True Parent 7
“Dad, why is that band called 'Crazy Horse’?”
“Is God a real person?”
“Why do people have tombstones?”
These questions, posed by my twin six-year-old daughters, led to a big change in my life.
In 2014, work had been insanely busy for this single dad. The girls had to tolerate my need to work overtime (producing radio shows and running a couple music venues). They would draw and create things, and I’d barely give them a glance before redirecting my attention to my oh-so-important deadlines. One night I even ignored a masterful Q-tip and hot glue suspension bridge.
It was getting to be a drag for all of us. My “no screen time” rule seemed a little hypocritical when I would stare at a computer screen for hours. The girls are with me half the time (shared with my co-parent and amicable ex), and I started worrying that my quality time was losing its quality. The girls rolled their eyes and said the name of the show I was working on with disdain too many times.
One day, Dana sighed and said, “Dad, let’s make our own radio show.”
It could work—or maybe it’d be the worst experiment ever. If you asked my co-producers about my work style, they might use words like “difficult” and “autonomous.” Did I want to subject my girls to co-producing such a difficult project with a monster like me? Yet the question kept coming up. And the girls kept giving me content, in the form of questions. I bit the bullet, tightened the belt, and planned a sabbatical.
So Many Questions
You’ve heard the questions kids ask. They’re pretty constant, and can be downright annoying if you don’t have a strategy. Mine became “actually answer the questions,” and with truthful, comprehensive, exhaustive answers, whenever possible. If not, we’d go get the answers. We’d keep a list, and then go down the internet rabbit hole to pursue in-depth answers, the way grownup reporters would do.
We Googled constantly, which wasn’t much fun. It meant the codependent relationship with my laptop was deepening, not abating. My “Be careful what you ask, because we’re really gonna get into this shit” attitude did not daunt their inquisitiveness. In fact, it created a new dilemma: We were becoming internet zombies.
So I planned a screen-free vacation. But the questions remained, as did our mutual curiosity about creating some sort of show together. My solution? Buy a used RV (the smallest one we could find), choose a slow, convoluted route, pack a recording device, and declare this a “project vacation.” Our goal: Drive from Portland to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit the girls’ maternal family for a few days, and then return by a different route.
Fellow parents warned me: Don’t take long road trips with little kids unless you want to test the bounds of unconditional love. I ignored this advice. I’m glad. Those were the best days I’ve ever spent. We built little bookshelves and packed them with Golden Guides, games, and trip journals for the girls (who were budding sentence composers). We saw tourist traps and parks, and most importantly, sought out stories. We feasted on real, Studs Terkel-style stories from regular, astonishingly interesting people.
This was the unlikely start of our podcast, Roam Schooled. We started finding real answers to the girls’ questions. They learned—but I learned more.
We had just about every setback imaginable: On the first night, the little six-cylinder broke down in La Grande, but we found the faulty wire, and were off to view the starry skies of Eastern Oregon. It was July in the hottest summer on record, Montana was on fire, and it was 100 degrees everywhere, all the time. The camper kept overheating.
We witnessed an epic thunderstorm, surrounded by constant lightning. We talked to Lakota tribeswomen about the political controversy of the Crazy Horse Memorial. We crashed a funeral. We got thrown off a ranch in the middle of nowhere one morning while making oatmeal. (We didn’t intend to trespass and thought we were on a public road—and maybe we were, but experience has taught me never to argue with old men in the middle of the desert.) We got lost on a hike in Wyoming.
We made it to Petoskey, Michigan via the Upper Peninsula and watched sunsets that silenced our chatter. We had a songwriting contest to see who could do a better re-write of “Tra La La BOOM Dee-ay.” The girls won, and worked off energy during the long Dakota stretches by singing the winning version approximately 9,562 times. I never tired of this, because instead of looking at a screen, I was peering through a windshield at rolling greenery—at the vastness of possibility that a dad imagines for his daughters, a giant sky of questions and answers.
We gathered 100 hours of material, which became the basis of our first two episodes, released as one-hour podcasts in November and December. Last fall, we took another long trip through the Southwest, and this time we brought along a pair of volunteer co-producers (Lydia Ricci of Philadelphia and Ben Landsverk of Portland) to give better shape to the stories, and find more pointed storytellers and stories. The girls honed their interviewing chops, as did I.
The girls and I are currently planning our next trip using a highlighter on a giant map we’ve plastered to the wall. And on nights when I don’t have the girls, I reflect on what I learned from all this:
• Try to do new things with my kids.
• Always overestimate their ability to track an idea, project, or conversation.
• Take crazy ideas seriously—at least for long enough to fall in love with them.
How long can Roam Schooled last? As long as we keep wondering. (And it would be really nice to have a sponsor to put gas in the tank.)
Jim Brunberg is a dad, musician, songwriter, music producer, and the owner of two venues (Mississippi Studios, Revolution Hall) as well as being a radio producer for Public Radio International. You can find the latest episodes of Roam Schooled at roamschooled.com or iTunes. We encourage you to do so—they’re excellent.