A Chanukah miracle

The following is completely true.

Chanukah begins later this week. Yesterday Andrea and I realized that we don’t know where our Chanukah menorah is. This has happened a few times over the years, and on a couple of those occasions we simply went and bought a new one. Sooner or later of course the old one always turned up, with the result that we now have a small collection of menorahs. We suspected that our menorahs were in a box in our recently rearranged storage space, but the prospects for getting there and searching through the boxes before Chanukah begins were nil. So we decided to task the kids with building one out of Lego or something.

That was in the afternoon. Soon after that conversation we all went out for dinner. When we returned, not yet having given the kids their menorah-making assignment, we discovered the doors of the kitchen pantry were open, and the contents of one shelf spilled out, as if someone had been rummaging through it in a hurry. But no one had. Standing upright on the floor, in the center of the spilled shelf contents, was our menorah.

For someone who doesn’t exist, God sure does want me to light Chanukah candles.

Kids provoke the darnedest thoughts

A few days ago, as Archer and I were driving somewhere in the car, he asked me this question clear out of the blue: If you could live forever, what would you want to accomplish?

I have seldom heard a more profound question, and I told him so. After a moment’s thought, the answer that popped into my head — and from then until now, the only real answer that has occurred to me — was, “Help people use the Earth more responsibly.”

I do my part: I recycle, I drive a fuel-economical car, I vote in favor of open-space measures, I turn off lights, and so on. But that’s armchair environmentalism. Archer’s question, and my surprising reply, makes me think maybe it’s time to start doing more. I don’t expect to live forever, but I do hope my descendants will. Shouldn’t I act as if that’s the same thing?

Santa is dead. Long live Santa.

My kids know the truth about Santa Claus. Do you?

It happened on my birthday, of all days, a year ago. The boys were seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half. For a few months prior, whenever Santa Claus came up in conversation, whichever boy was speaking would cast me or my wife a sidelong glance and say pointedly, “a.k.a. Mom and Dad!” and the conversation would continue without further comment. So the bubble had already burst, they just lacked official confirmation — which notably they didn’t explicitly seek until we were sitting all together in the living room, getting ready to watch my birthday movie selection. When they did, I asked if they really wanted to know the truth. Archer, who is younger, just barely did, in my judgment. Jonah was burning for it.

So I opened the Wikipedia page about the real St. Nicholas and talked about him for a bit, and how he became renowned as a gift-giver. He was an ordinary man, so of course he died; but the gift-giving idea lived on.

Today, around Christmas every year, the spirit of St. Nicholas takes hold of parents everywhere. So although there’s no guy with a magical sleigh, and other parts of the story certainly are made up, still, in a very real way — and I told them this is honestly exactly what I believe — there is a Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is the idea of giving, and he/it really does travel around the whole world in a single night! He just needs us parents to do his work for him. You’ve heard of Santa’s elves? We’re it.

The boys seemed pretty happy with this explanation. Jonah, for his part, was happy merely to have Santa Claus officially debunked. I repeated my point about the reality of Santa Claus, and Archer said, “I half-believe you and I half-believe Jonah.” “Making up your own mind. I love that,” I told him.

Soon after that we let the boys see Batman Begins, despite some concerns about age-appropriateness. There’s the scene where Bruce Wayne decides he has to have a costumed alter ego:

“As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” The point being that if Bruce Wayne is ever injured or killed (or grows too old, which is the premise of Batman Beyond), someone else can don the suit and take over as Batman. In a way this is exactly what happened with St. Nicholas — the Bruce Wayne of gift-giving. Now that was a Santa explanation the kids could relate to.

Decade of dadhood

Ten years ago, Jonah was born, and I went from non-dad to dad.

Ten years ago, Jonah was born, and I went from non-dad to dad.

A couple of years later, he singled out this toy from his ever-expanding collection and named it “Other Daddy.”

Last night I showed him that toy and reminded him that he once called it “Other Daddy.” He laughed at how adorable that was. Which was, itself, adorable.

Now imagine tiny moments like that, a few times every day, for 3,653 days in a row. And that’s just the tiny moments.

In my life I have been a computer genius, a film nerd, a published author, a private pilot, a serial entrepreneur, and a well-loved son, brother, and husband. They’ve all been great. Being a dad beats them all put together.

Cover to cover (to cover to cover to cover…)

Tonight I finished a project I’ve been working on for years: reading all of the Harry Potter stories to my family, all seven volumes, all 4,167 pages.

Tonight I finished a project I’ve been working on for years: reading all of the Harry Potter stories to my family, all seven volumes, all 4,167 pages. Correction: I read almost all of them. Jonah took over for one chapter a little while ago when my voice was too hoarse, like Sam to my Frodo.

I am so, so happy that I prohibited the boys from seeing any of the movies before reading the books; and I feel so, so sorry for anyone who’s only ever seen the movies and thinks they know the stories. Naturally there are a lot of great scenes and there is a lot of rich detail that never made it into the movies, but that is true with any novel adapted for the screen. Also as with any adaptation, some of the changes made by the filmmakers were improvements on those unavoidable parts of the books that were not great or rich.

But the films do worse than leave out scenes and detail — they get key characters wrong. (Or at least, numbers 1 through 6 do. None of us has yet seen parts 7a or 7b.) The film Dumbledore may be a powerful wizard, but he has none of the book Dumbledore’s warmth, deep wisdom, or mischief. And Harry Potter may stir himself to heroic action on film when the need arises, but there is no sense of the fierceness of purpose to which he is so often roused in the books.

I’m sure countless Harry Potter fan sites have debated these things endlessly so I won’t belabor them, but I can’t let it go before giving one example to illustrate my complaint. Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading “Cover to cover (to cover to cover to cover…)”

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: