Someone named David M. left a moving comment on Scott Greenfield’s Memorial Day post:

My grandfather was drafted out of the Hitler Youth into the Luftwaffe in ’43, when he was 16. In early ’45, he was assigned to man an AA gun, shooting at American planes. When the Americans crossed the Rhine in March and it was clear that the war was lost, he deserted along with a few of his high school classmates. They scrounged up a few supplies and split up, each man trying to reach his family. For my grandpa, that meant sneaking through the Ruhr pocket.

About a week later, he was caught by a lone GI. It was dusk, and my grandpa, who’d been sheltering in a ditch, was getting ready to move on under cover of night when the GI stepped out from behind a tree. Grandpa was armed, though he’d shed the uniform, and the soldier held him at gunpoint.

On his knees in a muddy ditch, an armed enemy combatant caught sneaking through occupied territory, he did the only thing he could think of. He said “please.” One word. In German. And after a long pause, the GI put up his gun, said “get up, boy,” and helped my grandpa out of what should have been his grave.

So thank you. From three generations now to another, far greater than any of ours. Not only did they risk their lives, give their lives, to put an end to the awful evil of Nazi Germany, but they showed us mercy, even when none needed to be shown.

To which Scott responds:

That was my father who let him go. Metaphorically.

On the other hand, metaphorically, my father shot him dead.

My dad had started fighting the war in Italy and later ended up in the forces following the D-Day invasion into France. My father was with some unit that was chasing the German occupiers out of some small town in France, and as they were moving down the street, he saw a bunch of people run out of a building up ahead.

One of the runners was wearing a German uniform, and as he had been doing for the past couple of years whenever he saw an enemy soldier, my father shot at him. The German went down. Dead.

Although my father had seen combat several times throughout the war, that was the only time, before or since, that he knew for sure he had killed someone.

Sixty years later, my dad told me that he still sometimes thinks about the man he killed, and he wonders if he could have done something different.

Dammit, Roger Ebert died.

Over at the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg has an obituary/eulogy for him. As with other great eulogies I’ve read, I finish it feeling like I’ve missed out on something good by never getting to know the subject personally.

Yet, in a way I can’t help feeling like I did know Roger Ebert personally. He’s been part of my life since I was a child, when I first started watching him and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews on WTTW, our local PBS station, and I’ve been using his reviews to decide what movies to see ever since. My wife and I saw a lot of movies when we were dating and during our first decade of marriage — probably about 100 a year — and “What does Ebert say?” was almost always an important question.

Not that I agreed with him all that often. He would love movies I hated and hate movies I thought were lots of fun. The thing I noticed, however, was that regardless of how he felt about a movie, after reading his review I could usually make a pretty good guess about whether or not I would like it.

I think this is because Ebert was always honest in his reviews. His wasn’t afraid to show his biases, which meant that we could easily learn what they were and compensate for them. He was fascinated by realistic movies about addiction, for example, so I always knew to discount his reviews a bit when deciding whether to go see a movie that had addiction as a theme. And when he said the plot was confusing, that usually meant I would find it intriguing. By being himself in his writing, and being consistent about it, he conveyed a lot more information than if he had tried for some kind of journalistic neutrality.

(This is an attitude I have taken to heart. It’s something I try to do when I blog, and it’s one of the reasons I admire blogging as a journalistic form. The author’s biases are an important part of any written work, and the better we understand them, the better we understand the subject of the work.)

One of the things I found endearing about Ebert’s reviews is that he so clearly loved the movies. He always seemed genuinely happy for the filmmakers when he thought they did a great job. And even when he gave a movie a low rating, he would still spend some of his review discussing the parts of the movie that worked well. You could tell that he wanted movies to be better. Even in his infamous review of North, (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”) I got the feeling that he was not feeling snarky reviewer triumph, but rather that he was angry at having witnessed a filmmaking tragedy.

Ebert was an incredibly busy guy. In addition to writing reviews for the newspaper and talking about movies on his various television shows, he also wrote books about the movies and lectured about at the University of Chicago and hosted the Ebertfest film festival.  He was also online going way, way back. Before the internet, he was on AOL, and before that, he was on Prodigy and Compuserve. He also made his reviews available on the Cinemania movie encyclopedia software for PCs and Macs.

And like every other cutting-edge media figure, Roger Ebert had a blog. I’ll close with the first and last paragraphs of his last post, put up just before he went into the hospital for the last time. They serve as his  goodbye (although if you read the whole piece, you’ll see he had every intention of sticking around):

Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.

Thank you, Roger, for forty-six years of terrific writing and wonderful movie reviews.

Memorial Day always makes me think of my father. He was a veteran of World War II and he was born on May 30, the traditional date for Memorial Day, although my dad always called it by its original name, Decoration Day. It was, in origin, a day for decorating the graves of soldiers.

Fortunately, the day doesn’t have a lot of personal significance for me. Other than veterans like my father who died of natural causes, all the soldiers I know are still alive and well. I don’t have any graves to decorate.

I’d very much like to keep it that way.

I spend a day away from the internet and come back to find out that Vaclav Havel died.

Update: Oh, but there’s good news too. Kim Jong Il is also dead.

Joel RosenbergAh, dammit:

Joel Rosenberg – husband, father, mensch

On Wednesday afternoon, June 1, 2011, Joel had a respiratory depression that caused a heart attack, anoxic brain damage and major organ failure. Despite the very best efforts of the paramedics and the team at Hennepin County Medical Center, Joel was pronounced brain dead at around 5:37pm Thursday June 2nd, In accordance with his wishes, he shared the gift of life through organ and tissue donation.

He is survived by his daughters, Judith Eleanor and Rachel Hannah, and his wife, Felicia Herman. Today, June 3rd would have been his 32nd wedding anniversary.


Dammit. The internet just got a little less interesting.

Update: Got a little more time now…

I first ran into Joel in the comments at Scott Greenfield’s blog, where I was struck by the fact that even though he clearly had an emotional investment in the issues, he was willing to accept the possibility that he could be wrong, he was willing to consider alternative explanations, and he seemed to believe that, despite their errors, most of his opponents were acting with good intentions.

Another time, in his typically disarming style, Joel found a common link between gun owners and gay couples:

[Joel] suggests that after five years, mild-mannered Minnesotans have finally learned that a gun tucked into a waistband isn’t the sign of a blood-hungry nutcase.

“It’s like the gay couple that moves in down the block,” he says. “At first some people get upset, but after a while it’s just like, ‘Yeah, that’s just Joe and Todd.'”

Soon, he made an impression on me in another way when he cost me $99. Actually, if you read that post, Joel didn’t really cause the problem — MovableType just flaked on his avatar photo (above) for some reason — but he nevertheless apologized in the comments. That fits my impression of Joel: I’m pretty sure he knew I was kidding around, but he nevertheless responded by being courteous. Joel is quite capable of being a pain in the ass to people who’ve got it coming, but he’d hate to be a pain in the ass unintentionally.

A couple of months later, I invited Joel to be a co-blogger here. I did that based on the strength of his comments at other blogs. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Joel was an actual science fiction author. That’s right. I had asked a published author to come write for me for free. Joel, however, graciously accepted and went on to write 39 posts for me before moving on.

It’s going to be kind of quiet around here without him.

I don’t understand memorials and monuments. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

I have the good fortune of having lead a peaceful life. Other than my parents, no one really close to me has died. Perhaps if I’d experienced more tragedy, I’d understand people’s reactions better. What I’m saying is that I’m perfectly willing to admit that I just don’t get it. Still, there are things that just seem wrong.

I remember hearing many years ago that someone was proposing a memorial for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, which is where he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. Part of the planned memorial was a laser beam, projected across the hotel grounds, that followed the path of the bullet that killed King.

To my way of thinking, this was completely the wrong way to honor Dr. King. The shooting at the Lorraine hotel had nothing to do with who King was and what he stood for. King did his great work in countless churches and gatherings, in marches and speeches and discussions with leaders all over the country. That’s what was important to Martin Luther King, and that’s what we should remember about him. That’s the part of his life we should honor.

It’s not that King’s assassination is unimportant. It says a lot about America that we had a guy like Dr. King in this country, and that he was murdered. But his murder wasn’t about him, it was about our relationship to him. It was about what other people did to him. Specifically, it was about what one man with a gun did to him. These people wanted to build a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed to me they were building a monument to to the accomplishments of James Earl Ray.

(The Lorraine Hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which seems like a much better much better way to honor Dr. King and his work.)

I got to thinking about all this after reading Scott Greenfield’s brilliant post about the controversy over building a Mosque near Ground Zero. Scott argues that Ground Zero and the location of the Mosque are worlds apart by Manhattan standards, and that people who don’t actually know the area from personal experience shouldn’t be telling folks in Manhattan what to do. In particular, he’s not impressed by the 9/11 families’ claims that the former site of the twin towers is “hallowed ground.”

(Scott also doesn’t like the phrase “Ground Zero,” and frankly neither do I. Ground zero is technical slang for the location on the Earth’s surface directly below an aerial explosion such as nuclear bomb. Its use for the site of the World Trade Center towers has always struck me as incorrect.)

I felt bad for people who lost loved ones in the terrors of 9/11, but I’ve found the whole “9/11 families” phenomenon a little disturbing. Again, as with the proposed memorial for Martin Luther King, it’s because the 9/11 families were brought together and united as a group by something that had nothing to do with them or the people they lost.

(Many of them would have known groups of the other families before 9/11 because their loved ones worked together. That does have to do with who they are and what they were about, so it’s not what I’m talking about here.)

After 9/11, I’m sure the families of the victims naturally came together in sharing their grief. But somewhere along the way, I think that unity got turned toward ends that were somewhat political. I don’t know where it started. Maybe reporters asked the family members for their opinions so many times that they selected people to speak for them, and those people became leaders. For some of them, it became a purpose in life, a reason to go on. But I’m sure other people saw that any claim of a connection to 9/11 was a way to draw attention and political power to themselves.

Then there was all the money. The September 11th Fund collected donations and eventually provided $500 million to the families, but that’s small change compared to the $7 billion they got from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The latter was a government program, and it was far from a simple act of charity. Among other things, it was a bailout of sorts for the airlines whose planes were hijacked: In accepting money from the fund, families agreed not to sue the airlines. Naturally, the airlines wanted this fund to be as large as possible to discourage lawsuits. You can bet they lobbied Congress hard for this.

Lawyers scrambled to represent the families. Politicians learned that they could get publicity by calling for more compensation for the families. Pundits attracted attention to themselves by commenting on how terrible it all was.

When people started talking about a memorial at the site of the towers, I began to get the same feeling I had from the proposed Martin Luther King memorial. The people in the towers on 9/11 were insurance brokers and underwriters, bankers, tourists, car rental agents, lawyers, accountants, computer technicians, doctors, travel agents, and restaurateurs. They were husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children. They had no idea 9/11 was coming, they had no plans to make a sacrifice or take a risk that day. So why honor them as if they did? Why unite them as if they had a common cause?

(This doesn’t apply to the first responders — police officers, firefighters, and EMTs — who showed up to help. They risked their lives to help others. This was a cause they all shared.)

If we’re going to honor the victims of 9/11, we should honor them for who they chose to be, not for what Al Qaeda made them. We shouldn’t turn the site of the World Trade Center into a monument to the vision of Osama bin Laden.

I’m probably projecting my own values into the situation too much, but I can’t help feeling that the 9/11 families have had their grieving process hijacked by the media, the politicians, and to some extent the American people. I’m not saying that their grief is unnatural or fake, but part of the grieving process is socially constructed. We do some things because people expect it of us, and when 300 million people are aware of your loss, you’ve got to feel some pressure.

The reverence people have for the site of the twin towers really surprises me. I don’t really get it. People talk about preserving the footprint of the towers, and not building anything there. It all just seems so technical and dry. I don’t understand the attachment to the location. I can understand why the location is painful and emotional and maybe cathartic to visit for people who lost a loved one, but I can’t understand the reverence.

I’ve tried to imagine how I’d feel if, say, my wife was killed in a car accident. How would I react to the location of the accident? I think I’d hate driving past the site, and would probably avoid it for a few years. But I wouldn’t revere it. It wouldn’t be hollowed ground for me.

And yet… When my father died, my wife and I took his ashes back to Kentucky where he was born. The last few hours of driving were off the interstate, on state roads winding through the hills and farms of eastern Kentucky, and I became accutely aware of passing small crosses that had been placed on the side of the road. I assume these were markers of locations where someone had been killed in a car accident.

I can kind of understand that. If someone I loved had died in one of those accidents, it would seem strange that the road appeared so normal. Here this important and terrible thing happened, and everything about the place is completely ordinary. It wouldn’t seem right.

On the other hand, I still don’t think I’d put up a marker. The location was the result of random chance, and it had nothing to do with the person who died.

All of this is not to say that there shouldn’t be a monument to the people murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I’m just not sure that this should be it. I haven’t been following the planning of the 9/11 memorial, so I don’t know much about this, but it looks like they’re setting aside eight acres of Manhattan for the memorial, and they won’t be rebuilding any commercial buildings where the towers stood.

Somehow, it all seems like too much. By comparison, when the Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River in 1915, over 800 people died. The only memorial is this plaque (although there are plans for a slightly larger exhibit). Of course, almost four times as many people died on 9/11, and they died not in an accident but in an act of war, which does make a difference. Still, the 9/11 monument is half an acre larger than the National World War II Memorial.

I can’t escape the feeling that some people see memorializing 9/11 as a business and political opportunity, that some people who claim to represent the 9/11 families are really representatives only of their own self-interest, and that some people who claim to be honoring the dead are really trying to attract attention to themselves.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like I said, I really don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It only makes sense, therefore, that the things other people plan won’t have much appeal to me, nor should they. When it comes to building the 9/11 memorial, no one should give much thought to pleasing someone who feels as I do. Nothing they do there is going to upset me much.

Still, I wish they’d do something. It’s been almost nine years since the towers fell. That’s four years longer than it took to build the towers or almost a third of the time they were standing. Looking at the construction site webcam as I write this, night has fallen, and imprints of the towers are just two dark holes in the ground. It sure looks like what Osama bin Laden wanted.

It was a year ago today that my father passed away. During the last few months, he spent a lot of time listening to his music CDs, and I figured it would be a nice idea to post some of the songs he liked. I hope you hear something you enjoy.

I’ll begin with his all-time favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”:

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass perform “A Walk In The Black Forest”:

Tom Jones sings “Green Green Grass of Home”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Dream the Impossible Dream”:

Marty Robbins sings “Red River Valley”

Roy Orbison sings “Blue Bayou”:

Mahalia Jackson sings “How Great Thou Art”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Go Tell It On The Mountain”:

Roy Orbison sings “Pretty Woman”:

Marty Robbins sings “I Walk Alone”:

Since this is a bit of a memorial for my father, I reckon someone’s got to sing “Amazing Grace.” Again, here’s Mahalia Jackson:

Nick Gillespie notes that Peter McWilliams died ten years ago today. McWilliams was a resister of the War On Drugs. He was also one of its casualties.


McWilliams was very sick with AIDS and cancer, and the medicines he used made him nauseated, which he was able to ameliorate by smoking marijuana. The DEA charged McWilliams with various crimes in connection with a medical marijuana operation. Forbidden by the judge from mentioning his medical condition in court, he was forced to plead guilty and hope for leniency. While out on $250,000 bond for sentencing, and refraining from using marijuana as a condition of the bond secured by his mother’s house, he apparently vomited and choked to death.

I only know of McWilliams through his amazing book, Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Country. It’s a passionate cry for freedom, the simple human freedom to do what we want as long as no one else gets hurt. Go ahead and click the link. That’s not an Amazon page, that’s the entire book, posted online for free the way McWilliams wanted it.

This book has been a huge influence on my personal moral philosophy. I had already come to an intellectual conclusion that things like the War on Drugs were wrong, but I hadn’t really internalized the idea. Then I read a section in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do where McWilliams describes getting a ticket for a traffic violation and later getting busted for smoking marijuana. He points out that the traffic violation presented a genuine danger to his fellow human beings, but using drugs harmed no one other than perhaps the user, so despite what the cops and the legislature and almost everyone thought, the traffic violation was the greater crime. In fact, using drugs was no crime at all. I realized that this crazy idea was something I could believe. And it changed everything.

The other thing I remember about McWillaims is his astonishment at the types of people who fought on the dark side:

I write these things and feel myself in mortal combat with a gnarly monster; then I remember the human faces of the kind people who tried to make me comfortable with small talk as they went through my belongings as neatly as they could. Then I remember, painfully, that the War on Drugs is a war fought by decent Americans against other decent Americans, and these people rifling through my belongings really were America’s best — bright young people willing to die for their country in covert action. It takes a special kind of person for that, and every Republic must have a generous number of them in order to survive.

But instead of our best and our brightest being trained to hunt down terrorist bombs or child abductors — to mention but two useful examples — our misguided government is using all that talent to harass and arrest Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the sick — the casualties in the War on Drugs, the ones that, to quote Leonard Cohen again, “sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” It is the heart of the evil of a prohibition law in a free country. After all, picking on someone with AIDS and cancer is a little redundant, don’t you think?

On the way out, one of the DEA agents said, “Have a nice day.”

I believe the comment was sincere.

I never know what to make of that. Oh, I understand what McWilliams was saying, and I think it’s probably true. It’s a mistake to think these people are stupid, and it’s probably unhelpful to think of them as evil. But sometimes that just makes it all the more hopeless: How can these “decent Americans” not understand that they are hurting people for no reason?

Peter’s gone now, but in his short time on earth he influenced a lot of people, and his ideals live on in so many of us. I wish he was still here to see some of it.

Happy Easter everybody.

Today’s not really a great day for me. It was a year ago today that my mother died. The trouble actually started two weeks earlier when she went into the hospital. That’s when she really disappeared. But today’s the first anniversary of the day she died.

All in all, this is the end of a rough year for me. I lost both my parents, I lost months of my time, I lost some income, and I spent a lot of money I didn’t have on things I suddenly needed. It was also kind of depressing, in the clinical sense. I know that depression can sneak up on you, but you know what? Depression snuck up on me.

I thought I was okay. A little sad and a little tired, maybe, but basically okay.

However, over the past month or so, as this anniversary approached, I noticed that I’m starting to take control of my life: Fixing things around the house, replacing busted backup disks on my computer, getting excited about my job again, bringing my personal financial records up to date (yikes!), thinking about taking up photography again…I’m even blogging more.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was doing any of these things less, but comparing how I was six months ago to how I am now, it’s pretty obvious that I went through a mild depression that seems to be waning.

(I say “seems” because, for all I know, in another six months I’ll be blogging about how depressed I was now.)

Anyway, I just want to give thanks to everyone who stuck with me, both here in the blogosphere and in real life. I’m glad to have all of you in my life.

Veteran’s Day always made me think proudly of my father. Now that he’s passed on, it’s kind of a sad day. I’ve got nothing else to say, really.

He wrote a book (book) called

.Tootsie and what I feel is one the best written comedies of my time – Oh, God!. He also had great success in movies with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum He wrote the book (script) for the Stephen Sondheim musical

, alongside the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner & Woody Allen to name a few.Your Show of Shows, which became Caesar’s Hour, but he wrote for Sid Caesar on M*A*S*H and my list included Larry Gelbart.  Larry Gelbart is probably best known for writing and directing the TV series giants of comedyA while back, I wrote about my list of the   Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!, and a Few Other Funny Things.  , but if you can find it at the library or used bookstore, I highly recommend it.It’s out of print

Larry Gelbart died Friday morning after a long battle with cancer.  He was 81. The world is a whole lot less funny without him. Thankfully, we still have his comic legacy.

Burnett Draughn, 1919 - 2009
Larger ImageBurnett Draughn, 1919 - 2009

My father, Burnett Draughn, was born in on Decoration Day, May the 30th, in 1919, somewhere near Daniel’s Branch, Kentucky. He was Joe and Melissa Draughn’s eighth child out of an eventual total of ten. My dad liked to say that he had nine brothers and sisters, and every one of them also had nine brothers and sisters.

Burnett is an unusual first name. His parents had named him after a local Baptist preacher who they must have admired. Not too long after my father was born, according to family legend, Burnett the preacher robbed the post office and took off for parts unknown.

My father grew up on a farm, where he did some horseback riding, took care of the animals, and sometimes had to go out hunting for the family’s dinner. Squirrel mostly, to hear him tell it.

He went to school in Hindman, but later he was sent to the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school founded by philanthropists to help educate poor children in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. I suspect it was a little bit like a modern youth home, except that it was in the Appalachian mountains, and that it was considered normal to teach troubled youths such handy skills as how to blow things up with dynamite.

When he was 17 years old, my father took off and lied about his age to join the Army. A couple of years ago, I saw some paperwork from the Veteran’s Administration that still showed his birth year as 1918.

Burnett was a big farm boy and used to hard work, so the Army soon had him carrying a BAR—a Browning Automatic Rifle—which is a heavy .30 caliber machine gun. In addition to the usual reasons army units have machine guns, my father also filled the role of air defense. If they were attacked by enemy aircraft, he was supposed to try to shoot them down.

Later on, the Army found out he could ride a horse pretty good, so they sent him to a pack artillary unit in Panama, where the Army used horses to haul artilliary through the mountains. His unit did have one truck available, though. They used it to carry food for the horses.

My father mustered out and went home, only to join up again a few years later as World War II started. He was sent overseas, and I gather he arrived in Italy after the controversial landing at Anzio. Eventually he ended up with the 44th Infanty Division in France, chasing the German army through the Vosges mountains, which he remembered as being very beautiful.

(My mother once told me that my father’s unit saw the Nazi death camp at Dachau, but he’s never talked about it with me.)

After returning from the war, my father married Thelma Jean Chalk and they had a son named Burnett Lee and a daughter named Sue Jean. The marriage ended badly, and my father moved away.

In the early 1960’s, Burnett found himself in Chicago, where he met a woman named Elizabeth Kielkiewicz. They got married, and by May of 1964 they had their only child, a boy they named Mark.

Through the years, my father has held a bunch of jobs. Among other things, he’s worked as a truck driver, a salesman, and a security guard. During most of my life, however, he worked in the dockyards of various trucking companies—P.I.E., Terminal Transport, and American Freight Systems are the only ones I remember—loading and unloading trucks until he retired at the age of 67. That’s a lot of hard muscle work. I remember he had a handshake like iron.

He mostly worked the night shift, which allowed my mother to work days without leaving me alone in the house, although I can remember a period where I had an hour to myself each day. I didn’t get to see much of him, since he was rarely home for long when I got home from school.

We went on a few long driving vacations, mostly to Kentucky to visit the family—Louisville for my Aunt Mary Elizabeth, Pikeville for my Uncle Hagan and his children. I can remember long drives through the hills of Kentucky. One time we picked up a couple of hitchhikers, and another time we ran out of gas.

On one of the trips we were on a long stretch of open road, and my father decided to see how fast the car would go. He got our 1969 Plymouth Valiant up to an even 100 miles per hour. Just a few months ago, he told me that he realized this was not a smart thing to do—if one of our cheap street tires had blown, we’d all have died—but I told him it was a vivid and fun memory for me.

One summer we drove to Washington, D.C.—I remember we toured the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Capitol Building, the White House, and the FBI building. We were really impressed by the new subway system, which was much prettier than our own CTA. Of course, we returned home through Kentucky.

My dad enjoyed playing card games, and was something of a card sharp in his younger days. I remember long hours of he and my mother and I playing 500 Rummy around the kitchen table. He also like to play the horses occasionally, although later he switched to the state lottery.

My father was always looking to “work the angles” in any situation. This meant trying to figure out any tricks that could be pulled. He wasn’t very good at tricking other people, but he was good at spotting other people trying to trick him. I remember one afternoon as a child when I had a friend over to play one of my games that used marbles. When we were done, as my friend was getting ready to leave, my dad came over and laughingly picked him up and held him upside down. Marbles fell out of his pockets.

After he retired, my father used to like to run errands around the neighborhood, stopping to chat with everyone he ran into. For a while he used to tell all the ladies that he wanted to give them a kiss, then he’d hand them a piece of Hershey’s Kiss chocolate.

In recent years, my dad spent much of his time watching MSNBC and CSPAN. He followed politics a lot, and he was a life-long Yellow Dog Democrat: There were some Democrats he didn’t like, but I never heard him say anything nice about a Republican. When I took him to the V.A. hospital, he would always ask me to turn his wheelchair away from the portrait of George Bush in the waiting area. I’m glad he lived to see the Democrats retake the White House.

Over the years, my dad had a few important pieces of advice: Don’t buy cheap stuff because quality always pays off in the long run. Always treat every gun as if it’s loaded, and never point it at another person unless you want to kill them. Don’t let cops in the house unless they have a warrant. If you’re setting off explosives with a burning fuse and they don’t go off when you expect, wait a while before you go to check it out because the fuse may still be smoldering.

Only that first one has really proven useful.

When my mom died in April, I moved in with my dad to take care of him for a couple of months until we could find a nursing home. In May, just a few days before his 90th birthday, we took him to Norwood Crossing nursing home, located about 15 minutes from my house.

At the age of 90, he had some problems with his memory, his time sense was messed up, and he had a few crazy ideas. He wasn’t all there, but he could hold short conversations, and if the subject interested him enough, he’d remember it the next time we saw him.

During the next few weeks, he started to settle in. He was eager to take physical therapy to keep walking. He was starting to make friends with some of the other residents, and he’d sing aloud to the ladies when they wheeled him through the hall.

In mid-June, however, he suddenly got much more confused. This change in mental state happened overnight, and the concerned staff sent him to the hospital. After a bunch of tests, his doctors found a restricted blood flow to part of his brain and said he’d probably had another stroke. There was nothing to do but send him back to the nursing home.

For a while, my dad was very agitated, but he began to settle down. Then he began to get too quiet, and by last Monday he was barely about to get up the energy to speak. On Wednesday night, my wife visited him, and she told me afterward that she had a feeling he didn’t have long in this world. On Thursday, his daughter Sue called him, and he was barely able to talk. He told her he thought he was dying.

On Saturday morning he had breakfast as usual. He listened to his music for a while until the staff helped him sit up on the edge of the bed to eat lunch. Afterwards, they put him back down for a nap.

Around 3 pm one of the staff was in his room and noticed he wasn’t breathing. Burnett Draughn had passed away in his sleep.

He too will be missed.

Scattered thoughts over the last few weeks surrounding my mother’s passing.

  • Keeping track of everything going on would have been so much harder without the internet and mobile phones.
  • My dad was in a VA hospital, and my mother was in a private for-profit hospital. I don’t think it’s just libertarian bias that makes me like the private hospital much better.
  • I completely lost interest in watching House while my mom was in the hospital. It hasn’t returned.
  • It was incredibly frustrating trying understand what the doctors were saying about my mother’s chances. They hate to say there’s no real hope, even when there’s no real hope.
  • The hospice workers, on the other hand, were very clear. It was a relief to be given a direct answer to a direct question.
  • On my mother’s last day, a hospice nurse called to tell me that based on certain signs, my mother was “actively dying.” What a strange turn of phrase that is…yet obvious in its meaning.
  • My mother died on the exact same day of the year as my wife’s mother.
  • My mother was quite vehement that she wanted no funeral or memorial ceremony. She stopped going to other people’s funerals many years ago—she couldn’t stand having to remember them all that way—and so she didn’t want a ceremony for herself either. My wife and I are okay with her choice, but I think some of my mom’s friends are a little disappointed. I can understand that. But I also know what my mother wanted.
  • Empty funeral homes are creepy. I’ve seen way too many horror movies.
  • When we were talking with the funeral director, she asked us if we wanted a notice in the newspaper. I thought about it—perhaps people who know my mother but weren’t in her address file would find out about her if we put in a notice—but ultimately decided it wouldn’t do much good. As it happens, my eulogy for my mother is the top result for her name on Google and Yahoo. I don’t think a routine death notice could have done that.
  • My mother died of pneumonia, probably caused by an infection. You don’t catch infectious diseases from nowhere. You catch them from other people. Since my mother rarely left her home, she must have caught it from a visitor. I wonder which one of us it was.
  • I keep stumbling over phrases like “my parents’ apartment” and “mom and dad’s place.” That’s probably going to happen for a while.
  • I’ve had a few of those moments where I imagine my mom’s reaction when I tell her something and then remember that I can’t.
  • Then there are those times where I remember something I was supposed to do for my mother but kept forgetting. Over maybe two seconds I go through feeling upset with myself for not doing it, then feeling relieved that it no longer matters, then feeling guilty that I felt relieved.
  • When I moved into my parents’ place, I was pretty careful not to disturb the operation of the household. I tried to always put everything back the way it was, and I bought the exact same groceries my mother had. I’m slowly realizing there are things I can change, such as putting pots and dishes on high shelves and buying gallons of milk instead of the half-gallons my mother could lift. I can also rearrange the couch cushions and leave the remote control wherever I want.
  • We’re starting to clean my mother’s stuff out of the apartment. My mother had a lot of keepsakes, and it feels very wrong to contemplate throwing away things that she held onto for thirty or forty years. It’s the most vivid reminder of her passing. I’ll probably keep a few of her things for no good reason.
  • It doesn’t bother me that it’s Mother’s Day…but I’m glad all the Mother’s-Day-themed commercials are over.

Today is Virginia Heinlein‘s birthday.  That’s her, with her husband.  You may have heard of him. 

If the world was a fairer place, Mrs. Heinlein would be 93, today, and in good health.  A very nice woman.

Which reminds me of a story. 

So, there I was, pounding away at the keyboard, when the phone rang.  It was my daughter Judy’s science teacher.

“Uh-oh,” I said, and “hold one.”  I knew I was going to need at least one cigarette, and probably a drink.  “What did she do now?”

“You’re not going to believe this one.”

It hadn’t been a great year.  Homework hadn’t been done, or had been ‘lost’.  Classes skipped, authority constantly challenged — well, that was okay, by and large, but . . . — and then there was the series of excuses with my name signed to them, written in my style, and which I had nothing to do with.  Catch Me If You Can wasn’t supposed to be a training film, you know.

“Okay.  Issue?”

“The usual.  Her homework is not in.  You’re not going to believe her excuse this time.”

I sighed.  “Okay.”  Missed another connection at JFK?  Fifth grandmother died?  What?

“She claimed that she couldn’t get to it this morning because she was too busy chatting online with Mrs. Heinlein.  Virginia Heinlein.  Robert Heinlein’s widow.”

“Well, she does have to do her homework, but, yeah, she was.  They do that pretty much every morning.  Mrs. Heinlein looks forward to it, she says.  I know Judy does; first thing in the morning, she gets to Instant Messenger and they talk for awhile.” 

Long pause.  “Really?”

“Yeah.  She still has to get her homework done, but, yeah.”

“What do they talk about?”

Asshole.  “Would you eavesdrop on Mrs. Heinlein’s private conversations with a young friend of hers?”

“No, of course — “

“Me, neither.”

“I mean, I, err, well, but, sheesh, and . . . “

“I know.”

He managed to get off the phone, not completing a sentence.  Understandable.  I got on Instant Messenger.  Mrs. Heinlein was on, and I ratted Judy out.

There was a long pause, and then . . .

May I still chat with her in the mornings?  I so enjoy our conversations.

Of course, Ginny.  (She had long before told Felicia and me — among many others — to call her “Ginny,” and it was all I could do not to answer, “I’d be honored to call you Ginny, Mrs. Heinlein.”  She was like that.)

Thank you so much, Joel.

My pleasure, Ginny.

Talk turned to other things. I think that was the day I told her my Pournelle story, and she told me about how she’s made Jerry’s jaw drop by opening her pocketbook.  (Other stories, for other days.  Remind me.)

Every morning after, when Judy would sign on to Instant Messenger, a message would pop up.

Judy, is your homework up to date?

Yes, Mrs. Heinlein.

Every morning.


Agnostic that I am, I don’t have any strong opinion about life after death and such, but it would be kind of nice to think that maybe, somewhere, she’s reading this and thinking fondly of me and my kid.

We surely are thinking fondly of her, and not just once a year, either.

So:  Happy Birthday, Ginny.  Please pass along my respects to the Man Who Traveled in Elephants.