Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

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 Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night 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.

Guest Blog: Jennifer Thomas on Balancing Art and Parenting

Posted on by Alex in guest blog, music, Parenting, writing | 1 Comment
Jennifer Thomas is an award-winning pianist, composer and performer. In 2012 alone, she was nominated for thirteen various award, winning five.
Jennifer Thomas at the office.

Jennifer Thomas at the office.

She is also, like me, the parent of two small boys. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on balancing an artistic career with the demands of parenthood.

***

When I was a little girl, I had dreams of becoming many things when I grew up. One of them was becoming a concert pianist:  I would be on stage, dressed in all sorts of beautiful dresses, playing the piano for thousands of people.

I started playing the piano in real life when I was five years old and became quite good at a young age. It was my release into a secret world all my own. But the words of my mother throughout my teenage years always came to mind.  “How are you going to be a concert pianist and a wife and mother? You won’t, so I think you should think of something else to do.”

 

But here I am in my thirties, married with two young children at home, and I am living my dream.  And not only have I released three successful albums, but I’ve been able to perform onstage in beautiful dresses for thousands of people, walk the red carpet in Hollywood, and win some pretty neat accolades. And through it all, I still take my kids to the park, make them sandwiches for lunch, love them and tuck them into bed at night.

I sometimes look at other professional musician moms and wonder how they do it and keep it all together (because it seems they do a much better job than I do), and then I realize that they are just as human as I am and I feel much better.  I have come to accept the fact that I don’t have to be good at every little thing.  There was a time when I thought I had to be the perfect pianist, the perfect housewife, as well as the supermom who handcrafted activities every day and made perfect cookies, all the while getting in my hours of practice time, while looking amazing.

I would get so down on myself for not being all of these things! And then a very wise friend told me, “You can be a great mom, and you can be a great musician, but you can’t be great at both 100% of the time.”

She was right.

A more accurate depiction of my life would be that on some days, I am a really excellent mom. I take my kids to the park, we go on picnics, play games, engage in meaningful conversations and are extremely happy. My four-year-old will be up to speed on his alphabet and numbers, and my two-year-old will get lots of snuggles and books read to him. But I probably didn’t do an ounce of music on that day.

On other days, I will get my practicing in, emails done, projects started or mapped out, and my kids probably got to watch way too many movies on Netflix while I tried to get a good solid block of time to compose and orchestrate.  I will get caught up on some music projects, be on my computer editing quite a lot, or at the piano. And on days like that, I would say I was probably not the best mom.  But I got a lot of music done.

How do I do it?

1

Well, I have learned to excel at the things I am good at, and not stress over the things at which I’m not perfect.

I have learned to accept that it takes me longer to write music and finish projects now than it did before I had children – and I’m okay with that.

I have learned I can be a good example of hard work to my children, and I try to include them in my practice time and in my concerts as much as I can.

I have learned methods and ways to do things that work for our family.  For example, I can practice and compose with my children around (sometimes even sitting at the piano bench with me), but I can’t record or orchestrate with them there (they tend to push buttons they shouldn’t).  So my husband and I have formulated our schedules to accommodate uninterrupted “music time” for me each week. I have also learned that sometimes I may need to lose sleep in order to fit in that music time.

I have learned not take on too many projects where my family will suffer, and so I am much more choosy.

I am always making adjustments and learning as I go and yes, there are days when I feel I may go crazy, but this I do know: Music careers come and go, but my family is constant and I always try to put them first priority in my life. And I would say I am a better musician because of them, not in spite of them.

Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her thoughts with us.  Be sure and check out her music at her website.

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.

The horror of pink toenails

Posted on by Alex in fatherhood, gender roles, Parenting | 8 Comments

I’ll warn you up front, this is a rant. My last one was about the deification of Ron Moore. This one is a lot more personal, and also thankfully much briefer.

Apparently this J. Crew ad has been pissing people off because it shows a woman painting her five-year-old boy’s toenails. The ad quotes the mom as saying, “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink.”

Some of the outrage from experts:

“Propaganda pushing the celebration of gender-confused boys wanting to dress and act like girls is a growing trend, seeping into mainstream culture. –Erin Brown, the Culture and Media Institute.

“This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity,” –psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow for Fox News.

And a couple of representative comments from the public, courtesy of TODAYMoms:

“Ah yes… another unhappy mother who wanted a little girl but instead got a boy. Now she is trying to change him into what she always desired. Either that or she is a closet lesbian and she is trying to ruin her kids child hoods.”

“Shame on that mother and how dare she want her SON to wear anything feminine. He is a boy and should be treated and reared as such..PERIOD!!”

Thankfully, lots of moms and other experts have stepped up to challenge this nonsense; but now, because you’re here, you get to hear from a dad.

My oldest son is six years old. He loves swordfighting, playing soccer, Godzilla movies and the Green Bay Packers. He also loves Stevie Nicks and, as part of his fannish excitement, for a brief period he liked dressing up in billowing skirts and scarves while lip-synching to “Edge of Seventeen.” He also occasionally wants his mom to paint his nails.

Now, do the last two things cancel out the first four?

I understand that this “controversy” is basically the result of trolls looking for something to be offended by, rather than any real substantial issue. But it still irks me, because it’s one more example of adults co-opting aspects of childhood for their own ends. In my experience a five year old boy is incapable of gender confusion unless his family forces the confusion on him. He’s simply unconcerned with accepted gender roles, and has the wide-open ability to enjoy things whether they’re traditionally “masculine” or “feminine.” We lose that when we become aware of things like social embarrassment, shame and peer pressure, three joys of adulthood waiting in my son’s near future. And we lose some of childhood’s magic every time these trolls do something like this.

In the meantime, though, he’s free to enjoy whatever aspects of gender he wants, up to and including nail polish and billowing skirts. He gets the magic as long as he can.