The Little Bastard, The Dunking Booth, and the Scribbling Schutzes.

The Little Bastard, the debut publication of my late grandmother, Frances Schutze, is available for pre-order now from Anchor & Plume Press! With original artwork by my mother, Peggy Schutze Shearn, and an introduction by some lady called Amy Shearn.

The Little Bastard, the debut publication of my late grandmother, Frances Schutze, is available for pre-order now from Anchor & Plume Press! With original artwork by my mother, Peggy Schutze Shearn, and an introduction by some lady called Amy Shearn.

I’m not sure why it’s so fascinating – or surprising — to learn that there is some genetic precedent for one’s more questionable habits, but as I find myself in a busy time of life scrapping for bits of time in which to write, and then of course wondering why I do this writing thing at all when there is so much laundry giving me the stink-eye from where it slouches in the corner, it has been a comfort to connect with the other writers in my family.

I think this might be why this feels like just exactly the right time to be welcoming The Little Bastard into the world.

Frances “Peggy” Schutze, starlet. I mean, college student.

Frances “Peggy” Schutze, starlet. I mean, college student.

This novella was written by my Frances “Peggy” Schutze, my grandmother, inspired by a heady time in her life when she was a newlywed living in Neighborhood Gardens, a New Deal housing project. Peggy always wanted to write (which I wrote about for The Begats), never found her way to a career in publishing, and yet she always clacked away at her Royal typewriter (which I spoke about in this interview for The Hairpin). The manuscript of The Little Bastard was found, among others, in the trash after Peggy’s death. My aunt fished it and reams of other writing out, and eventually I got it together to retype and combine the drafts, and now, lo and behold, the lovely small press Anchor & Plume is publishing it as a chapbook.

Now, my aunt was uniquely positioned to differentiate the work of an aspiring writer from useless trash (often quite difficult to do!), being herself a writer – Mariana Greene, beloved columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Her husband, my uncle Jim Schutze (Peggy’s son) is also a journalist and author, and as it happens has written a book about his life as a newspaper man. Reading Jim’s book, The Dunking Booth, while working on Peggy’s book The Little Bastard, was a rather surreal experience.

One of my Uncle Jim’s true crime novels, and my first (and only – so far that is, ahem, people) book dedication. I'm telling you, once you get a reputation for being bookish you just can't shake it.

One of my Uncle Jim’s true crime novels, the first (and only – so far that is, ahem, people) book dedicated to me. I’m telling you, once you get a reputation for being bookish you just can’t shake it.

For one thing, before her four children were born, before her husband became a minister, Peggy had entertained hopes of a journalism career herself. She attended the well-regarded Journalism School at the University of Missouri, wrote a gossip column for a local newspaper, worked at a radio station, and had a life-long passion for politics. She was a devout newspaper reader. She carried on a decades-spanning correspondence with the war journalist Martha Gellhorn. (I wrote about Peggy and Martha’s correspondence here. I mean, you didn’t think I could resist that one, did you?)

A letter from Martha. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, NBD.

A letter from Martha. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, NBD.

And I couldn’t help thinking about all this as I read her son Jim’s words in his funny, insightful The Dunking Booth. His passion for journalism leaps off the page (er, screen – in a strange turn of events this love letter to print is an ebook!): “It was the meaning of life.” Today’s journalism students should probably be required to read the opening chapters of Jim’s book, with their wonderfully rich details about pre-computer newspapering: the typewriters, the copy pencils, the glue pots, the intense editorial conversations (complete with physical cutting and pasting) about how “every word had to make sense, had to ‘move the story’” – right up until the moment when the retyped sheet got ripped from the typewriter carriage’s, rolled up, and stuck in a pneumatic tube and zoomed to the linotype machine. It’s a delightful passage of print-media porn, zoomed futuristically to your Kindle in a way that makes its own subject matter seem even more historical.

An early author photo of my Uncle Jim. If you look into his eyes for a full minute without fear in your heart, you will become magically versed in all of urban politics.

An early author photo of my Uncle Jim. If you look into his eyes for a full minute without fear in your heart, you will become magically versed in all of the intricacies of urban politics.

Then there is the way Jim writes about the so-called “politics gene.” While describing a story he covered in 1980s Dallas, he writes the “thing about people with the politics gene is that relatively few of them go into politics…bright, creative, politically gifted men and women came forward from the neighborhoods and figured out how to solve this maddeningly complex conundrum, but when it was over and done with most of them disappeared right back into their woodsy retreats, far too busy with career, family, glass-blowing or gardening to think about a career in politics. So they are always out there, this enormous reserve of talent and leadership, waiting to be stirred up out of the shrubbery by the next major proximate threat or opportunity.”

I mean, this is precisely plot of The Little Bastard (which, by the way, I don’t think Jim had ever read). In Peggy’s story, idealistic young people are stirred up by a charismatic church dean to vote out the corrupt local neighborhood bosses. The Neighborhood Gardens crew – most of them blue-collar workers and new mothers – discover that they indeed have the politics gene, and with inspiration from the dean, some good advice from the League of Women Voters, and a couple ideas snatched from the mafia’s playbook, they are able to agitate for real change in their city. I don’t know how much of this was taken from real life, but many of the details match up.

The Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, circa 1940. Architecturally inspired by the Bauhaus, this complex was one of the first publicly funded inner city housing projects in the United States.

The Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, circa 1940. Architecturally inspired by the Bauhaus, this complex was one of the first publicly funded inner city housing projects in the United States.

Jim writes directly about this Neighborhood Gardens era of his parents’ lives too, describing it as “their great epiphany…They ate spaghetti and drank cheap wine with William Inge, and my mother met Martha Gellhorn…it was clear to me even as a boy that this was the time of their great joy and adventure in the world.”

Something that makes this passage a bit heartbreaking is that, as Jim points out, this was the time when his parents became acquainted with the charismatic, social activist dean of St Louis’s Episcopal cathedral. Peggy writes about this man in The Little Bastard; “the Dean” is the inspiration for the whole madcap political plot. She writes: “I’m trying to remember why the dean was so good to see. He certainly wasn’t like those mysterious, kindly old oracles described in most novels…But he had something other people don’t have. You got it right away when he walked in the door.”

But as Jim notes in his book, this Dean was probably responsible for how his father “got the call,” swept away by the Anglicans’ “elegant marriage of liturgy and the dean’s intelligent progressivism.” So here was this crossroads. And Peggy’s husband chose the clergy, which angled Peggy’s life decidedly away from the bohemian world of progressives and artists that their time in Neighborhood Gardens had been so enriched by (see also the recurring novella characters “the queers”). Read this way, The Little Bastard is, in a submerged way, a story of a tragedy in the life of a creative person. Peggy continued to be a progressive, and that political gene simmered – she became a teacher in a poor, all-Black school; she chafed against the expected role of meek minister’s wife and agitated for racial and social justice in ways that sometimes shocked her straight-laced church lady peers. But that other side of her, the writer side, was subsumed by life. Jim seems to be able to balance the two – the political and the literary. I come out decidedly on the literary side — I barely understand what I hear on NPR, to be honest —  so the way this family works my children will be politicians? I’m not great at those pattern recognition things, but there’s definitely something there. Presidents, probably, both of them.

Can you believe I didn’t write a blog post in 5 months and then put up this long rambling description of my extended family’s relationship with the written word? Yikes! What kind of blog is this, anyway? Well, if anyone is still out there, I’ll urge you to buy these two books — both are indie publications, bargain-priced, and PS you’ll be supporting the great Cause of the Written Word (personally, my only real political affiliation).

The Little Bastard (a limited-edition chapbook) by Frances Schutze
The Dunking Booth (e-book only) by Jim Schutze

And while we’re at it, did I ever mention my grandfather’s cousin was a poet, Progressive supporter of Hull House, co-founder of an art colony in Woodstock, and husband to the Photo-Secessionist photographer Eva Watson-Schutze ?

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Songs and Poems by Martin Schutze

See, there was really never any hope for me.

Five Eensy Weensy Little Things I’d Like for Mother’s Day But Only If It’s Not Too Much Trouble For Anyone. I Could Also Just Unload and Load the Dishwasher All Day. SIGH.

ImageI’m lying, this is what I really want.And by “this” I mean, that wallpaper.

Happy Mother’s Day, you mamas out there. Here’s a little something I wrote about what I really want for Mother’s Day, for Elizabeth Street

I am writing this with a drowsy 3-year-old on my lap. He has woken up disoriented and cuddly in the dim pre-morning light of my writing time. His tousled hair is sweaty from sleep, and he smells clean from last night’s bubble bath. There is a freckle on his squishy cheek—perfect for the big mama smooches he still allows without wriggling away. It’s true what they say: There is no love as huge and all-encompassing, as stupid and as fearless and as transforming, as the way you love your children.

That said, I really wanted him to sleep another goddamned hour this morning.

Because, I’m trying to think about what I want for Mother’s Day. And this entails having a recess from the daily work of mothering. Every year around this time, there is a lot of chatter about Mother’s Day that include flowers (nice!), jewelry (for mothers whose kids have outgrown the yanking-at-everything-shiny stage, I presume), and family brunches (for mothers who aren’t constantly with their families, I presume). And, every year, I think, Wow, those things are not what I want. Here’s my list of coveted gifts I’d like for Mother’s Day: Sorry to make you click but just do it.

The $327 Teachable Moment

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Cars are stupid.

This has been one of those weeks. This is a week that began with the kids finding tap shoes and whistles at 6:30 a.m. on Monday. This is a week wherein, if I handle an egg, it inevitably leaps to the floor. This is a week of Spring Break, which means no school, holidays I never ended up figuring out how to celebrate and, apparently, snow. So you will not be surprised to learn that on Monday afternoon, my car was towed.

Allow me to set the scene: it was a beautiful (pre-snowstorm) spring day, and we had a lovely plan to meet a school friend of Harper’s at the Botanic Gardens. Did I know the Botanic Gardens were closed on Mondays? No I did not, though by this point in my day I should have seen the writing on the wall.

Once we discovered the Gardens were closed, Harper did a celebratory dance. She had not wanted to leave her game at home after all, and thought this meant a return to the great-apartment-dweller’s-whistles-and-tap-shoes performance. But this other family — four children and all — had already mobilized and I felt terrible, imagining that their kids like mine probably took forever to get ready to get out the door, and thus guessing they had been getting ready to meet us since three weeks ago — so we decided on the Prospect Park Zoo nearby. Unfortunately, I have been abusing our zoo membership lately, and the kids were getting a little meerkat-weary, so Harper proceeded to cross her arms and plop down on the sidewalk next to the car, screaming that she refused to go anywhere, and there had been much SIMPLY TOO MUCH not-being-at-home-with-tap-shoes-and-whistles. I responded the way any good, tired, frustrated, premenstrual mother would, by yelling loud enough to scare her into the car. Ollie responded by sitting in his carseat and taking deep, exaggerated breaths and singing, “Grownups Come Back.” (If there is a more heartbreaking response to a parental lack of composure, well, I’m sure I’ll see it soon.)

We made it to the zoo and it was impossible to park but I found a spot on a block where I’d parked once before on a morning visit to the zoo. And by found I meant STOLE a spot from a car that was making a U-turn for. Instant Karma is going to get you indeed.

The only caveat with this parking spot (or so I thought then) was that it was near the entrance of the zoo that involves a carousel and obviously I didn’t have cash, so it also involved a walk to at ATM, carousel ride, etc etc. This cheered everyone up enough to provide for a nice afternoon playdate, and everyone ran around and got really tired out, and then it was 5 p.m., late for us to be out and about still, but the sun felt so nice and the kids’ begging for ice cream on the way out so very loud that we stopped again, and ran around the park some more. Then, sun-stained and bleary-eyed, we went to to spot where the car was parked. Had been parked. Was not any longer parked. I went through the stages of grief in an eyeblink and then took a deep breath like I’d learned from somewhere, oh right from Ollie, and said, “Oh! Oh dear. Our car has been towed. Well, my mistake, I guess we weren’t supposed to park there after 4. Golly! Let’s take the bus home, doesn’t that sound fun?”

The kids burst into tears.

Ollie: “The bus is STINKY! I HATE the bus!”

Harper: “What about our CDs in the car??”

Ollie: “Well I don’t actually hate the bus but I want our car!”

Harper: (through heaving sobs) “When I grow up I’m going to be a police officer – wait no the PRESIDENT – and I am going to send a special tow truck to all the police cars and SMASH THEM!”

We trotted over to the bus stop. I’d already performed my most-self-loathing-inducing parenting move that day when I lost my shit and yelled, so I felt extra motivated to do this one right.  “Hey guys!” I said. “When you think about it, we are actually kinda lucky! Look, the bus stop is right here, and there’s a bench. It’s a nice day — what if it were cold and rainy right now? And we’ve taken this bus before and it goes right to our building, and I have a metrocard with money on it, and hey here’s the bus! Isn’t this actually kinda fun?”

They shook their heads and continued to weep at the thought of their precious Magic Treehouse: The Musical CD cold and alone, belting out show tunes about Camelot somewhere without them, . We got on the bus, much to the delight of the tired commuters, and found some nice seats for scream-weeping in.

The thing is, the more I repeated this to the kids — “This could have been so much worse. It’s really okay. It wasn’t the tow truck’s fault, it was my fault for not seeing the sign! And the next steps are really quite easy. You eat dinner, Daddy comes home, I go get the car, no big deal. Weren’t we lucky we were right by the stop for the bus with the route we know that goes right home? Weren’t we lucky it was a nice warm night?” — the more it felt true. Even as I headed to the Navy Yards at dusk. Even as I paid the unspeakable towing fee. Even as I got in the car with the police escort — at least they try to help you not get murdered on your way through the lot — to go find my poor lonely car.

“Miss Amy,” said the elderly man, looking at my paperwork, “You’re doing really well. I see a lot of angry people on this job. You’re doing really well.”

“Thank you,” I said, the teacher’s pet in me absurdly pleased at this thought. “I have been doing deep breathing.”

“They are really cracking down on parking violations. I’m about to throw in the towel, to be honest. I’m too old for this. Nice young ladies like you out here because you were parked in the wrong place for a few minutes. It’s too much.”

Torn between loyalty to the new mayor I did after all vote for and have a weird friend-crush on, and indignance at the expense and inconvenience of the mishap (wasn’t there some sort of regulation that if they see two car seats in the car they let you go with a slap on the wrist? Maybe a $0 warning parking ticket like they had in sweet old Iowa City?) — I nodded.

“Now, Miss Amy, did they tell you there will also be a ticket on your car?”

I was so flattered by his complimenting my coping skills that I wanted to maintain my facade as someone good at dealing with stress, so I took another deep breath, hummed “Grownups Come Back” to myself, and said, “Oh? Well that figures! What a day, right?” I pictured the angry red chart my accounting app would show again this month. I took the parking ticket off the windshield, got in the car, and accidentally listened to a full song of the kids’ eardrum-bruising CD before I remembered I could turn it off.

The kids were very shaken up by this whole experience, and wanted to recap the next day. I repeated the importance of seeing the bright side, starting to actually believe myself. Ollie switched songs to Peg + Cat‘s “Problem solved! Problem solved! We solved the problem, now everything is awesome, problem solved!” (Don’t judge, that PBS app saves my life some days.) A few minutes later, he threw up his still-chunky cheerios all over the floor. Harper stared, a hand over her mouth. Then she shrugged and said, “Oh well! This is good practice for me for when I’m a doctor some day! I bet I’ll have to get used to seeing throw-up!”

Everything is awesome, indeed.

Letting My Daughter Dress Herself. Even When That Means Princess Shoes.

ImageThe shoes I would have picked.

 

I let Harper pick out her own shoes, and you know what happened? Princesses. Pink, sparkly, branded, un-PC, post-post-post-feminist Disney princesses. (They light up, too.)

Then, obviously, I wrote an essay about it.

The School Bus 3rd Birthday and Flower 5th Birthday Mashup Party, Or the Reason Why I am Late on All My Deadlines Right Now

A while ago I asked the kids what they wanted to do for their birthday party this year, just to feel it out. After all, maybe we are past the point of the scrappy apartment shared party? Maybe they have noticed that even though their birthdays are 2 weeks apart, most of their friends don’t have to share birthday parties, so what the hell, they want separate sleepover-at-the-museum parties?

But no, this thought had not occurred to them. Without hesitating, Harper rattled off the ingredients to a perfect party: “Chocolate cake, a pinata full of candy, goody bags with candy — do NOT try to make them healthy [this in a warning tone] — music, dancing, our friends, flowers, NO GAMES, and don’t forget the candy.” Ollie added: “School buses!” Adam had his own list culled from this one, which included name tags (because dads don’t know anyone’s names), lots of beer (or as Ollie put it, “beard for the grownups”), pizza, and a 2-hour window — people were welcome to stay longer, but we served cake like an hour in, so as not to have one of those situations were you are being held hostage by a kids’ party for your whole day. What I learned from doing pretty much this same party last year (when I was also about to have a book release!) and the year before (when we had just moved into our apartment that month!) was that Sunday afternoon parties are the easiest on Mama, because then you have all weekend to pull together all those cute decorations you pinned on your damn Pinterest page and so on.

It was relatively short and sweet, the kids had fun, their friends went home with huge bag of candy and plastic crap including whistles, so now we don’t have to worry about ever having a party again because I’m sure everyone hates us. It was fun for the grownups too, or at least it was for us, which meant we kind of forgot to take pictures of the actual party, but you can imagine how it went down: lots of kids racing around and creating a huge yellow balloon rat-king, smashing our poor beautiful pinata, and Harper and Ollie sneaking off into the other room to salivate over the presents. And now I wash my hands of kid parties until next spring. Good family-planning, us!

I Read the News Today. Oh Boy.

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(illustration from the Mo Willems book I’m a Frog)

I read that “civilization is ending” article much the same way I take most of my news – half-skimmed on my phone from someone else’s Facebook post, while on the toilet, as the kids were riding brooms like horses in the hallway. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dire predictions but of course, the next thing I needed to do was to put the kids to bed. So as we got into jammies, brushed teeth, and read mind-numbing Little Critter books, here was, essentially, my thought process. I share it here because in retrospect it seems kind of funny, but I assure you this all felt/feels VERY REAL. 

  1. Man, if it’s true that industrial civilization is going to collapse in like 15 years, I’ve got to think of something I can do to help the world!… … … hmm… … … nope, I got nothing. Okay well maybe I should just try to really enjoy every moment. Just really mindful of these good, still-civilized times, really live in every instant. I mean, not right now exactly because I’m not crazy about tooth-brushing-time, but like tomorrow. We are supposed to go grocery shopping tomorrow but maybe we should do something more seize-the-day-ish like…the Botanic Gardens! Then grocery shopping. When it seems like civilization is really starting to decline I should definitely go to Costco and stock up on… something. Matches. Crackers. Firearms? No, that’s very not me. Maybe like, tuna fish. That seems right. I should probably reread Little House on the Prairie.
  2. How sad. I really like civilization, too. Mostly the art museums. And the antibiotics. And book stores. Especially the ones with cats.
  3. Pets-wise, at least Quimby won’t still be alive in 15 years. I don’t think she’d make a good post-apocalyptic dog. We’ll probably find some highly intelligent, intuitive stray who helps us find squirrel meat and stuff. <picturing my family living in Prospect Park, in a sod house.>
  4. Wait. Really? But not really? That wouldn’t really happen. People are always saying crazy things about the world ending. Remember those Waco people? It wouldn’t really happen. Or at least not to me. That can’t happen to me! I’m the POV character!
  5. Wait, what? That’s a crazy thought. And I don’t even do drugs. But I do do books. I’ve been doing too many books lately, clearly. I need to do something real. The world is about to get all The Road. And I couldn’t even finish that book because it was too depressing, and also I have to admit, the prose style didn’t thrill me. I wonder what happened in the end? Maybe it was, like, a really happy ending! But still. It would help to have some skills. Real skills. We should go camping. We should teach the kids to start a fire. Or something. The only skills any of us have are civilization skills. Reading, writing, taking photographs. Singing lullabies. I’m pretty good at that. But I guess we’d be relatively okay.
  6. Oh my god, my glasses! When civilization starts noticeably declining, someone remind me to get like 100 pairs of glasses. It will seem crazy, but I will totally really need them if, say, a future-mutant-wolf-squirrel eats mine. I can’t see a thing without them!
  7. Maybe I should tweet that link to President Obama. Wait, he probably read it. He’s probably going to take action and make it all okay. No he’s not, he’s going to get his family on a jet to the super secret satellite for all the government officials, like in that movie Elysium! I wish I was going to that super secret satellite place. But no, I’ll be here in the polluted shantytown of Brooklyn working in a robot factory with no health insurance like Matt Damon. That will be miserable. But there could be a good memoir it, I suppose.
  8. I hope I finish my next book in the next 15 years. Oh WAIT it totally won’t matter. Or maybe aliens who land on the barren wasteland of Earth in 400 years will find our books? Or they’d probably be all dissolved. How long would a Kindle last in the wild, I wonder?

I mean, in all seriousness, what are we supposed to do? Just, you know, go on writing listicles and telling the kids to turn off the tap when they are brushing to save water? I guess so. And reading books, I think. I’m not sure why but really, why not.

Who Are You Calling a Bad Mommy?

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Oh, stop judging me. (Photo by Frieke Janssens)

As usual, everything is happening elsewhere. That’s the modern world, people. 

Well, here’s what I wanted to say about the Slacker Mommy phenomenon:

Here it comes, the backlash to the “Bad Mommy” backlash to the “Perfect Mother” backlash to the “Don’t Be a Mother” backlash to the “You Have to Be a Mother” backlash to the… where was I? Oh right, the Salon article burning up my Facebook feed these days, titled “The tyranny of the bad mother: Slacker moms are just as intimidating as perfect ones.” Elissa Strauss writes about the persona of the “Bad Mother,” which has colonized the world of mommy blogs: “Born in the sanctimommy’s shadows, the bad mother is everything the perfect breast-feeding, plastic-avoiding mom is not… But then the bad mothers started getting a little judgey themselves.” Could it be that the real problem is that we have become addicted to labeling ourselves as mothers? And how has this happened?…

Read the rest on Redbook