The Daddy Diaries is a humorous and poignant novel about a relationship between a stay at home dad and his two preteen kids. When his wife goes to work full time in a beach town in Florida, Jay must acclimate to life in the south. With a rich but stupid older brother, a lunatic townie friend and a teen son who’s ready to know what a “threesome” is, Jay’s world is thrown about as far as California to Florida.
As a writing drill, Anne Lamott suggests jotting down the items you remember from your elementary school lunch box. This always made sense to me and may have led to my interest in exploring the simple yet telling textures of growing up “suburban.” I was on a bus in Seattle when I read the chapter titled School Lunches in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” That’s it, I thought. Connect with readers through the recognizable.
First, I tried to locate a lunch box in my memory. There were more than a few, of course, and they were all made of that easily dentable aluminum. Most had sports themes, cartoon characters or comic-book heroes on them. If you were a girl, your box could have horses on it with long, combed blond manes, or kittens tangled in large balls of yarn. But boys, we had to be careful of ridicule, which is why the lunch box I remember best is so surprising: The Waltons. Yes, my third-grade lunchbox was themed after the hit TV program about the poor but God-fearing farm family that lived atop Walton’s Mountain, and quite memorably took a half-hour to say good night to each other at the end of each episode.
On the front, back, top and bottom of my lunch box were drawings of John Boy Walton, his 11 or so siblings, their parents, grandparents and a few local merchant friends. Strange, right? Where’s Captain America or the Incredible Hulk? I think I “can imagine” the answer: sensitive and troubled middle child of early 1970s New Jersey vintage stares longingly at the sleepy ease of this unconditionally “normal” 1940s family. The warmth of their home and the tone of John Boy’s narration as a man looking back on his youth were too good to be true. Where was this place? And how could I get invited to dinner?
I couldn’t. But as it turned out, I could take them to lunch. Although it’s hard to believe, I was never threatened or injured for purchasing such an item. I do remember worrying I’d chosen a less-than-macho theme, carrying it to class in a way that the drawings couldn’t be seen and contemplating saying I’d mistakenly brought my sister’s lunch box to school. In the end, I got teased briefly and no one cared.
OK. On to the writing drill. The school cafeteria. A dozen rectangular tables with circular stools attached. The rumble of so many voices. There’s a hot lunch option for some, and today it smells like Tater Tots and a crusty vat of macaroni and cheese. Lunch ladies in hairnets serve the slop onto trays while making zero eye contact. Girls sit with girls, guys with guys. A pale and enormous woman with a whistle around her neck walks between the tables with a clipboard. She has a raised mole on her right nostril and hot breath that could melt steel. I sit across from my friends. Some eat the hot lunch but most have lunch boxes in front of them. Reggie Jackson swings, an Indy car soars through the checkered flag, The Hulk is in another bad mood. And, yes, it’s true, John Boy kneels tenderly over some ducklings while his grandfather laughs and points with his back arched. What’s the old man laughing at? It was never clear. The ducklings? John Boy’s famous birthmark?
No matter, it’s time to eat. I open my lunchbox. What’s that smell? Milk in a Thermos in an aluminum box for 3 1/2 hours. The Thermos carrying the milk is standing on a tinfoiled tuna on rye. The sandwich is dented, maybe bent is a better description. Next to it are a few purple grapes and a baggie of pretzel sticks. On the bottom of it all, there may or may not be a slice of American cheese. So there it is. Any given school-day lunch. But where’s the story? Who’s eating it, right? Who packed it? Who points at the tuna on rye and sings, “Stinky fish, stinky fish, you’re the Chicken of the Sea!” How does our protagonist feel when this song is sung? How does he handle it? Maybe he stands up, slams his Waltons lunch box closed, and drop-kicks it into the air. It bumps the fluorescent ceiling and lands with a crash. Every head in the room turns. The boy then runs out of the cafeteria, arms flailing, in search of plot, character development, metaphor, symbolism, humor, sex, pathos and a riveting ending.
Before he finds all of this, though, he decides to procrastinate a little and searches for more stuff to smell. How about the metal of those Board of Education green lockers or denim notebook covers, edible pink pencil erasers, chalk dust, gym shorts and the yellowed, short-sleeved button-down shirt your science teacher wore every day? And what of this science teacher? What’s in his lunch box? Probably a little flask, right? Nothing more intriguing than a boozy elementary school teacher. He’s single, lives with his mother and has a brown stained coffee mug that says “Teachers Do It All the Way to Summer.” So, there it is. The beginning of something. A book?
Thank you, Waltons.
Good night, John Boy.
About Joshua Braff
Joshua Braff is the author of three novels, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, Peep Show, and The Daddy Diaries, published May 5, 2015. The Daddy Diaries is a memorable take on contemporary fatherhood and a clear-sighted look at how the upending of traditional marital roles can affect the delicate balance of familial love. Braff’s work can also be found in The Huffington Post and in multiple anthologies. He has an MFA from St. Mary’s College and lives in Northern California with his wife and two children. Visit his website for more information.