Happy To Be Here

The first thing you need to know about secure psychiatric facilities is that their bathrooms smell strongly of pee.

That may not seem remarkable to you. Many bathrooms smell of pee. But the facility in which I was a guest this time last year was notably immaculate in every other way. A lot of time and attention went towards making it clean and welcoming. Yet the private bathrooms — one to a two-person dorm room, no lock — always smelled of pee. That's because there's an elaborate metal cage built around the workings of the toilet, like one of those Hannibal Lecter masks. This makes the toilets very difficult to clean. Hence, the constant smell of pee.

The people who run the facility protect the toilets like that so that you won't disassemble them and use the pieces to hurt yourself. My wife would tell them that this concern dramatically overestimates my home improvement skills, but I guess they want to be careful. It seems to me that if you take the time and effort to disassemble a toilet with your bare hands, you're committed enough to be allowed to do to yourself as you see fit. To date my view has not prevailed in the psychiatric community.

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The Allure Of Unquestioned Premises: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"

Smart people are a-dime-a-dozen. Very smart people are common. Though geniuses are statistically uncommon, humanity's surging tide produces tens of thousands of them in every generation.

But even geniuses are people, and people tend to play the hand that is dealt to them, or else discard just a few cards to draw new ones. Few question the rules of the game or why they should play it at all.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts a rare genius who questioned the premise of the game. It's terrific and moving. I bought it, downloaded it, and watched it on my iPad on a plane trip, all of which seemed very appropriate. It was well worth the time and attention and money.

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A Story About Low-Key Policing and Corduroy

A couple of people have asked me to explain an odd corduroy reference I made on Twitter last night.

Yes, arguably corduroy references are inherently odd. But this one involved blood, and police officers, so it caused some inquiry.

The facts were these: one evening in the late 1980s I was at a friend's house in my home town. Were were on the low roof of his garage. Alcohol was present. We were singing. Neither of us had very good singing voices. That may be why I felt obligated to accompany us on my friend's mother's accordion. That is what we had back then, instead of autotune. If you want to be unpleasantly technical I am not familiar with how an accordion is operated, at least as narrowly defined by uncharitable social convention. However, I believe that unbridled enthusiasm can make up for lack of formal training in many pursuits. There is evidently a difference of popular opinion on this point as it pertains to playing the accordion on a roof at one in the morning.

Eventually a neighbor called the cops, and a police cruiser drove up the street. The officer directed his spotlight on us. We did not stop singing, and I did not stop playing the accordion. Wikipedia explains that intertia is the resistance of a physical object to a change in its state of motion; inertia applies to playing the accordion on a roof. I was committed to it is what I am trying to convey. I remember the officer stood there motionless for several moments, as if evaluating the course of his life that had brought him to this particular circumstance. Eventually he used his car-mounted loudspeaker to say, firmly and slowly,


I did: not because I had lost inertia or enthusiasm, but because this struck me as so very funny at the time that I doubled over in laughter, dropped the accordion, and rolled off the low, sloped roof into a patch of cacti in my friend's yard. My friend's mother was well before her time with respect to sustainable, drought-resistant landscaping.

The police offer turned off his spotlight, climbed slowly into his car, and drove away. He had accomplished his mission — the neighbors were no longer bothered by someone on a roof playing the accordion — and no further exercise of law enforcement power was warranted.

It took a while for my friend to find me; he was somewhat confused when I abruptly vanished from view on the roof, and for a brief moment he was not certain whether I had fled or possibly been arrested. Eventually, though, he helped me into his kitchen. I was wearing corduroy pants. The cactus needles had driven many durable corduroy threads into my leg, and we sat in the dim light of the kitchen, me in my underwear, picking threads out of my leg, each leaving a disappointing trickle of blood and a puff of corduroy fuzz. This sounds more traumatic that it was; bear in mind that it was the 1980s.

In the years since, I have thought about the police officer. I'm pretty sure he's the same one who used to ticket my late mother occasionally as she veered down Descanso Drive, engine racing in second gear, bringing home take-out to an impatient family. These days, I would likely be arrested, or at least put in the back of the police car for a while. There are formalities to respect and care to be taken and safety to be enforced and there might be an inquiry or a lawsuit if a police officer doesn't fully investigate in such circumstances. But back then, the officer was content to stop the noise, and having stopped it, drive away into a cool evening scented of skunk and honeysuckle.

I have not played the accordion again, although I am not ruling it out.

Popehat Parenting Poll: Monitoring Texting and Email By Middle Schooler?

My eldest is about to start seventh grade at my old school. He now has his mother's used iPhone, and texts quite a bit.

We monitor internet use on the phone (we have a program that sends a weekly email — he's gotten busted for watching YouTube after lights out, but not for content), and reserve a right to review his email and texts. My wife exercises this right — the boy ducks his head and rushes from the room, embarrassed, probably because he's texting a few girls and has started to realize they're flirting with him.

So: how much do you monitor tech usage by that age group? After this question, I will go back to decrying the NSA.

A Family Research Project

Years ago, my aunt found a picture of my grandfather's Harvard baseball team.


This picture is probably from 1937 or 1938. That's my grandfather, Paul K. Doyle, in the middle row on the far left. I look a bit like him; I got the Doyle nose and lip.

Recently my aunt digitized the picture, and here it is.

I've started to research the team. I wrote to the Harvard Archives to see if they have a roster so I can put names to faces. I wonder — what happened to these young men? How many went to war like my grandfather? How many didn't come back? How many yet live? How many of us are walking about, descended from these men and trying to live by their example?

I'll look into it, and write it up.

Edit: as usual, our readers are awesome. Grifter points out the guy in the middle is Tony Lupien.

Hippity Hoppity

So I'm sitting in the overflow chapel for Easter services. Evan and Abby are ungracefully with me, halfheartedly drawing on children's bulletins.

ABBY: Daddy: there's nothing to draw.

[Older couple in front of us smiles at her fondly]

ME: Why don't you draw the Easter Bunny?

ABBY: The Easter Bunny is creepy.

ME: Then why don't you draw the Easter Bunny menacing a village?

ABBY: [With an unsettling degree of enthusiasm]: Yeeaaahhhhhhhh.

[Older couple turns back towards the front, looking alarmed.]

Some minutes later, Abby has produced a drawing of a Godzilla-sized Easter Bunny credibly menacing a rustic village, with some visibly alarmed villagers.

ME: Oh, very nice, sweetie. Look at the villagers fleeing!

[Older couple is now staring ramrod-straight ahead not looking not looking not looking]

ABBY: I know, right?

ME: Look, Evan. Didn't she do a good job on the villagers?

EVAN: [newly turned 12, and suffused with ennui regarding each and every aspect of human existence] Eeeeuuurrrrggggghhhhhhh.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter

Part of the Conversations With Kids series.