Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image



I put Carol on a plane Thursday morning for Chicago, after her mom was taken to the hospital late Tuesday night. Delores is doing a lot better now, but for a few days it was unclear just what was going on. We were both planning on flying out there on the 16th, so this wasn’t an immense change in our summer plans–it just means I’m here by myself for a bit, trying not to eat like a bachelor nor dress like a college student.

I didn’t get the whole story yesterday when I cited the YouTube video of Carol’s sister talking about her experiences at her local Ford dealership. It’s actually a clever piece of marketing, though I’m also sure it’s not viral: The dealership will award a gift certificate to the customer garnering the most clicks on their YouTube video by July 15. So do us a favor and go look at the video. Thanks! (I will admit I’m curious to see how many clicks a citation on Contra can generate, and this is a rare opportunity to find out, with real numbers.)

When Carol’s gone, I generally drown my sorrows by writing, but I ran into an interesting problem yesterday. I finished Chapter 7 of Old Catholics last week. I won’t know how good it is until I get a month’s emotional distance from it, but in the meantime there’s Chapter 8. The problem came in when I sat down to write, me in my shorts with an iced tea on the coaster, the sun beating down on the oaks outside my window, only to realize that Chapter 8 is the Christmas chapter. It’s about the quirky Polish Christmas vigil supper at St. JJ’s, and draws heavily on my own experiences with Polish Christmas vigil suppers, both quirky and ordinary. It was 86 degrees out yesterday afternoon, and no matter what I did, I just could not get my interior state to feel like Christmas. It may be the mark of a true hack to be able to write convincingly about Christmas during the second week of July, but I may need to go back to hack school. I just can’t do it.

No matter. I’ve been working on Old Catholics since 2005; what’s another five or six months’ delay? In the meantime, there’s “Drumlin Circus” to work on. It’s still at the notes-and-outline stage, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. Imagine a line of circus wagons pulled by woolly mammoths, and a show with an acrobat who performs in a cage with two live smilodons. (I may even work in a giant beaver.) And every artifact the circus owns; wagons, props, steam calliope, everything, is made out of drumlins. The Bitspace Institute kidnaps the circus master’s wife, who supposedly has a private drumlin that compels wild animals to obey her. After two years without her, the circus master finds out where the Institute is keeping her, and let’s say that he has a grudge. When the circus comes to a nearby town, it mounts a show that no one in town–especially the Institute–will ever forget. Pleistocene megafauna, scary clowns, calliope music, secret drumlins, the legendary Function Controller–we’re gonna have a real good time!

It may be as much as 35,000 words long. Jim Strickland is doing a Drumlins novella as well, and we may try to put the two stories together as the first Copperwood Double. I’m not an ace at tete-beche, but I intend to learn. Stay tuned.

There’s a Nap for That


I finally got an appointment with a local sleep specialist last week. I’ve never been a strong sleeper, and I’ve been having intermittent problems sleeping, some of them severe, since the collapse of Coriolis 2001-2002. There’s some (small) possibility that I have apnea, even though I sleep on my side and not on my back. I’m going to go in for a sleep study later this summer (when my allergies are better) and this was the initial consult.

The specialist went through all the usual sleep disturbance stuff with me, mostly things I’d read about many times in many places. One of the first things on his list he said briefly and emphatically: “No naps!”

Carol and I about cracked up.

For two reasons, actually. First of all, telling Jeff Duntemann not to take daytime naps is like telling Jeff Duntemann not to code in C++. No problem, Doc! I’m just not built that way. I can sleep during the day only when I’m sick, drugged, or both. (No comment on C++.)

The other reason goes back to our last couple of trips to Chicago. Our niece Julie, like her (slightly) older sister Katie Beth a strong-willed little girl, decided at some point earlier this year that She Will Not Take Naps. I teased her about it several times this past winter:

“Julie! How about taking a nap!”

“No!” She clutched her favorite blanket and made Angry Face at me.

“Just a little nap?”

“No nap!”

This went on for most of an evening in Gretchen’s family room, until I decided that I was in danger of jeopardizing my relationship with the person who would someday decide the fate of my legendary tube collection, and knocked it off.

But by our next trip, winter had faded to a glorious spring, and Carol and I did a lot of chasing around in Gretchen’s back yard with Katie, Julie, and the dogs. Carol has the Kid Gene and I do not; I have no intuitive grasp of what very small girls consider fun. I spin them around and roll down the hill with them, but I’m never entirely sure what they might enjoy. And the trying is nothing if not aerobic. So at one point, a little out of breath, I just lay down on the hillside, laid my hands over my chest, and stared serenely at the very blue sky. Julie, now 2, came up to me and looked at me quizzically.

“Julie, Uncle Jeff is taking a nap.”

Without a word or even much hesitation, Julie lay down on the grass beside me and laid her hands over her chest.

Lead by example, I always say.

The Dollar That Didn’t Like Hawaii

luckydollar.jpgLife is full of little weirdnesses, and here’s yet another: Shortly before we left for Hawaii last month, my lucky dollar turned up missing. That’s the very one at left, though it’s shinier and more worn now than it was when I first mentioned it (and took the photo) in 2006. I’ve had the dollar in my pocket pretty much continuously since Aunt Kathleen died in mid-1999. She received it from my Uncle Louie at some point, and it came to me upon her death. Keeping the dollar in my pocket isn’t about luck, but about remembering both my godmother and a peculiar man who faithfully looked after his baby sister (my mother) after my dad died, and who believed in me when almost no one else did.

It’s hard to misplace something that big, but one day I just reached into my pocket for some small change and noticed that it wasn’t there. I then did a furious ten-minute tour of all the most likely spots: The sofa, the sectional, my reading chair, the 4Runner, behind the pants press. Nothing. Two days later we boarded the plane, and by then I pretty much assumed it had fallen out while I was sitting in a chair at Carol’s doctor’s office or somewhere else irretrievable, and was gone forever. I was bummed. (Hawaii helped ease the pain.)

Back at the end of March, only a few days after we got home from Hawaii, Carol and I had the carpet cleaners in for the first time since 2007. We spent an hour putting scooter disks under the legs of the smaller furniture pieces to get them out of the carpeted areas. Something caught my eye as I shoved Carol’s nightstand toward the bedroom door. There on the carpet, pretty much dead-centered in the space where the nightstand had been, was the dollar.

WTF? I tried to imagine a scenario in which the dollar would pass from my pants pocket to underneath Carol’s nightstand, without convincing success. Ever so rarely often I dump my pockets on the bed while I change pants, and somehow, the dollar must have migrated from the bed to the floor when I wasn’t looking, and rolled unerringly into shadow. You’d think I would notice. But I didn’t.

I put it back in my pocket. Carol and I both laughed, because we knew the rest of the story: Aunt Kathleen was not an adventurous person, not the least little bit. She’d had exactly three street addresses in her whole 78-year life, all within a few blocks of Chicago’s Devon Avenue. She’d been to California with her family when she was a 13-year-old girl. (Boris Karloff is signing her autograph book in this photo.) She took another trip with her parents in 1953, when she was 33, this time to…Hawaii. The trip must have been difficult, or for some other reason freaked her out, because as best we know, she never left the greater Chicago area again, ever.

As she said many times, she just didn’t like traveling. Or maybe Hawaii had made a bad impression. Hard to tell. But for all the talk you hear about the velocity of money, Aunt Kathleen’s dollar preferred to sit out our Hawaii trip and went to great lengths to do so. And once Hawaii was no longer a threat, it showed up again, promptly.

Crazy world, ain’t it?

A Tree For the Ages


Not everything gets done on time, but at our house, at least, most things come in at or under budget. Carol and I budgeted an afternoon to take down and pack all of our Christmas decorations, and that’s about what it took. We’re certainly not on time (I had planned to be done a week ago) but a buzzing swarm of minor irritations got in the way, and it wasn’t until suppertime yesterday that the tree came down–and that only after everything else in the line of decorations was gathered in from the eight corners of the house and repacked in six cozy Rubbermaid totes.

And boy, what a tree that was! We put it up on December 10, which means it was on duty for almost five weeks. It had dropped some needles on the floor, but nothing I’d call a torrent, and when we got to picking ornaments off the tree’s high precincts, we discovered something else: The tree had been growing. On the very highest branches, there were new pale-green needles emerging from the branch tips. Those had certainly not been there when we brought it home back in December. This is not a trick we’ve observed in any other tree we’ve had in 33 years of marriage, nor with our respective families prior to that. We’re not sure how we managed it, but we’re going to buy our tree at the same lot next year and hope we get lucky again.

OrnamentsBox.jpgWe broke only one glass ornament this year, and it wasn’t one of the old ones. It was perhaps ten years old, the sort of worked-glass item you see artists making in real time with a blowtorch at home and garden shows, out of thin glass rod. When Carol touched it to take it down from the tree, it literally flew apart in her hands. (There were internal stresses involved, as we vacuumed up fragments six feet away.)

A lot of our ornaments were inherited from Carol’s family, especially after we sold her mom’s house in 2006. Many are old, some extremely old, judging by the fragile cardboard boxes that had held them on store shelves decades ago and still serve in 2010, taped and patched though they may be. What I found remarkable was a price tag on the box shown above, from the venerable (and now extinct) Weiboldt’s department store in Chicago. The tag reads two for fifteen cents.


Maybe it was a clearance sale price for the day after Christmas. I don’t know. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything enduring for less than ten cents. (Hamfest junkmongering doesn’t count, though the junk certainly does endure.) Even the Hi-Flier kites I flew in 1962 cost me a dime. This may take us back to the early 1950s, and possibly to the late 1940s. Carol’s parents were married in 1947. We wonder if this box could be among the ornaments they bought for their first Christmas together.

I snipped off the branch tip shown in the photo at the top of this entry, and put it in a glass of water, just to see what happens. The tree is now out in the garage and will go to Rocky Top in the next day or so. The decorations and the Lionel trains are back in the Harry Potter closet downstairs. I gave Carol a hug while we moved the furniture back into its accustomed places. Christmas is over, but there’s still a little sparkle in the air, and I’m dealing well with the ordinary gloom of winter.

Mission accomplished.

Odd Lots

  • So here, on the eve of the end of a year I’d just as soon forget, the last Odd Lots of 2009. Carol’s in Chicago and I’m staying home tonight with a lapful of dogs and a good book, which on this occasion will be Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer, his history of the Holocene Warm Period. Carol will be back on Saturday. Getting tired of meat. May have some mashed potatoes tonight.
  • The Christmas tree is no longer taking water, and I perceive that’s it’s begun to dry out. We brought it home on December 10, so it has been standing guard in our living room for three weeks. This may be a new record for us. We’ve had trees stand (a little) longer, but their final two weeks were a rain of needles.
  • The day after Carol and I showed Carol’s mom our Christmas tree via Skype video call, this Zits strip was published. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for letting me know–I read Zits but generally in the newspaper, and not every day.)
  • 2009 is ending with 260 sunspotless days. 2008 had 266, and December was the most active month of the year, so we’re guessing that the Long Solar Minimum is mostly over. Can 15M skip be far behind?
  • Ray Kurzweil has announced a new ebook software reader package called Blio. Not a lot of detail and no software to download yet, but it’s going to be a free product, with versions for both mobile devices and the desktop. Introduction will be at CES next week.
  • The ebook technology to watch in 2010 is Qualcomm’s Mirasol, which promises color without sacrificing battery life or readability. Looks good, but what we need much worse are larger displays and higher resolution.
  • Once again, Bruce Schneier nails it: The bulk of our antiterrorist strategies rely on magical thinking. This is not the way to win; alas, magical thinking appears to be a pervasive part of modern culture, and I’m not talking about Harry Potter.
  • Recent discussions of digital media piracy reminded me of the 2005 article in Wired describing the media piracy “scene” ecosystem (topsites, couriers, races, etc.) and how it works. Big Media may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean that no one is out to get them.
  • Pete Albrecht photographed two UFOs flying in formation (big animated GIF) while taking a long-exposure shot of M42, the Orion Nebula, through his big Meade telescope. Nothing spooky or alien about it, but before you click on the explanation (in his December 28 entry) think for a second and see if you can figure it out on your own.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: murse, more often called a “man bag,” which is basically a purse carried by a guy.
  • Ditto above: prepper , a person who prepares for the end of the world by stockpiling peanut butter etc. They called themselves survivalists until survivalism became equated in the public mind with psychos packing machine guns; watch for the word to vanish when 2012 ends but the Earth is still here. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)

A Videophone Christmas


A day late, perhaps, but no less sincerely, let me wish everyone who reads this a good and blessed Christmas, from here on the snowy side of Cheyenne Mountain. We had a day so cold, clear, and crisp that I was walking around the house carefully, lest it shatter. This was our year to stay in Colorado for the holiday season. (Next year, as is our custom, we’ll be in Chicago.) Two thirds of the country had a white Christmas, which is great unless you happen to be traveling while the whitening is going on. Ducked that bullet, whew.

We’ve had our tree for a week or so now, and it may rank as the best Christmas tree we’ve ever scored. Tall by our historical standards at about 7′, it’s also a balsam, a breed of tree I don’t think we’ve ever had in 33 years of marriage. I’ve been a little leery of them since I was five or six and broke out in a rash on my hands when my mother allowed me to place some ornaments on the tree. Somewhere we have a photo of me hanging ornaments with my winter mittens on, and although history is silent on the point, I have to wonder if some of my poor mother’s ornaments didn’t survive the adventure.

No rash this time–I guess one can grow out of such things–and the tree is not so full as to make finding places for ornaments a challenge, nor so sparse as to look like Charley Brown’s poor twig from the Peanuts TV special. It’s taking water and is not yet losing needles. Dash pulled a stuffed Saguaro cactus ornament off the tree and tried to remove its stuffing, but we caught him before he got too far. Jack has been spotted licking the colored light bulbs when they’re off, but apart from that there’s been no tree mischief.

ToUcam.jpgThere was some stress on Tuesday night when Carol’s mom fell at her home outside Chicago and was taken to the hospital. She didn’t break anything, fortunately, but had to spend Christmas in a hospital bed. To cheer her up I put an SX270 system on the coffee table by the Christmas tree and set up a Skype video call with my nephew Brian. The hospital has Wi-Fi in the rooms, and Brian set his new laptop up on Delores’s bed tray. So by virtue of my Phillips ToUCam and Brian’s built-in Webcam, she could see us, the dogs, and the Christmas tree. Delores was delighted, and it’s a technique to keep in mind if you find yourself in such a situation. Skype is very good with detecting and autoconfiguring Webcams, and there was no fussing involved. I plugged in the ToUCam, made the call, and video happened. It’s not exactly a flying car, but it’s definitely one of those odd Sixties dreams fulfilled, mostly when nobody was looking.

We also called my sister and Bill on Bill’s laptop, and sang the ABCs song with Katie. Katie looked puzzled, but Julie just beamed. In another couple of years this sort of thing will be second nature to them.


This was a very good year for Lionel trains: I finally bought a modern steam locomotive to run around the tree, and boggled a little to find myself searching underneath the brand-new 4-6-0 MTH Camelback loco (above) for its volume control. It has a built-in electronic sound effects system that plays real steam locomotive sounds, a bell, water-pump thumps, and other racket at deafening volume. Jack backed around the tree as I slowly ran it along the LionelZW.jpgtracks, yapping furiously at it until he got bored. Pete Albrecht unexpectedly sent me a rare artifact indeed: An original Lionel 275W ZW dual-control transformer (right) that was probably made in the midlate 1950s. It works great, and can control two independent track sections and two independent sets of accessories.

Christmas for us really isn’t about gifts (and I confess to being a little tired of Santa Claus supersaturation this year) but once again, my spouse knows me well, and bought me an electric blue summer robe to replace my old terrycloth robe that’s been falling to pieces for the last ten years. She also presented me with my recent books wantlist: The Long Summer and Fish On Friday, both histories by Brian Fagan, and two popular treatments of decision psychology: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Fagan is the author of The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer is his followup about the warm period that followed the end of the last ice age.

I bought Carol her fondest wish: A universal TV system remote that allows you to program whatever sequence of steps is required to turn everything on and then pop the drawer for a DVD, all with a single button press. (She’s justifiably weary of having a fruit-bowl full of diverse, incompatible, button-riddled remotes on the coffee table.) It’s a Logitech Harmony One, and I guess now I have to figure out how to program it. Hey, I know assembly; how hard can it be?

Our friends Jim and Marcia came by for Christmas dinner at 2. We had a spiral ham, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, spinach salad, home-made apple-pecan bread from Jimi Henton, steamed asparagus, and Carol’s signature spiced squash soup with cranraisins floating in it. I opened a Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, and we had hot spiced cider as well as some Colorado honey mead that Jim brought. We stayed at the table for almost six hours, solving the world’s problems and designing the odd universe, and overall considered it an excellent Christmas Day indeed.

Nor is it over. Carol and I celebrate Christmas for at least a week, so for us it’s really only beginning. If this is your season (whatever you may call it) to celebrate all that is good in the world, hold that thought–there’s no reason at all to stay there for one day only and call it done!

Thanksgiving Break

I’m by no means finished with my current thread on how necessary Windows is, but the Thanksgiving holiday weekend intervened, and Carol and I flew to Chicago earlier this week to spend time with family. I hadn’t seen our nieces Katie Beth and Julie since the beginning of August, and kids change quickly at this point in their lives. Julie is now making short but full sentences (at 18 months) and Katie, now 3, is chattering away as she discusses some pretty interesting issues. For example, last night at Gretchen’s house, Katie looked at me and asked her mother, “What is Uncle Jeff?” (A few of my early girlfriends probably wondered the same thing.) Gretchen tried to explain that Uncle Jeff is her brother, but Katie does not have a brother and may not quite grasp the concept yet.

No sweat on that one; she’ll get there. Carol and I visited with her mom on Wednesday, did some shopping, and helped her sister Kathy prepare the Thanksgiving feast. It was drippy from the moment we got off the plane on Tuesday, and the drips continued through the day Thursday, when the family finally gathered at three. The feast included all the traditional fare: Turkey, ham, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, rolls, both ceasar and Hawaiian salad, three kinds of home-made pies (with ice cream, as an option) and probably a few things that I missed, most likely green vegetables. As has become the tradition, I acted as sommelier, and brought both dry and sweet wines for the table. The dry red was Cosentino Winery’s Cigarzin 2004, a superb, fruit-forward Zinfandel without much oak but with explosive fruit flavors. Not subtle–but then, neither am I. On the sweet side I chose Bartenura’s Malvasia, an unusual sweet blush with just a little fizz. We also had a German Riesling Auslese from St. Christopher, with a bottle of White Heron in the fridge in case we needed it. As feasts go it was outstanding; much credit going to Kathy, her husband Bob, and Bob’s mother Betty for somehow making all the food appear at an appropriate time at the appropriate temperature.

I stayed out of the stores yesterday for obvious reasons, even though I’m shopping for a new subnotebook or (gasp) netbook. Instead I spent time at Gretchen’s making an old family recipe handed down from our Irish grandmother Sade. It’s called gumgash, which is essentially hamburger mixed with chopped onions, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and shell macaroni. I dumped a little Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 into the mix, which isn’t historical but adds significant flavor if you can let the whole thing simmer for 20 minutes. After we all feasted on gumgash, the girls demanded to hear their Phineas and Ferb music CD. This is a spinoff from a cartoon show on the Disney channel, about two 10-year-old nerds who invent things and drive their 15-year-old sister to distraction. The show is the girls’ current favorite (having recently upended the Madagascar Penguins; could there be stirrings of Linux culture here?) and I danced with both of them to a few of the brief but well-written cuts (some of which were hilarious) on the album. There aren’t many effective ways to dance with an 18-month-old, so I sat taylor-style on the kitchen floor and held Julie’s hands while we both swayed back and forth to the pounding rhythms of “I’m Lindana and I Wanna Have Fun!” which, while only 51 seconds long, is insanely catching, and echoed endlessly around in the back of my skull until I finally dozed off at 11 last night.

So here I am, taking a breather on Saturday afternoon before getting busy again. We’ll be home in a couple of days, when I’ll continue the current series, and then segue into some observations about writing fiction. I like lumps in my Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, and I like lumps in my exposition. The important part is what the lumps are made of. If they’re tasty enough, nobody will care…but I’ll get back to that.

Scans of Odd Things, Part 2


Some time in the early-mid 1930s, my father’s family went on a trip to California. While they were there, they went on a tour of the MGM Studios, and while on that tour had a chance to get autographs from a number of MGM stars. My aunt and godmother Kathleen Duntemann was perhaps 13 or 14 at that time, and we have a photo of her with her arm around Mickey Rooney, who (I see, thanks to Wikipedia) was three weeks younger than she.

Of course, from my father’s perspective (being an 11-year-old boy at that time) the really big draw would be Frankenstein, hence the above photo of Boris Karlov signing Aunt Kathleen’s autograph book. (My father is the boy to the left of Karlov, in a maternal hammerlock well suited to his unruly ways.)

The autograph itself did not surface when Gretchen and I were sorting Aunt Kathleen’s effects after her death, more’s the pity, but the shot you see here has always taken the cake as the oddest family photo in the three boxes full that have survived.

And while we’re talking family photos, I have some advice: Write the names of the people shown in the photos on the backs while you’re still alive and remember who’s who, what was going on, and when. You won’t be the last person to look at those photos, especially if you have children or grandchildren. I have huge numbers of very old photos of people lined up somewhere, and have no clue who they are nor where they were taken. I have a photo of my father in uniform with his arm around a girl in August 1942, which would be just before he left for Italy. No idea who the girl is. My father took photos of steam locomotives, and never failed to carefully write on the back what model, and what railroad. Girls? How could a girl stack up to a C&NW 4-6-0?

Tomorrow: Duntemadmann!

Happy Beginnings vs. Happy Endings

Left to right: Patricia Labuda (later Sr. Maristella), John Malone, Bea Berbach, Victoria & Frank Duntemann, William Mark, and Kathleen DuntemannSixty years ago today, my parents were married, at St. Mary of Perpetual Help church on West 32nd Street in Chicago. It was a remarkable event, not so much because history will consider my parents remarkable (though I do) but because it was, well, unlikely. This remarkableness was not unique, but occurred countless times around America in that era, as social and ethnic barriers that had stood for centuries started to crumble, and men and women began to marry for love and not to satisfy family demands.

Consider Frank William Duntemann, the only son of a bank officer at the First National Bank of Chicago. He had been born and raised solidly middle class in East Rogers Park, of a German father and an Irish mother. Hard-headed, ironic, optimistic, stubborn, bright, slightly snotty, and short–5’6″ of solid muscle, fearless and (especially as a young man) a little pugnacious. He drove his parents crazy sometimes, running off to join the Army in 1938 when he was only 16 (the Army sent him home) and getting suspended from Lane Tech for beating the crap out of the six-foot president of the Lane Tech Nazi Society, after the Nazi had made the mistake of stabbing my father in the stomach with a wood chisel during an argument.

And consider Victoria Albina Pryes, the youngest of ten children, born of penniless Polish immigrants in a ramshackle farmhouse in Stanley, Wisconsin. Artistic, fretful, possessed of a beautiful voice, pious to the point of mysticism, and ethereally beautiful, she trained as a nurse in Chicago after WWII and struggled with the question of what to do with her life. Her family thought she should become a nun, because her high-school sweetheart had died in the War, and that could only be a Sign. But she held back, and one day in 1946 a nursing school friend suggested a double date. Mary’s boyfriend knew this interesting guy from the North Side…

Frank was smitten. Victoria was terrified. He asked for her phone number, and in a panic she made something up. Undeterred, the man who had slept through the bombardment of Monte Cassino sent a postcard to her nursing school (we have that postcard) asking her to get in touch. Even though torn between what she felt to be her family and religious obligations and her own infatuation, she did. Not sure what to expect from a man so far removed from her ethnic heritage and socioeconomic class, what she found was passionate friendship. In 1948 he asked her to marry him. By then, there was no hesitation.

But it was not without challenges. Frank’s parents were furious. They had expected him to marry a nice German girl from the neighborhood. Instead, he had chosen a Polock farm girl living in what they considered the slums. Harry Duntemann was not a man to be trifled with, and he told his son to break it off. Harry had managed to browbeat Frank into a bookkeeper’s job that he hated, and was nagging him to return to Northwestern for a degree in business. But the War had changed Frank, as it had changed thousands of men who had been frightened boys the day after Pearl Harbor. Frank took his father aside and told him, “Look, I’ve made my decision and it’s not open to discussion. I’m going to marry Victoria, and then I’m going to Georgia to get my engineering degree on the GI Bill. If you want us to come back here, and if you want to see your grandchildren, you’d better start seeing things my way.”

Harry, perhaps recognizing his own stubbornness in his son, gulped and agreed. (And to ensure that his son would return from Georgia, helped buy him a house–on the North Side.) And so on that gorgeous June day in 1949, my parents made their Happy Beginning, bridging two widely disparate cultures, he confidently, she (as always) apprehensively.

By any measure it was a successful marriage. Frank and Victoria changed one another: He taught her confidence, and persuaded her that she was beautiful and worthy; she taught him moderation and compromise. She was not sure she wanted children, but he did; he was not sure that a gentle style of childrearing would work, but she did. They were in fact spectacular parents. They read to us, they bought us books, they insisted that we speak correctly and tell the stories of our days at the dinner table. My father threatened to call the Alderman if the Chicago Public Library refused to give me a library card for being underage. (I was six; you had to be seven.) I got the card. He gave me money for electronic parts and bought me a microscope; later, when I was deeply into junkbox telescopes, my mother always had a dollar for one more pipe fitting. We were not especially flush, and were taught frugality, but money was always there for things that mattered. Stubborn as he was, my father had the courage to avoid his own father’s mistakes: He told us that no matter what careers we chose, he would support us in that choice.

My father loved my mother fiercely, and the lesson was not lost on me. More than once, when I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, my father came home from work a little early, went up behind my mother at the stove, kissed the top of her head, and told her he loved her. When I was fifteen, he made it explicit: “Love comes out of friendship. If you’re lucky and smart, you’ll marry your best friend.” I did as he said (and also as he did) and no better advice has ever been given to me.

Happy beginnings are often easy. Alas, happy endings are not automatic. I’ve told most of the rest of the story here. In 1968 my father was diagnosed with oral cancer, from his two-pack-a-day habit he had picked up in Italy during the War. He fought back, and it took nine years, but the cancer killed him a piece at a time, in a gruesome progression that still gives me nightmares. It broke his spirit and finally took his mind; at our wedding in 1976 he was weak and confused. By 1977 he no longer knew who I was, which broke my heart, and in January 1978 it was finally over.

My mother was never the same. Living alone in their house for another 18 years allowed her to brood on questions of divine justice that had always haunted her. What had she done to offend God? How had she failed? My mother’s understanding of Catholicism was suffused with peasant superstition amplified to absurdity by her odd mystical personality. It was a cruel and often bizarre religion, full of prophecies and portents and dark powers, overlaid against the looming background of an angry God and an animate Hell. She was tormented by hideous dreams of accusing demons, dreams that may have led (as Gretchen and I have speculated) to the insomnia that plagued her last years. She was literally afraid to sleep, fearing what she might dream. Her doctors tried various drugs, but nothing helped, and even with Gretchen and Bill’s constant companionship and loving care, she lost her ability to speak, and slowly withered away to almost nothing. When I carried her out to Gretchen’s van the day before she died, she may have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, and looked like a victim of the Biafra famine.

It made me furious then, and I still get a little nuts to think about it. How can people who tried so hard, who loved one another so truly and unfailingly, who were generous and industrious and offered their children nothing but unconditional love, suffer such hideous ends? Where’s the justice here? The answers are complex, if in fact they are answers at all, and my readings on theodicy have been scant comfort.

Yes, they deserved a happy ending. And because they never had that happy ending, the day after my mother died in 2000, I sat down and wrote them one. (Warning: Major tearjerker material. The goal was closure, not publication.) They allowed me to be a writer, which is not as secure a career as an engineer (or almost anything else) so it was the least that I could do.

Still, the question stands: Where is the justice? If God does in fact exist, He owes me an answer to that painful question–but if God does in fact exist, (as I think He does) He’s already provided the answer–and the happy ending–to those, like my parents, who are farther along the Great Path than you or I.

Redshanks and Omathauns and Gomogs, Oh My!

I had an Irish grandmother. Her Irishness was off the scale, pinning the needle and wrapping it around the (green) post three times, one for each Person of the Trinity. She was wry and cranky and as a younger woman had an operatic voice, which she used mostly to ridicule the whole idea of opera. (If I had inherited her voice, by God, I’d use it for the same thing.) Sade Genevieve Prendergast Duntemann (1892-1965) was quite the character. Back in 2005, I published the marvelous letter she was writing to my father when WWII ended. She gave me her Underwood typewriter–the same one from which that letter emerged–when I was only ten years old, and in doing so changed me forever. Words, both spoken and hammered in uneven type on a smeary two-color cloth ribbon, were the bond we had together.

And some of those words were…odd. Four in particular come to mind, though she died 44 years ago and I may have forgotten a few. I always assumed she had made them all up, as making things up was one of her gifts. (I believe that my knack for storytelling came down from her through my father.) Then, as the years rolled on, I started encountering them in real life:

  • Redshanks, in her parlance, were small imaginary animals that burrowed in her garden, making a mess. As a preschooler I imagined them as bright red mice with little horns. I would build redshank castles with my blocks, and my father and I once made redshank houses with strips of papier mache laid over half-flattened beer cans. I later found out that redshanks were also Scottish mercenaries serving in the Irish army circa 1600. There may have been an ancient family tradition coming to the surface here; had the Irish Army ever marched through County Mayo and trampled the Prendergast tomato patch?
  • An omathaun was a silly, clumsy goof–a word she applied to me often, and my father perhaps more than that. Again, I thought it was a pure Sade invention, until we saw the scraggly Irish cartoon fox in Mary Poppins yell “You heathen omathauns!” at the pursuing fox hounds. As with a lot of things, it was hard to research because I didn’t know how it was spelled. I suspect that in the original Gaelic the “th” was the single letter thorn (which looks like a crooked “d”) and today it’s generally spelled omadhaun. Sade had this one precisely right.

So. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. The two other words I will give you phonetically. My favorite is gomog, which in use was a somewhat stronger version of omathaun, particularly when there was a lot of frantic motion involved. “Running around like gomogs” is an expression Carol and I still use to describe QBit and Aero tearing through the house at flank speed, yapping like hyenas. I’ve already used the term “gomog” as a sort of immaterial AI PDA in my magic-as-software fantasy novel, Ten Gentle Opportunities, which I may finish someday with some borrowed Irish luck. (Quick, where’s my shamrock?)

And finally, oonchick. (Again, the spelling is phonetic.) An oonchick, if I recall the nuance correctly, was a dullard, albeit one deserving of some respect. I suspect it was Sade’s opinion of President Eisenhower, though we never talked politics. Mostly it was spoken in conversation I overheard, about adults I did not know. Sade was never short of opinions, just as she was never short of words.

I miss her, as I miss all those who were ever kind to me; and I miss her more than many, because of the peculiar power that her kindness imparted. I’m sure, as my mother lugged the heavy cast-iron contraption with “Underwood” painted on the front out of the car and up to my room, she was wondering, “Now what in heaven’s name is he going to do with that?” Sade had a hunch, and she was right. Wherever she is, I hope she got the word.