family, technology

Unto the second generation.

In the dream that I’m unlikely to ever actually experience—because most of my dreams are, annoyingly, about being late for some sort of appointment while trying to get there on the wrong commuter train that then turns into a creepily-familiar railroad apartment in a shitty neighborhood—my father is alive again, and has just finished repairing someone’s wristwatch in his workroom. We’re in the apartment where I was born, in a Lower East Side neighborhood I haven’t been able to afford to live in for decades, should I have ever wished to.

He comes out of the tiny room through the French doors, wiping his hands, and I tell him a bit about the task I’ve given myself, while showing him the small home computer about to undergo an upgrade. I show him the tools I’m going to use. Most of them are far less delicate than the ones he requires a loupe to see the ends of, but I’m glad to have a hand-magnifier nearby anyway.

For the purposes of this dream, he knows what a computer is, despite having been born the year Ford’s Model T car debuted, and died (effectively) way before computers were anything more than an amusement from a silly movie or tv show. I tell him about how nervous I am at risking the functionality of something that costs several weeks’ salary (having of course chosen not to discuss the variability of a freelance career—because why would I need to get into that sort of conversation again, with yet another worrisome parent?), but he indicates encouragement, scrutinizing the gizmo through his Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and motions me to continue after moving a floor lamp closer to the dining table where I’ve laid out everything on a towel.

I have another computer, a laptop, set up to run the video that instructs me how to upgrade this one’s internal hard drive. He also accepts this anachronism, because having to go back to first principles to explain everything is someone else’s dream, not mine.

I start the video, stopping it often to run it back, to focus on a detail, and sweat bullets while replaying parts of it. The video, made by slightly corny but very professional midwestern nerds, is comprehensive. Scored with music my father likely has little patience for (it being something other than classical), but accepts the presence of. He asks occasional questions. Or he would, if I could still remember what his voice sounded like when I was five or six. I vaguely imagine a gravelly lyric baritone, heavily accented.

The work is, for me, complex. Nowhere near as complex as the movements of the Swiss watches he regularly manipulates with impossible patience, but still a great deal of detail to keep track of. I mark areas on my towel to place parts removed in groups, and carefully label them with masking tape and marker, remarking how far less reliable my memory is than his. He waves that self-deprecation off impatiently, because it’s my dream and he’s being supportive of my effort.

The components of the tiny device come apart, and I try to lay them out like the exploded-view engineering drawings I’ve seen. The target of the upgrade is replaced with something shinier, newer, and lighter. The video’s narrator is as patient as my thumb on the pause button can make him. The components of the tiny device go back together. I sweat bullets over the minuscule screws that strip too easily if too much force is applied.

The computer is closed up, and I attach it to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for testing. It boots up in record time, and I use it to play a piece of music I know my father might appreciate. Maybe some Mahler.

I turn to him, for he is still there, watching intently. It might be a dream, but he hasn’t disappeared or turned into another commuter train. Or worse.

He’s smiling and nodding slowly. We exchange a high-five, because I know what awful things can happen when you hug someone in a dream.

We go into the kitchen to get a seltzer.

family, storytelling

Finest kind.

It’s been a couple of days since my smarter half had the opportunity to briefly interview the incomparable Alan Alda for her employer. I was happy to assist with the nominal tech necessary to capture audio of the conversation. The interview went well, and he graciously gave her double the fifteen minutes she’d been promised.

I could barely contain my glee, skulking in the next room while trying to overhear the back-and-forth. To say I am enormously proud of her ability and erudite charm is to fall short of the reality.

A link to the interview itself will be appended here once it’s up.

UPDATE: And here it is.

family, spew, theater


My immigrant mother didn’t understand Halloween, and so I wasn’t raised to participate in it. She hated the full evening of apartment-doorbell noise, and I mostly lost out on experiencing a bit of kid socialization. I bought into her irritation because I had no idea what I was missing.

Too many years later, I realized it was kind of fun to roll some dice and pretend to be someone else in a game for a few hours. Then, even more years later, I realized I got an even bigger kick out of dressing up and pretending to be someone else onstage for a couple of hours.

Don’t waste your kids’ time filling them full of your bullshit.

family, politics


USRadiumGirls-Argonne1,ca1922-23-150dpiFrom a March 12th Rachel Maddow report, I just learned of a whole other group of people who underwent slow occupational poisoning from a watchmaking activity very similar to the one that eventually did in my dad. Decades before he succumbed to illness brought about by watch-cleaning solvent poisoning, young women were killing themselves with the radium paint being used on watch faces. All done with a tiny brush that needed to stay pointy for detailed work.

family, storytelling, theater

And I don’t even have a picture of the guy.

Our document-scanning project (wherein old paperwork is converted to OCR-ed pdfs via a Fujitsu ScanSnap that is working quite well, thank you) is now working its way through a period of time when a certain dear, funny, wonderful, talented man was doing my taxes.

He’d been the musical director for the theater project that probably marks the most important creative moment of my life. He became one of the reasons why being on stage to tell good stories was so important to me. He was a bombastic, hilarious theater maven, something more people should have in their lives. He was killed during a petty burglary of his apartment and left to rot while the perps drove around town in his car.

Consigning his handwriting and handiwork to pdfs and the shredder hurts a bit. I can think of any number of people who deserved his fate far more.

Jeorge Capobianco, you are sorely missed. Wish I could give you a painful hug right now. I’d even let you cop a feel.

family, spew

On holidays with family.

Some of the best Thanksgivings I can remember over the past three decades were composed of an ad hoc collection of friends who either had no family to reconnoiter with, or who chose not to.

The meal was either wonderfully anti-traditional, pot-luck, or mutually-agreed-upon to be outsourced to a creative, fun restaurant. No kitchen-territory issues. No decades-old arguments about childhood roles. Just people relieved to have a pleasant day of eating, drinking, and laughing.

Sometimes it can be wonderful to not struggle with expectations of the few people in the world who should know and understand you far better than they actually do. It can be a lot better to pick and choose the people with whom you celebrate something.

“What are you doing for the holiday?”
“Oh, going home.”
“Your apartment?”
“No, my parents’. The usual family thing. Ugh.”
“Oh. Um, sorry?”

That’s not your home. You’re a grown-up now; you’ve made your own home. There’s a difference.

Good Thanksgiving to you all. Even the ones who are already planning how they’ll escape the family meal for a couple of hours at a local bar before returning for pie.

family, spew

Thoughts on that other day.

I know very little about the man. Described by his widow in little but glowing superlatives, he was present only for the first six years of my life, after which he was taken away.

And by the time I figured out what questions I should ask about him, my only source had outlived her days as a reliable narrator. Had she indeed ever been one.

* * *

My father was a watchmaker. Possibly within one of the last generations of those who could expect to make a living as a craftsperson needed by the majority of a population. Can I rightfully claim to have inherited some of his dexterity with intricate technology?

He’d ostensibly sowed his gender-role-approved wild oats before settling down. I wonder what he might have to say about any of the women he’d dallied with before finding himself a timid virgin to start a family. Were those other girls somehow less worthy for having dallied with him?

He was said to have diligently read the Talmud and enjoyed arguing about splitting its ethical hairs with his father-in-law. Might he have been equally enthusiastic to examine larger questions about the historical or scientific validity of scripture itself?

He was a chain smoker, at least until his wife forced him to quit, having seen its effects upon their asthmatic only child in the lower-Manhattan railroad flat where they lived. Contrary to what one might expect, lung cancer never became an issue for him. He instead succumbed to two other ailments when only slightly older than I am now. One of those was occupational: long exposure to toxic cleaning solvents that almost certainly affected his nervous system and vital organs. The other, arteriosclerosis, would certainly have done enough damage on its own.

His deterioration was gradual but undeniable. One of my earliest memories of police officers is seeing one or two called to our apartment after a report of a domestic disturbance. My father had grown distant, then delusional by degrees, undergoing periods of dementia which became worse over an unknown period (months? years?). He began hotly accusing my mother of imagined transgressions, both extreme and petty. It wasn’t long after I saw him strike her that the police were called, and he was removed from my life. He lived for several more years, but I was not allowed to see him until his funeral.

By all accounts, at least before the decline, he was a traditionally moral man of his time. My impression is one of cautious conservatism, leavened by an understanding of history, possibly scarred by decades of cynicism. Chances are good his old-world upbringing might have made him uncomfortable with many of the cultural changes that brought the 1960s to a close. Had he lived a full life, I suspect he and I might not have found very much consensus in several important respects.

But then again, might he have viewed Walter Cronkite’s candid, fateful reports about the struggle for civil rights in the deep south, or America’s doomed venture in Viet Nam, or a disgraced president’s resignation, and not been changed by repeated violations of public trust?

He’d been born just before the first World War, had reportedly seen his share of violence during the second one, and had come to this country seeking a better life, one made possible by Roosevelt’s creation of a middle class.

His survivors in my family, at least on this coast, have been all too eager to embrace Big Lies told about Liberals, Muslims, and foreigners, only two generations after having escaped from virtually identical Big Lies told about Jews (and several other groups many Jews tend to gloss over). I can only guess where my father would now come down on such matters.

I have too many questions about my father that nobody can answer. I can only construct a fuzzy portrait of the man. Granted, the gap in that picture doesn’t loom enormously over my current life, but there are moments when the issue rears up and clouds my vision.

* * *

I’m often inordinately affected by dramatic fiction that depicts genuine fatherly devotion towards a young son. In an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s great TV series Sports Night, broadcaster Casey McCall realizes that his young son — always eager to please Dad — has lied about his Little League achievements to avoid risking his father’s disappointment. Horrified, McCall recognizes a behavior that has been handed down at least two generations, and leans in to reassure the child of his unconditional pride and support. I was helpless for the better part of an hour after first seeing that.

When I observe such relationships in real life, I feel the lack. I don’t have to idealize a notional perfect father-son relationship in order to envy the simple added security of having two parents present during one’s childhood. And while I miss something I never had, I have to remind myself that I still might not have gotten what I needed, even had the old man lived.

He’d be 104 now. But even had he somehow retained his health through a more normal lifespan — say, until his seventies — he still might have witnessed some pretty amazing things we could have shared.

* * *

In this bookend to my Mother’s Day remembrance — where I speculated about the life of someone it took me decades to understand — I’ve written far more about someone I never knew at all.

I envy many of you for knowing.