Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Junior Scientist

My son A.J., who is five and in kindergarten, just completed his first science fair and earned his first Achievement in Science certificate. It’s on display in his room now. On the certificate are drawings of a Bunsen burner, a test tube and a frog--the three icons of scientific inquiry.

I had thought that science fairs were the kind of thing you started doing in, say, fifth grade. But I’m still getting used to this Age of Accelerated Development, where kids get early starts at everything. Around here, kids start playing soccer at 4, t-ball at 5 and by the time they’re in kindergarten, they’re wearing their Pee Wee Football jerseys to school on Fridays, just like the high school jocks. (The little girls wear their cheerleading outfits.)

Something in me wants to be alarmed by this accelerated pace, but still we’ve dived right in along with everybody else. We’ve signed A.J. up for most of the sports, music, and other extracurricular activities that seem to be standard fare among his tyke rat pack. And, the thing is, just about without exception, he has loved them all. He played in a basketball league for five-year-olds this winter, and at season’s start I was convinced that this was a bad idea. I was sure that neither A.J. nor any other five-year-old was ready to play a game of full-court basketball without breaking down into hysterics after two minutes. And that’s to say nothing of the likelihood of anybody being able to dribble, pass or shoot. But as it turned out, by the end of the season, A.J.’s team was looking like, well, a team. They were passing the ball to each other, pulling for each other, bumping fists whenever someone scored. And A.J. had a blast. When he saw the clock and scoreboard at his first game, such an expression of awe came over his face, you would have thought he had just walked onto the floor of Madison Square Garden. It was as if he had finally reached the big time, the stage that he had always longed to play on.

He was pretty excited about the science fair, too. He and his mother worked up an experiment that would test how much our sense of smell affects our taste. Each subject had to wear a blindfold, hold his nose and try to guess what flavor Lifesavers candy he was given. I think the main finding of the project was that smell played a critical part in the ability to taste; but really what we learned was that five-year-olds will willingly submit themselves to experiments again and again as long as they are given handfuls of candy.

The image that stays with me from the science fair is of a grade-school gym packed with little kids wearing lab coats, goggles and junior scientist badges. They all looked a little like Dr. Frink from “The Simpsons.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rereading The Moviegoer

To celebrate Fat Tuesday, here’s an excerpt from Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, set in New Orleans during the week leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.

Here’s Percy’s hero, the suburban stockbroker Binx Bolling, describing his quiet life.

In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood movie theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates identified Binx as one of a string of solitary, cool, self-absorbed males in American fiction—other examples including Saul Bellow’s Joseph from Dangling Man, and the narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. Oates’ essay was perceptive, but I thought she was a little hard on Binx, playing up his pathology but failing to give him credit for at least being a little charming and acidly funny in his alienation. But then, I’ve been a Binx fan since I first read the Moviegoer for an English class in college. (20th Century American Fiction. On the syllabus, I think The Moviegoer came right after Invisible Man and right before Armies of the Night.)

In fact, I’ve been re-reading The Moviegoer annually at Mardi Gras ever since that first reading in college. I usually try to time my reading to coincide the action of the novel—beginning on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras and ending on Ash Wednesday. That’s just the kind of geeky lit-stunt this novel seems to inspire. Binx would call it a “repetition,” which he defines as “the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

That’s the kind of the thing that used to have me furiously scribbling notes to myself in the margins of one of my four copies of the novel.

I remember identifying intensely with Binx when I read first read The Moviegoer. His ironic withdrawal seemed the ideal stance for the smart young man to adopt, and I know I spent a lot of time trying to be as cool and sardonic as Binx.

I probably just succeeded in seeming confused.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Let’s start with a confession. I spend a lot of time in public libraries.

I like libraries, but that’s not something I would ordinarily brag about. Being a library regular is not the sort of thing people bring up on, say, a first date. There is something a little musty about public libraries, a little creepy. The books have all those mysterious old stains on them, and the periodicals room is full of dozing senior citizens. And then there’s the lonely guys cruising the stacks, muttering to themselves.

Still, I keep coming back. I depend on libraries for my work, and to feed my addiction to magazines and out-of-town newspapers. And I like to think of my time in the periodicals room as good training for my approaching old age.

But mostly I keep going to libraries because they’re open. I work out of my home, but I have been making an effort lately, for my sake and for my wife’s sake, to find other places to work. (The assumption here is that there is such a thing as too much togetherness.)

Getting out of the house is no problem when I have meetings and appointments and interviews to do, but some days I just need to sit somewhere and get my assignments written. Today is one of those days. And out here in the remote suburbs, there just aren't that many places that seem like a good place to spend a few hours with a laptop. I sometimes go to a local coffee house, but I feel a little conspicuous there—often I’m the only guy typing away at a laptop. Often the only guy at all, in fact. I’ll try hotel lobbies, too, though they have their own problems.

So I end up at the library. It’s a good place to work. There’s one near my house with a couple of good fireplaces, a nice view of some woods and some small study rooms that I sometimes use as a temporary office.

But still, it’s a library, with everything that implies. And I wonder if there isn’t part of me that slightly undervalues my work because it’s done not in an office building or a conference room, but in a public library.

This is one of the dilemmas of being self-employed and working at home. Each day you have to resolve the question of where to physically situate yourself. You have to figure out where you belong.

I love working on my own and I consider myself unpeakably lucky not to have to go into an office every day. And, yes, it's ridiculous to complain about working in a comfortable home, surrounded by a loving family. But here's the thing: As a male, I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel entirely at home in the domestic world. There’s always this sense that I’m an interloper in my wife’s world, in my kid’s world. I work at home, but I don’t quite feel like I belong at home.

Social scientists talk about kids needing a “third place.” Not home, not school, but another safe place to go be a kid.

What I need is a first place.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Ice

I don’t quite know how this happened, but I managed to grow up in a sports-obsessed house without ever really learning to ice skate.

Actually, I do know how it happened. Even as a kid I had the kind of morbid fear of public failure that stopped me from learning new things. Once I’d decided that I wasn’t going to be any good at something (and usually that meant at least as good as my friends) there was no way I was even going to try it.

I’ve managed to make it a few decades without ever really feeling like I’ve been missing anything because I can’t skate. But now that’s over. My five-year-old son is learning to skate, and he’s been going to the weekly open skates at the local rink with his mother, who is an excellent skater. Now I want to skate, too.

I think this qualifies as some kind of irony: I spend half my time asking my too-careful boy to take a few chances, not be afraid to fail. But I can’t skate with him because when I was a boy I was afraid to fail.

In the February 19 issue of New York magazine, Po Bronson
about kids who are addicted to success, afraid to fail. One of the perils of praising your kid’s achievements, according to the piece, is that they may come to so crave that praise that they won’t want to risk failure. “When we praise children for their intelligence,” one educator says, “we tell them that is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

So in the name of enlightened parenting, I have been out making an ass of myself on the frozen pond in our neighborhood for the last few weeks, trying to teach myself to skate. I went to Play It Again Sports, bought a pair of used hockey skates and started wobbling around on the ice on my own. After a few times out, I got to the point were I could perform an activity that might charitably be called “skating.”

The next day I took my son and my wife down to the pond with me. We had our street hockey sticks with us and a puck and everything, but my boy had a bad day. It was about ten degrees out and just trying to walk in his skates the ten yards from the changing house to the pond took all the wind out of his sails. I think it was after his second fall that he announced that he was ready to go home.

We did eventually get him out onto the ice, and he did have a pretty good time getting down on his hands and knees trying to see how deep down into the pond he could see. But he just wasn’t up for skating much that day, I guess. And so when I tried to encourage him, I heard myself saying, “C’mon, just try, that’s all we ask you to do.”

I suppose that's an example of asking your kid to do as you say, not as you did.

I could have told him that if he didn’t make the effort now, he might find himself decades later wishing he had. But I suppose he’ll have to find that out for himself.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Supporting Your Police

In honor of the Police reunion on the Grammys last night, I dug out my old LP copy of "Zenyatta Mondatta," recently rescued from my mother’s basement. It was in a box full of LPs, records that I hadn’t seen or thought about in decades. Going through that box was a wince-making experience. Does anything make a person question his own discernment more than rummaging through an old record collection?

Jean-Luc Ponty? What was I thinking?

We still listen to a lot of LPs in our house, but I don’t think Zenyatta is going to find its way into the regular rotation. Still, it’s nice to know that if I ever need to hear “Canary in a Coal Mine,” it’s at my fingertips.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Bumping Into Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik’s “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli” and “Man Goes to See a Doctor” are among the most masterful essays I’ve read. I know people who find Gopnik’s work charming and funny and insightful, and others who think he’s cloying and precious and pretentious. James Wolcott, in the New Republic, appears to belong to the second group. He wonders “if Adam Gopnik was put on this earth to annoy.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Better Parenting Through Dodgeball

Woke up yesterday to learn that the temperature was -14 and that my son’s school was closed for the day. Stuck inside because of the cold, we ended up playing dodgeball in the family room.

This sort of thing has become disturbingly typical for me.

Before I became a father, I thought that fatherhood would turn me into some wiser, more mature, more loving version of myself. What it has really done is given me a lot of excuses to act like a five-year-old. There aren’t many days when I’m not, in the name of fatherhood, binging on breakfast cereal or playing wiffle ball or watching Sponge Bob.

The fact is that now that I am a father I act more like a child than I ever did when I actually was a child.

I can’t say I’m entirely proud of this. I know that there are certain behaviors expected of responsible parents, and I know that living-room dodgeball is not among them.

I also know that my own father managed to be an involved, loving dad without ever letting me forget who was the kid and who was the adult. These are all excellent arguments for a more dignified and reasonable style of parenting.

On the other hand, how many times do you get the chance to play dodgeball in the living room?

Speed Reading

My five-year-old son started reading when he was two, and when he reads aloud now, he likes to readjustasfastashepossiblycan. I don’t know if he’s showing off, or just enjoying the thrill of discovering his own abilities. Maybe his speed-reading is the brainiac equivalent of flexing and posing.

In any case, Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press writes in the Feb. 9 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education about the dangers of reading too fast and too soon: “In departments of education, professors talk about the ‘fluency’ that those who are learning to read need to achieve to become good readers,” she writes. “Unless one can digest the letters on the page fast enough, one cannot comprehend what one is reading. But once one learns how to read, there is a speed beyond which one stops reading in a truly effective way. I am convinced that most speed-reading is impaired reading, just like the sort you do when you have a fever or are tired or engaged in other tasks at the same time you are supposed to be reading. Unless you are very smart, speed-reading forces you to ignore all but one dimension of a literary work, the simplest information. What we lose is the enjoyment that made people turn to literature in the first place.”

I’ll try that argument on my kid and see what he thinks.

Friday, February 2, 2007


My tour of depressing wireless hot spots continued this morning, with a stop at a local Holiday Inn lobby. No matter how many times I am disappointed, I still expect hotel lobbies to be glamorous places filled with attractive people on their way to do important things. This fallacy must be based on repeat viewings of “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant tracks Eva Marie Saint through the lobby of the Ambassador East.

Sadly, neither of them showed up at the Holiday Inn this morning.

There was, however, a couple having a fight over the young man’s failure to help the young woman with her luggage. Accused of laziness and a lack of consideration, he fired back by calling her “a dumbass.”

Clearly, sir, you are a man of wit.

Oh, and the coffee was bad, too. Tomorrow, I may try the Greyhound station.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Pride and Joy of Illinois

A special, pre-Super Bowl visit to the archives: The Colts’ infamous late-night move from Baltimore to Indianapolis 23 years ago is still pretty fresh in the minds of fans, especially in Baltimore. But the Bears have their own, less frequently noted, history of municipal desertion. Read about it in this 1999 piece from GQ.

And just in case you haven’t had enough of the 1985 Bears: In this
oral history
, Ditka, the Fridge, and the rest wonder why their Bears team never won another title.