Monthly Archives: May 2011

oh the sweet taste of a madeleine


I am sitting on the carpet, staring up at an impossibly high ceiling, where giant brown beams criss-cross. My Aunt Joanie and Uncle Cliff stand over me – she on the left, he on the right – and my uncle isn’t wearing a shirt. He has a hairy chest and smiles, talking to my Aunt Joanie while looking at me. I am sixteen months old.


my dad, my mom, Aunt Joanie, Uncle Cliff with my bros Kent, Steve & cousin Dave circa ’63

For a long time, neuroscientists thought toddlers couldn’t have any serious long-term memories before the age of three, but most of that research has been upended – you can certainly have them, but they can be eradicated pretty quickly. I’ve always kept Lucy’s memories afloat from the time she began speaking, but now that she has turned six, I’m interested in which things are actually going to make the cut.

I have no idea why an odd, seemingly-uninteresting tableau of my aunt and uncle is my First Memory, but the details surrounding were verified later by both parents and Joanie, and the beams in the ceiling date the memory to a specific trip. Joanie and Cliff’s house had exactly those beams at the top of an open-space living room, and we visited them once in that house before they moved.

All things bein’ equal, I’ve got a pretty good memory of the distant past, and can recall vivid details of age of 2 and 3. If I live long enough, I could be one of the last humans with visceral (albeit vague, wispy and toddler-ish) memories of the 1960s. But that still leaves entire swaths – like age 6 to 9 – which might as well not have existed.

There’s something fascinating in there somewhere, but for research’s sake, let me leave you with this question: what is your first, somewhat verifiable memory – and how old were you at the time?


rockin’ the ’60s

anti-emetic gets an emoticon >:C~~~



and what did YOU do for the Memorial Day weekend?


we went to a fancy resort in Santa Barbara to see Michelle, Jon and baby Andrew!


(oh, and Daddo got strep for his birthday, and Lucy got a stomach virus and threw up for 24 hours, but it’s cool)

the windy city is mighty pretty


I might say I don’t like to repeat myself on this blog, but a quick search proves that to be delusional, so I must cop to something: today being Oprah’s last taping, I’m going to retell the story of The Day I Was on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Along with an addendum. Anyway…

It’s April 1994, and I’m 26 years old and just getting back from the usual afternoon game of hoops at the Lodge. The phone rings and it’s the lady in charge of booking at the Oprah Winfrey Show – she says they’re doing a whole hour on the movie “Reality Bites,” there’s going to be some “stars” there, and they want me – as Official Spokesman of Generation X – to be on the show.

The year previous, we’d put out the 13th-GEN book, and that particular month I was one of sixteen writers that had put together Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation. The anthology didn’t sell that well, but it was on President Clinton’s booklist, and we had all sorts of great parties when it came out.

So I said yes, and two weeks later they flew me to Chicago and put me up in a swanky hotel. By airtime, it became clear that this show was no longer going to be about “Reality Bites” nor was it going to have Ethan Hawke or Winona Ryder as guests: it was going to be a Baby Boomers vs. Generation X slugfest and whomever had the most snark was destined to win.

The Oprah show, at that point, had two “green rooms” – in one, they stuck a bunch of Baby Boomers in their 40s, and in our dressing room, we had a cool chick from an indie bookstore in Atlanta, a wonderful 25-year-old schoolteacher from Missouri (hello, Melanie Finnell!), a 26-year-old junior exec at American Airlines, a very shy girl that ditched college to be a kayak instructor, and me.

Nervous as hell, we all began to blather at each other, and in the hour leading up to the show, had the best “generational” discussion I’ve ever had – honest, heartbreaking, funny, and precisely the sort of thing that should have taken place in front of the cameras. Obviously, they were keeping us separate from the Boomers so that the fireworks would happen on stage, but the strategy backfired.

The show starts, and those not on stage watched the action on the monitor in the green room. First up: the American Airlines guy had to go head-to-head with some lady who had been in an email war with him for months. Next, the indie bookstore chick had to justify her existence to a “self-made millionaire” in his late 40s whose only expertise seemed to be getting Reagan-era economic facts completely wrong.

Then came the schoolteacher who said she didn’t want to be a schoolteacher anymore, with a round of opprobrium from the audience. Worse yet, the shy kayak instructor basically got booed out of the studio for not “getting a real job.” Leading the charge were two African-American women in the front row, who said their lives had been fraught with hardship, and that all whiny Generation Xers should probably kill themselves and save America the trouble.

I mean, how do you complain about your rotten job, lack of real romance, and pervading depression when there are two ladies who “clean toilets in Toledo” every time you say anything? You can’t, actually.

Finally, they called me out to the stage, along with Susan Mitchell, who edited “The Boomer Report.” All I could think was, “thank God they mentioned my book.” Oprah’s head was very, very large. The lights were amazingly intense, the audience surrounds you like a Roman gladiator amphitheater, and the whole energy of the place is positively nerve-fraying. The last thing the producer tells you before you go on stage is, “You are about to be seen by 10 million people in 43 countries.” I wanted my mommy.

no, you’re right – that haircut was ghastly even in 1994

I was hoping that the argument would turn into something intelligent now that us “experts” were on stage – remember, this was days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide – but it only got worse. More name-calling between audience members, silly irrelevant stories about young hardship, sprinkled with a few confusing statistics to keep things misleadingly sociological. Half-baked tangents were swirling around me, the audience was getting riled up, I felt my hair start to get large, the lights pounded… when suddenly Oprah turns to me and says “Ian.” My stomach tightened. “What do you think about all of this?”

And for a split second, I’ve never had less to say in my life. In a mad rush, my brain wanted to say “I think this is the most pathetic argument I’ve ever eavesdropped on in my life,” but I managed to tell them a nice paragraph full of bullshit. Basically that the two generations can’t play tit-for-tat because it’s an argument that nobody ever wins. And that dreams are not transferable across eras – what causes me great pain may seem like a luxury to you, but I still feel pain nonetheless. And that it’s okay to be a kayak instructor.

Oprah said, “I don’t really get what you mean,” then cut to the last commercial. And that was it. There were 40 seconds left in the show, they started playing that Oprah “time’s up” music, and I couldn’t believe it. Oprah herself wondered aloud if they had accomplished anything, and I got the feeling it had been one of their worst, most pointless shows. I buried my head in my hands.

They unhooked the mike from my flannel shirt and I wandered off the stage in a daze, very angry, very confused and wondering why they would ship us across America to embarrass us like that in front of 43 other countries. And as us Gen Xers wandered out of the studio together into the cold Chicago wind, we saw the Boomers – including the women who had “cleaned toilets in Toledo” – all drive off in a limo together. The ladies had been a plant.

So we spent the rest of the day walking around downtown Chicago. We felt like we’d been used, like we’d been reduced to the same idiots who sit in those very chairs on stage in years past, the transvestite mothers who eat their children. We’d sold our private moments to Oprah for a chance to suckle at the great giant teat of the American underbelly, and we were all horrified.

Four hours later, we were still doing tequila shots at the hotel bar.


I should mention a few things here. First off, this was just weeks before the “secret gay crush” episode of erstwhile-Oprah-rival Jenny Jones led to a murder and a general soul-searching of daytime tabloid television. Oprah herself seemed genuinely nice, and I don’t think it’s an accident she started dedicating her shows to Dr. Phil-twinged self-empowerment soon thereafter. She evolved, and that’s how she managed to stay so umbilically-connected with normal Americans for so many decades.

The other thing is this: after seeing myself on television, I realized I should never be on any kind of film or video ever again. I was so chagrined at the way I looked that I awoke from wisdom tooth surgery two weeks later, convinced that Oprah had turned me into a frog with gelatinous gills. It took my mom 2 hours to talk me down from my post-op nightmare haze.

Which is fine. A man’s gotta know his limitations. There’s also the story of how my Oprah episode was pre-empted by Fat Teen Week for everyone not in the Mountain Time Zone, but there’s only so much self-plagiarism I can muster before I start feeling like an old farting uncle who keeps repeating the same stories until he’s eventually just left in the car for the holidays.

survey SAYS



Do y’all remember the final “fast money” round on “Family Feud”? Richard Dawson would drag one of the family members to the front of the stage, the camera would pull in tight, and they’d get five survey questions to answer in 15 seconds. You know the drill:

“Name something you keep in a glove compartment.”

“Which month does a pregnant woman start showing?”

“Name a popular kind of pie.”

Say you’re playing it right now, and must answer the following five questions with about the same speed as a Feud contestant. Don’t worry if you repeat someone else’s answer. Go!

1. Name something besides caffeine to wake yourself up midday.

2. Worst-sounding sexually-transmitted disease.

3. Name a profoundly boring color.

4. Name something you don’t want your significant other to find.

5. A rude nickname for breasts.


oh fer heaven’s sake


I’m not offended by much – remember, I was the one who carbonated my urine several times during the ’80s – but again, I have to be a wet blanket and say that all this talk of The Rapture® and The Apocalypse™ is offensive, boring, and gives a bunch of crazy-ass fuckshirts way more attention than they deserve. No offense to commenters and other friends who have mentioned the meme in good-natured fun, but seriously, the media frenzy over this one is sickening.

Yes, I’ve said this before, and YES, I take drugs for anxiety and YES I was once trapped by apocalyptic dread, which means this kind of shit strikes me at a level more acute than your average pussywillow, but aren’t any of you embarrassed? Doesn’t this kind of thing give you Stupid Feeling©?

I have a sense of humor about pretty much everything in the world. I will pretty much stop functioning if anyone farts. I laughed at something my brother said about “Schindler’s List”. And though I pretended otherwise, I knew both jokes about the Challenger explosion the day it happened. But this Rapture stuff is utterly super-creepy to me and just makes me want to go hug Lucy.

Perhaps it is, like Morrissey sang, “too close to home and too near the bone” for me to think clearly on’t. Time passes and roads are paved over hell, but you never quite get the brimstone out of your nostrils.

old fart brigade


So, easy code word question today: how long do you plan to live? In other words, when you look into the deep twilight of the end of your life, how old are you when it happens?

i might have been there, might have done that


One of the commenters on the previous entry wrote (and I’m paraphrasing liberally) that all parents say “childrearing was the most rewarding, best thing I’ve ever done” because we all make the best of the narrative we’ve chosen. Besides the possible exception of Alois and Klara Hitler, Joyce and Lionel Dahmer, and the parents of იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი (among others), that’s absolutely correct.

There has to be a word for the human desire for things to work out in a way that means all other ways would have been wrong. It must be a defense mechanism from far back in our DNA, a “no regrets” escape clause that doesn’t allow us the painful luxury of sensing the outcome of all our other untaken choices. We define our past and present with proclamations like “it was meant to be”, and “I can’t imagine it any other way”, even though it doesn’t take much effort to see how fluid and fragile the writing on those stones really was.

Occasionally, though, we do sense an alternate reality. We visit a coffee shop in another town, or we see a person across the subway platform, and some tiny portal opens for a second. I sometimes think it’s a peek into our brother (or sister) selves, inhabiting a different timeline. It could even be where déjà vu comes from, a foreign yet familiar sense, not that we’d been there before, but that our other self is there right now.

We have to believe this other self is happy, it goes about its world the way we do ours, feeling inexpressibly blessed for having made all the right decisions. It has to feel exceptional, almost predetermined – as do we, for how could we go on knowing some other reality is having all the fun?



The incredible Tammy O. brought up something very powerful in the comments section a few days ago when discussing how people with kids treat those without. In fact, I’d go further: besides issues dealing with race and homophobia, I don’t think there’s a bigger chasm in America than the one between The Voluntarily Childless and The Breeders.

Having been both, I feel qualified to make the following sweeping generalizations:

• Neither the Voluntarily Childless nor The Breeders have any idea what the other is all about. Those without kids look at parents of small children and assume they’ve taken some horrible drug that has made them humorless, gossipy, overly precious, uncurious, unadventurous, haggard, whiny shut-ins. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, we used to speak of “those with children” like they had some kind of incurable disease certain to doom the friendship.

Likewise, parents look at their friends without kids and see them as enduring lives half-lived; as vaguely self-absorbed dilettantes overly concerned with their lifestyle, endlessly traveling and doing far too much drinking, still living the catch-as-catch-can in apartments that still have the faint smell of college.

In other words, most parents have completely forgotten what they, themselves, were like only six or seven years before – and those opting out of childbearing look at formerly close friends as though they’ve completely fucking lost their minds.

• Parents are frequently guilty as charged. If your childless friends secretly think you’ve given up on embracing the larger world, it’s most likely because you have. Having a kid means often being stuck in your house, but many parents find that’s the excuse they’ve been looking for their entire lives. You can get out of anything if you’re a parent; simply start a sentence with “My kid blah blah blah” and everyone’s eyes start to glaze over, and they can’t get rid of you quick enough.

It’s true that parenting is hard, and you need to possess an inordinate amount of energy if you’re going to raise a child and still raise hell, but it’s also true that many parents simply shut down vast quadrants of their lives, and a few great things get thrown out with the bathwater.

• The Voluntarily Childless don’t owe you an explanation, even though they frequently give one anyway. If you’re a healthy young woman under the age of 43 – or better yet, also married/partnered with someone else – America demands to know when you’re going to squeeze out a yard monster. If you’ve made the decision to not have children, there’s always the tiniest tinge of judgment.

The pressure and expectation of breeding is so great that two things invariably happen: first off, the childless woman is forced to have a well-rehearsed dictum, strategically phrased in a way to get you off their back as gently and quickly as possible. The other is this – because having kids is so assumed, you can also assume that the woman who decides not to have kids has given it more thought than you can imagine.

• Annoying Breeders actually mean well. Even though they can be ham-fisted about it, the reason parents want their childless friends to have kids is mostly innocent. They just want companionship on the ride, brotherhood in the experience, a shared sense of the journey. They don’t want to be parents alone. It’s the same reason people who get married want their friends to get married too: they’re saying “please don’t make me do this by myself!”

Also, if I’ve ever told you that you ought to have kids, it’s likely because I think you’d make a fantastic mom and dad, and the world needs you. But I can be rather sentimental, magnanimous and prolix after a few drams.

• The Voluntarily Childless don’t mention their pets because they have no perspective, they do it because they’re trying to relate. When parents tell a story or a situation about their child to a person without kids, you’d be surprised how many times the childless person will bring up a similar story about their pets. Parents find this endlessly inapt, partially because they’ve forgotten what pets used to mean to them. But mostly, parents should be thankful someone sat through their fuckin’ stories in the first place.

• For the most part, parents in our generation aren’t driven by reflected glory, they’re trying to fix something long broken. You’d think those of us in Gen X (if you don’t mind me using the term) would’ve remembered to be cool, even in the throes of parenthood. You’d think we spent enough time outside the mainstream, cynically looking in on all brotherhoods and idealism, and mistrusting them completely, to buy into Babies ‘R’ Us.

But there is one element stronger than disdain, and that is redemption. Lots of us came from broken families with horrible divorces, parents who were distracted or absent, growing up in schools that hadn’t yet fully learned the lessons of Waldorf, Reggio, Montessori or Columbine. I know many of my peers decided their childhood was free but shitty, and they were bloody well going to make their kids’ childhood safe and fun. We were going to be present. Problem is, that is tiring.

The Breeders and The Voluntarily Childless just need to keep their perspective limber. Everyone is doing the best they can with the path they’ve chosen. Do I think being a Daddo is the best job I’ve ever had? Yes. Is our daughter the absolute best thing in our lives? Yes. Is every second, even the miserable ones, totally worth it? Yes! Is it for everybody? Nope.


tales from the salt mines


I’d like to start out your weekend with two emails my brother Sean sent to the family over the last two days. We all send each other missives that range from the mundane to the sublime, but every so often one of us releases a cri de coeur built to last. Sean has topped himself again, on his birthday, no less.

All you need to know is that Barnaby is Sean & Jordi’s 4-year-old boy, and Marlena is their baby girl about to turn one.


From: Sean Williams

Date: May 11, 2011 12:27:52 PM PDT

Subject: Endless

It’s all very nice, being a father and all, but sometimes I just want to get the car going downhill and then run and lie down in front of it.

Barnaby is really lovely, except for the vast amount of time that he’s just insufferable. It’s really cute that he thinks he draws L’s correctly, and that everyone else in the world draws them wrong – except it isn’t, it’s just awful. Once a day for the last three days, I’ve thought to myself, “I have to pull his pants down and spank him,” and when the thought occurs to me, I start to walk away, it’s all I can do.

One time we were at a park five blocks from the house, and I just thought, “well, everyone in the neighborhood knows him, he knows how to get home, and if I stay here, I’m gonna spank him. So I’m leaving”, and I did. About two minutes later he came running up next to me, screaming at me for being mean, crying at the top of his lungs, passing other women I know who were staring at me like I’m the biggest asshole in the world.

Right now, Marlena is on her second nap of the day. The first nap was EXACTLY an hour and forty minutes of her screaming at the top of her lungs, followed by an hour and ten minutes of nap. As I type this, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs, almost horse, standing up in her crib, because I put her down. Last night, she screamed for less than half an hour, so if the pattern continues, I’m in for another hour at least.

And she’s so physical, so determined, that she’s standing up in her crib before I can leave the room. I’m doing the Ferber method, one minute, two minutes, three minutes, five, seven, eight, ten, ten, ten, ten, ten… and on and on. So, every ten minutes I go in there and calm her down, and then, before I can get out of the room, she standing up and screaming, choking, breath-catching screaming that fills my entire head.

Barnaby was running around with other kids, and I told him not to grab Augie. And then he grabbed him, and Augie came and told on him, and I told them to work it out, and I told Barnaby to stop. Then he did it again, then it happened again, then I told him again. Then he did it again, then it happened again, then I told him again. I grabbed his arm and told him he was going home, and he crumpled to the sidewalk and started screaming at the top of his lungs, trying so hard to cry that he eventually cried. In front of school, surrounded by three moms I know, six moms who know me and eight moms who think I’m the father who doesn’t know how to raise children.

And the thing is I DON’T FUCKING CARE. I don’t fucking care if he gives Augie Indian Burns, Augie should learn how to fucking deal with it. I don’t care if Barnaby goes to school at all, I don’t care if Marlena never sleeps. Am I under the impression that if she sleeps now, somehow things will be better later? They’re just gonna be this fucking bad, I’ve got a four year old that PROVES it doesn’t matter how hard I try to do all of this utterly inorganic nonsense, I’m still gonna have a kid that everyone else thinks doesn’t measure up.

I just have this police state voice going on in my head all the time about how I haven’t done enough, haven’t been enough of a father, aren’t teaching them, watching too much TV, not forcing them to eat. If I have one more motherfucking parent tell me “well, I just MAKE him eat what I put in front of him”, as I silently seethe and think, “yes, and I’m sure you don’t have a kid who will vomit the entire contents of his stomach on the table just to prove a point,” I’m gonna fucking explode.

For some reason, I’m trying to FORCE Barnaby to eat his hot dog before he gets any fruit, because… I DON’T KNOW. I DON’T KNOW WHY. Isn’t a hot dog made from the sluicings off the killing floor?

Anyway, my ten minutes are up. I’m gonna go lay her down again.


From: Sean Williams

Date: May 12, 2011 7:43:43 AM PDT

Subject: RE: Endless

Going back and reading what I wrote just now… I’m amazed there’s noun-verb agreement. Really, I don’t think the tires were quite out of the mud when I started typing.

I think one of the things that I was feeling so lost about is that there’s simply nothing that works for one kid that also works for the other. There is a particular strain of single-mindedness in our family that is remarkable mostly because it only shows up in a handful of us, so it’s really easy to spot. Sometimes it’s seen as a virtue, and sometimes it’s mocked (mostly because it’s a virtue the rest of us wish we could summon).

So, Marlena is hellbent, utterly. She’s been furious for three days because she’s pretty close to walking, except SHE’S NOWHERE NEAR WALKING. So she pulls herself up on stuff, starts shuffling her feet, takes a nosedive, and then screams as she pulls herself up again. Endlessly. She can’t believe she isn’t walking yet. This morning she pulled herself up on a bench, leaned her head back and screamed at the ceiling. Because she wants to let go of the bench, walk to the door, go to the subway and ride the N to the UN building where she’s pretty sure she’s the Secretary General.

And on the other side, Barnaby is completely amorphous. His understanding of what’s happening, what he’s capable of, what the world is, is totally fluid, and based wholly on assumption rather than evidence. This morning he started yelling at me because I told him he had to pee and change his clothes before we go downstairs, and he started insisting that he NEVER pees in the morning. Meanwhile, not only does he pee every morning, but every single person on the planet pees every morning, barring serious illness.

His letter L’s are just one example of his relentless absurdity, and all of it is pure contrarianism. His “3” is not only the least efficient way to write a 3, in the end, it actually looks NOTHING like a three. It looks like a dead bush with six branches.

And I get it, it’s developmental, he’s going to say no to everything, because he’s feeling socially and intellectually blind, so he’s putting up his hands to feel where the walls are, and the only way to feel for the walls is to push.

But I simply don’t know how to confront him when he insists that I have baby teeth and he has grown up teeth – an argument so insane that I simply stopped having my half of it right away, which led to him yelling about how I wasn’t answering him. He has gotten more time outs for being rude than he has for being insane… I mean, I don’t even care if he’s insane, that’s fine, if he wants to insist that his remote control car is also a stegosaurus, I’m not even gonna correct him, it’s just difficult to know how to deal with him screaming rudely about it.

Marlena’s relentless need to perfect things, and Barnaby’s complete acceptance of himself make things dizzying to police. When Barnaby was a baby, we could say “Don’t grab the wires” and he’d be all, “Oh. Okay. I’ll play with this empty bottle and pretend it’s a wire!”

But with Marlena, you could pull her away twenty times, she’ll dig her feet in and scramble right back, until you put the wires out of reach, at which point she’ll scramble, look up and HOLLER, fist in the air, purple. And when Marlena points at the puffs, and I give her puffs, she then eats puffs. If Barnaby asks for a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether or not he’ll eat it, because he might look at it and decide that it’s yucky.

So… anyway. As I told Michelle, you get to the end of your rope as a parent, only to discover that you’ve got more rope than you ever imagined. The real problem is that yesterday was my birthday, and even at 41, you kinda think “well, today will at least be average, or maybe slightly better!” so when it’s a day riddled with time outs and screaming babies taking nose-dives out of the crib, it becomes a tough pill to swallow. But I think I was just wallowing a little bit, and I appreciate being able to do so here.



the cousins, Easter 2011: Andrew, Lucy, Barnaby, Marlena