There is an odd linguistic rift in our culture regarding the relative meanings of the words “humility” and “humiliation.” Humility is one of the seven heavenly virtues and can be considered the foundation for the other virtues as well. When John Wayne won the Academy Award for True Grit at the culmination of one of the most legendary careers in film history, he spoke of how he was humbled by the experience. Queen Elizabeth II had her Diamond Jubilee not too long ago, and she too spoke of her own humility. Humility is universal; all of us, wherever we are, have the opportunity and the responsibility to be humble.
But humiliation is another story. It is one thing to be humble; it is quite another thing to have humility thrust upon us. Humiliation is painful, raw and, worst of all, memorable. We remember when we have been humiliated and carry that with us as we go forward into the world.
"DAN GETS A MINIVAN is consistently funny, insightful, and even occasionally wise regarding the perks and perils of modern parenting."
DAN GETS A MINIVAN is not intentionally about humiliation, but it’s a theme that lurks in the background. Dan Zevin’s book claims to be about the intersection between “dude” and “dad,” but it is in fact more about the de-evolution of his role as a cool, with-it, happening urban know-it-all into an uncool, out-of-it, suburban father of two. It begins with his purchase of the titular minivan --- a vehicle that would cause no comment at all in my little corner of suburban New Jersey, but sticks out in the gentrified and rarified precincts of Brooklyn’s Park Slope like a sore thumb or an aircraft carrier. Zevin writes glowingly about the virtues of his new ride, but it’s apparent that he’s whistling in the dark.
Zevin shambles through his own book, wearing pajamas stained with infant formula, dealing with a variety of cruel, tortuous situations such as crawling through the belly of the Manhattan criminal court system (after a dogwalking mishap), surviving the frightening ordeals in store for all those who visit the fake lightning storm at the Rainforest Cafe in Orlando, and (perhaps worst of all) trailing in the wake of his overbearing mother as she takes on a horde of unsuspecting customer service representatives at the Short Hills Mall. He has a sharp observational eye and a keen sense of the absurd, and these gifts serve him well when he confronts the modern excesses of the Disney character breakfasts and the overwhelming bounty of the average New Jersey Costco. (Pro tip: get the big pack of cedar planks when you buy the double pack of farm-raised salmon.)
But humiliation is always at the fringes of Zevin’s energetic prose. He injures his knee to the point where he cannot climb the stairs of his trendy Brooklyn brownstone, and must decamp to his father’s suburban ranch house, where his father and stepmother conspire to fill him full of fiber. He seeks to win back a little of his cool credentials by taking guitar lessons. And while he finds that carrying around a “gig bag” is more fun than a diaper bag, he can’t learn any more than three chords (three chords were good enough for the Ramones, he reasons) or measure up against another dad in the neighborhood who was a for-real rock star. And worst of all, in the final humiliation, he finds himself longing to leave behind the hip cafes and trendy restaurants of Park Slope to escape to the easy living and good schools of the suburbs.
Humiliation is one thing; desperation is another. We see Zevin from time to time in the book, looking for nothing more than a way to escape the reality of his situation and his two small children --- if only for an hour or so, if only to sit in a booth in a tacky theme restaurant with his noise-cancelling headphones and do a little freelance writing for someone else’s blog. And (as a New Jersey suburbanized work-a-daddy), I sympathized with that like you would not believe. Any week I can spend 15 minutes to myself --- even if I’m just vacuuming cracker crumbs out of my crossover SUV --- is a big win in my book.
DAN GETS A MINIVAN is consistently funny, insightful, and even occasionally wise regarding the perks and perils of modern parenting. It may wallow a bit in the humiliations of parenting, but there are two things to remember about that. The first is that all “humiliation” really means is “to bring low.” If you love your kids, you need to get on their level; so you have to bring yourself low, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The second is that humility is a good thing, and a heavenly virtue. Ask John Wayne.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on June 15, 2012