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.

Daddy's Whiskey

Mr. Bunny meets Peter Penguin

My wife tweeted this tonight:

There’s a story here. When I was about 4, my family moved from Louisville to Marietta, Georgia. I remember being freaked out about the move, and I remember the first night in the new house. My dad came in and read me a bedtime story. The next night, I asked for the same story, but I guess maybe the book was in another part of the house. Instead, he made something up on the spot about me and my favorite bunny stuffed animal, going on some adventure. I don’t even remember. I just remember feeling upset, and then Dad started the story, and then I was sleeping peacefully.

My dad died less than a year later. Tonight, I took Julian on a small adventure, in which his buddy Peter Penguin went out into the woods looking for him. Peter encountered Mickey, another of Julian’s friends, and then another and another before they found Julian playing trains with his friend Thomas. I don’t know, dudes, I just made the shit up as I went along. But that’s what dads do.

 Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I got a name, I got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I got a name, I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid


January 9, 1854: The Astor Library opens on Lafayette Street. It was a free public library, funded by John Jacob Astor. It was also a noncirculating research library. In 1895, the Astor Library consolidated with two other libraries to become the New York Public Library. What remains of the Astor’s collection are now housed in the so-called “main branch” of the NYPL, on Fifth Avenue.

The Astor building fell into disrepair, but it still serves a culturally significant role in NY life: it’s now the home of the Public Theater.

Libraries and librarianship, NYC photos, Uncategorized

160 Years Ago Today: Astor Library Opens

Books, Reading and writing

2013 in Reading

I started 2013 with a simple reading goal: Read one book a week. My daily schedule at the year’s beginning was such that it should have been pretty easy. I had one deadline a week for Serious Eats, and I took care of Julian during the day. So I’d take him out to a playground in the morning, do a little SE writing or personal writing in the afternoon, and then read when I wasn’t writing.

I actually like this kind of structure in my day. Often, when Julian and I go out, we walk a mile and a half to a playground in Prospect Park, run around like madmen for an hour, and then walk a mile and a half home. That’s good physical exercise. And then with the writing and reading, I’d get my mental workout. Evenings were for meals, drinks, and catching up with Jen, and possibly a little television.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads. (Here’s my account.) Goodreads has a reading challenge every year, and I challenged myself to read 55 books in 2013. I figured that’s one a week, plus a little motivation to go farther. I did pretty well in the first quarter of the year, averaging a little over a book a week. Had I kept up that pace, I probably would have ended up reading about 60 or 65 books in 2013. I didn’t quite make it. I rounded out the year at 25 books, or about one every two weeks.

What happened? Well, to put it simply, the book deal happened. Once I committed to writing a book, my afternoon hours were entirely, uh, booked up. And sometimes my evenings. And often my weekends. My original deadline was ambitious: approximately 30,000 words in 3 months. I hit the ground running, started my research, and wrote like crazy.

But my reading suffered. Of those 25 books, I think the first 15 happened in the first 12 weeks of the year.

Once my deadline loosened up, I was able to get back into reading. The other 10 books happened in the last 15 weeks of the year. Not quite the same pace as before, but not bad, either.

Now that the manuscript is nearly done, I’ve set myself another goal for 2014: 50 books a year. I’ll have edits on the book to tend to, and other writing obligations, of course. And I have some ideas in mind for future book proposals, at least one of which I hope to start work on after I turn in my manuscript. But I want to carve out time to read, even when I’m writing feverishly.

Now, some thoughts on 2013′s list. I won’t talk about everything; not all of it’s worth discussing. I’ll just hit the highlights.

  • COLUMBINE, by Dave Cullen. I started this in December 2012, and finished in January. I also started reading Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, but I hated the narrator so much, I threw the book across the room. Yes, there’s a theme: Sandy Hook. I have an idea for a novel, and because I’m not sure I’ll ever do it, I’m giving it away here. There’s a guy named David Kaczynski; you’ve heard of his brother. What fascinates me about David is that, when there’s a mass shooting, he reaches out to the family members of the shooter, who, in a very real way, are victims too. What a deeply, fundamentally humane thing to do. I wanted to understand what it feels like to be David, or Adam Lanza’s father. I think there’s a book to be written about David, either fiction or non-, and I thought I wanted to write it. But COLUMBINE gave me nightmares, and the narrator of KEVIN was so self-absorbed, I hated her more than I did her son. And Jen looked at me one day while I was reading COLUMBINE and said, “I can’t sit here every night and talk about dead children.”
  • HUNGER GAMES. Speaking of dead children… I sort of hated these books, and yet I read all three of them. Quickly. Very quickly. There’s something about the prose that makes them so easily readable. I read all three because I wanted to try to unpack Suzanne Collins’s prose style. Why do I sort of hate the books? First, I think the breezy prose is at odds with the violence and nihilism of the world she’s built. I also think it’s crazy that the books are coy about “Will Catniss fuck whatsisname or won’t she?” when it’s clear she’s killed and will kill again when she needs to. Sex? Let’s play coy. Graphic violence? Here you go, on a platter. But even the violence is written in such an ephemeral style that it seems dreamlike and fake. There’s much more to say about these books, but I suspect I’ll be damned if I ever read Collins again.
  • DEATH OF BUNNY MUNROE, by Nick Cave: Man, speaking of nihilism. This was both a fun book to read and a fun antagonist to hate. I felt terrible for the kid, though. I might read another Cave novel, but it’ll be a long damn while.
  • FOREVER WAR, by Joe Haldeman: This book is so good, I’ve read it twice now. It’s the story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war against an alien species. Because of the effects of time dilation, a trip to a distant battle may take only weeks from the perspective of the soldiers, but a dozen of years or even several hundred years from the perspective of people on Earth. In their time away, the soldiers find that humanity has dramatically changed, and they have trouble fitting in. The novel was written as a Vietnam allegory, but it works as a commentary on war in general and its effects on the psyche. It’s a haunting novel, full of rich characters and believable scenarios. It’s good even if you’re not normally into science fiction.
  • TENDER IS THE NIGHT: The Fitzgerald classic. I reread it for the first time since college. Dick Diver is a moron and an asshole, but he’s a tragic figure nevertheless. I always find myself very sad about how he ends up in this book.
  • DRUNKEN BOTANIST: Fantastic book about the botanical origins of our favorite drinks: beer, wine, spirits, and even a mixer or two. I reviewed it for Serious Eats in April of last year.
  • THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, by P. K. Dick: An alternative history in which the Nazis and Japanese win the Second World War, splitting up the United States and the rest of the world among them. The victorious powers are plotting against each other, in much the same way the United States and NATO entered a cold war with the Soviet Bloc after winning WWII on “our” Earth. A central element of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is a book several of the characters are reading, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is an alternate history novel in which the Axis Powers lose the war, and the United States and the UK enter into a cold war. Fascinating book, with well-drawn characters and a twisty plot. It’s also, you’ll be surprised to hear, the only Dick novel I’ve read.
  • STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: My second Patricia Highsmith novel. I like it less than I like the movie version, and I like it less than I like the first Ripley novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Bruno is somehow even creepier in the book than he is in the film, which is saying a lot. I think I’ll probably hit the rest of the Ripley novels before I try any other Highsmith.
  • THE CUT, by George Pelecanos. Really enjoyed this one. It’s nothing more than a private-eye procedural, basically. The main character is Spero Lucas, an Iraq vet who’ll recover stolen property for you, no questions asked, for a 40% cut of the value of the stolen goods. This is the first of a new series for Pelecanos, and I liked the Lucas character enough that I’ll come back for the second. Which surprises me. I have RIGHT AS RAIN, the first in his Derek Strange series, and I didn’t like it enough to read any of the others. It took me a long time to give Pelecanos a second chance.

Right, well, there we have it. My 2013 reading highlights. Like I said, I hope to do better this year.

Fitness, Parenting

I resolve to call her up, a thousand times a day

Resolutions! Let’s talk about resolutions.

First, let’s start here:

This is Dr. Mike Evans of Toronto looking at SCIENCE—namely the evidence that resolutions often work. He also talks about some ideas for why this might be the case.

Now, let’s talk specifics. Jen and I are getting a family membership to the Y this year. Now, back in May, I posted here, talking about taking up running again, after a couple of decades off. I tried running for a few weeks after writing that post, but in mid-June, I stopped. Here’s why:

  1. The shoes I bought suck. I have an orthopedic problem in my left leg, and as it turns out, buying shoes off-the-rack from a basic shoe store just isn’t the right answer for me. The amount of pain in my left foot was so bad, I very nearly had to just take to bed for a while. Which isn’t practical when you have a toddler. So later this week, I’ll head to a running store, such as JackRabbit Sports, to get fitted properly.
  2. My earbuds suck. I’m using a Couch-to-5K app on my iPhone, and I rely on the audio cues to tell me when to start running, and when to walk. But my earbuds keep slipping from my ears as I run. Not helpful. I’ll get a new set that stays in.
  3. I don’t have a good jogging holder for my phone. Holding my phone in my hand or pocket sucks. I’ll probably try one of those models that straps around the upper arm.

So I think new shoes, new earphones, and an armband will solve my major problems.

So my current plan is to start again on Monday morning. Get up way too early, jump on the bus to the Y, run until my lungs bleed, and come home. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I’ll try that for a while, and if I find that I’m suffering pain again, I’ll switch to something easier on the joints, like spinning.

My other major Y-related goals are to work on my core, and to build some more muscle mass. I’m not really looking to get bulky; I just want to tone and strengthen my muscles. Building muscle mass is a great way to hack your metabolism, as it turns out. People with more muscle burn calories more efficiently, even when they’re at rest.

This is the year to start to focus intensely on health. I need to be here for Julian and Mirabelle.