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."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brave little bears

A short story, part fiction, with some bits of truth

“Get that out of your mouth!”

She looked up from the deer’s carcass, blood smeared from nose to chin, a chunk of meat clenched in her teeth. Her breath steamed into the cold winter air.

“Why?” she asked, pulling the stringy, dripping thing from her mouth. She stretched it between her two hands, straining to pull the single piece of flesh apart. "It's real chewy."

“It’s not cooked,” he said, setting his rifle in the notch of a tree.

“Bears don’t cook deers when they eat them.”

“Well, you’re not a bear.”

“I am! Rawr!”

He plucked the dripping gobbet from her hand and whipped it away into the forest, and she jumped about him growling and swiping with rigidly hooked fingers. Finally, she kicked him in the shin.

“I AM a bear.”

“Fine. But someday you’re going to be a grown woman and grown women do not eat raw meat with their bare hands.”

“Grown women have bear hands?” She eagerly made claws again.

“Not exactly,” he said, and then sighed at her crestfallen expression. He squatted on his heels and beckoned her. “Come here, little bear.”

He wiped her face with several handfuls of snow, an effort that deteriorated into a small-scale battle and left him sprawled on his back in a snow drift. She glared at him defiantly, wiping her cheeks furiously with the backs of her sleeves. He glared back as he struggled to rise, but couldn’t maintain his ire as he overbalanced and fell sideways back into the drift. He heard giggling as he struggled to extricate himself.

“Alright, get over here and help your old man!” 

In the resulting tug-of-war, the tiny giggler offered marginal assistance, but he maneuvered so she would believe she was doing most of the work. By the time he was on his feet, they were both breathing hard. He said something about her muscles, and she beamed up at him, eyes bright, cheeks rosy, and drops of blood spattering her coat. 

"How did it taste?" he asked.

"Not my favorite. I think I would like Rhinoceros better."

"I'm sure. Do me a favor, would you? The next time there's a dead animal on the ground, don't put any of it in your mouth."
* * *

His steps plunged into the snow, over and over again. For a while the girl had shouted directions to him from the sled, but now she was silent, and the only sounds were his rhythmic steps and the constant crunch of the sled over the snow. At a clearing in the trees he paused and let the sled come to a stop. He shrugged the rope from his shoulder and stretched, staring out over the valley below.

“What’s out there?” the girl asked. She didn't move from her spot, nestled in a bundle of blankets, the deer’s body stretched out beside her.

“Civilization,” he said.

"What's that?"

"Well, it's lots of people all crowded on top of each other, trying to figure out ways to live together."

“What kind of people?”

“All the kinds.”

At the foot of their mountain, settlements were sparse, but in the distance he could just make out the lights of the city winking on, one by one.

“The lights are pretty,” she said.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s good to watch sunsets.”

“Not the sunset.” She stabbed a finger out from beneath her blankets. “Those little lights. Where the people are.”

He grunted, and circled the sled, checking to make sure all the straps were secure, that the carcass was still wrapped sufficiently and not trailing blood in the snow. He pulled the blankets a little more securely around the girl. Wiped her nose with a blanket edge.

“Why don’t you like people?” she said.

“I like you. You’re a person,” he said. “Some of the time, anyway.”

“And mom’s a person,” she said. 

“See? I like people,” he said.

"But you don't like going out there. Where people are on top of each other."

"Well, I don't mind meeting a person like a bear or a moose in the woods. It’s nice to see them from a distance. Maybe you get close enough to wave. But you put a lot on the line when you get too close.”

She thought about that. He bent to retrieve the rope and looped it over his shoulder.

"I would get close to a bear. Because I'm brave," she said.

"Yes, you are," he said. "But then it's my job to protect you, and make sure you don't get too close. To keep you safe." 

He paused.

"The truth is, sometimes it's me I'm keeping safe. Your dad is a man who likes to stay on his mountain."
“I like your mountain. But I want to go down there,” she said. “I think I might like it, too.”

“I went down there once, when I was younger," he said. "It’s where I met your mother.”

“But then you came back up here.”


"Well, I would go down there, and nobody would scare me. Because I would be a grown woman. Maybe even bigger than you!"

She climbed off the sled, shedding the blankets. She stamped her feet and clapped her mittened hands together, a four-year-old’s version of calisthenics .

“I can walk the rest of the way,” she said. “I’m am getting big, you know.”

“I know.” She tramped in huge steps around the sled and towards the cabin, which was just visible through the trees, the glow from its windows a tiny beacon of comfort and warmth.

He glanced again out over the valley. And then smiled, as he heard in the distance a small voice shout “Rawr! I’m a bear!”