Friday, April 24, 2015

If you build it . . .

Ever since we bought our home in December 2014, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about custom furniture and cool additions to the house. How 'bout a turret! Indoor built-in slides! Climbing walls, secret doorways, dedicated LEGO craftrooms! Ah, I can't kid you. I've been thinking about all of those things since we first moved in to rent this place, nearly two years ago. But now this house is ours! I can do whatever the heck I want to it (right Lindsay?).

To kind of put our signature on our place, I started with wall-papering our five-year-old's room with National Geographic magazines. Then I hung a rope swing from our rafters. After coming home from Dad 2.0 in February with a complimentary power drill (my first!) from Ryobi, I thought about what my very first power-tool project should be. With the stacks and stacks of library books that we routinely haul into our place and then lose, I settled on a book display for picture books.

It's no luxury piece, but it fits the vibe of our simple mountain cabin, and gave me a chance to flex my rusty (non-stickman) art skills. It also fills some dead space behind our daughter's door, and puts all her books in one place for when I suddenly realize I have thirty picture books that are three days overdue. And my daughter, bless her heart, clapped her hands over her mouth and jumped around in excitement upon learning the display was for her.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's the coolest thing you've ever seen. You're welcome. But it gets better: Ryobi is sponsoring a whole slew of contests for people to win some sweet tools!

The Contests!

I entered my book display in a contest just for Dad 2.0 attendees, and I'd be pretty stoked if you head over, register with Ryobi Nation, and send a vote my way.

Just imagine the level of coolness my creations could attain with something more than just a lone power drill. I'm new to this stuff, but I'm pretty dang excited to bring these projects to the next level.

But don't think you're just doing this for me (although if that's what floats your boat, go ahead and do it for me, I won't complain). It's for you, too. There are monthly contests for anyone to enter, whether at a beginner, intermediate, or advanced level of construction. And we're not talking about winning a screwdriver or a package of nails. We're talking $500 worth of Ryobi tools. All you've got to do is make something using a Ryobi tool and submit to a monthly contest, and BAM, you're in the running!

So head on over to Ryobi and start thinking about what your next big project might be! And a final question: If you were me, what would your next cool project be? Or if it's easier, if you were you, what would it be?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dad 2.0

I'm not the best dad.

Not because I compare myself with other dads. I mean, I do that, but that's not why I'm not the best dad. It's because I know myself; I know I can be better.

I do some things right. I'm good at controlling my temper. I'm good at brushing my daughter's teeth. I'm good at listening to her questions, and giving thoughtful answers. I'm good at telling stories and waking up in the night to comfort a sick little girl.

But there's tons of stuff I can do better. I want my daughter to have less "screen time," and I want to fill the difference with something special that we do together. I want to spend more time reading to her. I want to teach her the best practices of safety, both for emergencies and for dealing with adults and her peers. I want to minimize the electronic distractions that poach my attention during family time. The list could go on. If you're a parent, you're probably preoccupied by similar things.

I also have creative aspirations that sometimes run parallel to, but sometimes at cross purposes to my parenting goals. There are times when peeling an orange with my daughter sets us off on a collaborative, educational artistic effort. Or when Lewis Carrol's The Jabberwocky comes to life through her acting and my editing skills.

But then there are the times when I brush her off:
"Please go play quietly. Dad needs twenty more minutes to finish writing this post."  
or . . . 
"No, we can't research unicorns on Wikipedia right now; I need to get this comic done by the end of the day." 

I'm an artist at heart. I like to make things. I never really stop thinking about my next creative project. But if there's anything I've learned from studying the arts in college (double major in English and Film Studies), it's that artists are notorious for not managing their personal lives well. In an age where society has fortunately recognized the importance of involved parenting, and specifically involved fathers, someone like me is presented with a dilemma of priorities.


Percy Shelley and Lord Byron

For an illustrative but not exceptional example, take a few of the literary giants from the Romantic period. The English poet Percy Shelley (1792-1822) abandoned his pregnant wife to escape to Europe and seek out his muse with the sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron (1788-1824) would later use retreats to chalets in the European countryside to craft their most famous and beloved works. Lord Byron himself had fled Britain to escape an acrimonious relationship with his wife, leaving behind an infant daughter, whom he would never see again. While abroad, they pored over works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who sought (among many other influential philosophical efforts) to modernize best practices regarding child-rearing.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth

Both lauded and decried from different circles, Rousseau advocated the then-progressive thought that mothers should nurse their own children, but also declaimed that "unless women were domesticated and constrained by modesty and shame" that "men would be tyrannized by women." Add to that paranoid philosophy Rousseau's unfortunate personal biography, in which he had multiple children with a seamstress whom he brought into his home to be his personal servant, and it's not hard to see how Percy's familial delinquency reflected a norm. Another of Percy's idols, Britain's Poet Laureate William Wordsworth (1770-1850), fathered a child whom he did not even meet until her ninth birthday. And it was on that occasion that he announced to the girl's mother that he'd found someone new to marry, thus leaving her once again.

All of this is to say that many of the thinkers and artists whom we study and whose words we memorize have frequently found their creative muse in the context of neglecting their families, and privileging the time and energy and even superficial recreations that result in works of art. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Shakespeare's most famous and talented peer, once lived separately from his wife Ann for five years, with Ann filling the role of housewife in their humble home and Jonson staying at the residence of his wealthy patrons.

 Ben Jonson and Cormac McCarthy

More recently, our most critically acclaimed of novelists, Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933), who won the National Book award for All the Pretty Horses and the Pulitzer for The Road, demonstrates a life that is not so far removed from those of his famous literary forbears. He once asked his first wife, Lee, who was caring for a baby and tending to the house, to get a job so that he could focus on his writing. When Lee eventually left him, he explained that he couldn't offer her any child support because he wasn't making any money himself. Meanwhile, he rejected paid offers to lecture at local universities, not wanting to be distracted from his work. McCarthy's most recent and celebrated novel, the heartbreaking The Road, was inspired by McCarthy's relationship with his young son of a now dissolved third marriage. Perhaps McCarthy would look back on his past relationships with regret . . . but the privileging of profession over family remains a paradigm that the modern creative parent must deliberately and carefully counter.


I don't have perfect answers for how to be both a great artist and a great family man. It's hard enough to figure out just one of those things, right? Especially during the early lean years that most any artist has to go through, and the early sleepless years of parenting. As a stay-at-home dad, as the non-breadwinner, it's an especially important but difficult question to answer. If I have to choose between the two, I choose family over art -- but I continue to hope that the two can form a reasonable symbiosis, and I continue to be on the look-out for other artists who successfully make healthy marriages of family responsibility and artistic creation.

It's in this context that Doug French, a founder of the Dad 2.0 Summit, contacted me in January and asked me to speak on a panel at the 2015 Summit last weekend. The title of the panel was "The Creative Parent: The Right Strategies For Your Right Brain."

Of course my reaction was very professional. And if you're new to the internet lingo kids are using these days, tl;dr is shorthand for "too long; didn't read." After which I provided a brief summation of the main point of my reaction, in case I'd rambled. In any event, I was both honored by Doug's invitation and daunted by the idea that I had to somehow come up with the answers I am still searching for.

A description of our panel from the conference guide
Once I got together with my fellow panelists (the very funny Jessi Sanfilippo at Shuggilippo, and the recently published authors Chris Routly of The Daddy Doctrines and David Vienna of The Daddy Complex), we chatted about the difficulty of managing creative projects before kids reach school age, the great advantage of having supportive spouses, the importance of taking notes, and our creative goals and dreams. And yes, when push comes to shove, we agreed that family comes first (you can take a look at a brief transcript of our session here). There's more about "creative parenting" that I'll explore here in the future; for now, you and I can each muse about it in the comments.

One of the things that most impressed me about the Dad 2.0 Summit was how neatly it meshed elements of marketing and brand interaction with substantial conversation about being better parents and better people. Yes, there was that sweet LEGO-sponsored trip to Lucasfilm, and moments chilling with R2D2:


But there were also panels on dealing with depression, on how to mentor kids who desperately need father figures, on paid parental leave. In the midst of sponsors pitching their products, you had spotlight bloggers nervously but courageously giving voice to the trials and quiet successes of parenting.

And of course there was that emotional moment when Doug announced the naming of a new scholarship after blogger Oren Miller, a good man and beloved husband, and dad to two beautiful kids. He's got cancer, and in the autumn of his life, the last leaves are falling.

Perhaps, conceptually, I identified most strongly with something Jon Kraft (founder of Thrively) spoke about: the importance of encouraging passion (in kids) at the same time as teaching them balance in life. Balance and passion were two things I saw in the programming of the conference. A marriage of those two ideals makes sense for me, as an artist and dad, as much as it makes sense for kids. And it's a tough but worthy effort to get just the right amount of each.

Today, in the car on the way to preschool, my five-year-old asked, "Dad, can we go hiking today?" I thought about all the things I want to create and the time I'd planned on spending in front of my computer. And then I looked back at her, hope shining in her eyes, and knew what decision I needed to make.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stop growing up

So, my daughter just turned five. It's both awesome and tragic at the same time. And we just dropped her off at her cousin's house so that I can drive with Lindsay up to the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, where I'll be speaking on a panel about parenting and creativity. Lots of excitement and jitters. And I can't stop watching this video I took of Addison the other day. I miss her, and I kinda need her to stop growing up so fast.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Where are we?

If you've been following along, you know we've got a map thing going on at our house. A massive National Geographic donation from my in-laws meant awesome wallpaper for our four-year-old's room. And there was that post that got shared around the internet from that time I carved an orange peel into a map of the world.

Well. We bought oranges again, so you can guess what kind of project we tried. Lately we've been working with Addison to understand the difference between cities, states, and countries, because she'll say, "I want to go visit Grammy and Gramps in California." But even though we live in different cities, we all live in California.

So this time, a map of the United States. Addison can now pick out California, Utah (where we used to live), and Alabama, where her Papa and Nena live. And Hawaii, which is her favorite state.

We talked about what makes a state, and the order they were added. And here they are, in a never-ending animation. Like watching a washing machine go around, if you watch long enough, you'll eventually reach enlightenment.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day, a tribute to U2

Because today is the day I imagine all sorts of people going around expressing their undying affection for Bono and the rest of his U2 companions. U2, you're the best.

Friday, January 30, 2015

My favorite blog posts of 2014

Things slowed down on the blog in 2014, coinciding with settling into a small town in the mountains north of L.A. And I'm pretty okay with it being slow. Since we've been here, we've tended fires, skipped rocks, taken hikes, dug holes, and generally taken our time to enjoy things around us.

So even though it's been a slow year in some ways, some big things happened. To start, we bought our first house. HOLY CRAP, we're home-owners. It's almost like that moment your child is born and you start looking around, going, "now what?"

On the blogging front, there was that moment that my post about oranges hit the front page of Reddit, and it seemed for about twenty-four hours as though the entire internet was scolding me for 1. my strained metaphors, and 2. using a Mercator Projection as a model for an orange-peel map. Duly noted, internet. Duly noted.

And it's a little surreal, but also way, way cool to announce that I'll be a speaker at the 2015 Dad 2.0 Summit! When the founder called to extend the invite, it's possible I told him I might pee my pants. Clearly, it's gonna go really well.

Anyway, here's my round-up of my favorite posts of the year (click here for 2012 and here for 2013) with brief commentary from me and my four-year-old:

My favorite blog posts of 2014 

Me: Now that we own our home, I can't help looking all around and thinking of all the cool projects I can do to really make it ours. This was a fun start.

My four-year-old: "Those maps are pretty. They tell me about the world. My favorite one is the Hawaii one."

Me: We've made something of a tradition to do a poem every Halloween (the year before was Poe's "The Raven"). I love doing these with my daughter, 'cause she really gets into them. She's pretty much the cutest Jabberwocky slayer ever.

My four-year-old: "The claws that snatch, the jaws that bite! Beware the Jubjub bird!"

Me: In which we discover my daughter's new favorite outdoor activity: getting buried up to her chin in the dirt so that pirates can find her and dig up this four-year-old pirate treasure.

My four-year-old: "I'm kicking that dirt. I feel pretty good about that. I like to be buried in the dirt, because it helps me to hide from pirate dad."

Me: I really enjoyed this one. I think it came out pretty well, despite inadvertently using the much-reviled Mercator Projection. And thanks, Reddit, for the constructive criticism.

My four-year-old: "That looks like a world made of orange peels. Hey! I see the United States!"

Me: This was my wife's first guest post on my blog, and it shows why I married this amazing woman. 

My four-year-old: "That looks like you and me walking together in a corn field. Just walking, and just holding hands, talking about princesses."

Me: My very first post about a product, and in true Neal fashion, my metaphors abound. And of course I invoke Pablo Neruda. 

My daughter: "Am I eating something? Maybe it is a deer. Which makes the deer sad. Sorry, deer."