Idara at Five and a Half

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Growing up too damn fast.

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Oren at Two and a Half

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Potty training, putting things in rows, and smiling. Lots of smiling.

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The Books I Read in 2021

Stars (★) mark the books that I liked the most. Please let me know if any of these resonated with you too or if you have recommendations for what I should read next. And here are the lists I posted in 2020, in 2019, and in 2018.

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Oren at Two and a Quarter

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Mostly he's just shouting.

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The Death of Zucchini

Idara came home from a birthday party with a one-inch betta fish in a little glass bowl. When I asked her it’s name she said “Zucchini!” without the slightest pause. That was Sunday. On Tuesday we found Zucchini at the bottom of the tank, upside down.

We’d been warned. Aziza, the woman who takes care of Idara after she gets home from school, told us that we might want to tell Idara that Zucchini “went to stay on a farm in the country.” Of course we could shield her from the idea of death for a while, but for how long, and to what end?

We didn’t tell Idara that Zucchini went away or that he was just sleeping — we told her in as gentle terms as we could that he was dead. No more swimming around, no more eating, no more anything. Tears began to well up in her eyes and for a moment I saw myself in her, and remembered all of the tears I’d cried over dead fish and frogs and dogs and cats.

The poet Louise Gluck wrote that “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” What will Idara remember from this brief look at death? I have no idea.

Maybe she won’t remember it at all, so briefly were she and Zucchini acquainted. Or maybe she’ll remember that we fished him out of the tank and laid him down in a grave she dug in one of our potted plants outside. That she set down some colorful rocks as a grave marker, and that afterwards we sat around the dinner table and recalled our favorite memories of Zucchini.

The truth is that death is the ultimate rejoinder to life, the experience that makes it most worth living. The other truth is that Idara is only five years old. I want her to feel endless opportunity in every direction, to feel free of worry and fear and suffering. But I can’t force that reality any more than I can reanimate a fish, and so we do the next best thing: We experience it, we talk about it, and we learn from it.


I’d been warned about the birthday parties of well-healed Azeri children. They were a spectacle, people said, held at beach-front villas and featuring multiple performers, exorbitant party favors, and lavish cuisine. No other birthday party will ever live up.

Rachael and I were double-booked, so I was Idara’s plus-one. To put it mildly, the party did not disappoint. Idara had her face painted within a few minutes of our arrival. Then she was carrying around a bouquet of flowers made out of balloons. The kids were being enveloped in giant bubbles and watching a man dressed in black put on a show with a dozen trained pigeons. Every twenty minutes or so a giant unicorn or bear with a person inside would wander through the crowd of children, dancing with them and offering piggyback rides. There was a piñata, too, and so Idara was sent home with a giant bag of candy, and also a betta fish, which she named Zucchini.

As Idara and I drove home I wondered when I should tell her that we will never, ever be able to throw her a birthday party like that. Then she broached the subject herself.

“You know what I want for my 6th birthday party?”

‘Uh-oh,’ I thought, ‘here we go…’

“I want it to be like an Earth birthday,” she said. “We can have lots of water and plants around, and we can make a cake that looks like mud, and then everyone can get a plastic bag and go to that spot next to our house and pick up trash.”

I fought back tears, which is not something I have to do very often. If Idara’s ideal 6th birthday party involves picking up trash, and not just celebrating herself, but also the vehicle on which she’s ridden six laps around the Sun, then maybe, just maybe, we’re doing something right.

Oren at Two

38425-2021-Jun-30-AMJ-X.jpg Rachael and Oren at Hope Lake in Azerbaijan.

It was two years ago today that Dr. Crane yanked Oren out of Rachael’s abdomen. Two years ago that I watched this unfold with Dr. Hayes behind me, her hands on my hips in case I fainted. Two years ago that a nurse took his limp body and rubbed his back and flicked his feet until he let out a weak cry and told me that he was alive.

Two years ago today Rachael had labored for hours, sweating and grimacing and screaming and pushing and willing him out of her body. When he finally emerged the only movements left were her shivers and chattering teeth, a side effect of the anesthetic.

When Oren wakes up he’ll be two. We’ll point out the “Happy Birthday!” letters we hung over the sink, and put on birthday hats, and eat pancakes. And he’ll wonder what the heck this is all about. And we’ll say it’s for you, which he won’t really understand.

It’s an old cliché, but really we should be celebrating Rachael, honoring her for what she went through two years ago today, recognizing that she made a person, and that he now sits smiling back at us, with a dimple and a half, under blond wispy hair that’s too short in the front and too long in the back, and also, somehow, perfect.


Maytham tells me that when he was a child he saw bananas for sale on street corner in Baghdad. The price equaled one month of his father’s salary. I tell Maytham that one time I saw bananas at Costco for 25 cents a pound.

Maytham tells me that he remembers the first time he tried a banana. His family left Iraq with forged documents, and when they arrived in their new home his father had stocked the fridge with bananas and chocolate. I tell Maytham that I do not remember the first time I tried a banana, and that I’ve been eating them every day since before I can remember.

Maytham tells me that he’s addicted to bananas. He reminds me of an old women who jokes that she’s addicted to chocolate. But I believe him.

I wonder what it must be like to see bananas through Maytham’s eyes. To remember them rare and exorbitant and then ubiquitous and cheap. To describe the relationship with the fruit as an addiction.

Maytham says, “Don’t misunderstand me. We didn’t have bananas. We had everything we needed.” I don’t misunderstand him. It’s not about poverty. I tell Maytham that he probably knows better than me what a banana is truly worth.

Seth Godin Is Wrong About School

I was assigning homework yesterday in one of my advanced math classes when one of my students blurted out, “We don’t need to do homework, we’re good at math!” So I held up the clipboard that I use to record their homework. It was filled with check marks, indicating that in the four weeks we’ve been in school most of them had yet to miss a single assignment. “You have it backwards, Joel. The reason you’re good at math is because you do your homework.”

Later in the day I read a post from the marketing guru Seth Godin. He tries to make the case that the (Western) education system is “unquestioned and unimproved” and that it needs to be updated to reflect the modern world. But like my student Joel, I think Godin has it backwards. The reason we have this “modern” world at all is because of our education system.

Peps McCrea made these points better than I can in a response to similar claims made by Julian Shapiro, so I’ll quote him rather than attempt my own case:

Could ‘school’ be better? Absolutely (and there are plenty of folks working on this right now). But is school a failure of modern society? Absolutely not. On the contrary: it is arguably one of our greatest achievements.

Godin finishes by asking, “If this is what we need and what we value, why aren’t we teaching it?” But we are! Spend time in a primary or secondary school today and I’ll bet you’ll see many, if not all, of the “courses” Godin references, including statistics, games, communication, and so on.

The real challenge is not one of ideas or wills or reimagined curriculums from marketing gurus, but of resources. In the United States, at least, we expect schools to serve as a giant social safety net for our children but don’t provide nearly enough money or people to do it well.

Composting in the Caucasus

One of the things always took for granted when we were living in Oregon was how many recycling options there are. If you're thoughtful about what you buy it's possible to not have to throw away much of anything at all. Not so in Azerbaijan.

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