Thursday, February 16, 2012

Because I Said So: Bedtime pleas won't deter parents' voyage into silence

I only have one child left who will stand for me to read to her. The boys consider themselves too old and learned for that sort of thing and G, at 5 years old, will only be read to by her mother these days. But S still looks forward to being read to at bedtime. She doesn't look forward so much to bedtime itself, but seems to enjoy our time together and the stories told.

We just finished up "Treasure Island" and we both enjoyed it. I was worried she would grow bored with Robert Louis Stevenson's tale as it's written with all the formal, roundabout 19th-century speak of the Victorian language. But she hung in there. After a chapter - or during - I would stop and we would discuss what was going on so that we both stayed on course and understood just what the conversation and action was all about. And there is plenty of action for a 9 year old, from threats and gun play to knife-throwing, mutiny and desertion on an uninhabitable island.

It was great fun reading this classic to my daughter and I'm proud of her for staying with it, thinking about it and being willing to discuss it all.

The book and my daughter's own bedtime mutiny is the ballast for today's Because I Said So column copied below. S and I hope you enjoy it, mateys.

I've lately been reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" to my 9-year-old daughter at bedtime. Chapter by chapter, we've sailed into the world of buccaneers and squalls, nameless islands and chatty parrots. And night by night, Somerset has pleaded for just 30 more minutes to stay up. The thought of sleep to her, to most kids I would imagine, is akin to walking the plank.

A whole day's worth of fun, hours' worth of television, video games and arguing with siblings, she seems to think, are to be found in that final half-hour before lights out. The unfairness of being forced to her bunk at a reasonable time is quite apparent to her.

Like the characters of Long John Silver, Captain Flint and young Jim Hawkins, Somerset schemes and plots nightly to uncover the treasure of consciousness past the 9-o'clock hour. What fun must take place from then until morning with adults eating ice cream as though it were good for us, drinking a cask of rum, or watching television and movies with explosions and expletives.

Sure, all of that happens, but it's our right.

After four decades of living, my cumulative experience and wisdom have led me to understand one truth, one undeniable right as unwavering as the pirate's code itself: "zzz" marks the spot. Our children's slumber marks the spot at the end of the day when no one is asking for anything, whining over perceived wrongs, destroying my ship-shape kitchen or arguing with me. There is silence over the horizon of bedtime, and it's what we parents set our course for from the moment we wake. The S.S. Because I Said So is fully provisioned and looking to anchor in the protected Bay of Solitude.

My daughter pleads, rationalizes and emphatically insists that she is not tired. The dark circles, half-closed lids and general crankiness, however, tell me otherwise. By the end of a long school day, there is a map of fatigue etched across her face.

And still she begs.

She's not the only one. We've suffered through night terrors, bad dreams, needing another drink of water ... drink of milk ... hug ... trip to the bathroom. Children are a deceptive crew when it comes to evading sleep. The tricks seem to be universal, and not all that dissimilar to ones I employed as a child.

So perhaps I had it coming to me. Maybe we do reap what we sow. Maybe I should have welcomed sleep when I was 9, and looked upon it as the chance for rest and renewal. And if I had, maybe my own kids would think of bedtime in the same way and leave us with calm waters and balmy breezes each night instead of our regularly scheduled 8:30 p.m. mutiny.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012


"I learned how to play this song on guitar when I was your age," I told my son and his friend as we pulled out of the friend's driveway earlier. My son sat beside me and continued to text while his friend worked on a candy bar in the backseat. "MTV had only recently been born, but we didn't have cable so I'd spend entire weekends at my friend's house watching the twelve videos they rotated through. This was one of them."

"What is it?" C asked.

I was elated he'd asked; elated that he was still breathing there next to me with his nose in his flip phone.

"'Photograph' by Def Leppard." I went on to explain who they were and that the drummer had lost an arm in a car accident yet continued to play with a specially designed drum set. Behind me there was the rustle of candy wrapper, and beside me, more click-click-clicking. "MTV began in August, 1981," I ventured, somewhat ashamed that I was able to reel it off quicker than I could any of my kids' birthdays.

I took guitar lessons when I was 13 or so. My poor instructor attempted to teach me the chords and theory and how to play the damn thing. I wanted to learn how to play 'Photograph' and, perhaps, 'Back in Black' by AC/DC. I was an awful student and it shows today, I still can't play. It wasn't completely my fault, though, or his. I have no rhythm. I could memorize the notes, I just couldn't do anything with them. The idea of learning the principles of music was as foreign to my newly-teenage, freshly-MTVed brain, with all of its lasers and pyrotechnics, as the idea of typing a message to someone on a telephone might have been then. 

I watch my kids now as they struggle to master whatever interests them and it's fascinating for me. They seem so naturally talented in ways that I wasn't, or in ways that I didn't recognize at the time. The other night, while the adults were sitting glassy-eyed and brain dead in front of the talentless field that was the Grammy Awards, JP sat at my computer and wrote a story about the Great Depression for school. It is a fantastic piece. I sat and watched S sketching a bowl of grapes with an onion resting beside it as I cooked dinner the other night and, while the proportions were slightly skewed, I saw the same determination and concentration in her face that I see in my sister's when she sketches. C is also a great writer, having won a Memphis in May short story contest last year, and he's an ever-improving baritone saxophone player as well.

I think one of the greatest things about having kids is watching them develop, seeing their talents and interests grow on a daily basis. They may not stick with each one, they'll probably find new ones to explore and work at as they progress through school and age, but I see now that they commit to ideas and see them through, and that they see the value in such endeavors.

It means a lot to me.

In the car this evening, I had a very distinct muscle memory for how to play the guitar solo in 'Photograph.' I'm sure I couldn't play it if you handed me a guitar because I wouldn't be able to play anything if you handed me a guitar, I have no aptitude for the instrument. And my kids may realize they don't have the talent it takes to continue on a particular track, but for now it's great fun for me to watch them and fun for them to make the attempt.

Much more fun, I'm sure, than a history lesson with soundtrack by The Buggles.

Monday, February 13, 2012



Photographs. Friends. Family. Music. Conversations. Films. Books. Books. Books.

Inspiration is an ingredient for writing, but there needs to be more. You need to be hungry and driven enough to even step into that kitchen in the first place. It's work. I surround myself with the things I need visually and aurally to propel me to write - old family photos, background music, whatever I'm reading at the moment, and my muses. These are integral to keeping the words flowing, but it takes something more to begin, and I'm finding it's so much easier to start when I'm only halfway there.

Some writers are scared of the blank page, but I welcome it. I'm more confident and comfortable knowing I need another 40,000 words than with the thought that the 80,000 I have need to be overhauled. I'm not talking about my initial read-through and revision upon completion of a first draft. I enjoy that. I love the part where I read over a chapter and make changes to sentences, tweak a turn of phrase and bend a metaphor or two. But this idea that there are flaws in the storyline, or with a character? I can't figure out where to get started. There must be some fissure I can push my finger into that will allow me to peel back the rough rind and work with what's in there.

The inspiration wall over my desk is hung with old photos and new, with hand-written quotes and memorabilia that have helped me get to the completed drafts of two novels. I listened to months' worth of Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins and dozens of others to put myself in the right mind to write 5 NIGHT STAND. And yet, neither the photos nor the music seem helpful when it comes to revising. That's work.

Others have been writing and posting about inspiration lately. Bobby, over at Spillmanville, waxed eloquent about music and food and drink. Everyone everywhere is inspired, whether a writer, painter, photographer, musician, photographer, chef, computer programmer, teacher, landscaper or architect. It's something personal, something from within that is touched off by something from the outside, and I hope you find yours.

I know this, too: successful writers will tell you not to wait around for it. That to wait for inspiration is to sit at your desk and stare at that blank sheet without ever filling it up. So I don't. I sit down and write, surrounded by the things and sounds that fill my imagination.

But right now those blank pages are all filled up and I'm glancing around for the spark that will ignite the fire to light the way back into this thing. And right now I'm only finding a confidence-shattering darkness.