Love’s Lonely Offices

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

– Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” (via Bob Fischer)

My father and I had a contentious relationship during my growing-up years. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and weekends with him devolved over the years from fun to difficult to dreadful.

There were some good times: discovering Doctor Who together. Going down to Brackenridge Park where he showed my brother and me how to trigger the crossings for the miniature trains, slowing baffled motorists. Building small wooden boats out of scrap and chasing them down the gutters during a rainstorm. Eating imprudent amounts of Taco Bell after church. Afternoons at Lake McQueeney with my step-mother and her family.

But those good times were too often overshadowed by conflict. When I was young, the stakes were fairly small and our battles correspondingly benign. My refusal to try three bites of everything on my plate resulted in long hours at the dinner table (and late night surreptitious runs, often intercepted, to the kitchen for crackers and tuna). My reluctance to help around the house brought loss of Star Trek privileges. And my arguments with my step-mother over the utility and value of dish soap caused difficulty for him as he tried to support his wife while attempting to keep a straight face.

When I graduated to my teenage years, things got tougher. Though he didn’t impose a curfew, I thought it absurd and unreasonable that he would require me to call to let him know where I was. I balked with a mule’s stubbornness at lending any kind of help with household chores. I was loudly exasperated and petulant whenever he planned something for the family that interfered with what I wanted to do.

These bigger battles resulted in more substantial casualties. For a period of time, I got into a shouting match with my dad nearly every weekend my brother and I went to visit. When those arguments escalated enough, I would stalk out of the house, walking miles to stay with friends, dodging behind dumpsters to keep my dad from spotting me as he scoured the neighborhood in his blue pickup truck. One memorable time, my dad pinned me to the floor with enough vigor that my retainer popped out of my mouth and sat on me until my defiance was temporarily exhausted. Even when quiet descended on the house, it was a Cold War, with the threat of explosion hanging heavy over us all.

At the time, the only way I knew how to interpret my dad’s actions were as a tyrannical dictator, only interested in keeping his power unchallenged. (And with the zeal of a misguided freedom fighter, I rose to challenge it at every opportunity.) But as time has passed and I’ve had kids of my own, I’ve gained some perspective on those difficult times. While his approach wasn’t always optimal, I now understand how much of what he did during that span was motivated by love; not a sentimental sort, but a hard-edged, steely desire for my ultimate goodness and well-being. As C.S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

With that additional perspective, I want to thank my dad for arguing with me when I was wrong. For making me sit at the table for eight hours until I finished my zucchini. For having my brother and I over every other weekend when I gave him every reason not to. For disabusing me of the notion that I was the most important and smartest person in the world. For miles driven in that blue pickup looking for me (again). For disconnecting the TV when I was being an ingrate (also again). For sticking around when there must have been no small temptation to disappear across the country. For never giving up on me even when it would have been the far easier course. For being more interested in giving me what I needed than what I wanted. And for all the other lonely offices of love that I still, to this day, haven’t recognized.

Thanks, in short, for being a father, and for teaching me something of how to do the same.

Back in My Day…

…we didn’t have fancy 3D graphics! We had half-acre pixels and 8 colors and we liked it!

Today while visiting garage sales with my lovely bride, I stumbled across an October 1982 National Geographic with these ads for game consoles of the day. I was 12 when these ads were run, and remember fondly many hours whiled away with friends playing both Atari and Intellivision. (I never did much with the Odyssey², probably because I saw these ads and the “wizard” gave me nightmares.)

Intellivision Ad

In 1982, these screenshots actually looked different from each other.

Odyssey Ad

The Wizard has a Power Supply stuck to his fingers. Also, his legal department apparently lacked the acumen to get a proper "Wizard of Wor" license.

Odyssey Speech Synthesizer Ad

If the first word you typed upon getting the speech synthesizer module for the Odyssey² was "Geewizbang", it's a pretty good bet you had no friends.

Grafik Intervention

Last night, Kathy and I stopped by a neighborhood in downtown San Marcos to see this:

The project was done by a typography class at Texas State University, and included this historical home, a neighborhood church, and an old jail. Students had researched the history of each of the structures, and then devised projected sequences that told about the history of and future plans for each structure. It was a surprisingly engaging way to learn a bit more about our fair city.

Read more details about the project here.

Higher Education and the Coming Internet Autodidact

There is a growing movement of people who are learning on their own, rather than relying on institutions of higher learning to provide the necessary structure and opportunity. The Internet has begun to provide access to information with ease and rapidity never before seen in human history. As a result, people who are interested in learning are able to do so without having to rely on the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge.

Evidence of this change is easy to find: The Khan Academy, Make Magazine,, and a whole wealth of podcasts and blogs on nearly any subject imaginable. The experts might still live in an ivory tower, but when that tower has broadband, the rest of us no longer have to make the pilgrimage to the tower to benefit from their expertise. And increasingly, experts seem to find those towers drafty and uncomfortable homes, and choose to be other places altogether.

Some schools have begun to embrace that change in various ways. Several members of my team at work have recently learned Objective C programming to create iPhone applications. Since Texas State University doesn’t offer any classes of the sort currently, many of us have worked our way through the iPhone development course at Stanford University — not by actually attending, but by taking advantage of the videos of the lectures and the supporting documentation that Stanford has published free of charge online.

While this sort of information broadcast is terrific, there is concern in academe, expressed at a recent Higher Education Leadership Conference, that this isn’t going far enough to address the changes that are coming, that in fact students are increasingly able to educate themselves, and will only rely on the University to accredit their learning, leaving Universities a husk of their former selves.

I think that change is indeed coming, and as someone who has a terrible time sitting patiently through classes just to learn the stuff I want to, I welcome it. However, I also suspect that the situation is not quite as dire for our institutions of higher learning as it’s painted. I know there are lots of people who benefit a great deal from having the clear structure and discipline that courses provide. And while the way of the self-taught is one that Universities haven’t embraced sufficiently up until now, giving them some long-overdue attention and validation doesn’t mean that the traditional student will vanish.

Different people have different learning styles, and educational institutions have to learn to grow to embrace them all, rather than flopping wholesale from one approach to another. Their future may just depend on it.

(Thanks to Jason for the link that set my thoughts going on this.)

The Long Broccoli Con

When I was  12 years old, I was not a vegetable eater.

This was a problem, because my dad and his wife were on the Pritikin diet at the time. For those of you not familiar with this diet, it allows you to eat anything at all, as long as it doesn’t taste good. Thus, unsalted steamed vegetables, boiled chicken and water with (oh, luxury!) a squeeze of lemon were mainstays of our dinner hour — items no self-respecting American tween wants anything to do with.

I would have simply gone on a hunger strike, or subsisted on cans of tuna I’d smuggled in and secreted into my bedroom, but for one problem: the 3 bite rule.

The 3 bite rule was this: I was not permitted to leave the table until I’d had at least 3 bites of whatever made up the meal: three bites of your flavorless, slimy chicken, three bites of salt-free vegetable medley, and three bites of repellent boiled spinach. I combated this rule in various ways: hiding food under other food, putting vegetables in my shoe and walking on my toes until I could get to the bathroom and unload them, and even by sticking them to the underside of the table. (Sorry about that, folks!)

My parents, however, gradually wised up to most of these tricks, and thus I was left with no options when broccoli night rolled around. Broccoli was my arch-nemesis in the food world, my kryptonite, a sort of instant ipecac I wanted nothing to do with. I was convinced that Achilles podiatry problem stemmed from having a bit of the cruciferous vegetable covering his heel when he got dunked in the Styx.

“I’m not going to eat it,” I staunchly informed my dad.

“Then you’re not going to leave the table,” he rejoined.

“Ok, fine,” I said, adding under my breath “Let’s see who breaks first.”

An hour rolled past. Then two. Then three.

“Eat your broccoli and you can leave the table.”

“Nope. I’m not going to do it. I refuse to eat the broccoli.”

Four hours. Five.

“Come on, seriously, eat the broccoli. This is ridiculous.”

“No. I told you I wouldn’t eat it, and I’m not going to.”

Six hours.

“Sean, eat the stupid broccoli. You don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be here.”

“Absolutely not. I don’t want to eat the broccoli, I told you I wouldn’t, and won’t.”

Six and a half hours.

“Well, Sean, I’m impressed. You nearly have my record from when I was a kid beat. I lasted 7 hours before I gave up and finally ate my vegetables.”

“What? Really? Well, I’m still not going to eat it.” But, I thought, I’m in striking distance of his record.

Seven hours and one minute, I ate three (doubtless infinitesimal) bites of broccoli and leaped up from the table, pumping my fist, waggling my hinder, and generally being obnoxious in the way that only a self-satisfied twelve year old boy can:

“I beat dad’s record! And I’m free! In your face, Dad! Haha, I’m more stubborn than you are! I RULE!”

Needless to say, this became an oft-recounted chapter of family history, told regularly over the next 20 years. As my own kids achieved vegetable-hating age, this became one of their favorite stories.

“Tell us about the broccoli again!” they said one night about two years ago when we were visiting Dad and his wife for dinner. (They are mercifully no longer on the Pritikin diet, so we’ll sit down to meals with them willingly. My step-mother, as it turns out, is a great cook when she’s allowed to use salt.)

So, I recounted the epic tale: the baleful 3 bite rule, the smuggling of vegetables, Scarlett Pimpernel-style, to their freedom, Dad’s and my epic clash, and my eventual heroic triumph over the oppressive forces of good nutrition. Yay me!

“You know what the best part of that story is?” my Dad asked my kids as I glowed in my remembered victory.

“What?” they asked breathlessly.

“It’s not true. I never sat at the table for 7 hours when I was a kid.”

I don’t know what happened for the next 15 seconds, because my brain completely froze up. Dad had never held vegetable vigil? Granddad didn’t make him stay at the table to finish his food? He made that up? Then that means…I didn’t beat him. He suckered me! That means that 25 years ago…DAD REALLY WON! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

“I’VE BEEN LIVING A LIE!” I wailed. Every minute or so. For the next two hours.

I couldn’t believe that Dad had sat on that for two and a half decades. I was amazed both at his canniness and patience (and a bit at my own credulity). The long con is one of my favorite devices in stories and movies, and I now had a prime example from my own experience.

In a few weeks, I’ll be going down to spend a few days with Dad, who is still wheelchair bound in the wake of his car accident. I’ll have more than 7 hours a day alone with him, so I’m bringing chocks for the chair’s wheels. And a vegetable steamer. And broccoli. Lots and lots of broccoli.

The Heist

During my junior year at The King’s College (1991), I was a Resident Assistant and thus had a room to myself. One of the ways I took advantage of that situation was by launching a string of practical jokes, most of which were directed at Steve Everhart, my boss and the Resident Director of the dorm. The culmination of the series was what I’ve come to call “The Heist.”

At that time, my college was in the process of planning a move to a new campus. As part of this process, they had commissioned one of those nifty models that shows what a building site will look like once the buildings are constructed and the site is landscaped. This particular one was about 3’x5′, had rolling Styrofoam hills, several structures, roads, a lake, and a number of little automobiles on it. It was also surrounded by a Plexiglas case screwed on to the base so that passers-by wouldn’t poke it or pilfer the little automobiles.

One day I decided that the model, which was displayed in the library, needed to disappear. So that night, Glenn Gonzalez and I snuck into the library through an adjacent office to which I had a key. Since walking through the halls of the school with this large model in tow would of course attract attention, we instead snuck it out of the building through the door that falsely claimed that it was a fire door and an alarm would sound if you opened it. (We had previously verified this in reconnaissance missions.)

We then brought the model around the school to the back stairwell, which another friend had opened for us, and up to the second floor of the dormitory. Waiting until the coast was clear, we finally got it to my room without having been seen. Since I had two beds in my room, I simply replaced the mattress on the top bunk with the model, put sheets and a bedspread on it, and made it up to look just like another mattress. Stage one was complete!

Over the next few days, I showed it to several friends, including Ross Prinzo, who had given me the idea originally. Among the select individuals who got to see it was a certain David Granniss, who laughed hysterically for a full minute, and then stopped abruptly with a look of inspiration on his face. “What is it, Dave?” I asked. “There ought to be army men in it!”

Well, of course he was right. I leaped into Oslo the Land Shark, my trusty Italian-manufactured steed of the time, and made a beeline to the toy store. Unfortunately, upon examining the army men available there for purchase, I determined that given the difference in scale, they would tower over the buildings in a Godzilla-like fashion. Rather than army men, I ended up purchasing a selection of Micro-Machines, which were more suited to this application. Among them were tanks, missile launchers, and helicopters.

After unscrewing and removing the Plexiglas case, we deployed the missile launchers across one of the higher ridges overlooking the campus. The tanks rolled among the buildings, and we used cotton to create smoke both at the muzzles of their weapons, and at the married student housing, which they were bombarding. (I was bitter about not having a girlfriend at the time, a circumstance whose reasons are perhaps, in retrospect, rather obvious.) The Apache-style helicopters were suspended from the Plexiglas case with fishing line, swooping into the site in formation from one of the corners of the display. By the time we finished, we had an impressive looking war diorama, set in the beautifully landscaped Silver Lake campus.

Upon completing our improvements to the model and reinstalling its case, we determined to sneak it back into the library and replace it where it had previously been. This took a bit more planning, as some of the doors we had used had crash-bars, and would only open from one side. We eventually sent an operative into the library before we retraced our previous steps. The model made it back to its display table without further incident.

The next day, we kept our distance from the library to avoid drawing suspicion to ourselves, and thus only heard secondhand about the discovery of our modifications. Apparently the president of the college, fulfilling some of his fundraising duties, had VIPs from off-campus on a tour. As he described in glowing detail the plans the college had for its new location and showed the model off, he suddenly noticed that all was not as he expected. Needless to say, maintenance was soon there restoring the display to its former, mundane state.

Our triumph lasted only a day, but still causes me to stop every once in a while and laugh to myself. And then to go cause more mischief.

(Note: if this story is familiar, it’s because it’s a repost from an old version of the website. One of my friends requested that I get it back online, so here it is again.)

Injuries, Reunions, and New Braunfels

Hello all! It’s the start of the academic year, and our family has been crazy busy. There are currently seven people living under our roof, and I’m the only one who didn’t return to school this week. Kathy has been very excited to resume her University work, and the kids have been bidding summer farewell with varying degrees of enthusiasm and disappointment. I, of course, have been delighted to once again be able to say in my most loving and supportive voice, “You have homework and I don’t. Neener, neener!”

Saturday was the date for the First Annual McMains All-Family River Float. Becky, Chris, Ken and Mom McMains all came up from San Antonio to enjoy lunch together and a float down the San Marcos river. It was a nice afternoon for it, and a fitting way to ring out the summer. Chris and I particularly enjoyed going through the rapids sans tube, though the low water levels caused us to get a little more banged up than usual, and in my case, made people wonder how a whale got beached so far from the sea.

This past weekend was also my High School’s official 20th reunion. (Go Brahmas!) The combination of the high price and a noisy, crowded venue was enough to scare me off from the official festivities, but I did invite Alex, Serenity and her family, and William — a few friends who were in from out of town for the occassion — to come over on Sunday for a visit. It was a pleasure to see how much this cadre still got along and enjoyed each other; we had a great afternoon of food, conversation, music, and reminiscing.

Sean, Alex, Serenity and William together for the first time since High School

Sean, Alex, Serenity and William together for the first time since High School.

Liam chose to celebrate the return to school in an entirely appropriate way for a 9 year old boy: he broke his right arm. He was buzzing around the neighborhood on his new Heelies (sneakers with roller skates built in, for those of you not in the know), got a rock stuck in the wheel, took a fall, and earned himself the right to wear a cast for the first six weeks of third grade — a masterful move in the eternal homework-avoidance arms race.

In an attempt to foster some family togetherness, we have been doing a weekly Family Dinner followed by Forced Family Fun Time. (This was a designation that my brother and I coined when we were the unwilling recipients of “quality time”, rather than its perpetrators.) It’s hard work to pull off family time like that with all the homework, movies, video games, and other things that compete for our time, but has been a qualified success, and I’m glad we’re doing it. On Thursday, I set the challenge before the group to build the tallest tower possible using mini marshmallows and toothpicks. While we broke no new ground in engineering, it was a fun challenge that got everybody working together:

Kathy, Emily, and Abby won with this mighty contstruct

Kathy, Emily, and Abby won with this mighty contstruct. Frank Gehry stopped by later to take notes.

Since the kids started school on Monday, but Kathy didn’t begin until two days later, I decided to take her  for a day on the town. I’m normally a meticulous planner, but we decided to keep the day completely spontaneous and see how it went. We started out by watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — not a terrifically auspicious way for a married couple to begin a day! (I did, however, get to do Richard Burton impressions all day. “Martha!”) We then started for the River House Tea Room for lunch, but were diverted by the inescapable lure of good Tex-Mex on the way and ended up at Adobe Verde instead. After enjoying a delicious meal, we wandered around Gruene for a bit, stopping in the various shops, taking photos, and enjoying the languor of the afternoon. It didn’t take much of that, however, before we were hot and sweaty, so we went to see if the Landa Park pool was open. No luck. Rats!

As we were leaving Landa Park, however, we saw several people tubing on the Comal river and decided to find a place to do the same. Landa Falls was the first place we stumbled across, and since it boasted the longest float on the river, we put our $13 on the barrel head, grabbed a tube, and jumped into the water. It had been years since I had been on the Comal, and it was fascinating to see how it had changed over the years: the erstwhile Stinky Falls is now owned by the city, and Camp Warnecke has been subsumed by Schlitterbahn and a condo development. (The latter were rampant along the river — apparently they breed like rabbits that have been fed Viagra kibble and who have access to Bugs Bunny’s sexy outfits.)

After tubing, we wandered around New Braunfels a little more, stopping in at Bryan Duckworth’s (former fiddle player for Robert Earl Keen) violin shop to have my cello bow rehaired (it was nearly as bald as I am) and at the Uptown Piano Bar, an intimate dimly lit cellar bar that Kathy especially liked in spite of the nekkid lady paintings on the walls. As we were walking around the square, we (nearly literally) bumped into our friend Kris Bolstad as he was riding his scooter past, and stopped to chat with him for several minutes. We rounded off the day with a quick trip to Target and then to watch Kung Fu Panda, which was great fun, at the cheap theater in San Marcos.

Aging Kids on the Block

This morning, the iTunes store brought me the news that New Kids on the Block have a new album coming out. I was surprised to hear that they were still around, so clicked on through. To my horror, I found that while they now look like 37 year old chain smokers, they are still singing the same preadolescent, overengineered bubblegum pop. I mentioned the album to Jimmy, one of my coworkers, and he suggested that we should help them out by coming up with some new song titles better suited to their current station in life. A few moment’s brainstorming yielded the following titles:

  • “Girl, Can I Light Your Cigarette?”
  • “Your Biological Clock is Ticking”
  • “I’ve Got Some Candy in my Pocket”
  • “You Can’t Go Back to Middle School”
  • “(I’ve Got The) Peter Pan Syndrome”
  • “Sugar Daddy”
  • “Let Me Love You ’til My Hip Gives Out”

Want to play along? Post your own in the comments! You could win a copy of our home game just for posting! (Disclaimer: that was a lie.) And New Kids? Feel free to use any of these you like.

Blasted Nonsense From The Past

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Internet and you could get a cup of coffee and a shoeshine for a nickel, before the kids all had their newfangled “Mybook” and “Facespaces” and the blink tag still seemed a pretty nifty idea, there was Brain Sausage.

Brain Sausage was an early proto-weblog, created before such things actually existed. I wrote the software for it because I wanted to learn Perl, and enlisted the aid of Robert Leahey and Chris Morris to help populate it with interesting links and a liberal dose of snarkiness. Chris also wrote a super-cool little ticker for Windows that would alert interested parties when there were new posts.

While most of it has been lost to history at this point, I was amused/delighted/horrified to discover that the good folks at had actually preserved a few pages. The logo, sadly, appears to be lost, either by the vagaries of the program that collected the information or by the good judgement of a censor somewhere. But here are a few bits that historians, masochists, and the easily amused might enjoy having a look at:

A few other horrors I pulled from the archive:

Saturday Morning Time Machine

This morning, wearily dealing with the weekly bookkeeping chores while Kathy was out shopping, I posted this to my Twitter account:

Paying bills. I think I liked childhood Saturday mornings, packed with sugary cereals and cartoons, better than those of my adult self.

When Kathy arrived home, what should she be bearing but two great big boxes of Peanut Butter Crunch Cereal! She had seen my Twitter and decided, as a “thank you” for my weekly financial management efforts, to give me that Saturday morning cartoon experience again. How awesome is that?

I happily settled down in front of the TV and gobbled two bowls of the sugary stuff while watching Ratatouille. All it lacked was the presence of my younger brother to argue with about who should win the Laff-A-Lympics. (I unfailingly rooted for the Really Rottens, solely because it really made Chris angry.)

But alas, my youth has gone. The cereal was still as sweet, the cartoons still every bit as wonderful. (In fact, in absolute terms, I’m sure everything Pixar has produced far eclipses anything from the Hanna Barbera crowd.) The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, and I promptly found myself napping in front of the TV — the very thing for which I used to give Mom McMains a terrifically hard time.

But you know what? I enjoyed it every bit as much regardless. Thanks, Kathy, for your thoughtfulness this morning.