June 17, 2007 in Features

Hunting the heart of Father’s Day

By The Spokesman-Review

The mother of Father’s Day had no problem with commercialization of the occasion.

Spokane’s Sonora Smart Dodd even told an interviewer in 1938 that she hoped gift-buying for the special day might help create jobs.

Besides, who doesn’t like receiving presents?

“Fathers are always great gift-givers and they appreciate the reciprocity,” she said to a reporter in 1970.

But now, almost 100 years since the late Mrs. Dodd came up with the idea for Father’s Day, it’s fair to ask: Would she recognize the celebration today?

Maybe. Mrs. Dodd wanted to salute her own father’s devotion and selflessness. Still, it’s not clear if she really would think power tools, neckties and 9-irons were the ideal way to express loving gratitude.

For Mrs. Dodd, the day was tinged with a spiritual quality.

Somewhere along the line, though, something happened to Father’s Day. It became the dunce cap of holidays.

Perhaps this is partly attributable to some of our society’s insipid generalizations about modern manhood. Or maybe it stems from the lingering notion that dads are ineffectual dopes, much like the genial bumblers depicted in decades of sitcoms.

Public library administrator Mike Wirt surveys the lineup of classic Father’s Day gifts and shakes his head at what he calls retailers’ “mindlessness.”

“It seems to me that they assume that most men play golf, wear ties and like barbecue aprons with cutesy sayings,” he said.

Perhaps cartoon dad Homer Simpson said it best: “D’oh!”

Maybe it’s time for a new approach to Father’s Day.

And here’s a thought. Since Spokane started this – pay no attention to the claims of that coal town in West Virginia – maybe the Lilac City can take the lead in reforming it.

“Father’s Day has become focused on materialism …,” said Mike Ingram, a college professor and father of three. “It would be great to see more celebration of good fathers for who they are and what they do.”

Of course, that would take a little thought. It’s easier to just buy a wrench set or nose-hair trimmer.

Americans are expected to spend about $9.9 billion on Father’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. (Mother’s Day rang up an estimated $15.8 billion in sales. Make of that what you will.)

Let’s be realistic, though. As dumb as some Father’s Day gifts might be, not all dads yearn to trade them for heart-to-heart talks about the parent-child bond or backyard seminars on the evolving nature of masculine self-actualization.

Remember, some of these men are the same guys who can’t get off the phone fast enough – “Here’s your mother” – or who prefer to show their feelings by checking tire pressure. The only thing they want to get in touch with is, well, let’s not trade in stereotypes.

But certainly Mrs. Dodd’s creation could be tweaked without turning it into National Encounter Group Sunday.

So how do we nudge Father’s Day from silly to significant?

For one thing, an attitude adjustment could be in order. Remembering that not all men are alike might be a place to start.

“Seriously, not every dad considers it a personal journey to create the perfect steak,” said Abbey Crawford, a Spokane radio personality.

Getting a dad to talk about his own father is one option.

Discussing the varied configurations of contemporary families is another.

Recalling happy papa-centric family moments is another.

But some say let’s just pull the plug and be done with it.

“I’m not a big fan of pseudo-holidays,” said Pat Killien, a retired financial planner in Spokane. “I wish they would all go away.”

“I would eliminate it along with most other made-up holidays,” said Bruce Werner, who raises exotic sheep in North Idaho.

What about updating alternatives other than the nuclear option?

“If I could change anything about Father’s Day, it would be to combine it with Mother’s Day to make Parents’ Day,” said Terry Rayburn Mitchell, an editor of publications at Whitworth College. “That way, in the best of all possible worlds, kids wouldn’t have to shell out two months in a row for meaningful gifts for their folks. Children (and older folks) who’ve lost one parent wouldn’t be reminded for weeks in advance of the approach of that parent’s special day. And single parents would be recognized for their dual roles in their children’s lives.”

As it happens, Mrs. Dodd was asked about merging the two parent-focused holidays back in 1940. She opposed it.

North Side mom Kristi Luttrull would push back the date. “I would change it to the end of June, so it wouldn’t be so close to graduation.”

As things stand, those two occasions have already shown signs of morphing into an ungainly marketing hybrid, Dads ‘n’ Grads.

Spokane author Carol Hipperson would move Father’s Day to October.

Mary Ann Carey, who works for the city of Spokane, wishes it didn’t usually fall on the same week as her husband’s birthday. “He thinks it should be a weeklong Mikefest.”

Other ideas?

Tara Leininger in Metaline Falls, Wash., would replace aftershave as a present. “Everyone would give dads flowers.”

Why not?

“Gifts besides ties, tools and barbecue gear would be nice,” said Rob Smith, customer service manager at White’s Boots.

Katie Morris, a Spokane seventh-grader, thinks stores and restaurants ought to offer freebies to dads on the special day.

Would that enhance our appreciation of the richness and complexity of fatherhood?

Cheney high school student Hollis Clark hadn’t known that Father’s Day was a local invention. She wasn’t surprised, though, to learn it was a woman’s idea.

“It seems as though women are more likely to create mushy, Hallmark-style holidays than men,” she said. “I can’t really imagine any guy saying to himself, ‘You know, I think there should be a holiday to celebrate the wonderful father I am.’ ”

Perhaps, though, Father’s Day’s problem is that it isn’t mushy enough.

Chances are, long after the gizmos and gadgets have gone to the landfill, a dad will recall a heartfelt sentiment jotted on a Snoopy card.

It could be argued that, in the right hands, Father’s Day is doing just fine.

Spokane engineer Rick Howie knew the story of Mrs. Dodd’s idea. “It is a wonderful legacy for her and all of us as we remember the love our fathers showed us, whether they are still with us or not.”

Greg Branum, of Post Falls, a recruiter for a national company, noted that his first child was born on Father’s Day in 1977. “I couldn’t ask for a better start to a tradition than that.”

James Dodds, a 53-year-old, third-generation Spokane resident and father of an Eastern Washington University student, considered the matter.

“I can’t think of anything I would change,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a nice low-key holiday – no real pressures, demands or serious expectations. Unlike, say, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Expectations are so high for those days. If you muff your part, it will be remembered and you will pay for years.

“But Father’s Day is pretty relaxed. Where Mother’s Day is your best business suit, Father’s Day is your Saturday morning comfies. Where the family Christmas is a formal dinner, Father’s Day is a beer and a burger. I say leave it that way.”

Whatever works.

If we are going to agree that not all fathers are alike, it’s probably logical to accept that there are going to be different perspectives on how to celebrate Father’s Day.

Some ideas will get traction, others won’t.

In 1938, Mrs. Dodd proposed designating the week of Thanksgiving “Old Age Week.” As you might have noticed, that didn’t really catch on.

But Father’s Day, for better or worse, is like a big guy in ripped sweatpants and a stained T-shirt conked out in a reclining chair after downing a few coldies. It might not always be pretty, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

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