Overheard: a conversation between a mom and her son

On Sunday night while I was waiting at the corner of 34th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan for the bus to Philadelphia I overheard a conversation between a mother and her son that reminded me of conversations I used to have with my mom.

The son was in college and had just finished for the summer. He had a thick beard and was dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeve athletic shirt. The mom was in her late-forties, short, and neatly put together. She didn’t look young, but she didn’t yet show any signs of middle age.

The mom asked her son one question after another, mostly about his friends. “How’s so and so doing,” she’d say. Or she’d give him an update on some family friend. “Did you know that Jess Kasenbaum is going to medical school?”

The son’s answers were short and generic. “He’s doing fine,” or “Same as always,” or, “Oh, good for Jess.” The whole time he fiddled with his smart phone. In most conversations his responses would have been taken as a sign that he didn’t really want to talk. But the mom either didn’t get the hint or she chose to ignore it, and the son seemed content to go on giving half-answers.

The second aspect of their conversation that struck me was the son’s disposition: He acted like he knew a lot more than his mom did. At one point while we waited a homeless man walked the bus line handing out copies of The Onion that he’d unpacked from the newspaper box around the corner. The son said he’d already read that issue but he took a copy for his mom and, after a minute of digging in his backpack, handed the man what looked to be about 30 cents. “You’ll like this, it’s really funny,” he said to his mom, in the same tone that a parent might use to cajole his kid into eating vegetables: “Eat these, they’re good for you.”

I remembered feeling that same flush of cultural superiority towards my mom whenever I introduced her to new music, or explained what instant messaging was, or helped her read the NYC subway map.

The two of them talked about more serious topics, too. From what I could tell there’d been a divorce recently. “Your father wasn’t a good husband to me,” I overheard the mom saying. “He’d always walk two blocks ahead of me when we were in the city.”

This son looked up from his phone and said something I couldn’t quite make out. The mom spoke more loudly, less self-consciously than he did. I could hear her clearly when she said, “I miss the unity of being a family, that’s what I miss. But I don’t miss him at all, not for a minute.”

The son gave his mom some advice: “I hear people talking like this all the time, complaining about their problems instead of doing something about it.” It wasn’t the most generous thing he could have said but I had some sympathy for the son; it’s hard to know what to say when your parents bare themselves to you like that. As a kid you want to be able to say to your parents what they always said to you: everything’s going to be all right. It’s a lot harder to accept that some people live unhappy lives and that your parents might be among them.

Eventually the bus arrived. The mother and son boarded before I did and I didn’t see where they sat down. We drove south on the Jersey Turnpike; the glow of streetlamps raced through the interior of the bus. As I continued to think about the conversation I’d overheard I was surprised to find myself identifying more closely with the mother.

The son may have known many things his mom did not. He knew about The Onion. He told his mom to “calm down” when she started worrying about the bus being late. He had advice for how to deal with a divorce. But when it came to the single most important thing between them—how much she loved him—it seemed to me that the mother knew it completely and the son had no clue.

Reconnecting with children’s books as an adult

I’ve got a short essay up this morning about the experience of reconnecting with children’s books I loved as a kid now that I’m reading them to my son:

The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.

I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks…

Kenyon Grads Reflect on DFW’s 2005 Commencement Speech

Time Magazine calls David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech to the graduates of Kenyon College the best commencement speech ever given. I’ve been a fan since a friend emailed it to me a few years ago and since then I’ve returned to it a couple times a year and shared it with lots of friends. Recently I began to wonder: What did the speech seem like to the graduates who heard it live? To answer that question I interviewed graduates of the Kenyon Class of ’05. I have an essay out this morning describing what I found.

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in way Wallace’s work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.

Review of David Brooks’ “The Social Animal”

I reviewed David Brooks’ newest book The Social Animal for the Christian Science Monitor this week. It’s a fun read and serves as an easy introduction to a lot of fascinating research that has taken place in the behavioral sciences over the last decade. But all told, this book has Brooks out of his depth: His retelling of the science is breezy and riddled with inaccuracies, and while he aspires to serious moral and political arguments he doesn’t commit the requisite intellectual energy to do so:

Brooks tells his readers that an awareness of “how much our own desire for power and to do good blinds us to our limitations” has tempered his impulse toward social engineering. Reading “The Social Animal,” however, I took this as a caveat more of the mind than of the heart. His reliance on brain science suggests a wide-eyed acceptance about its potential to help us live better lives and build a better society. It remains to be seen whether the cognitive revolution will live up to its billing. My rational mind – the very part of me that Brooks says I should be wary of – is enthralled with the possibility. My heart tells me we’ve been here before.

Also recommended: Thomas Nagel’s take down in The Times.

Snowing Thinking Writing

This morning I sat on a couch with a view out the window, where it was snowing. At the time I sat down it was snowing hard—big, wet flakes that seemed to change the world. I watched them fall by my window. For a moment each flake was important. Then it fell out of sight, piled into oblivion on the ground below.

I don’t know that I’ve ever watched a snowstorm end, really seen the fine changes that lead from a blizzard to still air. I’d been sitting for less than fifteen minutes when the number of big flakes began to dwindle. It did not take long before I could count the number in my view and for that number to shrink to none. The snow had turned to a fine powder that dyed the air gray.

Out of sight, up in the clouds I take it, something was happening. The snow ebbed some more. Minutes later it was gone completely.

I’d taken my seat this morning determined to pay attention. When I first sat down my concentration felt deep and wide. I had some ideas I wanted to spend some time with—about becoming a father, about growing older. For twenty minutes maybe, while the big flakes fell, I was a strong cistern, filled with feelings, bounded against the world around me. The toys on the floor, the mug of tea at my side, were objects outside me.

Then my concentration started to fray. My thoughts felt less distinct. I picked up a pen and twirled it, I thought about a dream I’d had the night before and how I needed to tell my sister about it. The snow was turning gray. I nearly got up from the couch and walked out of the room to my computer. My mind was whirling now, seizing on a thought and dropping it, doing everything it could to get me moving. There was no reason to believe that anything worthwhile would come of continuing to sit. Except that in some distant place I remembered that not long ago it had been snowing hard, and I’d known a different kind of feeling, and maybe it would come back.

So I leaned back into the couch. Something must have been happening in the clouds above because I began to deepen and widen again. I decided to compose a piece about the snow in my head.

I came up with a first line: This morning I sat on a couch with a view out the window, where it was snowing. I came up with a second. But after the second I doubted the first. Maybe it was time to stand up and go make some toast. But in some distant place I remembered that I’d once felt like I wanted to say something. So I didn’t get up and something happened in the clouds because I thought of a third line: I watched them fall by my window.

A few minutes later I came to the end of the piece. I didn’t feel like a cistern but I did feel like a man. Outside it had started to snow hard again.

Appearing Elsewhere: the perils and promise of synthetic biology; America’s 12 community types; Penn Law professor and NFL special master Stephen Burbank

I’ve been slow to post links to a few pieces I wrote that were published over the past few months. They include:

  • Coverage of the Presidential Bioethics Commission, which met in Philadelphia this fall. The Commission’s topic was the promise and the problems of synthetic biology, an emerging field of science which aspires to create life from non-life by programming genetic code on a computer and manufacturing it out of chemicals. I reported on two days of spirited testimony, which included an arresting presentation from Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner, whose wide-eyed humility and wry, wise eloquence made him one of my favorite subjects I’ve ever written about. (You can see his testimony here. It’s well worth watching.)
  • review of the the book Patchwork Nation which slices and dices America into 12 community types that go beyond the Red State/Blue State dichotomy.  Do you live in a Campus and Career Center? Or the Monied ‘Burbs? Or  Tractor Country?
  • An interview with Penn Law professor Stephen Burbank, who might just hold the future of the NFL in his hands (and also has some interesting things to say about they hyper-politicization of the Supreme Court and the reasons behind the explosion of litigation in America).

On shelves today: The Panic Virus

For nearly two years I worked in support of Vanity Fair writer Seth Mnookin on a book called The Panic Virus, which comes out today and which the Wall Street Journal says “should be required reading at every medical school in the world.”

The book is about the autism-vaccine scare and why it’s managed to rage so hot for so long despite any evidence (and really, there is no evidence) linking vaccines to developmental disorders.  A large part of the answer has to do with an intellectual trend of our time that privileges personal intuition over scientific evidence, and which denigrates experts as elitists. The media has had a role, too, giving airtime to people like Jenny McCarthy and reporting “both sides of the story” long after it became clear that there was really only one. The consequences of this scare have been tragic. Immunization rates have fallen in many parts of the country (typically affluent liberal enclaves) and kids are dying of infectious diseases like whooping cough and Hib that should be ancient history in America.

I wore a lot of hats in the making of this book: researcher, transcriber, editor, collaborator. Throughout it was a privilege to work with Seth Mnookin, whose commitment to getting the story right and telling it fairly was inspiring. So, The Panic Virus, on sale today. Go grab a copy.