Sunday, June 15, 2003

For my dad on Father's Day

Memories of growing up with my father, Alan Glasser

It's father's day, and the beginning of my second year as an actual father. I would like my father to know how much I appreciate him.

In the last five years, dad lost both of his parents, Milton and Jean Glasser. I had not visited my grandparents for several years before they died, and I felt very guilty about this. In fact, I was afraid that Grandma Jean had never even seen pictures of me with my family, because I am a notorious procrastinator and I never sent any. I posted plenty of pictures on my web site, but Jean was a little too old to catch up with the online trend, so I would have had to send them by regular post. Luckily, dad told me that he had brought her pictures himself. I was extremely grateful.

A few weeks after she died, we all got together and had an informal memorial service for both Jean and Milton -- dad, mom, me, my sister Keryn, and dad's wife Marg-Anne. I had a lot of things on my mind to say about my grandparents, but when the time came I felt too emotional to be coherent. I could only say things in bits and pieces. Dad read a very moving tribute that he had written about them. I thought it was a shame that they didn't get to hear it in person.

Well, I'm sure that dad has many decades of life left, but I don't want to feel the same way when he's gone. That's why I needed to write this now.

Early years

The earliest memory I have of my dad is of him fighting a big blue hairy monster to rescue my yellow lollipop.

Of course the monster wasn't real, but the lollipops were. There was a mall in Princeton Junction which sold huge round yellow lollipops, and I always got them. I guess I was about three years old. My dad was a born story teller, and he made up a story for me to make sure I would never be scared of monsters.

In the story, a big blue monster (probably Harry Monster from Sesame Street) tried to steal my lollipop, but dad ran out to the parking lot and tackled him, and not only did the monster buy me a new lollipop, but he had to apologize to me personally. It was great. I don't know how many times I heard that story, but judging from how well I remember it, it must have been a lot.

Dad read a lot of stories to me, and he played a lot of physical games with me that I still remember. He would lie on his back on the bed and bounce me on his knees, saying: "To market, to market, to buy a fat PIG! Home again, home again, jiggity jiggity jig!" I can also remember him telling me about my name. I was named after Bertrand Russell, and he told me that Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. What's a mathematician? It's a person who "plays with numbers". I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded like fun.

As a scientist, dad has always valued knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity. Many times I have been discouraged by an academic subject, and he has encouraged me to stick with it and find the interesting parts. When I was first starting school, I wasn't very good at math, because it seemed to heavily rely on memorizing things on flash cards. Dad told me to be patient, because things would get better. When I got older, he bought me books with mathematical games in them. He took me and some classmates to a lecture by a logician named Raymond Smullyan when I was 11 or 12, and it had a profound effect on me. Once I understood that math could be fun and engage your mind, as opposed to the way I had learned it in elementary school, I really learned to appreciate it.

I can also remember a similar experience with biology. I had a terrible biology teacher in high school, Mr. Max. Everything about the class seemed like rote memorization. Dad kept telling me, "Don't worry, when you get to the part about evolution, it will all make sense. Biology is much more exciting when you understand how it works through evolution." I kept an eye on the evolution chapter, and kept waiting to get there... and we skipped it. No explanation given. It turned out that Mr. Max was either a creationist himself, or afraid to start controversy by teaching the subject. Dad was livid; he went to the principal of the school and raised a big stink. I don't know what happened in the end -- I still didn't learn evolution in that class -- but I appreciated the effort. Maybe future students benefitted from this. As for me, dad gave me and my best friend Gil our first lecture on evolution that day in the car. Gil was Catholic, and he always had the idea that it was bad to believe in evolution, but he was surprised that it was so simple and obvious. He was also surprised when dad told him that the pope had said evolution was okay. I made a point of taking a full course on evolution when I got to college, and I finally saw his point. Evolution DID make biology all make sense. After I graduated, I started reading more and more about the subject, and now I am even something of an expert on the creation/evolution controversy.

All through my high school years, we commuted to Los Alamos together. We lived in Santa Fe, and Los Alamos (where dad worked at the lab) was a 45 minute drive away. It would have been easier to go to school in Santa Fe, but my parents agreed that Los Alamos had a much better school system, and Santa Fe was reputed to have something of a problem with gangs. So, the result was that my dad spent an hour and a half together every week day in the car. Sometimes we made good use of the time, sometimes we didn't. For the first year we drove with my best friend Gilbert Quintana, who went to LAHS with me until his sophomore year, and then he decided to go back to Santa Fe. During that year, dad gave us a crash course education in classical music. He had us identify composers and types of music. Every time he played a fugue, he would give a dollar to the first one who yelled "Fugue!" In exchange, Gil gave us a crash course in his favorite rock music. That didn't stick with dad as long, but he was very patient about it.

Those were four years I spent as sort of a surly teenager, so I know that dad had to put up with a lot sometimes. Sometimes we would argue about homework or bad grades. Sometimes I would just sit there in sullen silence and not talk. Sometimes I would reach over aggressively and turn off the radio, which was usually playing NPR, so I could do some last minute homework before school. There were some personality clashes, but dad didn't let it hurt our relationship.


I learned to be a staunch, outspoken atheist from dad. Dad comes from a long line of atheists; his father and grandfather both were, which made me a fourth generation atheist. My parents were understandably worried that I would get into trouble with the other kids, especially since we moved to Alabama at about the same time that I was starting to come to grips with atheism. Dad took a job at a college in Alabama, and my parents told me a story of how they went to visit there before we moved. During their visit, they spotted a theater that was playing Monty Python's "The Life of Brian", a sacreligious farce that lampooned the life of Jesus. They said to each other, "Okay, this place can't be all that bad." The next day when they were leaving, they drove past the same theater and people were picketing it.

Well, dad's fears were well founded in a way. I started arguing with my neighborhood friends when I was six or seven. The first time I was stumped by a question was when one of them asked me, "If there's no God, then who made the world?" I went right back to dad and asked him, "What do we believe, that The Nothing made the world?" And he explained some arguments to me. When word got out around school that I was an atheist, I was treated as something of an oddity. Kids used to come up to me after school and show their friends: "Here, watch this. Do you believe in God?" "No," I said. And they would walk away, saying "Isn't that weird?" I don't think I ever got beaten up by anyone for that, though. From dad, I learned that atheism was a simple, logical position to take, and he never acted like it was a position to take because it was counter-cultural, so I didn't either.

As I grew up, I became more confident in my atheism. I got involved in several different venues where I learned how to argue. One was the high school debate club, which involved staying in Los Alamos late at night once a week. Another was the message boards on Prodigy, which we signed up for when I was 18. When I argued with people, I often had to come back to dad and asked him what he would say about this or that point. Even as I went through college, he was usual the first person I called when I had a question about most academic subjects, especially politics.

Dad also helped to launch my life long passion for computer gaming. I first saw "Pac-Man" when I was six years old, at the Godfather's Pizza place that we always went to. I made my mom play it, but I wouldn't play it myself. The game scared me, the way you always had to run from these monsters that were chasing you. Everybody dies in the end. For a long time I loved to watch those games but I wouldn't play them. Finally, one day he gave me a quarter in a supermarket, and said "Here, I order you to go play that game." I even remember that the game was "Jungle Hunt". Once I played it, I realized that it was actually fun, and "dying" really wasn't that bad.

We were early adopters of home computers. We had our first IBM PC around 1983, when they were first available. A lot of other kids had Ataris at home, but I don't think anyone else had a computer for many years. Some of dad's friends designed PC based clones of commercial arcade games, so we always got a lot of free games. Dad and I actually had a friendly rivalry in some games. He always had the high score at "PC-Man". One day I came very close to beating his score, and he was right behind me, watching and encouraging. I almost did it, but I died needing ten more points -- which I would have gotten by eating just ONE MORE DOT. I never made it that far again. However, I think I finally broke his record at Frogger.

It's funny remembering this, because later when I became a much bigger game enthusiast, I didn't really think that Dad liked games for some reason. But he used to play games with me a lot, and I can remember walking into our home office at 3 AM and finding him playing Solitaire. Later, he would take me on special trips to the arcade to watch people play Dragon's Lair, the first LaserDisc based game, which was hand drawn by the former Disney animator Don Bluth.

It didn't stop there, though; dad made it a point of getting me to learn how to program too. One of the first magazines for kids about computers was "Enter", and I wanted a subscription mostly because they had articles about games. But dad would only buy me a subscription if I promised to do some of the BASIC programming exercises in the magazines. I knew how to print my name and do simple "goto" logic, but that wasn't enough. I remember how he tried to teach me about arrays. It was frustrating at first, and I just didn't get it for a while, but eventually I did it. Later, he made me write a program that he used to illustrate some simple trignometry. I wouldn't get any trig in class for years to come, but he got me started.

In my sophomore year of high school, he convinced me to take an advanced programming class in Pascal. It was taught by my geometry teacher from Freshman year, Mr. Laeser. Dad recognized a truly inspiring teacher when he saw one, and knew I should spend more time with Laeser. I was the youngest student in that class, but I did very well in it. At the end of the year, Mr. Laeser made a competition to see whose program could output the most consecutive prime numbers in five minutes. Thanks to a lot of extra instruction from my dad, I won. Well, WE won. I was in fierce competition with another student named Yoseif right up until the day of the contest. Even Mr. Laeser's teaching aide had a much slower program in the end.

When I went to college, I started out as a physics major, just like him. But after almost two years of physics classes, I realized my heart wasn't really in it. I was not making bad grades in physics, but I realized that I wasn't nearly as interested in the subject as I was in programming. Dad always told me that you should plan to center your life around doing what you enjoy, and he never pushed me to go into the same career he had. In fact, he encouraged me to switch my major to computer science once it became clear that I wasn't as turned on by physics.

Another thing I remember is that dad was a guy who could take crazy ideas and make them become reality. When I was 11 years old, he took my sister and me to see a local production of "H.M.S. Pinafore". It was a wonderful performance, and it made me a devoted fan of Gilbert and Sullivan for the rest of my life. But the real surprise was when my dad suggested that we get the entire family to perform "The Mikado" for my Bar Mitzvah party. To show that he was serious, he actually went out and hired the director of Pinafore, Manos Clements.

Looking back

When I tell my wife about my experiences with my father, she often tells me she's amazed that we got along so well. I suppose it is a bit abnormal, in a way. In fact, dad commented on this once, when we were driving to Los Alamos. He said, "You know, kids your age aren't supposed to get along with their fathers." "Yeah, so I've heard," I replied. "We really ought to try harder to have a normal relationship," he said. "Go ahead," I said. In a completely flat voice, he said, "You rotten kid." "Get off my back, old man," I answered in the same voice. Then we laughed and he said "My heart's not really in it."

Well, it would be wrong to say that we had a perfect relationship. I think we had an unusually good one, but I also remember that dad had a temper which usually manifested itself when I was having academic problems. I nearly got kicked out of a private school when I was 12 for failing to do my work. I also got some very bad grades in both my first quarter at high school, and my first quarter at college. Those were some tough times for both of us, and dad would often vent his anger by shouting or using heavy sarcasm.

Nevertheless, when I look back on those times, they seem to pale into insignificance compared with the good memories. As an adult, my relationship with him is better than ever. We discuss politics by email, we recommend books and articles for each other to read, and we chat on the phone almost every week. He has consulted me several times about computer issues, making it clear that he values my opinions in the areas where I am an expert. That makes me feel valuable and proud of myself.

Some of the things I have learned from my dad are:

  • That knowledge and intelligence are valuable.
  • That you shouldn't believe or do things just because other people are doing them; nor should you only do the opposite of what everyone does.
  • That life is meaningful because of the experiences we have, and the people we share them with.
  • That you shouldn't assume people are stupid just because they disagree with you -- they may have fundamentally different ways of looking at life which make sense to them.
  • That doing something you enjoy is one of the most important career choices you can make.
  • That crazy ideas are worth chasing.
  • That true creativity is one of the rarest commodities in the world.

Now that I have been a father for a little over a year, I realize more than ever how much I learned from my dad. I find myself searching on Amazon for the same books that he used to read to me. My most recent purchase was "The Great Blueness". It was out of print, but I took the time to find a reasonably priced used copy. I also do the "To market" chant with my son, and play Gilbert and Sullivan for him.

I hear a lot of stories from people who regret that they never got a chance to tell their loved ones how much they mean to them. I don't want to be one of those people. I love you, dad. Happy Father's Day.