My Old Man
When Ted Kessler launched a website about his – and everyone’s – dad, the stories kept coming…
This may seem the most obvious question of all time – but besides answering ‘my dad’, can you explain the inspiration behind starting the site, myoldman.org?
Several things came together as my dad approached his 80th birthday in May. I thought a lot about the unusually melancholic joy that the occasion provided. In particular, the feeling he must have of: ‘I made it. Now what?’ He took a bus to meet us that day and arrived outraged that someone had risen to offer him a seat. His age insults him. But at the same time, he took it. He’s slowing down.
It made me think about how our youthful idiosyncrasies fossilise over time. My dad’s a very smart and funny guy, but everyone in our family is also fluent in his eccentric- ities. I wondered about how time’s arrow flew from the mysterious, brooding, occasionally fearsome character I grew up with to the rheumy-eyed and gentle soul we were toasting over dinner.
And so I thought to myself, I’d like to write about this somewhere. But the idea of pitching it to a newspaper supplement or a men’s mag made my blood freeze. Then I
remembered how much I’ve enjoyed writing the Shadows and Reflections entries for Caught By The River. I’m not remotely interested in fishing, but I love the spirit of CBTR and in particular Shadows And Reflections, where friends of the site consider their journey through the previous 12 months. It’s a narrow brief, but the possibilities are deep. Could I also apply the same principle to people writing about their dads? Yes, I could – and I could do it on my own site. The pitch is so simple: please tell me about your father. Every experience is unique and interesting in its own way, be it someone who loves their father very deeply or someone who is ambivalent about them. It can only pro- voke a strong emotional response.
I got pretty excited.
I decided to call it My Old Man after the Ian Dury song of the same name, as it embodies what I hoped would be the tone of the site. It’s poignant and personal, but it feels like something universal is being described. When I spoke to Ian’s son Baxter about reproducing the lyrics, I also asked him to contribute something about his dad to keep the lineage going, but he was a little evasive about that. He’ll come round.
I don’t know if he’s seen it. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t mention it if he had, so unless someone tells him about it, I’m probably in the clear. I know that for some it is a big concern. I’ve heard some great dad stories from people who say they couldn’t risk putting their own tale up there. They’ll also come round.
I had lunch with my dad recently for the first time since I started the blog. I was curious whether he’d mention it and half thought I should. But I didn’t. He did tell me how he was working on something about his youth and I won- dered if that was a subtle hint that he’d absorbed the main gist of my piece for My Old Man about him, namely that he needs to write his life story before it’s too late.
To illustrate the fact that he’s started work on something, Dad told me the tale of what happened when he and his parents arrived at immigration in the US as refugees just before World War II. As Austrian Jews, their passports had the letter ‘J’ inserted by the Nazis between their fore- names and surnames. When my granddad was asked by the US immigration officer what his middle initial stood for he replied, ‘Justice!’ Apparently, he kept the letter J as a middle initial for the rest of his life. I again told my dad to get a move on with his memoirs.
Did becoming a father make you reassess your relationship with your own father?
Not really. I’ve always been trying to work the dude out. I’ve come to realise that we share a lot of similar genes (good at directions, bad at names) and I feel a lot more sympathetic now to some of the predicaments he found himself in, if not all of the resolutions he plumped for. I feel a lot of love for him, though. If anything it may have forced him to reassess his relationship with me. I think he worries about my ability to provide for my family as an elderly music journalist in a world without any lingering need for us. He always asks me what my plans are. And I always tell him that I wish I knew, and that only makes things worse for him. But what can you do?
Can you expand a bit on the Milan Kundera quote you’ve used on the site?
I originally read The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a teenager, mainly to impress girls on a Greek beach, and consequently didn’t even notice the line. But earlier this year I read Elephant by Raymond Carver and it’s used as a preface there. It hit me like love at first sight: ‘We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.’ It’s the human condition summed up in one brilliant sentence. I think that any time that we attempt to alleviate that turmoil, then we have done decent work, and that so far My Old Man has made a small dent in it. Hearing true tales about the lives of others helps everyone. Telling your story is good for you, too.
Why do you think fathers and sons in particular are so bad at telling each other how they feel?
Well, men are basically idiots who are governed by the most basic instincts, which is a real drawback to honest emotional discourse. I’ve never really been like that. I always tell my old man how I feel and if other males are unable to, that’s not my problem. Something makes me think that the British male might be particularly bad at communicating with their fathers, but I could be wrong.
I’m keen to emphasise that the site is not male-specific. Judging by some of the brilliant contributions I’ve had from Victoria Segal, Yasmin Lajoie, Emma Anderson, Fiona Sturges and Kieran Yates, I’m not sure that it is a male problem. Yasmin, Emma and Kieran’s tales are mind-bending journeys through longing and loss that could’ve been alleviated for each by more dialogue much sooner. In fact, very few of the fathers featured on the site are any good at communicating with their offspring. Dads find it hard to talk to their kids, I guess.
What’s been your favourite contribution so far?
It sounds corny, but my favourite is always the one I am about to publish. I love having one in the bag, knowing it’s great and being excited about everyone else reading it, too.
And what’s been the nicest reaction you’ve got?
Again, it’s when someone is moved enough by the site to want to contribute something themselves. I think Niall Doherty’s contribution moved a couple of people to write their own story – Kieran in particular. And then Kieran’s may have helped Yasmin along. So, whenever someone stumbles across the site, reads something that hits the mark with them and then is inspired to contribute some- thing themselves. That’s the whole point of it.