Tim Dowling is a funny man. Tim Dowling is also a married man. And a father, an expat American in London, a columnist for The Guardian, a drinker, a banjo enthusiast, a half-assed football fan, and most importantly for our sake, author of the riotous memoir How to Be a Husband.
Dowling’s book is, as he makes abundantly clear, neither self-help nor the penile paperback equivalent of “You Go Girl!” Dowling is no role model, which makes him all the more relatable. Even after twenty-three years with his British wife and three children well into the teenage years, he’s still fumbling and bumbling his way through the institution of marriage. An institution is, of course, an important permanent societal fixture, and the place where crazy people end up.
Dowling describes his first quickie-to-stay-in-the-UK-wedding-ceremony as the “resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods,” and also lets significant others know, “It’s okay to steal small amounts of money from one another.” If this sounds like your relationship, then How to Be a Husband is for you, man, woman, or wherever you fall on the spectrum. He spoke to Signature about utilizing humiliation, the problem with “soul mates,” and the necessity of pedestrian sex.
Signature: Tell us a bit about your writing life, how long you've been at The Guardian, and other books you’ve written.
TIM DOWLING: I’ve been a freelance writer for about twenty years. I wasn’t convinced the work suited me at first – I’m easily put off by rejection – but you don’t have to be as self- confident and thick-skinned as people might think. Many good writers are neither. All in all, it’s not a bad job for a coward.
I think The Guardian first asked me to write a piece in 1999. Somewhere around 2005, I started writing exclusively for them. By then I was working on a novel, The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club, about a freelance writer encountering some dark forces on the internet. It came out in 2007, and for some reason failed to set the world alight. I suspect it was because of that stupid plural apostrophe in the title. That’s the sort of thing that would put me off buying a book.
SIG: Are there writers, humorists, satirists, or others who have provided inspiration in some form or another throughout your career?
TD: When I was a child I wanted to be a cartoonist, so my heroes were Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau, and the New Yorker cartoonists. I actually was a cartoonist for a while, but I was too slow to make any money out of it.
SIG: As a humorist, are you constantly thinking of what moments in your life are worthy of print anecdotes?
TD: Yes, and none of them are.
SIG: Do you find it hard to stay present when discussing something with your wife that you think will make good column fodder?
TD: It doesn’t usually happen that way. I often don’t know what I’m going to write about when I sit down at the keyboard. But then some small moment of humiliation from the previous week will eventually present itself. Those big events where you think, ‘This will make a good column’ don’t actually make very good columns. At least not in my hands.
SIG: Do you still face consternation over writing about your family or did that fall by the wayside once you started?
TD: I think I’ve found a way to do it that keeps my family from hating me, although I have to be a bit vigilant because things change: kids get older, sensitivities shift. I’m more careful writing about my neighbors, to be honest. It’s not their fault they live near me.
SIG: Before getting into the marriage and parenting stuff, I want to say that How to Be a Husband has the most astute chapter on what it's like to be panicky low-paid freelance writer. Can you explain to my wife why it's a terrible, but completely reasonable, life choice (even when it was thrust upon us, or me, by an editor who didn't want to see me in the office anymore)?
TD: Like it did you, freelance writing sort of found me. I don’t think I could survive in an office environment now; I’m not civilized enough. Tell your wife some of us just don’t have any choice.
SIG: You mention a study that found couples who subscribe to a "soul mates" model are less likely to stay married than those who follow a pragmatic view of the institution, I'm curious at what point in your marriage you realized that "love alone would not be enough" and that compromise is way more important to sustainability.
TD: Pretty much right away. All the most stressful stuff happened at the beginning, when geographical circumstances threatened to split us up. We got married so I could stay in the UK, and to both of us that seemed the most enormous compromise of all. But it did sort of fix everything.
SIG: My personal philosophy after twenty-four years with the same woman is that four to five days a week should be breezy, relatively hassle-free, and the rest will be amazing or awful, but it's the consistency of the slow uneventful days that matters most.
TD: I like the sound of that. I think we – my wife and I – have the luxury of knowing that most of the stuff we argue about is pretty inconsequential. It’s of no real threat to our marriage, so we can choose to have these arguments or not. Mood is the real barrier to a breezy week. I can easily spoil a whole day by being pissed off about nothing.
SIG: I want to do something a bit different here: I'm going to pull a few direct sagacious quotes from How to Be a Husband and have you explain why they are keys to a successful marriage, starting with "Go to bed angry if you want to.”
TD: It’s often said that a couple should never let the sun set on an argument, but this doesn’t reflect my experience at all. Faced with a choice between a sense of closure and a good night’s sleep, you’re almost always better off with the latter. My wife taught me this: I’d be lying awake in the dark with clenched fists, and she’d be snoring beside me. It was clear who was having the nicer evening.
SIG: Next up, "True carnal open-mindedness extends to embracing the idea that run-of-the-mill sex is still worth having."
TD: It’s one of those things relationship experts say: that couples should try and have sex regularly, even if one of you doesn’t feel like it. I’ve just rephrased it so it sounds more like a desperate plea.
SIG: Thirdly, "As silly as the concept of the alpha male is, it exerts a certain tyranny over our thinking. We need to free ourselves from its shackles.”
TD: I don’t believe in the whole notion of the “alpha male” outside the realms of chimpanzee social hierarchies. It has nothing to do with the way humans behave; it’s not part of our evolutionary baggage. “Alpha male” is just shorthand for “asshole who makes more money than me.”
SIG: Fourthly (and I'm simpatico with you here): "My wife and I don't say 'I love you' to each other every day, or even once a month. I don't begrudge couples who do, but I would like to put in a good word for the ones who don’t."
TD: Not all of us can heave our hearts into our mouths so readily, and I’m not a great fan of that sort of empty incantation anyway. Personally I think saying ‘I love you’ to your partner twice a day is weird, unless your partner suffers from short term memory loss.
SIG: Lastly, "If marriage teaches you anything, it's that there is value in the occasional lame gesture and half-assed experiment.”
TD: I like quick-fix relationship remedies – four hugs a day, whisper therapy, that sort of thing. They don’t work, of course, but they do show you care enough to try some dumb idea you found in a magazine.
SIG: I was a stay-at-home-dad for four years, until my daughter went to pre-K last fall. Why is it that, in this day and age, it's still an anomaly where men are given either way too much praise or shade?
TD: I honestly don’t know – I certainly never deserved the admiring looks I got from passersby at the school gates. If anything I think the stay-at-home dad’s greatest contribution to parenting is our refusal to acknowledge it as a competitive sport. No, I did not bring cupcakes. I’m never going to bring cupcakes.
SIG: You have a chapter about being petrified of all the terrible things that could befall your three sons – you even take a punch because of it. What can I do to negate some of the unnecessary hypothetical probably-won't-happen worries about my little girl?
TD: The ‘probably-won’t-happen’ worries actually probably won’t happen. The things that do happen will arrive without warning, like a giant ice ball from a clear blue sky. I’ll give you an example: One time a giant ice ball fell out of a clear blue sky and landed in the middle of a soccer pitch, narrowly missing my youngest child. Seriously. How do you plan for that sort of shit?
SIG: Another topic you cover is the unctuous "movement" of Men's Rights. Is that a big thing in the UK? Strikes me as more of a macho American thing.
TD: There is some political party here called Justice for Men and Boys, but I don’t think they’re going to trouble the pollsters much. This world the MRAs live in – where we’ll all under the thumb of our feminist overlords – I don’t know where that’s supposed to be. I’ve certainly never been there.
SIG: What is different about being a husband and father in England than in America?
TD: There’s a little less paranoia about child-rearing in the UK. I think if I accidentally left a baby in a fish shop in America – as I once did in London – my fitness as a parent might be questioned. I mean by more people than just my wife.
Also I’m obliged to know a lot about soccer, and to call soccer football. I don’t know anywhere near as much about football (soccer) as I should, and it still takes up a tremendous amount of my free time.
Honestly, the real difference is the National Health Service. The NHS has probably saved the lives of at least two of my children, and the care has always been exemplary. None of it – including the three births – has cost me a penny.
SIG: Do you wish your kids had deeper ties to the United States? Do you ever feel like a man without a country?
TD: My kids do have ties to the U.S. – they have an expanded sense of nationality, which I think is good. I do sometimes feel a little alienated when I go back to the States – not foreign or anything; just a bit like I’ve been in a coma for twenty years.
SIG: What would you like to tell your twenty-six-year-old self who is about to quit his job and jump on plane chasing a woman he barely knows to England?
TD: ‘I know it seems stupid now, but do me a favor: take notes.’
SIG: What do you hope to be able to say about your fifty-year-old-self looking back on this Q&A, which I'm sure you'll do, on your seventy-fifth birthday?
TD: ‘I can actually remember that day. The pills are working!’