Wednesday, March 30, 2016

drinking, with science.

I was in Mexico for a few months once. It's a long story, involving a girl and a sailboat. The sailboat was neither mine nor the girl's, which was part of the problem, but not nearly so much as the lunatic combination of me and the girl.

Anyway. Mexico.

We were in Guanajuato--nowhere near a sailboat, I said it was a long story--wandering one evening, and we went into a bar.

6pm was far too early for Mexicans to be in a bar, but it was a pleasant place to sit, and practically shouted that it had been invaded by artists. The standard restaurant tables were brightly painted, and had matching curvy edges, so they would pair up in varied combinations.

It turned out to be run by some kid who was probably 19. He said his parents were opening a restaurant in the building, though that end of the space looked empty, so that may have been happening on Mexico Time (where mañana gets a range of new meanings, from its traditional "tomorrow" or "morning" all the way to "next week," "next month," and "I don't like you, stop asking").

We went back hours later, and it was all you could have hoped for, full of arty-cosmopolitan young Mexicans, and foreigners looking to avoid the "do any Mexicans actually live here?" vibe of nearby San Miguel de Allende. So we're hanging out with the manager kid, who speaks okay English, and some guy from Comfort, Texas who says it's a great place because a mob of Germans arrived in the 1800s and decided they would ban the practice of law inside town limits. The manager is pouring shots of tequila like there's no tomorrow: good stuff, and not charging us, just having fun. I watch him do the damnedest thing.

He says he's invented a drink, the Ráfago (which name surely resonates with Mexicans somehow).
1 tall skinny 2oz shotglass
1oz orange liqueur, chocolate liqueur, or both
1oz tequila
1 cigarette lighter
Drink half the shotglass, but do not swallow. Swish it around in your mouth.
Tilt your head back.
Dip lighter flame into your mouth until the alcohol vapor in your mouth ignites.
Enjoy the tickling sensation of the flames for a few seconds.
Close your mouth (make sure to seal your lips, to extinguish the flame) and swallow.
The main challenge here is that you can't see what you're doing, or whether you're getting the flame too close to your teeth (which have no external nerves). It's not rocket science, though, and it tastes much better with some of the alcohol burned off.

This worked more or less flawlessly at the time, and I was less able to reproduce it back home; but now that I am trying to find the burning temperature of alcohol vapor, I learn that an alcohol solution's flammability depends also on temperature and pressure, and Guanajuato is 6,600 feet above sea level, while the Bay Area is mostly at sea level.

It does sound nuts when I write it down, but I watched this other guy do it right in front of me, and he wasn't superhuman or anything. Also, delicious! With science!

Monday, March 28, 2016


J has an irrational rage about babies. It started with a weekend's exposure to one exceptionally loud and long-running baby 5 years ago, and while he no longer runs away as though they were rabid mountain lions, nor does he start walking over to pre-emptively shout at them before they can annoy him first. That's real progress, but he still gets annoyed at any talk about babies, to babies, near babies, anything he thinks is for babies, or any reference to the fact that he did used to be much smaller.

Anna's nailed down a cookie recipe that everyone can eat (gluten-free flour, no refined sugar, no chocolate) and with the irresistible d20 cookie cutter:

there's been a consistent stream of cookies. As yesterday's were baking, Anna said "C is for 'cookie'," which got the boy's hackles up and he made an annoyed growling noise.
"What's wrong?"
"Sesame Street is for little kids!"
"Actually, a big chunk of it is made for adults."
"No, it's for babies!"
"Seriously. Little kids will watch the same thing over and over,  and Sesame Street was made so that adults could watch it too and not go crazy, so there's all kinds of stuff in there that only adults can understand. That's why Blue's Clues came along: it's better for little kids because it's just the same thing over and over, and adults go insane trying to watch it."
Anna chimes in: "Blue's Clues, or Caillou. Ugh."
"My friends and I used to watch it back around 2000. We called it 'Stoner TV'. It was made for adults."
I turned to look at him. He was unhappy.

"NO! Stop being silly!"
"Hey. Hey. Look at my face. Is this my silly face? Look at the muscles around the eyes, corners of the mouth."

He looked and sounded exactly like this. It was uncanny.

  Learning is hard, sometimes.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

where does he get this stuff

J calls me "Chris," and always has; there's never been any question of calling me "Dad" or whatever. I've always been scrupulous about trying to respect the fact that J's father is his father, and I've never tried to be a father replacement. That's sort of happened anyway, because I'm a much better match for J than his father is, so "Chris" in J's mind occupies this huge father-space.

It's still weird for me, and I've talked about it with Anna a lot; it's just an inevitable part of being a step-parent, that you didn't have the kid in its larval stage, and you have to build a relationship like you would with any other sentient human. I'm not sure what he could have called me, since "Daddy" is taken. Maybe "Papa" or something?

We once did offer that if he wanted to use another name for me, he should say so, and that was years ago, but this morning:
"Um, Chris, is it weird for you that I just call you Chris? Do you wish I called you something else?"
"That is an excellent question, and I've thought about it a lot. I think that since 'Chris' holds for you all of the loving Chris-stuff, we should just stick with 'Chris.' Plus, as much as I think about it, I think I would find it strange for you to call me anything else."
Did he think of this himself? Did he overhear a conversation? Is it just the culmination of years of clues? I have no idea.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

in extremis.

In college I took a seminar on the Holocaust: I majored in computer science, but it was a liberal arts college which I'd chosen for its theater department, and its computer science department turned out be tiny. Senior year left me lots of credits for "Oh, That Looks Interesting." (I took Racquetball!)

The lecturer was a catankerous guy in his 60s, with a loud speaking voice and a moderate New York City accent. I liked him, on balance, but I don't actually know if he had some kind of hidden soft side, nor could I tell if he was crotchety from studying the Holocaust, or if that's just how he was. He ranted at us a lot, repeatedly disappointed with the quality of our educations up to that point.

"And who was the central figure of Italian reunification?"
[120 undergraduates sit in stony silence, because who the hell studied Italian reunification?]
"Come on, you refugees from social studies class!" 

(Did you know that? I didn't know that. I'd never heard of him.)

He really wanted us to learn--since the Holocaust, like, you know, matters--and he worked pretty hard at it.

One day he was talking about one of the Polish ghettos, about how they'd been reduced to eating horse meat, even though it's not kosher. He told us about the idea of pikuach nefesh, which he called "the saving of a life": circumstances where the value of human life outweighs the value of observing Jewish law. It was better that they should eat non-kosher meat than that they should starve.

The same concept arises in other cultural contexts, but I've always really liked that Judaism has a pithy term for it.

It's worth thinking about what you might be willing to do, to save a life.

Monday, March 14, 2016


In the manner of all smart kids when young and as-yet-un-smacked-down, J regularly graces us with his epigrammic declarations about the world. Often they are reasonable, given his point of view, and are only fallacious in the light of some information he could not have; other times they may or may not be correct, but pertain to some world I do not care about, such as Minecraft walkthroughs on YouTube. Mostly the declarations are not worth responding to, unless he transgresses on information he could easily learn, but doesn't, and which I (having acquired a high-quality education at no small time, effort, and expense) am able to troll him about.

Over the weekend he got around to scientific theories.

As with so much in our family, he knows the churn of scientific knowledge from They Might Be Giants, who covered the 1965 classic "Why Does The Sun Shine?":

But later, feeling compelled to update the science, they wrote "Why Does The Sun Really Shine?" for their 2009 kids' album, Here Comes Science!.

[TMBG has a gift for finding songs to cover that are completely consonant with the rest of their work: for example, it was only recently that I learned that "Istanbul Not Constantinople" only dates from 1953 (and that the official renaming of Constantinople was in 1930). Like that cover, the original "Why Does The Sun Shine?" is not so wildly different from the original.]

The boy gets a certain rantiness from his biological father, and was going on about how they teach a scientific theory, and then later someone disproves it, and they start teaching something else, and gee whiz it just seems silly to depend on any of it. All well and good, until he said "Eventually someone's going to disprove evolution": a misconception up with which I will not put.


"I mean, they'll have some other theory, because it just seems impossible that--"



"Not gonna happen."

The boy is rarely completely wrong, and on top of that I'm a nice parent, and also my epitaph could legitimately be "Well, it's complicated...", so I almost never flatly contradict him, and it really got his attention.

"If you read more nonfiction books full of facts"--a stock phrase in our house, coined by J years ago when he was annoyed about his available bedtime reading that evening being limited in genre--"you would know that evolution is probably the best-supported scientific theory the world has ever seen, and that since it appeared in 1859, lots of people have really, really hated it, but no one has ever found a better theory to fit all the evidence."

His version of "Huh, I had no idea" is to stare at you for a second while the gears turn and he stores the conversation verbatim for all time, then turn around to go back to eating his lunch.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Philosophy 101.

From May 29, 2015, I've been sharing this with people. The three of us had all come home in the car from something or other, and J told me about something, and I decided it was a boring conversation and I would make it more fun for us.
"Nope. I don't believe it exists."
"Of course it exists!"
"Well, I can't see it, therefore it doesn't exist."
"It still exists even if you can't see it!"
"Really. Someone needs to take a philosophy class. How would I know it exists if I can't see it?"
"Someone else can see it, it still exists."
"Sure, but then it only exists for them, not for anyone else. How would you know?"
"You're being silly."
"Am I? Look at my face."
[examines my face closely. look of wonder.]
"Whoooa you're *not* being silly."
I treasure that moment for a few reasons, not least of which is that J is both cynical, highly intelligent, and autistic, and looks of wonder are hard to come by around here.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

nothing good can come of feeding him.

J, at age 11, is well on his way to claiming his genetic birthright, which is to say that of being the size of a tree, or perhaps a black bear. It's unclear how gangly he'll be and for how long, but we don't expect he'll be under 6'4". He grows, in addition to taller, ever kinder, wiser, more empathic, and more aware of his own unique balance of strengths and deficits. He has actual friends, has made one friend all on his own with no parental assist, and he's disrupting class by talking with his classmates: music to the ears of the Asperger's parent.

He had a successful shadow day at an area private school! This is the first one that the school hasn't sent him home early from. Also unlike other shadow days, he was full of stories about all the interesting stuff they did. Normally the interesting part of his school day fits in a short sentence, so this is something to note. No telling if he'll get in, but this is progress.

J and I have had some major Dad time lately, which I value the way you're supposed to value these things. His biological father has been lowering the bar, but I am objectively awesome, and gentle and constructive where his father is...not. He has pushed and pulled and poked all these years, and I have still yelled at him exactly once (which stopped the bad behavior, but then required 20 minutes of reparative snuggling, so it wasn't all bad), so he feels justifiably safe with me. In addition to his using me as furniture--one of his signs of comfort and affection, signaling that you are an unthreatening part of his world, like furniture--we've fallen in lately with my reading Ready Player One to him at night. He was all nervous when we first came around to it.
"But, um...well, you probably won't read it, so never mind. Forget I said it."
"Why wouldn't I read it?"
"It's got bad words in it. Mama would filter them out."
"Well, I'm not going to do that. I thought you'd said you'd read it already."
"I have. I've read it like seven times. It's one of my favorite books in the history of ever."
"It seems a little odd to protect from words that you already know, and and have also already read in the context of the book. So let's try it and see."
(One of the special parenting features Anna and I pull off  is to have a bedrock unity of decision-making and boundaries, but different roles in the execution. Anna does everything as strict as she can manage (sometimes her patience is shot from dealing with the kid all. damn. day.), while I exercise broader discretions, if the boy can remember to ask me instead of freaking out. In the moment, I'm not sure the overall fairness makes us less infuriating.)

My reading met with his approval (it doesn't always), so it's been a Chris+John thing we do, and I am more frequently requested during this time of increased conflict with his father.

Far from our days when we learned there's only one Chris, the word "Chris" in our household has developed totemic associations of strength, reassurance, patience, a wicked sense of humor, and, of course, mind-blowing good looks.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

modern technology

The place we lived before the house had a built-in microwave, so we gave mine away. It wasn't a nice microwave, it had the simplest possible controls (a single dial) for my aging grandmother's sake. It warmed things by adding energy to the water molecules inside them, and that plus a door that closes is all you really need out of a microwave.

We've been living all this time without one, for one reason and another, but we've finally gotten to the point of needing to have easy foods around for zombified adults to eat, especially with me and lunch, and while you can of course heat things up in the countertop oven, it requires 30 minutes of planning ahead, which is mostly what we're trying to avoid for the zombified adults.

I had gone without a microwave for a while before, in the Dark Apartment of 2007-2008. I was cooking for myself constantly, engaged in one of the heights of my aikido and Zen practices, and planning 30 minutes ahead for dinner wasn't a problem. Eventually Nana moved into a nursing home back east, and I kept the microwave and toaster oven.

Now it's been 3 years without one, and I would just like to say that holy shit they are amazing.

I eat Trader Joe's Pork Buns sometimes. You can do them on the stove, boiling water (but not too much water) for some amount of time, always check to see if they're done, and the whole thing takes 20 minutes. For frozen pork buns. It's pretty rare that I can start a task 20 minutes ahead of time. Now it's 2 minutes. Frozen Indian food, in like 7 minutes instead of 40.

Once you know how they work and what it's reasonable to use them for, they really are that awesome. I'd forgotten.