Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I injured my hand

playing soccer,
      so now I am typing
             with only my left.
Posting may slow
                     even further
         than usual
It's not because
I don't care

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Joke teller

I was walking with Graham from the library today when I was reminded of a joke:  guy is going to a job interview, buys a suit, but one sleeve is too short and one pants leg too short (don't ask why).  So he scrunches up and walks funny to make up for the ill-fitting clothes.  And as he's walking through the park, a couple see him and one of them says: "Oh, look at that poor, deformed guy."  To which the other responds:  "Yeah, but what a nice suit he's wearing!"

And then Graham told me a couple of jokes.  And then I got sad, thinking of my dad, and all of his great jokes, most of which were age-inappropriate for Graham, but how it would have been nice for dad to be there to tell Graham some jokes.

I tend to forget jokes, because dad pretty much consumed all the joke-telling oxygen in our family.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


I had been switching between stopper and left back today in soccer, so I was momentarily confused in the second half when I was on the left and the opposing team a hit long ball down that wing and I was way out of position.  This pretty talented woman was running onto the ball and it was going be her against our keeper, so I hauled back at full speed to catch up with her, covered a lot of ground, and caught up with her just inside the box.  I got a foot on the ball and poked it out over the sideline, but as I did so I collided with her and as I went down, at full speed, I broke my fall with my hand and bent some fingers back hard.  It hurt like hell.

So I stopped a goal, maybe.  But I got injured, maybe (ask me tomorrow).

The thing about it was, it wasn't really that important.  But, because it had been on the flank I was supposed to be guarding, I felt an exaggerated sense of responsibility for it, and there was no way I was gonna let her score, if there was anything I could do about it, as indeed there was.

Others will say:  "But you're 48, you have to go to work on Monday."  And this is true, and I try to keep that in mind.  But when I'm in the game, I can't keep any distance from it.  There is us, and them, and the ball, and the goals, and that's it.  I can't let them score, if I can do anything about it.  If I can't, that's different.

And this is perhaps symptomatic of a broader tendency on my part to overestimate what my appropriate role in things, when I should let stuff go.  But I'll be damned if I could let her score.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flowing downhill

So after torrential rains in recent years we have seen pretty intense erosion.  I'm sure it's not any worse than when I was a kid, it's just now I pay attention.

One of the things I have noticed is that, if you have a clear channel, things tend to erode more. Water flows quicker.  So it is good to have stones set irregularly into ditches to slow the flow of water, and make it more irregular.  I had in particular admired the irregular placement of rocks in the ditch of my neighbor across the street.  His ditch had relatively little dirt washed away (oh, the paucity of synonyms for erosion!) in massive storms of late.  I may even have commented to him on the Zen wisdom on it.

So this weekend he and his boys were out working on their ditch.  He explained that his neighbor down the hill -- a jolly retired fellow from Wisconsin who is truly enamored of our fair state and 'hood -- was cleaning out his ditch, so he felt he needed to clean out his own. OK.

But after he was done, I saw that he had pulled all of the nice, irregularly placed stones out of his ditch, and lined them in an orderly fashion along its side.  Yes, it looks neat, but he's gonna see more major soil loss and channeling going forward.  He and his boys worked hard at this, and I'm sure he taught them some important lessons about working hard and together and neighborliness.  But nature will have the last word, and that word will be, you guessed it, erosion. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An interview

So I would post this on Facebook, but since Natalie and I are friends there, I will skip it.   I'm 99% certain that she doesn't read my blog.

So Natalie went to a movie with a boy today.  Afterwards, when Mary asked her, Natalie insisted that this was not a date.  It was, however, with the same boy that she facetimes with an awful lot when doing homework.  And he is a very nice young fellow indeed.  If he proves in time to be Natalie's first boyfriend, I'm perfectly comfortable with it.

It was interesting, however, to learn that her father wanted to meet one of her parents when we were picking up his son to go to the movie.  It may have been a pretext for meeting Natalie, but I felt a bit like I was being interviewed. I decided at length not to shave, but I did put on decent shorts and a quasi-respectable shirt.  I was half expecting him to ask me:  "So, what are your daughter's intentions with my son?"

In the end, it was perfectly nice, as was he.  He even said "we ought to all get together sometime."  Which is fine.  I like me a little get together as much as the next guy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The first time in forever

Natalie has been singing along to the soundtrack of Frozen around Graham's bedtime, but Graham says it doesn't disturb his sleep, so I guess it's OK.   Mostly, I think it's sweet.  And to think that by the time I was in 9th grade I was dead set on demonstrating how cool I was by being into whatever punk and new wave I could lay my hands on.  8th grade, after all, had been the year of the Buzzcocks, Human Sexual Response, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But I wasn't too cool to go to Purdy's and dance to Michael Jackson, Kurtis Blow, and Xmas Rapping.  At least, not yet.

But in any case, I think it's good that Natalie is not yet a culture snob.

Social skills and intellect

I went running with a friend yesterday, a guy who has had a fascinating and successful career across a range of roles and industries -- not that he's super-rich, although he's comfortable, but that he leaps from interesting thing to interesting thing and his aura keeps getting better.

We ended up talking about kids, as guys often do, no matter what women think, and he said that his son had recently had some testing come back and that he had tested just below gifted, which he thought was perfect.  I had to think on that.  So much of my own sense of self-worth derives from having been smart, from having dominated people intellectually. I know that this isn't necessarily good, and hasn't always served me well.

And Mary and I definitely exult when our kids test well, and we praise them for it.

But my friend talked about his experience in life and how he had found over time that having good social skills was more important than being smart, about how he had figured that out working at an investment bank right out of college.

And one point he made about his test scores was that, in a high-powered school system like Chapel Hill's being placed on a gifted track put you in a more competitive pool of kids, and that social skills seemed to suffer there.  Which is very pretty good thinking.  I know that, looking back on high school from a 30-year remove, one of the things I did to myself by being in so many AP and Honors courses was to assure myself of being in a segregated classroom.  So now I know plenty of black guys from my class because I really strove to play basketball, but very few black women.  I know a lot of geeks, and am happy to know them because they are great people, but I have fairly narrow social circles.

I was also reminded of this article by Sal Khan of Khan Academy.  Encouraging academic and intellectual accomplishment can be, it seems, a double-edged sword.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Japanese Stiltgrass as metaphor

Japanese stiltgrass is a very invasive plant, and it is all over our neighborhood, and in other areas around here.  I had never noticed it until Mary told me about it, and now I see it all the time as I run, walk, drive, etc.  All of this is incontrovertibly true.

And I let it bother me too much, although it is really well outside my control.  Yes, we can try to contain it in our yard, and we do, but beyond that my sphere of influence with regard to it is extraordinarily limited.  I could try to promulgate awareness of it in our neighborhood using the listserv, that is true, but beyond that my hands are tied.

In this regard, it is like so much else in life.  If I let it get to me, I have lost the battle already.  I have to pick my battles, or I will lose.  Continually.  And I this does not make me happier.  Quite the contrary.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on Russia

I don't know what it was, but something spurred in me the memory of a decade or so back, when I was doing a project out in St Louis.  As was often the case, there was a Russian programmer at the client site, and I struck up a conversation with him in Russian, in the never-ending quest to keep my Russian skills from disappearing forever off into the mists of forgetting (as they will one day, for sure, but I will forestall it as long as possible).

Sergei, I think his name was, was typically delighted and amazed to meet an American who spoke some Russian, and invited me out to his home to meet his wife in the evening after work.  When I got to their house, a perfectly respectable if nondescript ranch somewhere in some subdivision, there was one small problem:  their dog.  Not that he was a nasty dog, quite the contrary, he was a lovely dog, the friendliest ever, perhaps.  An Irish Setter, I thinnk. You would have thought I was his long-lost chum from kindergarten.  No sooner than I had come in the house, then he lept all over me and wanted to kiss and lick and cuddle.  He was absolutely irrepressible.

I can't recall if I had told Sergei I didn't drink before I went over there, at any case, at some point in time it became clear that the best activity for the two of us was to play ping pong. So we played some ping pong, and spoke some Russian, and then to leave I had to pass through the kitchen again, where they had tried to isolate their hyperpup.  More jumping and kissing.  Though I could have done without some of the puppy love, this was a reminder of the extreme hospitality one often finds amongst the Russians.

These days almost everything we read about Russia is negative.  Putin taking back Crimea, waging a proxy war in Ukraine.  Russians attacking gays and lesbians.  Parliament passing crazily restrictive laws on media. Zhirinovsky threatening use of tactical nuclear weapons in Poland or the "dwarf states" of the Baltic.

I was up at Columbia University for a memorial service in honor of one of my professors, Robert Belknap, this Friday.  At the reception afterwards, I was talking to other faculty from Columbia, Princeton, and elsewhere, and they were basically arguing that -- despite Putin's huge approval numbers -- things weren't as bad in Russia in general as they are made out to be.  That life is better, that people are not as nasty as our mass media make them out to be, that the real solution is for Putin to be gotten rid of, somehow.  And that Putin's control is not as absolute as it is made out to be.

It's hard for me to know.  I haven't been back to Russia since '98.  But it is hard for me to believe that they are all fascists.  They have suffered, yes.  There is homophobia, and racism, yes, but we've got that too.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Graham moving further forward

After talking about it for 2 years, I got Graham to swim all the way out to the float at the lake today.  Afterwards, we were sitting on the bench onshore, and he noted that it seemed closer than it had before.  I explained that he was bigger and stronger.

Teamwork and leadership

Mary was out of town this weekend, up in New York with her grad school home girls celebrating an opening for one of them and Mary's (dare I say it) 50th birthday. And maybe Tanya's too.

So this morning it fell to me to make the pancakes, as we do every Sunday, pretty much.  I had thought ahead and taken some pumpkin out of the freezer, because we all love pumpkin pancakes, and fall is after all on its way.  I looked in the cookbook Mary uses for making the pancakes, opened it to the recipe she uses, and proceeded from there, following the recipe as best I could.

Unfortunately, they didn't come out as good as they are when she makes them.  They were too dense, perhaps because we had only one egg, perhaps because I used more whole wheat flour than Mary actually does (despite what was written on the page).  Or maybe I left out some ingredient like baking powder because I am such a space cadet.  Anyway, they were perfectly fine with some maple syrup on them.

A little later, Graham and I were sitting on the couch talking about DC superheros and the villains they struggle with and on good days vanquish.  We were talking about favorites, and Graham focused a little bit on the villain Brainiac, who is said to be smarter than all of the denizens of earth put together.

I noted that, in fact, just adding up the intelligence does not adequately reflect the capacities of different types of people working together, and we see that in the comic books, where time after time, a foe who seems insurmountable at the outset is brought low at the end by the concerted efforts of some super teammates.

But I also made the point that the concept of intelligence is inherently not additive, that you can in no way just add up the IQs or any other quantitative measure of how smart folx are and have that in any way reflect their capacity to work together.

For example, I noted, why did my pancakes kinda suck?  I was following mom's recipe.  We've been married over 17 years. It's a simple task we do all the time. Mary had written down slight modifications to the recipe based on our own experience.  And yet they were too chewy and dense.

The transmission of knowledge and talents between teammates is inherently tough, but good leaders figure out how to make it happen.  Bad leaders don't.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Do you want to be a salesman?

People keep asking me that.  And the answer is... kinda, but not entirely.

I enjoy much of the sales cycle.  The being out in the world, looking around, talking to people about their issues, searching for solutions, etc. I do not, however, enjoy the nudging and the asking and the closing, not so much. Mostly, I'm less concerned about maximizing my income and more want to be in a position to help people. Though I do need to get some income flowing, that's for sure.

Everybody always says that it takes time to develop a business and that one needs to be patient.  On the other hand, there's pressure to bring revenue in the door.

It is not always fun, or calming.

And the problem is, I am competing with people who are intensely money driven and want to win win win.  Where I have always been focused on playing well, in the belief that right will out.

Oh, the ethics of Rainbow Soccer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

In a vain attempt to try to nudge Graham's reading taste forward, really to expand the set of books available to him -- because he has so picked over the offerings of the local public library that I marvel that he finds anything at all when I take him on our (greatly beloved) weekly pilgrimage there -- I checked out what I had heard was Agatha Christie's masterpiece, the 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.*  He turned up his nose at it.

I was about to return it to the library, when I thought I'd better Google it.  And lo and behold, I find it was voted sometime recently by like the mystery writers of the world to be the greatest mystery ever written.  Them's some big words.  Having never actually read a Christie novel, I thought I owed it a look.

So I didn't return it, and began reading it instead.  And, thus far, I'm not feeling it.  100 pages in, yes, it's mysterious.  And there, already in this early stage, we have Poirot, twirling his moustache.  But still.

Then again, it's only 200 pages long, and I'm 100 in, so I'll keep rolling with it.

Just realized that the story in the Times today about the DNA-based exoneration of two brothers in NC prison for murders 31 years ago is the work of my old next-door neighbor Gerda and her colleagues at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.  Beautiful.

*Blech, what a sentence.  If this were anything but a blog, I would really go back and edit it.  But a blog it is, and so it will stand.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Graham moving forward

For a very long time, Graham refused to even discuss showering.  It made him a little teary, even.  I forget exactly what his objection was, the sensation of the water hitting his skin, it getting in his eyes, what have you.

But we had guided him and told him that in middle school kids took showers every day, and so one day in Larchmont we were telling him he needed to take a bath and he pulled out a shocker and said he would be taking a shower.

Similarly, some years before he had been grossed out by mayonnaise.  So, when we stop at Subways when we're on the road, Graham typically gets just a plain turkey sub.  But the other day I was giving him some chicken breast, and I suggested mayo, and he rolled with it.  And liked it. Indeed, what's not to like?  Oil, egg, all whipped up and creamy.  It's all good.

It's good to see these kinds of steps forward.  All told, our life just gets easier.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Money as a verb

I was reading in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times from a couple of weeks back about a female artist named Swoon,* who has grown from doing guerrilla installations to having big museum shows, and who seems very very cool and has her money where her mouth, heart, feet, and all other various internal organs are.  She talked about hiring armies of friends to assemble installations (and running over budget) and thereby bringing people together and creating mini-economies, and of "money as a verb."  She lives in the same apartment she first rented in her early 20s.

And that took me back to a scene from my youth, about which it turns out I have already blogged, here.  For those of you disinclined to go back and read the full post, Mike Watt, of the Minutemen, tells a guy making a documentary about them that "we look at money like this. It's like air, you need it to breath, but what are you gonna do, keep a bunch of oxygen tanks in your garage? So what's our plan? Are we going to accumulate a lot of these vouchers? No, we're going to return them to the market in exchange for goods and services."  This is a compelling way to look at money, for the young, it shows a certain trust in the world and in the concept of flow, which is the flip side of the idea of planning. 

That said, it is worth noting that within a month of my being backstage with the Mike and the Minutemen, guitarist D Boon died in an accident when he was lying on the back seat of the band's van, sick.  He was not wearing his seatbelt at the time.  Which was a tragic end to truly a brilliant band and a really good guy.

In any case.... with some minimal sanity in place (seatbelts, flossing), there is some poetic beauty in trusting the world.

Until you have children.  And then the game changes.  Because it is no longer about you and having fun and making some broad rhetorical/philosophical point about your values and those of others.  You have young lives you're responsible for, in some sense, and you need to instill in them the right values, or at least the sense of a healthy process for groping towards those values.

Not that it is simple.  How should I guide my children towards balancing pragmatism and wonderment?  I, on the one hand, went way off in one direction in getting a PhD in Russian, which dented my early life earnings in a big way.  Which is maybe not all that big a deal, given other advantages I've been blessed with.

So right now Natalie's starting high school.  She loves art and theater, but is very good at math and generally does well and shows a strong proclivity at the dining room table towards a legal career (i.e. splits hairs, parses the fine points of everything we say, etc.).  We definitely want to encourage her to do the things she loves.  At the same time, I know that she should for sure learn statistics and, honestly, it wouldn't hurt her to learn to program a little.

And for me -- and Mary, by extension -- the broader question is to what extent we should be conservative now financially to be able to provide our kids with the wherewithal to be impractical, and to what extent we should be seeking to instill in them a sense of joy and wonder.  As opposed to a fear of the world which pushes them towards hyper-practical paths which may or may not be fulfilling.

The answer, as always, is to stop blogging and move on with my day, because the truth is somewhere in the middle.

*Full hipster disclosure:  I had never heard of her before, and may very well never hear of her again.  Though she seems very cool.