And Jill came tumbling after. Why? Purging sexist kids’ stories.

September 22, 3017

I am Bunny

My mother has always been on the verge of serious hoarding. “Don’t throw that away! It might be worth something someday!” I heard that a thousand times. When Cozy was born, I was grateful. Stuff my mom had held onto for 50 years started to come our way, including my 1960s Batman sweatshirt. And a ton of kids books. Each one zapped my brain backwards. I just have to open I Am Bunny, and I’m sitting on my mommy’s lap, fascinated by the artwork and stories. And my mom read to me a lot.

I was excited to introduce Cozy to my love of books (Thanks, Mom!), so I wasted no time reading to my daughter. I took about two seconds to realize that the message that this father was sending to his girl was dramatically different than the one that my mother had sent to her boy. On the one hand it was exciting to see these books sold for only 39 cents when I was little, but on the other side the messages about gender were heartbreaking. From the time when Donald “Dotard” Trump thought America was “great.”

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Many of the stories are a continuation of the fairytale traditions from Hans Christian Anderson where some damsel in distress or dainty princess has to be rescued by a dashing prince. So much of the classic Disney filmography is rooted in this sexist trope that has, thankfully, been exploded by Frozen and Moana. These two movies mean so much to Cozy and now I understand why. (Mulan had too much fighting. “I don’t like this, Daddy. Turn it off.”) More of these books followed the domestic dynamic of the mid-century model. There’s mom in the kitchen. A legion of my friends reminded me how messed up the Berenstain Bears books are when you read them through a gendered lens. The same is true for most of the books by Richard Scary and Dr. Seuss. (But I still have a soft spot for Cindy Lou Who.)

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Even more books are just male-driven stories. How can my daughter find herself in Where the Wild Things Are? The imbalance really hit me when I was reading Cozy a book called Jumping. It’s about how much boys love to jump. Seriously. I grew up reading the adventures of the Hardy Boys. Will Cozy be left with the Bobbsey Twins? Was Nancy Drew a feminist? Can we get a 21st Century reboot? I do not like green eggs and misogyny.

It became a real struggle to find a book in the boxes that were arriving that had a female character that was somehow equal to the males, let alone in the lead role. Cozy was getting that in her contemporary cartoons, like Disney’s Elena of Avalor and PBS’s Peg + Cat. It was time to update my girl’s library. So we took a walk up to Green Bean Books.

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Cozy loves any store that has a “kids’ section.” She appreciates any space that is carved out for “kids not people” (adults are “people” – we have to work on that one). Green Bean is all kids’ section and she loves the feeling that it’s all there for her. (Wait, I’m smelling the seeds of a generation gap.) When I asked for a storybook for a three year-old, the clerk had the perfect recommendation, The Princess in Black. Cozy set down her book about dinosaurs and grabbed the book, plopped down on the little sofa and pretended to start reading.

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The Princess in Black is a five-part series by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale. It follows the adventures of prim and proper Princess Magnolia who sneaks into her broom closet to become… The Princess in Black; a superhero who fights monsters. Cozy loves both princesses and superheroes. (Ask her to do her Spiderman imitation.) Seeing her respond to this book was fascinating. It’s 15 short chapters, cleverly crafted, that we’ve read pretty much every night since we got the book. She’s got the whole story memorized and has even picked up on hints that our superhero may get a sidekick in future volumes – the Goat Avenger (aka, the mild mannered Goat Boy).

It was almost like a shock to the system after all these books about male characters, including Richard Scary’s male bunnies, to have a female-driven story. It must have been like women 200 years ago reading a Jane Austen novel for the first time. (I’m not equating The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate to Pride and Prejudice, but I kind of am.) As a male, I could read all these male-driven kids’ stories to Cozy and not notice the impact of it all on her, as girls and women were pushed to the background (and draped in aprons). But three pages in to the PIB and I saw the shift. She has a place in the world of stories.

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Of course, there is a debate worth having that this place is in occupying the traditionally male-dominated world of superheroes, which often relies on violence to solve problems.  The Princes in Black does open a can of whoop ass on a big blue monster. Sparkle kick! This is at the heart of the debate between liberal and radical feminists. Does gender equality mean that females should want half of the world that patriarchy created. When 50% of serial killers are females can we raise a toast and say, “Equality!” Or are their other ways of organizing ourselves that don’t don’t involve trying to beat men at their own game? As a parent of an evolving girl, I wrestle with this question. A female version of Trump saying she is going to “totally destroy” a nation of millions of people would not be progress.

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For now, story time will be about a consistent messaging that Cozy will not be marginalized because she is a girl. Andrea has been reading her Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. My mother sent a new book about Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, that Cozy fell madly in love with. And I know that there are now tons of others out there. (Please feel free to make any recommendations.) Seeing how my daughter responded to this one book pierced a gaping hole in my male privilege bubble. It might be time to put The Cat in the Hat on the bottom of the stack. What would you do if your mother asked you?

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The Need to Work

June 22, 2017

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It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.

And now it’s time for it to end.

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The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?

Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.

What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)

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Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?

I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)

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Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.

My crime: My wife was a former student.

That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.

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I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.

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Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.

So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans  have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.

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I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.

Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email: blazakr@gmail.com

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Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

2016: End of a Rough Year

December 31, 2016

I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so angry at a year, a manmade block of twelve months, like it was some independent actor. “2016 kicked my ass!” Granted, 2016 was the year that took away Carrie Fisher and gave us President-Elect Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump, but it’s not the damn year’s fault. We’re all glad it’s over, but there’s little hope that 2017 is gonna be any better as America suffers the results of the greatest con in history and deals with even more cultural icon deaths. (Can I get $20 on Hugh Hefner by Valentines Day?)

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On the home front, it was a wonderful year as I watched our daughter Cozy go from a toddling toddler to an articulate 2-year-old who is happy to argue that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really the same person/mouse and knows the proper usage of no, nope, and “No way, Mommy.” She can also sing “Hey Jude” all the way through. (Well, at least the good bits.) It’s been an insane year watching her transition from “baby” to “person.” A highlight of each day has been picking up Andrea from her job at the law firm and relaying what amazing feat she’s accomplished that day. Yesterday she put on a dress by herself and then put a little Santa figure on a spinning turntable and screamed, “Help, Daddy!” over and over again. Poor Santa.

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This blog has been a great way to chart both her development and the development of the world she is growing up in. I’ve been able to bounce back from macro to micro on a weekly basis. From her potty training to the terrorist attack in Brussels, it’s all been here, warm and fuzzy moments and moments of shear horror. Of the 54 posts in 2016, the most popular  (over 9,200 reads) and discussed (30 comments) was one of my several pieces on rape culture, entitled Why we can’t have good things: Men and rape culture (June 2). My favorite piece was actually written by Andrea, a powerful guest essay on her border crossing, that was latter published in the collection, A Journey of Words.

Donald Trump’s name was in the title of seven blogposts but, in a way, his tiny fingers were in all of them as he is the figurehead of the cultural backlash that our Cozy must live in. If Russian Stooge Trump (or Crooked Trump, either works) makes it to the end of his first term, Cozy will be six-years-old and we’ll be hoping there will still be public schools to send her to. Let’s hope there’s still a United States, as well.

There has been plenty of commentary on Cozy’s gendered (or non-gendered) development, as well as commentary on shows we watched while she was asleep or at her abuela’s (The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Stranger Things, etc.). A little bit about sports, Sigmund Freud, and maybe not enough about why saying “all lives matter” makes you sound racist.

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The blog has really helped me with my writing. The piece on Bowie’s passing was published in a magazine and two of my pieces on Trump, “Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity” and “Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump?”, were published in Counterpunch. Three of my favorite pieces were written far from Portland. My piece on Patti Smith was written in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York that she hangs out in, the post on the Orlando gay bar shooting was written in Washington, DC, and the piece about sexism in Cuba was written on a flight from Havana to Mexico. Like a rolling stone.

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Who knows were 2017 will take us. It feels like the Trump trolls, Trump billionaires, and Trump generals want to roll America back to a dark time where the freedom of anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis-gendered Christian male was just a far off dream. But I think they underestimate our will to defend what we’ve won and fight on every single front, including on-line. My sincere hope is that Donald will realize this job is a bit harder than he hoped and go back to his tacky gold castle after a few months of trying to understand how the Constitution actually works.

In the meantime, we will be raising our daughter to stand strong against the next generation of pussy grabbers that Trump has been fostering. We will travel, write, make art, and continue to rage against those in power who rage for the machine. And maybe dad will take a great job somewhere on earth to help move the wheels of justice in the right direction.

Here are the Watching the Wheels posts of 2016. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you.

The Kid’s First Trip to the ER: Anatomy of a Panic (January 4)

My Little New York Patti Smith Dream (January 9)

How David Bowie Bent My Gender (January 11)

I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting (January 20)

What does the Bundy militia really want? (January 25)

Violence is the answer: I’m over football. (February 2)

Pushing back against trolls (February 10)

A Valentines Poem for My Beloved Wife (February 14)

18 thoughts for Cozy’s 18-month birthday (February 17)

Ben Carson is not retarded: The language of marginalization (February 23)

A Coyote brought her to us – Cozy’s birth week (March 2)

Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump? (March 10)

Me and My Shadow: More baby brain fun (March 17)

Living in an age of terror: Brussels (March 22)

A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and The Walking Dead (March 28)

A Year as a Penniless Writer (April 6)

The Feminine Mystique: Stay-at-Home Dad Edition (April 14)

We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee (April 21)

Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy (April 28)

Farewell to my Good Wife (May 4)

Cinco de Mayo guest essay: A Conversation with the Serpent (May 5)

Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster (May 13)

The Millennial Effect: Here comes Generation Z (May 18)

Douchebags, Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The perils of wounded masculinity (May 25)

Why we can’t have nice things: MEN and rape culture (June 1)

Sometimes you really need a moment. (June 12)

Ode to a Gay Bar (June 15)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce fashionista for a fiercer world (June 22)

Dad Love 8 – I’m on drugs (June 30)

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The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism (July 6)

Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist (July 12)

The Casual Sociologist: Causally watching race and races from Mexico (July 26)

Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump) (August 3)

Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (August 8)

Feministing in Havana (August 14)

I found a 2-year-old! (August 22)

My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work (September 1)

So I Married an Alien (September 8)

The Princess Problem (September 15)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21)

How Donald Trump makes me a better feminist (September 28)

The Dream Police Are Inside My Head (October 6)

Donald Trump for President of Rape Culture (October 10)

Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world? (October 20)

What drugs go well with a toddler? (October 26)

My toddler has flown the nest and I don’t know what to do with my hands. (November 3)

11/8 > 9/11: Trump’s body count starts now (November 10)

Bring on the anal phase! (November 15)

Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty! (November 23)

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo (December 1)

Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar (December 7)

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel” (December 14)

Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist? (December 22)

Father Randy’s Top 20 for 2016, Back to Vinyl (December 27)

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel”

December 14, 2016

The second edition of my 2011 novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, just came out so I thought I’d write a little about the hell of writing it just in case you had a tortured artist on your gift-giving list.

The twentieth century ended not with a bang but a whimper. I was in the throes of a classic Randy heartbreak. (I hadn’t yet accurately identified the pattern or the appropriate response.) I was going through a divorce with a woman I had met in a poetry reading in Augusta, Georgia. We got married after the Atlanta Olympics and I brought her to Portland, mistakenly thinking that I was ready to be in a partnership and that she was ready to settle down.

I tried to comfort myself with the idea that it was just a “starter marriage” (A Gen X hot topic at the time), but there was a trip to Cannon Beach with the thought of hurling myself off an appropriately dramatic cliff. Long story short, I didn’t, but got into therapy and got on an anti-depressant called Zoloft. There was other suicidal behavior in my family so I began to wonder what that impulse was about and, more importantly, what was it that stopped most of us from actually doing it.

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Since I had been pretty successful as a spoken word artist in Atlanta, I thought it was time to write something longer than a poem. It was musician Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles who had given me a copy of Sophie’s Choice to encourage me to follow my fantasy of becoming a writer. Now I had the start of an idea for what might be an important book – Why is it so hard to kill yourself?

It’s not a rock opera

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Someday I’ll write a whole thing about the joys of locking yourself in the room in the days before the internet and even MTV and listening to record albums. Suffice it to say, I did it a lot in the 1970s. When I was 13, one of my favorite albums was A New World Record by the Electric Light Orchestra. For those out of the loop, ELO’s schtick was that they played rock music with a string section (like how Chicago had a brass section). Very Beatle-inspired pop that infected the airwaves. This album had songs with compelling characters, like opera singers and a guy on a telephone and an alien, and a mother on a corner with a baby.

My teenage brain, alone in my room, strung all the songs together into one long narrative. Maybe I was listening to The Who’s Tommy too much but I believed I was listening to a “rock opera.” It all seemed to fit together to well.

When I got a CD version of the album 20 years later I realized it was just a bunch of songs, not a concept album. But then I thought, “What if someone were to write the story I first heard all those years ago? It could be a rock novel!” Adding a few contemporary themes, like homeless youth and turn-of-the century-depression, and you have a new genre!

Late night on the iMac

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Between preparing lectures, going to shows, occasionally sobbing, and inhabiting Portland dive bars like I was Sinatra with an ungodly thirst for Jack Daniels, I’d write away. I was translating my funk and the world it existed in, trying to find the answer to this question. The ELO album played over and over as I used it as a template for my story about a small group of Portland creatives, a gutter punk with a baby and a dude who may or may not be an alien. I’d bash away at my aqua iMac as I lived with these people; Zak, Lenny, Cozy, Telly, and Lucinda.

By the last chapter, I had the answer. Why we hold on. And a wonderful story about the power of music to move us through the tar pits of our lives. On December 31, 1999, I took a draft of the manuscript into the desert at the Warm Springs reservation and read it as the sun set on the century. I burned the pages to keep warm and hoped my hard drive back in Portland was safe from the Y2K bug.

It was really the writing of it that saved me. During that period I also co-authored a great book on suburban delinquency, bought a house, weened myself off the Zoloft, and took a visiting professorship at Emory University. I suddenly didn’t need the book, until I did again. That’s when I self-published it in 2011. It’s done pretty well, getting some amazing attention, and now it’s been optioned by a screenwriter in Hollywood for a future film project. And it all came out of a moment when I thought there might be something better to do than throw myself into the sea because my heart got beat up.

Why we stick around

The answer that I reached on the last page of The Mission of the Sacred Heart is that we stick around to see how things turn out. In our deepest moments of sorrow, sometimes it’s hard to see the countless moments of joy and lay ahead of us. If I had jumped I would have missed so many blissful moments; drives across the country, being inches away from Patti Smith as she sang “Gloria,” seeing Andrea walk into a room for the first time, hearing Cozy say, “I need to poop,” and more to come. Why walk out before the movie ends? Even Speed 2 had a pretty cool ending.

The sequel to Mission, The Dream Police, is now out and getting a positive response. I thought it was time to clean Mission up a bit, fix the cover, and take out a few less evolved terms in the story. (Sorry history, “retarded weathermen” and “big boobed Asians,” as funny as they sounded, have been revised.) Mission had an important impact on some folks who were going through the same thing I was, so it has served its purpose, but it’s still a timeless story about those moments and how we survive them with the power of a good song.

I’m not intending to write a trilogy. The Dream Police may be the last time we see Lenny, Zak, and Cozy. But who knows? I just want to get these books to people so they can be as good friends to them as they were to me.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart is available here on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty!

November 23, 2016

Well, when they say “time flies,” they really mean it. Two years ago, Cozy was an infant, Andrea was off to work at Planned Parenthood, I was enjoying my parental leave from Portland State University and the country seemed in good hands. Now, Andrea is working at a great law firm, Cozy’s hanging with her posse at daycare, I’m looking to return to academia and the country is about to be handed to a buffoon who wants to use the White House to build his anemic hotel empire. A lot has changed since I started this blog.

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I’ve had a productive year as a writer. My second short story was published in an amazing collection called A Journey of Words, forever linking the words “ants” and “Uranus.” Most significantly, my new novel, The Dream Police, is out and currently being read by actual people. The first few reviews on Amazon are wonderful. It couldn’t have happened without the amazing support I got on Kickstarter. As if in a dream, when people asked, “What do you do?” I’d just say – writer.

The real great leap forward has been Cozy and her brain. Like last year, we celebrated her birthday on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. She turned two and her verbal skills just went though the roof! We went from a limited vocabulary (in both English and Spanish) to full sentences in a flash. Her brain is connecting concepts and linking them at lightning speed. Instead of “hat,” it’s now “Cozy’s hat” or “Mama’s hat.” Possessives! That’s huge! Pretty soon she will be jamming on verb tenses. It’s an exciting thing to watch evolve.

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I think any new parent will tell you, one of the best parts of this phase is that the kid can tell you want they need. When she was a screaming baby, we’d wonder, “Is she okay or does she just need a boob?” Now she can say, “Tummy hurt” and “Where is it?” (Which usually refers to Rocco, her beloved pet rock.) It’s liberating to be able to have actual conversations with this former-baby.

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She’s off to daycare now a few days a week and loves going to “school.” She puts on her little backpack and heads off for a day of art projects, Spanish lessons, and walks around the neighborhood, including past “the big castle” (aka St. Andrew’s church). When she gets home she goes to her books. “I’m reading!” she exclaims. My nerd in training. Have I mentioned her love of The Beatles yet? Just ask her to sing, “Hey Jude.”

This blog has been a great place to explore her development and the development of the world she is inheriting. I’ve tried to keep the focus on issues related to gender and feminism, but my work is also about racism and the abuses of power, so how could I not discuss Trump, Black Lives Matter, and yoga pants? The blog has had over 400,000 visits. The pieces on Trump have been most popular but my blog on breast feeding dads continues to get creepy viewers by the score.

There is definitely a parallel between Watching the Wheels and Cozy Blazak. Both can walk on their own and are learning to talk in world where it’s not given that we’ll just get what what we want. How will liberals advance in the Un-united States of Trumpland? How will a little girl grow up safe in a country where voters elevated the symbol of rape culture to the highest office in the land? There will be plenty to write about in the next year as we guide our daughter through this backward moment in out history.

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The biggest change this past year has been in me and my desire to get back to work. Andrea and I were in New Orleans last week for the annual conference of the American Society of Criminology. I was reunited with my colleagues who do research on hate crimes and terrorism. It was a reminder of how important my scholarly work is, especially now as we see hate crimes on the increase. I was just on a program on Al Jazeera discussing the climate of hate in Trumpland. It was a tap on the shoulder, reminding me that I am a global voice on this issue. I’m incredibly proud of how The Dream Police turned out but it’s time to get back into the trenches.

So come along for a ride on this 2-year-old toddler of a blog. You KNOW there’s some good stuff coming. At least before Trump shuts down the free media.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world?

October 20, 2016

There are plenty of books out there about living a “purpose driven” life. There also lots of rap songs about “keepin’ it real.” It’s basically the same thing. Are your actions in line with your values? Or maybe you’ve sold out to the Man, sold your soul to the Devil, or drank the Kool Aid. We want authenticity in our humans.

This presidential campaign has been full accusations that people are fake. Trump is not a true conservative. Clinton is not a real progressive. Ben Carson is not an actual brain surgeon. But all of us are vulnerable to this accusation. Our identities are works in process and constantly in flux. Nobody is a perfect anything. I’m a feminist but I own the soundtrack to Baywatch and it’s probably not for the music. Busted.

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We’re all hypocrites on some level; never quite living up to the vision of ourselves. Maybe not even close. We hate it when our favorite artist becomes huge and moves into a mansion in Beverly Hills, but we’d probably do the same damn thing. “I need more room for my rescue gerbils!”

I bring this up in this short blog post because it is an issue for anybody on the job market. Now that Cozy has turned two and The Dream Police is out, getting back to work is a priority. Since higher education has been eroded by the “new model” of declining tenure-line positions in favor of adjuncts and online classes, my next chapter will very likely be outside of academia. But what? I’ve been a college professor for over twenty years.

So that’s where the value check comes in. I’ve got two possible vectors outside of the classroom. The first is to do something rooted in my work around equity and social justice, or criminology. I applied for a couple of great Department of Justice gigs in DC, but the feds tend to hire from the inside. The other vector is that I get to write and get paid for it. Maybe The Dream Police or The Mission of the Sacred Heart (which is currently in the pipeline in Hollywood) will get picked up by a major publishing house. I’d love to get a paycheck to just sit in the coffee shop and write my weird stories.

I think I’d be really happy working in either world, but it’s not always that easy. Especially when you have a kid. And a mortgage.

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So you start thinking, “What else could I do?” I could totally be a letter carrier but it would be about a 50% pay cut from my last gig. I could run for office, but I’d have to vet myself, and that might get ugly. How far out of my comfort zone would I go? If I was offered a $100,000 a year position working for Monsanto, would I take it? (No) The Koch Brothers? (Um, depends.) Nike? (Oh, OK). I’m sure the CIA knows I’ve visited the “Careers” section of their website (not that I’d past the “Have you ever been a communist” background check. (But if I can, call me, girl!)).

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Before you judge me as a sell out, it’s like this – Yeah, I have down-for-the-program-and-up-the establishment values. But I’ve also got a precious daughter who is gonna need school supplies soon and I promised my wife I’d take her to Paris while she was still young enough to imagine living in an art studio in the Latin Quarter. So I might sell my soul a little bit. I think there are a lot of parents who have faced that reality and made the choice of the road most taken.

I’ve lived my dream. As a tenured professor I was fulfilled by my work every single day. I’m okay with bending the dream for my family. Maybe a socially progressive Portland agency needs a community outreach officer. Or maybe the CIA will hire me to neutralize the coming Trump militia. I could really be good at that.