Archive for category Family

Welcome to the Food Chain

Posted by on Monday, 19 November, 2007

Our just-turned-two son sees our cat, Clarence, eating a bird outside.

Son: “Dada! Clarence eat da buhd!”
Me: “That’s right, sometimes cats eat birds.”
Son: “Clarence KILL da buhd!”
Me: “Yep.”
Son: “Clarence KILL and EAT da buhd.”
Me: “Uh-huh, cats eat birds. But what do birds eat?”
Son: “Buhds eat…. buhds eat INSEKS.”
Me: “That’s right! And what do insects eat?”
Son: “Insek eat… inseks eat LEAVES.”
Me: “All right! And what do leaves eat?”
Son: “Leaves eat?”
Me: “Yeah, what do leaves eat?”
Son: “… leaves eat SUNLIGHT!”

Good boy.


Posted by on Sunday, 30 September, 2007

I’m here at a Carcinoid conference in Norfolk, VA.

Carcinoids are a form of very-slow growing tumors that are “sort of” malignant — they fall into a blurry zone. They’re a special type of neuroendocrine tumor (NET) that usually appear in the GI tract (intestines, stomach, pancreas, liver). What makes them dangerous is that, being growths of of the neuroendocrine system, they eventually start to produce all sorts of nasty excess hormones. The excess hormones make people feel ill in various vague ways, and thus it usually takes many years before doctors diagnose the problem. They’re bad news in the sense that there’s no known cure: the most common treatments are usually injected counter-hormones to hold the tumors in stasis and/or counter the excess hormones being released. But yes, it’s still a terminal illness. Eventually, over many years, the excess hormones cause other organs to fail.

It took my mom at least eight years before her symptoms were properly diagnosed, and she’s been fighting the disease for the last six. As one of her caretakers, it was good for me to come to the conference and learn more about the disease.

Here’s the main thing I learned: the field of medicine is a big fuzzy space. Doctors may present a unified front when it comes to knowledge, but there are huuuuuge areas of medicine that still aren’t figured out. The media is usually focused on the pathetic state of U.S. health care system, or what the latest trendy health threat or cure is… but down at the most fundamental level, medicine is just another branch of science full of scientists making guesses and doing experiments.

This fact really goes against the whole culture we’re used to of “your doctor knows best, just do what she says.” When people are diagnosed with this rare disease, it usually takes many years before they get a correct diagnosis. And even then, a lot of doctors and oncologists are freaked out by patients being self-taught Carcinoid experts, when most of the medical establishment has barely heard of it.

This conference is crawling with a mixture of doctors and patients, and the presentations are really varied. Some of them are just medical researchers summarizing their latest experimients, reading long strings of jargon out loud (presumably to other researchers), while ‘normal’ folks fall asleep. Other presentations are geared to patients, with entertaining, grandstanding doctors cracking jokes and dispensing general advice.

Because the place is crawling with doctors, it’s fascinating to watch them interact. It seems like doctor-culture likes to make a sport out of diagnosing problems. Doctors love to quiz each other: at bars, in the hall, and especially in their presentations: “Hey! Here’s a case study: what would you do if a patient reported symptoms X, Y, Z?” They love to debate the possibilities, then reveal the magic door and show what actually happened. I’m suprised they didn’t start keeping score!

On the way home, I’m getting a crabcake at the airport.


Posted by on Thursday, 27 September, 2007

Best thing about broadband: grandpa getting to talk to grandson.

Heading South

Posted by on Thursday, 26 April, 2007

My wife’s (large, multinational) employer needs her to head down to Nicaragua for a “western hemisphere team meeting” in late May. What an excellent excuse for a family vacation! Nicaragua seems to be politically stable these days (no more Contra war), and it’s full of beaches, rainforests, and volcanoes. I get to practice my rusty Spanish (which I used to be pretty good at), and carry around a toddler to interesting sites while my wife sits in meetings. What could possibly go wrong? 🙂

Preparing to leave, we stopped by the local travel clinic to get some immunizations.

  • Tetanus shot. Check.
  • Typhoid shot. Check.
  • Hepatitis A shot. Check.
  • Malaria pills. Check.
  • Cipro pills for “traveler’s diaherrea”. Check.

Yessirree, sounds like fun times await!

Institutionalized Sexism

Posted by on Wednesday, 28 March, 2007

We hear all about ‘glass ceilings’ and other forms of institutionalized sexism towards women. Today I’m going to tell you story about sexism towards men.

When we got married in 1998, my wife and I agreed to both take each others’ last names through the common practice of hyphenation. “Frances Collins” and “Ben Sussman” would become “Frances Collins-Sussman” and “Ben Collins-Sussman”. No big deal, right?

Well, it was no big deal for my wife. She walked into the Department of Motor Vehicles, showed them her marriage license, and asked for a new driver’s license. “No problem,” they said, “what would you like for a new last name?”. They quickly issued her a new I.D., which she then carried over to the Social Security Administration to get a new card, and to various other agencies. Each agency was happy to reissue documents for her.

I tried to do the same thing. Despite my showing the marriage license, not a single government institution was willing to change my records and issue me new documents. Each one looked at me like my request was insane, and they all gave the same reply: “Sorry, we won’t give you a new I.D. unless you show us that some other agency has already done it.” No agency was willing to be the first one to do it.

I finally got the Social Security office to give me more details. They said that they’d only issue me a new card if I legally changed my name. In other words, I had to fill out a bunch of forms, swear I wasn’t changing my name to evade debt, place a public notice in a newspaper for a few weeks, then go swear in front of a live judge that I want to change my name… oh, and pay $200 for the court proceedings too. And pay another $220 for the other official name-changing processing. Here’s a receipt that shows the line-items. Then, after all that, I had to change my birth certificate as well. Yes, seriously. Apparently a birth certificate is not an immutable record of history, but it’s some sort of morphable record of identity.

In summary: my wife was instantly allowed to change her name with no forms or fuss. I, however, had to pay over $400 and stand before a judge. My marriage was irrelevant — I went through the exact same process that I would have gone through if I had wanted to change my name to “Glorbo P. Stranborf.”

I’m surprised there hasn’t been some sort of class-action suit against the government about this.

New Backyard

Posted by on Sunday, 24 September, 2006

We’ve been in our house more than 5 years now. It started out as a decrepit place, artifically split into two apartments. After a couple of years of hellish gut-rehabbing (while living there), it came out as a beautiful single family home again. And, as by my wife’s design, the kitchen is fully half of the first floor.

Since the rehab, we’ve been focusing our savings on fixing up the exterior of the house. Last year we removed the horrible light-blue aluminum siding and replaced it with painted cedar planks. The backyard, however, had been turned into a dead field full of broken glass, nails, and wood chips. Construction will do that.

it just so turns out that the electric guitar player at my weekly folk jam is a professional landscape designer, now gone freelance. He drafted up a new yard for us, something full of vegetables, ferns, fruit trees, flowering bushes, and lots of native prairie grass. He even put in a brick patio:

It only took about 3 weeks… poof, a new yard! Yeah, it’s kinda stumpy right now. But in a couple of years, the plants will all spread out and no dirt will be showing. Woo!

(For those playing along at home, yes, the two yard images were taken with a wide-angle 19mm lens.)

New Camera

Posted by on Wednesday, 14 June, 2006

So I have to admit… like every new parent, we’ve been videotaping the baby and taking lots of digital photos. Our main audience seems to be grandparents, who eagerly await uploads of grandson photos every few weeks. But after seeing the photos taken by my uncle and co-worker, I realized the gigantic difference between our 4-year-old, 2-megapixel digital camera and the “real” digital SLR cameras they were using. Holy moly.

So I couldn’t take it anymore, and bought a digital SLR last weekend… after a bunch of research, of course! The camera of choice was a Canon 30D, for a few reasons: first, my co-worker can give me tech support, since he’s a Canon user; second, Canon and Nikon seem to be in 3rd and 4th generation products, whereas other companies seem to have 1.0 products; third, my wife already owned a few Canon lenses from her analog camera, which are automatically compatible.

I’ve not used an SLR since I was in high school back in the mid-80’s. I owned an old Pentax ME Super (now on the cover of Autumn War’s Camera album), and it was almost totally manual. Manual focus, manual aperture. The most it could do was use its light meter to set the shutter speed. The best feature, though, was a fixed-length 50mm f/1.4 lens which let in a lot of light. It was the perfect camera for learning black & white photography. (In those days, I even had a darkroom in my parents’ basement!)

So this new Canon 30D is fascinating to me. It autofocuses for me if I want, which is nice. I can choose either aperture or shutter speed, and it will choose the other for me. Or, if I don’t want to think, it can do absolutely everything for me. What really blows my mind is the abliity to set the “virtual” ISO light sensitivity on the fly, as well as the exposure. This thing will do auto-exposure bracketing, and can even do rapid-fire photos for a moving subject. Point camera at wiggling baby, and bam, 25 photos taken in 5 seconds. One of them will look good, right? Hey, if you throw a bunch of spaghetti on the wall, something is gonna stick!

The only thing I was unhappy with was the zoom lens that ships with the camera. Yes, it’s a zoom lens, which is a nice thing, but it has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, which doesn’t cut it. I hate using a flash in low-light situations, and want the ability to do short depth-of-field photos. So at my co-worker’s recommendation, I bought a really basic lens just like the one on my old Pentax: 50mm f/1.8. My wife and I will just have to switch lenses. She can enjoy the zoom, and I can use my wide-aperture lens.

People have been asking me for photo samples, so here are a couple of early photos. The first photo ever taken, showing the boy attempting to eat some cat food. Later that day, he decided that mom’s toothbrush was in fact the most exciting toy ever, crawling all over the house with it in hand. He ultimately fell asleep on me, still clutching it.

Did he win?

Posted by on Wednesday, 8 February, 2006

Dad had a lot of stuff. I mean, a lot of stuff.

Mom has been busy trying to clean out 30 years of accumulated objects, and the sheer quantity of things that dad “collected” is overwhelming. I guess the best way to describe it is that he collected collections!

What’s on my mind is: what does all this stuff say about somebody? What made this person tick?

  • At least 25 different kinds of collector’s pocket-knives
  • Ten very fancy pairs of binoculars
  • Eight shortwave radios, spanning 1980 to the present
  • More than ten different types of walkmen and portable CD
  • More than ten different types of fancy headphones
  • A huge coin collection
  • At least 25 nearly-mint overcoats and fancy outdoor jackets
  • At least 25 nearly-mint luxury sweaters
  • At least 25 perfectly-cared-for pairs of shoes and boots
  • More than 50 J. Peterman catalogs

At first glance, my thoughts were, “why so much stuff? Is there any point?” But I’m starting to see a pattern to all of this. I wonder if it all plays into some sort of fantasy he had, maybe something from his childhood. He used to talk about how, as a kid, he wanted to be a cowboy, then later a spaceman. Look at the list of things above: they all play into the idea of adventuring and exploration. Sweaters, coats, and boots of all kinds to brave the elements. Binoculars to spy on the enemy. Pocket knives to survive the wilderness. Radio & communications equipment to signal back to base. And the J. Peterman catalogs… well, let’s just say they’re more like fantasy/adventure novels than clothing catalogs!

All I can say is: thank goodness for ebay.

After the baby

Posted by on Tuesday, 6 December, 2005

A lot of folks have asked me, “so, has being a parent changed your life?” I’m always a little surprised by this question. It’s sort of like being asked if marriage has changed your life. On the one hand, nothing is different at all, especially if you’ve been dating for years or even living together. Your brain has already accepted the reality of partnership long before it became “official”. On the other hand, things feel different because the whole situation is official. It lends a warm cozy aura to the whole arrangement. With parenting, the same sort of thing applies. I had more than nine months to get used to the idea of being a parent, so when the kid actually showed up, I had no sudden traumatic realizations. It felt more like, “well, it’s about time, we’ve been ready and waiting for you for quite a while now.”

If you look at my eariler posts, you can see my anxiety about parenting. I was so focused on all the scary, bad things I had heard about parenthood. At one point, I think I irritated my mother with my negativity. She ended up asking me something like, “how can you be so down when this bundle of joy is about to appear?” I didn’t understand at all, but now I do.

I think that as a society, we’re really focused on the Negative. When a bunch of folks stand around a water cooler, it’s always considered perfectly fine to whine, complain, or commisserate about how awful situations are. We’re constantly looking for pity, looking to share horror stories. It’s not nearly so accepted to talk about joyful things. If you were to start spouting off about how great your job is, how great your vacation was, or how insanely happy your family makes you, it comes off sounding like braggery. Or maybe it would just be dull; it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as negative stories.

So before the baby came, all I’d ever heard about were parenting complaints: “oh god, the diaper changing is a nightmare”; “oh god, they’re so expensive”; “oh god, you’ll never have a moment to yourself ever again”; “oh god, your house will be destroyed”. What I didn’t hear were the tales of joy. Nobody ever talks about how sheerly intense the joy is — maybe there are simply no good words to describe an experience so intimate, so powerful, so elating. The whole scenario is so positive, that it turns out that all the annoyances are just background noise. They don’t even matter. I knew there had to be a reason why people decide to repeat the whole baby experience over and over, despite the negative public portrayal.