Give me steam

Peter Gabriel’s Us is playing on the bluetooth speaker, filling the house with his songs of love and yearning. Anytime I play this album means I must be feeling lonely. It’s just me and Tilly, the golden retriever, in the house on this day after Thanksgiving. Erin, Anna, Malia, and Oliver are in Cleveland along with most of the other Shaughnessy clan while I stayed back to keep an eye on the house under construction, to play soccer, and, yes, to watch the World Cup.

(I blogged about Us here and here, and this early post explains my first lonely but memorable moments with the World Cup.)

Friends Kelly and Andrew invited me to their home for the big meal yesterday; I contributed a sour cherry pie (see it here). I came home to the empty house and watched Philadelphia, the AIDS-era movie with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (the soundtrack includes a Peter Gabriel song).

This solitude has been relaxing, and today between World Cup matches I’ll slowly make my way through a list of tasks and chores that I’ve been meaning to get to for months. I like the clean calm and slowed momentum of the days, but damn do I miss my family and their chaotic, kinetic energy.

11.25.2022

 

It should be zero

Last week, Oliver was diagnosed with a fractured bone in his foot, so I have been driving him to his school. Usually we’re listening to the SiriusXM soccer talk show or U2X music station for the short drive, but this morning I tuned to WUNC. As we pulled up the hill and the school property, the hourly NPR news update came on (NPR News: 10-25-2022 8AM EDT).

“The shooting at the St. Louis school was the fortieth this year,” said the reporter at the very moment I turned the car into the drop-off lane and the school resource officer — the armed police offer who is at the school every day — came into sight.

I noticed this intersection of news and relative safety, and I knew Oliver was beside me and listening, and I recognized it was a moment to say something meaningful, but I did not know what to say and a moment later we were stopped and Oliver was getting out of the car, grabbing his notebook case and his saxophone and he was closing the door just as I uttered, weakly, “Have a good day.”

I want to live in a world where soccer highlights and rock-n-roll hits don’t have to give way to tragedy and insanity.

I want to live in a country where there are zero school shootings ever.

10.25.2022

 

Writing spaces

Colum McCann is one of my favorite authors, and back in 2013 the New York Times published an interview with him about his commitment to ‘radical empathy.’ I’ve remembered that for the photo that shows McCann sitting on his cushioned makeshift seat in a tight space between two walls.

Now that we’re midway in building this new house, I need to decide what’s going to be in my work space in a wide hallway between our bedroom and Erin’s front office. My space has a tall, fixed window that looks west to the forest. I’ll have a desk, bookshelves, maybe some cabinets to store supplies and file papers. I’m also trying to figure out how a bench might fit (I’m sitting on the plywood floor at the moment, my back resting agains a 2×4 wall stud).

McCann is a brilliant writer, and I’m no McCann. Whatever I end up with in this space, I know that it is routine, focus, writing and rewriting, that matters. I’m excited for this writing ahead.

10.13.2022

 

Checked, mate?

I started reading this New Yorker feature about Mladen Solomun, “the d.j. who keeps Ibiza dancing.” Then I came upon this:

Bor, the tour manager, oversees what he calls “booth politics,” and any infraction of the unwritten code can lead to ejection. The truly elect are invited to take an occasional shot of tequila with Solomun. The brand on his rider is Clase Azul Reposado, which the club brings in specifically for him. Solomun sometimes drinks more than thirty shots of tequila during a night at the decks, with no visible change in his sobriety.

Come on. The vaunted New Yorker fact checkers must have been out to lunch for that graph. Thirty shots is a lot of alcohol!

Alex Frater once told me that his article was so closely checked that the editor called an entomologist to confirm the number of ants he could have stepped on (I wrote about that here, one of my favorite posts from my Coconut Wireless blog).

On the other hand, maybe the current fact checkers did confirm with a 30-shot lunch.

10.13.2022

 

Finding your drums

Oliver mentioned again over dinner the other night that he wants to take up the drums. We asked him to focus on his saxophone, but he insisted he is interested in the drums.

At that, we told him all the ways he could show us he had a drummer’s rhythm without us buying an expensive kit that he might use a few times and then forget: he could slap the small djembe we’ve had in our house for 20 years, or he could bang on an overturned plastic pail, or he could even get some bamboo and tap on it with a flip-flop.

I pulled up a YouTube video of Futuna Fatuana to show him how the ni-Vanuatu make music with bamboo and with glass bottles filled to various levels. I once brought that troupe to Paama as part of a music education project I organized. I also paid for the generator to run one night so I could show the students (and their families from the surrounding villages) the video Stomp Out Loud. (In Cleveland, before we set out for the Peace Corps, Erin and I had seen the touring music show Stomp.)

Here’s what I wrote in my Peace Corps Description of Service document (a final report before a volunteer closes out his/her service):

Peace Corps Vanuatu offered a Small Project Assistance grant in 1998 to support Anton’s What A Bang! music education project, which brought a popular “stringband” from Futuna Island to Vaum Junior Secondary School to demonstrate instruments made with local materials (e.g. bamboo, empty Coke bottles, and rubber sandals). To this day students improvise music on handcrafted instruments such as ukulele, tin can drums and bamboo whistles. VJSS has begun to collect and use various musical instruments for music education and class sing-a-longs.

After dinner, Oliver retrieved paint cans and plastic pails fro the shed and made himself a makeshift drum kit in the laundry room. He banged on it for an hour or so and called it a night. The laundry room has been cluttered with the kit for the last few days. After his soccer practice yesterday, we were driving past School of Rock—I mentioned he should take an introductory drum lesson, and he quickly found the company’s website and requested more information.

10.05.2022

 

Happy at work

I’m nearing the second anniversary of my job switch, and I’m happy to report that it’s been a great two years. I’m thoroughly enjoying my work at the Duke Clinical Research Institute on the RADx Underserved Populations project.

Last week, the Duke School of Medicine Magnify (an online news site) featured No More Guessing, a story I wrote about the Pediatrics faculty at DCRI. That group’s growth over the last 15 years is impressive, and my job is directly tied to their success in “running multi-site pediatric clinical trials and … managing major coordinating centers.”

09.18.2022

 

Music and Mockingbird

A roundup of the last couple of weeks:

Erin and I have been rewatching Treme, the series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Music and musicians are a key thread through the series, and a good reminder of what the city has given to our country.

Treme inspired me to look at the Cat’s Cradle calendar; Anna and I went one Friday to see/hear Blue Cactus at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room.

The next night, the family went to a backyard party at the home of Steve and Rebekah Vaisey. Their daughter, Deliah, has been recording tracks for an upcoming EP, and she performed some of her songs, with her father and brothers backing her up. Find Deliah on Spotify under Delia-h:

After Deliah and her family finished their set—they were very good!—the stage became a karaoke playground; my children sang Sweet Caroline and had everyone up on their feet singing along. Another guest sang Blue Monday, by New Order. On the way home, I told my family about the time I and four buddies performed a dance routine to that hit song. Our routine was choreographed by Danielle Crawford, we were dressed in cheerleader outfits (this was a somewhat-serious spoof of the very popular DeKalb High School girls dance team), and we got a big cheer from the student body in the gym.

Matthew Butterick, a lawyer/designer/coder who designed the fonts I use on this site, occasionally writes (and designs) long, thoughtful, connected essays. His latest is Power, Corruption & Lies and in it he focuses on the album cover designs of New Order. It’s a fascinating read.

Last week, Erin and I went to the Durham Performing Arts Center to see Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The cast was excellent, and the dialogue crisp, but I still came away unsettled by the story and the reality of racism’s deep, deep roots in this country.

We hosted a backyard party of our own this weekend to celebrate Malia’s graduation, and we ended the evening with karaoke under our carport. Oliver and his cousin Ginny hogged the microphone but did let me and my friend Jon sing Solsbury Hill.

08.14.2022

 

Ring the bell

Erin and I took a cruise vacation, from Seattle to Alaska and back. We had fun visiting glaciers, hiking along the water, watching for wildlife, and shopping in the towns. We also had one of the best date nights ever. Then we got COVID. But, first, a story from Provence.

Closed for inventory

In 2016, Erin and I celebrated our twentieth-anniversary in France, including a delightful stay in the seaside town of Cassis. On one of our last days there, Erin and I walked from Maison º9 into town and up the hill to Clos Sainte Magdeleine, a winery with beautiful oceanside vineyards that produce delicious white and rosé wines. When we got to the door of the shop, though, a sign announced that it was closed for the week but to pull the metal rod should you need the proprietor. I turned on my heels, disappointed and ready for the walk back.

Erin, better than me in so many ways, reached up and rang the bell. We waited.

A few minutes later, a young woman opened the door, explained that she was busy taking inventory, but she’d be happy to show us in, give a glass of wine, and sell us a few bottles.

Erin proved how good things can come to those who “ring the bell.” Ever since, that’s been the phrase we use in our family conversations to encourage our children to step up and seize the situation (with a knowing nod to my indecision).

Take a cruise

Erin and I have traveled the globe together and with our children, but we long resisted the idea of taking a cruise. There’s no way I wanted to get norovirus or jostle with thousands at the buffet. But as Erin gets closer to her fiftieth birthday, and with only a few states left until she’s visited all 50 of them, she booked a family cruise to Alaska—for summer 2020! COVID canceled that cruise, but the cruise line wouldn’t refund the full fare, so we held onto the credits. When we learned the credits would expire later this year, Erin realized we would be on our own this summer as Anna was in nursing school, Malia would be a camp counselor, and Oliver would be at back-to-back sleep-away camps.

Erin decided to book the cruise, and so off we went on an evening flight to Seattle, unplugging from our work and the new-house project, hoping that Anna and Malia and Oliver would be safe and well for the week. My task had been to arrange a hotel room, but I nearly blew that, realizing a few days before departure that the reservation was off a week. The new reservation I made, correctly, was in the Hyatt Regency Seattle, and we woke on a Sunday morning with a glorious view to Mount Rainier. We enjoyed breakfast (and bought a couple of bottles of wine for the cruise) at Mr. West Café, and then hailed a taxi to the terminal where we joined the queue and eventually found our way to our stateroom on deck eight.

As the Odyssey of the Seas began the long sail north to Alaska, Erin and I enjoyed a champagne toast on our deck. For the next two days at sea, we walked and talked, relaxed in the sauna and steam room, read books, dressed up to go to dinner at the restaurants on board (one night a somewhat-molecular-gastronomy meal, another night good sushi!).

At our first stop, Icy Straight Point, we walked past the cruise companies’ center of activities and on into the village of Hoonah with plans to get lunch at the Fisherman’s Daughter. As we approached a group of Tlingit carvers working on a totem pole, Erin’s phone rang. Back in North Carolina, Oliver was about to be sent home from camp, sick with fevers (a counselor in his cabin left the previous day with COVID, and other campers were leaving with influenza). With reception in and out, Erin managed to make a plan and give instructions to Malia to get him home. We kept walking.

We were passing one home when a woman walked around to her SUV. She was holding an empty white board, her toddler and a German shepherd at her feet. We said hello, and she asked if we had plans for the day.

“I happen to have two spots left on our five o’clock whale watching tour,” she said.

Erin stepped toward her and rang the bell, the woman put down the white board without needing to write a thing, and a little later—after halibut tacos at Fisherman’s Daughter—we were on the Thor Too with the woman’s husband, Joardan, guiding us into the strait in search of whales. Over the next two hours, we observed humpback whales, seals and sea lions, and sea otters. At times the boat drifted silently. We waited, marveling at the scenery, and minutes later the sounds of a whale exhaling nearby would redirect our gaze to see the mist of the whale’s breath floating away, and then the tale flip up and slowly out of sight.

The next day, off the ship in Skagway, we climbed into a small helicopter that gently lifted us into the air above the fjord, along the mountaintops, and onto Mead Glacier. For 45 minutes we wandered the glacier with a guide, learning about the river of ice and wandering rocks and dangers of the crevasse. I lay down to sip from the icy meltwater. I thanked Erin a hundred times that day for arranging that excursion. She’d wanted a helicopter ride to rival the ride we got on Paama and this was it.

A third day, in Juneau, with no pre-planned excursions. I’d looked at various ways to get from the dock to Mendenhall Glacier, in the Tongass National Forest, but once again it was Erin who took charge and called a taxi company. Skyler Mazon with Juneau Taxi pulled up in a van a few minutes later. On our way toward the glacier, we were looking at eagles up on the light posts when Skyler pointed to grassy marsh and a black bear, and then another! His excitement at seeing the bears made the day a success in itself. And then we had a few hours to hike in the park, learning about how much the glacier has retreated in the last hundred years. Skyler returned to get us and in Juneau he left us out to walk into Cope Park, a gem of a city park with a rushing river and tall pines.

As the ship sailed away from Juneau, we watched three paragliders soaring high above. One descended sooner than the others, landing on the tidal beach as we passed. A little later, a bald eagle glided by, and then another, and another.

After nearly two days of sailing back south, the ship put in at Victoria, British Columbia, for the shortest of the stops. It was late Sunday afternoon but the place was bustling and beautiful and warm. We dressed up and walked into town for a delicious meal at the Tapa Bar Restaurant (ceviche, shrimp in coconut milk curry, grilled carrots, chile relleno, shopped on our way back toward the dock, and stopped for wine and tiramisu at Il Cove Trattoria. Erin was gorgeous, we were relaxed and having fun, and this was one of the best dates ever, making me damn glad that I’d decided almost instantly to marry Erin when I first met her in college.

Jubilant

In January 2002, Erin and I went on a date to Raleigh to hear Jubilant Sykes sing with the NC Symphony (we’d seen him perform the year before in Cleveland as part of an MLK concert). After the concert in Raleigh, Sykes came to the foyer to meet a few of us who had waited to buy his CD, which I would end up playing for Anna, still an infant at the time, over the next few years.

One of the songs on that album: Ring Dem Bells, an angelic cover of the oh-so-good Ring Them Bells by Bob Dylan.

And, COVID

Back in Seattle early on Monday morning, Erin and I got a taxi to nearby Magnolia Village, where we parked ourselves and our luggage in front of Petit Pierre Bakery. As soon as it opened, we got the delicious pastries (one of the best pain au raisin ever), and sat at our table watching a stream of arriving customers. Soon, Kara Jackson, our fellow Peace Corps volunteer, walked up to join us. Kara is associate professor of education at the University of Washington (her field is math education), and I hadn’t seen her since 1999 in Vanuatu. Later, she and her family would take us on a hike around Seattle’s Seward Park in Lake Washington, and after lunch at their home, Kara took us to the airport.

Then we flew home to North Carolina, where Oliver was recovering from pneumonia. At the airport, as Malia pulled around to get us, we learned that her school trip to Chicago later in the week would be canceled because the hosts there had COVID. That should have been a warning to us, because two days later, Erin and I tested positive for COVID (the same day that President Joe Biden tested positive), and for the next week we were knocked down by the illness; one day, with fever and chills and my body aching about as bad as when I had dengue in Vanuatu.

But now I’m healthy again and back to work and projects around the house, and without the COVID fog I can recall the Alaska vacation and tally all the ways that Erin made that trip so special. More than ever, I am grateful for Erin. We will mark 26 years of marriage on Aug. 10, and I hope to sail through many more with her.

Clos Sainte Magdeleine, Cassis, Provence

07.31.2022

 

Malia to American

Malia graduated from Carrboro High School last week (in a ceremony held in the UNC-CH Dean Dome). As student government vice president, she had the honor of addressing the student body with an upbeat welcome message (along with the president) and then, at the end of the ceremony, leading the class in the turning of their tassels.

I’m very proud of Malia. She weathered the interruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic that made the last few years tough on all students, and she finished with high grades and accolades from her teachers and school administrators. She also gave our home a constant buzz of activity, especially during her senior year when so many of her friends came by each day for lunch.

Malia is smart, sensitive, kind, and passionate about societal issues and world events. In the fall she’ll be off to American University to study international service. Washington is the perfect place for Malia and we know she will excel there.

Back when she was applying to colleges and expressed her interest in American, I had a hunch that there might be an interesting connection to that university. I was born nearby, at the Georgetown University Hospital, and I remembered that my mother had a relative who worked for the State Department around that time. Joseph Sisco, who I think is probably a cousin of my grandfather—I’ve spent a few hours trying to find the connection, but I haven’t been able to fill in the family tree yet—was a diplomat who served under Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration.

I called up my father, and then later my mother, and they both told me the same story: In 1970, just after I was born, and before we moved to California so my dad could help a friend run for Congress, they took me to Foggy Bottom and stepped into the reception area of the State Department. My mother asked the receptionist to call up to Ambassador Sisco to let them know we were downstairs, and sometime later he came down for a chat. I imagine he patted me on my infant head, asked about my grandfather and listened to my dad talk about his Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic and my mom’s teaching in the District, and then he quickly said goodby and returned to his office upstairs to solve another crisis in Palestine or Egypt or Cyprus. This obituary in the Guardian chronicles his important role in Mideast tensions of the 1970s.

After Joseph Sisco retired from the State Department, he served as president of American University for five years.

It’s wild to think, as we mark 50 years since the Watergate break-in, that my head was touched by a hand that shook the hand of Kissinger, whose hand shook the hand of the soon-to-be-disgraced Richard Nixon.

More importantly, now my child is headed back to D.C. to start her own career in international service.

06.19.2022

 

Custom kiribako

Last year, I wrote about the enjoyment I got in reading Kissa by Kissa, a beautiful book by Craig Mod.

One of the photos that Craig featured in the book was The Tomato Farmers, which he is now offering in a limited edition print. Since his book was so well designed and made, I have no doubt this print is high quality. Even better, it comes in its storage bin: a kiribako, or paulownia wood box. Craig quotes from a historian of Japan to explain that paulownia wood boxes have been used for a long time to store art.

Paulownia? I recognized that word. As Wikipedia explains, it’s the scientific name for a genus of trees, and here in North Carolina the princess tree is considered invasive.

Over the last few years I’ve been cutting down the princess trees I find on our land. I look for fallen leaves, which are quite large, or I search for trunks that look like tulip poplar trunks and then I peer up to identify the branches that grow opposite each other. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of these princess trees on our property — less a dozen, though a few quite large — and once I drop them down with the chainsaw or axe, the trunks are easy to split into firewood that burns clean and hot. It doesn’t take long for the roots to push up a new tree, though, as this photo I snapped today shows.

05.21.2022

 

These paths are made by walking

When I finished with work today, the house was empty and quiet—Erin out for a walk with a friend, Anna and Oliver at the UNC FARM swimming pool, Malia exercising at the gym—so I donned my sail-canvas apron and stepped over to the stove to prepare a batch of strawberry mango jam, listening to U2 and sipping a mango wheat beer.

An hour later, that activity done, I decided to walk down the gravel driveway to get the mail. The air was still warm from the heat of the day, I was wearing flip flops, the rays of the sun were horizontal through the green leaves and tall tree trunks. I smiled, thinking about my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the South Pacific, my evening walks up the dirt road to the Lironessa Co-op to buy rice or eggs or a can of chili tuna.

In the mailbox was an envelope from my friend Beck Tench. It was a typewritten letter, a response to a typed note I’d sent to Beck a few years ago. I read this letter as I walked up the path to the house. I stopped when I read this line: “I know these paths are made by walking, and I know there is hope and harm ahead in every direction.”

I looked around, marveled at the shape of the leaves of the young tulip tree to the right of me, and I smiled in gratitude for Beck and all the other friends who have written and typed to me through the years.

05.19.2022

 

Quick trips to New York City

Erin and Oliver and I just took a quick trip to New York City to celebrate Oliver’s birthday. He had been in his school’s performance of Lion King in March, so Erin arranged for us to go to the show on Broadway last night. It was quite the spectacle. And that was after a full day: breakfast at Andrews NYC Diner, an elevator up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, a walk through Times Square and the up to the Apple store at the corner of Central Park — Oliver is deciding how to spend his birthday cash and wanted to check out the watches — and pre-show dinner at Mama Mia 44SW.

Today we went to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I’ve seen photos of immigrants queued in the Registry Room but this was my first visit to see the place traversed by my maternal great-grandfather Pietro Sisco in 1901 and great-grandmother Raffaela Brutto eight years later, and my paternal great-grandfather Cornelius Zuiker (recorded as Suiker) in 1891. I’ll be adding these details to the family tree.

We’re arrived at our home in North Carolina early this evening. Tired from all the walking and travel, we gathered as a family to watch a movie. Erin chose Come From Away, on Apple TV+, because last night we walked past the Broadway theatre where that musical, about true story of 38 airplanes grounded in Newfoundland on 9/11, is running and she’d heard it was good. It was really good. I loved it, cried throughout, and am already thinking about another quick trip to NYCity to see that.

04.30.2022

 

Drive this way

What should have a been a two-week project to build a new paved, private driveway to our house, starting in September, turned into a drawn-out, many-months effort complete with complaints from neighbors, delays for snowstorms and high-wind advisories, a steep incline and tight space for where we could connect to the stub-out road adjacent to our property, and a pause so that the crew could make a bio-retention pond down the lane for my sister-in-law’s new house (they used many loads of dirt from our driveway dig, which thankfully resulted in a less-steep path for us and a more-level yard for Mary and Michael). Now the project is done and we’re driving it, glad for the safe, smooth way to get out of our wooded corner of Chapel Hill.

Except that this house is no longer ours, because last month we sold it to a cousin of Erin’s. We’ll be here for a bit longer while we build a new house on our other lot up here. The tree protection fence is up and as soon as the town inspects the lot and gives us the go ahead, we’ll start clearing a spot for the house. It’s going to be stunning and you’ll see it from a long curving driveway through the tall oak trees.

If you visit us in the next few months and you come up from Bixley Drive, you’ll see yard signs to explain the paved driveway is private, not a through street, and that construction vehicles are prohibited. I used the great Concourse a font by Matthew Butterick in my favorite color. I use Concourse for titles on this blog, too.

03.14.2022

 

Hawaii Nei

It’s been a few weeks since we returned from a thoroughly enjoyable (if you ignore the constant worry of COVID-19) family vacation on O’ahu. I started to write this blog post as soon as we were back home in Chapel Hill, but I just never got around to finishing it amid the return to work, the tasks and details related to a driveway project, selling this house, and building a new house.

Here’s a recap of the vacation:

My father’s apartment was empty while he and Dot are on St. Croix for the winter, so Erin and I used our United Airlines miles for tickets to Honolulu. With Makiki as home base, we used dad’s car to travel the island and enjoy activities on every side of the island: surf lessons for the kids at Waikiki, açaí bowls at Sunset Beach and souvenir shopping in Haleiwa, whale watching off the stunning Waianae coast, Christmas Day on Kailua Beach and then climbing down to Halona Cove (the setting for that famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity).

I lived on O’ahu nearly 30 years ago, and I was able to explore much of the Hawaiian islands with dad and my brothers, as part of a hiking club, and when friends visited — Erin and I went to Hana, Maui, and my work took me to the top of Mauna Kea. On this trip I got to see parts of O’ahu I hadn’t seen before, including Makaha and Mokuleia beaches, and a hike to Allen Davis Beach. Our friends Blaine Rogers and Becky Delafield live in Kaimuki, and they took us on that hike, which started with a resting Hawaiian monk seal on Sandy Beach.

Blaine and Becky were good friends when we first moved to North Carolina. On 9/11, we huddled together in front of our small television, and after that traumatic day we gathered with other grad-school friends on Wednesday evenings to watch The West Wing. Blaine and I went hiking and biking, listened to music, and took little Anna driving for her nap time. I met Blaine and Becky for dinner when I was back in Honolulu for the marathon in 2014, but we hadn’t kept up since. I regret that, because our time with them last month reminded me how fun, generous, smart, and likable they are.

“I don’t want to leave,” said each of the kids as we packed up and prepared for our flight home. I felt the same way. What a gift it had been to spend the holidays on Oahu, outside together and with friends. What a special place.

01.08.2022

 

Drumbeat

For the last few months, I’ve been a tester for Drummer, the new outliner for scripting and blogging that Dave Winer has developed. I enjoy blogging with Drummer. I’ve called my blog Tamtam Nius, and here’s my recent ode to the tool and another post about what it’s like to write with Drummer.

I’ll be blogging there, and here, and Micro.blog, and eventually will figure out how to coordinate all this.

10.14.2021

 


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