OH BOY

Apparently the college where my kids are headed next month will attempt to enforce a 1-hour limit on parent help during move-in day.

I say ‘attempt’ because I have a hard time imagining anyone limiting my Armenian-American spouse to just 60 minutes of feathering the nest for her kids.

I mean, I suppose the Chinese Communist Party could make a solid run at stopping her.

But also? They would fail.

And certainly a university — without advanced weapons or at least campus-wide security deployments — will fail too.

I worry that Aleen’s shenanigans will be stressful for me as a bystander.

Who am I kidding? Chances are astronomically low that I won’t be dragged into the mess as a miserable and ineffective co-conspirator.

As a general rule, our most successful operations are ones which start with Aleen saying, “Keep your mouth shut. You know nothing. Keep your eyes on me.”

I actually prefer those instructions. I’m a bad liar and tend to collapse like a house of cards under the first, weakest whisper of official scrutiny.

Disguises seem like an obvious tactic Aleen may explore.

And by ‘Aleen,’ I mean ‘Aleen and me.’

I really don’t want to wear a costume. But if she puts a gun to my head — which isn’t out of the question — I just hope the fabrics are breathable.

I’m alarmed that my old college roommate, Bob Baxter, has a child moving in on the same day. I made the mistake of sharing with him my anxiety over Aleen’s antics.

“Looking forward to the show,” he texted back.

So now there’s the double embarrassment of not only wearing a clumsy, sweaty disguise on a sweltering August day, but also being heckled by Baxter along the way.

“HEY BUDDY, CAN’T YOU READ?? THERE’S A ONE-HOUR LIMIT!”

When I was growing up in Maryland, my older brothers were outdoor types. They would exit their bedroom windows on the third floor and practice rope climbing. They’d move easily up and down the exterior of our home with ropes and carabiners.

Okay, their real motive was less to practice climbing and more to avoid my mother’s panther-like pounce at 2am if they tried to re-enter the house through more traditional means, i.e. doors.

“BOBBY, YOU SMELL LIKE A BREWERY,” was a nighttime exclamation which my slumbering 4th-grade self was not unfamiliar hearing.

I tell you all this because, like an idiot, I have told my wife these same stories. I worry she’ll see rope-climbing as a possible strategy.

Not that she or I could scale any walls. But it’s not beyond imagining that she’ll pay for one or both my brothers to fly in. She’s aggressive like that. And my brothers are annoyingly fit, even at 59 and 61. They’d be game for a Mission Impossible challenge, especially if it would stress me out.

Scheming wise, Aleen subscribes to the kitchen-sink method. So we’ll likely be doing all of it that day — the costumes, and my brothers scaling walls, and security guards being bribed, and a couple of absurd, easily disprovable medical conditions which supposedly make the 1-hour rule ‘dangerous and unreasonable’ for Aleen and me to follow.

Odds are roughly 2-to-1 I’ll be walking with a cane that day.

You may say, ‘Kit, just put your foot down.’

Oh reader.

I haven’t put my foot down in 25 years.

I did remind her that I arrived at college all by myself back in 1986. No parents! Just me and a duffel bag!

But here’s the thing about my beloved spouse. She gives zero fucks what I did back in 1986.

My son tried to allay my fears. ‘Dad, I think maybe it’s a two-hour limit, not one.’

Won’t matter. The number is beside the point. That there is a limit at all is the point. The college could set the limit at 56 hours. Aleen’s brain would still shift into overdrive.

We need 57!

You may also say, ‘But Kit, you named her in this essay. You have blown her cover.’

Hahahahaha. If only it were that easy.

I wish I were blowing her cover.

Even if I did — and I’m starting to feel like you’re not fully grasping this part — it would. Not. Matter. A blown cover would be just one more thing for her to work around on D-day.

I suppose I could post a picture of her here.

At least that would give campus security a fighting chance.

Looks harmless enough, right?

DO NOT BE DECEIVED. If you are campus security and you see this woman on Aug. 27, don’t wait for costumes, rope-climbing, any of it. Arrest her immediately. Don’t wait for back-up. And — super important — do NOT honor her request to ‘speak with a supervisor.’

Once the whole Russian-doll supervisor nonsense begins, you are toast, and my brothers are in the background making one successful ascent after another.

You know what? Better yet, arrest me.

Hold me indefinitely.

Because that’s how long my wife’s move-in process will take.

Posted in CHILD REARING, MY CHILDHOOD, THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS | 19 Comments

GOOD-BYE, SWEET BOOM

I woke up around 4:30am today to the sight of an owl swooping into the branches above me and taking away a rat, which protested loudly as it departed from the branches and from this life.

It was a shocking development, especially after my recent reappraisal of the rats in my backyard. But it was also fascinating. The owl, huge and gray, vanished as quickly as it arrived. It cleared the lemon tree and the oleander hedges, and flew into the darkness with the squeaking rodent.

I have spent the last 10 weeks sleeping outdoors with my dog Boomer.

People would ask, ‘You’re not in a tent? You’re just out in the open?’

No tent, just a mattress, pillow, and blanket. And Boomer beside me.

How was it?

In a word, glorious. Once Boomer realized that I was in it for the long haul, that I wasn’t sneaking away after he fell asleep like I used to with my kids, he relaxed and took it as his due that in these final weeks of his life, he would be kept company around the clock. Never mind the mosquitoes, the rats, the police helicopters. It was just the two of us. It was sort of like Huck and Jim on the river, but with the aching, underlying awareness that the special-ness of the nights derived from what lay on the other end.

One of my favorite songs is “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides,
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built by life around you.

The season of my life is changing. I am saying good-bye on Monday to this beautiful, loyal, majestic-looking dog who has been my best friend for 14 years. Lately, more and more, I did build my life around him. I put off visiting my parents back east. I begged off from every social invitation. I cooked for him. I slept outdoors at night. I told my wife she might have to take the kids to college by herself. My daily schedule was shaped by when Boomer woke up, when he ate, when it was cool enough outside for us to walk around the block.

These last 10 weeks were some of the sweetest, most lovely weeks of my life. What a privilege. Not just to spend so much time with him at the very end, but to have him in my life, in my family for 14 years.

A passage from Sharon Lebell’s translation of the ancient philosopher Epictetus:

Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying, “I have lost it,” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” …. The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.

I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to take care with my dog — and with my children — while the world let me have them.

The departure of the kids for college next month will hit me even harder than Boomer dying, I think. I was an all-in, stay-at-home parent. I definitely built my life around that project.

Again, this was a privilege. And it was a privilege granted to me by my wife. She went to work every day for 20 years to pay the bills and buy the house, while I kept an eye on Lulu and Jesse, read books to them, watched Disney movies with them, drove them back and forth to school, to ice hockey.

There wasn’t much moderation in my parenting. I disregarded lots of good advice about letting kids fail, letting kids have their own lives, leaving the kids with others occasionally so that I could take a vacation with just my wife. Fuck that. I wanted to squeeze every last second out of parenting. Same with taking care of Boomer.

In the last few days my wife and I realized that we were keeping Boomer alive partly out of fear and avoidance. We didn’t want to face the chasm of sadness which his passing would open up.

Boomer was my wife’s first dog. This will be her first time saying good-bye.

For my part, I grew up with dogs. That was a gift my parents gave to my siblings and me — the opportunity to live with dogs, learn about them, and yes, one day mourn their passing. I had amazing human friends growing up, but dogs may have been the best friends of all. Just the quiet keeping of each other’s company across the years. I was fully myself with dogs, whatever that means.

Boomer has kept me company in this particular season of my life — the child-raising season. He went wherever I did, even the ice hockey rink. He always sat in the middle-right seat of my minivan. I opened the window for him. We were partners.

The truth is, he is in pain now. This has become obvious. Even just walking a few blocks, we have to stop in the shade of a tree for him to lie down, panting, exhausted. Getting back up isn’t a picnic either. The recent heat wave made matters worse. He has tried to hang on as long as possible. He knows how important he is to me, that I depend on him.

My wife had a dream recently. Boomer was above our house, huge, his four legs bracing the four corners of the house. His gigantic frame was supporting the house, enclosing it, protecting it. In the dream, I was a tiny figure in the backyard looking up at the rat nest (where the owl struck this morning).

Another song lyric, from Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain:”

Friends will arrive,
Friends will disappear

Now we’re at the ‘disappear’ part. I know the philosopher Epictetus was right — take care of it while you have it, but then let it go. Don’t cling to it or wail over its passing. With time and practice, I think I might get the hang of that.

Friends of mine have lost so much more in recent years. Friends have lost spouses, parents, even children to untimely deaths.

I don’t think I could apply the Stoic principle to the death of a child. I think that would break me. Hell, Boomer’s death might break me.

As far as I can tell, Boomer has appreciated these nights outdoors together. The air cools off, I stop looking at my phone, working in the garden. He and I lie down. Sometimes I talk to him, but mostly we just listen to the night around us.

We listen to raccoons and opossums moving along the back fence, police helicopters passing overhead. We still hear fireworks too, even a week after the holiday. We don’t mind. We sleep well knowing that we’re together, which is the main thing.

I don’t know whether I will be able to sleep on Sunday night. I’m kind of expecting to be up all night replaying the last 14 years in my mind. That’s okay. We’re at the finish line now. I’ve tried my best to care for him while the world let me have him.

In the song “Graceland,” Paul Simon sings,

Losing love is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody sees the wind blow

If you see me next week, you’ll see the wind blowing. It’s okay. I’ll find my balance again. Maybe it’s a good run-through for saying good-bye to the kids. Anyway now I can finally go visit my parents back in Maryland. They are 87 years old. Dog lovers themselves, they were understanding and supportive about me staying by Boomer’s side to the very end. So was my wife.

In the song “Love Has No Pride,” Bonnie Raitt sings:

And if I could pray, my prayer would never end.
If you want me to beg, I’ll fall down on my knees,
Asking for you to come back,
I’d be pleading for you to come back,
Begging for you to come back
To me

In a day or two, that’s how I’ll be feeling about Boomer, wishing I could have just one more hour, one more minute. Another favorite artist of mine, Dolly Parton, sings with the same anguish in “I Will Always Love You.”

Yeah, these are super sad songs; that’s where I am this evening. But mainly I am grateful. The world let me have Boomer for so long! For 14 years! I did nothing to deserve him. But I did try to take good care while I had him.


UPDATE … Boomer died peacefully on June 12, 2021. He relaxed deeply within seconds of the first painkiller shot. It was an obvious contrast with the labored breathing moments earlier. He really had been suffering.

My wife and I were crying so much during these final moments of his life. I worried we were sending the wrong message to his departing spirit, making him think we still needed him, wanted him to stay. So in my mind, I threw a tennis ball as far into the sky as I could. I looked up and said silently, ‘Get outta here! Go get that ball! Go see your Mom and Dad, and your siblings. Play! Feel what it’s like to be running again, without pain finally.’

I’m going to miss the hell out of Boomer, but it was time. His work here was done.

Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, DOGS, HEROES, SPIRIT | 54 Comments

RAT NEST

I am taking a break today from my one-man war against the unholy fortress of bougainvillea in my backyard. It has recently been colonized by a populous young rat family.

I became aware of the rats because I’ve been sleeping outdoors for two months now, which is a separate story.

As I fall asleep each night, I hear all sorts of animals in the ivy, bushes, and trees around our property.

Honestly I had no idea. You could do a NatGeo show on the absolute circus which begins every night around 10pm.

Once I got over the startlement of seeing rats nearby, I became curious. How old were the babies? What did they eat? Did their dad help care for them? What time was bedtime?

Rats get bad PR, I think. The plague and so forth. In fact, trained rats save lives in Africa by sniffing out landmines and tuberculosis. Those rats are super cute in their little leash-and-harness apparel.

Up close, rats seem industrious and clever. Plus the babies make cute noises at night. Kind of a helpless, squirmy squeaking, like maybe quarters are cramped and they have to jostle with siblings for space, food, or parental attention.

Unexpectedly my germophobe wife has accepted my refusal to call an exterminator or put out poison or traps.

Here’s why I refuse. I remember reading a few years ago about the mountain lion named P-22 in Griffith Park. Scientists once had to tranquilize him and treat him for mange. They said he was likely sickened by eating animals which had either ingested rat poison themselves or eaten other animals who had.

Rat poison. The word is right there. I’d never really thought about it. Seemed like a bummer that a majestic mountain lion was reduced to a sad, hungry, bedraggled mess due to man-made poison in the food chain.

I thought of the mountain lion as I contemplated the rats rustling in the bougainvillea above me.

I wondered when the baby rats would be old enough to survive moving to a new home. While I have new appreciation for the species, I’m also not trying to run a bed-and-breakfast. I have no particular need to see what an ‘infestation’ consists of.

There are plenty of places in our neighborhood — hell, I’ll settle for more distant parts of my backyard — where rodents can settle in fine.

So I have adopted ‘habitat reduction’ as my strategy. I’m cutting away bougainvillea bit by bit, day by day. Eventually the rats will get the message. They’ll start looking for their next home, packing up, forwarding the mail, whatever.

Which brings me back to the bougainvillea.

Anyone who has spent time with the bush has respect for its thorns. It’s a plant which exacts its pound of flesh. One time, all scraped up, I did the obvious Google search — bougainvillea Jesus crown thorns. The answer was, No dude, that was a different plant.

Still, you get my point.

So how is the war against bougainvillea going?

I would call it a draw so far, or possibly a slight advantage to my foe. My arms look like I tried to break up a cat fight. But it’s a small price, I guess, for the eco-friendly relocation of rats.

You may wonder how on god’s green earth my wife puts up with all this — the sleeping outside, the peace talks with rats, the increasingly long beard and scraped-up arms. (Well, and me being unemployed for 20 years.)

You would have to ask my wife, obviously. But one good thing about being with the same person for 30 years — at a certain point they realize you’re insane and they just kind of roll with it. They trust you’ll find your way back eventually, like you always do, like an old dog.

Next week I will tell you about the praying mantis. He’s a totally different vibe from the rats. His name is Kris.

Posted in DOGS, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE | 9 Comments

BOOMER THE INCONTINENT

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But I’m learning that an old dog can teach an old man new tricks.

My 14-year-old goldendoodle Boomer has deployed three strategies simultaneously to retrain me — senile barking, separation anxiety, and what can only be described as, um, sleepytime fecal incontinence (SFI).

Once he started pooping while asleep, I announced to him that he was thenceforth an Outdoor Dog.

I didn’t realize I myself would become an Outdoor Man.

Because Boomer is banished to the backyard and because he has only one eye, and that eye is blind, and because he is also deaf, and because he gets scared or disoriented if he wakes up from a nap and I’m not within 10 feet of him, and because his disorientation manifests as loud, nonstop barking … well, you get the idea.

In military terms, I believe he has deployed against me a pincer movement — attacking from multiple sides.

After 14 years he has me where he wants me — next to him, 24/7, outdoors.

Mind you, I would not put up with this behavior from my wife or kids. I would let them bark all night long.

But Boomer has the imminent-death argument on his side. Look I won’t even be alive much longer. Is it such a big deal to camp outside for a few weeks?

There is always the chance that he is pulling a Royal Tenenbaum, faking his terminal condition to win love and attention.

I could examine the Ring footage to see whether he is noticeably more spry and able during the few moments each day when I slip into the house.

Unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. He’s not long for this world. To quote Warren Zevon, the wheels keep turning, but they’re running out of steam. Until then, I’m operating a one-dog hospice.

My sister suggested doggie diapers to combat the SFI. But clean-up would still be a hot mess. And diapers would be demeaning for a dog of his size and majesty. I’d rather just hose down the area and then give him his customary sponge bath. It’s one of the services we provide, here at hospice.

Yes, there is some intense co-dependence between Boomer and me, no question. For instance, a friend invited me to her family home in Corsica this summer. That seems like the kind of activity one might possibly enjoy, if one weren’t in the hospice field.

And at the end of August both my kids will depart for college. Conceivably they might want me to accompany them on the cross-country trip.

Sorry, guys. The hospice center doesn’t run itself.

How is my wife putting up with all this?

Surprisingly well.

She doesn’t seem to be beating the drum super loudly for my return to the marital bed.

But that could be related to my habit, even before canine hospice, of working barefoot in the garden all day and then sneaking into bed without a shower or even a cursory scrubbing of feet.

Or maybe it’s the snoring she doesn’t miss.

Unlike my dog, my wife is not deaf, at least not yet.

She loves Boomer as much as I do, and serves as assistant hospice manager when called upon.

Before you say ‘take him to the vet,’ or give him such-and-such medication, let me just say that Boomer has a long list of ailments and conditions. These limitations, when combined with his size, make a vet visit not only stressful for all parties, but also somewhat pointless. He’s in Make Him Comfortable stage of medical care.

There are really only two phone calls left to be made, as far as outside help — the woman who administers euthanasia drugs, and the gardener who digs a hole big enough for us to plant Boomer right here on the property. The city probably doesn’t allow it, but fuck it. It’ll be a nighttime operation.

Will Boomer die before the kids leave for college?

We’ll find out!

Gives me something to look forward to anyway — the finding out.

It’s sort of like waiting to see whether your favorite sports team makes the playoffs.

My own view is that 18-year-old kids can take themselves to college. That’s how I did it 35 years ago. But my wife sees it differently. She arrived at college with two parents and two cars packed full of boxes, clothes, and furniture. I know this because that was the day I first met her. I hauled a lot of those boxes up four flights of stairs.

I have told my wife, Maybe that’s how our kids will meet their future spouses — operating solo on college move-in day!

She doesn’t buy it.

The truth is, the only one in this household who has always been on my team — who has always understood me to my core — is the smelly-ass, 100-pound goldendoodle I now spend my nights outdoors with.

He’s high maintenance, but I will miss him.

the good old days, when we were allowed indoors
where we sleep now
Posted in CHILD REARING, DOGS, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, SPIRIT | 26 Comments

SOMETIMES IT TAKES A GHOST

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is considered one of the greatest plays ever written. But it’s also a ghost story.

The king is killed by his brother, who then marries the widow and takes the crown. The dead king re-appears as a ghost, tells his son Hamlet who the killer was, and demands revenge.

I thought of Hamlet recently while hearing the story of private investigator Sheila Wysocki.

In 1984, Wysocki’s freshman-year roommate at Southern Methodist University, Angie Samota, was raped and murdered at an apartment in Dallas.

The case went unsolved for years. But one night Wysocki — who had since married, moved to Tennessee, and begun raising kids — was visited by the ghost of her dead roommate.

The ghost did not identify the murderer. But it communicated its desire for Wysocki to revisit the case, to do what she could to seek justice.

The ghost could not have picked a better person to ask.

Wysocki was initially brushed off by police in Dallas and was soon known at the station as ‘Pita,’ short for ‘pain in the ass.’ She phoned hundreds of times asking the status of the case, the whereabouts of evidence, the names of detectives past and present, and so on.

She was consumed by the case and frustrated by the lack of respect which she, as a stay-at-home mom in Tennessee, received from police back in Texas. So she put in hours of work, took the Tennessee licensing test, and became a private investigator.

Finally, in 2008, thanks to reassignment of the Samota case to female detective Linda Crum, and thanks to DNA testing, the killer was identified, tried, and convicted.

Samota’s killing should not have taken 24 years to solve. It could have been solved earlier with proper initial investigation and sustained attention. But at least Samota’s ghost finally got its justice.

The same cannot be said for Lauren Agee, a Tennessee woman whose death Wysocki has investigated for five years.

Agee, 21, died in the summer of 2015 while camping with friends on a cliff above Center Hill Lake, about an hour east of Nashville. The group was at the lake to attend WakeFest, an annual wakeboarding event.

The term ‘friends’ should probably be used loosely. Agee didn’t really know the three men at the campsite — Aaron Lilly, Christopher Stout, and Brixner Gambrell. And none of them — nor her actual friend Hannah Palmer, also at the campsite — attended Agee’s subsequent funeral, according to Agee’s family.

The campers told authorities that Agee must have woken up at night to pee and accidentally fallen off the cliff. Her body was found by a fisherman the next day in a cove which was not particularly near the cliff, with injuries not particularly consistent with either a fall or drowning.

As with the case of the old college roommate, the initial police investigation into Agee’s death was cursory and flawed. Investigators were persuaded by the accidental-fall theory. They applied little meaningful pressure, if any, to witnesses Lilly, Stout, Gambrell, and Palmer.

Agee’s family tried to apply pressure themselves by hiring the mom-turned-P.I. Wysocki and by filing a wrongful death suit against the other campers. But the death remains a mystery, six years later.

WakeFest will be held again this July, same as always. Thousands of young adults will flock to the shores, drink a lot of beer, and spend nights on houseboats or in the woods.

Witnesses Lilly, Stout, Palmer, and Gambrell have moved on with their lives and have stuck, for the most part, to their original story. But Wysocki, the private investigator, knows from experience that the truth will emerge, or to borrow a phrase from another long-dead writer, Chaucer — “murder will out.”

Whether it’s a talkative ghost, an attack of conscience, a desire for reward money, or a new forensic test, the truth will eventually come out. The late Lauren Agee will get justice, and her family, a measure of peace.

Readers who want to know more about the case can listen here, or here.

And if one wants to hear a particularly good job of questioning by an investigator, then listen to the first 15 minutes of this. It’s a recording of off-duty police officer Chris Yarchuck, who worked security at WakeFest and who interviewed Hannah Palmer the day Agee’s body was discovered.

It’s a shame Yarchuck himself never got to investigate the case. He was already making tremendous headway that day. His interview technique and especially his question to Palmer around the 7:45 mark — Why (do) you say that? — ought to be taught to young people training for law enforcement. The tone is casual, patient, non-confrontational. Yarchuck allows room in the conversation for Palmer to get lost and begin contradicting herself. It’s an open-listening technique, and is extraordinarily effective.

People with information about the death of Lauren Agee are asked to contact Sheila Wysocki through her website.

Lauren Agee

Posted in COURAGE, HEROES, LITERATURE, SAYINGS, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 5 Comments

WE’VE BEEN GIVEN HEARTS TO KNOW THE INCREDIBLE

I thought of Ray Bradbury today while reading about the NASA helicopter on Mars.

I thought of him not because of his first book, The Martian Chronicles, which he published in 1950.

Instead I recalled the day 30 years ago I got a chance to sit down and talk with him.

I was a young newspaper reporter just out of college. My job allowed me to meet all sorts of interesting people, including occasional famous ones such as Roy Rogers, President George H.W. Bush, Pat Sajak, and Bradbury.

In 1991 Bradbury had recently published Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays about creativity. So I figured that’s what we would talk about.

Instead our conversation kept detouring to his disappointment and somewhat intense anger that the U.S. government was not devoting more resources and brain power to space exploration. He thought it was a massive missed opportunity.

I understood the argument on an intellectual level. But I was only 21 years old. I didn’t have the life experience yet to perceive what he was really saying.

I started to put together the full picture in 2012 when Bradbury died and tributes flooded in from around the world.

The man who’d written so vividly and memorably about the future was revered not only by high school English teachers and science-fiction fans, but also by scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Andrew Chaikin, who commissioned an article by Bradbury for Space Illustrated magazine in 2000, discussed Bradbury’s enduring appeal on National Public Radio.

He said Bradbury’s writing remains “the best expression of the why of space exploration that I’ve ever heard.”

Chaikin quoted a favorite passage:

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes? Mars says we cannot.

I’m older now. I have since married and raised children. They will soon go to college.

My daughter — nearly the same age I was when talking to Bradbury — told me just today about some of the astronomy courses and clubs at the college she’ll attend.

For a moment I was confused. She has never been a particularly eager student of math or science.

But as I listened to her excitement, I recalled Bradbury and his insight about space exploration.

Voyaging into the cosmos is about so much more than science or math. There is room for all disciplines — literature, ethics, visual art, history, mythology. In fact, done properly, space exploration not only has room for young people from these areas, it desperately needs them.

Another artist I once got to meet was the actor Alan Alda. He too surprised me by wanting to talk almost entirely about science.

He said his passion was to get the most advanced theoretical scientists to communicate effectively with the rest of us. In a world of increasing specialization and technology, Alda said the gulf between scientists and the general public had grown too large.

Incredible discoveries were being made every day, Alda said. But scientists were losing the ability to explain the significance of these discoveries to the rest of us.

A communicator by training, Alda was spending his own time, money, and energy encouraging scientists to begin bridging that gap. He believed that both groups — scientists and the general public — needed each other desperately. (The current pandemic and the surprising strength of vaccine skepticism may illustrate the same point.)

I have no idea what my daughter will study in college. I always figured she would wind up making art or writing poems. But at 52, I’m finally starting to grasp what Bradbury was trying to tell me that day.

Our nation should not be spending trillions of dollars stockpiling weapons and fighting forever wars. We should be exploring the universe. It’s in our DNA. Our imagination demands it. Our survival as a species may depend on it. We need everyone’s help, including artists, philosophers, and poets.

NASA illustration of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity
Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, HEROES, LITERATURE, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 6 Comments

BEST DAYS OF MY LIFE

Adam Braseel was wrongfully convicted of murder 14 years ago. Though he hasn’t been officially exonerated, he is out of prison now and beginning to put his life back together.

The wrongful imprisonment was caused by sloppy police work, prosecutors bent on victory, and the unhappy coincidence of the actual murderer looking like Braseel and driving the same color car. You can read about the case here, or listen to an excellent podcast here. What caught my attention was something Braseel said in an interview.

As nightmarish as the years in prison were, as much time as he lost, Braseel said his life right now is, well, almost blissful.

“I’m having the best days of my life out here,” he said.

He wasn’t talking about going fishing or taking a vacation or eating non-prison food. He was talking about things which go wrong.

“I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to get stuck in a traffic jam,” he said.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have a car. And to have the opportunity to lose my keys. It’s just a unique perspective on life now that I have.”

Here’s an audio clip, so that you can hear his voice:

What I like about Braseel’s story is that it makes me feel shame. Not the crappy, useless, everyday shame which many of us feel already, but the best kind of shame, the type you feel when contemplating someone who has really been screwed over, but who is not defeated or consumed by it.

When I see the grace and courage of that person, I think, Damn, if he can do that, I can definitely do better with whatever bullshit I’m worried about.

I had a similar feeling watching Love on the Spectrum, a reality TV show about autistic adults dating. I don’t know how the show was received by people with autism (or by those who love them or live with them). But from the outside, I felt awe and, yes, shame. The patience, courage, and good humor of the show’s participants floored me. The compounding awkwardness of dating and being filmed and trying diligently to learn the social cues and customs which may come naturally to others … it was a lot to ask. But the show’s participants kept showing up, kept giving their best effort, kept winning my heart over and over. Watching them, I thought, What the fuck do I have to complain about?

Maybe shame isn’t really the right word. Maybe it’s a mixture of wonder, admiration, and — when you boil it down — love. I feel all those things watching Love on the Spectrum, or listening to Braseel discuss his wrongful imprisonment.

I feel hope, too, because the courage of others reminds me that whatever may happen to me, I still have a choice. I can respond with anger, grievance, isolation, sadness — my favorite responses! — or I can aim higher. I can choose, as Adam Braseel does, radical gratitude.

The Tennessee Parole Board has voted unanimously to recommend exoneration for Braseel, which would remove the felony from his record. The final decision is up to Gov. Bill Lee.

Braseel is now 38. He was imprisoned at age 24.

The audio clip above is from the Criminal podcast, hosted by Phoebe Judge. The episode “Red Hair, Gold Car” aired on Feb. 7, 2020.

Braseel, left, at the time of his arrest, and the late Kermit Bryson, right, who is believed to bave been the actual murderer
Posted in COURAGE, HEROES, SELF HELP, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 6 Comments

A VERY GOOD DOG

People ask me all the time, ‘Is your dog friendly?’

My dog is a lot of things — old, lazy, mostly blind and deaf, senile.

Friendly?

Sure, if you lie down next to him and pet him for 45 minutes.

What people really mean is, ‘Will your dog try to bite mine?’

Sometimes I think people might be less offended if Boomer did try to bite their dog, as opposed to what he usually does, which is to walk right past and show zero interest. Some people are put off by this, I can tell.

In the old days I would make Boomer go through the motions of being polite. I’d stop and give attention to the stranger’s dog, thereby bringing Boomer himself back to the site of proposed friendliness. But now he’s old, and I’m getting on myself. There’s less concern over niceties.

He was always more interested in humans than other dogs, at least as long as I’ve known him. He arrived in our home at six months old, a stunningly beautiful gift from our friend June, who rescued him from a shelter. He grew larger than expected and wound up an enormous shaggy wheat-colored goldendoodle weighing more than 100 lbs.

When he was young, I would walk him to the stores near our house. The public reception was not unlike what I imagine the Beatles encountered in 1964 – frenzy, crowds, amazement, a fair amount of swooning. He was a show stopper.

He had idiosyncrasies. He destroyed nearly every football my family ever purchased. The way he tried to sit on your lap suggested that he understood himself to be a 10-lb. Yorkie, not a dead ringer for a polar bear.

He had so much energy and pulled so hard on his leash that I eventually hooked him up to the front of my son’s little yellow electric Jeep. With Boomer pulling, the car went twice as fast. My son was in heaven.

As Boomer got older, he underwent surgery twice for cancer, the second operation costing him his right eye. For the last few years he has had a lung issue which causes him to wheeze a few times in quick succession and then make the most alarming, human-sounding gagging noise. If we are on a walk, this noise keeps others from asking whether he’s friendly.

The newest challenge is senile barking. Apparently this is a thing in older dogs. Barking can be caused by disorientation, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, physical pain. With Boomer, deterioration of his senses and brain function seem the culprit. He still wants to defend the perimeter (in our placid, totally not-scary neighborhood). But he no longer has sufficient sight or hearing to feel he is carrying out the job correctly.

Sometimes I find him in the middle of the backyard in the posture of sentinel, crouching slightly, sending off a volley of crisp warning barks. Never mind that only butterflies and bees are nearby, and that it’s only five minutes since our last 45-minute petting session, or five minutes till our next walk together. He is on guard. Against the butterflies.

Maybe he is seeing ghosts, I don’t know. Maybe as he gets closer to the end, he has access to the spirit world. Sometimes I talk to him about the other side. I tell him that his mother and siblings will be waiting to greet him and play with him. And I ask him to make sure that he’s waiting for me, when my own time comes. I always thank him for being my dog these last 14 years. He was the only dog I ever had who wouldn’t beg for food or dash out the front door if you gave him half a chance.

One time we accidentally left him out front and when we finally noticed his absence a couple hours later, we opened the door and found him curled up on the welcome mat, sleeping soundly. Right from the start he knew he had a good thing going in our house.

Nowadays he can no longer go up or down stairs. And with the senile barking in the middle of the night, I finally just hauled a mattress to the living room downstairs. Now I spend most nights down there. He won’t bark if I sleep next to him. It’s kind of like having a newborn baby again.

Is he friendly?

He was friendly enough a few years ago when a prowler hopped our fence in the middle of the night and walked a stolen bike across our backyard.

Our security footage showed Boomer amble up to the guy, wag his tail a bit, and then wait for the thief to pet him.

When the man showed no inclination to stop and pet a massive dog, Boomer shuffled back to the porch and was asleep again in 90 seconds. His perimeter-protection instinct was less acute back then.

I will be devastated one day when he finally shoves off. It’s the only bad thing about dogs — having to say goodbye to them.

Until then, I take each day as a gift. I appreciate him more now than when the kids were young, when I was always scrambling to meet their needs.

In especially chaotic moments, Boomer would pop up right in front of me, tennis ball in mouth, tail wagging, as if to say, ‘Would this be a good time?’

It was always the exact worst time. But in hindsight, I think I misunderstood him. He didn’t want anything from me, he wanted to help me. He was saying, ‘Forget the kids, forget the wife. They’ll be fine. You don’t have to fix everything, do everything, be on time for everything. Just … pet me. Hang out for a second.’

He knew that my petting and talking to him would calm me down, and this in turn would make everyone else happier, including my wife and kids.

So now, years later, it’s the least I can do to sleep on a mattress or spend 45 minutes petting him. It’s my turn to calm him.

Posted in CHILD REARING, DOGS, SPIRIT | 21 Comments

MINI BOOK REVIEWS

One silver lining of lockdown was that I started reading books again. Below are short reviews of a somewhat random collection, in case you’re looking for something to pick up.

THE OVERSTORY
This 2018 novel by Richard Powers follows a handful of people whose lives are brought together and shaped by trees. Gimmicky premise, but beautifully executed and after a while, an actual page turner. If you liked Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, you might like this one.

CONFESSIONS OF A YAKUZA
Memoir of a Japanese gangster. Book gained notice when Bob Dylan lifted about a dozen lines from it and sprinkled them (without attribution) through his 2001 album Love and Theft. The gangster’s narration is straightforward and self-effacing. His world is populated by riverboat gamblers, pickpockets, prostitutes, smugglers, coal miners, and corrupt police officers. Story includes a memorably harrowing account of the young narrator’s treatment for syphilis. On the positive side, great book title, and I want the snow-clogs the guy is wearing in the cover photo.

PERSEPOLIS
When I was growing up in the late 1970s, all I knew about Iran was that 50 Americans were being held hostage there. The graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi sheds light on daily life in Tehran before and after the Islamic revolution. Events are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl from a wealthy, well-educated family. Quick, easy read, full of unexpected details and humor (well, and basic facts about Persian culture which I didn’t know). This book, in turn, got me interested in the Israeli TV shows Tehran and Fauda, set in contemporary Iran and the occupied territories of Israel, respectively. Since I couldn’t travel during lockdown, watching TV and reading books were the next best thing. Not that I was headed to Tehran or Gaza; there are limits to my curiosity. But now I know what it was like to be a 13-year-old Iranian girl after the imams took over in 1979.

EATING ANIMALS
Part memoir, part journalism, this book tells you what you probably already knew — factory farming of animals in the 21st century results in horrible lives for the animals, massive environmental problems for the rest of us. But the book conveys the info in a smart, dispassionate way. I guess my meat-eating habits were already hanging by a thread, but even just the first 30 pages of this book finished the job. Author is Jonathan Safran Foer.

THE FIRST AND LAST FREEDOM
Just when I was feeling all virtuous and self-satisfied about going vegan, the late Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti took the wind out of my sails. Not that he endorses meat eating, just that he deftly points out how we each build a sense of self through attachment to certain beliefs, ideas, or identification with a particular nation, school, family, religion, sports team, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural impulse. But Krishnamurti reveals the extent to which misery and conflict result from these well-intentioned attachments and identifications. As an alternative, he prescribes a lifelong program of careful, alert, nonjudgmental observation of self, with the ultimate goal of laying the self aside. The ideas overlap somewhat with jnana yoga, which is sometimes described as the ‘way of the intellect,’ as opposed to karma yoga (path of action) or bhakti yoga (path of devotion). Krishnamurti says even if visionaries like Christ and the Buddha achieved personal enlightenment and transcendence, their ideas don’t seem to have put a noticeable dent in human conflict since then.

THOUSAND CRANES
This is a Japanese novel from 1952 by Yasunari Kawabata, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I found this book on a sidewalk ledge one day while walking my dog. Book was just sitting there — a tiny, well-worn paperback. I picked it up, took it home, read it. Book is basically one long mood, in the same way that the French novel Bonjour Tristesse is a mood, or The Stranger by Camus. You learn a lot about Japanese tea ceremonies, their cultural importance, and different types of ancient tea ware. This sounds boring, but the author throws in some sex and a malignant, meddlesome old woman, and the whole thing moves along fine.

I NO LONGER STEAL FROM NATURE
This is a poem, not a novel. It was written about a thousand years ago by a blind Arab poet known as Al Ma’arri, who lived in what is now Syria. Sometimes I forget that people thousands of years ago weren’t always concerned 24/7 with staying alive or finding the next meal, or surviving childbirth. I was impressed a blind man in the the desert in the year 1020 wasn’t just vegetarian, but full-on vegan. It’s one thing to swear off meat, dairy, and honey in present-day L.A., quite another in 11th-century Syria. I don’t know who brought this blind guy his meals, but I imagine it could get pretty annoying. I liked the part of the poem about milk. It was basically the same thing which actor Joaquin Phoenix said in his speech at the Oscars last year. (At the time I thought, ‘What in the world is this guy talking about?’)

Here’s the poem:
You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

Me too, Al Ma’arri! I feel the same way.

THE GIVER
Short science-fiction novel by Lois Lowry. I think it is read mostly by middle-school students, but on the heels of Thousand Cranes, I was looking for another tiny paperback I could stash in my back pocket. This one describes a community in which seasons, personal differences, even visual perception of color have been smoothed away and eradicated, in the interest of more predictable, less painful lives. It takes a while for the dystopic aspects to reveal themselves. At the beginning you’re thinking, ‘Okay, well there are actually some nice innovations here.’ And then, soon enough, you are not thinking that.

THE IMMORTALITY KEY
This work examines whether ancient Greek rites and early Christian eucharistic ceremonies included the use of psychedelic substances. That is, was the wine in those ceremonies more potion than wine, with various additives introduced to heighten effects? On the one hand, the subject is fascinating, and the evidence persuasive; on the other, the author makes the book too much about himself and keeps going back to buttress points he already proved. The book follows in the footsteps of the 1978 work The Road to Eleusis, which made the same argument but before scientific testing of ancient drinking vessels had confirmed traces of psychedelic compounds.

VACATIONLAND: TRUE STORIES FROM PAINFUL BEACHES
Sharp observational humor from writer/comedian/actor John Hodgman. It’s especially funny if you have ever lived or vacationed in Maine.

Posted in LITERATURE, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 9 Comments

PUT RESPECT ON HER NAME

Much has been written about The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, and with good reason. It’s an excellent show.

For me, one notable feature was the stories it chose not to tell.

I’m so accustomed to certain plot lines. Each time I realized Queen’s Gambit was sailing right past those, without taking an easy off-ramp, I became more intrigued.

The boozy, pill-popping mother trapped in her own misery, adopting a child? There are so many obvious ways it could go wrong; when the show patiently refused to explore any of them, I realized, This show has a better story to tell.

I thought the same thing about the various boys and men who interacted with the troubled chess genius Beth Harmon on her unlikely ascent to greatness. I kept expecting standard types of conflict — sexual assault; unrequited love which turns into bitterness or revenge; the jealous urge to control or even stymie her greatness because it may eclipse his. When Queen’s Gambit failed to choose any of those paths, my curiosity mounted.

How refreshing to realize a new story is being told, or perhaps an ancient one, being re-told at just the right moment, in just the right way.

What then is the story which Queen’s Gambit waits so patiently to tell?

[SPOILER ALERT: plot outcomes are discussed below.]

The answer is different, of course, for each watcher. But for me, the show is about the difficulty of being both a genius and a girl. Yes, layers of further difficulty are added on top of that; Beth is an orphan and a drug addict, and she is growing up in the United States, which in the 1950s and ’60s was a chess backwater. But when I boil it down — when I try to pinpoint why I was so moved and entranced — it’s the struggle of a girl whose gifts set her apart, sometimes painfully so. The girl feels this greatness inside her. She is by turns scared of it, amazed by it, fascinated by it, angry at it, and so on. The show is the evolution of her relationship to that gift. It’s a love story not between her and a boy, but between her and the game of chess, between her and her own genius. There are early, unsatisfactory experiences kissing boys or sleeping with them. But the true passion is reserved for trance-like visions of a chess board on the ceiling of her bedroom, the pieces moving themselves, the game revealing itself to her at warp speed.

Along the way, while watching this show, I kept thinking, It’s not easy for this kid. I didn’t always like her, I was occasionally frustrated by her decisions. But I was rooting for her.

In the show’s final episode, I was crying from the bulletin-board scene onward. The gradual reappearance of all the boys and men she’d encountered along the way — the fact that they were supporting her, cheering for her, praying for her — well, I was moved. I appreciated very much this model of masculinity, a model perhaps more aspirational than realistic, but nonetheless stirring.

Two characters, in particular, illustrated for me what true strength, kindness, and masculinity look like — the shaggy, gray-haired Russian champion whose eyes sparkle and whose heart opens when he sees that Beth has recovered her footing and will beat him; and the daunting, handsome, ultra-disciplined Russian world champion who faces Beth in her final match.

How these two men behave in defeat contrasts beautifully with the way a certain high-profile American is dealing with his own very public loss right now. In my view, these fictional Russians behave exactly as we should teach boys in real life to behave, whether playing chess or ice hockey, sitting in a classroom, dating someone, or whatever else.

In defeat, the Russian masters lay down their pride and self-regard, open their hearts, and smile at the supernova exploding in front of them. They step back and give the full measure of their recognition and respect. They are moved by the beauty and power of her game. They understand it not only eclipses their own, but that it illustrates, for a moment at least, the mysteries of the universe. They are honored to be part of her story.

There are other things to like about the show. Wardrobe and art direction are superb. And the storytelling reminds us, in vivid, realistic fashion, that the difficulty of the struggle — the extent to which the deck appears stacked against the hero — is precisely what builds the strength necessary for her final push. Beth’s route to success isn’t one which anybody would draw up ahead of time. There are crucial mistakes, moments of heartbreaking self-sabotage. But she gradually develops the strength and discipline to stay in the pocket and stare down the final opponent.

She may not be the hero we were expecting — an odd, brusque girl who sees chess games unfolding on her bedroom ceiling — but she feels like the hero we need. She is single-minded, proud, fearless, and so much stronger, way down deep in her soul, than her slender frame may initially suggest.

Finally, as exceptional as Beth’s chess skills are, it’s worth considering, too, that all of us have a sliver of genius inside us. Indeed, part of the life journey is to discover what one is good at, to work at it, and then to offer it to others.

If this is true, then it also stands to reason that, like the Russian chess masters — with their impeccable manners, their deep respect for the game, their unexpected kindness to the young American — we should try, when interacting with anyone at all, to discern and focus on the person’s sliver of genius, not their flaws, weakness, or illness. In this way a girl is nudged toward the greatness which is her birthright.

Genius wants so desperately to be born. We should do whatever we can to protect and nourish it. And when it does burst forth, we should stop dead in our tracks, bear collective witness, and applaud. We should give sincere thanks. That is the proper response, even if we ourselves may sit on the losing side of the table.

Posted in CHILD REARING, HEROES, MOVIES, SPIRIT | 31 Comments