Archive for the ‘Family’ Category


Early-morning poetry

May 26, 2017

Rise Up Screaming
(Advice to an Infant … or a President)

The sky is dark, but dawn is near,
And though you’re safe within your crib,
The land outside holds much to fear.
It’s time to be alarmed, not glib!

Rise up! Rise up, and sound the call —
A call to arms; a call for milk.
Unleash a nice full-throated bawl
To rouse your parents and their ilk.

The early bird will get the worm;
The early child will get the toy.
Do not give in; stay loud, hold firm!
They must attend you, darling boy.

Rise up! Rise up, and yell, YOUR way,
In any garbled form you spew.
Despite what bleeding hearts may say,
Our world begins and ends with you.

Sam, 5am

[Inspired in part by Slate’s My First Big-Boy Trip.]


TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.


Introducing Samuel John Zelnick-Crowther

February 4, 2017


My son Phil, 10, now has a younger brother. Leila gave birth to Sam on January 31st.

Me being me, I have been processing this event, in part, by writing a letter (below) and a lullaby.

* * * * * *

Dear Sam,

The circumstances surrounding your birth were both unique and universal.

While your mother was deep in the throes of labor, she listened to music played on the mbira, a “thumb piano” of metal keys that was developed in Africa thousands of years ago.  In particular, she listened repeatedly to a song called “Tadzungaira” (“We Are Suffering”) as performed by the Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda.  

Mbira songs like this one have a relatively short “theme” of what might be considered 8 to 16 measures of Western music.  But those 8 to 16 measures are repeated over and over and over, with a seemingly infinite number of improvised variations.  A single song may last 30 minutes or more.

Mbiras often defy time in another sense, too.  Traditionally, they are played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to summon the spirits of ancestors.  In other words, they connect the people of today with those of the past.

Here in the United States, mbiras are virtually unknown.  If the doctors and nurses who attended your birth had given the matter any thought, they might have been incredulous that a white woman raised in Oklahoma and living in Seattle would, in the depths of her despair, draw strength and tranquility from the plucking of an African instrument that they had never heard of.

Yet she did.  She was hurting profoundly, but she knew the stakes and soldiered on, steady and insistent, like an mbira melody that would not be stopped.

As I listened to your mother’s grunts and groans intermingled with Forward Kwenda’s ceaseless variations on “Tadzungaira,” I felt a rare solidarity with humankind.  While your mother’s struggle to deliver you was specific to her situation — her life history, her anatomy, her hospital — it was also a struggle as old and as familiar as the human race itself.  African women were giving birth long, long before the first mbira was a gleam in its maker’s eye.

Sam, you are here today as a unique descendant of your unique mother.  There has never been another person quite like you, and there never will be.  But you are also here as someone connected to those who have gone before you, those who are with you now, and those who will follow.  

Sam, I will strive to love you both for what you share with these others and for what makes you different.  You, in turn, should strive to love others this fully.  At times this will be hard — perhaps as hard as childbirth itself, and just as important.   Please do your best.



* * * * * *


* * * * * *

Update, Feb. 16th: Here is Leila’s birth-day narrative.


2016, agGREGated: Trump, job apps, pregnancy

January 9, 2017

If you tried to deduce what last year was like for me based on my irregular scattershot posts during the year, you probably wouldn’t do very well. So, for a less cryptic view of my 2016, read on. In brief, there were three main themes.


No surprise here, right? Donald Trump was such an unbelievable character that even I, with my modest interest in politics, felt compelled to read and (eventually) write about him throughout the year, for better or worse.

Among the many, many Trump stories that I saw, my favorite was a post-election piece by Seth Stevenson of Slate.

There was something else. An uncomfortable suspicion taking hold in me. I became convinced we [journalists] weren’t at these [Trump] rallies to observe. We were there to be observed….

Perhaps I’d been naive, but it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us [journalists] in the pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.

And it worked. The press pack, collectively, looked nothing like the crowds at Trump events—particularly in more rural towns. We’d file into these places with our sleek luggage and our expensive tech gear and our better haircuts. We were far more diverse than the people in the stands. When the crowds lustily booed us, we’d sit there impassive and stone-faced, and this only further served to convince the rallygoers that we were snobby, superior pricks. The pen was an amazingly efficient means of othering us.

Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy! Under President Trump, the other elites will be in cages, too. We’ll lock them up, just like the chant goes. Just like you wanted. You’ll be their captors.

As one of the journalism-valuing, anti-bullying “elites” against whom Trump raged, I struggled mightily to comprehend his candidacy, much less respond to it. But my open letter to my students was a useful contribution to the conversation, I think.


2016 was also a really hard year in terms of job-searching. My tale of one of my near-misses was published on a friend’s academic blog last month.

I felt unstoppable. Fourteen years after finishing my Ph.D., I would finally be settling into a stable position that I really wanted and totally deserved.

And then I got a call from my department chair. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he began. I hadn’t gotten the job -– either job. I was a well-liked, already-successful internal candidate, and I couldn’t even place in the top two.

Up to now, I’ve been hesitant to air such laments publicly. (I wrote the above post only after a less personal version [eventually revised and posted here] was declined by my friend.) I guess I’ve been worried about being perceived by prospective employers as a whiner or a loser. But it’s time to stop worrying. If you pre-judge me as unworthy simply because I think there’s value in acknowledging and discussing one’s failures, well, that’s your prerogative — and your loss.


On to happier stuff! My wife has blogged about this (here, here, and here); the bottom line is that we’re expecting a baby boy on or around February 5th.

For me, the best part was after the MRI … when the radiology technician showed me some of the images and even a video…. I was astounded to see my favorite little alien moving around in there — it looked like he was having quite the dance party! It put a huge smile on my face the rest of the day to have a mental image of what was going on down below every time my stomach turns and tickles.

2017 should be really, really interesting.

* * * * * *


slide from job talk



Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.


Recent poems

December 1, 2016

Favorite Fiddle Tune

When the sundial’s shadow has faded from view —
When the red leaves of autumn are gone —
When your workshop is quiet, and your kitchen is, too,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

And I hasten to listen to your voice presently,
While your singing persists, loud and long,
But when the tides lift your body back out to the sea,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

Muggle Snuggle

No incantation keeps our stars aligned;
No wizard conjures us to share one mind.
Yet you are mine and, likewise, I am yours
As utterly as Snape was Dumbledore’s.

For Trisha, Who Is Turning 40

Is it time to retire to a spot by the fire?
Are you fed up with slogging and grinding?
Not likely, my friend! But I do spot a trend:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Be willful! Be stubborn! Be bold and unbowed!
May your path remain craggy and winding!
Your ultimate races have yet to be run;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Well, your mom was a fireball up to the end,
And of that we all need no reminding,
For her life-long momentum continues in you;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Yes, you’re just like her, as your dad would concur:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

* * * * * * *

Snape and dumbledore


Why I’m with her: domestic bliss edition

November 14, 2016

When I titled a recent blog post “Why I’m with her,” my wife, Leila, was mock-disappointed to discover that it was about my fondness for Hillary Clinton.

Now that the election is over … I’m going to tell a story about another remarkable woman to whom I am not married. But we’ll get to Leila soon.

It was January of 1996, I think, in the office shared by the new physiology and neurobiology Ph.D. students. Room H210, for you UW Health Sciences building insiders, or “the dungeon,” as we referred to it at the time. We were back from Christmas break, swapping vacation stories. My friend Elena mentioned that, back at home in Ohio, she had enjoyed catching up on her sleep, but that one morning she had been awakened too early by a bunch of noise coming from the kitchen. As she told it, she groggily staggered out of bed to find out what was going on. But nothing was going on! It was just her parents, animatedly squawking and cackling, as if still in their first days of courtship.

To a first approximation, that is what my ideal marriage looks like. I want to be in a relationship where the conversation flows easily about everything: serious things, funny things, important things, trivial things — everything that both of us care about.

Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize that at the time, and went on to marry someone whose many virtues did NOT include a predilection for endless talking. But after getting divorced, I thought back to Elena’s story, and — to quickly summarize several months of awkwardly re-entering the dating scene — I found a new partner who, above all, makes me talk, makes me listen, makes me think, and makes me laugh, over and over and over. Leila, the perfect embodiment of the “yes, and…” rule.

Some day, when our son is home during a college vacation, he will grumpily awaken to find that we’re still at it.

Pickering Barn gazebo
Revisiting the Pickering Barn in Issaquah, the site of our wedding two years earlier.


Crosscurrents of Heredity

November 13, 2016

Although my son does not especially remind me of myself, my dad does. The “My Track Record” blog as a whole is somewhat reminiscent of his weekly newspaper column from the 1980s; moreover, some of my entries seem to unintentionally recreate specific columns. For example, after posting my own musings on heredity, I checked the archives and found the following.

Crosscurrents of Heredity

By Jack Crowther

[from the Rutland Herald — September 18, 1988]

My first cousin once removed out in Guthrie, Okla., thinks my son looks like my father when he was a boy. Even though she’s only seen our son in a picture, I take her impression seriously. She knew my father as a boy, and I never met the old man until later.

I mention my cousin’s impression because it differs from my own feeling that the boy favors my wife’s side of the family. Of course, these varied perceptions are common. People pick up on different looks and traits and decide that young people take after one relative or another.

Living close to the offspring and knowing both sides of the family tree, parents can see the crosscurrents of heredity mingling in the children and in ourselves.

For example, my wife and son bite their tongues during periods of mental concentration, a trait that is traceable to her father. Biting your tongue is not something you do naturally, and to me it always seemed like a step toward cannibalism. I’m happy to chalk that one up to her side.

Sometimes the similarities between one family member and another don’t last. Our daughter started out looking a lot like my sister but then began wearing aqua. That caused a sea change in her appearance and wiped out any resemblance.

I find traits in myself reflecting my mother and father. Between my father’s hard logic and my mother’s empathy, I swing like a chimp. I ape one parent, then another, sometimes both at once. At times, I hang above the tangled jungle of life for days trying to figure out which way to go.

My wife is a worrier like her mother. And she’s thrifty like her father. Needless to say, she worries about money. It’s a dubious inheritance.

It’s easy to spot some of my wife’s and my habits and attitudes in the children. Our daughter is quick and intuitive, our son deliberate and logical, differences mirrored in my wife and me. Arguments around here are a circus of contrasting styles — like Mike Tyson going up against a voodoo priest. But that’s what makes families interesting.

Ironically, the ways in which the children resemble us parents aren’t necessarily their most endearing qualities. Some traits of the children that vex me are my own qualities.

The children, in turn, are surely vexed by parental habits they judge can only have come from outer space. For now they can’t say much, or we’ll put them to work cleaning the baseboard registers with cotton swabs.

But in our inevitable dotages certain of our traits will become exaggerated, and our children will grow bolder. They’ll quietly complain to each other that we drive them up the wall with this fixation or that nervous habit or some other quirk of character.

Even now, looking inward, I wince to see traits that one day will harden and make me an odd duck. And yet, if we look closely at our children, we can see the seeds of their own idiosyncrasies. They may be entering the years of cool judgment of their elders, but they will be judged in turn.

The circle of life turns a full 360 degrees, and some day our children will have assembled their own resumes of whims and kinks. Hardly anyone who takes the full course in life gets through with a rating of “normal.” There are simply too many frogs in the gene pool, and each of us gets a few of them. Or maybe some of the frogs hop aboard as we pass through the low marshes of life. You tell me.

Another perplexing thing about this subject is the tendency of children to defy their parents’ examples, however excellent. Actually, I find their independence reassuring.

First, it relieves us of some responsibility. Second, it makes the topnotch moms and dads look a little more ordinary.

If a child grows up into a ne’er-do-well, we can always say to ourselves, “Well! They didn’t get that from us. We did our part. The kid must be a throwback to someone in the Oklahoma clan.”

And on the occasions when our children rise above us in merit, we can salve our egos by saying: “Okay, they succeeded where we didn’t, but they couldn’t have done it without our help. The talent was there in us, lying dormant. We passed it on and nursed it to full flower.”

We can also enjoy the times when we realize that no, our children will never be as good as we are at certain things, like juggling or tree recognition. It’s easy to be generous in those cases. We can say, “That’s OK, kids, we’re a tough act to follow.”


My odd son

November 12, 2016

Obviously, there is no single gene “for” math aptitude or punctuality or interest in rainforests. But if Mom and Dad both exhibit a certain trait, shouldn’t the apple fall relatively close to the tree?

That’s what I used to think. Then I became a father.

Two of my defining interests throughout my life, evident from an early age, have been creative writing and competitive sports. My son Phil, now 10, is almost completely indifferent to both.

Here’s me at age 8 or 9, writing about baseball, my favorite sport at the time, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Marathon base ball poem

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the fun,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit a home run.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and steal a base,
c’mon, c’mon, let me see that happy face.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch ’em all.

C’mon, c’mon, even if your average is low,
c’mon, work hard, and you can be a pro.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit it over the wall.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon leap high in the air,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon ‘n catch that ball, it’s fair.

C’mon, c’mon, throw the ball up high,
c’mon, c’mon, throw it way up in the sky.

C’mon, c’mon, throw it right into his glove,
C’mon, baseball, I’m in love!

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the game,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and be elected to the Hall Of Fame.

While it’s not the work of a young Tennyson, some craftsmanship is evident, for example, in the commitment to the “c’mon, c’mon” cadence and the clean end rhymes. I proudly shared the poem with Grandma Nancy and relished her rave review.

In contrast, here is Phil writing about a summer camping trip that he basically enjoyed:

First we drove to the place. Then we ate lunch. Then we hiked. Then we set up camp. Then we ate dinner. Then we slept. Then we ate breakfast. Then we hiked. Then we drove to lunch. Then we drove home.

When asked to provide more detail about some part of the trip, Phil offered this:

After we set up the camp Leila set up the stove named the dragon fly. Then Leila made macaroni. And we ate it. Then she made a rice dish we ate it. finally we had roasted marshmallows for dessert.

Notice the apparent lack of interest in telling the story with any humor, any intrigue, or any flair whatsoever. Which is fine — LOTS of people find writing more tedious than enjoyable. And Phil is creative in other ways (especially with Legos). Still, I would have expected him to inherit some smidgen of my wordsmithing tendencies.

Likewise, we differ greatly in our attitude toward sports, as encapsulated in this photo from last Sunday’s PNTF cross-country meet (courtesy of Win Van Pelt):

PNTF 2016

Dad kicks fiercely toward the finish while Sonny Boy (in hat) looks away, uninterested.

Again, it’s fine that he is not (currently) a jock — just surprising to me.

Of course, we do have a few things in common: a love of soft blankets and sweat pants, for example. And similar views on Donald Trump.

That’s right — the man who has fractured the country into bitter factions has brought my son and me closer together.

Here’s Phil reacting to Donald Trump during the first presidential debate: “It seems like the only thing that he cares about is money.”

Weeks later, here he is, trying to explain Trump’s plan to make America great again: “It seems like Trump wants to repair America … by bombing it.” (I’m not sure exactly what Phil meant by that, but I took it to mean that “draining the swamp,” Trump-style, might do more harm than good.)

And here’s his response to a classmate’s claim that Trump will do some good things, like lowering taxes: “His tax cuts are for rich people. What about an African family working the entire day for 20 dollars?”

Preach on, Brother Phil!


Respecting veterans … and Trump supporters

November 10, 2016

As a young man, when it came to military issues, I was kind of a jerk.

As I finished up high school, my Vietnam-veteran dad suggested that I consider Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs as a way of defraying the enormous cost of college.

I almost snorted with derision. Why would I, a deep-thinking scholar at the top of my class, immerse myself in the dirty work of defending the United States? It wasn’t just that I personally was uninterested in military service; I couldn’t imagine why anyone like me would want to do anything like that.

Twenty-something years later, I can see that I dismissed my dad’s idea prematurely because I had never thought carefully about the people who do serve: what motivates them, what they get out of it, why they take pride in their service.

And why didn’t I do that thinking?

I avoided the whole topic because I didn’t want to deal with three highly disturbing facets: (1) death, (2) the cowardice of fearing death, and (3) killing other people.

Unfortunately, my “solution” of not ever thinking about the military – besides criticizing it, as a whole, for being too aggressive – left me without any understanding of how this enormously important branch of government operates, or much appreciation of the debt we owe to our veterans.

Eventually, another high school/college transition proved pivotal — that of my cousin Paul, who entered the United States Naval Academy in 2005.

Paul didn’t fit my military stereotype at all. He’s an extremely smart guy, not especially macho, and not a fan of overly simplistic “good-versus-evil” narratives. He could do anything he wanted to, more or less. Why would a guy like him voluntarily join the Navy? Apparently there was much more to his seemingly bizarre choice than I could fathom. Subsequent conversations with Paul and his parents proved illuminating.

Even today, I remain relatively ignorant of military matters. But now, at least, I try to be less patronizing and more respectful of those who have put their lives on the line for the sake of our country.

Tomorrow -– Friday, November 11th -– is Veterans Day. It’s a great day to honor my dad, Paul, my cousin-in-law Marc, my ex-cousin-in-law Mark, and all those who have served.

They and I are not as different as I once thought.

I’m very sorry that it took me so long to recognize this.

[Jack Crowther (far right) in Vietnam, 1965 or ’66.]

These reflections come at a time when I’m again inclined to dismiss or ignore another huge group of people who seem utterly alien to me -– in this case, the supporters of Donald Trump.

I consider Trump to be the worst presidential candidate I’ve ever encountered. But just as I shouldn’t have minimized all soldiers based on Dick Cheney’s flawed ideology and bad decisions, I shouldn’t assume that Trump’s supporters are all guilty of Trump’s sins. I don’t know what they all thought they were voting for, but it wasn’t necessarily misogyny or racism.

In September, at the Puyallup Fair, a nice old lady wearing a Trump/Pence button held my place in line while I went off to check on something. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about her presidential choice. I was afraid of what her reasons might be.

I must do better. Without condoning hatred or violence, I must talk with Trump voters as the equals that they are. I must overcome the snobbery, cowardice, and fatigue that lurk in my heart.

As has been said many times in many ways, we generally can’t fundamentally change others -– but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to change ourselves.