My best friend is 4

August 17, 2018

When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, illusion of the “happy homemaker” was forever shattered. Women were more than “Mrs. Joe Blow,” finding a sublime happiness in a spotless house with dinner on the table at six sharp. Feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith wrote that women were given the domestic sphere of the home so men could occupy the whole of the public sphere. Suddenly, the word was out and girls and women said, “I’m coming out into the wide word. Time for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” (Forever love to our queen.)

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My experience flipping the script and becoming a house husband while my wife went off to work at various Portland law firms revealed some unexpected truths. Expectedly, as Friedan would have predicted, I hate housework. The reality of the that drudgery came rather quickly. But I’ve found a sense of fulfillment out of getting dinner on the table. The thrill of the grocery store hunt for ingredients (“Excuse me. Is pesto a spice?”), the kitchen assembly (while this week’s Spotify Discover Weekly playlist plays behind the Food Network website), and then the ultimate cliffhanger (Will they eat it??). John Lennon once said that, when he became a house husband, preparing a meal that his wife and child actually liked was better than making a hit record. I can totally relate, John. All we are saying is give pasta a chance!

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But the other part that has crept in is the intense bond I have built with my child, who turns four today. That moment when we brought her home from the wild ride of her birth, she was just this helpless little blob that looked like my father but acted more like a slug than a member of the family. In those four years she has become a full-fledged person with the world in her sticky palm. Yeah, she’s cute but,  yeah, she knows how to work it. Somehow she picked up on the social lessons of how to work a room. She’s got work to do before she truly understands how to win friends and influence enemies. She’s still fairly id driven – “What can you do for me? That might work for our emotionally stunted president, but we want her to ask, “What can I do for you?” I guess, until then, she’s just half-fledged.

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My wife can see the bond between Cozy and I. We have our own secret language (called Kupa Sana) and her weird hand mannerisms are the same as mine. (Sorry, kid.) We fill our days with adventures. This week we spent some time wandering around Lone Fir Cemetery, full of nineteenth century headstones of Oregon pioneers and twenty-first century headstones of Russian immigrants who lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet empire. We talked about life and death and how we can be sad when people die but happy because their memories surround us. “You mean, the spirits of all these dead people are floating around here?” she asked. I was worried that the death conversation would traumatize her, but, instead it gave her a sense of calm. I guessing that’s because she’s half Mexican (and really loved Coco).

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A few days later we trucked up to Sauvie Island to pick blackberries on an organic farm. The smoke from the west coast wildfires hung low, but we lost ourselves in rows and rows of sweet berries, learning which ones were sour (“Daddy, this one’s not ready. Can I spit it out?”) and which ones were perfectly sweet. We were in a little cubby hole of fruit, with the occasional tiny green frog crossing our path, laughing and eating more berries than we were putting in the bucket. Her face and hands were purple and I had a moment where I thought she had been sent to me from another dimension to help me connect the real world to the one that exists in dreams.

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It’s strange having such an intense connection to a child. Andrea is right in that we celebrate Cozy as the intersection of that’s everything that’s right about us. We had to bust through some seriously evil roadblocks just to be a couple. Cozy represents everything that is pure about our desire to be together. Her birthday is a reason to celebrate what a good job we’ve done. But she’s also her own entity that’s full of depth and wonder separate from us. Last night we took Cozy to see a band recreate The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ album and on the first note of the third song she screamed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!” This is my child. I vowed not to be the parent in “She’s Leaving Home” and held her tight.

Each moment of these four years has been a gift. I wonder about the fathers who see the “domestic sphere” as an alien, feminine space. Do they know what they are missing? Do they know the unadulterated thrill of having a child say, “Daddy, you make the best spaghetti ever!” (even when you know that they’ve only had spaghetti made by you). As much as I’m ready to return to full-time public life, this experience has given me a great friend and expanded my soul. I might not know who’s playing in town this weekend, but I know someone who digs nature walks,  old Batman episodes, and endless blackberries, and that’s cool enough for me. Happy birthday, Cozy Pozy.

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The World of Wonder in the Backyard

July 20, 2017

When I was little, I know I could look at a three-inch space on the ground or on a brick wall and find a whole world to become enchanted with. My parents had a massive hifi console in our living room. I’d play their records and stare into the blue “On” light on the base and imagine it was the rabbit hole into Alice’s Wonderland. I would plop down in my mom’s rock garden and find magical realms in the cracks and under leafs. Being small gave me a microscopic view of the world I think the adults missed. They were busy thinking about taxes and war and hippies ruining the nation. I was happy staring endlessly at ladybugs and pretending a peanut shell in a puddle was a speedboat.

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Once Cozy started walking we began going on strolls in the neighborhood to “see what we could find.” There were lots of stops to smell flowers and look for honeybees. The wall at Little Big Burger she is particularly fond of. (She gives it a little big hug every time we pass it.) Every step is filled with a reason to be amazed. To make it one block it can take an hour. “Daddy, what’s this?”

“It’s a leaf, honey,” Now we include hikes in Forest Park which might as well be the jungles of the Yucatan (where we all were a year ago.) It’s more than father-daughter time. It’s a time to experience the sense of wonder in the mundane. The sacred in the profane. The awesome in the gross.

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This summer we’ve been spending a lot of time in our yard. There’s a spider who lives on one of her old boots that we made into a planter. Of course she’s the “Itsy Bitsy” spider of song and legend. There’s a good 30 minutes watching her and the crows on the telephone wire who might want to gobble her up. Our small backyard has a bounty of delicious raspberries, dancing white butterflies, and bees harvesting pollen from our dandelion forrest. “See their legs, Cozy? How yellow they are? They’re going to turn that into honey!”

“Yum, Daddy! Can I go with them?”

At her daycare they go on “nature walks.” It’s a gaggle of 2-year-olds strolling through the neighborhood blocks looking for adventure. St. Andrews church is a “castle” they pass by. I’m sure local front yard gardens offer a thousand lessons. It must require a certain abound of zen to get these kids all headed in the same direction. Every step offers an opportunity to freak out over something the rest of us see as insignificant.

When I was a pre-schooler, my parents felt perfectly fine turning me loose into the woods by myself. I would build damns and collect leaves until Mom rang the dinner bell. Times have changed, but Cozy really doesn’t have to leave my sight to find a magical world under a rock or inside a hole in the porch steps. The big world doesn’t have much bearing on the microcosmos for a toddler.

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She’s become fascinated with a Netflix show called Beat Bugs. It’s the adventures of five bugs built around Beatles songs. (Yes, they have a friend who is a blackbird.) Their whole world exists in the backyard of a little girl not much older than Cozy. It’s full of music and mystery. Their joyous theme song is “All You Need Is Love.” I have to think Cozy thinks the same plot lines are playing out behind our house. (We’ve certainly got at least one Walter the Slug who is probably singing “I am the Walrus” as we sit here.) I see the show as a way to turn her on to Beatle music, but I’m starting to think it’s her bonding with other tiny things. We’ve been calling her “Bug” for a few years now so it makes sense that she feels more kinship with the ants on our sidewalk than the G-20 Summit.

The world is so big. A one trillion-ton iceberg just broke off of Antarctica. The President is having secret meetings with a Russian dictator (who may or may not have serious dirt on him) with no Americans present. Your kid’s talking doll might be a spy for the FBI. (Or in Trump’s case, the Kremlin.) A new study just found plastic particles in most brands of Mac & Cheese. There’s just a great weight of it all. It makes sense to take some time and find a small crack in the ground, one you step over every day. It’s actually a massive canyon teaming with life. Maybe it’s the Beat Bugs, or maybe real bugs. Let your mind go just for a minute like you did when you were a kid. If the earth is just a dot in the infinite universe, that crack is as important as we are.

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Seeing the world through Cozy’s eyes puts the big picture into perspective. (This blog post didn’t need to be very big.)

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How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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The Dream Police Are Inside My Head

October 6, 2016

How do you go back in time and fix a mistake to change the course of your life? How do you channel all the things you are passionate about into one story of redemption or escape?

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These were the questions I faced when I sat down to write The Dream Police early last year. The follow up to The Mission of the Sacred Heart was published this week and the Kindle version is available today. Like Mission, it is rooted in the true events of my life. Like Mission, it is a “rock novel,” a work of musical fiction, inspired by a classic rock album from my youth. And like Mission, it is a complex piece of literature that can’t easy be described in a quick elevator speech. But I think it is an important work that emerged from the plasma in my veins and the neurons in my synapses. So let me try to share with you why you might be interested in this story.

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First and foremost, anyone who reads this will probably be able to understand why I had to leave my tenured position at Portland State University last year. There is a sexual paranoia that has invaded college campuses. Disguised as the important and real work that is earnestly meant to stop sexual harassment and aggression in an institution that often turns a blind eye, it is a form of fake feminism that undermines actual feminism. It sees all women as victims and all men as aggressors and ignores the agency of women and the complexity of the sexual dance between consulting adults.

As a male feminist, I’ve wanted to write about this sticky swamp for years. Then it happened to me. I was the subject of a witch hunt that stopped cold the important work I was doing at the university, including raising awareness of the importance of dismantling patriarchal power. The question was what to do with my anger at the real villains in this true-life tale. I didn’t want to go on a workplace shooting spree (Who would the local media ask to comment on it?), so I chose to write this story.

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Second, as a Portland sociologist, there are a host of sociological issues I confront on a regular basis. Portland has been named the most gentrified city in America. My neighborhood tienda is being turned into an artisan salt shop as I write this. My first academic  publication in 1991 dealt with issue (although I called it “yupification”). Gentrification is changing the face of urban America and I feel like I’m in a good position to write about it. It becomes a metaphor for how are lives change around us in ways we both love and hate.

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My research on white supremacist groups began moving into prisons about ten years ago. White prison gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood and European Kindred, have become a growing problem outside prisons, including a recent murder just outside of Portland. A former racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison instigated my nightmare at PSU, so it was a perfect opportunity to bring a bit of light to the issue.

There are plenty of other issues floating around, including how your favorite rock song becomes your least favorite commercial, the backlash against unionization, the grieving process following the death of loved ones, and the dangers of spending too much time online scrolling through your social media. All this gets folded into The Dream Police.

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Then there is the unifying theme of lucid dreaming. If you could be conscious in your dreams, what would you do? My first thought is that I’d go see The Beatles play. Maybe I’d revisit the woods I played in as a child. How about a beer with Karl Marx and Halle Berry? It’s wide open. Some people lucid dream every night. Andrea and I practiced it while I was writing the book and had some cool experiences. Zak and Lenny, the central characters of The Dream Police, use lucid dreaming to visit some musical landmarks, but also revisit moments in their own lives to explore alternative paths. Zak’s pregnant wife was killed in a car crash, so he’s fixated on going back in time to change just one small thing.

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Finally, this book is about music and how music moves us forward in life. When I was teenager, I spent a lot of time in my room listening to albums. This included Cheap Trick’s 1979 Dream Police LP. The record was a whole world to me and I constructed this book around that themes in that album and dozens of Cheap Trick songs. The book also deals with the growing voice of women in rock and the shrinking opportunities for musicians to capitalize on their own music.

I think it’s important to tackle the minefield of gender politics. I was honored to do it in the classroom for over twenty years. Social research and punditry are also forums for it and fiction is another. I was thrilled to be listed as one of the representatives of the new genre of musical fiction in Wikipedia. It’s a great opportunity to be like my teenage heroes, The Clash, and use a good backbeat to get people to think about big issues.

In the end, I just want to tell a good story and maybe take readers to some unexpected places. Author Brian Paone, in his review, wrote, “Blazak pushes the reader through an endless web of a chess game that every time you think you have checkmate, a pawn appears out of nowhere, sending everything you thought was real into a tailspin.” In the last few years I’ve been through a lot. I’ve also thought a lot and grown a lot. It all goes into a story that reflects the complexity and dream-like state of my own journey. It feels good to have created a piece of literary fiction that my daughter could read some day. I hope you will read it now.

NOTE: Because, as a parent I feel I have to do something about the children of Aleppo, 10% of all book sales are going to UNICEF’s Syrian relief fund.

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