Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

Posted on by Alex in alcohol, biography, children, family, fatherhood, home, memoir, Parenting, tennessee, Uncategorized, west Tennessee | 4 Comments

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You’re Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank).

When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind me. We never hunted anything epic, like deer or bear; we went after squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional quail.  And, in the hot summer months, we went frog gigging.

This sport (and I used the term loosely) is how you acquire frog legs. You carry a long, six-to-eight-foot pole with a barbed trident on the end. You also use a flashlight, or ideally a miner’s light worn on your head, and creep around the edges of ponds, lakes or swamps in the dark.  The goal is to spot eye shine from bullfrogs.  When you do, you hold the light on it, to make it stay still. Then you stab it with the gig.

Frog Gig on Stick

The business end of a typical frog gig.

I was one of those weird kids who liked to catch frogs rather than kill them, and had no real taste for their meat.  It was fun, in a macabre way, to watch the disembodied legs jump around in the pan as they fried, but not so much fun that I wanted to go get those legs myself.

The other issue was that my father had to be the worst person in the world to try to teach you anything.  He had no patience, no concept of cause and effect, and no idea why once he’d explained something, it might need to be explained again.  And he was a drunk.  Not an overt one, but one of those sneaky drunks who hid his drinking from everyone.

So on those few instances when he’d insist that I go frog gigging with him, I was a nervous wreck.  His disappointment in me was never violent, but it was always withering, and heavy with the sadness that I, his only son, was such a failure.

My dad (far left) and me (second from right) at about the time of this story.

My dad (far right) and me (second from left) at about the time of this story.

I was twelve years old the night we went to a pond that seemed to be miles from where we left his old station wagon. We crawled through weeds, under fences, and across fields before finally reaching the tiny round pool, which was no more than forty feet across and perhaps six or seven feet deep. The deep thrump-thrump of bullfrogs told us we’d come to the right place.

We fired up our head-mounted lamps and split up, each of us taking a different direction around the pond. We had to walk right at the edge of the water, and shine the light ten or fifteen feet ahead, watching for the distinctive eye shine.  I heard the snick-THUNK! of my dad’s gig right away, while all I managed to do was startle every frog within range.  They leaped from the shallows and dove gracefully into the safer, deeper water.

Finally, though, I spotted one that was big enough, and transfixed by my light.  I crept through the weeds until I emerged onto a flat patch of mud, almost in range.

Then something moved in the corner of my eye, by my feet.  I tried to look down without moving the light off my quarry.  It wasn’t a frog, and it was the wrong shape for a turtle. My brain classified it at the same instant my head involuntarily turned and shone my light on it.

It was a snake. A fat, poisonous water moccasin.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

I had no time to react, because it was already reacting.  It struck out and sank its fangs into my foot, right through my rubber wading boots.

I’m not a courageous person by nature, and I certainly wasn’t brave then.  My recently-descended testicles shot back up to their original spot, and my voice grew high and shrill as I screamed, “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  I jumped in the air and tried to kick the snake away, but it was well and truly determined not to let go.

My dad ran over to me as fast as he could, saw the snake and quickly stomped on it.  Then he pushed me down on the bank, tore away my wading boot and ripped off my sock, exposing my foot.

My entirely bite-free foot.

We both stared at it, pasty white in the combined illumination of our lights.  I wiggled my toes.

Then my dad picked up my boot.  The snake hung from it, smashed and dead, fangs still caught harmlessly in the rubber seam where the sole attached.

We went home after that.  Dad had gotten enough frogs anyway, and I waited for my testicles to decide it was safe to come out again.  I’d like to say this marked some sort of change in our relationship, but it didn’t.  Since I don’t know how drunk he was that night, I have no real idea if he actually remembered it the next day.  And I’d like to think there was some sort of symbolic aspect to it, mirroring our relationship.  But truthfully, it was just one more instance of a man with too many problems and a son with no appreciable life skills failing, as always, to meaningfully connect.

Dad's Cross

This cross was put up in honor of my dad’s service to his church.

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.


Pout Pout 1


So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2


I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.


Pout Pout 3


This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4


The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…


Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

The Blurring of Lines

Posted on by Alex in anthology, biography, children, family, gender roles, Parenting, politics, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Recently, while reading the Janet Sternburg-edited collection The Writer on Her Work, I had an unexpected epiphany (I know, epiphanies are always unexpected, but work with me). It was the realization that my life in 2012 is almost exactly Anne Tyler’s in 1980.


Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist, contributed the book’s first essay, “Still Just Writing.” It begins with a list of all the real-world mundane events and responsibilities that keep her from writing when she wants to.  The parallels with my own life right now–I’m the stay-at-home parent (or is the term “primary caregiver”? I can never remember) for two small children, and I write between events such as school, martial arts practice, acting class, various playdates and so forth–are pretty strong.* And I’m not the only one of my male writer friends in this situation.

The C-in-C back when we were full-time co-workers.

In all the essays in the book, the role of women in society forms a strong undercurrent. Comments from famous male authors explaining why women can’t be great writers (imagine hearing that in a college classroom now) are related, and examples from the past (Honor Moore’s tale of her grandmother who gave up painting because it was “too intense” is really fascinating) show how creative women struggled against both society and their own sense of isolation. In 1980 these struggles continued, but all the writers in the book have reached a point where they understand their desire to write is both irresistible and entirely acceptable, society be damned.

Now, the big difference with the life Tyler describes is crucial: thirty years ago, her life was the norm. It was what society expected women to do. It’s neither normal now, nor unheard-of, for the man to be the primary caregiver while the woman works out of the home.  It is, in fact, a time when all the old roles described in Sternburg’s book are starting to twist and mutate.  And sadly but perhaps inevitably, it’s being driven by economics, not social justice.

In fact, particularly within the so-called “creative community” of contemporary (and internet-linked) writers, artists and musicians, the traditional roles that Sternburg’s book discusses have certainly lost their edges, if not broken down entirely. Men can no longer find jobs lucrative enough to support their families; two incomes are the standard. In my case, my last full-time non-writing job did not pay enough to cover putting my youngest son in day care when he was a newborn. So I gratefully took the chance to become a full-time stay-at-home father, as well as a full-time writer. Both, for me at least, have paid off more than ever anticipated.

But are these changes permanent? Unless there’s a total collapse, eventually the economic system will recover, and jobs will become both better and easier to get. What happens to all these nontraditional families then? When the soldiers came back from World War II, women didn’t necessarily want to leave the work force to give the men back their jobs. And from that, eventually (it’s a hugely simplified explanation, I know) came the first modern feminist movement. So when jobs are again available, will men want to give up raising their kids to return to the traditional workplace?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But in the meantime, The Writer on Her Work has me looking at myself and my family with a whole new appreciation.

*Of course I don’t have her talent. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Rant: the Penn State Penalties

Posted on by Alex in children, corruption, economy, evil, family, pop culture, violence | 5 Comments

I’ve been following the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case since it broke. The Freeh report, which explicitly blamed Sandusky’s continued ability to molest children on the deliberate actions of those in power at Penn State, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno (arguably the most powerful man on campus), led to unprecedented penalties against the university and its football program. And it should: supporting and covering up a child molester, knowingly allowing him a decade’s worth of freedom to continue his vile crimes, deserved the harshest penalties possible.

And yet, there are apologists. There are people who think this punishment is unfair, that it tarnishes Paterno’s “legacy.” To them, I say, wake up: this is Paterno’s legacy.

But the thing that irks me most about their arguments, the thing that most makes me want to slap these people, is this:

It’s a children’s game.

This detail has gotten lost in the minutiae of the Sandusky/Paterno affair, and the Penn State response, but it’s crucial. Football may be played by adults, but it’s a children’s game.

Think about the vast amounts of money given to these men for coaching and playing the same game any eight-year-old plays. Yes, they play it better, but it’s the same game. We support, indulge and overlook horrendous conduct by these people, for playing a damn children’s game well. We’ve destroyed our higher education system, once the envy of the world, by pouring all the university money into a goddamned children’s game.

In the article linked above, Ujas Patel, who heads the Penn State alumni association chapter in London, says the NCAA penalties unfairly target the future of the football program that he described as vital to the university. The fact that a football program is vital to a university, more vital apparently than abused children, shows just how out of whack our cultural priorities have become.

The next time you watch a football game, college or pro, ask yourself how your life changes based on the outcome. Unless you’re part of the economic chain directly connected to it, the answer is: not at all. The winning or losing of a children’s game doesn’t, and shouldn’t, ultimately matter in the real world.

The fact that it does, and the fact that grown men considered it more important than raped children, is something that every coach, player and fan of every sport should think about.

"The Somber Enemy"

Posted on by Alex in children, writers, writing | 3 Comments

Thanks to Rita Mae Reese for suggesting this blog post.

One side-effect of being a full-time writer is that I’m also the stay-at-home parent for my two sons, ages 5 and 2. They impinge on every single moment of my day, especially the younger one, since he’s underfoot almost constantly. My wife works in an office 45 minutes away and spends her days conversing with adults; I know way, way too much about The Fresh Beat Band.

A famous poet–I’ve searched and searched, but can’t find the actual quote–said something to the effect of, “My poems are short because I have children.” Man, do I sympathize. I’ve gone from entire days of sitting lazily in my underwear writing page after page, to scrambling to get my thoughts down during the twenty-three minutes of Ni Hao Kai Lan. Most everything you read by me these days (including this blog post) started as a brief note typed into the body of an e-mail on my tiny Acer, chosen because it fits in the younger son’s diaper bag. I’ve had to master the trick of writing amid hoardes (okay, only two, but they’re overachievers) of children screaming, running, drumming and fighting. I can stay reasonably on task while simultaneously shouting things like, “Get the lightsaber out of your nose!” But I wouldn’t call it easy.

(The Squirrel Boy, pre-nasal insertion.)

Of course I worry that it’s going to show in the final product. A writer’s greatest tool is his/her ability to concentrate, and mine is dangerously overextended. Will my next novel be a sloppy compendium of half-assed ideas that I simply lacked the energy and opportunity to polish before deadline? Obviously I hope not, and I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen. But I have no problem imagining that to be the case. Cyril Connolly said, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” and on my worst days I see the chilling wisdom in that.

But luckily, there’s a significant upside. One is motivation: knowing that you have tiny helpless human beings dependent on you is great for kicking your ass into gear. The other, surprisingly, is clarity. When you realize that what you write today is part of the legacy you’ll leave your children, then it helps keep you focused on what you really need to do. I may never write a best-seller, but I feel that my published work will let my sons know me better when they’re adults.

And if I do happen to write a chart-topper, I’ll have a clear conscience about it.

(The C-in-C expresses his critical opinion of one of my first drafts.)

Reunions, part 2

Posted on by Alex in children, daughters, love, Reunion, seperation | 5 Comments

This is a very personal post, one I never thought I’d get to write.

Many years ago, nearly two decades by now, I met two young ladies and fell in love.

Holly was three when I first saw her; Brandi was a newborn. The lack of biological connection was never a factor. When you open your heart to a child, it never fades or changes. You always love them. And for six years, they were the most important thing in my life.

Alas, to paraphrase the song “Memphis, Tennessee,” “We were torn apart because [their] Mom did not agree.” And for twelve years I had no idea what had become of them. I could only hope they remembered me, and that one day I would have the chance to tell them I loved them.

And at last, I had that chance.

Thank you, Brandi, for finding me on the Internet. And thank you both for remembering that I love you.

Less Than Meets the Eye

Posted on by Alex in children, evil, marketing, toys, Transformers | 1 Comment

Recently a friend mentioned that she loved the Transformers movie, and I said I disagreed. When she pressed me for an explanation I demurred, for a couple of reasons: I wanted to marshal my thoughts with more clarity, and I didn’t want to sully an otherwise delightful group lunch with what could easily become a semi-coherent rant.

But yes, I hated the Transformers movie. It goes beyond my dislike for director Michael Bay, who is only Uwe Boll with a megabudget. It’s more than my dislike for the charmless, gormless Shia LeBeouf. As pretentious and snotty as this may sound, I hate the Transformers on moral grounds.

Here’s why. The original Transformers were Japanese toys first.

Then the animated U.S. show was created around them. That made the program essentially a commercial aimed at the members of our society most vulnerable to advertising, children. And, since it debuted in the ultra-materialistic Eighties, it was a huge success, paving the way for many Japanese shows designed strictly to sell tie-in products (Pokemon, Digimon, Cardcaptors, etc.).

Consider why this is wrong. There has always been tie-in merchandise connected to popular art, going back, I believe, to Dickens, who called it the “Whoosh.” But the merchandise always came after. Something hit the public consciousness and then was exploited, often far beyond the line of tacky. Just look at the things Lucas has licensed for Star Wars over the last thirty years. Yet Star Wars came first, then the toys and bedsheets. Transformers cynically reversed that, and then took aim at kids far too young to know their chains were being yanked. In the process, it altered the whole concept of childrens’ programming, which up until then at least had to pay lip service to the concept of educating its viewers.

Creating what is essentially a half-hour toy commercial, then disguising it as a “tv show” aimed at the least discriminating audience demographic, is a form of societal child abuse. Parents aren’t blameless in this–after all, they paid for the toys. But it inculcated a whole generation with the idea that nothing of value exists if it isn’t accompanied by a parade of merchandise. The experience of enjoying something on its own has been subsumed in the desire, culturally across the board, to acquire things inspired by it.

So now we have Transformers, the live action movie, which actually starts with the credit “Paramount Pictures and Hasbro present…” It stars this week’s Sexiest Woman Alive (Megan Fox), features state-of-the-art effects and, as most movies aimed at children do nowadays, pushes the sex and violence as far as its PG-13 rating allows. It cost $151 million to make, and grossed over $700 so far.

Think about those numbers, and think about the state of the world today. Think what the initial investment could’ve done for, say, victims of Hurricane Katrina. Think what a difference the box-office returns would make if they were given to, say, famine relief. Now think about that money poured instead into a toy commercial.

Yes, movies are made to turn a profit. Yes, the same complaints could be made for all big-budget fantasy epics, from Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Dark Knight. But goddamn, people: it’s not a cultural icon like Superman or a beloved franchise like Indiana Jones, it’s the goddamned Transformers, created for no other reason than to sell toys. Yes, there’s more than meets the eye here, and it’s the utter blank core of the typical American satisfied to become part of this obscene, in the truest sense of the word, revenue stream.

And that is why I hate the Transformers.

And it appears I’m not alone.