Parenting, Personal

The Gift of Empathy

I remember the first time my son said, “Daddy” instead of “Da” or “Da da.” It was October 12, 2012, exactly two years ago, and I remember it so clearly because it was pegged to a specific moment in time.

Julian was in his crib in our bedroom, recovering from surgery. His pain meds and anesthesia were wearing off at the same moment, as his recovery nurse had warned might happen. Jen and I were in the living room, sitting quietly and waiting for signs of distress from his direction.

We heard him start to fuss and crank, the way he normally did when waking up, but this time it carried more urgency, since he was in discomfort. I walked quickly into the kitchen to get his pain med and headed to the bedroom. The very second I entered the room, he cried out, “Daaaaaaadeeeee!” I gave him the medication and held him and he gradually quieted down.

My wife and I don’t discuss the specifics of his surgeries (he had two), to protect his privacy. We do talk about the fact of his surgeries, though. We discussed them at the time because we needed the moral support from friends, and we talk about them now for another reason.

While we were in the waiting room, hanging from a thin cord, desperate to hear anything, we watched the other families. We saw tiny infants awaiting the knife, small children with complex leg braces, kids who seemed sickly thin, and kids who seemed “normal,” but who clearly had a serious reason to be in a surgery.

Julian is now healthy and the problem he faced is one that’s thankfully resolved, but when we round the corner on each anniversary of his operations, I can’t help reflecting on the kids we saw, and their parents.

I feel grateful for organizations like Chicago’s Open Heart Magic, where a friend works, and my heart sinks whenever I read about a child who is seriously ill. I feel thankful that Julian’s surgeries succeeded so well, and I’m enormously grateful to his surgeons and their teams of support people.

My wife follows the Facebook page of a sweet little girl with leukemia, and we ache that we can’t do much that feels like anything for these kids and their families. But there is one thing I can do, one thing that matters a lot — maybe not always for kids, but maybe so.

I donate blood. I get an email notification when it’s my time to roll up my sleeve again, and I book the first possible time I can to get in there and bleed. I maximize the giving by donating double red cells each time.

I’m sitting here as I write this with a bandage on my left arm and the pervasive feeling of low-level lethargy that usually follows a donation. But I’m also sitting here, wondering about the families my blood will help, and that feels pretty damn good.

Y’know, for Julian, and the kids in those waiting rooms, and that sweet little girl, and all the kids we don’t know anything about.

Daddy's Whiskey, Parenting

Welcome to the Big Kid Club

My wife has a saying: The days are long, but the years are short.

Julian started preschool today, and to say that my emotions are mixed is to say that Everest is steep.

The school is a cooperative playschool, put together by friends from the Cortelyou Moms Fall 2011 mailing list. It meets in the basement of a house nearby, and it’s led by a teacher certified by the NYC DoE to teach early childhood classes. The curriculum is informal and play/discovery oriented, just letting kids learn things by exploring their environments and forming friendships with other kids.

We met the teacher last week at a play date, and she’s fantastic. She’s smart, with clear ideas about how young children learn best, and she has a great rapport with young kids. We arrived accidentally together at the play date, and while Jen and I were putting our stuff away and getting Mirabelle out of her stroller, Rachel (the teacher) took Julian’s hand and led him into the backyard to play.

I am thrilled for Julian. He’s shown a lot of signs lately that he’s ready for something like this. He plays well with other kids on the playground. He recognizes his friends and gravitates to them when they’re out. And he loves going up to adults and just sitting and chatting with them.

Rachel warned the group of parents that some of the kids might have separation anxiety at the door, and I saw that this morning with one little boy. But Jen and I joked that Julian would probably immerse himself right into free-play when he got to school and barely be aware that we were leaving.

That’s exactly what happened. Jen and I were struggling with our feelings, and he was blissfully playing with a little girl in the group.

Julian’s unusual, in that he’s really never been with a sitter or a teacher who wasn’t family. When I went to Mexico earlier this year, Jen’s mom came up for a while and stayed with the kids while Jen worked.

I’m not worried about his adjustment, though; he likes Rachel, and I think he’ll do well with her and the other kids.

No, it’s MY adjustment that worries me. Aside from the Mexico trip and a brief jaunt to Kentucky, I’ve been with him all the time. We’re inseparable, and now he’s off having adventures without me.

But this is right. This is what should be. I want him to fly to Mexico on his own to join a group of strangers on a week-long distillery visit slash bender. Or Argentina, or New Zealand, or Japan, or Canadia, or wherever. That drive for his independence starts here, and it starts today.

It’s good for me, too. I’ve been very frustrated lately: Julian and Mira have such divergent nap schedules right now that it’s nearly impossible to have them both napping at the same time. Some days, I get half an hour of quiet in which to write, plan publicity for the book, keep up with email, and plan future projects.

I have felt frenzied, but worse, it affects my output. I was writing weekly for Serious Eats, and now I’m lucky if I get a post a month in there.

Right now, I’m listening to music and writing this, while Julian’s in school and Mira (finally) naps. I feel like I’ve reclaimed a part of myself. How can you be a writer if you can’t write?

So this is good, but goddamn, it’s hard. I miss my best buddy.

Daddy's Whiskey, Parenting, Personal

Four Damn Decades


My father died on this date, forty years ago. 31 years old.

It was fucking pancreatic cancer, and it lingered for months. He started feeling ill during Labor Day weekend, while working on our new house in Marietta, Georgia. He died April 14, a Sunday. Easter Sunday, in fact.

Dad had just taken a promotion, one that moved us from Louisville, Kentucky, down to Georgia. He and my mom had grown tired of moving. (In my first five years, I lived in four different places.) So he had his sights on his next promotion, and he had some options to choose from: stay in the Atlanta area permanently, move to the D.C. area and stay there, or move out to Seattle. My mom said they were sort of leaning toward D.C., but they had only just started to seriously discuss it when he fell ill.

Dad was a hotshot auditor for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. As I wrote here two years ago, he investigated development projects that took public funds, to ensure the funds were being used efficiently and honestly. He uncovered a few cases of fraud during his time in Kentucky, and he saved the government so much money as a result that HUD kept kicking him higher up the ladder. He was rising quickly in HUD, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine what might have happened had he lived–how far he might have gone, what our lives would have been like in Atlanta, Seattle, or D.C.

I don’t mean to dwell on the tragedy of it all. My father famously didn’t get along with his parents, and he wasn’t terribly fond of my mother’s mother either. (My mother’s dad, on the other hand, thought of my dad as the son he never had.) He left home the first chance he had, to attend Bellarmine College, a Catholic liberal-arts school in Louisville. (He was the proverbial first-in-his-family-to-attend-college type.)

He visited his family often enough (he was close to his siblings) that on one trip, he met my mother, and it didn’t take them long to decide to marry. I came along in 1968; my sister, in 1970. By 1974, they were looking to plant new roots somewhere.

Just not in southwestern Indiana. Not near “those bitches,” as he called both my grandmothers. (I remember them both well; they were … difficult.)

So had he lived, we wouldn’t have seen the extended family much, probably just on holidays. The strange truth of his death is that my mom moved us back “home,” so she’d have help from the family in raising her kids. I grew far closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins than I ever would have had my dad lived. So when I say I don’t want to dwell on the tragedy, that’s what I mean. Moving back to Indiana had its benefits.

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I left Indiana nearly 12 years ago and have no desire to move back. I get along well with my mother, but I think my dad left for reasons other than his family; I think he wanted a bigger world than southwestern Indiana provided at the time. (Even into the 1980s, Evansville was an insular place. My dad’s very small town was even more cut off; I think they got phone service some time in the 1950s.)

I think there’s something in his fierce independence that leads me to sit now in Brooklyn, writing about a childhood in Louisville and Marietta. I’ve recently returned from Mexico, and I’m about to leave on another trip–ironically perhaps–to Louisville.

On this 40th anniversary of his death, I want to get some words out about his life and attempt to understand how he continues to influence me, all these decades later. My children will never know this man, except through me, and to some extent, through my mother.

I wish we still owned that necktie, and I can’t tell you how pleased and amused I am that spectacles like his are back in style.

Daddy's Whiskey, Parenting

Baby robot


Julian has this thing he says. My wife first heard it happen, and it almost killed her. Whenever there’s a big animal and a small animal in a story–for example, an adult owl and a child owl–or a big stuffed animal and a little stuffed animal, Julian refers to them this way: “Daddy Owl and Baby Owl. Daddy Owl takes care of Baby Owl.”

So those guys, up above? Daddy Robot and Baby Robot, of course.

My kids are growing up in a world where daddies taking care of babies is just a thing that daddies do.


Who's the leader of the cult that's made for you and me?


Who’s the leader of the cult that’s made for you and me?

Science and technology

On Cosmos and Cosmos

Here’s something I published first on this blog back in August 2001, explaining my feelings about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I thought I’d republish it in light of the new one that started airing on Fox last night.

I purchased the Cosmos DVD set last week. Owning this wondrous series on DVD is a bit of a dream for me, but I have to give a bit of history to explain why.

Cosmos first aired on PBS in 1980. The series quickly won critical acclaim but more fortuitously, it premiered during an actor’s strike that temporarily crippled the broadcast networks (this, in days before cable had reached most U.S. households). Cosmos quickly became one the most popular programs ever to air on PBS. I can’t recall when I first saw it. I believe it must have been during one of the many repeated broadcasts of Cosmos. My copy of Carl Sagan’s companion hardcover dates to Christmas 1983, and I know I requested the book because of my deep love for the series, so I saw it sometime between my eleventh and fourteenth birthdays.

Sagan’s clear love of science, his eloquence, and the high production values of the program captivated me. (Cosmos employed some of the special effects artists from the Star Wars films.) Sagan expressed complex scientific ideas such as evolution and the origins of stars in clear, concise, down-to-earth language that was both clear to grasp and, in retrospect, poetic. Sagan did not merely educate, he inspired. Pay attention when some young Turk scientist explains a breakthrough in physics or astronomy; quite often if asked for her inspiration, she’ll be quick to cite Sagan and Cosmos.

In watching the first episode again Sunday night, I was surprised at how lucid and energized Sagan seemed. His sense of wonder and awe permeate this series and I quickly felt myself transported back to those days when I would race upstairs to watch Cosmos on the old TV in my mom’s bedroom. If I missed a single episode, it sure as hell wasn’t my idea; my passion and excitement for it were boundless. I vividly recall being overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the universe (“Our own galaxy takes a quarter billion years to make a single rotation?”) and brimming with admiration for the ingenuity and genius of the scientists who uncovered the mysteries and secrets of our origins.

Cosmos was also my first real introduction to the idea of life on other planets. Now, when you read that, you might think I’m nuts. How could I have missed Star Wars? Star Trek? The Day the Earth Stood Still? Of course I was immersed in science-fiction as a child, but I knew instinctively that most science-fiction was mere fantasy. Cosmos, however, was my first inkling that there was a scientific likelihood of intelligent alien life. As Sagan explains, in a universe with ten billion trillion stars, what are the chances that ours is the only one with an inhabited planet?

But Sagan didn’t stop at astronomy or physics. Cosmos was significant for another fact: It rather brilliantly explained the philosophy of science and the methods of scientific inquiry. By explaining how scientists such as Eratosthenes and Aristotle, Democritus and Darwin reached their conclusions, Sagan opened my eyes to the wonder of science and the possibilities of human inquiry. These men and women weren’t handed revelation in a book or burning bush; they realized and understood the universe through their own ingenuity and determination.

And this leads to the other great understanding I owe to Carl Sagan, one I sadly forgot during my inane slide into religiosity: We are not here by design. This Earth and its inhabitants are the product of a wondrous cosmic randomness, a toss of the dice. We exist because a chance collection of molecules and organic matter coalesced into life, billions of years ago, and eventually evolved into sequoia and elk and herons and humans.

In my imagination, the notion that everyone I love, everyone I admire, and every beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is a cosmic accident is far more wondrous and awe-inspiring than the concept that it was all carefully designed. Understanding how hydrogen and other gases ignite into baby stars, how amino acids form into proteins, and how simple mechanisms for detecting light evolve over millennia into the human eye are far more satisfying to me than reading “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

Knowing this also teaches me that the universe didn’t come into being for the sake of humanity, as some religions teach. We’re merely a happy accident. This world, this galaxy–they are not our playthings. Understanding this, I hope, inspires humility and a desire to walk lightly.

I owe all this to Carl Sagan and Cosmos. Virtually all I know about human origins and the births of stars I can trace back to the wonder and fascination with learning that Dr. Sagan inspired. To call Sagan a hero would diminish the regard in which I hold him. And yet, please don’t misunderstand. Sagan opened a door and lit a path. I don’t believe for a moment he paved that path. What I owe to Dr. Sagan is the debt of inquiry, the desire to study Richard Dawkins and his explanations of Darwin’s theories, Timothy Ferris and his apt explanations of cosmology, Richard Rhodes and his accounts of the harnessing of atomic power, and Eileen Welsome and the dangers of scientific abuse.

To me, Cosmos is a lamp, a teacher, and a guidebook, and Sagan a mentor. His contributions to science education are, I believe, immeasurable. Perhaps now you understand why, when I watched the first episode again Sunday evening and recalled the many ways it has inspired me, I actually wept.

Books, Personal, Reading and writing

Fasciotomy! Fash ee oh to me, my X-Men!

So today, I finally finished Stephen King’s ON WRITING, which got lost in a tote bag for months. And I learned that after the traffic collision that nearly ended his life, King had fasciotomies to his right leg. What this entails is cutting into the connective tissues around the leg muscles, to relieve pressure caused by swelling and tissue damage. If you don’t do this, the pressure in the limb can cut off circulation, leading to tissue loss and possible amputation.

Why is this interesting to me? Because after I broke my leg in high school, I had a fasciotomy on my own leg. I fractured that fucker so hard that I very nearly lost that leg at the knee. In my case, they cut open my leg and left it open for about 10 days so it could drain. (It was covered with a sterile dressing, but it was open so fluid could drain out.) Every day, someone came around and poured saline into it, to clean and sterilize the wound. One day, the cleaning happened at the same time my physical therapist came in. Since I couldn’t really feel my limb below the knee at that point, I always had to watch as I did my PT exercises, to make sure I was doing what they asked of me. So I watched as I flexed my ankle and a silvery clump of tissue in my leg expanded and contracted. Have you ever seen your own muscles move? I have. It’s fascinating and sickening all at once.

Incidentally, if you visit the wiki link I’ve posted here, you’ll see some gnarly photos of people recovering from fasciotomies, after skin grafts have been applied to the wound. Click the pictures, if you dare, and blow them up really big. That’s what my leg looked like for months my graft was applied. Pretty gross. I didn’t get laid much in high school.