Friday, December 31, 2010

Books of 2010: Best Non-Fiction

On the final day of the year, my final installment of book recommendations. This non-fiction list is so much more difficult than my fiction list. In any other year, an older book like Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun or a new book like Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus would have topped this list. The nonfiction books I read in 2010 were, however, quite extraordinary, making those titles runners up. Because I have no editor, though, I don't have to limit myself to one or even two recommendations. I've got three non-fiction books to recommend, each of them very different. In no particular order:

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere; The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, 1993
A good friend with generally different reading tastes than mine recommended this book, and I'm glad he did. Kunstler may be a little crazy (he declared the end of the automobile age in this book seventeen years ago), but he's smart crazy. The book outlines how land development evolved in this country and how we ended up with the crappy suburbs we have today. Kunstler grew up in Manhattan and now lives in small-town Saratoga Springs, NY. Because I also now listen to his podcast (the Kunstlercast), I can't remember what I've heard there, and what's in the book, but the book lays out what makes traditional urban fabric work and what makes the suburbs so dysfunctional. It's a seminal book by a unique thinker that will make some people muse "oh yeah" and others fling the book across the room. Here at the end of the year, I realize that Kunstler has given me a structure for evaluating a built landscape as I pass through it, which is a little tedious for my friends and family.

Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers, 2001

An incredibly gripping book with some passages that are very difficult to read. I p
icked up this book because Hampton Sides (a Yale graduate) was coming to town for a Yale Club of Pittsburgh event with his brand new book Hellhound on his Trail; The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin. Hellhound was not yet available, but reading about his other work made me curious. Ghost Soldiers tells the story of American POWs in the Philippines in World War II from the Bataan Death March to the deplorable and deadly conditions in prison camps for three long years until the Americans came back to retake the peninsula they lost to the Japanese in late 1941 and early 1942. Sides alternates chapters, one unfolding the story of how the prisoners came to be in one of the worst camps in the Philippines and the next describing the newly-formed Army Rangers and the bold plan to attempt to free a group of the last, most desperate POWs. Sides did an incredible amount of research but writes history on a McCullough-esque level (yes, I said it) that draws in the reader and does not let go until the story is told. Hellhound is very good as well, but I'd recommend Ghost Soldiers over Hellhound if you had only one book left to live.

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 2009

A collection of personal essays about growing up and becoming a father. A really delightful book. The essays are enjoyable and engaging and demonstrate Chabon's writing ability by featuring the occasional sentence that just takes your breath away. Since being a fathe
r dominates a lot of my time and identity right now, I really identified with those essays but enjoyed the entire collection. I liked this book so much that I a) own it (a rare occurrence for a Carnegie Library devotee) and b) have lent it to two friends already. The book feels a bit like fine chocolate. You might want to take a break and cleanse your palate in the middle so you can really appreciate the experience without being overloaded by it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best friends = deep knowledge

Charlie hosted his first sleepover ever. His best friend from school came over, and I learned something about the depth of their friendship when Charlie came into the kitchen to get a cup for the bathroom for James. I pulled down a yellow cup, and C said "He'd probably prefer red, but we can go with yellow because that's his third favorite color, just like me."

I do have a best friend, and we have slept over (if camping counts), but I don't know his third favorite color.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Books of 2010: Best Fiction

Continuing my 2010 book reviews, some fiction I'd recommend. This was surprisingly difficult, and I only feel passionate about Kavalier and Clay.

Michael Chabon, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2001
Although I was due to read this book eventually as part of my project to read all of
the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, I'd resisted it for a while. Its heft intimidated me. I have to be in a certain mood to commit to reading a 600+ page novel. Also, I was confused for a while and heard that it was a graphic novel. It's not, of course. It's a terrific novel that spans many years without sprawling. The graphic novel mistake derived from the fact that the plot centers around two cousins who become comic book artists just as the genre takes off before World War II. Following them as they age and experience more in their personal and professional lives, the plot impressively reinvigorates itself as developments unfold. The narrative tension feels artfully designed rather than tricky. This book could make you sad when it ends, not because of a sad ending per se but because you feel that you'll miss these characters.

Jonathan Tropper, This is Where I Leave You, 2009

A perfect beach read. Or maybe I just think that because I read it at the Outer Banks o
n our visit with my wife's parents and brother. My friend Heidi recommended it when I was needing a novel. The action of the novel takes place in a week while a family sits shiva for their mostly-secular father. Traumas sapped the life of the family long ago, and they don't stop appearing during the shiva week. Forced to spend the whole week together, each of the members of the family, who are very practiced at suppressing their emotions, has the chance to confront them. The story flashes back to when the kids were little and in high school in order to explain why all these people are as screwed up now as they are. Reading this made me appreciate my real family and life circumstances, especially my marriage. It's a little on the bleak side, with some raunchy mixed in. Just what you want at the beach with your in-laws.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Books of 2010: What not to Read

This week, I'll post some reviews from my booklist for 2010. Want to contribute to the year-end zeitgeist. When I post lists like this, though, it's books I've read this year, rather than books necessarily published this year.

Over the course of the decade, I've herky-jerkily reversed my proportions of fiction versus non-fiction. I don't know why. There has been no campaign at work here; it may just reflect evolving interests.

I may be getting charitable in my old age, but I only read one book this year that I would not recommend to others. And there may be audiences for this book. Misanthropic book clubs, perhaps? Herewith, my review:

If a surfeit of hope and cheer distresses you, read Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk's 2007 set of eventually-linked short stories about suburban English housewives. A bleakness runs through these closely told lives. Cusk is a very good writer and creates a world, which is what we seek in fiction, right? The problem is that in the world she creates, there's not much to hope for. She does capture that period of parenthood when the children are very small and so very dependent that achieving one thing in a day feels like a triumph. I can see why The Atlantic recommended this novel (?); the characters run more in parallel, drawn together by the place they inhabit than really sharing lives and interacting with each other. It may be worth reading, but reader be warned: the book should come with a script for Prozac. It's not that anything awful happens; it's just that the sum total of the place where these people have arrived strikes them as so awful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Overheard 2010 Runners Up Volume 2

A second and final installment of runner up quotes from our 2010 Christmas letter:

C: I’ll turn on “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” Teddy, to see how you feel.

After seeing Toy Story 3
T: I’m gonna bring all my toys to college.
P: What are you going to do with them?
T: Play.
P: What about me? Are you taking me to college?
T: No. I’m taking Daddy.

J: You picked the chocolate chips out of your banana bread?
T: Yep. And I ate them and ate them and ate them till I ate the whole city…(pause, laugh)…I didn’t eat the whole city.

T: Meat comes from animals. Like ham comes from fish.
P: Ham comes from pigs, honey.
T: And fish.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Tree Shopping Lessons

In our family growing up, father and children bore responsibility for acquiring the Christmas tree. Because my mother lead a women's group at church one night a week, the rest of us would take the large American station wagon and go out on that night to hunt for the tree. The tree purchase was a hunt because of my father's extreme thrift. He always wanted to be sure that he got the best deal, so in addition to a tree, we kids got lessons in persistence and bartering. We discovered market prices by driving from one tree lot to the next.

(Based on references at Thanksgiving, my dad apparently reads this blog; perhaps this post will surface him in the comments.)

A few forces contributed to our purchasing escapades: 1) my father's idea of an acceptable price for a Christmas tree and 2) the lessons he got at the knee of his father, a Boston fruit peddler.

From the outset, my father would have decided on an amount he hoped to spend on a Christmas tree. The price probably derived from equal parts memory of prior years and stubborn hope for a good deal. Arriving at a tree lot, he would not ask to see particular varieties of trees; he would ask the price range or to see the cheapest tree. If the lowest price on the lot exceeded the goal price, we would just walk away. "The walkaway" (as we came to call it) served two purpos
es. Saving us time shopping at a place we couldn't afford was the less important reason. We could jump in the car and go to the next place. The more important reason was that the walkaway could actually alter the price. When Dad said a civil "OK, thanks friend" and walked away, it occasionally elicited a question about what he was looking for. That question could lead to a discussion of how we were hoping for a cheaper tree and a deal-making walk among the trees.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, sold fruit in Boston, first from a wagon and then from a truck. The kids would help on the truck
and get a retail education. My dad learned to call out "App-o!" and "Watermel-o!" because the actual last syllables of apple and watermelon would melt away when shouted down the street. A son passed into manhood when he delivered a 50-pound sack of potatoes from the truck to the customer's house. My dad, who is built like me, tells the story of the hot day as a 13-year-old 90-pound weakling that his rite of passage arrived. After struggling to get the sack to the door of the classic Boston triple-decker, the customer said "third floor". Although his knees buckled, he managed to schlep the spuds to her apartment and return to the truck a man.

What was I talking about? Oh, Christmas tree shopping.

My dad also gained a keen, practical understanding of supply and demand from the days on the fruit truck. For example, early in the day, they were allowed to eat all the bananas they wanted. That way, by the end of the day, the supply would go down, driving the price up and leaving them without leftover bananas. This supply and demand knowledge came in to play on the tree lot. If we were shopping early in the season, Dad knew we lacked a certain leverage. But on a cold night as it got closer to Christmas, a large tree inventory started looking like a liability. The walkaway could tap into a latent panic that trees bought at wholesale would not be sold at all.

One Christmas represents the apotheosis of Christmas tree shopping with Dad. As I remember it, we'd driven around to several places. It was getting late. The target price was 15 dollars. That might have had something to do with why we'd visited so many lots; even in those simpler days, a fifteen-dollar tree would have been a bargain. We were the only customers in a former gas station where one lonely guy, probably college-age was selling the trees. Dad looked over several trees, talked prices, executed a partial walkaway and finally got the guy down to 18 dollars. When he pulled out his wallet and started searching his pockets, the fact that he'd anchored on 15 dollars reared its ugly head. He counted out $17 in bills and then a further 42 cents in change. Why carry more if you on a night when you were getting a tree for 15 bucks? The beleaguered salesman threw up his hands and took what Dad had, and we tossed the tree in the back of the car and headed home.

Despite these lessons, I shop for a Christmas tree differently. Time feels scarcer than money these days, and I like to look at trees in the daylight if I can. I did take Teddy with me this year, but we went to only one place, under a mile from home, chose a tree only partially on price and did not barter. We paid 42 dollars and spent about 12 minutes on the errand. The memory probably won't last for Teddy like my memories have. That's a little sad, but I hope I'm passing on my hard-won knowledge in other areas of life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

Overheard 2010 Runners Up Volume 1

We've made a semi-famous habit of including funny quotes from our kids in our Christmas letter. This year, we continue the tradition, and with it, for the second year, I hereby publish some that didn't make the main list.

While wearing corduroys:
Teddy (4): Dese make sounds. Dey make sa-wop sa-wop sounds. And when you run with spawts pants [sports pants, i.e., sweatpants], dey make sa-weet sa-woot sounds.

Charlie (8): I wish we were nocturnal because I want to see what it’s like to move around late at night.

C: I think Dancing Queen is in my top ten songs of the ‘70s, although I probably only know about ten…or maybe two.

C: For Christmas, I want a sister.
T: I want two sisters and two brothers.
C: We should get a baby.
T: A little tiny baby.
Paige: Where should we get a baby?
Simultaneous answers:
C: (whispering) S-E-X.
T: We should buy one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I think we've covered the fact that it just would not be a good idea for me to participate in the Movember cultural phenomenon. I admire those who did, but they just don't look as creepy/sinister as I do with a 'stache. As winter has hit Pittsburgh for real, thought, I have started a winter beard.

In talking to one of my wife's long-bearded coworkers about it yesterday, I found that he and I hold polar opposite men's facial hair theories. He says that once men get over the initial grief they get when they stop shaving, they then tend to keep their goatee/beard/'stache in perpetuity. I, on the other hand, think that because men's fashion and haircut styles change so little over the years, facial hair is the only appearance change option available to the bored male.

Data points on the grow-it-keep-it side of the ledger include
my boss and Don, my self-appointed beard mentor at church. Having had a beard for a very long time, my boss likes to summarize his mid-career technology masters degree experience by saying that he had classmates who were younger than his beard.The first time Don saw me at church with a newish beard, he said "Beard looks good. Two things: Don't touch it. Shampoo it like it's your hair. Then it won't itch." As good as this advice was, I had to chuckle the next winter when I grew the beard and Don approached me and said "Beard looks good. Two things..."

Most guys that I know, though, grow something on their face as a lark for a short time. After gauging how they personally like it and how those around them react, they then keep it for some length of time before starting over with a different look.

Which theory holds for more guys? The "grow-it-keep-it" or the "I wonder how I'd look with a beard"?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Hair and Loss

When you're going bald
and look around, you see that
lots of guys are not.

Author's note: the author's wife has always been his best and favorite editor.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Our most frequently-used parenting tool

Reflecting on my recent post about rules, I don't believe I have ever sounded more like my father than I did there. I should probably not complain about that, like I moan when someone says I'm getting to look just like my father. I'm grateful for the way my parents raised me (now) and appreciate their commitment to each other and to me.

We have a tool that unexpectedly takes center stage in our parenting: a kitchen timer. It's actually a series of timers, including the timer application on my phone. We happened into using timers to manage transitions when Charlie was little, and the tool has served us so well that we've never abandoned it.

When it's time to move from one thing to anoth
er, we warn the boys that it's going to be time to wrap it up, and we set the timer. When the timer goes off, they move from the one activity to the next. When they ask to use the computer or watch a DVD, we give them a set amount of time and set a timer. It works when we have to leave the playground or a friend's house, too. In fact, I used this tactic at a friend's house, and when the timer went off, Charlie popped up happily, said goodbye to his friends and got ready to leave. The other parent was blown away and asked "how did you do that?" I said, well, start six years ago and be consistent.

As I say, we happened into this and just found that it works. One of Charlie's childcare center teachers articulated why it works in a way we couldn't have: it makes the time and transition management definitive and takes it out of our hands. I have observed other parents giving their kids a time limit to leave a place and then lose track of time themselves or lose patience waiting. I find it difficult to actually know when three minutes have passed. The timer doesn't.

After getting frustrated with a bedtime routine that got longer and longer, we employed the timer there, too. At 8:00, the boys have to start getting ready for bed, and we set a 30-minute timer. When they're in their pajamas with brushed teeth, we read in mommy and daddy's bed until the timer beeps. If they get their stuff done quickly, we can have as much as 15 minutes to read. If they're slow, we only have a few minutes. After that, they get to read in their beds until 8:45, when the timer goes off again.

Kids do need a warning when the activity or location is going to shift, and the timer - while making transitions manageable for us - makes the transition predictable and manageable for the kids. They handle it so much better than they would if when we said 5 minutes, we meant 3-20 minutes, determined randomly case by case.

I know that it works now. I hope that it doesn't lead to painful analysis on a therapist's couch for the boys 20 years from now.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Time and Appliances

Moving into a new home has necessitated a period of learning about the differences between our new appliances and the ones we left behind across the street. You have heard me moan in this space before about my sexist dryer. I must now tout an excellent feature of my dryer while bemoaning a lack of desirable features on my oven. These pros and cons revolve around time management in these time-saving devices.

First, the cons. The prior owner of our home replaced the kitchen appliances shortly before selling. It appears that she chose the appliances based on how they would look in real estate sales photos. They're stainless steel, and they harmonize visually with each other (even if they don't harmonize with the 1991 off-white and oak of the cabinets or the Burger King tile floor). They're all hat and no cowboy, though. The fridge is small, and our normal food bows the shelves; the holidays - oi! The dishwasher is small and haunted and loud. It turns itself on spontaneously, and even when we turn it on intentionally, we have to close the kitchen door in order to have a conversation in the next room.

The oven, though, (no pun intended) takes the cake. Lacking insulation, it pours heat into the room, which is actually proving to be a boon as winter sets in. The main problems, though, derive from an overly-simple control panel. The oven has no timed bake. Although one may not need one's oven turn on automatically at a specified time and temperature for a specified amount of time that often, when one needs it, timed bake is indispensable. Also, on a more daily basis, we're annoyed by the fact that when you set the oven to a desired temperature, it displays that temperature on its little screen. Not the time. Not whether the oven has reached that temperature or not. If you're in the kitchen at the precise moment it gets to temperature, it beeps. But the display doesn't return to a clock while the oven is on. A little clock button will show you the time temporarily before reverting the display to the temperature. When my hands are covered with dough or poultry bacteria, I can't push a button to find out the time!

On a happier note, the dryer has a feature that I never knew I missed. It buzzes when the cycle's done. I know many dryers are equipped this way, but I've not had one as an adult. Now, I can start that dryer load and go back to other things and not have to remember it and check on it. Very helpful. Also, if I'm about to take a nap and don't want to hear the helpful buzz, I can turn it off. Also, there's a wrinkle guard period when it repeats the beep if unattended and starts up again to fluff the clothes without heat. I'm still opposed to the dryer's general principles, but I must applaud these time management features.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Trade Proposal

Willing to trade: two
adult male eyeteeth for a
pants hanger that works.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reader Poll

Now that all four parts of My Worst Week Ever have been posted, I'm interested in reader feedback. Please take a second to answer the poll question in the upper right corner. It'll be up for about a week.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sweet Celebration

When we were dating and it was clear that we would stay together, I regularly (neurotically) asked my now-wife if our children would be cute. She consistently reassured me that they would be. As it turned out, she was prescient; our kids are cute.

Now that we have kids (and they're not some vague, futuristic idea), I realize that I fixated on the wrong question. We're all wired to believe our own children are cute. This is very good news for the rare ugly baby that comes along. I should have asked a more important question: will our children be sweet? As it turns out, they're sweet, too.

Last week, we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary (the crystal, glass and watches anniversary according to Although kids often make cards for their parents' birthdays or father's day or mother's day because one par
ent prompts the children to pitch in to the celebration for the other parent, anniversaries are different. We didn't expect our kids to do anything to recognize our day, even though it was important to us. Still, I mentioned it to Charlie, our eight-year-old, in the car that day and then thought nothing more of it. Later, after we'd gotten home, Charlie disappeared into the basement to his art table and returned with this picture:

He'd taken the initiative to celebrate our special day without anyone having to prompt him. Charlie does this kind of sweet, affectionate thing all the time, and it makes me so happy. I can't capture in any medium the lovey eyes that Charlie makes when he does or says something sweet for someone he loves. That's the most precious part.

The design here reminds me of '70s ski jackets. It's bold yet simple. The whole objet reminds me of things his aunt Lauren created for people in the family when she was a little girl.

I'm glad our boys are cute, but I wouldn't trade the sweetness for that attribute.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Young blog reader

I take this as evidence that Teddy reads Competent Parent.

He must have really liked this post. He posed this way for his mother and asked her to take the picture.

Also, even though the boys have bunk beds, they do like to hang out together in Charlie's top bunk, especially in the morning. The bunks, though, have seriously cut down on bedtime troubles with bothering and distracting each other from falling asleep.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I'm not having dessert tonight

When Charlie was four, he would sometimes (often) sit down at the dinner table, look at his plate and say "I'm not having dessert tonight." He said that because he knows our family rule that you have to eat dinner or a designated portion of dinner in order to get dessert. If he didn't like what was on his plate, he would just write off dessert, and that was that. In his brother's fourth year, he tends to moan and twist his body away from his plate when he doesn't like what's for dinner. Oh and take the offending items off his plate and put them on the table (which is against the rules). The dinner/dessert rule applies to him too, and he more and more often gets himself together and eats the required portion. If he's like Charlie, he'll turn the corner soon and eat most everything without complaint or negotiation.

But this post actually isn't about meals and dessert. It's about rules. A couple with a teenager recently explained their curfew rule: if their daughter misses curfew, the next time around, curfew will be a half hour earlier. And if she misses that, it'll be a half hour earlier still. Their daughter has never missed curfew.

Hearing about that rule that we don't need yet but will try to remember for later made me reflect on the rules we enforce with our boys and their relationship to those rules. Obviously, we devise and enforce rules for several reasons: keeping our kids safe, teaching them manners, maintaining our own sanity, etc. Their reactions to the rules make life interesting.

At Teddy's age (4), he just pushes against rules all the time, trying to see if they stand. They do. Actually, he doesn't just push against rules; he also helps to enforce them. We have a rule that if a boy watched a DVD yesterday (or had some other significant screen time), he can't watch one today. We happened into that rule a long time ago, and it succeeds. They don't even end up with a screentime blitz as often as every other day either because the schedule doesn't allow or because they forget to ask on a day when they could. Recently, I let Teddy watch a few DVDs while I worked during the day. That evening, he went to his grandmother's house, and he told me that he would have to tell Popo (grandma) that he couldn't watch TV that night at her house because he'd watched a DVD during the day. Yes!

Charlie knows the rules, observes them nicely and loves to enforce them a little too much. We often have to tell him that a situation is between his parents and his brother and that he needs to butt out. I don't look forward to the day when a reminder to practice his trumpet or clean something up isn't met with quick compliance.

As we observe our kids, we clearly see that they are happy we make and keep the rules. Kids whose parents don't communicate clear rules or change them all the time or fail to enforce them look pretty miserable. They know that if the grownups aren't in charge, then they are. And they know they're too young to be in charge. It stresses them out.

The most interesting aspect of the rules regime is the creation of agency. Within the framework of "eat your dinner to get dessert", the child actually exercises a choice. Same with the curfew rule we heard about. For now, anyway, we can set rules with clear consequences and carry out those consequences and watch the lesson get learned. Foot stomping now resolves itself into "I don't want dessert tonight" eventually.
Moans today tend to turn to compliance in a few weeks or months. Knowing where the boundaries are helps the kids decide how they're going to behave within them.

Now go to bed!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Adding a T to the Three Rs

Our third-grader has an email account. We had to set up an email account in order for his iTunes account to work. Sigh. Password overload starts early.

Now that he has the account, though, he uses it to communicate (in a very third grade way) with far flung family. When he started sending emails, we couldn't bear to watch the slow, hunt and peck typing. We instituted a rule that he has to play x minutes of typing games before he can play email. There are a zillion of them out there in many themes. Charlie likes a boring one called Typing Tidepool. His cousin introduced him to the BBC's DanceMat Typing. Me, I'm fond of Spacebar Invaders, but Charlie doesn't seem very interested in that one.

We have already seen an increase in Charlie's typing speed, and he actually touch types from the home row. Typing is a skill he'll need to succeed, and it's so much better for him to learn it now while his brain is plastic enough to create the quick progress he's already made. I didn't learn to type the correct way until high school, and by that point, it was pretty tough to learn.

Because handheld devices will replace desktop and laptop devices, maybe we should also start him on thumb typing. He'll have an advantage over us sausage-fingered adults. His thumb pads are tiny!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My worst week ever: Part 4 - conclusion

I now conclude the story of my worst week ever picking up after I got dumped, watched my man lose his shot at the presidency and fell ill with a stabbing pain in my side.

After I got violated for medical purposes by my primary care physician, we drove into Oakland, Pittsburgh's university/major hospital district to get me checked out at Children's Hospital. There, they had to be sure the diagnosis was correct, so I dropped trow and laid on my side again while another doctor snapped on a rubber glove. Yup, no doubt about it. That appendix needed to come out. They would have moved me into surgery right then and there, but an appendectomy shuts down the intestines, and I'd foolishly eaten dinner. They'd have to wait several hours before they could cut me.

The pain, though, started right away. A woman that I can only guess was a second-stringer poked me, oh, 5 or 6 times to try to get the IV in. When she gave up on the traditional spot in my arm, she put the IV in the back of my left hand. Ouchie! Couldn't you just stick your finger...nevermind. At some point, maybe right then, someone cut a plastic cup in half lengthwise and taped it over the IV needle. Apparently, patients like me tend to claw at the painful, restrictive thing in their hand when under general anesthesia. Good thing they had that medical supply contract with the Solo corporation.

Actually, although I said my first inkling that this condition wasn't going to go away and leave me to enjoy my weekend was during the first rectal exam,
the pain of that needle going into my hand really brought the reality home. I started crying, but it wasn't really because of the pain; it was more the accumulation of the week's events and the disappointment of losing out on the weekend's festivities.

After the IV, I don't remember much for a while. It was about 11:30 before they could operate. There was the classic moment of the anesthesia mask coming over my face. Following the instruction to count down from 100, I don't think I made it past 93.

Next, I awoke in a semi-dark room in one of a row of beds with a tube up my nose and that pesky IV restricting where I could move my hand. It was the middle of the night. So many unpleasant discoveries in this process. The tube, an NG tube, had been inserted in order to aspirate the nasty stuff out of my intestines, which, as mentioned above, had gone on strike. Take off one little useless dead end near where the small and large intestine meet, and the whole intestinal neighborhood throws in the towel. As if waking up from general anesthesia weren't hard enough, the tube running up through my nose and down to the intestines made my throat raw, inhibited my breathing and just felt terrible.

When daylight came, they moved me from the recovery room to a regular hospital room. I complained about the tube hurting my throat. A resident (who maybe wasn't so familiar with appendectomy recovery) decided the tube could come out less than 12 hours after surgery. He asked for some paper towels and told me to be ready with them because I would "feel like I had to blow my nose". He untaped the tube, put his left hand over my face, and started pulling the tube out with his right hand. As far as I could tell, the tube was 31 feet long and burned every inch. One can never know exactly what another person feels, but if that feeling was this guy's definition of feeling like he had to blow his nose, in the immortal words of Mr. T, I pity the fool. It felt like a volcano erupted through my nostril.

At least the tube was out, and I could breathe and swallow normally. After a delay of about 20 minutes, the intestines on the picket lines started up their favorite chant of "Hey hey! Ho ho! Nasty stuff has got to go!" I'm guessing at the actual words because I don't speak intestinese. Translated into our language, this chant sounded liked, looked like and was violent retching. Absent a vacuum and 31 feet of tubing, my meals of the last few days exited much more quickly and grossly than they had been overnight. They gave me a kidney shaped plastic pan to throw up in (What, this doesn't come in appendix shape? Call the good people at Solo.) About an hour and 15 minutes later, it happened again. Then an hour after that and 50 minutes after that. I spent all day Friday heaving. By the evening, the frequency had increased to about every 15 minutes, and the heaves had turned dry. I learned on the Friday of this horrible week that bile wasn't just a metaphor. It started out yellowish and morphed to straight black.

When the resident went off the schedule and another doc came on, he inquired as to just what nincompoop authorized the removal of the tube. Then he said something dreadful: "It's going to have to go back in." Whaaaa?!? Although having the tube rub my throat raw through the night had been quite awful, I at least had no idea how it got there originally. It went in while I was under. Now, I had to abide watching the tube go into my nose and then feeling it slide down a throat that had been rubbed raw by bile all day. If you're wondering, it's nowhere near as smooth as threading a needle. The tube balks and stops and has to be backed out and pushed back in some more. And then, once you've endured that, you have an NG tube up your nose again. Sigh.

Up to this point, my family had taken shifts sitting by me and comforting me. My parents brought my brother in after school on Friday, and he fairly tiptoed into the room with a stricken look on his face. In the hospital gown and with the IV in my hand and my kidney trough in the bed, I made quite a sight. He brought me some school stuff, which I don't think I really touched over the weekend. I shuffled around the floor with him, my wheeled IV pole carrying its teetering cargo. I do hope that IV control units have gotten less cumbersome in the last two decades. His visit signaled the end of continuous family support; one of my parents drove him out to the retreat center, and they proceeded to enjoy the calm before the Christmas storm. I think my other parent stayed as long as he/she could, and then returned for some time on Saturday. The big party was Saturday night, though, and after a certain time Saturday afternoon, it was just me and my neglected school books and my tubes and the hospital TV.

The IV computer beeped on a regular basis, 24 hours a day. A hospital may be the least hospitable place to recover from surgery. Shift changes created traffic in my room. The hallways buzzed with activity. The lights never went off all the way. A brief overnight lull ended at about five in the morning.

I felt so lonely on Saturday evening. I knew my family and friends were having a great time at a once-a-year party. My great new outfit was going unworn. Meanwhile, I had a tube up my nose, a cup taped over the needle in my hand and 21 Jumpstreet on the TV, interrupted by the arrhythmic beeping of the IV.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the protesters cleared the bilious picket lines. The tube came out for good. By Sunday evening, they cleared me to taste a popsicle, the first food to pass my lips since Thursday's inconvenient dinner. When the popsicle stayed down, they brought me apple sauce. Slow and steady wins the first-food-in-days race. On Monday morning, they brought breakfast. It's popular to complain about hospital food, but the only meal I ate on that stay tasted delicious. The novelty of eating anything and not the menu - institutional scrambled eggs and English muffin - accounted for my two thumbs up review. By midday, they took out the IV and checked me out of the hospital.

When I returned to school on Wednesday (the earliest possible day the docs would let nerdy old me), I rocked my gray on gray outfit. I felt a lot older for having experienced everything I had experienced in the hospital over the weekend. The following spring and summer, I dated a great girl closer to my age (she was only a high school senior). She broke up with me just before Thanksgiving break of her freshman year of college. I cried with my mom about it. We're still friends, though, if facebook counts. Although I never worked on another political campaign, I did vote in the 1992 election, the first one for which I was old enough. After occasional voting in mid-term elections in college, voting is now non-negotiable, and I've put out a yard sign here and there. The only nights I've spent in hospitals since 1988 have seen my sons ushered into this world. I'll take a labor & delivery overnight over an appendectomy visit any day, but I've admittedly played the easier role in that process.

All things considered, I'm grateful for that week. The hospital stay taught me compassion for those who have to spend any amount of time in a hospital. Getting dumped for neither the first nor the last time taught me that I could survive something that feels really bad at the time and go on to even better relationships. Of course, the most lasting thing that I got out of the experience may be the best: a really great story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

My worst week ever - Part 3

This is the third installment of my long-form story of my worst week ever. Prior installments here and here, respectively.

If by Tuesday evening, my week looked dark, I at least had a nice weekend event coming up. Perhaps a reversal of fortune was in the offing.

As you may or may not know, I grew up the son of Salvation Army pastors. Many people know the Salvation Army best through the red kettles the organization uses to collect money during the Christmas season. What you may not know is that Salvation Army officers like my parents essentially have their workload doubled throughout the Christmas season. In addition to pastoring a church and running a robust social service operation, they also have to oversee a very physically demanding fundraising operation that depends heavily on the economy, the weather and a less-than-dependable workforce.

Because of the stresses of the Christmas season, the Salvation Army had started by the time I was a teenager holding retreats for officers and their families in November. Back then, I didn't think much of the timing. Now,I can see in it a message that the higher-ups knew a tough time was coming for these families, and it would be good for them to take a breath before life changed radically for the almost two months running right up to Christmas Eve (a very lucrative day to raise money via red kettles at stores in the days before e-commerce.) The retreat weekend featured a Chri
stmas party, which called for a new outfit.

After my mom picked me up from my election day door-knocking, we probably grabbed dinner at Wendy's or Napoli Pizza in Bridgeville, south of Pittsburgh. We shopped in Bridgeville because it had both a TJ Maxx and a Marshall's. What more does the thrify, fashion-conscious teenager need?

This was at the tail end of my gray phase. In about sixth grade, I'd decided that gray the safest clothing color for me. I especially liked gray pants. That night at Marshall's, I remember scoring a rugby shirt with wide black and white stripes that a) never fit me right but b) was inexpensive. Mainly, though, we were there for my brother and me to acquire outfits for the Christma
s party that coming weekend. I chose some gray pants with more than the traditional number of pockets and the gray sweater pictured here. Yes, I still own this sweater, though I honestly have no idea why. I would like to say that I knew that ugly sweater parties were going to become de rigeur ironic hipster fixtures of the new millennium, but I would be lying. It's closer to the truth to say that I'm a sentimental pack rat and this sweater is in my sacred bundle.

While I was pleased to have new clothes to show off on the weekend, I couldn't help but notice that as we were leaving Marshall's, I had an intense, tingly pain in my right leg. In fact, I didn't feel great in general. Having hiked through public housing all day for Dukakis, I attributed the leg pain to fatigue and the flu-like symptoms to the rhythm of November cold outside and blasting heat inside the apartment entryways.

When I awoke on Wednesday, the pain was still there and the flu symptoms were worse. I had a test in computer math that I decided I couldn't miss, so I went to school. My school bus route ran through hilly first-ring suburbs, and we traversed many of those hills on brick streets. I recall that the school buses already had their chains on the tires for winter. The bus bouncing on those brick streets plus the chains on the tires assaulted the pain that had moved from my right leg to settle in my right lower abdomen. That was the worst school bus ride ever in which I was not getting beat up (another story or series of stories).

Mercifully, my computer math class was second period, so I didn't have to endure too long before taking the test. The test passed in a blur of pain and nausea. Right after computer math, I reported my desperately sick state to someone and discovered that the school district doctor visited the high school on Wednesdays. He checked me out, palpated the right side of my abdomen and declared my symptoms viral. One of my parents picked me up, and I laid up at home.

Thursday, I awoke to find the flu symptoms gone but the pain persisting. It felt like a lot less to contend with, and the nerd in me (Who am I kidding? "Nerd" and "me" were synonyms.) hated to miss school. Back over the washboard streets to school. I don't remember much about that school day, but I do remember deciding I had to get more medical attention while bouncing over the brick streets on the way home. My mom called the doctor, and she could fit us in that evening. I had a quick dinner, and we went for a 6:00 appointment. The dinner would prove to be an agony-prolonging mistake.

As my wife and children can attest, I don't have the most air-tight memory. Certain events, though, heighten the senses and seal in the memories. That night at my regular doctor's office, my symptoms called for the first rectal exam of my life and - amazingly - not the only one that evening. I won't dwell, but suffice it to say that if I had thought this ailment was going to go away quietly and leave me to enjoy the weekend, this unwelcome turn of events disabused me of that notion.

As she snapped off the rubber glove, she explained that the exam confirmed her guess: appendicitis. Although my appendix had not ruptured, it was dangerously close. This called for an immediate departure to Children's Hospital.

This is not the end of the story. One more installment should wrap it up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Metapost on my Schedule

I'm pretty allergic to metaposts on blogs. The most prevalent (and embarrassing) species of metapost follows a long absence of posts and recommits to posting regularly:

"Sorry, I've been busy/traveling/trapped under something heavy. I'm back now, though, and I'll post every day for the rest of your life."

A post like that is typically followed by more silence from the blogger.

When I came back from my moving hiatus this summer, I decided two things.

1. Not to create that kind of promise.
2. To adopt a schedule for the first time since I started this blog about two years ago. If you haven't noticed, I've been posting a minimum of Wednesday, Friday and a Sunday Haiku if I have one. That's the schedule I'm attempting to stick to.

It's good to have a schedule. In a wonderful interview with Terri Gross in a special episode of Fresh Air, Jon Stewart recently said that we think of structure as quelling creativity, but actually creativity thrives within structure. He's only the most recent person I've heard praise structure's contribution to creativity. Hopefully, this schedule will drive me to more creativity.

Since I adopted the schedule, I have found that it helps, except when it doesn't. I've been posting more faithfully, which also means I've been thinking and observing more carefully. Last Wednesday, though, I really mailed it in because I wanted to keep the schedule. I was on a deadline at work and didn't have the time or juice to do much more than that. But then my mother-in-law (probably my most frequent commenter) mentioned that post when we talked that week. Mostly, she liked the photo, which is what the whole mailed-in thing was about.

Finally, at the behest of a professional colleague I admire, I'll be posting some of my jokey charts on Mondays when I have them. I hope you like those, too.

Finally, finally, I wouldn't put up this metapost without putting up a real post today, too, so it's below this one.

School Bus Mysteries Solved

The experience of chaperoning my third-grader's school field trip last Friday solved two mysteries for me. When I mentioned this epiphany to my wife, she said "well, duh", and maybe you will, too. But maybe you're like me and had always wondered:

1. Why do school field trips leave the school at, like 9:30 and come back to the school at, say, 2:00, when the school day runs 9 am to 3:40?
2. Just what do school bus drivers do between the morning and afternoon runs?

It turns out the two mysteries and their solutions intertwine. Maybe this only applies in districts like ours that contract out every single bus trip; the district does not own buses. You've picked up on it, right? The buses can only be rented out for field trip runs at times that don't conflict with the morning and afternoon runs. So, to be safe, the bus company won't guarantee they can leave my son's school until 9:30, after their drivers have dropped off their morning kids and driven to the school from wherever. The buses that drove for the field trip are different and come from different companies than the buses that drive my son and his classmates to school.

Of course, solving one or two mysteries sometimes opens up many more. I'm still wondering:

a. where the buses/drivers go during the field trip time? other shorter field trips nested within the field trips?
b. what crossing guards do in the middle of the day?
c. why the field trips from my kid's school always leave the school 30 minutes later than they say they will? I walked into the museum on Friday and saw two parents waiting there. I heard one tell the other that she'd been there since 9:30, the time the kids were supposed to leave the school. I asked "first time chaperoning a field trip?" They sighed that it was. I shared my wisdom about not rushing to field trip locations and then proceeded to wait another 30 minutes with them until the buses rolled up.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Funky Sleeper

I stop into my boys' room before I go to bed some nights to see them asleep. They're so cute when they sleep, and they look younger than they are. It makes the parental love swell. I wrote a poem about it that I don't like very much. It's the third-grade rhyme scheme and the sentimentality. I can't do much about the sentimentality - it's in my nature - but these couplets are a drumbeat.

A sight to make a father weep:

two boys, so innocent, asleep.
In slumber, they look so secure
I wish that I could be as sure
That every night they will be there

safe, relaxed and free of care.
Their hearts so tender certainly

will break a time or two or three,
and I can't stop that happening.
I can, though, stand here now and sing
a lullaby, a hymn that I
would love to have them dreaming by.

These fleeting nights, I must not miss.
I pause just now to plant a kiss.
Too soon these boys will grow away.
I'll stop here nightly anyway.

I wasn't really planning to post that. Really, I just wanted an excuse to post this picture of how I found Charlie sleeping last night, with his wrists resting on the headboard of his new bunk bed. You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

CSA Fatigue

From Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, we get a weekly crate from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Actually one crate has proven too much for our family, so we share a crate with our neighbors. We really love it, and we're happy that this model has allowed our farmers to survive and (I think) thrive. Planning and executing meals based on what comes in the crate each week changes our cooking for the better. It challenges us to get out of our routine and try new things and reconnect to what's local and seasonal. None of that is news to many of you.

That wonderful challenge, though, starts to wear out its welcome by oh, 5 months into the season of the crates. We try to take advantage of the freshness of the produce we receive. Sometimes, it's a race to use items before they get a head-start on composting (in our fridge). A few years ago, we had so many stir fries, I got so I didn't think I could eat another. Of late we've roasted more vegetables, which I cannot bring myself to complain about. And yet...and now, I just kind of yearn for a casserole, made from mostly shelf-stable ingredients. I know I could whip up one heck of a veggie lasagna, but I want my familiar version. I also wouldn't mind some homemade mac & cheese.

I only have one more month to tough it out, and by January, I'll be missing the colorful abundance of the crate. They do offer winter boxes...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My worst week ever - Part 2

Herewith, part 2 of an experiment in longer form writing. If you need to catch the beginning of the story of my Worst Week ever, you can read part 1 here.

I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I should also have seen coming the second calamity to befall my worst week ever. That September, my English teacher asked if anyone wanted to volunteer on a presidential campaign. She knew the Pittsburgh campaign manager for (dahnt-dunt-dah!) Michael Dukakis, and they were recruiting volunteers. I and the rest of my classmates sat staring blankly until she continued that anyone who volunteered would get out of school early on Tuesdays until election day. Sign me up! I’m a - what’s it? - Democrat!

My house was kind of an apolitical zone. My parents considered whom they voted for a private matter, even from their own children. I never knew who my parents supported in any election, and despite asking point blank, never was told for whom they’d voted. We didn’t sit around chewing over policy issues or arguing positions either. The political scene simply didn’t permeate the walls of our house. This is the kind of background one needs in order to volunteer to campaign for one of the least successful presidential candidates of the 20th century.

For a few months of Tuesdays leading up to the election, I’d leave school in the afternoon and go down to campaign headquarters for a few hours. They put me to work stuffing mailings, combing through lists and manning the reception desk. When I think about it now, it served as a great introduction to how offices work and how to behave in that environment. Beyond that, though, I can't claim that the experience sparked a political awakening. I never got really clear on Dukakis's platform and had trouble defending him or my work on his campaign to my knowledgeable Republican friend. When election day neared, the campaign asked if I’d want to go door-to-door for Dukakis to get out the vote. That sounded like a whole day off school, so I signed up.

Election day fell, of course, on the Tuesday of my Worst Week Ever. When I reported to the campaign office, they paired me up with another high school student, Jennifer Brick from Wall, Pennsylvania. No joke. I now know that Wall is a community in the formerly industrial Monongahela Valley southeast of Pittsburgh. At the time, I thought this cuteish, professional-looking blond had made up her name and her city. Probably, I entertained notions that fate had brought my jilted self together with a fellow political crusader at just the right time. All in all, though, I’d have to say (apologies!) that she was just another Brick in the Wall.

A window onto why Dukakis and Bentsen did not sweep into office in 1988: the local organizers sent two kids from the suburbs to door-knock in public housing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. On a very chilly morning, we went in and out of three-story public housing complexes knocking on apartment doors and saying “Victory ‘88, Dukakis Bentsen”. Because mostly, we knocked, said that and stood there looking at closed doors, the rest of our script remains hazy in my memory. I think we encouraged people to vote, informed them of their polling place and offered to arrange a ride if they needed it. We likely also had talking points about how Michael Dukakis was going to lead this country into a brand new day. Mostly, what we were selling, they weren’t buying.

With Salvation Army officers as parents, I interacted regularly with poor people. Pickups in the church van were a staple of Sunday mornings - driving around town picking up those who could not easily get to church. By 15, I possessed a keen awareness that the less fortunate are all around and among us. There lies a great void, however, between honking the horn at the curb in front of someone’s subsidized apartment and going inside. In fact, when one of my assigned doors opened on election day, I stood facing a woman from our congregation. It made sense that someone with her persistent health problems, slight mental illness and low IQ might live in public housing, but I’d never contemplated where she went after church. She did not vote for Dukakis or anyone else in the 1988 election. At other doors, we heard children’s voices and no adult voices. Good for them that they didn’t open the door, not even for our hopeful message of Victory.

Aside from coming face to face with people in poverty, I also remember the relentlessness of walking outside in the cold between entryways and then into a blast of unregulated heat. The stairways were so hot that in many places, people had opened the windows. While too much heat beats too little, the wasteful extreme of it seemed like another indignity heaped upon this group of potential voters. The alternation of fire and ice made Jennifer and me physically miserable, which only harmonized with the spirit-sapping effects of of our fellow citizens’ persistent indifference.

When we’d canvassed our entire assigned area, we returned to the polling place at which we’d been dropped off and awaited our ride back to campaign headquarters. And awaited and awaited and awaited. A second window into the failure of the Dukakis campaign: when they had two sharp tack political operatives like J. Brick and me on their hands, they left us stranded at the meeting place for an hour in the middle of the day. When they finally did get us back - cold-sweating and hungry - to the campaign office, they fed us something and sent us back out to introduce more citizens to the coming Victory.

As you know, the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket took nine states and the District of Columbia. They barely squeaked out Massachusetts, Dukakis’s home state. All my hard work down the drain.

When your girlfriend dumps you to start the week and then your presidential candidate flames out that badly on Tuesday, one would think the only direction the week could go is up. But one might be wrong. I did have a nice weekend event to look forward to, and there was some clothes shopping to do. Marshall’s, here we come!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Just sayin'

When a mom is out
with her kids, you never hear
her called "Mrs. Dad".

Friday, October 15, 2010

What's da sitsty?

At this time of year, Teddy, like all of us, contemplates the weather when getting dressed. His question now, is typically: "Is it a short-sleeve day or a long-sleeve day?" It wasn't that long ago, though, that he asked "what's da sitsty?" meaning "what's the high temperature for today?". He must have distilled this question from hearing a high in the 60s on weather reports in the spring.

It's bittersweet to have him asking an understandable and answerable question like short versus long sleeves. It shows that he's more prepared now to communicate and function in the wider world than he was just a few months ago. But it also shows how fast he's growing up and shedding his younger, cuter patterns. It's our job to help our kids grow up this way, but I sometimes have trouble greeting the signs of success in that endeavor with open arms.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My worst week ever: part 1

This post is the first installment of a little experiment in longer form writing on my blog. If I told you this whole story in one post, it would be too long for the Internet, and you would stop reading after the third paragraph. So, I'm breaking it up into about three installments.

In order to tell the story of the worst week of my life, I’m going to have to tell you an awful lot about what came before that week to put it in context. I’ll dole that history out in small chunks as necessary.

To this point in my life, I’d have to say that I had my worst week ever as a teenager. Knock wood it stays that way. It started with what turned out to be an ominous letter and ended with me in the hospital.

Although The Week started Sunday November 6, 1988, a letter I received on the previous Thursday, the 3rd should have tipped me off. I was 15 when this bad week rolled in. Remember letters? Remember no email and text messages and facebook status updates? I moved around a lot growing up, and I had friends who didn’t live very close. Long distance calling actually cost enough money that people budgeted long-distance phone time with some care and precision. In my house, that took the form of a brief fatherly lecture, delivered often: “The telephone is a tool for communication.” Loosely translated, this meant “get off the phone”. So we wrote letters. We sat down and devoted time to composing sentences and paragraphs long-hand to one another. They were filled with newsy bits and formulaic liturgical filler (“Hope you are doing well”...”Say Hi to your mom and them.”) Sometimes, we communicated about seriously important or emotional things in this format that enabled us to express deep thoughts without interruption.

That Thursday, I got a letter from the girl/woman I was dating. I don’t merely plunk “woman’ into that sentence because it’s how people who attended college in the ‘90s refer to females of all ages. The person I was dating actually
was a woman. We’d worked at camp together the prior summer when I was 14 and she was 18. She was my older sister’s co-counselor. That fall, while I toiled away at my sophomore year in high school, she was a 45-minute drive north at college. Over time, my impression of that situation/relationship evolved from “this is awesome” to “that was creepy”. Anyway, the letter contained a lit fuse of a sentence that I should have been able to interpret by age 15: “We need to talk on Sunday after church.” The other thing about letters is that their transmission created lag time. So although I didn’t know what we “needed to talk” about, I did carry a certain dread through the weekend.

I dug this woman, and it thrilled me to talk about my college girlfriend at school. We went on my first ever proper date. She picked me up in her black Datsun 210, and we saw the movie Dominick & Eugene - set and filmed in Pittsburgh - in Pittsburgh! I wore a shirt that I loved but which my school friends called “the garage sale shirt”. It was a button down with fleur-de-lis coats of arms all over it. Yes, it was the late ‘80s. Yes, I got it at Marshall’s. In an odd twist, my wife went on
her first date one month later at that same theater with her high school boyfriend.

Anyway, Sunday rolled around, and we walked off to the most private place we could find after the service, a short staircase in an upstairs hallway, and she broke up with me. Despite the letter and the age difference, it came as quite a surprise. Maybe I’d hoped she was just going to request that I not wear the garage sale shirt on future dates. I took it pretty hard. And I didn’t know the half of what was coming.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Feminine Influence

If you want your man
to keep his facial hair, say:
"I kind of like it."

NB: no one said that sentence on the one day I rocked the stache.

Friday, October 8, 2010


In August, when Paige's grandmother died, we lost the last living grandparent either of us had. Martha Smith was a grand lady. She kept house, home and three daughters together during her husband George's Navy career. Growing up, my mother-in-law moved 18 times before leaving home (a record that makes my traumatic childhood of 7 Salvation Army moves sound amateur). Her ability to maintain a lovely home while on the move that much really impresses me. By the time I met her, when I was in college, she was a playful grand dame who loved to dance and play tennis and was never without a book. When dining out with her, we all knew she would order a perfect Manhattan on the rocks with an olive and a glass of ice on the side; she would spoon the extra ice cubes into the drink in a slow rhythm to dilute it, talking and laughing and enjoying (enduring?) George's madcap personality

When "Mama" passed, our kids lost their last great grandparent. I never had any living great grandparents; they had 3 until two years ago and one until they were 8 and 4. Charlie is named for Martha's father, Charles Mathis.

Of all that happened in a weekend of family memorial gathering late last month, I suspect I'll remember one moment the most. The priest led us outside after a short service. We processed around one end of the church to a memorial garden in the church yard with the urn of Mama's ashes. After a short liturgy and the recitation of a poem by Paige's cousin, Mama's daughters took turns spreading some of her ashes. The sheer physicality of it surprised me; it's always so graceful and ethereal in the movies. These ashes required a few healthy whomps on the bottom of the urn to free up clumps. Next, Paige's brother and cousins took turns, one representative from each family in their generation. Realizing that Charlie was the oldest great grandchild present, I whispered "Do you want to spread some?" He immediately answered that he did.

Paige accompanied him to step forward and take the urn. With an appropriate seriousness, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle and second cousins and grandmother and great aunts, spreading his great grandmother's ashes. Charlie is a sentimental person who loves all the branches of his family very deeply. It made me proud and happy to see him so ready and willing to participate in an irreplaceable ritual.

In fond memory of Martha Mathis Smith, 1923-2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'll Show you Mine if You Show me Yours

My list of podcasts, of course. What did you think I was talking about?

Occasionally, a Facebook status update gives me a peek at the podcasts to which my friends listen. In general, though, podcasts make me feel like an audience of one. I'm sure others listen to the same ones I do or good ones I should know about, but I have little way of knowing. So, I'll bare my MP3 soul in hopes that you'll share your podcast playlist in the comments.

[Editor's note: podcast is not in blogspot's spell check dictionary. Nor is Facebook or playlist. Nor, I should add, is blogspot. Natch.]

Breaking them down into categories, I'll cover the vegetables first (good for me and informative), then move to the fruit (good for me, but tasty and zesty, too), and finally to dessert (brain candy).
Informative, good-for-me Podcasts
NPR's Planet Money - The Economy, Explained. They do a really good job breaking down what's been happening in the economic crisis and the signs of recovery. It's economics for the common listener. Participation by the team that produces This American Life ensures that this is story-driven and character-focused. Some of the players from the dear departed Bryant Park Project work on this show, giving it a refreshing irreverence. 20-30 minute episodes, twice a week.
American Public Media's Marketplace Tech Report - A few weeks ago, this podcast changed its name from Future Tense to (yawn) Marketplace Tech Report. It also recently replaced its founding host, Jon Gordon with the equally likable John Moe. Only Johns need apply to host a quick look at the world of technology from new devices to privacy policy hi jinks to security threats. 5 minutes, 3-4 per week.
Brainstuff from How Stuff Works - The improbably named Marshall Brain takes listeners through a quick but thorough explanation of various things supposedly populated by listener questions. I remember "How does bulletproof glass work?" He hasn't taken on my question "Why do many children who start out blond end up having darker hair in later life?" HSW reminds me of a 5-minute lecture from my Uncle Larry, an engineer who does seem to know how everything works. 5 minutes, 3-4 per week.

Infotainment, Glad-I-heard-that Podcasts:
NPR's Fresh Air - Wow, can that Terry Gross interview. And now the others she uses for relief some days can, too. I love hearing Fresh Air on the radio, but often can't listen to the whole thing or join it half way and have trouble understanding what they're talking about. Now, if I don't catch it on the radio, I get it here. Fresh Air gets so TV-heavy when the new season starts, which is a bit of a bummer for one who watches TV only rarely, but overall the show produces such a terrific mix of news, entertainment and literature coverage. 1 hour on the air magically becomes 45 minutes on a podcast, daily.
NPR's This American Life - Quite possibly the best radio show ever made. Hear that, Murrow? Ever. Each show collects stories on a selected theme, mixing mostly true stories of the memoirish variety with short fiction that fits the theme. Creating 50 shows as good as this would be an accomplishment. Over 400 is simply staggering. I would have put this in the straight entertainment category, but I do learn important things listening to This American Life. 1 hour, occasionally posting reruns.
Kunstlercast - James Kunstler wrote Geography of Nowhere and several other books - non-fiction and a novel series - that focus on how suburbs are evil and the car-based world has to be going away. For the podcast, a lackey/former graduate student named Duncan Crary interviews Jim about his crazy worldview. I agree with most of his analysis of what works in older urban development and what doesn't work in the suburbs; I just feel like the way he packages this stuff often makes him sound nuts. Oh, and he uses bad language, which gives this totally straightforward and informative podcast the "Explicit" tag in iTunes. 20-40 minutes, about weekly.
Freakonomics Radio - The concept that was a great NY Times magazine article and became a pretty good book and has become a movie (!) also produces a half-hearted podcast that attempts to explain - through rogue economics - the hidden side of everything. Steven Levitt's mind works in fascinating ways, but whoever had this idea can't get enough Levitt to the subscribers for this medium. If they did it, this podcast would be better than the best parts of Planet Money and Brainstuff; it's a shame they lack the discipline to achieve that. They last posted at the World Cup. 20 minutes, when they feel like it.
NTEN Podcast - The Nonprofit Technology Network, a professional organization to which I belong, puts up a poor-audio podcast about once every never. They do a ton of good stuff, and this may just stretch a small staff's resources too thin. 1 hour, 10 minutes, 2-3 times a year.
NPR's Storycorps - Well-produced true stories from real people. 5 minutes, weekly.

Getting long here, so I'll speed up for the brain candy.

Entertainment Podcasts for Savoring and LOLing
ESPN's the BS Report - Bill Simmons calls his friends from college and LA and Boston and talks sports and pop culture in a mesmerizing way. 1 hour, 2-3 times a week.
The Moth - True stories, told live on stage without notes. Captivating from the funny to the touching. This is the podcast I save until I really want a treat. 15 minutes, once a week.
Dial-a-Stranger - Listeners submit open-ended questions (e.g. "Tell me about when someone saved your life"), and the hosts call a random listener (who has supplied his/her number) and ask them one of these questions. Zen-like interviews. I was on Episode 93, Baseball Angst. Yes, they called me. Hoo wa. 15 minutes, once a month when they're not overwhelmed.
The Absolute Peach - A couple of English guys chatting about everything and nothing in a way that's totally entertaining. Lots of inside jokes and references. Warning, if you start, you'll want to go back to the first of six series and listen to every one. They answered a question I posted on their facebook page on a recent episode. Yup. I'm everywhere. 1 hour, weekly.
The Pod F. Tompkast - Paul F. Tompkins just started this, and it's not for everyone. It's not always for me. Mostly, I think it's for my friend Jason H., who has a very similar sense of humor to PFT. Sometimes, I wish he would just get on with that and other times, I am practically (but not literally), ROTFL. 1 hour, bi-weekly or whatever.
Ricky Gervais - Mostly video casts, so I don't have time to consume them. Gervais is that English guy from the real Office and all the other squirm-worthy humorous content he produces. 2-10 minutes, monthly.

OK, if you're still reading and alive, let me know what's in your ears.