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.


Footprints in the snow

December 30, 2022

We all know how footprints work — how indentations are imprinted into soft surfaces like dirt or sand or snow. But how does one arrive at the situation above, where the footprints rise ABOVE an otherwise smooth surface?

Here’s a hint: we had snow and unseasonably cold weather for a few days (with occasional trips across the driveway on foot), and then the snow was melted and washed away by warmer rains. The photo above was taken most of the way through the washing-away process.


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.


Will I ever race again?

October 2, 2022

Different aspects of running are enjoyable to different people. My favorite encapsulation of this basic fact comes from Don Kardong in the essay “Collision Course” as published in his 1985 book Thirty Phone Booths to Boston. Kardong, a Stanford alum, recounts a “fun run” at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), where electrons are brought remarkably close to the speed of light, the one true speed limit in the universe.

(As a side note, I have a family connection to SLAC: my cousin Knut is an engineer there, as his father Knut was before him.)

Here is the key passage:

“…I thought of something that had once happened to me at a Sunday fun-run back in Spokane. The organizer had always stressed health, cardiovascular fitness, and easy running, and was dismayed at those of us who ran fast.

“On that morning he cornered me after the run, striving to be good-natured, and said, ‘What are you doing, running like that? This is a fun-run, you know.’

“I looked at him, and said words that came back to me as Brook and I sprinted along the electron path at SLAC.

“‘It’s fun to run fast,’ I told him.”

Yesterday while running, I found myself thinking about Kardong-running-at-SLAC thinking about Kardong-running-in-Spokane. It was almost time to drive up to my son’s ultimate frisbee jamboree in Burlington, but I had time to run 3.5 more miles. I could take the blue loop, or I could take the red loop.

OK, I’m being melodramatic; the blue loop and the red loop are the same loop. What I really mean is, I could do the loop slowly, or I could do it hard.

In the context of my current casual training schedule, this might have been just about the least consequential choice imaginable. There was no yesterday’s run to analyze, no tomorrow’s run to worry about, no race on the horizon.

Nevertheless, as I weighed the options, I found myself interested in the outcome. If there was no incentive whatsoever to run fast, aside from fun, would I choose speed over comfort?

Reader, I chose red. To be specific, l opted to time-trial the 2.2-mile Jackson Park perimeter loop, with 0.6 miles of jogging on either end.

On the tough Jackson Park terrain, recovering from a mild respiratory infection, I struggled through the lap in 15:14 — barely under 7-minutes-per-mile pace. Still, that was 44 seconds faster than the 15:58 I had managed three weeks earlier. I jogged home depleted but happy to have made the effort and to have gotten encouraging-under-the-circumstances results.

It’s this sort of experience — infrequent these days, but still recurring — that makes me think that someday — maybe next year, maybe the year after that — I will once again toe the starting line of a local “fun run,” determined to make the fun as concentrated and as brief as possible.


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.


Unsafe at any speed

August 22, 2022

Another academic quarter of teaching (Summer 2022) has just ended, meaning that it’s time for me to make another quixotic attempt to get back in shape, eat more healthily, get adequate sleep, etc. etc.

Often I like to kick off these attempts with a modest track workout like 4x400m, just to see what my new baseline is. At the moment, though, I’m so unfit that I don’t think my body can handle the track. Instead I’ve had to find excitement in the time-honored tradition of out-of-shape city dwellers everywhere: running for the bus.

The most dramatic version of this occurs when, trying to get home from Everett, I arrive at Everett Station just after the 512 bus leaves for Seattle. This sounds hopeless, but the 512 has to snake its way out of the station and go through a couple of traffic lights to reach its first stop, about four blocks away, on 34th and Broadway. Sometimes if I get to Everett Station within 30 seconds of the 512’s departure I can still beat it to 34th.

Such was the situation today. With some help from the lights, I managed to reach that Broadway block about even with the bus, flailing my left arm as it passed in the hope that it would stop for me. It did! I had made up the stagger!

My satisfaction lasted for about one second. “That was really stupid of you!” the driver greeted me. “This bus comes every 10 minutes!” (Not true; it’s every 16 minutes.) “You should have waited for the next one! All you did was slow me down and make me late!”

“I’m sorry,” I panted.

“No you’re not!” the driver replied. I fumbled with my bus pass. “The card reader isn’t working — just sit down!”

“Uh, yes — I am sorry,” I said, a bit more sharply.

“No you’re not!” the driver insisted again. “You were thinking only of yourself!”

I considered proposing that I might be a more competent judge of my own emotions than a public-transit employee who resents customers for daring to come aboard. Not wanting the road rage to escalate any further, though, I stayed silent.

Every comeback has its hiccups, right?

Maybe next time it would be safer to just go to the track.


Not really reading

July 26, 2022

One of the ways in which I am utterly disappointing as a liberal-arts-college graduate, and as a voting citizen, is that, aside from the requirements of my job, I don’t read all that much.

If there’s a classic novel out there that you greatly admire, an absolute masterpiece of the genre, you can be certain that I not have read it. Ditto for non-fiction books. I don’t know why the caged bird sings, I don’t know how Stella got her groove back, and I don’t know for whom the bell tolls. I’m not at all proud of this; it’s just the way it has been for me for many years.

It was against this backdrop that I found myself waking up from a dream in which I had been profoundly moved by some sort of long-form reporting I had read on SlateSlate indeed being a main source of the online stuff that I do read (quickly, during breakfast and so forth).

The piece was called “The Source.” It was a meandering nonfictional account of rock-drilling technology and immigrant workers and a bunch of other stuff that wouldn’t have belonged together unless synthesized by a masterful writer, or, in this case, by a dream. I worked my way through it on a lunch break or something, reasonably interested, and then arrived at the final paragraph.

“In the hills of ______ County in Virginia,” the paragraph said (approximately), “there is a field of giant flat rocks. In the middle of one of the rocks is a hole, no more than a few millimeters in diameter. And through this tiny hole, every day, come millions upon millions of gallons of fresh, pure water, a godsend for all who live in the area, human and otherwise.” It had the vibe of a David Attenborough-style documentary, intending to highlight a particular example of the wonders of nature.

There were several other sentences too, perhaps tying this random tidbit to the rest of the piece. And there was an overhead photograph, which did indeed show an enormous rock with a tiny hole. For whatever reason, the hole was dry at the moment captured in the photo.

As I read this paragraph and stared at the photo, I found it incredibly profound and moving. I wept, then woke up, then marveled at how strongly I had been reacting just a moment ago.

Was I finally, reluctantly acknowledging the awesomeness of nature? (Such a tiny hole! So much water! So much life dependent on the water!) Was I crying out for the information and insights that I would surely gain if I would only make reading a priority in my life? Was I just feeling hot after a long summer day?


Cycling Next to Sara Hall at the World Athletics Championships

July 19, 2022

My wife and I just spent a long weekend at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. 

For most of the visit, I felt rather like a track-and-field tourist, interested in the sights and sounds, but not particularly invested in them. I saw a few old running friends, but felt no strong connections to the athletes competing. Many of the names familiar to me — Johnny Gregorek, Joe Klecker, Eilish McColgan — were familiar mainly as offspring of runners who were famous back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was more attuned to the running scene.

And then this morning there was the women’s marathon. My wife was keen to see as much of the race as possible, so, like a few dozen other attendees, she and I rode our bicycles alongside the marathoners for several decent (2-mile) chunks of the race where this was feasible. It was a nice way to experience the race — a big change from standing in place while the runners stream by — but still felt a bit touristy. I could imagine a guide saying, “To the left of your vehicle you can see Sara Hall, the former American record holder in the half marathon, currently in 9th place…”

By mile 24, Sara, now the lead American, had advanced to 6th, about 20 seconds behind Angela Tanui of Kenya. As she turned onto Centennial Boulevard for the last time, about 50 of us mounted our bikes again and started the final cruise to the finish. Sara’s husband Ryan was among us, pulling over every minute to bark out exhortations (“16 SECONDS BACK! YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE!”), then weaving through the peloton to reach the next pull-over point.

The cyclists around me seemed to share Ryan’s sense of urgency. They abandoned their previous generic, polite cheers in favor of slightly unhinged shouts and shrieks. A chorus of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reached a volume that might have alarmed the Kenyan runner just ahead.

To a casual fan, the hubbub might not have made much sense. Sara no longer had a shot at a medal, and there was no formal team competition to magnify the importance of exact times and places. Did it really matter whether or not she caught the 5th-place runner?

We in the peloton knew that, for Sara, it most certainly DID matter. When you are a serious competitor at a race that is important to you, you want to walk away from it knowing that you gave it everything that you had. To get to that point, you engage in all kinds of desperate negotiations with your body as it withers from the effort. Just one more mile and then you can have some Gatorade! Just half a mile and then you’ll get a nice downhill!

Often the final deal to be offered is, just try to catch one more person. Just this one last person.

Today, Angela Tanui was Sara Hall’s one last person, and we knew it. We knew it because we had made this plea many times before to our own faltering bodies in our own sub-world-class races.

We also knew that such contracts are between an athlete’s brain and their muscles, with spectators only getting a 1% stake in the deal, if that. But if Sara was going to keep working on her 99%, we were damn well going to do what we could with our 1%. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Half a mile to go. 5 more seconds to make up.

I’m not the most overtly patriotic guy, but I found myself joining in the chanting, solidarity and sentimentality finally overcoming shyness. U-S-A! U-S-A! It’s what everyone else was chanting, so it’s what I needed to chant too.

Sara pulled ahead and finished in 2:22:10, five seconds ahead of Tanui.

Had we made a difference? Had we willed her to 5th place?

Perhaps not, but we had been there with her, and it felt great.


Addicted to pubs?

July 4, 2022

This blog has occasionally noted my ongoing efforts to improve my work-life balance. Here’s the latest.

Over the past two-plus years, I’ve made some progress in understanding and managing the problem, i.e., my tendency to prioritize academic work over all else. However, one aspect of the problem (or is it the entirety of the problem?) has been stubbornly resistant to correction: my tendency to obsessively focus on certain tasks, namely, creating/revising PowerPoint slides and publications (“pubs”).

As I’ve said in comparing myself (inappropriately) to Alexander Hamilton, part of the issue is that my work really does get better with revision. If I want my work to be as good as possible, I can revise it, and re-revise it, and so on. There’s a real trade-off between time invested and product quality, and knowing when to declare something “good enough” is legitimately challenging, not just to me, but to lots of people.

Today, though, I’m not thinking about the trade-off. I’m thinking about how it feels to be caught in the midst of one of those deep dives of writing and revision. I’m thinking about it because it happened to me again just yesterday. The rest of the family left for a vacation, and I had a full day to do anything I wanted to do, and what did I do? I started a draft of the paper “Assessing Molecules’ Polarity as a Gateway to Predicting Their Biological Properties.”

This will eventually be a nice little paper, suitable for a journal such as CourseSource, but it will not set the world on fire. It’s not even the more important of the two papers I’m supposed to be working on right now. And yet, once I started this no-particular-deadline project, I was totally immersed, unable to extricate myself until I simply got tired and had to go to bed.

Why? What was going on in my brain?

There was certainly some in-the-moment satisfaction of doing good work. I replace this word with that slightly more apt word; I move this sentence’s verb closer to its subject; I shorten this phrase from 8 words to 5 words without any loss of meaning; and on and on and on, slowly making the piece better.

It wasn’t purely pleasurable, though. If it was, I wouldn’t have needed to take frequent food and Twitter breaks. Writing a sentence, or making an OK sentence better, is hard work. So why couldn’t I just stop? Why couldn’t I just say to myself, “OK, that’s plenty of progress for today — let’s save the rest for later”?

I don’t know. It’s something I need to figure out.

One clue is that my PowerPoint obsession HAS gotten somewhat better lately. I don’t agonize over slides quite the way I used to; I can accept most of my slides as good enough while still fixing the ones that really need fixing. This is progress. But my writing process still feels as out-of-control as ever. Guess how long it took me to write this post?


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.”