Operating Instructions

by Anne Lamott

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Reality of Fears and Joys

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As the title attests, Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year chronicles the first year in the life of Sam Lamott. The journal is filled with her son’s accomplishments, her own responses to motherhood, and the other things that are going on in her life during this busy year. For most of her life, Lamott has chosen alternative paths, particularly in dropping out of college and deciding to support herself as a writer. Although before Sam’s birth she sees herself as ‘‘much too self-centered, cynical, eccentric, and edgy to raise a baby,’’ Operating Instructions proves these doubts to be unjustified. Lamott writes about her awareness of both her responsibility to Sam and to herself, a linked responsibility.

The main focus of Operating Instructions is Sam’s first year of life. Sam takes the expected developmental steps, from lying in his crib to lifting his head, to rolling over, to crawling, to standing, and then to walking. He experiments with making noises. He touches things to learn about them. He develops emotional attachments. None of his actions are out of the ordinary, yet Lamott believes him to be the smartest, most beautiful, child that ever was born, a typical response. Lamott writes about Sam’s new tricks as if they are signs of a baby genius. When, at the age of two months, he learns to ‘‘comfort himself without the pacifier by sucking on his hands and fists,’’ Lamott declares, ‘‘He’s very brilliant, this much is clear.’’ She holds a party for his three-week birthday. She celebrates such important days as National Sam Lamott Neck Control Day by changing her answering machine message to reflect this momentous occasion.

Another response that Lamott shares with other new parents is feeling exhausted and worn out all the time. She jokingly questions why she had a child, even acting as if Sam were an item she purchased at the store, one that she could return if she decided it wasn’t what she wanted or expected. ‘‘Sam sleeps for four hours at a stretch now, which is one of the main reasons I’ve decided to keep him,’’ she writes when he is nearly seven weeks old. Other times, however, she records her trials less humorously. On October 14, she calls the Pregnancy to Parenthood 24-hour line. Writing with utter candor, Lamott records how she ‘‘told the person on the line that I didn’t think I was going to hurt him but that I didn’t think that I could get through the night.’’ Such a statement illustrates the depth of the strain that Lamott undergoes in caring for her child. The fact that this hotline exists for worried parents shows that Lamott is not experiencing uncommon feelings.

December 1 in her journal depicts the variability of her feelings. The entry for that day begins bluntly: ‘‘It has been a terrible day. I’m afraid I’m going to have to let him go. He’s an awful baby. I hate him. He’s scum.’’ Later that afternoon, however, she ‘‘fell right back in love’’ with him, and by midnight, she has concluded that the problem lies within herself, not Sam. She writes, ‘‘I don’t think I like babies.’’ In this progression, Lamott typifies any overstressed, sleep-deprived mother—in other words, any normal mother. The changes in her feelings are not Sam’s fault, but are based on the challenges that any new baby poses without meaning to do so. Lamott understands this, yet she still writes passages that sum up a new parent’s conflicting feelings, such as this one from November 22:

I wish he could take longer naps in the...

(This entire section contains 1479 words.)

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afternoon. He falls asleep and I feel I could die of love when I watch him, and I think to myself that he is what angels look like. Then I doze off, too, and it’s like heaven, but sometimes only twenty minutes later he wakes up and begins to make his gritchy rodent noises, scanning the room wildly. I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility, oh, God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.

Lamott also records surprise at how quickly Sam is growing up—again, a typical parental reaction. By January, when Sam is nearly four months old, she notes that he is changing every day, and moreover, that she is losing her baby. ‘‘He’s becoming so grown-up before my very eyes. It’s so painful. I want him to stay this age forever,’’ she writes. Clearly, a four-month-old baby is hardly grown-up, but Lamott is speaking in comparative terms, as a four-month-old baby bears little resemblance to a newborn. A newborn seems to just sleep and eat, but a four-month-old baby takes many developmental strides, such as showing cognizance of surroundings, making noises for fun, and moving arms and legs on purpose. Lamott’s reflection that she wants him to stay at this period in his life forever is typical, and one which she repeats throughout his first year. As she watches Sam grow and reach new goals and develop new awareness, she feels that she is losing him. In June, when Sam is almost ten months old, she writes, ‘‘I feel like he’s not even a baby anymore. He’s becoming a young adult.’’ This statement reflects back to Lamott’s pre-birth thoughts, when she already is worried about ‘‘that inevitable day when my son will leave for college.’’ This running commentary illustrates a theme common to all parents—the knowledge that one day the child will become independent.

Another difficulty that Lamott faces—and that Sam increases—are financial problems. As a writer, she does not earn a great deal of money. Her only source of financial stability derives from a few ongoing magazine columnist jobs. At one point, she records that she is down to her last $800 in savings and knows that she may be forced to borrow money from Pammy. Despite these serious troubles, when she focuses on the financial drain that having a baby poses, she maintains a sense of humor: ‘‘I’m not suggesting he’s a deadbeat,’’ she writes, ‘‘but I must say he’s not bringing in any money on his own. . . . it’s so expensive and time-consuming to have a baby, you might as well keep hothouse orchids. At least you can sell them.’’

Also notable in these journal entries is how, through her relationship with Sam, Lamott develops a new sense of self and of what is important. One day she uses Sam as an excuse for getting out of a party. After doing this, Lamott feels little guilt but rather a ‘‘tremendous sense of power.’’ In this instance, being a mother to Sam has given her the courage and opportunity to be true to her own needs and interests.

Lamott also becomes more aware of her relationships with men, which is an important selfdiscovery for a woman who feels that the men in her past have actually held her hostage to her desire to make them like and need her. When the baby is two months old, Lamott writes that she is still ‘‘so taken up by Sam that I don’t have to deal with men.’’ To Lamott, this is a positive benefit of motherhood. The next time Lamott meets a man with whom she might have previously become infatuated, she holds herself back. She now recognizes that any romantic or sexual entanglements will affect Sam. ‘‘It would be one thing if I could leap into a disastrous romance and it would be just me who would suffer,’’ she writes, ‘‘but I can’t afford to get lost because Sam doesn’t have anyone to fall back on.’’ With this statement, Lamott demonstrates her comprehension that, as Sam’s mother, she has a greater burden in the choices she makes. Her next comment—‘‘And I don’t have anyone else to fall back on, come to think of it’’—shows a newfound maturity that has been shaped by having to take responsibility for the life of another human.

Despite its subtitle, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year is more a portrait of Lamott than it is of her son Sam. In October, when Sam is about six weeks old, Lamott writes in apparent wonderment, ‘‘I just can’t get over how much babies cry. I really had no idea what I was getting into. To tell you the truth, I though it would be more like getting a cat.’’ By Sam’s first birthday, Lamott has changed significantly, learning more about herself and life through her relationship with her son.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Faith, Family, and Friendship

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In Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Lamott employs a mixture of humor and pathos, witty observation, remembrance, and anecdote to carry the reader through her first year as a mother. She tells a compelling story that highlights her complicated life issues and resilient faith. Equally, she makes evident the charity and support of a wide variety of friends and relatives who help console and sustain her through many ups and downs.

The calendar structure of the book adds drama to the often-exhausting life changes inherent in the first year of a mother-child relationship. Each entry is dated and usually includes a brief account of baby Sam Lamott’s growth and development. These entries are written in a way that allows the reader to gain considerable insight into Lamott’s ever-changing feelings and responses.

Lamott, at age thirty-five, painfully but successfully faces the challenge of sustaining her life as a writer while becoming a single parent. Her decision not to have an abortion, but to follow her pregnancy through, results in Sam’s birth and her own increasing sense of responsibility. She is not alone in this transition. By this time in her life, she has developed a sense of faith. She has already given up alcohol and drug addictions, and she now turns more energetically to a network of healing people, a sort of mutual aid society.

Lamott’s willingness to ask for and receive help represents one of the main themes of the book. She refers to the people closest to her as her ‘‘pit crew’’ (race car terminology for the people who maintain and repair a driver’s car and who look after the well-being of the driver, most crucially during the stress of actual races). She also uses the more general term ‘‘tribe,’’ a religious and anthropological metaphor for people who help each other at a deep level, to describe other friends and acquaintances from her church and elsewhere. To appreciate how far Lamott has come by the end of the book, one may usefully consider where she came from. Lamott reflects in many journal entries about her past: this is part of her process of healing and living in a healthier, more hopeful way.

When the journal begins, Lamott finds herself pregnant and abandoned by the father of the child. This unnamed man, more than fifteen years older, is the latest and (she hopes) the last in her long string of relationships with men whom she characterizes as ‘‘crummy.’’ But Lamott’s complex set of problems and issues go further back than any of her boyfriends. They originated from her complicated and difficult family. Situated in the San Francisco area, Lamott and her brothers John and Steve lived in a somewhat dysfunctional household with their parents, Dorothy and Kenneth Lamott. The children were exposed to a mix of left-leaning politics, intermittent Bohemianism, alcohol, drugs, and unconventional people. Lamott experienced many discussions and parties with her parent’s friends and acquaintances, including atheists, artists, and political activists. Lamott retained the social consciousness of her parents, but, feeling empty without a sense of religious meaning, she became a practicing Christian after years of stubborn resistance and selfabuse. Her faith plays a major role in the raising of Sam, and many members of the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church of Marin City, California, help and encourage her along the way.

Despite the complications her parents gave her, Lamott did benefit in two very lasting ways. Her father was a strong role model for her as a writer. He kept at his writing regularly, a disciplined habit that Lamott picked up and, despite various addictive distractions and years of self-sabotage, adhered to. During Sam’s first year, her novel All New People reached the point of publication and distribution. She also wrote a regular column for California magazine, kept the journal that became, in published form, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and was contracted to write another magazine column.

Lamott’s mother also provided a strong role model in one particular way: Dorothy Lamott refused to place herself second to anyone. She had gone to law school and had left the family for awhile and moved to Hawaii to pursue her own dreams. By the time Lamott began her journal in 1989, her father was long dead from a brain tumor and her mother was back in California helping with Sam. In the meantime, Lamott had increasingly turned to the rest of her tribe and pit crew to help her find her own way through life.

For many years, Lamott had turned to addictive behaviors to deny the sense of grief and loss brought about by her offbeat upbringing, her parents’ divorce, and her father’s death, and to avoid having to deal with internal loneliness and longing. Since the time she was a teenager, she had ‘‘tried everything in sometimes suicidally vast quantities—alcohol, drugs, work, food, excitement, good deeds, popularity, men, exercise, and just rampant obsession and compulsion—to avoid’’ facing herself. Finally, when she is pregnant, she faces herself and somehow manages to go on. Though she must do the heaviest work alone, she is consoled and helped by her many friends, one of whom, John Manning, is also a mutual friend of the man who abandoned her.

Three very important members of Lamott’s tribe and pit crew include her therapist Rita, her brother Steve, and her long-time friend Pammy Murray. Rita helps Lamott come to terms with herself and discover forgiveness, including the ability to forgive herself for past excesses. A recovering alcoholic and addict, Lamott relies on Rita ‘‘mostly because I had so many variations on the theme of low self-esteem, with conceitedness marbled in, the classic egomaniac with an inferiority complex.’’ Between sessions with Rita, the demands of raising Sam, and continuing at her writing, Lamott learns how to develop and protect her personal boundaries. She learns especially how to avoid distractions and how to be open to people who can and do truly help her. Lamott’s brother Steve helps in practical ways, provides comic relief, and serves as a reminder that not all men are ‘‘crummy.’’ Of Pammy, her best friend, Lamott writes, ‘‘I could not have gone through this, could not be doing it now, without Pammy.’’ When Pammy is diagnosed with cancer during Sam’s first year, Lamott is devastated; still, because of Sam, Lamott persists. Though these three people stand out, there are many others who help Lamott persist.

Finally, in addition to faith and the familial community of her tribe and pit crew, Lamott keeps herself and others going with her biting jokes and sense of humor. When not making fun of herself and her neuroses, she devotes many of her sarcastic quips to belittling a range of ‘‘crummy’’ men, including ex-sexual partners, a potential Republican boyfriend (she is a lifelong Democrat) from whom she decides to spare herself, and even George Herbert Walker Bush, the standing president during Sam’s first year of life. Lamott describes Bush as reminding every woman of her first ‘‘ex-.’’ Her passionate rage against Republicans is humorous as much for its excess as anything else. The diatribes against Bush also provide historical context for Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 does this as well. Lamott is able to see humor even during this disaster, for she recognizes and satirizes her obsessive concern for good reviews and sales of her writing even in the midst of the major earthquake.

Reflecting on her son’s first year, Lamott realizes that one cannot and need not be in control of all of life’s details. It is enough to have a grasp of the important things in life; beyond that, each day is a new adventure to be taken in daily terms. She paraphrases writer E. L. Doctorow’s analogy comparing writing and night driving, adapting it to life. At night, one can only see as far as a beam of headlights permits, but if one is careful, that is enough to permit one to successfully drive all the way to one’s destination. Lamott further contemplates and explores the main themes of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in two subsequent nonfiction works: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

Source: Erik France, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

The Deep Religious Underpinnings

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Religion, on the face of it, would seem to be the last thing Lamott’s Operating Instructions is about. Primarily, it’s about a baby: his face is on the cover, and the book’s subtitle is A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Lamott is pro-choice, dislikes Republicans, lives in San Francisco, and is a single mother with liberal convictions. The book is packed with pop-culture references and profanity. Only rarely does the author explicitly talk about God, and then often in a facetious way. But a good case could be made for Operating Instructions being an essentially religious book.

To understand how, it’s important to understand Lamott, both as an author and as a character in her memoir. Any author who writes about themselves, even if they are as truthful and transparent as possible, still creates a character for the reader. We do the same thing in daily life, every time we choose to speak in a way that we hope will create a favorable impression. Like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, we ‘‘prepare a face to greet the faces that we meet.’’ The character of ‘‘me’’ in Operating Instructions is far and away the most interesting and complex one the reader meets. The reader learns more about her, cares more about her, and is more involved with her than anyone else in the book.

Lamott’s character in the book can be contradictory. She is ironic, skeptical, and tough-minded, but also emotional and moody. She is intensely loving—with Sam, with her friends, with her family—but seems to despise herself much of the time. Her tone is primarily a humorous one, with many snappy one-liners and pop-culture references, but the content of much of her writing is profoundly serious.

It is hard not to feel, as one reads the book, that Lamott is talking directly to the reader as the days pass. One begins to feel as if he or she is a part of her extended family—the network of friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners who are helping her to muddle her way through Sam’s first year.

But is this necessarily so? Surely there must be decisions that Lamott had to make. What does she choose to tell readers? What isn’t she telling readers? Is there any part of her life that is being concealed? If so, why? And even if readers are getting the complete story, it’s only the complete story as she knows it.

This is especially important when it comes to Lamott’s religion. Her grip on her own identity is obviously very strong, even for a writer. And she has a laser-like focus on her son. But as Erika Taylor wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘‘At the base of Lamott’s experience is a deep, hard-earned trust in her self and her God.’’ But as with motherhood, religion is an ongoing learning experience. And this can be misleading.

Operating Instructions is definitely not a conversion narrative, like The Confessions of St. Augustine or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In those books, the authors have transcendent encounters with God, and are forever changed; the authors write from the point of view of people who have found the truth. Lamott’s religion, on the other hand, is clearly more of a work in progress. She is beset by doubts. Some of the most revealing passages in the book, in fact, show her inability to take her own faith seriously. Referring to the crucifix, Lamott writes:

I believe in it, and it’s so nuts. How did some fabulously cerebral and black-humored cynic like myself come to fall for all that Christian lunacy . . . It, my faith, is a great mystery. It has all the people close to me shaking their heads. It has me shaking my head.

Even as she makes these protests, however, Lamott stresses her belief in the fundamental tenets of Christianity: redemption, resurrection, and the movements of Providence.

Part of what makes her such an appealing narrator is that her faith, though strong, is so flawed and fallible, and wedded to what appear to be such unlikely non-religious beliefs. Lamott is an avid churchgoer, and considers doing Christ’s work to be ‘‘the only operating instructions I will ever need.’’ But she won’t go out with an attractive man because she finds that he voted Republican.

Likewise, she is alternatively beset by a heady mixture of self-pity and self-loathing (‘‘I’m mental and defeated and fat and loathsome and I am crazily, brain-wastedly tired. I couldn’t sleep. This is maybe the loneliest I have ever felt.’’) and lifted up on the highest flights of rapturous love and gratitude (‘‘Sam was baptized today at St. Andrew’s. It is almost too painful to talk about, so powerful, so outrageous and lovely.’’).

In some of her other books, most notably Traveling Mercies, Lamott dwells more at length on her faith and how she arrived at it. In Operating Instructions, she dwells on it more as background, with occasional flares, both positive and negative. In that sense, Lamott’s religion is more persuasively painted than if she spent the better part of her narrative discoursing on Christianity. It’s precisely because she is so back-and-forth with her faith, because she is so preoccupied with her son and herself, and because the whole period is such a roller-coaster ride for her, that we get such a deep feeling of what it means to her.

What is that religion? It seems to vary with Lamott’s emotional state. At moments of weakness or distress, she has the natural impulse of people in difficult straits—God as cosmic cavalry, coming to the rescue. Several times in the course of Operating Instructions, Lamott writes or prays to God to help her with specific financial or emotional problems— and is promptly, and positively, answered. This kind of religion is undemanding and innocuous, and seems at odds with the larger spiritual sense Lamott describes at happier moments: ‘‘I know we all only talk about God in the most flat-footed way, but I suddenly had that Old Testament sense of God’s presence.’’

At other times, Lamott frankly doubts her own faith. She looks back on all the years when she was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She feels helpless as a mother. She feels neurotic and unstable. She feels unworthy of her friends. At these times, her faith in God doesn’t so much waver as flicker in and out of the narrative. Some critics have taken Lamott to task for being so frustratingly indecisive and vague about God, about calling herself a Christian writer when she so obviously subscribes to no particular doctrine, and has such an undeveloped theological sense.

But this criticism is misguided, and misses the whole point of Operating Instructions as a work of literature. If Lamott’s feelings and perception of God change as she changes, it isn’t because she is weak-minded; it’s because she’s human. By being so candid and honest in this memoir, she opens herself to criticism of being unstable, flawed, an unworthy receptacle of divine inspiration. That’s no problem; it’s all true. But she never claimed to be a saint, or to speak for religious people everywhere. She is a religious person, and in writing about the things most important to her, she inevitably brings her ideas about God to bear on them. For a religious person, nothing of any importance can exist in a spiritual vacuum. And for a person who believes in an infinitely powerful deity, nothing of any importance can exist outside of the concept of God’s love and will. It’s an alien concept for many readers who don’t share Lamott’s deep-seated faith in the Christian God; but it’s one that is bone-deep in her writing and informs every page of Operating Instructions.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Critical Overview