Monthly Archives: March 2009

Writing with Children in the House

It was a quiet Sunday morning, and in a relaxed and optimistic mood I sat down on our family room couch with a mug of hot black tea, some papers and a pencil, thinking I could grab a few minutes alone to edit a piece I had written.

Then my son Gabe started shooting nerf darts at my head.

This ever happen to you? My sons seem to have built-in radar that tells them when I’m trying to steal some time for myself and do something other than cater to their every whim and desire. This is their cue to pop out of nowhere and shoot nerf darts at me. If you are a writer and a parent as I am—actually, if you run any home-based business or telecommute—it is unavoidable that there will be times when you must work when the children are home with you. How do you get your work done when the li’l darlings are running around fighting and screaming and raising a wild rumpus? I have three children, and here are some things that have worked for me over the years:

Work while they sleep. Before they get up in the morning, after they go to bed, during naptime (that is, if they’re very young and still napping). Getting up early works best for me because I’m fresh and write better in the morning than at the end of the day. But you may be someone who comes on strong after dark. In any case, the house becomes amazingly quiet when the noisemakers aren’t making noise.

Expect interruptions. You can plug your kids into the television or a movie or the Wii—and this certainly buys me valuable time, especially if the crunch is on and I’ve got a tight deadline to make. But even with a house full of these miraculous electronic babysitters, my sons still find ways to interrupt me. I am perpetually stopping to do something for them—fix a snack or clean up the plate they’ve broken while trying to fix their own snacks. Once I’m done dealing with whatever crisis they’ve created, I go back to work.

Go easy on yourself. Working at either end of the day, and in small blocks of time during it while being interrupted, you simply cannot get the same amount of work done than if you had the full day to yourself. A job that might take a day or two in a nine-to-five schedule might take a week or more. I try to keep that in mind when I set deadlines for myself or agree to a deadline with a client.

Have a Plan B. Sometimes I start the day with a work plan in mind; my sons have a different plan in mind, however, forcing me to be nimble-footed. After Gabe appeared with his nerf gun my editing ended and I switched over to roughing out this blog longhand. If a child invades your office and refuses to leave, maybe she can play on your computer while you do something that doesn’t require as much concentration, such as filing.

Strike a balance between work and play. Some days I work hard in the morning when the boys are plugged into electronics, then take the afternoon off and spend it with them. If you give fully of yourself when you’re with your children and they’ve gotten a good dose of you, they’re often willing to release you for a little while so you can be in another part of the house alone. (No guarantees, of course. Nothing works for long or all the time with small children.)

Fit your kids into your work life. Many an afternoon I have spent sitting on a park bench reading or editing while my sons have played. For my upcoming book on cars, Wheels of Change, I often took my sons on research trips to car and truck museums and other places I was interested in seeing. And they often came up with questions that I didn’t think to ask because they look at things from a different perspective than I do. If you have more of a fictional bent, see your children and family life as the raw stuff for your novel. What can be perceived as a negative—all the demands that children make and how they distract you from your work—becomes a positive. Spending time with them does not detract from your writing but instead enriches it.

But don’t kid yourself. Even if you find ways to grab time for yourself with the rugrats constantly underfoot, you will need at some point to work in a sustained manner on your writing. The kids must go to school or daycare or your spouse or parents must take them on the weekends to give you longer stretches of time alone. Being a writer does not just require a room of your own, as Virginia Woolf so famously said. You also need uninterrupted time in which to work and think. Go to that room regularly, get that time, and then when you emerge you can embrace your family and children, nerf guns and all.


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Aryeh’s Path

One of the nice things about doing what I do is that I get to ask nosy questions of people I hardly know. I meet people in other walks of life that I would ordinarily never get a chance to.

One of those people I was lucky—and privileged—to interview was Aryeh Hirschfield, who died in a snorkeling accident in early January in the waters off the Mexican coast. A rabbi with the Portland congregation of P’nai Or, he and his family had attended the wedding of his son Isaiah in Mexico. After the nuptials he and his wife and sons went on vacation in Oaxaca, a vacation that ended with his shocking death. He was sixty-five.

Some years ago Aryeh conducted the wedding of my sister- and brother-in-law, Cynthia and Gesher Calmenson, in Ashland, Oregon, and that was how I met him. The father of five sons, he wrote and sang songs for his congregation and led interfaith efforts to bring Jews together with Christians and other religious peoples. He was one of the fathers I interviewed for The Daddy Guide, my parenting guide for fathers. I talked to him about “Transmitting Spiritual Values to Your Children.” Here is a brief excerpt from our interview:

Q: When we raise children, we want them to grow up with certain values. How do you transmit values to your children?
Hirschfield: “That’s a big question, a very big question. For our family, prayer is an important part of our lives. We celebrate Shabbat every Friday evening, which is the start of the Jewish holy day. We do it every week. We come together as a family, and it centers us in the home and in our spiritual selves. We light candles, say a special blessing, and be together as a family.

Q: What’s the point of these rituals? What do they have to do with transmitting values to children?
Hirschfield: “Raising children is such a tricky thing. Kids have all this stuff coming at him. In order for them not to be lost, we try to give them a sense of place that’s holy. Kids especially get swept away, you know, by the mall and TV and peer pressure. When they get to be teenagers, they’re lost. In Judaism, we emphasize two central elements: home and community. Whenever I do a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, I always tell the young person that we have come here to acknowledge you, that you are an important person, that we care about you. You’re part of a community, you’re not just lost out there. When the family has some kind of faith at the center, there is something to bring them back home.”

Q: What about doubt? Should you share your doubts with your children? Some men want to be a rock for their children and equate having doubts with being weak.
Hirschfield: “I remember I had a talk with my son Jonathan before his bar mitzvah. It was very open, we shared a lot of things. He was thirteen. I shared how I had screwed up in my life, how I felt I lacked courage. And you know what, the more I shared how I screwed up, how I fell short, the closer we became. Be truthful. Don’t hide stuff. When your kids get older they’ll know that their parents had doubts. But they’ll know, too, that you were truthful and real with them.”

Q: Transmitting values to your children, then, is not a matter of just filling up an empty vessel. You have to look at yourself and your own actions.
Hirschfield: “Children will pick up on what you do. It’s not so much what you tell your children. The question is, how real are you in your own spiritual life? Look to yourself. If you walk the life, you stand the chance that your children will get it, too. There’s a Jewish phrase, heshbon hanefesh. It means an accounting of the soul. When you become a parent you have to do your own soul accounting. If you really care what values you transmit to your children, you have to ask yourself: What are my values? What path am I on? Even as you instruct a child on his or her path, you must always be in the process of finding your own path.”

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A Hayward Guy

Adam Bellow said the greatest benefit of writing was personal, and I was reminded of this when I went to see my good friend Mark Croghan not long ago. I took my sons and met Mark at Val’s Burgers in Hayward where I grew up.

Val’s is one of the oldest and finest hamburger institutions in the East Bay, a place with pictures of hot rods and Little League teams on the walls, a place that only takes cash or checks—no credit or debit cards. Mark, Hank and I had Mama Burgers, Gabe had a hot dog, we all shared fries and onion rings, and the boys and I drank shakes made with Berkeley Farms ice cream and served in old-fashioned soda fountain silver canisters. Afterward Mark snapped a picture of me and the boys standing under the parking lot sign at Val’s, a place I had been to many times as a boy. The day filled me up, physically and emotionally.

While we were talking Mark said that someone had told him that Bill Evers had died and that his obit was in that day’s Daily Review. He said he didn’t know Bill very well and wondered if I did. Sure, I said. Good guy. Played football with him, rode on the back of his motorcycle many times, just flying down Crow Canyon Road on our way to a party or nowhere in particular.

On my way out of town I stopped and picked up a paper to see his death notice. After high school Bill had joined the Navy and after finishing his hitch in the service he moved to Spokane, where he got married and had a family. That was also where he died, of a sudden heart attack, at age fifty-five.

When I got home I emailed some friends who also knew Bill from high school and without any prompting from me, they responded with their memories. I then compiled and edited what we all said, and sent it in as a letter to the Review. It isn’t much of a sendoff for a man who deserved more, but it was something anyhow and it made me feel good to do it. Here’s what we said about Bill:

Dear Editor: Being four guys who knew Bill Evers, we were saddened to hear about his death and read his obituary in the Daily Review. Bill may have lived part of his life in Washington state, but he was a Hayward guy through and through. He grew up here, went to school at Markham, Bret Harte and Hayward High, and had East Bay grease in his veins. Here are four short memories of him:

Max Lateiner: “Bill had a ‘no holds barred’ personality. I remember once he had a party at his parents’ house off East Avenue and afterwards I got on the back of his Yamaha or Triumph motorcycle.  He drove so fast that I was sure I was going to die.”

Kevin Nelson: “That’s one of the things I remember about him too. Riding on the back of his motorcycle on Crow Canyon Road and to this day I am grateful he didn’t crash and kill us both. He played linebacker on the HHS football team and for a guy who loved to hit, he was an awfully sweet guy. He loved the blues and played a mean harmonica.”

Steve Bragonier: “Bill’s musical interests actually started before the harmonica. He and I were in the Markham Elementary School band sitting side by side in the 6th grade blowing a mean trombone. We were good!”

Bob Newlon: “I remember Bill as the original stud. As tough as nails. Steve Bragonier and I sometimes played tackle football with him and a buddy of his at the Hayward High football field on rainy Saturday afternoons. We’d choose the muddiest area and play all afternoon. Bill played the hardest and was always ready for more. Trudging off the field after one long afternoon, Bill finally looked whipped. Cockily I said to him I bet he couldn’t run around the track without stopping. Bill laughed and told me to put a buck down and he’d do it ten times! Damn if the guy didn’t take my buck. That was the last time I bet against him.”
Sincerely, Max Lateiner, Kevin Nelson, Steve Bragonier and Bob Newlon


Filed under Hayward, California, Parenting, Personal

Author Interview: Wheels of Change

wheelsofchangefinal1Wendy Rockett, over at Heyday Books, is starting up to gear up publicity for Wheels of Change for next fall. Its catalog (or press kit, I’m not sure which) is going to include this interview with me, which I thought some people might enjoy:

Questions for Kevin Nelson

You have many books under your belt, but this is the first on cars. How did you become interested in the topic?
I love cars. I love the romance and freedom of cars. One of the first times I ever made out with a girl was in the parking lot of Round Table Pizza in Hayward in the front seat of her Daddy’s1958 Chevy Bel Air two-door coupe.

What about California’s car culture is unique or special compared to other parts of the country?
Just about everything. California is where it all starts. Woody Allen said in “Annie Hall” that he didn’t want to live any place where the only cultural advantage is being able to turn right on a red light. Spoken like a true New Yorker. Because Californians love to turn right on red, and sometimes they even stop before they do it.

What surprises did you find in researching the book?
I was amazed at how big of a story this was, and how many Californians influenced the history and development of the automobile not only nationally but internationally. Everybody thinks of Detroit. But the real city at the center of the car revolution is Los Angeles.

In the introduction to Wheels of Change, you say the book is the story, in part, of “, youth and the passions of the young.” What do you mean by this?
Cars are at the core of youthful rebellion. I write about this a lot in the book. Go back to the fifties and sixties. Look at hot rods and drive-ins and James Dean and Jack Kerouac and “Easy Rider” and hippie vans and all that. But it didn’t start then. It started in the 1890s and 1900s as soon as the automobile began to appear in this country. Teenagers started jumping in them and tinkering with them and getting away from their parents in them.

Do you have a favorite personality of those you researched?
Barney Oldfield. I loved that guy. The greatest race driver of all time. Drove like a maniac, walked away from flaming car wrecks countless times, smoked cigars, drank, gambled, owned a saloon, partied with Hollywood stars, and loved a God-fearing Christian woman who prayed for him every time he got behind the wheel of a race car.

Would you say the center of California’s car culture is Southern California, or is that a misconception?
That is absolute fact. It’s not only the center of car culture for California, it’s the center of car culture for the world. All the top car manufacturers have design studios there. Hollywood is there, which helps set the trends. Its racing scene is large and active and vital. The high-end super expensive luxury market in LA and Beverly Hills is the biggest in the world. And there are lots of kids screaming around the freeways in their “tuners” and what have you.

What influence has California had on the car?
My goodness, where do I start? Hot rods, customizing, countless automobile design and mechanical innovations, low riding, drive-ins, road songs, teen movies, the Corvette, convertibles, imports, vans, motor homes, self-serve gas stations, fast food, Googie architectural design—the list goes on and on. California played a huge role in all of that, and still does.

What influence has the car had on California?
It has transformed the state. Wheels of Change begins in the 1890s and ends in the mid-1960s. During that time California went from virtually no cars to a place where there were millions of them on the roads. The automobile changed the physical landscape of the state and country. It changed our views of time and distance. It increased the pace of our lives. The changes caused by cars have reached into every nook and cranny of our lives.

Do you have a favorite Hollywood chase scene?
The greatest car chase ever filmed was “Bullitt,” with Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang. I loved that. The racing sequences in “Grand Prix” are phenomenal. The reason is that Phil Hill, one of the greatest race drivers ever and a California boy, drove the camera car. I also loved the chase sequence—or is it a car crash sequence?—in “Blues Brothers.” That is hilarious.

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