Sunday, December 20, 2015


It snowed this morning, just a little bit.

Around here the first dusting usually comes a day or two on either side of Thanksgiving, so this was right on time.

It reminded me of my Dad.

Right after college I went to Yemen to teach English with the United States Peace Corps. I lived on the shores of the Red Sea for two years and the temperature never went below 50 degrees. Often it was over 100. I did not see my family once in those two years.

When I came back it was the Fall of 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down before our eyes. I lived with my parents in their house in Wilmington, Delaware while I figured out what I wanted to do next. While I figured it out, I took a job working for my Uncle Steven, stripping the finish off the cement floors of his warehouse and then resealing them. It was a job that gave me a lot of time to think.

The warehouse was very near my Dad’s office, so he and I carpooled each day. He drove, I sat, we talked.

My father and I never had much of a problem talking. There was sports. Politics. The weather. My siblings. My mom. His work. But we never went much below the surface. And this was fine with me. I’m pretty sure it was fine with him too. Those rides to and from work were good.

And then one morning in late November we were on I-95 nearing our exit when the radio weatherman said it might snow. I had not seen snow for more than two years. And something about the forecast made me suddenly choke up and almost cry. To cover my embarrassment I tried to say how excited I was about the chance of snow, but it didn’t come out right. My Dad could hear the emotion in my voice.

I snuck a peek at him as he drove. He looked a bit stricken.

Emotion was not something we dealt with very much in the Dawson house. And my father had grown up in a Dawson house, too, so he had even more practice not talking about deep feelings than I did. I could tell from that half-second glimpse of his face that he registered my verklempt-ness. And I could tell from the sudden quiet that he did not want to talk about it.

Or maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe he just didn’t know how to talk about it. Maybe emotions are like spoken language. There is a window of time when we are young where we are able to produce an enormous range of sounds using our lips, tongue, and throat. As we age, we lose the ability to produce sounds we have not heard other humans using. This is one reason learning a foreign language can be so difficult as an adult. We have trouble hearing and reproducing some of the sounds if they are not part of the aural palette of our birth language.

My Dad told many stories of growing up in Wilmington and then moving out to the country in Yorklyn, Delaware as a teenager. I used to think I knew a fair amount about his childhood. Looking back, I was wrong. While I knew a fair amount about some of the things that happened to him growing up---having to hitch to and from school, falling through the hayloft floor as he helped build a new barn, meeting my Mom at a CYO young adult Catholic dance---I can only imagine how he felt about these things.

He simply did not talk much about his feelings. He and my Mom were married for more than fifty years and I did not have access to the things they talked about when they were alone. But to me, there were just a few broad categories of emotion: happy, angry, sad, excited. I never really heard much about some of the more complicated mixtures of emotion that, in my experience, seem to be the stuff of life: melancholy, bittersweet sadness, whatever that feeling is called when you win an athletic contest but your best friend has lost and you feel both thrilled and sympathetic, or the simultaneous pride and bereftness you feel when your teenage daughter needs you less and starts getting along fine out in the world without your help.

So, sitting in my Dad’s car in I-95 traffic that morning I did not know how to tell him about how much I had missed him and my Mom while I was in Yemen. Or about how terrifying it was to hand over my passport at the airport in Sana’a when I had first arrived. Or about my doubts that I could make it through two years in such a foreign place. Or about how thrilling it felt to be walking around a foreign country at 22, speaking Arabic and getting along on my own. Or about the deep loneliness that hit when the only other Peace Corps volunteer in the town of 250,000 where I lived stopped talking to me. Or about my growing certainty that I could not stay in Delaware, even though that was where my whole family lived. Or about my fear that I was 24 and worried that I had already done the most adventurous thing I was ever going to do in my life.

All of these feelings were boiling around in me as we took the exit for D and S Warehousing and I got out of the car, put my bag lunch in the fridge, and got to work stripping away the old sealant. But I couldn’t tell my Dad. We simply did not have the vocabulary to talk about it.

It is now 26 years later. My Dad died of a heart attack last year and I never did tell him about those things stuck in my throat that morning in his car. But over the years my understanding of what was going on in that car has changed. My Dad was a smart and caring man. The things I was feeling would not have been foreign to him, even though the experiences that led to the feelings would have been. I think now that if I had simply started talking, he would have understood. He may have been a bit uncomfortable—especially at first. But he would have understood and maybe even helped me gain some perspective.

I do not have many regrets in my life. Very few, in fact. But that car ride is one of them. I blew the chance to open up a whole new relationship with my Dad. The story I have told myself over the years is that he was just too uncomfortable with talking about emotions.

But seeing the snow this morning and remembering that ride, it has become clear that it was my discomfort that stopped me from saying anything. We had a few conversations that strayed into risky emotional territory over the ensuing years, but then we would retreat to the old standby topics of sports and politics and the weather if things seemed to be heading somewhere neither of us was willing to go.

This Thanksgiving brought a real stew of feelings: pride in what I have made of my life, wonder at who my daughter has become, thankfulness for the love of my wife, guilt about not going to Delaware to be with my Mom and siblings, and one huge dollop of regret that I did not trust my Dad and myself enough that morning in the car to turn and say, “Can we just park here and talk for a few minutes?”

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Donald Trump for President

Maybe it would be a good thing if Donald Trump were to win the Republican nomination for President of the United States. It would certainly make things clear to all just what sort of country we want to be.

It would not matter if the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O’Malley—in all three cases the differences between the Democrat and the Republican would be clear and vast.

All three of the Democratic candidates have a working knowledge of how government works. They know that passing laws and enacting policies is messy and hard and requires more than a strong wish and forceful words.

Donald Trump does not know this. He really believes that he could order a round-up of all of the people in this country illegally and that it would actually happen. What—exactly—would that look like? I would like Mr. Trump to explain the details of his plan. How much would it cost? Who would do the work? Who would guard the border while every single officer was busy catching and deporting people? Who would pick the fruit and vegetables when it was harvest time? Who would do all the jobs Americans don’t do any more? Would the children who ARE citizens be left behind without parents? If so, how would the US pay to take care of these young, parentless citizens?

Donald Trump says he would build a secure wall between the US and Mexico and make the Mexicans pay for it.  What—exactly—would that look like? I would like to hear Mr. Trump explain the details of his plan. How would he convince Mexico to pay for a wall they don’t want or need? Would he start some sort of economic war with the US’s second biggest trade partner?

Donald Trump says he would place a 20% tax on all imported goods. Let me repeat that: Donald Trump says he would place a 20% tax on all imported goods. I am no economist, (then again, neither is Donald Trump), but I can see that that would make everything more expensive. It would also cost millions of American jobs. Every other country on Earth would feel justified in matching our tax and American companies that make goods for export would be forced to lay off workers and/or close up shop.

Donald Trump says that climate change is a hoax. He knows this because of his many years studying the complex systems that make the Earth’s climate? No. He knows this because it still gets cold in the winter sometimes. He also says that the hoax of global warming was invented by the Chinese to take our economic advantages away.

 Donald Trump says that vaccines cause autism. He knows this because he saw it happen to a kid once.

So, if Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination for the Presidency the choice before the American people will be obvious. Are we the sort of country that wants our President to govern from his gut without regard to science, military or economic reality, or the Constitution? Are we the sort of country that is fearful of everything foreign? Are we the kind of country that is willing to bleed the Earth dry and further pollute the air and water and raise long-term temperatures and sea levels just so we can keep our cheap oil prices? Are we a country willing to raise an obvious bully to the highest position in the land?

I do not think we are that sort of country. Let Donald Trump win the nomination and then watch as he collects 35% of the vote. At least then he and his supporters will realize once and for all that they are the minority and their policies and beliefs are rejected by most of their fellow Americans.

Donald Trump is giving voice to people who are mad and scared—he is their id and he has a big microphone. We certainly cannot simply sit back and let him spew his lies unchecked. We need to do what Chuck Todd of NBC News did last weekend and push Donald Trump when he lies. But in the end we need to have faith that the US is not the country Donald Trump thinks it is and the American voters are not the frightened selfish bullies he thinks we are.

We need to keep the words of Molly Ivins in mind: "When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as 'enemies,' it's time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and it is also a good way to wreck a country." We will not let anyone like Donald Trump wreck this country. And to prove it, I hope he wins the Republican nomination so we can once and for all reject what he and his supporters stand for.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

I Hate Star Wars

There. I said it out loud. I. HATE. STAR WARS.

When the original Star Wars movie came out in 1977 I was eleven years old. I saw it. I loved it. I saw it again.

Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and The Return of the Jedi in 1983. I liked each of these sequels, but less than I had liked the original.

When the next batch of movies started to come out in 1999, I did not even bother to go see them.

I cannot for the life of me fathom how these movies have stayed popular for so long among adults. They are poorly written, terribly acted, and entirely simplistic. The reason the eleven-year old me loved Star Wars was the fact that the thin story and stiff acting were hidden behind some cool special effects and Carrie Fisher in revealing outfits.

The names of the characters alone are enough for me to know that a person with the creative vision of a 12-year old boy was behind the whole enterprise. Lando Calrissian? Boba Fett? Moff Jerjerrod? JarJar Binks?

A freakin’ break give me.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Some Things I Have Learned From Skydiving

As far as we know, humans are the only species on Earth whose members carry the knowledge of their own mortality. We all have the experience as a kid when it strikes us that everybody dies—including us. Of course, a six-year old isn’t usually debilitated by this knowledge. She takes it in, ponders for a second, and then gets back to life. 

As we get older the “ponder” part of the process stretches out a bit and the undeniable fact of our own death starts to loom larger. Of course, I am speaking in generalities here.  Not everyone lingers on thoughts of their own death—but certainly everyone is aware that, as Hank Williams sang, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

Some people react by buying a Miata or having an affair or drinking too much or getting a tattoo. Others suppress, suppress, suppress. Whatever it takes, you know? The utter annihilation of our very essence is kind of a big deal.

Not only do we know beyond a doubt that we will die, we also know that the people we love will all die, too. My wife will die. My daughter will die.  My mom will die. A good friend and mentor did die recently. My father died, just last summer out of the blue. Everybody we know and love will one day cease to be. And we know it—even if we refuse to think much about it. Deep in our hearts we know it.

For me, (as I suspect for many), the rational course of action seems to be to acknowledge the fact of death, and then mostly live as if it were not true. As Isabel goes off to school in the morning I don’t want to constantly be thinking, “That might be the last time I see her,” because, you know, that is just morbid.

But for the past six years I have been having that very feeling about Erica way more than a person should. Erica is my wife of 19 years and in 2009 she started skydiving. I will say right up front that skydiving is a very safe sport. There are many activities that we all engage in that are far more dangerous, statistically—things like taking a shower, driving a car, or discussing politics at Thanksgiving. Worldwide, very few skydivers die each year—roughly sixty a year since 2004. In the United States, more people die from lightning strikes than from skydiving.

I know the numbers and they are somewhat reassuring.

But then once a month, like clockwork, that damned Parachutist magazine comes and I do what everyone who gets it does—I turn immediately to the Incident Report page and read about the most recent fatality. The reports go into a lot of detail and always end with advice for jumpers on how the incident could have been avoided. The Reports are meant to serve as an in-your-face reminder of why you should never make a low, hard turn without time enough to level off before contact with the ground or why you should never, ever lose altitude awareness.

And maybe that is just what these Reports do for actual skydivers.  But I am not an actual skydiver. (I do not even play one on TV.) Instead, I am the spouse of a skydiver, and what they do for me is nothing quite so technical.  What they do for me is make me worry about Erica. The very worst thing I can imagine in the entire world is the death of my wife or my daughter. And when I read those freakin’ Incident Reports, that is exactly what I imagine.

So, I quickly change the channel in my head away from the Horrible Death by Skydiving Channel (HDS) and on to something less soul crushing, like puppies, or our little patch in the Community Garden. These things make me feel better. They help me manage my terror at that utterly banal and utterly human realization that everybody dies.

During the long stretch of days from late April through mid-October Erica goes skydiving every weekend day that she can. Just last weekend she managed 14 jumps in three days. So at least once every weekend for this six month stretch a thought comes unbidden at some point during the day: This could be the day Erica dies. On particularly bad days, a scene plays itself out in my head where I get a phone call and it is obvious right away that something terrible has happened. I shut these mental forays down right away, but they are no fun.

So, here are some things I have learned from skydiving:
  • If Erica and I are at a dinner party or other social gathering and my natural inclination to avoid people and conversation comes on, all I have to do is drop into conversation that Erica skydives and suddenly nobody wants to talk to me any more—they all want to talk with Erica about skydiving.  It is great.
  • Drop zones are one of the most boring places in the entire world, (if you don’t skydive.) It seems weird that this might be true, but it is undeniably true.  You would think that being at a place where people are free-falling at terminal velocity and then piloting relatively small bits of cloth down to a safe landing would be anything BUT boring.  But you would be wrong. It’s nothing but inside jokes, camaraderie between jumpers, and talk of four-ways and burbles and snivels. To Erica and most other jumpers it is the best place in the world.  To me—boring.
  • My wife is not an adrenaline junkie.  She is more of an adrenaline casual user. The biggest thing she gets out of skydiving is not the risk-taking rush of the junkie. Instead, it is a place and a moment where everything else in the world disappears.  There are no thoughts of bills to pay, work to be done, conversations that need be had. The world goes away and there is nothing but laser beam focus on the activity at hand. And it has to be this way because anything else could get you killed.  It is like meditation for clearing the mind, only at 7,000 feet and terminal velocity.
  • Most skydivers are either married to other skydivers or else they are not in a serious relationship. This one is fairly obvious—who else but a skydiver would put up with a skydiver?
  • Skydivers, as a group, are some of the funniest, friendliest, most welcoming people there are. If Isabel and I ever do overcome the sure knowledge of stifling boredom  and make ourselves go and hang out at the drop zone with Erica, we are made to feel like honored guests and treated so well, it almost makes me feel bad about how boring I find the place.
  • And lastly, skydiving has taught me that human beings are brave. Every single one of us. Knowing full well that we will die and, even worse, that the people we love will die, still we choose to love people. To me, this is both the stupidest and bravest thing there is.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brother, Can You Spare a Dork Dollar?

In 1906 a British statistician named Francis Galton went to a country fair in Plymouth. While there he witnessed a contest where people wrote down their estimates of the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox on display. 800 people wrote their guesses on slips of paper. Most of the people who guessed were not butchers, and so had very little first-hand knowledge to guide them. Some of the guesses were wildly high and others were wildly low.
Yet, when Galton totaled the guesses and divided by 800, he found that the statistical mean of the guesses was within one percent of the actual weight of the ox. Nobody in the crowd knew the weight of the ox, but the crowd as a whole was remarkably precise in their estimate. (The ox weighed 1198 pounds—the average guess was 1207 pounds.)

Journalist James Surowiecki wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Wisdom of Crowds and it is a good and fascinating read. Now that so many people have access to the Internet, researchers are designing studies to more clearly delineate just what sorts of questions are good ones to ask the crowd and what sorts of questions are answered better by an expert or two.

Social Psychologist Phil Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has started an online prediction study called The Good Judgment Project, in which he collects predictions about specific geopolitical questions. There were more than 7000 forecasters signed up for the Good Judgment Project last year. It is being run as part of the Aggregate Contingent Estimation program of the Office of Incisive Analysis at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. One goal of the project is to find out if average people can make predictions about geopolitical affairs as well as, or better than, experts.

Here are a few sample questions from the many dozens forecasters are currently weighing in on:

At the start of the prediction season, each participant is given $50,000 to invest in various answers to the questions. Obviously, the dollars are not real. (My smartass daughter calls them Dork Dollars.) Some questions are simple yes/no propositions while others offer a range of answers that are often split by date or by quantity. It might not sound like it to you, but this project is totally addictive. 

I am, and always have been, a news junkie.  That is why I love listening to NPR’s WaitWait Don’t Tell Me and it is why I spend far too much of my down time researching obscure topics like the Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia and the HSBC China Services Purchasing Managers’ Index. 

At least, I used to.
When the season began I was frequently in the Top 20 money-makers in the “league.” Sometimes, I would bounce up into the Top Ten. When I would crow to Isabel and Erica about an especially clever bet, Isabel would give me a withering look and ask how many Dork Dollars I had won.

This all came to an end in January. I came across a proposition that seemed like such a sure thing that I bet every single Dork Penny I had on it. At the time I was ranked in the Top 20 predictors in my league of 359.  The question is this:

When will France deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia?
  • ·      Before 1 February 2015
  • ·      Between 1 February 2015 and 31 March 2015
  • ·      Between 1 April 2015 and 31 May 2015
  • ·      Not before 1 June 2015

Not to bore you with the details of my (so-far) faulty reasoning, but I bet heavily—as in, every stinking Dork Dollar I had—on the fact that the French would indeed deliver a ship before June 1st. But then all hell broke loose in Ukraine and the French decided to punishRussia and to put the delivery of the Mistral-class helicopter carriers on hold.

So, for well over two months I have been unable to withdraw my money from the bet I have made, since to do so would leave me with nothing left—not one single Dork Dollar to my name. And because all of money is tied up waiting for France to make up its mind about these boats, I don’t have any other Dork Dollars to bet on other questions. One of the greatest daily pleasures in my (admittedly-limited) life has been taken from me. This stupid question has been my Waterloo.

I have been reduced to setting up a Google Alert that sends me an e-mail any time a story appears anywhere in the world including the terms “Mistral, France, Russia.” You might not be surprised to learn that these alerts hardly ever come.

The question will not be resolved until either France delivers a ship or June first comes without a delivery.  Until then, I am stuck watching from the sidelines as softball questions come and go—things I KNOW I could nail if only I had some Dork Dollars available. As things stand, I am now in 359th place out of 359 predictors.

Yep—dead last. 

But my bet is so large, if the French do deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia before June 1st, I will climb to #8.

If you want to help, you can write to Francois Hollande and tell him to let bygones be bygones and deliver that ship!  (To send him a note, click here.) I appreciate any help you can give. Maybe you could spare a few Dork Dollars…?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I lost a friend yesterday

The older I get the more I realize that there aren’t any heroes, there are just people who manage to make it through life with a bit more of their integrity intact than other people do. Which is why I am surprised to hear myself say that one of my heroes died today.

His name is Jeff Jonathan and he is somebody you have probably never heard of. He was the Director of the school I taught at in New Haven. And he was a great man.

Being in charge of a school is not an easy job. Yet Jeff led the school with a strength and a steadiness of purpose that inspired everybody there to be their best—or at least to be the best they were capable of that day. He hired me to teach the oldest kids in a Progressive elementary school even though during the job interview it was clear that I did not even know what the term “progressive education” meant.

He took a chance on me and I grew so much professionally because he did. Jeff made me want to be a better teacher by his example. No matter the situation, Jeff would boil it down to the bottom-line question: what is best for the child in this circumstance? That was always his main concern—what is best for the children?

Jeff put up a long hard fight with illness the past few years.  Each time it looked like he might not make it through, he managed to tap into astoundingly deep reserves of strength and make it back home again. In the midst of his own struggle, Jeff lost his wife to her own fight with illness. I was reminded of Job.

It is easy enough to be kind, honest, forthright, and loving when things are going well in your life. It is a much more difficult thing to remain all of those things when subjected to heartbreaking sadness and unfairness. Jeff Jonathan, though you have probably never heard of him, was a giant among men. He will be missed, but not forgotten.