Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

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They Might Be Thieves

January 5, 2023

I don’t know what it’s like to have dementia, thank goodness, but I imagine it to feel similar to how I felt between 5:15pm and 7:15pm today.

4:15pm: I open an envelope from my wife’s dear old college roommate, revealing an eight-page letter hand-written over a period of several weeks. Not having the time to read the letter right then, I set it on the kitchen counter next to the envelope, some other mail, and my laptop.

5:15pm: My wife arrives home and sees the envelope. “Where’s the letter?” she asks. I have no idea. “IT WAS RIGHT THERE!” is all I can say. The remaining mail, recycling bin, garbage can, etc. are all searched and re-searched to no avail.

6:15pm: After dinner, when I get my laptop off the kitchen counter, I discover that my mouse is missing too. Is this a clue? Or is it just the universe mocking me?

7:15pm: The mouse is discovered inside one of the 4-year-old’s toy recycling trucks. The remaining recycling trucks are searched for the letter without success, but the letter is then discovered beneath a pile of the kids’ books in the living room.

In honor of the eventual resolution of this mystery, here’s one of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs — a fierce, defiant ode to maintaining one’s grip on reality.

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Onward

January 1, 2023

It has been a hard autumn on the parenting front. While the 16-year-old remains easygoing and helpful, the 4-year-old and 5-year-old seem to push everyone’s buttons daily, if not hourly.

The tykes’ capacity for sowing frustration was especially evident to me during the week before Christmas, when I was off of work and spending more time at home than usual. As it happened, I was also trying to write some sort of “hooray for our family!” song for my wife as a Christmas present. As of the start of the week, the first and last lines of the chorus were, “We’re a sappy happy chaos family!” After several days of metaphorical and literal stormy weather, those lines had become, “And still we push onward through the snow,” with a new melody and chords to match.

In earlier years I had been able to convert fatherly frustration into songs of optimism. Why wasn’t I up to the challenge this time? Was I getting too old to be an effective parent?

I thought back to when the 16-year-old was 4, and how he drove me crazy at the time. But eventually he turned 5 and then 6, and somewhere in there being a dad became OK again, and then better than OK. Presumably that will happen again with the current 4- and 5-year-olds.

As another Christmas fades out of sight, I’ve landed on the conclusion that, in the development of children, I am just not a fan of ages 3 to 6.

I don’t feel great about that conclusion; three years is a huge chunk of a child’s life. But of all the ideas that a downtrodden parent could cling to, this one seems especially useful right now, helping me maintain some patience and optimism amidst the daily indignities.

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Book-smart, but not so good with wallets or can openers

October 16, 2022

My wife loves to make suggestions about how I might perform tasks more effectively.

Sometimes she is incorrect in believing that her way is objectively the best way. A few years ago, for example, we had quite an exchange about the way I store and update my list of Christmas card recipients and their addresses, which, much to her chagrin, does NOT involve a Google Sheet. I had to stand my ground on that one.

At many other times, though, I find myself saying with a sheepish shrug, “Gee, honey, I guess you’re right.” Or if I’m too embarrassed or irritated to concede out loud, I may just shake my head.

Yesterday I misplaced my wallet for the third time in the last four months. When Leila proclaimed that I needed a better system for hanging onto my wallet, I couldn’t really disagree. Whatever the acceptable failure right might be, it’s definitely less than nine times per year.

Later in the day, while we were washing dishes, I hit rock-bottom on the “Yes, Dear” scale.

“Do you wash the can opener after you use it?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied cagily, “I rinse it VERY briefly.”

“I think you should stop doing that,” she continued. “It’s all rusted, and it stopped turning. I had to add a bunch of WD-40 oil to get it moving again.”

Cue the head shake.

I was not ready, and am still not ready, and may never be ready, to admit that I, a 49-year-old college professor, have been misusing can openers for my entire life. But it might be true.

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Amphibians evolving into reptiles

September 7, 2022

Among the books I sort of remember from my childhood are the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. As I recall, one of these books was among the very first books I ever got to choose at a school book fair — pretty exciting stuff for a 1st grader. I also recall being haunted by the story “The Dream,” in which Toad performs on-stage while Frog slowly shrinks away to nothingness.

Upon rediscovering these books as a parent, I’ve been really impressed by Lobel’s use of simple text to suggest nuanced ideas and emotions. In particular, the story “Alone” from Days with Frog and Toad touches upon a problem common to people of all ages: if treasured friends or loved ones want to be alone for a while, does that mean they are growing apart from us?

Last year my Aunt Beverly gave my youngest son, Ben, a plush tortoise, which got me thinking about green-and-brown animals and ultimately inspired me to try to conjure up some of that Frog-and-Toad magic. The resulting tale, “Turtle and Tortoise,” included a bit of music, so I thought it would be nice to make a video, featuring illustrations from Ben’s cousins and the voices of his grandparents.

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Parodies Lost

June 19, 2022

On any given weekend, my wife and I might exchange a few off-the-cuff lines of hypothetical song parodies. Some of them are fairly cute, at least within their particular context. Today, for example, when she offered to make me a chai tea, her spoken offer was followed by a bit of singing of “Sweet Chai of Mine” in the style of Guns ‘n Roses.

I asked her about this in the kitchen the other night while we were dividing a large package of ground beef into smaller portions and bagging them.

“Your raw parody ideas are roughly as good as mine,” I said. “Are you ever tempted to run with an idea and write a whole song?”

“No,” she responded firmly. “I don’t ever want to put more than 15 seconds into it.” She grabbed one of my beef bags and gave it a concerned look.

“Yeah, I guess that’s a difference between us,” I noted. “I’m pretty happy to review my draft lyrics over and over and over, knowing that patient editing will eventually yield good results. But that requires an almost obsessive attention to detail.”

She unsealed my beef bag, squeezed out a small residual air pocket, mashed the beef into a more evenly flattened shape, resealed the bag, and placed it into a perfectly matched empty space in the freezer. Then she looked up with a wry half-smile.

“Yeah,” she said, “that just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

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A PANDEMIC DREAM

June 11, 2022

Tonight my three-year-old ran home from the lake

Over city streets known to me but new to him.

How he made it home I’ll never know;

The body finds a way.

He surprised me in the kitchen,

Looking almost casual, almost proud,

Torso naked, dark-blue shorts halfway down his legs.

When he reached his mama in the hallway,

He fell to the floor sobbing

And stayed there a good long while,

Safe at home, but broken from the journey.

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What it’s like to be with one’s soul mate

September 28, 2020

Scene: Last night, about 9pm, in the bedroom. LEILA is reading in bed. GREG is about to go back out to the living room to do some more work on his computer.

GREG: …Well, I guess I’ll say “good night,” then.

GREG circles to LEILA’S side of the bed.

[In unison:]

  • GREG: Say good night, Gracie.
  • LEILA: Say good night, Greggie.

There was no script, no actual planning, but that’s what happened.

Two people — both born decades after the Burns and Allen Show ruled the radio airwaves — neither one knowing much about the show or its stars — both chose the same exact moment to reference the show’s once-famous sign-off line for the first time.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

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Work-life balance: progress report #4

September 17, 2020

Work-wise, my summer is over at last. I start fall-quarter teaching on Monday. Related: I just revised my 46th and final chapter of PowerPoint slides, thus (barely) meeting my main summer goal of completing those revisions before the fall. I just have one more small step, which is to post the slides to the course website, thereby locking them down (i.e., preventing myself from tampering with them further).

I feel good, overall, about these versions of the slides. I created a bunch of good new Test Question Templates and improved some of my previous ones. I also organized each slideset into 3-5 logical subsections, which should reduce student confusion and should help me chunk my video lectures into shorter segments.

I can almost imagine declaring these slides good enough to reuse as is next quarter.

But first we will find out whether starting the quarter with finished slides makes my quarter a healthier experience, or just enables obsessive over-revision of other aspects of my teaching.

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The ritual of the post-bath crayons

August 19, 2020

Every night I bathe my kids. (The younger ones, that is. The 13-year-old showers by himself.) This consists of the usual steps: remove the clothes, put him in the tub, fill the tub with water, and so forth. Not a ground-breaking protocol.

But here’s the odd part: every night, after I extricate my not-quite-2-year-old from the tub and start to dry him, he asks for the tray of bath crayons. I hold out the tray, like a waiter offering hors d’oeuvres. Ben carefully selects the orange and blue crayons, and orally confirms his choices. (“Owange! Boo!”) And then, after about 30 seconds of additional drying, he asks to return the crayons to the tray, and does so.

During this time there is no actual usage of the crayons. Ben doesn’t even pretend to draw with them; he just holds them in his hand. And yet, to him, this sequence is delightful. He beams in anticipation of taking the crayons, and he beams in anticipation of putting them back. The ritual itself is the point, somehow. There seems to be a satisfaction and a comfort in knowing what to do next, and in having someone to do it with.

This scene may be poignant for me in part because it reminds me of a challenging-for-me aspect of parenting, namely, enjoying the presence of one’s kids, even if nothing in particular is happening.

When I’m holding a crayon, my mind is quick to ask, “OK, what’s going on here? Are we looking for a certain color, or are we ready to draw some animals, or what?” But what if I could just let the crayon sit in my hand while I feel its weight, admire its features, contemplate its potential?

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Work-life balance: progress report #3

July 31, 2020

I’ve made some tangible progress since my last report.

Perhaps the biggest initial problem with my summer plans was that I had a million different “important” things that I “needed” to work on. OK, maybe not a million, but at least six: online labs (both for Human Anatomy and for Human Physiology), online lectures (for both courses), biology teaching songs, not-yet-written manuscripts (two or three), further development and dissemination of Test Question Templates (TQTs), and old/ongoing email.

When faced with a list like this one, I’m generally likely to either (A) focus on my favorite item (unlikely to be the most important one) while neglecting everything else, or (B) bounce back and forth between several items without making much progress on any of them.

To avoid such outcomes, I needed a clearer prioritization of tasks and some simple-yet-useful metrics of progress. I decided that my #1 priority for the summer would be editing my slides, in part because that was compatible with a simple-yet-useful metric: if I did six chapters’ worth of slides every week, all of the slides would be done by the start of the fall quarter.

During the first week of the six-chapters-per-week regimen (July 20-24), I managed to complete six chapters. However, it took most of the working hours that I had not previously committed to other meetings and deadline-sensitive tasks.

During the second week (July 27-31), I again completed six chapters. By cramming in some extra work in the evenings, I was able to devote one full weekday to a family hike.

If I can keep this up for six more weeks, I’ll be in great shape slide-wise.

But don’t ask me about my email inbox. Or my manuscripts. Or my labs…

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