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Different Lives

The day I was born, my parents buried two bodies in the backyard: the people they might have been, had they not been 19 and 16 that day. I don’t think my mother yearned much for whom she might have been―at various times she wanted to be a lawyer or the mother of ten; thanks to her decades-long work in childcare, I suspect she was a little of both. I know my dad did wonder who he might have been had if he’d had the time and money to attend college in the years when, instead, he worked 40 hours a week of overtime as a milkman to support his family. He lived on the same block and had the same job his entire life. He never saw Europe.

I know they never regretted having me, because they told me that. Abortion, while rare and difficult in 1952, was suggested to my mother, who declined. They both loved me every day of their lives and mine.

How different was my life? My dad lost his virginity at the age of 18 and 10 months, two months younger than me. At that age I was a technician at KGW-TV, in between my freshman and sophomore years at far-away MIT, wooing my first lover by mail.

(Having never been to college, Dad had only one piece of advice on the day I left: “Don’t propose to the first woman you sleep with. I did, and I’ve always wondered…” When he met my first fiancé, he found her charming and intelligent, and didn’t berate me for ignoring his advice until after we’d broken up.)

When I was the age he was at my birth, I was living in Boston, an MIT sophomore, working full-time as a technician at WBZ-TV, producing comedy at WTBS radio, and working at The Tech. Dad was sweeping up broken milk bottles and dodging dogs.

My dad was 37 years old and change when I graduated from Benson High School. When I was 37 I had two lovely daughters, had been on two game shows and was a regular on The Computer Chronicles. He still lived next door to the house he was born in.

He was 41 when I graduated from MIT. When I was 41, I was playing tenor saxophone in a brass band, while Dad was dreading the heat of summer and the icy roads of snow days.

I sometimes wonder, in a light and wistful way, what other paths I might have taken, but given where I ended up, the exercise has never been more than wistful. I have been loved by several wonderful women, lived in multiple interesting places all over the country and loved my work every day of my working life. And, of course, I ended up with an amazing family of loving women, all Francophones with Masters Degrees.

I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made. My life was made possible by the love and support of my father, while, as he told me, he was, “hating work every day of my life.”

My Brief Career As A Puzzle Constructor

The only crossword I’ve ever constructed, “Rodents Everywhere”.

If you don’t have the NY Times puzzle ap Across Lite, you can work the PDF version, just be careful not to look at the third page.

My mother did the New York Times crossword puzzle (reprinted a week late in the Oregonian) every day of her adult life. She did it in pencil, and worked hard to finish it without help from the dictionary or her friends. I think she’d have enjoyed the electronic version, with its “one square” fill-in option.

Much of who I am and what I do came from observing her, but while Dad successfully passed on a disinterest in the sports section, Mom failed to pass on the crossword bug. I do remember her complaining bitterly when Will Shortz took over the puzzle editor job in 1993 and started allowing multiple word answers. She fumed about that until the day she died 20 years later.

I did not start playing crosswords until the summer of 2007, when I began to prepare for my appearance on Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, (video here, journal of my appearance here) a short-lived syndicated game show. I was a first-week contestant/loser, but had worked through several crossword puzzle books and started working the New York Times puzzle online every Monday and Tuesday (they are too hard after that day; the Monday puzzle is the easiest, the Saturday puzzle the hardest). Perhaps my loss was not a surprise, since the show claimed to be calibrated to “Wednesday crossword difficulty.”

When I discovered crossword construction software in 2012, I wrote my own puzzle and shared it with mom, who was not enthusiastic.

Nonetheless, I sent it to the New York Times. Shortz’ assistant for rejecting submissions informed me that it wasn’t completely symmetrical (a requirement I hadn’t noticed) and so couldn’t be considered.

Can you spot the one clue I should me mildly ashamed of?

I did begin one other puzzle, but never finished it. The theme was “Cliches.” After just a few years of playing the crossword, I realized that Ott, Orr, ewer and Ono, along with a few other words, were very frequently used.

A Thought For Teachers, And Others


(Repeated from Jan. 24, 2005, back when I was still teaching)

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. --Maya Angelou

The other day it was finals at CHigh School, which means last year's freshmen get out early enough to come over to JM, where I teach. One of the girls smiled at me and told me a long elaborate story about how good I made her feel on the first day. She looked deep into my eyes and said, "You don't remember, do you." Well, no I don't. I mostly remember spending the year at cross-purposes with her. But she remembers that first day, and, I suspect 20 years from now, when the tumult has faded, the good feeling will remain.

Much the same thing happened to me with NM, a friend from college days who looked me up when we were both adults because I worked for Information Systems News and he worked for a computer vendor. He told me a long elaborate story about how nice I was to him the first day he showed up at the main MIT newspaper, The Tech. Again, hard to remember. I was nice to everyone who showed up at the newspaper--in reaction, in part, to the snarky way I was treated on my first day, when MF was cruel enough to drive me to a competitive newspaper for six months.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that I try to be as nice as I can to everyone, every day, because I believe Maya Angelou is right. As my master teacher once said, “What are you trying to do with the grade you put on their work?” Sometimes it is communications--assessing their work, letting them know if they meet or exceed expectations. But ask yourself, do you want them to feel bad, or to learn and try harder. I hear her voice in my head (and that of my mother the ex-teacher) every time I grade a paper. It makes it more complicated, but ultimately more satisfying, and it helps me understand what to do with papers, tests and students that are on the bubble.

My Favorite Year… and a half

I wasn’t expecting this. In the immortal words of Total Eclipse of the Heart:

Every now and then I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by.

Fact is, I wasn’t really expecting any more peak experiences as I neared my 8th decade, despite my firm belief that this is the best moment of my life. Now this is. Now this is…

Then on March 17, 2020, my daughter and son-in-law asked my wife I and I to do daycare for our grandson for the month we expected the Covid quarantine to last. Given her work schedule, Vicki took Monday and Wednesday from the end of breakfast to the start of naptime; I took Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. After 323 work days, Vicki had spent 480 hours on duty, while I had the pleasure of keeping my grandson (from age 15 months to age 31 months) company for 720 hours. Next week he starts daycare.

It’s not that I won’t see him anymore, but I will see him less.

I am at the point where mindfulness meets melancholy. (actually, we have agreed on the word wistful) I am melancholic that my regular three-day weekly visits are through. Intellectually, I know we will still see him regularly, and baby-sit him frequently, just not as often. We are moving from a motion picture of his life to time-lapse photography.

Mindfulness teachers us that suffering is not about what happened, but how we react to and process what happened. I am working on adjusting my attitude. Not sorrow at the lost contact, but joy for the time we shared. It’s going to take some work.

Cheerful, Optimistic and Upbeat

Speaking of the rule of three (here and here)…

I have been cheerful, optimistic and upbeat since the day I was born, according to reports. Those of you who have met me know it is true; I sincerely hope it comes through in this column.

The good cheer started at birth, so it’s probably genetic, but in addition, that’s how my mother raised me. After a few rough spots in my 20s, I came to realize that happiness comes from within. I saw too many cases of two people (sometimes one of them was me) in objectively identical situations, one of whom was happy and one who was not. I made a conscious choice to be in the happy group.

I enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s recent discussion of the subject:

I have my off days, for sure, but I believe cheerfulness is something you set your mind on in the morning and hang on to for the rest of the day. It feels like an essential American virtue, found in Emerson, Whitman, even Emily Dickinson, and surely in Mark Twain: Don’t get bogged down in the past, the bonehead mistakes, the tragic losses, the betrayals of trust. Look ahead. If necessary, leave town. Do what you can to improve the day. We are resilient people. Disaster strikes and the next day people get up and go to work. Buoyancy is what you need. Power and influence are illusory. Charisma is a fiction. Brilliance depends on who’s writing the test.

I also found myself visited by a touch of l'esprit d'escalier, when I realized I could have described myself as chubby, cheerful and chatty. Alliteration!

I was mildly disappointed that none of you offered me three adjectives for yourself. Several offered adjectives for me; I was surprised that none alluded to my corpulence. Apparently it looms large in my self image, but doesn’t appear in the image of me held by others. One sweet, kind correspondent offered “whip-smart and interesting” to describe me, but couldn’t come up with a third. I was touched.

This and That

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe Humor
The NIMBY Syndrome Creates The Perfect Classroom Lesson

Horrible UI

After struggling through a few absurd user interfaces this week, I am going to lobby for a requirement that UI designers can only collect their paychecks if they can “order” them using their own interface.

“Happiness, not in another place but this place...not for another hour, but this hour.”
― Walt Whitman