Monday, June 30, 2014

My Father, Who Art Named Kevin

Let’s start with an informal poll. Raise your hand if you’ve eaten food off of the floor.

Okay, now raise your hand if you didn’t raise your hand and are a liar.

Next poll. Who has eaten “damp” food that’s fallen the floor? Like, a watermelon slice or J-ello?

Last poll. Be brave.

Who’s eaten food that their father found in the gutter on the side of the road when she was ten?

When I was ten, I ate a crushed, but still hermetically sealed Hostess Cupcake that my father found on the side of the road. But there’s context. There’s always context.
Mark, my biological father, had context of his own. He was, on the one hand, a man who married an 18-year -old, dropped out of college, produced a daughter, and was divorced when that daughter’s mother decided that life as a lunatic’s spouse was no longer for her. On the other hand, his family is a real treat. That is to say, growing up Mark was no Hostess Cupcake.

Those roadkill cakes had context, too. My father had been out running when he saw them with their signature white icing swirl, laying in the gutter, practically unmangled. It was not something he’d normally bring me, what with his diabetes and an eternal hatred for both enjoyment and fat people. Add to that that he was also the cheapest bastard alive and there was no way he’d have bought me cake, never mind a brand name snack cake. This was manna from heaven, if heaven were a 24-hour convenience store.

So when he returned to the small apartment he lived in, one I was legally obligated to visit every other weekend and each summer, he gave me his treasure. And I ate it.

When a crazy man brings you gutter cakes, you eat them. You eat them standing in the living room while he watches. You thank him and ask him to retell the tale of how he just found them there and thought, “I bet Nicole would enjoy eating trash!”

I bet you think you’d have refused, but one did not refuse my father. Not because he would have beaten or locked my in a closet, but because I would have had to endure his profound disappointment. His was the kind that could only be exorcised on the wind of a heavy sigh after hours of silence and shunning. Plus, I like cake.

Let’s revisit that poll. Have you ever done something in context that you’d never consider in any other circumstance? Remember: Honestly leads to emotional freedom.

Another thing that leads to emotional freedom is death. When my father died when I was 20, I was free, in a fashion. Free to make my own decisions about what lay before me in adulthood: keg stands, finishing college, dating seriously, diet fads, jobs, legally binding marital union, home ownership, pets, taxes, credit card bills, children, and cable TV service calls. Well, kind of free. Because, for better or worse, the framework laid by my father would factor heavily into my choices. It’s not enough to be on the brink of adulthood with the absence of poor parenting. A young person needs, especially a daughter, the on-going influence of a high-quality parent, especially a father. There’s just something about daddy issues.

But how does one identify a high-quality parent? A high-quality parent smiles often, revels in your triumphs, expects better of you and helps you achieve it, and does not pilot the car with his knees while rolling joints on the highway. A high-quality parent avoids DUIs.

A high-quality parent chooses to parent. This is not to be confused with choosing to become a parent. Idiots successfully make this decision with little more than an available sexual partner and a fifth of vodka. But once that kid arrives life gets overwhelming and precious and wonderful and terrible all at once and we realize that parenting is a series of choices. Constantly shifting, demanding, urgent, choices. A quality parent, one who lets you stay up late to bond over cookies and milk but also makes you brush your teeth before bed, or one who takes you on college tours but remains relatively supportive when you tell him you want to me a mime, is a parent up to the task of choosing. He can be scared and he can be confused and he can even hate it sometimes, but he’s all in. And so, even though he loved me, and he did in his way, my Mark was not up to the choosing. But my Kevin is. Because sometime between the day my mother and Mark divorced and the day my mother and Kevin said “I do,” Kevin showed up and made a choice. He met me when I was 6 and he was Kevin, and by the time I was 16 he was daddy.

When my father was holding grudges against me and giving me the silent treatment because, and this is a quote “You don’t love me the right way.” My Kevin was talking with my mom about having more kids, and saying, “But we already have a daughter; we have Nicole.”

Kevin taught me that boys are indeed checking out my legs and that I should be both proud and wary. He taught me that his disappointment over my actions is not disappointment over my entire being. He taught me to love and laugh and listen to the important people in my life. The only thing more consistent than his love and support is the ticking of time itself.

It occurs to me now, as a parent, that biology has nothing on commitment. The quality parent commits to the whole package and renews that commitment daily. Because even when you start on the road to parenthood, you don’t get to be a parent until you get in there and make do. Long after the diapers have been moldering in a landfill and the tantrums of tweendom have ebbed, there will be an adult child who will look back and remember that you—daddy—were there in the thick of it all and those times will be the touchstones along that all-grown-up child’s path that help her navigate bills, jobs, legally binding marital union, cable TV service calls, and even her own children.

So, informal poll, would you choose a different dad? For my part, I couldn’t have picked a better father. But then, I’ll never need to because Kevin picked me.

I wrote this piece for That's What She Said, 2013. I read it in front of a live audience. You can see the reading on YouTube.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Trifecta meme

Trifecta has been my main source of motivation lately. I have other bits in the hopper, resting, waiting for me to pay them some attention. While they linger I've found the prompts from the Trifecta Writing Challenge a great way to get in a writing workout. The strictures of the challenges make the work exciting and difficult enough to be interesting. The community makes it a learning experience. I'm proud to be a part of it (when my time permits).

As part of the community function, Trifecta launched a meme a bit ago that lets the Trifectans (that's their name for members of the community) get to know each other. Here's my contribution.

  1. What is your name (real or otherwise)? Nicole Leigh Shaw aka Ninja Mom (A confession: I think "Ninja Mom," while catchy, is beyond cornball. But it's who I am in my mommy blogging world and it's stuck.)
  2. Describe your writing style in three words. Typos, metaphors, and humanity. All present and accounted for in my writing. 
  3. How long have you been writing online? I've been blogging for my family since 2005 (sorry, that's a private blog). I've been blogging as Ninja Mom for two years. This blog is much younger and is a place I can publish things that might not interest my Ninja Mom readers. I also write for NickMom and have created several BlinkBooks
  4. Which, if any, other writing challenges do you participate in? None. If I had more time. . .
  5. Describe one way in which you could improve your writing. Fewer typos springs to mind. I need a scheduled writing life. I need a habit. 
  6. What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Well, my mother told me once, "So write! Be a writer." Good advice. Less directly, Chuck Wendig has a great piece, "25 Things I Want to Say to Aspiring Writers." Number 6 resonates with me most, part of which is, "You will always have days when you feel like an amateur. When it feels like everybody else is better than you." And, for the record, I'm not aspiring. I'm writing. 
  7. Who is your favorite author? Not even remotely possible to pick. No way. With one exception. In terms of a writer I'd like to emulate, for my essay-style humor I do on Ninja Mom, I adore Dave Barry.
  8. How do you make time to write? I stay up too late. I ignore my kids. I pay for preschool. 
  9. Give us one word we should consider using as a prompt. Remember--it must have a third definition. I can't do just one! Fine. Tint, the noun.
  10. Direct us to one blog post of yours that we shouldn't miss reading. On this blog, Addressing memories.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The drunk will set you true

It seems I'm only good for weekends these days. Here's my latest Trifextra entry. The prompt is ". . . we are giving you the first 33 words of a story. You need to complete it with 33 of your own words."


“There’s nothing cute about it,” he said. The register of his voice indicated decision more so than discussion.

She disagreed heartily and privately, staring past his head and out the window behind him.

In the middle distance was her reflection, ghosts of pig tails bobbing along as the limo drove.

She was forty today and drunk tonight. The honest kind of drunk.

Honesty outlasted the hangover.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lost the thread

Trifextra: Week Eight.

"Lost" in 33 words, and the inspiration word can only appear in the title. Here goes.

"Lost the thread"

We string life episodes into life history.

Once, three sisters were weaving, measuring, and cutting. They’ve been buried in science; we know now how the scissors work.

But not how to work them.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Menace calling


The phone rang at 4 a.m. Menace owns the overnight hours, incompatible with dawn's promise. Otherworldly shades occupy the window and throw scraps of shadow to feed greedy doubts. Gremlins call when no one is awake to save you.


This is my response to Trifecta's Week 6 Trifextra Challenge. The prompt (not to be included in the 33 words—precisely—that the challenge requires, was "The phone rang at 4 a.m."


I've been fascinated with the overnight hours for a long, long time. When I was 12 I tried to stay awake all night watching TV and keeping a notebook by my side to record the "action" (um, there wasn't any) and to prove to myself in the morning that I'd managed the exercise without dozing off.

I loved the middle of the night feedings with my kids. Sure, I got exhausted by them in short order, but I relished being awake when few others were, doing something feeding, burping, diaper changing) that was so important it had to be addressed in the small hours.

But I never could imagine leaving the house at that time of night. Everything's less certain at 4 a.m. How can we be sure were in the same world we were in when the sun went down?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hand-me-down memories

There are clothes the kids love that are not things I've picked out for them. At least, not this year (or last). Maybe it's a pair of overalls from three years ago when my oldest was still happy to have me put her hair in pig tails. They prefer pants torn at the pockets from three girls who all stuff their pockets to bursting with untold treasures snatched from the grass, the toy chest, my bedside table.

They wear dresses in muted shades of over-washed; they sport rainbow socks with threadbare heels. These, more than the new clothes stagnating on hangers in their closetsthe special occasion clothes and the everyone's-wearing-them clothes, and the just-try-it-for-mommy clothesthese wretched threads still bound together by luck and laundry soap are their favorites.

Sometimes I worry that hand me downs are telling the larger world a story of meager means. Are they broadcasting the details of our tight clothing budget or my inability to coordinate four children's worth of outfits? For these reasons I cringe when they bounce off through the school doors, a tattered hemline fluttering in their wake.

But I'm smart enough to shake off self-conscious concerns about my public image and re-imagine the emotional inheritance in cast-off clothing. All of my kids have gone crashing through the world around them in these clothes. Past and present versions of them fill out the shoulders of a much-loved sweater just so. These clothes re-collect my going-going-gone babies and toddlers, my memory's children.

There will be many autumns spent buying clothes my kids carefully pick for a new school year, eager to show off to old friends and new classmates. But someday the hand-me-downs will run out, packed off to Goodwill. For now, I'll be praying the tears at the seams hang on for a few more memories.


Here's a bit of essay-writing for Trifecta's Week Sixteen challenge. The inspiration word is "wretched."

3: being or appearing mean, miserable, or contemptible <dressed in wretched old clothes>
I fixated on that clothing example, as well as the third meaning of the adjective "mean."
a: of poor shabby inferior quality or status <mean city streets> b : worthy of little regard : contemptible —often used in negative constructions as a term of praise <no mean feat>
How's that for meta?

Friday, February 24, 2012

I'm a manthropologist, baby.

-My friend said I'd never get an anthropologist into bed.
-She's right. Says here on the Mandible of Manifest Sexual Destiny, "Anthropologists are asexual geeks."
-Which makes you?
-A "manthropologist," manly, love-making anthropologist.


This is my response to Trifecta's Trifextra Week 5 Challenge. I have no idea what I was smoking when I imagined this dialogue, except to say that I have Indiana Jones on the brain thanks to a commenter on Kim from Let Me Start By Saying's entry for the Week 15 challenge. I saw the bed, the skull, and the closeness of these two and boom!, what would a young, hot-to-trot Indiana Jones (channeling Austin Powers) say? Really, I expect all the reponses to be like this, it's SO obvious.

Also, I don't consider dialogue a strong point. I don't do much fiction writing and it seems that's the real place to work out convincing dialogue. Instead, you get me working it out in 33 words. Comments appreciated, folks. As well as reminiscing about how hot Harrison Ford is as Indy.