Jan 10

Cooper’s Virgil

I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately — obviously because of the developments of eBooks, but also because I’ve been home sick the past few days, reading as I get better, and just generally around all my books more of the time.

I happened to walk by a shelf in our living room filled with books from our family — mostly older books, and mostly from my dad’s mother (she was always “Grandmother” to me). When she died, I inherited a number of her Latin books, since I really loved learning Latin, and it was something that was important to her, too. For whatever reason, I picked one up off the shelf today — Cooper’s Virgil — an annotated collection of the writing of Virgil (who wrote The Aeneid, among other things).

Just picking it up, a million different things came up in my mind. Some reverence for how old it is. Fondness for the Latin work and friends I had in high school. Memories of Grandmother, always teaching, and pretty often whipping me in double solitaire, which I’m starting to teach SPL now.

Here’s the back cover page (you can click through to see it bigger):

Now the first thing you’ll notice is that the book is old. It looks like Gussie Raysor acquired it (or just signed it) on May 26, 1895, just about 115 years ago now.

Think of that. 1895 was when the first movie projector was patented. Queen Victoria was still alive, and Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t yet President of the United States. The Ford Motor Company wouldn’t be founded for another 8 years.

The next thing that I noticed was the name at the top — Laura Lilly — who is definitely not my grandmother, but instead was her sister-in-law — my grandfather’s sister. So that’s a little bit of humor there. I guess my grandfather stole the book from his sister (although I have to say that I can’t really imagine him giving much of a damn about Latin — unless it was some sort of prank, which I can imagine him caring about), and then the book got absorbed into Grandmother’s collection (given her love of language and learning and books, not too surprising). Gussie Raysor was my grandfather’s mother.

And so through this artifact that I’ve moved around several times over the past couple of decades, and that surely frustrated any number of Lillys as they tried to learn their declensions and conjugations and gerunds — through this simple artifact, a connection across the years was made. And with real impact and emotion in the present day.

That is a hell of a thing. It’s just really astonishing in simplicity and power.

Now, I’m not very nostalgic about books, I have to say. I thought I would be — I thought I’d miss their paper & binding shape with the advent of eBooks. But I really don’t — not at all, honestly. I prefer, in most cases, to read books on my Kindle now — which tells me, as I’ve written elsewhere, that what I really love is reading, not the physical forms themselves.


There’s something about physical artifacts that reaches across the ages. As I look around my own house and think about what objects with meaning will persist and SPL’s grandchildren will look at a hundred years from now, I’m not sure there are very many at all. There are lots of electronic artifacts, like this blog, even, if we can manage to keep them alive and safe from inevitable(?) bit-rot. But precious few things that will make it through the childhoods and moves and marriages and storms and whatever else that the next 100 years will bring.

So I’m glad to have these books of my grandmother’s with me. They mean something and they change who I am and how I experience the world because they’re here with me. And it’s probably time to think a little bit not in the backwards direction, but in the forwards direction, about what we want people to reflect over a hundred years hence.

Feb 09

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

Inspired by the movie trailers & John Hodgman’s tweets, I downloaded Coraline to my Kindle this weekend and read the book — it’s a short & fun read — took me less than a day.

It’s a fun story aimed at kids — a little dark, naturally — and I liked it a lot. Better, I thought, than his recent The Graveyard Book.

I’m getting more & more interested in stories and fairy tales for kids as SPL starts to experiment with points of view and narratives — so have been thinking a lot about Narnia, of course, and Tolkein, and Alice, and on and on. Thinking about the characteristics of the most memorable serial stories — I think the very best of these were basically constructed on the fly with an audience of 1 or 2 specific kids in mind.

I’m trying out modeling some of our nighttime stories on ones that I’ve read; sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. But it’s fun to think about, fun to experiment. It’s such a cliché to talk about “seeing through the eyes of a child,” but I have to tell you that it’s one of the chief aspects of being a parent — trying to understand how things must seem to the kid, what will be fun, what will be scary, what will make sense, what will teach. It’s a neat activity, and changing the way that my interactions work throughout my life, really.

Nov 08

modernity, revisited?

Briefly, then gotta get started on working in an abbreviated Thanksgiving week…

Every so often I find myself in a situation with family or work and realize that something’s different, something’s new — and I try to take myself out of the moment a little bit to notice it.

This morning at the breakfast table, as I was packing up and getting ready to head into work, I was half-listening to SPL and his babysitter — they were talking in Mandarin to each other — but when I looked up, the subject matter was one of my own books from when I was a kid: Richard Scarry’s Busytown. And that caused me to think about how many of the little vignettes of our morning were incredibly traditional, but also incredibly modern.

– Kathy & I had already read the morning’s news — but me from my laptop news reader and Kathy was scanning through on her iPhone — we haven’t gotten a daily or weekly newspaper for probably 10 years

– We were all dressed appropriately for the weather — but not because of information in the paper or the morning TV news, but over the Web, naturally

– SPL & his babysitter, reading Busytown, but talking about it in Mandarin

Anyway, today felt like a rich combination of new and old to me — and, really, something that felt very California modern. I have a sense/hope that 20 years from now the differences will be not so much about information usage but about materials and energy usage. We’ll see, I suppose.

Oct 08

new eyes

A few months back, my grandfather Monte (my mom’s father) and his wife Myra came to visit us here. (From now on, though, I’ll call him “Bampa,” which I named him back about a million years ago.) This was no small feat — they rode Amtrak out from Georgia — up through Washington, DC, over to Chicago, down to Austin to spend a few days with my brother’s family, and then west all the way to Los Angeles, where I picked them up. I’d been looking forward to spending time with them, and had been meaning to have Bampa tell me more about his life. He’s led an interesting life, growing up mostly in Washington State, but really moving around a lot, was a GI in WWII, got his engineering degree at Georgia Tech, worked at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore in the 50s, in the rocket engineering field in the 50s & 60s, and eventually settling down for good in St. Simons Island & Brunswick, GA, where they live now, and he’s still a practicing civil engineer, at 85 years old. He’s also the person who was most influential in convincing me to apply to Stanford for college, and that’s had obvious & far-reaching implications for my career and life.

So we were touched and excited that Bampa & Myra went to such an effort to visit David’s family and then ours. It’s one thing to go visit your family; it’s another to be able to share with them some part of your own adult life, and learn about theirs in kind. My dad’s parents both passed away before I had really established much of my own life; my mom’s mother is past the point of being able to travel out to California (although she did when Kathy & I were married in 2000, which I’m grateful for). Sometimes I feel very distant out here on the left coast. Most of both Kathy’s & my family live so far east of here: my brother in Austin, Kathy’s folks in San Antonio, my parents in Nashville and Atlanta, most of my extended family in Georgia. Being able to share some of it when our parents visit is wonderful — and it was great to be able to share some with Bampa.

On the drive up, we drove along the coast for a while, then inland — and drove by Camp Roberts, where Bampa was actually stationed in the 1940s, and he told us some stories about that. Yet another reminder that we all walk an earth that’s been traveled much before us.

The whole week was wonderful. We spent an afternoon at Stanford — sat in on a class that I helped with (a tiny, tiny bit). It was projects that had a real focus on Facebook — not sure Bampa totally got it, but he understood the design process very well — recognized it from his own experience — which was great. We spent time in the Marin Headlands (beautiful as always). We went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (top five favorite places anywhere). Had a just-about-perfect Italian dinner in North Beach. Couldn’t have been better, really.

What I didn’t really anticipate is how it felt to see things simultaneously through Bampa’s 80+ year old eyes and through SPL’s 3 year old eyes. Old & new, experiencing the same things. Just a reminder that the world is both incredibly modern in many ways, and the same as it’s ever been in so many others. It was just a really good time we all had together, and was great to share it with family.

Oct 08


Every once in a while Pandora brings up Kathy’s Song, by Simon & Garfunkel. Always makes me think of this, and how lucky I’ve been in my life and how amazing every day is. Other events lately (non-work related) make me even more acutely aware of this, and remembering just is a little overwhelming. Music is wonderful that way, and this music in particular. Anyway, to quote a favorite of mine, “If this isn’t nice, what is?