Anchors aweigh

My father served in the U.S. Navy in the Second World War. For most of the war he was in the Pacific, serving as the radio officer and then the exec of a tanker. In general he had a “good” war; no fighting and a meal and a place to sleep.

One day the ship was to anchor in a bay on a Philippine island. My dad was on the bridge. They brought the ship to the appropriate place and the crew on deck dropped anchor, under the instruction of the deck officer, who was a new Lieutenant JG.

Ship anchors are big, and so are their chains. The anchor had to go down quite a long way in this case because the bay was deep. Everyone stood well clear as first the anchor and then a very thick chain (about two feet thick) roared through the port on the deck while the anchor hurtled toward the bottom.

Then it stuck. A tremendous amount of swearing ensued. With the anchor part way down, the people on the bridge had to keep the ship roughly in place with the engines at almost zero power, while the people on the deck tried to figure out how to unhook the anchor chain. One of the links had flopped crosswise and was being held in place by the anchor’s huge weight. What to do?

The sailors stood around arguing about the best way to handle this; it didn’t happen often. Finally our young lieutenant got tired of all this meat-headed yelling and decided to show his mettle by fixing the thing simply and quickly. He walked up and kicked the stuck chain-link loose.

With a tremendous bang and roar the link popped loose and rushed into the depths, and once again the chain was speeding through the port and they were on their way to anchoring. But where was the Lieutenant? They looked overboard, and around, and up and down. He’d just disappeared!

But my dad, from above, had seen what happened too fast for the sailors to see. The lieutenant had caught his foot in the chain link and been forced at incredible speed and pressure through a small hole on his way to the bottom of the sea.

That’s the story my dad told about safety with tools when I was growing up.

Reverse engineer your brain

More than 40 years ago, my father wrote a short story called “Dr. Pettigott’s Face.” The eponymous doctor of the story has a theory that pushing the face into happy expressions will make people happy, and has constructed a machine to do this. I remember that for years he had a correspondence with some neuro researcher who was interested in facial expressions because the guy liked the story so much. The title has been a shorthand in our family for people trying to reverse engineer things in weird ways.

The polyvagal theory and some of its implications suggest that there may be a grain of truth in this. The connections between emotion and facial expression are very tight and it’s possible that it “goes both ways”. This story from the LA Times on Sunday is fascinating:

botox for a better brain?


One of my dad’s former students and a family friend is Marti Leimbach. She has been a successful novelist since the MFA program, with one of those kaboom debuts. Her first novel was Dying Young, which was not only a very good book but was made into a movie, causing fame and money, etc. (The book is way better than the movie for anyone who only knows the latter.)

Looks like she’s going to make another big dent with her newest, Daniel Isn’t Talking. It’s really great to see Dad’s friends and students doing so well. Thirteen years after his death, you can see the effect of teaching and mentoring continue.

Chabon on MFA programs and being a little shit

This is interesting. Michael Chabon was a student of my father’s in the UCI MFA program more than 20 years ago. He’s been a family friend since, and I also admire his writing.

In his website column this week he writes about the value of the program. He’s given props to my dad before by name, many times, which was gratifying. This is more interesting. He talks about the phenomenon of being “a little shit” as he says he was, or more particularly a talented by self-absorbed young privileged man, and then being dumped into a group of peers who were talented and also different: older, more experienced, more mature, and more than half of them female.

Food for thought, especially on the topic of male literary misogyny. Oh, and I see it was published in Details, the magazine of little shits everywhere.

The cars he used to drive

My father was a true Southern California, born in Pasadena in 1921. Like everyone else he was car-crazy. Later in life after living in Europe he became crazy for tiny little European sports cars.

He made this list for a piece he wrote in the Los Angeles Times late in life in which he talked about the cars he’d owned. He was astonished at how many there were, and especially at how many enjoyable sports cars he had as a graduate student. I personally got to drive the ’67 MG (he says it’s a ’68 which I think is a mistake), which was a delight; he didn’t get rid of it until the 1980s sometime. The 1990 Volvo my mother still has. I inherited both T-Birds in series.

The Fiat station wagon famously died by dumping its engine on Irvine Avenue with a uniquely Italian flair. I wish he’d kept any of the cars before that. Wow, what a list! The Renaults were, of course, purchased in France and all the Italian cars when he was living in Italy.

  1. ’30 Ford Model A phaeton
  2. ’30 Ford Model A 2-door touring car
  3. ’36 Ford V-8 coupé
  4. ’30 Olds coupé
  5. ’47 Crosley
  6. ’38 Lincoln touring convertible
  7. ’40 Chevrolet coupé
  8. ’47 MG-TC
  9. ’51 Sunbeam Talbot
  10. ’48 Morris Minor convertible
  11. ’51 Morris Minor sedan
  12. ’52 MG-TD
  13. ’55 Austin Healey
  14. ’56 MG Magnette
  15. ’60 Chevrolet Corvair
  16. ’58 Chevrolet station wagon
  17. ’59 Alfa Romeo Giuletta Sprint coupé
  18. ’62 Fiat 600
  19. ’60 Fiat 1800 station wagon
  20. ’70 Opel Kadett statio wagon
  21. ’73 Volvo 144
  22. ’67 MGB-GT
  23. ’77 Renault 6TL
  24. ’70 Jaguar XJ
  25. ’84 Ford Thunderbird
  26. ’87 Renault II
  27. ’90 Volvo 740 sedan
  28. ’91 Renault 19 Chamade
  29. ’93 Ford Thunderbird LX

If you’re interested in the document we found in the files, a scan is behind the cut like so

Academic stories from all over

Well, just from my father. He taught English, comparative literature, translation, and fiction writing. Most of his later career was spent helping MFA students write first novels, so he had a low idiot ratio. He taught undergrads too, though, and there were moments. I now present two: one goofy final exam quote, and one what the FUCK story.

Dante was a traditional figure. He had one foot firmly planted in the medieval world, while with the other he waved a triumphant greeting to the dawn of the Renaissance.

At one point he taught an upper division short story writing class. This was mostly English majors but not mostly people serious about fiction, so generally nice kids who wanted to learn the basics of writing stories. Along with the outlining and exercises and other Writing 101 stuff, there was required reading from an anthology of classic short stories.

On reading the final story for one student Dad found a bad problem. He called her in.

“I have something very serious to tell you,” he said. “This story is plagiarized, almost completely. You could be dismissed from the University.” The girl burst into tears immediately. After she regained her composure, he went on.

“Actually, it’s a bit worse than that. You’ve plagiarized a story from the required reading. This means that not only did you steal a story as your own, but you stole one from a well-known author, and one that you should have read in the second week of class if you were participating.” Again she collapsed in tears.

“It’s even worse!” she wailed.


“I didn’t read the book anywhere, not even in the reading for the class. I stole it all from a Twilight Zone episode I saw in the Thanksgiving marathon!”

He gave her an incomplete in the class so she could take it over with a different teacher, on the condition that she never take another fiction class at that university again. Clearly she had no idea what she was doing on any level.

Then he came home and had a really big drink.