The Greatest Stories Ever Told
Featuring a brief guest appearance from MF DOOM's favourite accordion player
The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 1,948 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
Pop quiz. No Google allowed. Two questions. That's it.
Q1. "What is celebrated on March 17th every year?"
Easy right? I'm sure most of you got St Patrick's Day.
OK, little tougher (actually, a lot tougher.)
Q2. "What is celebrated on April 23rd every year?"
Any ideas? It's OK if you don't remember. I didn't, before I moved to Barcelona.
April 23rd is St George's Day. And, 2 years in, I continue to be surprised by the love my adopted home has for the patron saint of my birth one. When you think of St George's Day in the UK, it's hard to shake the vision of a bunch of beer-bellied England fans heading to the Red Lion to sing "God Save The Queen", asking each other "why does everyone go out for the Irish day and not the English one?"
Here in Barcelona, it's an altogether different affair, and one of biggest holidays on the Catalan calendar. In the morning, you'll see kids heading to school dressed as "Sant Jordi" (the local translation) or the soon-to-be-slayed dragon, eventually meeting in the playground as they stare each other down and prepare for battle. In the evening, couples walk the streets, hand in hand, with local landmarks covered in roses.
The tale of Sant Jordi is one you might be familiar with: A dragon holds a small town hostage, demanding to be fed. When the town runs out of cattle, they start to offer their young daughters, chosen by pulling straws. When the king pulls the straw for his own daughter, he attempts to rectify his mistake by offering her hand in marriage to whoever can slay the fiery beast. Sant Jordi enters, stage left. Ends the dragon's life with a sword through the throat. Marries the maiden. And in the spot where the dragon bled out, a beautiful rose bush blossomed, year after year. Which translates into a local tradition of men giving roses to important women in their life every April 23rd. Not just girlfriends and wives—but mothers, sisters, friends, colleagues and clients.
For the second question, there was one other acceptable answer that would've bagged you a point: since 1995, April 23rd has been World Book Day. You've seen those cute kids dressed up as book characters on your Instagram (and on the school run) on this day each year.
Here in Catalonia, they've combined the celebrations. A sea of pop-up stalls cover the city, selling books and roses. Traditionally, roses are bought for women, and books for men. But—never a family to follow gender norms—I asked my family to buy me a plant, and my wife and I decided to buy our daughter a book.
We hit up our local English bookshop looking for inspiration, and came across this magnificent illustrated book of Greek myths. A perfect gift for a 6 year old who is slowly becoming obsessed by stories: listening to them, reading them, even writing her own.
I bought it, brought it home, and laid it out for Padme.
"What's this?" she asked.
"It's a book about Greek myths," I replied.
"Oh, OK. Can we watch something?"
"Not really. Shall we read this? They're great stories," I said. "You know how you like to make up stories? Well these ones were written almost 3,000 years ago." That got her attention. "Can you imagine writing something today and people were still reading it in 3,000 years time?"
Yup. There it was. Interest: piqued. We read a few of the early chapters that evening. The Titans. The birth of Zeus. The beginning of his very prodigious fatherhood project. It wasn't long until we were working our way through the Minotaur, Medusa, the Trojan War, King Midas (and his golden touch), Pandora's Box, Achilles' Heel, and many more. Introducing her to some of oldest stories ever told, and concepts like pride, revenge and hubris. So. Much. Hubris.
She was hooked. 6 weeks later, she's still reading it every day. Taking it to bed. Talking about her favourite gods and goddesses. "Did you know that the planet Venus is named after Aphrodite?" No, I did not. "Did you know that Zeus freed his brothers and sisters by cutting his dad's belly open?" Yes, that one stayed with me. "Did you know that gods are immortal? So that means these gods are still alive right now." Oooooh now that's a tough one. “People don't really believe in the Greek gods anymore. Gods only exist as long as people believe in them.”
I immediately realised I had opened a whole new can of worms.
“So what about the other gods then? What about the Indian ones? Ganesh and Hanuman? And what about Jesús?" (delivered with perfect Spanish pronunciation.)
I answered the only way I could.
"Oh hey, look at that shop. Do you think they sell Chupa Chups?"
Listen. The greek gods weren't great role models. When I told Tony the plan for this week, his answer said it all: "I’ll try to steer clear of illustrating the incest, murder and eating of children which seems to be a staple of fatherhood in Greek mythology." In the height of their prime, Gizmodo wrote about the "The 13 Biggest Assholes in Greek Mythology". The list could have easily been three times longer, featuring some of the world's first, and most infamous, bad dads. And it's hard to argue with their #1:
"Zeus. Where to start with this guy? Zeus was of course the guy in charge of the gods and the universe. Everyone, both mortal and immortal, called him father — both to represent his status and because in ancient Greece there was a 30% chance that Zeus actually sired you. Zeus cheated on his wife Hera constantly, and the sex didn’t need to be consensual — once he decided to fuck a woman, he was going to fuck her, and if he had to be a swan, a bull or a golden shower of light to do it, he didn’t care. Like all the gods, Zeus could hold a grudge, so if you pissed him off once, you were completely screwed, as Prometheus found out when he gave humanity fire. Zeus chained him to a rock and had an eagle eat Prometheus’ liver every day for eternity — just for being nice to us."
Zeus had a lot of children, with a lot of women. And, whilst we're not letting him off the hook, it's worth pointing out that the Greek myths contain maybe the world's first version of "hey fellas, sort your shit out, before you pass your trauma on to your kids":
"To be fair, Zeus had a pretty fucked up childhood. After hearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, his dad Cronus the Titan ate all of his children — Zeus only escaped because his mom fed Cronus a rock in baby clothes, which he assumed was his kid. It takes a special kind of asshole to not just kill his own kids, but eat them (let alone be dumb enough to mistake a baby for a rock)."
The bar for fatherhood was low back then. Most dads didn't even come close to clearing it. Daedelus was a rare exception. Not content with being MF DOOM's favourite accordion player, Daedelus also built the world's first labyrinth—an attempt to contain the famous minotaur. After realising his mistake, he helped weave the red thread that Theseus used to find his way back out. Daedelus, having irked King Minos, was worried for his life and that of his son, Icarus. So, attempting to flee the island, he created a set of wings for each of them—bird feathers, held together with wax. Ignoring warnings from his father, Icarus flew too close to the sun during their escape, and plummeted to the sea, never to be seen again. Stories say that his body was found in the water close to a small island, where he was dragged to shore by Hercules, on an island that remains named Icaria to this very day.
Stories are powerful. Zeus fell in love with a goddess named Metis, becoming what today's historians would term "a total creep": He incessantly bothered her (with the celestial equivalent of non-stop Instagram DMs) and she was so driven to avoid him she turned into (AKA "changed her username to") a bird, a deer, and eventually a human. When she continued to ignore Zeus he became so overwhelmed with rage that he ate her. 9 months later, stuck with an overwhelming headache that wouldn't budge, Zeus asked Persephone for help. She struck his head with a heavy axe, and from the crack in his skull Athena arrived—his first daughter, his favourite child, and the only one of his offspring he gave birth to. After eating her mother, of course. Birthdays must have been awkward.
Stories are powerful. Scholars believe the story of St George is a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, "re-edited" to a version where St George slayed the dragon in the heart of Africa, converting the local area to Christianity in the process. Here, the locals will tell you it happened it Tarragona, a small town an hour south of the city. The stories stay the same, even through the details and context might change.
Stories are powerful. The transformation story is one of the most powerful of all. I've learned by now (after almost six months of these newsletters) that you're a smart bunch of people. So I'm going to assume you're familiar with the Hero's Journey. In the original monomyth ("you may remember me from such movies as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and The Erotic Adventures of Moby Dick") the hero wrestles with his challenges, hits the rock bottom of a personal abyss, but transforms, returning stronger than ever. A narrative that I'm more than familiar with myself.
Stories are powerful. I grew up Catholic. I haven't really spoke about that here. As soon as I was allowed to, I stopped going to church. I just didn't believe in it. And when The God Delusion came out in 2006 (I was 23 at the time) the confirmation bias kicked in. But reading these Greek myths with my daughter the last few weeks has made me realise something: Religion might be something that some follow religiously; but for others, they're just great stories. My grandma used to read the bible for a few hours every night. I always thought it was strange, reading the same prayers over and over again. But maybe she found in them what I'm finding in these myths: powerful stories, that have stood the test of time, just as relevant today as they were then. Stories that can help your children wrap their little brains around big old concepts.
Earlier this year I bought "The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living." Each morning I wake up, read the entry of the day, and reflect on it. It hasn't escaped me that I turn to these stories the way that millions of people, for thousands of years, have turned to the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita or the Quran. I can’t help but wonder which of today’s stories will be passed down for generations to come …
Stories are powerful. Learn from them. Tell them to your kids. And (maybe) share them with your friends too. 👇🏽
3 things to read this week
I was talking to Justin a while back about alcohol intake during the pandemic, and he told me “we’re all just doing what we can right now, so don’t be too hard on yourself." Great advice, but it hasn’t stopped me thinking about it. If that chimes with your experience at all, I’d recommend reading this article : "What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad? The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it."
An Atlantic double bill this week (they’ve been knocking them out of the park lately right?) I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To: "The forces of money and power would certainly like us to forget all about this year and go back to exactly the way things were, like a teacher intoning, “All right, class, back to your desks,” while the first flurries are falling outside. Maybe we will; insights are evanescent, and habit has a leaden inertia. But a lot of people went very far away over the course of this past year, deep into themselves, and not all of us are going to come all the way back."
Finally, I've spent some time this week digging into the archives of The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave's "Ask Me Anything" newsletter. He's a man who knows the power of a story, and his emails are as well written as his musical output. His reflections on fatherhood is a nice place to start, and then go check out the archive. "In my experience something can happen to a new parent, a perception shift, as they are absorbed into the strange and absolute universe of the child, where the problems of the outside world temporarily retreat. There can be, on a deep level, a radical softening of one’s adversarial or pessimistic position toward the world, as the baby reconfigures our understanding of it. Things look less grim. This has certainly been the case for me. I would say that my own children have gone a long way toward amplifying and energising my understanding of the world’s potential. They have become bright windows through which I can imagine the world anew."
Damn. The man can write.
The Change Edition
This week in The New Fatherhood Community
Our private community of "dads like you" is going from strength to strength. This week we've been talking about topics as varied as the "optimal sequence" to watching Star Wars with your kids, experiences around co-sleeping, and how not to lose your shit with your kids. Find out how to join here.
This week I also shared my first “paid subscribers only” post , outlining what I'm hoping to use the space for. In short: a place to explore the depth and breadth of the fatherhood experience.
All of this for the price of a beer / two coffees a month. Subscribe and support The New Fatherhood today.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week Stuart shared his powerful story (see the theme of the week here?) and the response from this community, and the various places the article was picked up, was incredible. Here's a few things you said:
"I want nothing more for my little one than being happy and positive and hope that she doesn’t let her “little arm” (her name for it) define her. She is an irrepressible little soul at the moment and I hope she keeps that positivity." Dominic
"I appreciate you sharing your and your family’s story, sir. You hit on a lot there, especially the rage aspect - that is completely normal to feel, by the way. It reminds me of a line by Philip Larkin: 'We Should Be Careful Of Each Other, We Should Be Kind While There Is Still Time.'" Jeremy
"We've had some great conversations with people who have asked questions. It's not only less uncomfortable, but it's also an opportunity for people to learn more about a disability they might not know much about. This is also part of why I'm writing my family's story in public—to create a little bit more empathy in the world." Lyle
I also asked "What does your dream Father's Day look like?"
"I'm not sure if the "off the clock" thing is even a thing anymore. My wife and I don't see our little girl much during the week other than an hour or two on an evening due to childcare, so we absolutely love our family weekends together and make the most of that time." Chris
"I'd want a huge pile-on with my kids and wife in the morning, breakfast in bed, and then a LOT of alone time. This alone time could include but is not limited to working out, writing, eating at a food truck, meditating, & drinking mezcal and/or bourbon and/or beer. Then back with the fam for dinner, where we share our highs for the day, per usual." Jason
"Honestly, it would be to jump on the F train to Coney Island, sit on the beach for a couple hours listening to the ocean (best place to go is between CI and Brighton, where there are fewer people and fewer boardwalk distractions), grab a Nathan's hot dog, and then hang out with her and our daughter. We haven't had childcare for 15 months, and alone time is a rare and precious commodity. A few hours to myself sounds like bliss." Dante
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