I have always related to the world by messing with media, in one way or another. As a teenager in the 1980s I made sound collages and mixtapes, and today I write books, produce documentaries, and teach college classes on popular culture. Wikipedia summarizes me as a “performance artist or ’media prankster’ who filed an application in 1997 to register the phrase ‘Freedom of Expression’ as a trademark in the United States.” Media saturate most everything I do, and they are also hardwired into the life I share with my wife, Lynne.
Given all this, I guess it was inevitable that our domestic lives would one day be filtered through mass media’s microscope. That happened four years ago when Lynne published an essay titled “Will That Child Step off the Screen and Into Our Lives?” in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. It was about us struggling with the question of having kids, and in the weeks that followed its publication we heard a running commentary from friends, acquaintances, and others.
“I was just wondering if you guys were thinking of having kids,” someone told her, “and then what a surprise to find the answer in the newspaper.” It was a touchy subject for me because you could justifiably take away the idea that she really, really wanted to have kids and I really, really did not. Case in point—the following two lines appeared in the first half of her essay: ” ‘You don’t want children,’ I said, trying to pin down if this was really the case. ‘No, I don’t,’ he confessed. Whereupon I burst into tears.”
This exchange actually did happen, but like many things said in the heat of an argument, it doesn’t tell the whole story. During that period, Lynne wasn’t necessarily dead set on having a baby, and, conversely, I actually like spending time with kids because they tend to be more entertaining than adults.
“If I had written the article four years before,” Lynne later observed, better capturing the ambivalence I was hearing from her, “it may have been, ‘Why does the patriarchy so tiresomely bombard me with all these messages that I should have children?’ Or a month later it may have been, ‘Whoa, I think I was just recently in the grip of some crazy hormones.’ “
It was an odd space to inhabit, especially because I didn’t know where to find the truth: in our private conversations or in the New York Times. Then Lynne reminded me that her 2,000-word piece—like all such pieces—by necessity streamlined the complexity of our lives for reasons of economy and storytelling. It was just a day-in-the-life snapshot of an ongoing conversation.
That made me feel a little better, but only for a very short while. This had a lot to do with the fact that, in the days after its publication, I was bombarded with unwanted advice. The Times’ “Modern Love” column requires the use of real first names, which isn’t a problem for Harry or Sally, but the name Kembrew made it easy for random breeders to find me on the Internet.
So when my newfound public inundated me with e-mail about the joys of parenthood, I guess it was karmic payback for all those years I spent manipulating media. Among other things, my costumed RoboProfessor alter ego once got into a verbal altercation with Bill Clinton, and earlier this year I popped up on the front page of the New York Times photobombing Obama. I even used some of my tricks to win over Lynne.
For instance, when we first started dating, I gave her a mixtape that included the lusty anthem “I Want You To Want Me.” Then I somehow convinced Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen (who wrote the song) to send her an e-mail saying Kembrew “wants u to want him,” as he ended up typing it. I thought it would be goofy, and sweet, but it was also, in retrospect, a little creepy. Instructing the weird-looking guitarist from Cheap Trick—the one who braids his goatee and plays a five-necked guitar—to contact your new girlfriend isn’t the most well-reasoned plan. But at least she didn’t pack up and run.
Another one I have to share: I wrote Lynne a power ballad with an absurdly wordy chorus that went, in part, “I know that the word ‘great’ trivializes and doesn’t do justice to the awesomeness that is you,” and eventually commissioned a music video of “Oh Lynne.” (Admittedly, my odd relationship with media is an exaggerated version of how pop culture weaves its way into everyday life; nevertheless, plenty of people use it as a way of connecting with others.)
For our wedding, we embraced the kitsch ‘n’ glitz. We got married in Las Vegas, something Britney Spears had just done, and our wedding announcement was a faux US Weekly gossip piece with the headline “Kembrew and Lynne Elope!” When we returned to Iowa City after our honeymoon, a colleague skeptically inquired whether our wedding was a hoax. I get asked this type of question a lot. Some friends even thought Lynne’s “Modern Love” column was some sort of elaborate prank, but in fact it was just a distorted funhouse mirror version of reality.
From my vantage point, it was fascinating to see how the editorial process transformed her essay. Even the prominent pull quote—If I get pregnant, I want a husband who is excited about it—framed the story by significantly stretching the definition of the word “quote.” She never actually wrote that sentence—the Times editor did, reconstructing it from a couple of Lynne’s paragraphs. They were just 13 words remaining after all the complexity was drained out of our lives, like freshly squeezed heteronormativity juice.
“One thing that bothers me is how I so definitively made myself a representative of a category: the category of the tragic childless woman,” she later observed. “When in my own mind, I was an aspiring writer who wants to be in the New York Times. Most people’s reactions were not what I hoped—’Great writing!’—but more like, ‘Oh my gosh I’m so sorry.’ “
After the unsolicited e-mails slowed to a drip, I realized how weird it was that I used the newspaper of record to fact-check my own personal situation. This was odd and ironic in light of my scholarly training—which taught me to think critically—and even more hilarious given my mischievous extracurricular activities.
The reason I’ve been thinking about Lynne’s New York Times column again is that at the end of the year, we are going to have a baby. And in case you’re wondering, from the moment that pregnancy test’s plus sign interrupted an otherwise mundane evening, I’ve been nothing but thrilled. It’s quite possible terror will settle in, but I’m always up for a new adventure.
I love Lynne more than anything else in the world, and I have plenty of love to go around for my new partner-in-crime: a RoboBaby for the RoboProfessor. Because of these media trails and traces, our child’s prehistory is now part of the permanent record. It’s an archived present that he can access decades from now—via hardcopy, Web link, or direct download to the brain. And for all our friends: No, this baby announcement is not a prank.