Middlemarch is far more entertaining than I ever anticipated. Of course this reevaluation is due entirely to my own lack of imagination and assortment of prejudices. The book is witty and philosophical with a an expansive sense of social interconnection that I am only beginning to appreciate. It is precisely this, which provides me the meat I want from the novel that I have chosen as a successor project to Proust. There is and must be something cosmic emerging in the background, ever so slowly, and this is what makes me buy my ticket and take a seat on the Middlemarch train. At the same time, despite all of the vivid psychological analysis and deft summation of character, I get the feeling 100 pages in that I am missing something, in the same way experience moments of claustrophobia whenever I have tried to read Jane Austen. With Jane unlike with George, I suffered fewer prejudices, but was less enamored when confronted with the reality.

The first paragraph of Chapter 12 represents one of the rare instances of George looking out the window and describing a landscape. It is the rarity and relative compression of the passage that gets at precisely what I am missing in George – that obsessive description of things, the world, what it looks like out the window.

The passage:

“The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape, almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the gray gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls—the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father’s knees while he drove leisurely.”

An honest, well-written passage, evocative of the particulars. But summed up at the end with a remark that boxes up all of these observations and places them in the same place, on the same shelf, in every mind of every Midlander, making them all more or less just background. This is what seems missing to me here: Proust by now I would have given me a few dozen pages meditating on the shadow of the trees cast on his bedroom window, the waving of the grasses in the clear water of the local streams, the birds at sunset circling the cathedral towers.

This is not a criticism. I am barely launched with George, and Middlemarch is a sophisticated book. But its genius seems to be in the sweep of its landscape of social connections, rather than any landscape passed through, or visible out the window.


You have a life, pledge it to the nation;

Only by forgetting y our home can you avenge the nation.

I have a life, I pledge it to you.

Don’t say that because a woman like me is with the army,

It diminishes the army.

I wish I could wash away the opposition to women’s aspirations,

A thousand years of it.

Shed blood, not tears.

I urge our horse forward, saying good-bye at the boat,

If the shame of our nation could be eradicated,

What more could I ask?

Chen Biniang, wife of General Zhang Da, of the Southern Song court. Written in 1279, on the eve of the Mongol conquest of the Song, as she parts from her husband and as the court flees south with the 8 year old emperor, Di Bing. An excerpt.


Flapping banners move our hearts as we say goodbye.

I hesitate to leave, unable to walk away.

After the rain, farming in Bianliang [Kaifeng] thrives.

In receding waves, the traveler’s westbound boat is swift.

It’s hard to say good-bye, cross the passes and hills.

Trudging the torturous paths, I’ll find it hard to reckon the distance.

Not knowing when we shall meet again, let’s write letters.

Looking at each other, we only pick up cup after cup of wine.

“Weeping for my Husband,” Chen Deyi, on parting from her husband, the Ming minister Li Ang, sometime in the late 15th century.

The Boy from Hangzhou

June 11, 2015

West Lake (Shihu) Southern Song dynasty, 13th century

In the morning the old woman found the small boy, Gongdi, alone. He was playing with a sparrow he kept in a cage by the window. The bird faced south on its perch, toward the warmth of the sun, chirping, and leaping occasionally at the bamboo bars of its prison. The boy talked to the sparrow as he would talk to a playmate. He had given it a name, and translated its chirping for the old woman. The caged bird’s conversation was full of jokes and puns.

He asked the old woman if perhaps they, too, should go south, where it was warmer, and there would be more food to eat. It would be less drafty than in his empty room overlooking the forlorn lake covered in mists. Perhaps there, he wondered aloud, he would find the rest of his family, and the playmates he remembered from the courtyard.

“You must open your sparrow’s cage, and let it go home,” the old woman told the small boy. “We cannot take it with us. It would not survive.”

He was an obedient boy, and so with some tears he complied, though he was certain that if at least he or the sparrow managed to find its way south, then all would be well, and whoever first arrived would prepare things for the arrival of the other. He opened the cage door, and the bird sprung away and into the mist.

The old woman picked up the small boy and lifted him onto her shoulders. She did not walk easily. She was not accustomed to walking at all, and wobbled from side to side on tiny feet. They walked on through empty rooms, past empty, unmade beds, jumbled furniture, overturned and shattered ceramics, and pools of indigo ink on the floor, inadvertent calligraphy. They left the building and began to descend a stone staircase, the old woman crying out in pain with every few steps.

Through the blowing mist they passed under an enormous arch, its gates open to the wind. They passed shadows of shapes from which dark smoke mixed with the fog, and into and out of which dogs ran in twos and threes. This continued for some time, until at last they passed beneath another arch, and once here they stopped to gaze upon a plain where 10,000 tents and 30,000 horses stood, two of the finest of which towered motionless before them and in silence.

The old woman knew the men atop the horses. “There is no one left,” she told them, bringing the boy down from her shoulders and into her arms. “We place ourselves at the mercy of the great Khan.”

A bamboo cage was rolled forward, covered in canvass and large enough for several men. Into this the boy Emperor and his Dowager were lifted. The general on horseback gave a sign, and a hundred cavalry advanced back through the arch and towards the palace, to begin the pillage. The pair were handed a sizable strip of cured meat, and then goat’s milk, which neither of them could stomach. Still, it was the first food they had tasted in days. In this way Gongdi, the last emperor of Song, began his journey of 800 miles, to be paraded in triumph before Qubilai, the greatest of Khans.

Back to Blogging

June 9, 2015

I’m going to start blogging here again after not blogging here for six years. It feels like being single again after having been married for six years, or maybe being married after having been single for six years, or getting out of prison, or maybe going into prison,  I’m not sure which. But there’s a lot of good stuff in the archives, mostly about parenting during my son’s first two or three years of life. It chokes me up to go back through it, especially because when I wrote it, it was so immediate. And now it is not. That focus is reflected in the blog’s title.

I’m going to shift that focus a bit, mostly to suit whatever I want to write about, just because I need to write the way Old Faithful just needs to blow some steam every few hours. For me, language is not something you use, or dip into once in a while. It is the ether of existence, the stuff of life. You either live in language or you don’t. It’s pretty easy to identify who does and who doesn’t.

It’s also a way to get myself to at least write something every few days, which is like making sure I get to the gym. Because the whole point of most of what I read and most of what I write is to write other stuff that is bigger and better and stitches together all the patches into some enormous crazy quilt of meaning. So welcome to the gymnasium of my mind. There will be much about books and literature, and if you haven’t read what I’m reading you probably won’t care, and that’s fine with me. There will be stuff on parenting, and maybe even cycling, which I’m almost sure you won’t care about. And there will also be stuff about various research I am doing for a historical novel that I can guarantee you won’t care about. And that’s fine, too.

Wondering how to enjoy Halloween with your kids while keeping them safe? AlphaMom (trademark!) has the answer, and it is completely ridiculous: “Trunk or Treat” parties.

How cute!

A Trunk or Treat is a mash-up of the traditional trick-or-treating and tailgating parties. Instead of visiting houses door-to-door to collect candy, an event is organized in parking lots and the trunks of cars are set up like mini Halloween stations. Kids visit each car to collect candy in the safety of school and church parking lots.

(Some admittedly cute pics of kids and their Halloween “trunks” here.)

This is parenting + American car culture on steroids. I find it quite depressing. Here is yet one more reason to spend most of your life inside of an automobile.

Seriously, the trunk of a car? How lame is that? Is your neighborhood really that dangerous? I doubt it. Aren’t we supposed to escort our kids on their Halloween rounds anyway, and before dark? And can we bend our minds around public spaces that aren’t “school and church” … synagogue, mosque, library, city park, VFF Hall, Elks shrine …

Really, the people who NEED this advice, those struggling parents who actually LIVE in a neighborhood where you have to worry about safety, might be a little more used to diversity than whoever it is that is the target for this stuff.

I live in what you might call an “inner city” neighborhood in Chicago, and yet somehow we of all races and a good range of income levels manage to go Trick Or Treating on Halloween, in the dark, the way you’re supposed to, i.e., on foot and in the neighborhood. No trunks needed.

[Transcript — Session #4: Stay-at-Home Dad A]

: So then what happened?

A: So I’m sitting with Spot back in the corner at parent-tot, and he wants to read, so we pull out a Barney book, Barney’s on the farm, lots of pull-up flaps, he loves it, we read it like four or five times whenever we go there. So I’m getting into the pig, the cow, the ducks, all that, and one by one a few other toddlers make there way over to where we’re sitting, like the way the ducks on a pond figure out who is tossing out the breadcrumbs and assemble until they’re in a naval formation coming your way.

So then I’m reading Barney to two, then three little kids plus Spot, all girls, and we’re hanging out. It suddenly strikes me that Hey, this is what the teacher usually does, but the teacher is over on the other side of the room, standing next to the empty easels, the vacant sandbox, talking to 3 or 4 moms.

Q: What are they talking about?

A: I don’t know, I can’t hear. I’d guess it’s the stuff they usually talk about. I call it “boob talk”. I can’t really participate, although I know what they’re talking about. I mean, I was with my wife the whole time that stuff was going on, I understand what boobs are for and how sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t work. I like boobs as much as the next guy. But I can’t talk about boobs. Certainly not the way they talk about them, and not with Spot hanging around.

Or they might be talking about their husbands. Joking about how their husbands spend all Sunday watching the game, or maybe complaining a little bit about how they are always the ones who are doing all the laundry. I’m like, then why did you marry such losers? This is the 21st century, people. But you know, that’s not polite, so I sit in the corner and read books to their kids while they kvetch.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: I kind of like it. I like kids. I’m a teacher, always have been. It keeps you young. It’s a beautiful thing, really, to read to kids. But it weirds out some of the moms, clearly, when I do it.

Q: How so?

A: Well, I have this image in my head, or it’s more like say there’s this screen behind me, and on it is projected my real life, my secret life. And what you see is the parking lot behind the school, where my white, 1989 Ford Econoline van is parked with the engine running, because that way it will be easier for me to abduct all these little girls and drive off onto the set of America’s Most Wanted.

That’s what the other moms see when they look over at our little reading group.

Q: How do you know that’s what they see?

A: Well, not all of them, but I’m pretty sure that’s what a lot of them instinctively feel. But I mean, it’s [deleted] 9AM in the [deleted] morning, I haven’t shaved, I’m strung out just like everyone else, and I’m there with my 2.5 year old son, the last [deleted] thing I’m thinking about is sex with anyone, OK? And I don’t drive a Ford Econoline van with plywood bolted over the windows, in case anyone is wondering.

Q: This really strikes a nerve with you.

A: Of course. Jesus. So we’ll be reading for about 2 or 3 minutes, then a mom will notice her little girl is over with Spot — now we’ve moved on to a counting book from the Natural History Museum, How many mummies are on this page? How many dinosaurs are on that page? that sort of thing — and Mom Q notices her kid is not at the easel or at the sandbox, and so calls to her: “Sally, do you want to come over and paint at the easel?” which really means, “Can you please leave that pervert and come over to where I can see you?” And Sally is like, “Forget that, mom, cause this is where the action is,” and so Mom Q kind of sashays over to about 6 feet away and pulls out a firetruck to tempt Sally away from the danger.

Q: Do you do anything to reassure these mothers that you are not the kind of person they may be worried about? Think about it from their perspective: the media is bombarding them with stories of abducted children, child abuse, horrible stories on TV every night.

A: Yeah, sure. I need to reach out. I try. But then I run into the other problem. The “pack problem”. I’ve thought about this a lot. As soon as they have kids, most moms want to form a tribe with other moms. It’s a way to get some sense of orientation when you’re going through all this stuff you’ve never gone through before. I understand that. The thing is, when you form tribes, there’s a danger of being tribal. So you have more and more dads, who don’t form tribes, and they’re trying to engage with all these moms, who do form tribes, and it’s like a big culture clash.

Q: Can you give me an example of how this tribalism affects you?

A: Well, it doesn’t just affect me, it can affect other moms, too. I’ve seen that. In fact, if you’re a man, you’re kind of spared, because you have this other universe you live in, where you really don’t give a flying [deleted] what the local mom-pack might think about this or that, who packs the best lunches and all that [deleted]. But the other moms, especially the young ones, they don’t have that luxury. If they’re not “in” the pack, then they’re on an ice floe with a starving polar bear drifting out to sea, and it’s mighty tough place to be.

But say you get a brave mom, a real Independent, and she’s like, Oh, that dad in the corner, he must feel left out. She then faces the following dilemma. She thinks:

I’d like to be nice to him, because he’s being nice to my daughter, thereby freeing me up for boob talk with the other moms over by the sandbox, and of course I am motivated by real and genuine and profound feminine sympathy for another human being

… but then a sudden tribal signal scrambles these intentions and she makes the following social calculus:

But if I go over there, he may take it the wrong way and think I’m flirting with him, that I’m being a coquette, yes a coquette, over animal crackers and grape juice and the amorous fragrance of Purell hand sanitizer. Because that’s how men are, they see everything that way, but also because I’d kind of like that, actually, because it would be nice for an impartial outsider to make me feel attractive at this stage of my life, plus all this constant baby care is a drag and I need an escape. But in reality the problem is not what HE will think, it’s what the TRIBE will think if I do go over there, because if the tribe thinks I’m being a coquette, even if I haven’t the least flirtatious intention, then I might be branded with the Scarlet Letter, led out to the town square and shamed on the scaffold, kicked off the island as it were, which means of course that this poor mom — me — will then have no one to sit next to at the playground except the nannies, and I don’t speak Polish.

And that would be hell, pure hell. And so I’m not going to go talk to him, she thinks.

Q: Do you feel sympathy for her?

A: In a way, yes. These moms, they’re nice people. I meet them one-on-one on the outside and it’s like we’re best friends. Hey, how’s Baby Julius doing? Great, how’s little Esmerelda? But on the inside, it’s like a street gang or something. Even if they like you, they have to focus their energy on maintaining their rank in the gang. Chatting-up stay-at-home dads at parent tot class gets them zero cred with the tribe. Zilch.

It’s like I’m a Pacific island and they are Britain and France fighting over who gets Samoa and who gets Fiji. I just smile and keep planting my yams while they work it out.

Q: We’re out of time.

[End of session]

There are a lot of ways for a man to be in a group of women. A man could, for example, be taking a class. It doesn’t matter what. Any extracurricular interest aside from black powder riflery, auto repair, or stock picking, will attract more women than men. Especially past a certain age.

I’m not making this up. As with all my opinions, I got this one from the New York Times. Men tend not to take classes. Women tend to be oversubscribed. In the journalistic explanation, the old stereotypes come into play: men, at least Manhattanite men, don’t want to publicly learn something new. They prefer to achieve private mastery which is later revealed to the world in all it’s perfection.

This is not an issue for me. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time with groups of women in dance classes, in tennis classes, in alpine skiing classes, and evening adult-education classes, pushing my glasses up the damp ridge of my nose every five minutes or so. And of all of these classes, the only one that came close to achieving gender parity were the pre-natal and birthing classes.

There are still other ways. A man could be working as an office temp who, because of relatively good typing skills (learned in a class, also full of women) and a degree that connotes a tolerance for spending hours in a chair, looking at computer screens, and not talking much, one could for these reasons get placed in the secretarial pool of a large corporation full of, generally speaking, women.

A man could also have an office job downtown, working for the County Clerk, the Recorder of Deeds, or the Public Library. Although the last occupational subset does not overlay the first two in the sense of yielding exposure to the white-sneaker-over-nylons-for-the-commute-to-work class, it does reliably guarantee a man at least 2 or 3 luncheon sojourns to Wendy’s every week in the exclusive, or almost exclusive, company of women.

And of course, there are ways for a man to be in the company of women that I have not yet experienced, such as being 60 or 70 years old in a time of war when the vast majority of able-bodied men are either dead, damaged, or in enemy POW camps.

All this being said, however, once a man hits a certain age, gets married and has a kid or two, the already rare occasions for being in groups of women become vanishingly less frequent. When, through some freak aberration of personal life history and global economic mutation, you find yourself like me the one dad in the parent-tot class, you realize that the situation is of a different kind, with new rules, its own vibe, and that everything you thought you had figured out about how to be the one guy in a group of women gets tossed out the window.

Because you’re not really with a group of women anymore. You’re with a group of moms, and that changes everything.

To be continued:
Tuesday Moms and Thursday Moms, or,
Angels and Mean Girls

Certain places in the city disorient me. They are passages where multiple layers of traffic converge in space, passing over trestles, across bridges, up and down ramps, at grade and at elevation, in different directions and at different velocities.

I experience a moment of anxiety at the wheel of my car, focus on the lane lines on the road, and in a few seconds I am through the vortex and in the clear. No particular bravery is required to do this; hundreds of thousands of people do every day. It’s the system that does most of the work, I just hold the wheel. The elements hold together, and its contents circulate safely through their channels.

My son’s pre-school is nothing like the web of ramps and tunnels that I navigate every few weeks. It’s a quiet, calm place, where everyone comes together in one harmonious room and stays there. We arrive at the same time and depart together. But on the first fall day, sitting around the snack table with its bowl of animal crackers and all the toddlers silently chewing their over-full mouths, I feel the same flash of anxiety, as if I were entering the expressway chute, merging into freight traffic with locomotives rolling above me.

What could possibly connect the two situations? None of the kids that Spot played with last spring are here. Older than him, they’ve gone on to the half-day program. The new set of kids is younger. But this is only temporary. In three months Spot will join the older kids for the half-day program. It will be familiar to him but new to me, because for the first time in three years, I’ll be taking him somewhere each morning and leaving him there. These are small, gradual changes, like the turning of the seasons.

But they remind me of bigger changes, the ones my wife and I talk about after Spot is asleep, chronicled across time zones in phone conversations that go later than we’d like. Grandma is in a state of lingering emergency. Mother-in-law is struggling against a terminal condition. The prospect of one day fathering my son without a father of my own rouses me from whatever sleep I managed to win earlier in the evening. And when not observing our son, who is channeling the cosmos as it gathers inward for a burst of youthful transcendence, I study my own face, an ancient piece of furniture, tracing the spread of cracks in the varnish that seals the wood.

A family is a group of people traveling at different velocities, some of them accelerating and some of them slowing down, some departing for a while to other time zones, but all of them usually circling back. For stretches of time, our family has been a uniform frame of reference, something against which I gauged the movement of other things. Yet lately is feels more like the expressway chute, a frame of reference that appears to be decomposing, pulled in the directions of all the different people passing away from and beyond it.

Spot is often in the backseat when I go through the chute, strapped in and protected by a steel cage as the trains go over and the barges float under us. With Spot in the backseat it’s the rest of the world that is moving, not my own. It’s a favor he grants me, letting me share the optimism that a small force of attraction can counter life’s scattering impulsions. Thanks to our smallest and most needy family member, no one of us can go very far. I don’t care where the semis and boxcars and minivans wind up. For now, even in the chute, I have my privileged and uniform place of rest.

In the outer lanes, it’s true, I see the pieces breaking off, veering down ramps and disappearing through tunnels that may not circle back. I can only keep my hands on the wheel, focus on the lane lines ahead of me, and get into the clear. No bravery is required to do this; it just means picking up my son in a few moments, rolling his soccer ball out the door, and stepping into the September sunshine.

My mother has shared many words of wisdom over the years, and most of them deserve to be engraved in stone.

“Always buy a jacket with a hood,” perhaps the most important advice ever shared between a Midwestern mother and child. “Don’t lay out in the sun,” was a needed corrective at a time of adolescent vanity. “Never get a credit card with an annual fee,” became important as I entered the world of consumption, as did “You should help your wife as much as possible,” as soon as I married a my breadwinning spouse.

But in addition to these bits of guidance from a successful and practical woman, there remains a residue of aphorisms that once made sense, but which now strike me as a collection of rules for travel a foreign country.

Why, for example, should I “look for pants with an elastic waste band,” “never buy cotton shirts” or “go with carpeting” instead of wood floors? Why did I find myself asking salespeople, when looking over everything from a pair of socks to a Persian rug, “how hard is it to wash?”

In my early at 30s, at the age when men generally become adults, I realized what was going on. Sometime in my childhood my mother had passed a cultural event horizon, beyond which it was impossible to escape the gravity of convenience offered by a nebulae of polyester, drip-dry slacks, plastic slip covers for the furniture, a medium shag to the carpet to hold the dirt until it could be vacuumed every month or so (but no more than that), and certainly, under no circumstances, no cotton shirts, because those have to be ironed.

I had seen all the old film shorts and 50’s infomercials praising the emancipation of the modern housewife from the drudgery of cooking and cleaning, thanks to modern science and consumer durables, leaving her free several hours each day to volunteer, spend time with the children, and relax in the tidy, paneled living room.

My mother had all the gadgets, and more, but I would not describe her emancipation as relaxing. She took the modernist promise of a liberation from labor and pursued it with a ruthless single-mindedness, in the context of a new set of synthetic fabrics, still more advanced electronics, and a full-time legal career. Mom did everything she could to eliminate the so-called Second Shift.

The result was a strange, bastard coupling of feminism with disposable consumer goods, the offspring of which came in a thousand shapes of plastic. Or paper: while everyone expects to eat off of paper plates at a Memorial Day or Fourth of July barbecue, our family used them nearly year-round — and paper cups, too — because it meant fewer dishes to clean. Fast food take-out, which we had at least once a week, was ideal because not only did someone else do the cooking, but it came in its own, disposable, packaging, meaning we didn’t have to waste ours.

I could go on. When I began to wear cotton shirts in my 20s, my mother was horrified. Did I not know the labor that would be required to keep these clothes wearable? Was I really prepared to iron them? To this day she is baffled by my generation’s rejection of the polyester revolution, embodied nowhere more fully than in the global domination of the GAP khaki aesthetic. A similar logic was applied to home repair, another enormous time-suck. When hundred-year old wainscoting began to fall from the front porch ceiling, it was replaced with plastic wainscoting — “Just as good as the original!” — on a house that was already completely sheathed in maintenance free, fiberglass siding.

Was this the “House of Tomorrow” trumpeted at the 1933 World’s Fair, the Century of Progress? Had the time-saving devices and scientific wizardry behind them come to dictate the texture and look of the leisure time they allowed us? Did my mother’s practical feminism require living in Plastic World?

The really ambitious, successful women I have known have all been ruthless with regards to one thing: their time. I can see why. For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in an old house with no washing machine. My mother packed the laundry into baskets and packed the baskets into the car every Saturday morning, and then drove a few miles to the nearest laundromat. I remember her returning hours later to carry the plastic baskets full of folded laundry — my Evil Knievel shirts, my cowboy socks — up the front steps from the driveway, then upstairs to my room.

So when the washer-dryer finally showed up, well into my mother’s middle age, it was a belated redemption of the promise of those 50’s infomercials. And much deserved.

But my mother is now so profoundly accustomed to cheating labor, to chipping and hacking away at the Second Shift with all the consumer aids at her disposal, that what began as her creative response to the burdens of a working mom in the 70s now persists as a set of habits and a settled outlook on life long after the nest has emptied.

So it is with the elastic waistband. The antithesis of the whale bone corset, it is the ultimate concession to feminine freedom, prêt à porter. It is one of the many creature comforts that Mom treats as the fruit of her labor. It will not be taken from her. And when I was at an age when the measure of my waistline rose and fell 3 inches with each meal, the elastic waste band was of some use to me, as well.

But now I prefer a belt.

Since this blog is about a dad, and being a dad, and a stay-at-home dad at that, the few random folks who stumble across it might be interested to know that fellow daddy-blogger Jeremy Adam Smith of Daddy Dialectic is making some waves with a break-out book, “The Daddy Shift.”

Check out the promotional video here, then go buy the book!


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