Saturday, October 31, 2015

So Penseroso, as told by a grumpy five-year-old


There's just something about Autumn and the waning of the light and a general chill in the air that makes all my strange grumpiness seem seasonally appropriate. I like these months, 'cause it's like the whole earth wants to just withdraw into itself and hibernate for a while, and not be disturbed. Summer is for extroverts. Autumn and winter? They are for me.

My daughter's an extrovert, but her eagerness to get into character for our third annual Halloween poem truly warmed my heart. In a chilly, curmudgeonly way. My dad used to tell this poem to us when we were little, especially when we started getting sulky.

So Penseroso

Come, megrims, mollygrubs and collywobbles!
Come, gloom that limps and misery that hobbles!
Come also, most exquisite meloncholiage,
As dank and decadent as November foliage!
I crave to shudder in your moist embrace,
To feel your oystery fingers on my face.
This is my hour of sadness and soulfulness,
and cursed be he who dissipates my dolefulness.
I do not desire to be cheered,
I desire to retire, I am thinking of growing a beard.
A sorrowful beard with a mournful, dolorous hue in it,
with ashes and glue in it.
I want to be drunk with despair,
I want to caress my care.
I do not wish to be blithe,
I wish to recoil and writhe.
I will revel in cosmic woe,
and I want my woe to show.
This is the morbid moment,
this is the ebony hour.
Aroint thee, sweetness and light!
I want to be dark and sour!
Away with the bird that twitters!
All that glitters is jitters!
Roses, roses are gray,
Violets cry Boo! and frighten me.
Sugar is stimulating,
and people conspire to brighten me.
Go hence, people, go hence!
Go sit on a picket fence!
Go gargle with mineral oil,
Go out and develop a boil!
Melancholy is what I brag and boast of,
Melancholy I plan to make the most of.
You beaming optimists shall not destroy it,
But while I am at it, I intend to enjoy it.
Go, people, stuff your mouths with soap,
and remember, please, that when I mope, I mope!*

~Ogden Nash

*There are other (slightly longer) versions of So Penseroso floating around, but this is one that I liked.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

On Mothering and Things Falling Apart

My dictionary describes "entropy" as
the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity
It's a definition that's both simple, and sobering. It suggests that as time goes by, the differences between things erode and degrade until everything is composed (or decomposed, as the case may be) of the same useless materials. It is a scientific inevitability. My own ridiculously cluttered household is sadly its own anecdotal proof. I swear I'll clean tomorrow (or the day after), but in the meantime entropy has reduced our once-tidy home to a container filled from end to end with useless stuff. Why? Because my domestic skills are in desperate need of leveling up. Perhaps also because fundamental laws of the universe conspire against me.

The first law of thermodynamics expresses the conservation of energy in nature. At first blush, I'm pleased by the symmetry in the idea that matter is "neither created nor destroyed." The second law, however, adds the observation that natural processes have a preferred, destructive direction of progress, and it's in application of this second law that entropy rears its ruinous head.

Entropy demands that things fall apart -- that complex or delicate structures inevitably crumble, their significance and potential effaced by the ravages of friction and time. We're too short-lived to see the way mountains erode down into hills, or stones into dust. But in every city, if you look in the places where people have given up their Sisyphean effort to repair and beautify, you'll find abandoned buildings, folded in upon themselves like the dried carcasses of spiders. The ruins of any ancient city are proof on a larger historical scale.

And entropy isn't merely physical. Chinua Achebe wrote about a kind of social entropy in his modern novel Things Fall Apart, as did Gibbon centuries earlier in his historical work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There are those who assert that all cultures and civilizations are doomed to dissolution, sooner or later. Forces dragging us down, individually and collectively, are a ubiquitous part of the human condition. It doesn't take long watching the news to see the truth of that.

And yet despite the quiet but inexorable forces of entropy, here we are. Making art, traveling to the moon, raising families. Distinctly creative, productive activities. There are those who argue that the very existence of life in the context of the complexity-squashing laws of thermodynamics is a miraculous paradox. Physicist and Nobel-laureate Erwin Schrödinger, for instance, grappled with the seeming impossibility in his provocative book, What is Life? In efforts to explain our emergence from a chaotic, "primordial soup," we quest for our origins through science, or through religion or through philosophy . . . but no matter the method, there's no denying the inexplicable marvel of each of us flaring bright like a match in the immense dark of an inhospitable Universe. It seems impossible. And yet here we are.

I started this essay thinking about motherhood, though you might never have guessed it. The thing is, nothing has ever felt quite so incredible as the birth of my own child. The moment that squirming little creature came to rest in my wife's arms, it felt like something absurd had happened, something that defied reason. The idea that we created something so amazing, something so complex and fragile, yet so full of possibility is, frankly, still hard for me to grasp. I can't explain how we managed it. And my wife's role in that, carrying and growing this little seed for nine months, is equally difficult to articulate. When she gave birth to our little girl, it was like she had battled the Universe and won.

So here's to all the mothers out there. You don't have to be a mother, or even a parent, to fight the tide of entropy. But there's something about what a mother can do that is powerful beyond explanation, beyond articulation, and it's worth commemorating. Anyone, parent or not, might make the world a better place by taking to heart the example of women who do the impossible.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dealing with hard things

I probably need to remind myself of this even more often than reminding my daughter.

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 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?

*Update 5/1/2015: Guess who has two thumbs and won the contest! Yeah, this guy. Thanks for your support, and don't forget that there are more monthly contests for you to enter and win!

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.