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Attack of the Alterna-Parents 

Erika Schickel and Neal Pollack have kids, and tell us all about it

Wednesday, Feb 14 2007

Now that we can’t move a muscle without signaling lifestyle, the literary ground lies thick with parenting memoirs, a dreary subgenre practiced by midlife boomers convinced that they alone have pioneered discovery of the joys and sorrows of raising children in the modern age. Often as not, the memoirist is peddling a full-service parenting philosophy that shows up all other child rearing as false or faulty — and holds out the royalty potential of her or his priceless aperçus doubling as self-help manuals.

Still, there are exceptions. Like many other tales from modern motherhood, Erika Schickel’s You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom looks suspiciously like a series of recycled freelance essays cobbled together, just barely, with stitched-on themes, then rushed into print by a publisher looking to tap into the angst of the overprivileged. We’ll forgive her that because she’s a frisky, surprising writer, opinionated and blessed with a smart bullshit detector. Schickel, who’s in her 40s and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, comes from a long line of writers, from whom she strenuously sought to differentiate herself by becoming first a sexual and cultural rebel, and then an actress. Before she became a mother, Schickel writes at the end of this disjointed but bracingly candid book, “I had been a svelte, rising actress-about-town.” That might be stretching things a bit — IMDb has her guesting for a lot of series television, and she played a shrink in Toxic Avenger, Part II way back in 1989 — but we won’t quibble. Childbirth turned Schickel into “a healthy, robust, two-hundred-pound postpartum person,” the bit parts stopped coming, and her agent fired her on official letterhead.

For which we should be grateful, because the howling creative void that ensued caused Schickel, now at home with her kids, to take up her pen and become what she was meant to be, a writer. (She’s written for various publications, including this one, though I’ve never met her.) You’re Not the Boss of Me mines these essays extensively, and could have done with judicious editorial pruning of her ruminations on her foot surgery, her unlovable cat, the shepherd’s pie she made for the multicultural potluck at one daughter’s school and the sugar cookies she tried to bake for the other’s homeroom teacher. Ballast aside, though, Schickel has a singular voice and a point of view untrammeled by current parenting bromides. Her father is the wonderfully cantankerous film critic and book reviewer Richard Schickel, and whether by genetic inheritance or osmosis or both, she inherited from him an unwillingness to be snowed by fashion or cant — as well, perhaps, as a useful truculence born of a childhood scarred by the ugly divorce of her warring parents.

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Schickel strives diligently to be an “alterna-mom,” but she has neither time nor stomach for the cloth diapers, the irreproachable but tedious I-messaging of playground mediation, the endless runs to Whole Foods for organic this or that. “I sucked at Alterna-Momming,” she writes. “I simply didn’t have the conviction required to actually stuff a birthday piñata with raisins and string cheese. I could talk the talk, but I couldn’t walk 10 feet in their Birkenstocks... Realizing that I didn’t fit in with the Traditional Moms or Alternative Moms, I felt lost, unmoored, alone in my convictions. I was just a Slacker Mom with a guilty conscience.” Schickel doesn’t heap contempt on either of these two groups, but she rightly skewers the tiresome and self-defeating tendency to theorize everything a parent does. “Life-Stylers rankle me,” she writes. “People lacking in imagination about themselves sign up for lifestyles... All these Alterna-Moms would claim to be square pegs, misfits, rebels, and yet there’s a feeling of mindless conformity here... I could see these children after a few years of child-centric education: muddy, unable to read, tantruming in the yard, telling their mothers to go fuck themselves, having their every feeling validated, no matter how shitty. It made me shudder.”

Primary caretakers or not, dads are horning in on the parenting act too. Neal Pollack’s extravagantly padded Alternadad, a memoir of part-time parenting his son in Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, has been getting more positive notices than it deserves. The author of Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel and The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature: The Collected Writings of Neal Pollack, Pollack is not afraid to mine his own life for material. Like Schickel, he’s a freelance writer with a gift for breezy, relaxed prose and a congenital suspicion of “parenting philosophy, an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one.” Like her too, he’s candid about his own shortcomings and about the way the expectations and sense of order we build up as single or childless adults fly out of the window when children arrive on the scene. Pollack, who now lives in Los Angeles, is incisive on the hair-raising variability of preschool education and the appalling lack of a government safety net for young families in an unstable economy.

He is, to put it mildly, less attractive in his contempt for those who run their lives differently, especially women. He bristles at mothers who give up pricey careers to stay home with their kids, calling them “obsessive overschedulers” surrounded by “a complex, impenetrable aura of self-righteous privilege and integrity, mixed with a little sacrifice.” (Never mind that many of these women toil away for free at their children’s schools and raise millions for arts programs the states no longer underwrite.) And I’d be disappointed if his wife, an artist, didn’t hurl a poopy diaper at his head upon reading that “I may have grown confident in fatherhood, but Regina... denied herself happiness, deliberately maneuvering into the regret and self-pity that can often attach itself to mothers as they grow older.”

Pollack clearly adores his son, but he seems to be of the opinion that he has done his wife and the rest of humanity a big favor by agreeing to look after him for whole weekends alone. To the degree that Alternadad is about the confounding of Pollack’s expectations that he would raise a cool kid while maintaining his own cool life (soon after Elijah was born, Pollack took off on tour with his rock band), it is funny and appealing. But soon his self-deprecating candor tips over into narcissistic bombast, replete with page after page of fully reproduced father-son dialogue on how he shaped his little boy (“this, then, was my legacy to my son”) in his own hip, nonconformist image. No wonder the poor kid turned into a biter and got himself booted out of preschool.

YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME: Adventures of a Modern Mom | By ERIKA SCHICKEL | Kensington Books | 228 pages | $13 softcover

ALTERNADAD | By NEAL POLLACK | Pantheon Books | 288 pages | $24 hardcover

Erika Schickel will read at “Women’s Night Out” with Alicia Brandt at the M Bar, 1253 N. Vine St., Hollywood, on Thurs., Feb. 22. 7 p.m. seating for dinner, 7:30 p.m. show; for reservations, call (323) 856-0036.

Neal Pollack will appear at Borders, 1360 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, on Sat., Feb. 24, 7 p.m.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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