“So you also look for signs to provide you some kind of roadmap for where things might possibly be going, because even a sign that is hard to read or navigate is better than none.” — Ben Tanzer, from the essay “The Boy with the Curious Hair”
Full disclosure: despite what may seem like a daunting title, Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again is neither hard to read nor difficult to navigate. It is, instead, an incredibly honest take on the joys and fears every parent experiences, sometimes long before their children are even a part of the picture. With a blend of humor, inventive structuring, and sometimes sobering truth, Tanzer explores the wide array of influences and instances that continue to shape his journey as a father and as a man. As signs go, Lost in Space is everything a person in need of a guide through the uncertainty of adulthood, manhood, parenthood, personhood, could hope for. At least that was the experience of this reader. I’ll explain.
I first encountered the author and his latest collection of essays in Seattle of all places. We set out separately from our respective homes in Chicago in late February to attend the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)—Mr. Tanzer, no doubt, kissing his wife and two sons goodbye before setting out to share his work with the literary masses, while I was taking the last trip I would ever take on my own before becoming a father myself. Then again, it wasn’t so much a “trip” for me as it was an exploratory mission.
It was my first time attending AWP, so I was set to absorb, to learn everything I could about the industry, to weigh down my carry-on with the business cards of new contacts and a pile of new books for the trip home. I also needed to know that once I became a father, I’d be OK, that dads could be dads and still find time to write and figure how to get paid for doing so in between feedings and changings and sleepless, colicky nights and classes and spotty teaching gigs. I needed to find my fellow dads, my tribe.
I attended a panel on the schedule boldly titled “Writers and Dads: A Reconciliation” that promised to fulfill this need, but in reality, the four dads hosting the panel seemed in dire need of answers themselves, often polling the audience for time management tips and other things of the like. One of the panelists even admitted to quitting writing altogether for fourteen years until his daughter reached high school. This was not good news. I knew that parenthood was going to change me, and it was going to challenge my process in a way that I couldn’t fathom pre-parenthood, but this wasn’t the sign I was hoping for.
When the panel ended, I reconvened with the rest of my Chicago contingent for dinner. After a brief deliberation, we decided to walk across town to an offsite reading hosted by Chicago’s own Curbside Splendor, the independent publisher behind both Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space and a growing roster of powerhouse talent (Samantha Irby, Megan Stielstra, Bill Hillman, and Chris L. Terry among them). It was there, in a muggy, crowded, upper-level of a Seattle bar that I finally caught my first glimpse of the sign I was looking for.
Ben Tanzer took the microphone to a round of applause and cheers before launching into an essay from Lost in Space entitled ”The Penis Stories” with the skill and ease of a stand-up comedian. The essay (and Mr. Tanzer’s performance) was full of laughs and occasional gasps as he deftly navigated the delicate and complex topic of having a son (“and we will call him Zach to protect the innocent”) born with a skin tag on his foreskin. But along with the laughs was something else, something that upon further reading, I found to be the signature of the collection as a whole: honesty.
In the lead-up to the birth of my first child, I read and researched my way through a metric ton of “how-tos” and self-proclaimed “parent guides,” mostly fluff filled with milquetoast optimism and unrealistic expectations around which fear and doubt and accumulated life rage had no place. Where was the truth? Where was I in that material? By the time Tanzer’s reading concluded, I had an idea where I might find the answer.
The next day, I hit the AWP exhibition floor and picked up Lost in Space along with a stack of other Curbside titles. When I got back to my hotel room (my “last-hurrah”-of-freedom hotel room, complete with king-size down comforter and rain shower—at a conference discount, mind you), I opened Lost in Space to the opening essay, “I Need.”
I need sleep, long and deep and full of dreams about love, sex, pizza, Patrick Ewing, and Caddyshack. In these dreams I will be so happy, smart, funny, and full of esprit de corps that interns will float by my office in low-cut blouses begging to hear my innermost thoughts on Game of Thrones. I will not worry about bills or love handles, and I will not think about my children, not for even one moment, yo. If they happen to make an appearance they will say ‘excuse me,’ ‘yes,’ and ‘please,’ eat over the table using actual utensils, and not constantly bang their heads or mysteriously find their hands around the necks of one another.
If this was the vision of my future, I had to know what happened next. I plowed through the rest of the essay, an almost dreamlike wish for serenity that rapidly evolves into an expression of real parental needs: to muffle rage and ask “Are you OK?,” to be less afraid, to be more patient, and of course, to go on an actual vacation.
Two months later, at roughly 3:10 in the morning, my infant daughter in the throes of one of many cluster feedings, I picked up the book and opened to the first essay again. “I need sleep, long and deep and full of dreams. . .” From that point on, I dove into a new essay every chance I got.
In the essay “Anatomy of the Story,” Tanzer readily admits:
Parents lie to their children and themselves all the time. And those of us who write about our families take those lies, mix them with our fears and compulsions, and bend them into a language that becomes a story. Sometimes this means that we cannot recall which details are based on actual truths and which are fabrication.
Yet the writing, throughout, virtually breathes an unadulterated honesty that not only makes Lost in Space a compelling read, but makes it accessible to a much broader audience than just fathers or fathers-to-be looking for signs. He uses truths collected over the course of a life to tell the whole story, one that covers his experiences as not just a father, but as a son still coping with the loss of his own father, as a fan of art and pop culture–Star Wars, Mad Men, Vanilla Ice–as a husband, and even as a virgin in the case of the essay “Bed Sex,” in which his own teenage awkwardness leads to the inevitable “talk” with his oldest son. Of course, as with most parental landmarks, the moment doesn’t arrive without some struggle, this time a brief and humorous exchange between the author and his wife, Debbie:
‘Why me?’ I say feebly. ‘No one ever spoke to me about sex.’
‘Exactly,’ [Debbie] says, ‘and look at all the years of confusion and suffering that have resulted for both you and the women in your life. It’s not right.’
Ultimately, what makes the honest writing of Lost in Space so comforting to sign-seekers like me (and well worth buying whether you have children or not), is the complete absence of pretense. The author makes no claim of mastery over “how it’s done.” He’s simply giving an account in incredibly well-told stories of his own ongoing search, one that’s sometimes funny, as in the case of “Bed Sex,” and sometimes frightening, as in the case of the title essay, in which a tiny dimple in the cleft of his youngest son’s buttocks goes from being benign to being a potential cause for paralysis.
At the conclusion of this instance, Tanzer delivers the sign this reader/new parent/human being was looking for all the way back in Seattle:
You see that there is an empty space in your life and you want to fill it. You have a child and then you see that they also have empty spaces in their lives and you try to fill those. Maybe it’s soccer or art, or maybe it’s another sibling.
Sometimes those empty spaces get filled with anxiety if you’re not sure how your life, or your child’s, is going to turn out, and other times, the space is filled with fear, because it’s all so unwieldy and so many bad things seem to happen so often.
There is joy as well, of course, but regardless, you never quite know what you’re looking at, or what the right decision is. You can hide from these decisions of course, or you can run from them, but ultimately you have to try and figure it out, you have to hope for the best, and most of the time, like this time, you find out that all of your fears and anxieties were in your head, and it is time to move on to the next thing.
Truth. Every journey begins with space, lots of it. We fill it with all sorts of things, and then life changes. More space opens up, and we instinctively go back to filling. I didn’t realize it then, but when I landed in Seattle, I could feel it, all that space opening up as I got closer to fatherhood and all the things I could use to fill it: anxiety, fear, the echoes of my own childhood, panels facilitated by other lost dads, a carry-on filled with books. It’s all a bit scary, a bit dark in the unknown, but if you’re looking for it, you might just find a sign—something, someone to guide you on to the next thing.