What a decade and a quarter can do

Halloween, 1998: I take a weekend trip to San Diego with my girlfriend, Andrea, and a few other friends. Money’s tight, in part because I haven’t drawn a salary from my struggling startup company for over two years, but that’s OK: our friends, most of whom are graduate students, are all broke too, so we crash in the living room of a couple we’ve come to see. We visit the San Diego Zoo, where I meet and feed a baby giraffe. My friend Paul captures the event (and much else from the weekend) on an amazing new device: an SLR camera body that has been partially hollowed out and fitted with a digital sensor and a small LCD display on the back (since the prism is gone and the viewfinder no longer works). It’s borrowed from the university where he works, which custom-built it for about ten thousand dollars. He shares the resulting digital photos with the rest of us by putting them on his department’s web server, but only temporarily because they take up so much disk space that he has to delete them after a few weeks.

1.25 decades later: Andrea is now my wife. We visit San Diego again. Thanks in part to income from my startup company, we have the means to stay in a hotel, and not only to visit the San Diego Zoo but to spring for their Safari Park’s “Roar and Snore” overnight camping experience. For his part, Paul is now an Academy-Award-winning computer-graphics researcher. Digital cameras on a par with his custom-built experimental rig from 1998 can now be had for around a hundred bucks and are so ubiquitous that they’ve all but killed the consumer film business. Disk space, likewise, is cheap enough that the company I work for has made a lucrative business out of giving away essentially unlimited amounts of it for free. I meet and feed not one giraffe, but two…

…and two amazing people who didn’t even exist 1.25 decades ago feed some giraffes too.

Anything I can do they can do better

This morning my sons will complete a five-week course in cartooning that they’ve been taking at the San Francisco studio of the awesome Sirron Norris.

I took some Saturday-morning cartooning classes when I was around their age, and now that they have too, there is nothing left that I could do as a kid that they can’t. But there’s plenty that they can do that I can’t, even as an adult.

My kids Me as a kid Me as an adult
Cartooning yes yes yes
Swimming yes yes yes
Bicycling yes yes yes
Succeeding at school/work yes yes yes
Inexhaustible capacity for enjoying Star Wars and Lego yes yes no
Playing baseball yes no kinda
Playing a musical instrument yes no1 kinda
Martial arts yes no no
Choral singing yes no no
Gymnastics yes no no
Skiing yes no no

1“Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder doesn’t count.

It’s like they’re not ordinary kids. They’re… superkids!

Over their darnedest heads

Jonah and Archer, ages 9 and 7, recently had occasion to watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. They thought it was hilarious and quoted it around the house for a few days.

A week or so after they saw it there was this conversation between them:

Archer: What was Bill and Ted’s favorite number again?
Jonah [authoritatively]: Sixty-eight.
Archer [puzzled]: Sixty-eight?
Jonah: Yep. Sixty-eight. …It might have been seventy-eight.
Archer: I don’t get what’s funny about that.
Jonah: Me neither. But it was definitely either seventy-eight or sixty-eight.

Cake walk

We’ve just concluded another successful crazy-April birthday month. The theme for Archer’s party was “ninja monkeys,” and so he had two birthday parties in one — the first at Expedition Island, where climbing walls, zip lines, rope bridges and more helped him and his guests to get their monkey on, and the second at his karate dojo for some hilarious ninja training courtesy of his multi-talented sensei Mr. Lavin. The theme for Jonah’s party was Avatar: The Last Airbender, so his was four parties in one — one for the Earth kingdom (a hike through a local park), one for the Water tribes (swimming), one for the Air nomads (jumping on trampolines at House of Air), and one for the Fire nation (practicing tai-chi-like moves with lit sparklers) — all of which prepared Jonah, the “avatar,” to “defeat” the “Fire nation” with his “airbending” skills (i.e., blowing out the candles on his cake).

Apart from putting on elaborate parties, we usually create interesting cakes to go with them. Herewith, a retrospective.

It started simply, with your basic store-bought cake with a few toys stuck on top:

But that didn’t seem quite enough, so next time we took a store-bought cake and plopped a homemade cake on top of it! (That duck is all cake. Mmm.)

I wasn’t too happy with the next effort:

…so we supplemented it with another store-bought cake, though you can see our decorations becoming more elaborate (those “rocks” are chocolate, mmm):

Our first proper theme was for Archer’s “Mr. Sunshine” party. Here’s the cake:

Jonah chose a “peace” theme for his third birthday — we were so proud! This cake is in the shape of a peace symbol, with berries filling the voids in the shape.

Archer’s next party was all about superheroes. We made a cake to look like the yellow A on his notional red “Archer-man” costume.

Next Jonah had a Peter Pan party. (The candles are supposed to make the shape of a teepee.)

For Archer’s next birthday he wanted a “monkey in the jungle” party.

Then Jonah had his Yellow Submarine party. (The cake’s in the background of this photo, with the yellow submarine on top.)

Archer then had a “put on a happy face” party.

And Jonah had his Scooby-Doo party. It was back to a store-bought cake (with our own decorations) for this one.

Another store-bought cake for Jonah’s Star Trek party.

…and also for Archer’s vaguely sea-themed party:

Archer’s ninja-monkey cake was a joint venture between us and Expedition Island:

…but Jonah’s four Avatar: The Last Airbender cakes (air, water, fire, earth) were all us:


Dad writes too

To help overcome my sons’ reluctance to do the ever-increasing writing portions of their nightly homework, and hopefully to cultivate a love of writing in them, last night I let them give me a writing assignment of my own which I worked on while they did theirs. My assignment, from Jonah, was to write about our Lego Millennium Falcon project. Here’s what I wrote and showed to the boys, who were excited about it, so I plan to do it again.


For my birthday in 2009, my sons gave me the Lego Millennium Falcon, which at the time was Lego’s largest set, both in number of pieces and in the size of the assembled model — about three feet long! I was very excited. The Millennium Falcon is the coolest spaceship in all of science fiction, and I’ve been drawing, building, playing with, and otherwise dreaming about the Millennium Falcon since I was eleven.

Working on the model was very challenging. First we needed a space large enough for the growing assembly as well as the boxes and bags of pieces. Second, the pieces were not organized in any meaningful way, so finding what we needed for each step took a lot of patience, squinting, and good lighting. Then of course there was the need to make sure that I and my sons all got chances to do the coolest steps as well as the tedious parts.

There were long stretches where we didn’t work on it at all, especially during the summer months when there were other, better things to do out of doors. Finally, after we returned from our Christmas vacation (2010) we made a big push to finish it. For one thing, we needed to reclaim the space that the boxes were taking up. For another, Jonah had embarrassed me by building the even-larger Lego Taj Mahal in mere weeks, single-handedly, while the Millennium Falcon sat half-finished. Finally, the closer we got to the end, the faster construction went, for two reasons: first, there were fewer and fewer pieces to search through for each step; and second, there were more and more cool surface details to add, helping to motivate us.

In the end, it took fifteen months to finish building the Millennium Falcon. It was worth the wait and the effort — the finished model is awesome. Now if only we could find a good place to display it!

Sonic cynic

It was shaping up to be a disaster.

It had started well enough: a fun driving adventure on a gorgeous Indian-summer afternoon through the southern reaches of golden, hilly wine country. The object of our quest: Sonic Drive-In, a new burger place that my sister Suzanne had suggested we check out. It sounded good — they serve cherry limeade! — and with a clear blue sky and a full tank of gas we needed little excuse to hit the road. The thirty-odd miles to the nearest Sonic presented no obstacle; quite the opposite.

Things changed as soon as we took the turnoff for state route 29, the main road through Napa. At lunchtime on a beautiful Saturday afternoon it was a parking lot. It took ten minutes to go those last two miles. Archer wouldn’t stop kicking the back of my driver’s seat, and after asking him several times, then giving a couple of warnings, I told him he’d lost a dollar of his week’s allowance — so he began sulking. Next to him, Jonah acted extra-sweet in a craven effort to contrast himself with Archer. As we inched along the road at one-tenth the posted speed limit, the fact that it was 90 minutes past our usual lunchtime started to make itself felt. Tempers flared. Patience wore thin. There was whining. My own vocabulary shrunk to monosyllables.

Finally we arrived at Sonic Drive-In which, despite its name, we were surprised to discover actually was a drive-in. We pulled into one of the order stalls in the parking lot. The prospect of eating in the same car where we’d been entombed in traffic did not exactly appeal, so I opened my door to discover whether there was any indoor seating. I say I opened my door, but note that I didn’t say I stepped out of the car, since the stall’s menu and ordering station only allowed me to open it a few inches. Nevertheless I extruded myself through the narrow gap and scoped out the restaurant. There were some nice outdoor tables, but Andrea nixed those, insisting it would be fun to eat in the car, vintage-drive-in-style. “Fine,” I monosyllabled through gritted teeth.

Then the kids had to decide what they wanted to order, then vocally change their minds several times, while I had to comprehend the visually taxing menu myself through the red haze that filled my field of vision. Even now that I’ve long since recovered I don’t care to recall those few minutes, for me the low point of our outing. Finally we placed our order and I walked outside around the car, trying to breathe deeply from my center.

(Luckily for all of us, Andrea was a beacon of sanity throughout, maintaining a level of composure that ultimately was the only thing that allowed us to get as far as placing an order — or to take pictures.)

Things started to look up a very few minutes later when to our delight, our food arrived on a tray carried by a friendly woman on roller skates. (To be honest, the actual first gap in the storm clouds was when I spotted tater tots on the menu. Tater tots!) She hooked it onto an open window and we distributed our food items to one another and tucked in. At the first bite, Samuel L. Jackson sprang to mind — This is a tasty burger! — and the tension melted away on a wave of beefy goodness. I popped a few tater tots into my mouth and an actual smile spread across my face. When I asked the kids (who’d clearly been affected by my mood and by hunger) how it was, I got two thumbs-ups.

With the edge taken off, we were able properly to enjoy the rest of our meal. We ordered ice cream cones for dessert. I apologized for my grouchiness. When it was time to leave, we were sorry to go.

When Suzanne suggested we visit Sonic she requested a full report of our experience, in fulfillment of which I can faithfully declare: Thank you Sonic, you saved my Saturday.

How I use my 10%

From a chat today with my sister Suzanne:

Me: quick, without referring to anything, name the three stars of 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences
Suzanne: shelley long, drew barrymore, ryan o’neal
Me: right! i knew them too, when the movie title popped into my mind a few minutes ago
Me: WHAT IS WRONG WITH US?
Suzanne: we’re awesome
Suzanne: bonus question
Suzanne: what later to become huge actress had a small role?
Me: no idea. i never saw it, i only know the marketing. which makes it all the more baffling that i still know it 26 years later
Suzanne: ah
Suzanne: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Noah? Ah, no

For a few months after we had a son and named him Jonah, my dad occasionally called him Noah by mistake. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the only one. A few other people have made that mistake over the years. His great grandmother still does it from time to time.

In 2008 I had a job interview with a software engineer named Jonah. I mentioned that it was also the name of my son. He said, “For some reason, no one can remember the name Jonah. They always call me Noah.”

Today I learned of the existence of Noah and the Whale, a London pop-music band. (Their song, “5 Years Time,” came up on my Pandora station, and it’s a good one.) Their name is a play on the story of Jonah and the whale.

It’s true that Jonah and Noah are both biblical boy’s names, and that one is an anagram of 80% of the other’s letters. But why are they easier to confuse than, say, Caleb and Abel?