my neighborhood and they’re terribly shy and reclusive). It was a robin. Probably the most common bird in all of America. His dad basically screamed at him for being a kid — and for what? So a bird he’d get only about six thousand more chances to see a specimen of that day might have flown away? I only heard the exchange while doing some yard work, but when I picture it, I can quite clearly see the father reaching over and smacking his son in the back of the head as he shouted at him.

And shouting is what this man does best. Every time I hear him, every time I see he’s watching the kids, I hear him shouting. “Get over here!” “What did I tell you?!” “Don’t give me that look!” “Come here!” “Shut the damn door!” “Get in the car!” Every single thing I have ever heard him say to his kids ever he has shouted. With the exception of once asking them, on Halloween, “What do you say?” after we gave his kids candy, he’s never spoken to his kids in my hearing in anything lower than a shout.

The father character in Daddy is a Monster…Sometimes is apparently not as bad, but cut from the same cloth. Before I mention the few instances related in the book of this jerk as dad story, let me tackle the kids’ names. There are two children in the story who are having a conversation about their daddy, about how sometimes he turns into a monster. These two precious little African-American kids are named Bweela and Javaka.

Now, with the exception of Steptoe’s own daughter, there are no Bweelas out there I could find through Google search. Javaka is apparently more common, but what kind of fucked up names are these? Javaka Steptoe apparently writes books. I’d be interested in seeing what kind of books he writes about his monster of a daddy. Maybe he didn’t find him as big a jerk as Steptoe makes himself out to be in this book.

In the first instant the children relates, Daddy buys them some ice cream, they eat their cones, then after grocery shopping, Daddy, having decided his kids’ ice cream looked pretty good, gets one for himself. The kids look at it hungrily, but he snaps, “…stick your lips back in, ‘cause I already bought you guys ice cream.” An old lady pops up who misreads this situation and buys the kids two more cones. The little girl, Bweela, out on the sidewalk, drops her new ice cream cone. Here’s how the book relates it:

“I tripped over a can and dropped my ice cream on the sidewalk. Daddy started to laugh at me, and I was so sad!”

“Yeah, Bweela, first he put his hand over his mouth. Then he didn’t hold back no more and he started laughin’ out loud. ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha.’ Like that. I started eatin’ my ice cream real quick before somethin’ happened to it. That Daddy, he’s a mean one all right!”

Charming man, really. My next door neighbor and he would get along.

Later, when Bweela asks him why he laughed at her dropping her ice cream, Daddy is contrite. Oh wait, no he’s not. That would be a different daddy. “But you didn’t have to be doin’ all that laughin’, Daddy,” she tells him reasonably enough. “Well, I knew it to be funny,” is his sympathetic answer. Here’s more of this loving family dynamic.

“Where do the light go when they go out?”
“Bweela, get out of my face, ‘fore I knock you out.”

Doesn’t it make your heart ache with tenderness? His daughter wants to know about science, about the enduring mysteries of childhood, and Daddy tells her to go away lest he beat her for asking. So sweet.

When his children ask for a glass of water or to go to the bathroom so they don’t wet the bed, he’s angry and snaps, the monster coming out of him. It’s a tight run ship in the Steptoe house, I guess. Water is something to resent your child for asking for, and trips to the bathroom ought to be done like in prison. You get to go once every six hours, on the hour. That’s it!

“If you don’t stop playin’ in your foor and eat, I’m gonna take you into the bathroom and give you a spankin’,” he’ll say.

Eat or I’ll beat you.

Sometimes Daddy’s a monster when we want to be a little messy…And sometimes he’s a monster when we just want to make a little noise…And sometimes he turns into a monster when we have a little accident.

Sooooooo, Daddy’s a monster when we act like kids, which is what we are, so having fun and being a kid makes Daddy angry. What a bastard.

This book, a favorite among the set of parents who think a good beating is all kids need these days, is a heart-warming classic about a grouchy, mean, nasty shit of a Daddy. But hey, it’s okay, he’s only like that…sometimes.

The art in this book is classic late seventies, early eighties, funktacular style. It was a fashion of a style that has not aged well. In these illustrations, when Daddy turns into a monster the usual lines fragment and pixellate and fracture in an almost amateur early stage version of cubism.

In sum, this book, which I just happened to find while digging through books in the children’s section at the library, is out of print and for damn good reasons.

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