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My father-in-law, Marty Morgenstern, died on Saturday. I can’t believe he’s gone. I know the unreality will fade with time, but I will keep on missing him. Marty was very special to me, and although I’m glad to say I had many opportunities to say why before–such as at his “I’m really, really retiring this time” parties, his 80th birthday party, and each time I saw him–I want to say it here, for all to read.

The single best thing Marty ever did for me, it goes without saying, was to be the parent of the child who would become my wife. He and Joy’s mom divorced when she was very young, and times being what they were, she was raised mostly by her mom, but by the time I met her, she and her dad had the close relationship of adults who trust each other and love being in each other’s company. In him, I could see so many qualities I admire and love in her: their honesty, their open affection, their commitment to public service and making the world better through their jobs, their trustworthiness, their humor, and of course their incisive intelligence. Marty was a big fan of our family, openly admiring our child (who is indeed the most terrific child ever) and the relationship the three of us have, and yet he seemed not to realize how much of it was due to his influence on Joy.

Father and daughter, reunited after a year’s
COVID-forced separation (photo by Joy)

I’ve often joked that I was in Marty’s good books before we met. On my account, his only child relocated from the East Coast to within easy visiting distance of him. Not only that, but thanks to our relationship, she was planning to give him a grandchild, something for which he had probably long since stopped hoping. (In his toast at our wedding, he said, “I always thought Joy was never going to get married, because she told me, ‘Dad, I’m never going to get married!'”) So although I was nervous the night we went to Rose Pistola (alas, now permanently closed) in San Francisco for our first dinner with him and Joy’s stepmother Sylvia, I figured I had a lot of points in the win column already. They both proved to be easy to talk with, easy to love. I really won the in-laws lottery with Marty (and the whole family): he accepted me into the family without hesitation or judgment, celebrated my relationship with his daughter, and showed me unfailing respect and kindness. As recently as the past year, when Marty ordered branzino at a restaurant where we were having dinner, he reminisced that that was what he’d had that night at Rose Pistola. I was touched that he recalled that evening as an important moment, as I did–and more vividly, since I don’t remember what I ate.

Marty would scoff at the idea that he could be anyone’s hero, and I’m not given to having them, but he had one remarkable, rare quality that I particularly long to emulate and will probably never achieve: although he was firm and passionate in his own convictions, he could engage with people with whom he strongly disagreed, listening and speaking respectfully. If he felt hot and flustered the way I do at such times, it didn’t show. No doubt that was part of why he was so successful at labor negotiations. He was unswervingly in workers’ corner, but I can imagine all parties in a conflict being confident that he was paying attention to their needs and treating them with respect, because he was.

The beginning of a wonderful relationship: Papa holding Mookie,
age one day (photo by Joy)

So it was utterly unsurprising, but deeply gratifying, to listen in on his conversations with our child as she got old enough to talk politics with him these past few years (she is almost 15). Not that she was arguing with him; she was just learning and asking lots of questions. She, Joy and I talk plenty about social problems and public policy over the dinner table, but of course when one of her questions came up when we were at Papa and Grandma’s house, we would say, “That’s a question you should ask Papa.” She would, and he would engage with as much seriousness as if she were a Berkeley graduate student. He was delighted to learn that she planned to take journalism next year and write for the high school paper; he was looking forward to reading what she wrote, he said.

One of those Wednesday play dates, in 2008

Marty and Mookie started spending a lot of one-on-one time together when she was a toddler. Joy and I both worked at home one day a week, the only problem being that when you have a toddler at home, any hope of doing actual work goes out the window. So on Wednesdays, Marty would come over from Oakland to our home, which was in San Mateo at the time, and take care of Indi. Their usual routine was the playground, then Junior Gym, then lunch or something special like frozen yogurt. I’m pretty sure it was Marty who treated her to her first ice cream cone: chocolate, at Donut Delite in downtown San Mateo.

When Mookie was three, Jerry Brown returned to the governorship of California and Marty came out of retirement to work for his administration again, as he had done in the 1970s. We were delighted that Brown had won, but a bit sad about the personal impact. With a demanding job and a commute to Sacramento, Marty would no longer be able to spend Wednesday mornings with his granddaughter. The job and commute were demanding, but Marty found ways to compensate. For example, although he didn’t spend a lot of time in his department’s San Francisco office, he did have it as a kind of Bay Area base, and to boot, it was in the same building as Mookie’s preschool (we had moved to the city), so he made the most of it. When her group was exploring the cooking and serving of food, they made appetizers and planned a field trip to Papa’s office. Mookie was thrilled to be able to introduce her teacher and friends to her grandfather; the state employees were charmed to be served appetizers by a group of three- and four-year-olds; and Marty was a very proud, happy Papa to be able to show them all his adorable grandchild.

The two Shakespeareans, with Grandma Sylvia, after Mookie’s performance in Hamlet at Shakespeare camp

He continued to be just as doting, attentive and admiring as she grew up. They didn’t remain officemates for more than a couple of years, but soon she was going to Shakespeare day camp for a couple of weeks each summer, and Marty, the English major, Shakespeare lover, and Indigo fan, was always in the audience. Theater wasn’t easy for him because of his severe back pain, but he got there. When three summers ago, he had to miss her performance because the drive to and fro and sitting in the theater for an hour were too much for him, we knew his health must really be declining.

I so loved the sound of his delighted voice saying, “Is that my grandchild?” whenever we entered their house, and my heart aches that we won’t hear it again.

I can’t handle the pressure of trying to put everything into one blog post, so I’ll stop here and post more when the memories overflow and leak out my eyes. I love you, Marty. Thank you for being a wonderful father and grandfather to my family, and the best father-in-law I could ever have wished for.

We have been talking about creating a room like this almost since we bought this house, in 2011. We live in a row house and the garage runs all the way from the front to the back. Joy dreamed it up, imagining turning the back section of that unnecessarily deep garage into a small space for laundry and art. During our sabbatical time in 2016, we said we’d get right on the project when we got back. But these kinds of things take a lot of work, and other priorities intruded. This year, Joy found a contractor, drew the plans, stood in a lot of lines at City Hall to get the permits, and shepherded the whole process, and now we have a dedicated space that we have modestly dubbed “the art room,” as “studio” seems a bit highfalutin.

I don’t have a “before” picture, but here is how things looked very early on. The framed wall is the wall dividing the garage from the art-room-to-be:

Out of sight to the left, between the black file cabinet and the ladder leaning against the back wall, is the wall to our office. That is now the doorway into the art room. Let me escort you:

The wall straight ahead is a nice big blank space for us to fill with art as we create it. You can see the treadmill, formerly in the office, to the left of the stairs. And of course there are books, because, well, that’s us. And we displaced quite a few feet of bookshelves by cutting this doorway between the office and the new room.
A project for me for when the weather gets warmer: refinish this table we got at a yard sale, or at least the top so it’s a smooth working surface. My dearest wish in creating this room was to have work space that didn’t have to be cleared off daily–that we can just return to the next day. That empty shelf is also for works-in-progress. (See the manual pencil sharpener attached to the wall just to the right of the door? I installed that. My big contribution to the construction.)

Second-dearest wish: to make all of our art supplies easily available, organized, and labeled. If you recognize the font, solidarity, fellow nerds! If you’re not sure where it’s from, but it gives you a vague sense of disquiet, I recommend these reruns, Number Six.
We are tolerant of each other’s tendency to go a little overboard when ordering things from Ikea, and here’s a great example of the benefits of that tolerance. This item wasn’t in the plan, but when Joy ordered the drawer systems, she tossed it in too, and it’s a great addition.

An art room needs a sink, and this is our laundry room too. We held onto these cabinets for six years after getting new ones for the kitchen, with the ultimate plan of using them here. I’m really glad we did. They would have just gone into the landfill, and now they are storage for lots of the stuff that got booted from the garage, like our three fondue sets (please don’t judge–we didn’t pay for any of them) and grocery overflow. The glass door goes to the back yard, and it and the long transom window above it allow in lots of light. There’s even a built-in ironing board across from the washer and dryer, another original fixture from the kitchen that has been waiting for its moment.

Thank you for coming on my tour! The office, freed of the treadmill, is now home to a trundle bed that opens up to king size, so that for the first time, we have a place for people to stay besides the living room. Now if we could only have guests come visit . . . ! Let’s hope 2021 brings them, and it begins in six hours.

In 2000, it seemed as if the whole world was reading the Harry Potter books. That did nothing to make me want to check them out. Truth be told, even though I was in my 30s and ought to have been well past any sense of adolescent nonconformity-for-the-sake-of-conformity, it made me less interested in checking them out. My sister told me, “Really, they’re really good!,” but someone in the grip of unacknowledged adolescent rebelliousness is likely to do the exact opposite of what her older sister recommends. I stayed steadily unintrigued. All those people lined up for the midnight release of the fourth book? Yawn. Even the discovery of a Harry-Potter-themed sermon online by a much-admired colleague and teacher, Ken Sawyer, didn’t draw me in, though I enjoyed the sermon.

Then a church member pressed the audiobooks of the first three books on me–I had a long commute and listened to books on tape all the time–and within the first few minutes, all my resistance crumbled. I loved them. I gulped them down, got a hold of the fourth, gulped it down too. They lived up to all the hype.

Oh, they’re conventional in many ways, and even the best of them has a plot hole you could fly a hippogriff through. And I’m angry with their author, who has torpedoed a deserved reputation as one of this planet’s kindest, most generous people by stubbornly insisting on a bigoted, mean mischaracterization of transgender. But the delights of these books are too many to list, and they keep on delighting me.

When I first discovered them, I sought out people who wanted to talk about them all the time, the way I did, and found them in the Yahoogroup Harry Potter for Grownups. I made good friends there, people I’m still friends with 20 years later, and among the funniest, smartest people in the group, I met the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. So Harry Potter changed my life in the most literal way possible. If I had continued to avoid it because it was so annoyingly ubiquitous and adored, Joy and I wouldn’t be married, we wouldn’t have our child . . . it’s scary even to think about it.

It’s rare for anything to live up to its reputation when it’s as widely hailed and appreciated as Harry Potter. But once in a while it does. Listen to my cautionary tale, dear reader. Do not deprive yourself of a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon just because it’s a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon.

The other work that has inspired me to say, “It lives up to all the hype, and more,” is Hamilton. Yes, it won 11 Tonys after being nominated for a record-setting 16 (inspiring this pre-Trump parody by Randy Rainbow). Its composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, well before the age of 40. Its songs have been quoted by countless articles and as the title of a self-serving book by a wingnut who managed to become National Security Advisor and still undermine U.S. national security. It caused millions of middle-class white people to enjoy hip hop; millions of people who would never cross the threshold of an opera house to enjoy an opera; and countless people who don’t love musical theater to be unable to stop singing its tunes. Doctor Who predicts that it will be performed by 900 different casts over time, all of which the Doctor will see. Despite its near-universal popularity . . .

. . . it really is that good.

So, dear reader, don’t believe that the hype is wrong. Once in a while, something comes along that lives up to its stratospheric reputation. Heed my tale of narrowly-averted woe, and if there’s something you’ve been avoiding (despite the recommendations of people you respect) because it’s just too popular, give it a try. I won’t guarantee that you will meet the love of your life, but it might change your life, which is what art is all about.

We are doing portraits now in the drawing class we’re taking. I have drawn a lot of portraits in my life, but this is probably the best.

I’m resisting my self-protective habit of listing what doesn’t work well,and taking Katie’s advice to list what does: the ear, the eye, the shape of the shadows that define the cheek. And it looks like her.

A couple of weeks ago, Joy went to explore the big Chadraui, one of a supermarket chain around here. A smaller (though by no means small) one is a few blocks from us; the big one is on the other side of town. She came back with marvelous treats, such as real maple syrup and plain Cheerios–we’d only been able to find sweetened ones. The plain ones contain plenty of sugar, too, but something in my parenting sensibilities draws the line at the Honey-Nut variety, and faints dead away at Chocolate Cheerios. Munchkin has been missing her favorite cereal.

Joy described the store to us: “It’s the size of a small moon.” watermelondeathstar3

“That’s no moon,” I quipped nerdily, and so we have called the store the Death Star Chadraui ever since. Today, all three of us went there for the first time. Munchkin was excited. “Are we going to see the Death Star?” she said. At that point I thought we might have gone too far. At this rate, we were going to be in for some serious disappointment when we got there. I was hoping TIE fighters would come spinning out to meet us. “Yeah,” Munchkin said. “All the checkout people ought to be stormtroopers . . . ”

As it turned out, we didn’t see any TIE fighters or stormtroopers, nor was Darth Vader stalking through the dairy section, but we did enjoy ourselves, especially on the moving ramp, a kind of cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator. The Empire ought to consider installing one of its own. And the store is the size of a small moon. Later, not really thinking about my choice of words, I told Joy that the store was “impressive.” She said, “Most impressive.”

 

(Death Star watermelon by SilverisDead, (c) 2009)

The light on my daughter’s face, and the face, were so beautiful that I said “I wish I could draw you,” and to my surprise she volunteered to hold still for 10-15 minutes.

image

It’s not a bad impression. It has that faraway look she has when she’s thinking. Naturally, it’s not as beautiful as the original.

Black History Month, day 21

I love children’s literature. If I didn’t have a child to read to, I’d just have to sit in the children’s section of the library without one. And of course, we have a large bookshelf full of the books we loved as kids.

The characters and the authors of these books are overwhelmingly white. Most of them were written before 1975, many long before, and few publishers then sought out people of color, or encouraged them when they came along. For that matter, as of 2001, one editor writes here, there were still very few African-American writers and illustrators in the field, and a 2007 book by an education professor observes the same thing. And yet, John Steptoe, who wrote and illustrated the gorgeous Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters during his sadly short career, said plainly: “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”

When children read, they need to see people who look like them. This truism, once doubtful in my mind, has become a rock-solid fact since I began spending my days with a small child. The munchkin identifies strongly with people in the books she reads, and most of all with people like herself. To illustrate: she frequently, even obsessively, points to a character on each page and says “I want to be that person.” It is almost never an animal, and it is almost never a boy: it’s a girl. If the girls are only minor characters, she identifies with one of them, putting herself on the margin of the story (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger–your wizarding world is still male-dominated, but you did put one smart, brave, complex girl in the marquee). If there are no girls in the story, she chooses no one. Fortunately, things have come a long way since A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien, and female characters are no longer merely a token presence in children’s books. But whom would she see who looked like her if she were black?

I would love to hear about your favorite children’s books that are by African-American authors and illustrators, and/or feature black characters.

Here are some of mine. An * means they have prominent characters who are black, an @ means they’re by a black author or illustrator, though of course I often don’t know anything about them but their name. In some cases, like Bette Greene and Ezra Jack Keats, I know they aren’t African-American, but I might be missing some who are.

* Island Counting 1 2 3 by Frané Lessac. Our favorite counting book, with terrific illustrations of an unnamed Caribbean island, and lots of fun things to find (e.g., on the “four” page there are four vanes on the windmill, four donkeys, four leaves on each plant, etc.).

@ Everywhere Babies, a board book I love for many reasons, but one of them is that families of all types and colors are featured without any comment, just as if families just come in all gender combinations, age combinations, and colors! Imagine!

* ABC A Family Alphabet Book, written by Bobbie Combs, illustrated by Desiree Keane and Brian Kappa. All of the parents are same-sex couples, and many are black.

* The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy (naturally a childhood favorite), and the others about Peter and friends by Ezra Jack Keats

* Bear on a Bike, written Stella Gladstone and illustrated by Debbie Harter

* @ Lift Every Voice and Sing, words by James Weldon Johnson, illustrations by Elizabeth Catlett

* @ I Want To Be, written by Thylias Moss, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

@ for that matter, anything illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

@ Freight Train and anything else by Donald Crews

* Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco (Polacco, who is white, has several books with prominent African-American characters–this is the only one of them I’ve read)

* the Max and Kate stories that are featured in each issue of Ladybug.

Moving on to books for older kids:

* Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene

* Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh

And the best African-American picture book we haven’t seen:

A Little Bit of Soul Food, Amy Wilson Sanger. As far as I know, Sanger isn’t black, and if this book is like the others of hers we have, it shows no people, but they are such great portrayals of one aspect of a culture–its food. Yum Yum Dim Sum and My First Book of Sushi are perennial favorites in our house.

I bought for Munchkin, but haven’t read with/listened to with her yet, Hip Hop Speaks to Children. She seldom wants to listen to music, preferring audiobooks in the car. It looks great, though.

Your nominees?

My figure drawing time resumed on Monday after a month away. It felt great to be drawing again. I spread them out on the kitchen floor after dinner and the munchkin and I looked them over. She said this was the best one “because it looks like a person.” It didn’t look much like the person I was drawing, so it was nice to see it through the eyes of someone who couldn’t compare the two.

She also liked this one, which is the one I like best,

and this.

She wanted to know why I draw all in black, white, and gray, instead of in color the way she does. I told her the truth, which is that it’s hard enough for me to manage black and white and I’m not up for the challenge of color right now. She also asked why I draw people naked instead of in their clothes. I said because that way I can see a lot of the beautiful parts that clothes cover up. She looked unconvinced. I think for her, clothes are more interesting and probably more beautiful.

When I told Munchkin I had been working on the veins of hands and feet, she jumped up to point them all out on the drawings. I explained what I found difficult and interesting about them, leading to a question from M: “What does subtle mean?”

The other subtle thing I decided to tackle today is the highlight that runs right along some places, like the muscles of calf and thigh here. I have never paid it enough attention and it comes out looking streaky, obvious (not subtle!), or nonexistent. Monday I really tried to look at it and see what its edge looks like. It was so absorbing that in twenty minutes, I never really got to any other part of the drawing, not even the knee, which looks kind of flat as a result.

Yesterday evening’s service was about control and letting go. I played everyone a song by Suzzy Roche about being in a plane in a lightning storm, and repeated my favorite line: “There’s a whole lot, baby, you can’t control, so put your seat back and roll, Mag, roll”–“Mag” is her sister, I’m guessing. (At that point E. said, “Were you thinking about today’s windstorm?” I hadn’t heard about it. Turned out there were 100-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds in Southern California, a historic storm.)

We meditated on the song and on a couple of quotes such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “serenity prayer,” and I led a meditation in which we literally made fists as we envisioned gripping tightly whatever we seek to control, then relaxed and let go so it could float.

The hardest thing I could have chosen would have been my daughter. I focused on something a little easier, but then I got to my final words, introducing a song we often sing in this service, “Ubi Caritas”–

The words of our song mean, “where there is love, there God is.” It doesn’t say holiness lies in control, or certainty, or permanence. It lies in love, which is sometimes about holding on and sometimes about letting go, and usually about both

–and I choked up, and thought of a passage I’d just read, in the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book. He’s speaking of writing the last couple of pages.

And my eyes stung, momentarily. It was then, and only then, that I saw clearly for the first time what I was writing. I had set out to write a book about a childhood–it was Bod’s childhood, and it was in a graveyard, but still, it was a childhood like any other; I was now writing about being a parent, and the fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: that if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away. And they have lives and they have families and they have futures.

It is a happy book, and a happy thought that our daughter will go on to have a life and a family and a future beyond us, but my eyes stung, too, reading this paragraph. It’s hard to imagine that I will be ready when she is.

A sanitation worker in downtown Lima. Photo by Manfredwinslow (public domain)

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968:

“We are challenged on every hand to work untiringly to achieve excellence in our lifework. Not all men are called to specialized or professional jobs; even fewer rise to the heights of genius in the arts and sciences; many are called to be laborers in factories, fields, and streets. But no work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

My daughter (age 4 1/2), this afternoon, on seeing a street sweeper:

“That man is being good to the earth. He’s picking up the garbage . . . his mind is like our minds. He says the earth is for walking on, not the earth is just a garbage can.”

To a mind free of prejudice, heroes are everywhere.

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