Author Archives: thehandsomecamel

you’ll watch that when you’re thirty, like I did

[While scrolling through Netflix….]

Kid: “Dad, what is that?”

Dad: “Which one?”

Kid: “That one!”

Dad: “The one with the dogs? That’s the Phonics Farm.”

Kid: “No, that one — the one with the little boys.”

[Pointing to South Park.]

Dad: “That… is something you’ll watch when you’re much older.”

Kid: “Why?”

Dad: “Well… there’s a lot of stuff in that show…. Stuff that’s scary. Or inappropriate for little kids.”

Kid: [optimistically] “Or fun.”


this is just a short note to say that i have nothing left to teach you

Because last night, my beautiful son, you corrected me when I called a dimetrodon a dimorphodon, pointing out that the fin-backed toy dinosaur in my hand didn’t fly. And, indeed, if I can’t keep these two separate:

This is a dimorphodon.

This is a dimetrodon. Obviously.

then I’m clearly unqualified to tutor you in science of even the most basic, classificatory kind. If I can’t keep these straight, how will I remember more complicated things, like the difference between halogens and noble gases or whether radio spectrum is lower- or higher-frequency than microwave or how to apply the right-hand rule? God forbid I try to give you a clear, concise definition of fields.

We had a good run, but I think we’re done here. From now on you’d better ask your mother.

jellyfish mechanic

This is just a short post to memorialize “Jellyfish Mechanic,” who wasn’t with us long.

We went away to Big Bear for a few days recently. We stayed in a cabin that looked like it had been decorated sometime in the Sixties by Don Draper’s less successful brother, and, as always seems to be the case in “vacation rentals,” the cookware was a fossil record of cheap purchases by the owner, random inheritances, and odd selections by previous guests.

Since our kid doesn’t usually get to play in the kitchen at home, he was very curious about the cabinets, and he soon dug out, from among the many Teflon pans and non-matching lids, a collapsible steamer basket.

If you don’t know what that is, it’s one of those things that many people have and hardly anybody uses, in part because if you want to steam broccoli, you can just throw it in a saucepan with a small quantity of water at the bottom for a few minutes. The water keeps the broccoli from burning, and by the time the water is gone, you need to take that shit off the stove anyway, before it turns into an unpalatable gray mush.

But theoretically, you could also use a collapsible steamer basket inside the saucepan, and this would enable you to… also steam some broccoli. It would come out like this:

That’s what it looks like when the basket is open. But in its fully closed position, it looks more like this:

Which, if you are like our kid, you will notice looks a good bit like the domed top of a jellyfish.

So he called it a jellyfish right out of the gate. And because the only other toys he had with him were his plastic construction trucks, the jellyfish fell (pretty naturally) into the role of mechanic for the trucks, changing tires and performing oil changes as needed.

(This may have been because he had to go with me to the mechanic for a bit of mid-trip brake repair. As you can imagine, hanging out in the lobby with me for a couple of hours was incredibly tedious for him… but when the car went up on the lift, he was mesmerized.)

Of course, at the end of the trip we had to leave the steamer basket at the cabin, and we said some formal goodbyes to Jellyfish Mechanic, and there were stirring speeches, and we pinned some medals on him and gave him a nice pension and promised to always remember his service. So I thought I would write this down, so we don’t forget, and so we could tell H. the story when he’s older. As St. Luke said,

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses…. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

reading Genesis to a toddler

So recently my mom visited, and she took us to this beautiful exhibit at the Skirball Center, telling the story of Noah and the flood in a very gentle and child-appropriate way:

They do this, of course, by largely skipping over all the stuff about wickedness and how God regretted making man on the earth. This is probably the sensible way to do it. And even leaving that stuff out, there’s a pretty good story in the tale of Noah — one in which Noah is aware that a flood is coming and builds a ship to save all the animals. It’s kind of a soft story — man versus nature, which never really has the moral bite of man versus himself or man versus man — but it’s got a decent moral about environmental stewardship and the value of hard work.

That works fine in the vague context of a museum display that focuses entirely on cool sculptures of animals made from recycled materials. It’s more difficult when you’re reading to your child from Peter Spier’s excellent illustrated version of the story. How, for instance, do you explain the pages where the animals who weren’t selected to board the Ark stand outside hopefully as the rains come?

It’s to his credit as an artist that Spier doesn’t shy away from what’s terrible in the story (on later pages you see the cities of man at the bottom of a deep sea), but it’s a hard thing to explain to a two-year-old.

I’ve written before about my moral (and, um, logistical) qualms with the story of Noah’s Ark. But it’s a whole new experience to read the story to your child and come face to face with just how strange and bleak it really is.

This may be the story in Genesis that children are most familiar with — I’d wager more of them recognize the familiar boat, which always seems to have a giraffe peeking out, than images of Adam and Eve (let alone, say, the Tower of Babel). Even Jesus is probably not quite so iconic for children. Yet this story is one of the least comforting in all of Biblical literature, a story of a god so short-sighted He’s disappointed by the creation and so disconnected — or nihilistic — that He’s willing to violently drown all living things (including children) in order to start over.

Yet children, most of them, don’t seem to care. And why should they? Responsible adults have, sensibly, softened the story for them, playing down the angry, frustrated god-figure and playing up the giraffes. Kids like giraffes. They like elephants and zebras and snakes and otters and monkeys. Together, adults and kids take a terrifying story about a hateful Father who kills His children and make it into a wacky story about a cheery, crowded boat and where you put all the poop.

I assume that by the time we get around to reading about Abraham And Isaac, it will be a very silly story about a mountaintop game of hide-and-seek that gets out of hand.

eleven 100%-verified facts about Vermont

Vermont is our fantasy future home. But often, when we tell people this, they screw up their faces and ask why. So I sat down and did some research to explain the appeal based on real facts and hard science. I hope you find this useful — especially if you got here by googling “facts about Vermont.”

1) All citizens of Vermont are employees of NPR. In many cases, however, the position is purely honorary.
2) Vermont leads the nation in dreamcatcher exports.
3) Vermont is the only state in the union with more turtles than people. They actually have three seats in the legislature.
4) The tallest building in Vermont is only 16 floors. The deepest, however, goes nearly half a mile into the earth.
5) The Vermont school system teaches a mix of traditional academics and the alchemical sciences. Vermont was, however, the first state to officially remove “phlogiston” from its periodic tables.
6) The woman who wrote “Mahna, Mahna” was from Vermont. She lived in a yurt with Philip Glass for eight months during one particularly brutal winter.
7) In Vermont they serve beer at the grocery store. Just something nice for you while you’re shopping.
8) Most ovens in Vermont will go up to 600 degrees. However, in a display of Yankee modesty and frugality, nobody ever turns them higher than 500.
9) Ask any Vermonter about Ethan Allen and the drunken maple-tapper. Go on. Just ask.
10) There is a small Quebecois separatist cell in Burlington. In the event that Quebec ever actually secedes, they are to seize the waterfront and await further instructions.
11) Vermont borders seventeen other states. However, the only passable borders are with New Hampshire and Tennessee.

not enough people

Bear and Grandpa

A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family. It’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit.

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty or how handsome it was.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby…?

[Y]ou take George and Laura Bush, who imagine themselves as a brave, clean-cut little couple. They are surrounded by an enormous extended family, what we should all have — I mean judges, senators, newspaper editors, lawyers, bankers. They are not alone. That they are members of an extended family is one reason they are so comfortable. And I would really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families — a large group of people they could call on for help.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

That was one of the readings at our wedding, and it has only gotten truer since.

My parents and my sister came to visit this past week, the week after I did the law review write-on, which in turn was the week after the end of exams. In other words, they arrived after six weeks of sheer terror, awfulness, and relentless grind. And of course, when it’s a grind for us, it’s a grind for the kid, too. Six to seven hours a day maintaining a cheerful attitude at daycare, plus another seven or eight hours with adults who are cranky, tired, worried about their career prospects, and desperately in need of some quiet time.

And then in come the grandparents (and the aunt), arriving ex machina like Tolkien’s convenient eagles to turn the tide of the battle. They arrive on airplanes like normal people, and you don’t realize that they are actually magical beings who can transform the terribly vulnerable survival unit back into a family — a rollicking, chattering, happy mob that can take on anything. And the kid (“Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”) — finally has enough people to talk to, enough people to read him stories and play silly little word games with him in the back seat and keep track of his truck and his plastic rake and his seashell; enough that his parents can breathe; enough that we can be the parents we’d always like to be.

After a week, of course, you remember that families, being people, also come with problems. You don’t agree about everything and you’ve heard each other’s jokes too many times and being there in person it’s impossible to ignore that everybody’s getting older and you don’t have a plan yet for how to take care of each other. Because most Americans, unlike Ibos and Bushes, don’t have 600 people to look out for them — and even the people we do have are perilously spread out. We have a vague notion of moving to New England in a few years to be closer to my parents, but (a) we don’t yet know how we’ll do it, and (b) that still leaves my other sister and her family and Elana’s entire clan spread out across the globe.


But it was a good week, anyway.

World’s smallest Ibo tribe visits the Watts Towers

a few cute things I wanted to write down

This is just a brief note to memorialize some verbal mistakes our kid makes that have either already faded or will fade soon. For some reason it feels important to record them.

He used to say “mahkler” for “marker.” Not anymore.

He is phasing out the charming “heliclopter.” It used to be very consistent; now he gets “helicopter” out correctly about half the time.

Finally, the most charming and baroque of the three — for several months now, whenever he asks for water, he has asked for some variant of “water when you cough.” More recently, as his pronouns have come online, he asks for “water when I cough.” This odd little tic is so consistent that if you say “Would you like some water?” he will politely but firmly add, “…when you cough.” Occasionally he drops it for a day or two (and once, in a burst of creativity, he amended it to “water when I’m thirsty”). But mostly it’s just “Dad, I need some water when you cough.”