Archive for category Family


Posted by on Saturday, 6 March, 2010

What makes Frances excited about springtime:

What makes me excited about springtime:

New VW

Posted by on Thursday, 31 December, 2009

I wonder if it’s possible to post about a new car without boring readers too much. I mean, I’m not a Car Person, I never have been. I’ve always viewed them as boring utilitarian objects. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t own one at all; I capitulate to necessity, however. At least we’re only a one-car family. And at least we strive for getting super-energy-efficient models.

My first car was a 1996 Honda Civic. I bought it because everyone told me Hondas have this amazing reputation for lasting forever. It died in 2002 from transmission problems with only 6 years and 62K miles. “Must be a freak lemon”, my friends suggested. So then we bought a first-generation 2003 Civic Hybrid. Pretty much the same car, except with better mileage. And guess what? This month it also crossed the Styx. Transmission problems. 7.5 years old, 73K miles. “But my friend’s Honda has 150K miles on it!”, my buddies shout. Yeah, yeah, great. No more Hondas for me.

The thing is, with two very small kids, we were overflowing the Civic anyway. The trunk was never big enough for kid crap. No way to fit an adult between the two kid seats in the back. My wife and I resigned ourselves to getting a wagon. The thing is, how do you reconcile a wagon-ish vehicle with efficient gas usage? There’s no such thing as a “hybrid” wagon out there.

We tried the Prius, and it was nice, but not big enough. Certainly bigger than the Civic’s trunk, but not big enough. We also looked at a Volvo wagon. We loved the safety ratings and built-in kid booster seats (the seat cushion just pops up… why doesn’t every car have that feature??), but the MPG was totally generic. After driving a Hybrid for years, a rating of 30/20 MPG feels like a gas-guzzler.

So ultimately, we settled on a VW Jetta diesel wagon. Yes, you heard right: diesel. Diesel isn’t dead in the USA, as so many thought. Rumor is that California passed some super-strict emission laws a couple of years ago in an attempt to outlaw diesel cars and encourage electric ones. Volkswagon’s response was to go off and invent some crazy new diesel engine with “ultra low” emissions. It not only passes the California standards, it gets 40/30 MPG. That’s darn close to the 45 MPG we were getting with the Hybrid car! No more funny sulfur smells either, or overly-loud noise. And it’s a Turbo engine too, so, well, it actually has real pickup… something I forgot about after years of driving a Hybrid.

It seems silly to say this, but this is the first time I’ve actually been excited about a car. There’s something about this vehicle that goes beyond the stark utilitarianism of my Hondas, something which makes me want to be a “car person”. It’s like they want to make driving fun, as if you should be excited to get in the car. They’ve thrown in all these little details that make me giggle or say “ooh” when I notice them:

  • heated seats
  • heated windshield wipers and side mirrors
  • leather steering wheel
  • a 5.5′ sunroof; the whole roof is glass!
  • fancy computer between the tachometer and speedometer with adjustible stats
  • satellite radio
  • 6 CD changer
  • direct iPod connection, driven through touch-screen
  • ability to play music right off an sd-card
  • rear blowers for the kids
  • an actual 115V power outlet for “normal” devices
  • bluetooth pairing with my phone, OMG!
  • has both automatic and manual transmissions

New VW diesel wagon

My guess is that a lot of this stuff is now standard on most new cars, so many readers aren’t impressed. But that’s sort of the magic of the car-buying process. You buy a car, then live stuck in that year for most of a decade. When you finally buy a new car, it’s like a sudden time-travel jump forward: “ooh, so this is what cars have been doing for all these years.” For example, in 2002 cars all had in-dash CD players. Now all cars seem to have giant computer touchscreens. Still feels Buck Rogers to me!

I know my wife isn’t as thrilled; she would much prefer the ultra-simple user interface of the Volvo. But as a techie, I love these details. I feel like I’m climbing into a fighter-jet cockpit! I love that when I start the car, it automatically bonds to the phone in my pocket. Incoming calls make the whole car ring, I push a button on the steering wheel, and do the whole conversation through the sound system. (Yes, every car does this now; but it’s still FROM THE FUTURE I tell you!) The transmission is freaky too. It’s automatic, but then if you flip the shifter to the right, it “emulates” a stick shift. There’s no clutch, but you just tap the stick up or down to force the car to shift gears. If I knew how to drive stick, this would be so cool. 🙂

My only slight disappointment is with the sd-card feature. I bought a 32GB sd-card thinking I could just dump all 25GB of iTunes music onto it, then leave it permanently in my dashboard. No need to use CDs ever again. But whoops, no dice: the computer insists on scanning all of the files on the card and storing the list in memory, and the manual states that the card can only contain a maximum of 2048 mp3 files. So it only scans the first 8GB of files, then shows you a vastly incomplete list of albums. Super lame. I guess I’m going to have to sell my 32GB card and split the collection into four 8GB cards.

Whatever the case, this is the first time I’ve ever been excited about a car. There’s just some sort of indescribable ethos about the VW that excites me. Whereas my Hondas always screamed “I’m here because sometimes you need to drive, sorry; I hope to make driving tolerable.”, the VW screams “woo, let’s have fun driving!” No, I’m not being paid by VW to say this. 🙂

The Year in Portraits

Posted by on Sunday, 6 December, 2009

I’ve been getting increasingly more serious about photography over the last two years, and I’m not just talking about the expense of my equipment. 🙂 I’ve started reading photography books and blogs, and have gradually discovered I have real passion for portraiture. Perhaps it’s just a new outlet for creativity (since it’s been essentially impossible to write theater music since the kids were born)… but I also harbor a secret fantasy of becoming professional someday, perhaps when I retire.

In any case, I went through the last year (or two years, really), and pulled out my favorite portraits into a single album. I’ve organized them into roughly four categories: pets, kids, family, and friends. I think you’ll enjoy this collection; there’s definitely an emergent style in there somewhere.

Click to view. I recommend choosing ‘slideshow’:

Favorite Portraits

The last four years

Posted by on Monday, 22 June, 2009

A lot changes in four years: people arrive and people leave.

I keep having this dream over and over — it’s not so much a dream that I have at night, but a recurring sort of daydream, some sort of metaphorical interpretation of reality that keeps popping into my head.

I imagine my whole life as a long movie, complete with interesting characters, plot twists, adventures, and so on. The movie is wrapping up and preparing for a sequel. My wife and I are in a big grassy field, and my parents approach to say good-bye. “You’re leaving now?” I ask dumbfoundedly. “You don’t need us anymore, and our work here is done” they say, and then give me big hugs. I hear the distant giggles of two small boys coming over the hill towards us. “Be sure to pass on the love,” they say, “and remember everything we’ve taught you.” And then they romantically mosey off into the sunset. As I watch them vanish, my two sons crash into my legs giggling, asking for attention. And then we cut to credits with happy music.

Maybe the human mind really does store all experience in the form of stories. Or maybe I’ve just watched too much Hollywood.

How to Make a Digital Archive?

Posted by on Sunday, 1 February, 2009

OK, in the great tradition of jwz, I must now ask das internets for their opinion on how to proceed on a project. I’ve been asking friends for opinions on this, and I’d like to know what others think.

Here’s the backstory. I’m now an orphan, which at age 36, is a bit freaky. I’m left wondering whether the first 20 years of my life ever happened. Why? There’s no evidence of it left. No more mom or dad, and no more house I grew up in either (it was sold and gut-rehabbed a couple of years ago.) Was my childhood a hallucination? Am I a Cylon?

All that remains is three gigantic boxes of photos and documents extending back through most of the 20th century. They somewhat tell the story of me, my parents, and my grandparents (and a wee bit about my great-grandparents, all eight of whom emigrated to the U.S. around 1900.) Specifically, I’ve got:

  • A bazillion photos (some labeled, some not)
  • Personal letters, notes, drawings, poems, journals, articles
  • Bits of video

My goal is to organize this stuff into something coherent, so that there’s something I can pass down to my descendants. I’d like to create an archive in both physical and digital form that will last 100 years. I’m imagining that I’ll scan everything to disk, annotate as much as I can, and then re-print everything on acid-free paper. I’ll hand my kids the paper albums and a hard disk, with explicit instructions to re-copy the digital data to new media every 10 years or so. (With the understanding that media will change constantly — holographic storage, quantum storage, whatever…)

But my big question is: what formats do I store data in? Which file formats will still be comprehensible in 100 years?

“Paper”, you say. Duh, well sure, that’s why I’m also printing it all out. But the digital form will be far more convenient over the next N decades. I want my descendants to be able to throw this extra terabyte of genealogical data onto their wristwatch… keep it on their iPod Femto for convenience.

  • Should I scan photos to jpg or tiff? The massive size of a tiff file feels ugly to me, but that size difference will be meaningless in 30 years, and maybe the lossless-ness should be what’s important. (Imagine people in 1983 arguing about whether to include a 5kb or 50kb file in a time capsule!)
  • Should documents be scanned to PDF? Tiff? PDF seems really convenient in terms of being able to encapsulate a multiple-page document, as opposed to awkwardly dumping each page of the document as a separate tiff file. But will PDF be readable in 100 years?
  • Video: mpeg4? Which format is the most openly documented, and will still be decodable in the future?
  • Metadata: how do I describe every document? My naive idea is to create an ASCII text file (probably still readable in 100 years!) which lists each file included in the archive by name, and explains the context and signficance of each. The same document would probably include a basic biography of each family member.

Thoughts and comments are most welcome.

Eulogy for Mom

Posted by on Monday, 29 December, 2008

This eulogy is really a continuation the one I wrote for Dad in 2005. It was delivered December 29, 2008.

I stood here three years ago and tried to explain the shape of my father’s life, and now, in a strong way I feel like this is a continuation of that same experience. In my mind, it’s often difficult to separate my parents… while intellectually I know that they were both very strong individuals, their union was so perfect that they always felt like a single “parental unit” to me. When dad died, I was not only mourning his passing, but also the passing of the marriage itself.

As I’ve said before, their marriage was simply incredible… the kind of marriage we all dream of and strive for. After 40 years, still holding hands and looking at each other as if they had just started dating. After 40 years, still absolute best friends.

And so it’s been very hard for me to watch mom live as a widow for the last three years. Completely ignoring issues around her physical health, it also felt like part of her soul was missing. While I could clearly see her glow as an individual, her spark still felt somewhat crippled, not quite as bright as I was used to.

So while I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, mom’s passing is also somewhat of a relief to me — partially because her physical suffering has ended, but moreso because she’s finally no longer separated from her soul-mate. It feels to me like dad left us prematurely, but now finally mom is catching up with him — they’re together again, and things are as they should be.

As I mentioned three years ago, mom and dad had somewhat reverse stereotypical roles as parents. Dad was the “nurturing” parent, while mom was the driving type-A personality, pushing us all to achieve. Her life was one series of of ambitious projects after another.

In college she studied music and voice, and dreamed of being an opera singer. When she realized she’d never make it as a professional singer, her ambition switched: she went to grad school to become a psychologist. It was there she met the love of her life and was married within a year. After graduation, The two of them moved to Elgin and began working together in the state hospital as psychologists. Several years later they decided to have kids, and moved to River Forest. She spent a few years as a stay-at-home mom, while working part-time at Loretto hospital. When we kids were old enough, her ambition kicked in again and she started her own private practice. She then spent 25 years counseling people, billing herself as as a therapist who specialized in “women’s issues”. She and my dad also worked as a dynamite team of marriage counselors: first meeting with husband and wife 1-on-1, then working out issues with all four people in the room.

I don’t think many people realize that in the 80’s mom was working on a book that was never published — one which revolved around issues of feminism. She was part of that first generation of women’s lib, and took real pride in being part of that movement. She strove to be a living example of everything that movement talked about: that it was okay for women to break free of gender stereotypes and be “strong”, to be heads of households, and to have egalitarian marriages. Years later, after I got married, mom was always secretly thrilled watching Frances so easily bounce effortlessly back and forth between children and career. She was immensely proud that she had fought for the culture which enabled Frances to do that — a culture that most folks of my generation now take for granted.

Later in life, when my dad went back to school to get his doctorate in psychology, she pursued her own continuing education by becoming a licensed practicioner of NLP — a branch of hypnotherapy that focuses on mind-body connections, and the ability of people to induce their own healing. She made numerous friends through her training.

And toward the end of her life, when she was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer, she became incredibly active in the community of carcinoid victims. She attended support groups, helped organize conferences, and was a source of comfort and wisdom to hundreds of people on email lists. She was a beacon of strength to the whole community.

So that’s a snapshot of mom’s “external” life — her outward accomplishments. However, her internal life was at least as rich. She always spoke about my brother and I as her “two biggest projects” of which she was the most proud, and her influence on us was immense.

Growing up in our home, she soaked us in a culture of music. Classical radio played in every room of the house, every day. She sang all sorts of lullabies to us, which I now sing to my own kids. While she had given up her idea of being a professional musician, she had a rule in her house that “all kids must take music lessions from age 6 until they move out”. Needless to say, this caused quite a number of fights, usually ending with “you’ll thank me for this someday”. And sure enough, over time, she was right. By the time we were adults we were thanking her. Music is now a major cornerstone of our lives and personalities.

The other major cultural gift she gave us, I think, was her immense drive to learn everything and participate in endless activities. Her appetite for learning was insatiable. We used to joke that she suffered from ‘FMS’ — “Fear of Missing Something”. She had too many hobbies to count — reading, writing, knitting, tatting, neighborhood clubs and organizations. She sang in choirs all through her adult life, all the way into her 60’s. She read a book every two days, and so our house was absolutely overflowing with stacks of paperbacks. Her brain was always hungry for more, and she passed that traitdirectly on to us. She taught me to play chess, how to play piano, how to write BASIC programs on the very earliest home computers. She continuously hounded my brother and I to chase our dreams — urging me to write more musicals, and urging my brother to become an astronomer. Of course, one of the side-effects of FMS was the constant risk of over-extending oneself — but she taught us how to avoid that trap as well.

Over the weekend I joined the carcinoid email-list, to let all of mom’s friends know she had passed. The outpouring of sympathy and stories has simply been tremendous — a huge flow of emails full of shock and sadness. I want to read one particular story I received, which I feel exemplifies mom’s life:

“I met [Dana] for the first time at my first carcinoid support group meeting in Hinsdale […] I was still in shock of being diagnosed […] About 30 minutes into the meeting and listening to others speak about their carcinoid journey, I felt myself coming apart, emotionally, and thought I was going to ‘lose it.’ So, I quietly got up to make an exit from the meeting room & was going to just calm myself down in the hall. Before I knew it, Dana was out there in the hall with me, holding my hand and telling me everything would be O.K. Then she told me about her journey up to then and how well she was doing. She literally embraced me mentally and physically with reassurance. Later in the meeting I learned that she had just lost her husband only about a month before. I could not believe how ‘put together’ she was… soon after her tragic loss. She said she felt from the moment I walked into the meeting that we were kindred spirits. When she spoke at our meetings, we were all in awe of her knowledge of carcinoid and her ability to explain so many concepts, procedures, protocols, research and resources to learn about and fight this disease. […]”

Now my father’s self-admitted life goal was to bring joy to everyone he met. And while my mother never openly admitted to a specific life goal, I think there’s a clear theme that underlies everything she did: she brought hope to everyone she met.

She started her career by comforting ER victims in hospitals, calming them down and raising their spirits, while also assuring the families of the injured. She brought hope to women of her generation, urging them to work for a society free of gender barriers. Over the decades, she brought hope to the hundreds of women she counseled in her private practice: helping to mend their lives and their marriages, helping overcome depression and other ailments. And at the end of her life, she brought tremendous hope to her community of cancer victims, comforting individuals and encouraging them to fight.

So while my father’s headstone reads “Bringer of Joy”, I think it’s fitting that my mother’s headstone have the words “Bringer of Hope”.

Decades from now, someone might walk through the cemetery and wonder what the two mysterious side-by-side epitaphs mean: “Bringer of Joy” and “Bringer of Hope”. And those privileged few of us — those here in this room today, and those lucky enough to know Larry and Dana — get to know the true beauty of the stories behind those words, and what an inspiration these people were. May we all have lives this bright.

Things to be thankful for

Posted by on Monday, 24 November, 2008

The great thing about being an amateur photographer is that every thousand photos or so, you get a winner. Here are my two sons.

Ramblings of a man on paternity leave

Posted by on Sunday, 26 October, 2008

[cue Doogie Howser theme music]

Dear diary,

Google is probably one of the only companies in the U.S. that gives an actual paid paternity leave (7 weeks!)… why, it’s almost as civilized as living in Europe. It not only gives us a chance to bond with babies, but try to reset our lives as we walk around in a sleepless stupor. Highlights of my downtime so far:

  • When mommies and babies are sleeping, it’s still possible to practice the banjo with the magic of Mike’s Mute, the mostly highly rated of mutes on all of Banjo Hangout (where the cool kids are!). The photos don’t do it justice. It just clamps onto the bridge and makes your banjo as quiet as an unplugged electric guitar… yet it still sounds like a banjo!
  • Did you know that the bottom of a newborn baby’s foot, being completely unused, looks exactly like the bottom of a hand? Delicate little lines everywhere — the same ones palm readers look for. It’s amazing to think that those features are hiding under the thick dead layer of smoothness on the bottom of adult feet. In that same vein, did you know that when a newborn straightens out his arm, all one can see is a single puffy tube of flesh? There is no visible elbow, no indication of how or where the arm bends… thus proving my scratchy elbows are a product of nurture, not nature.
  • As the temperatures drop into the 40’s in Chicago, our pantry is overflowing from potatoes delivered by our local community supported farm. It’s time again to dig into my favorite recipe for potato leek cheese soup. Seriously: just boil some potatoes and leeks, add cream cheese, and you’re in heaven. Blending with a stick blender is strictly optional; I can’t get enough of the stuff. Go make this soup right now.

Back to the diapers.

Hyphenated last names

Posted by on Monday, 25 August, 2008

Someone at work asked me today about how I liked having a hyphenated family name, because she was thinking of doing it herself. My reaction: BIG mistake, don’t do it.

I seriously regret hypenating my last name, because it creates an endless source of confusion.

  • When people ask you for your name, it takes ten times longer to explain, and always requires spelling it out and stressing the hyphen. Over the phone, it’s even more painful.
  • It tends to break computer systems. They hate hyphens. They hate spaces. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, computers just smash the two last names together, often truncating them anyway, since the combined last name is often ‘too long’.
  • Even when people see it printed correctly, it confuses them. If they see your printed name as “Benjamin Apple-Banana”, many will just call you “Benjamin Apple” or “Benjamin Banana”. It’s like their brain just can’t handle the concept of a double last-name, so it automatically drops one. Which means the whole romantic (or political) point of “encompassing both names” is basically lost on the public.

Really, I would gladly have changed my last name to my wife’s if I could go back in time. It would have made life so much easier.

And don’t forget: if you’re male and thinking of changing your last name, be ready for some serious institutionalized sexism!

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Posted by on Sunday, 6 July, 2008

I’m done with a nice 12-day vacation. I was definitely on the verge of burning out; unproductive at the office and cranky at home all the time. I really needed to step back and forget about computers for a while.

What I did instead:

  • Went on a family vacation to Dubuque, Iowa, a mere 3 hour drive from Chicago.
    • Stayed in a hotel-waterpark with wife and 2 year old. Waterpark every day.
    • Horse-carriage rides.
    • Mississippi paddleboat rides.
    • Mississippi Aquarium Museum.
    • Lots of ice cream.
  • Finally finished reading Watership Down.
  • Started reading The Compassionate Carnivore, which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that I’m not alone in being a freerange-itarian.
  • Read the through the new 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook. I’m a geek. I like roleplaying games. Sue me.
  • Went to the Indiana Dunes — at a friend’s house — for the 4th of July.
  • Went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire
  • Shot 300 photos. A few of them were pretty good.
  • Beta-tested an excellent new text-adventure game written by a friend; it should be available to the public by August 1st.
  • Played my banjo at the usual Friday night jam.

Time to go back to Google; I’m continuing to lead a team whose goal is to make Google Code’s Subversion service as fast and scalable as possible.