Dec 02

My dad, as many of you know, died in 2009, killed by pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after his diagnosis.

This Thanksgiving was the first time since then that we’ve had a chance to stay in the house that he and my mom had built for their retirement outside Fayetteville, Arkansas.  So perhaps that’s why I was struck so thoroughly last week by how very present he remains in that house.

Some of that is just the ordinary emotional ephemera left by memories — even though they’d only been in the house for a half dozen or so years when he died — but some of it is the physical presence of the notes he left, pictured (in part) below.

I suppose his notes go back quite a while.  I remember a note — probably futile, probably written knowing it was futile — pleading with us not to leave stuff on top of what we called alternatively the “plant cage” or the “alligator cage” (a structure he built for my mom to grow plants inside) in Oklahoma, probably 35 years ago.  I still have trouble resisting flat surfaces that just plead for stacks of stuff.

I think there are more notes in the Arkansas house than either our Minnesota or Oklahoma homes, maybe in part because it was a new house with more than its share of problems, and maybe in part because his ataxia made communication more challenging — and mostly because he wanted to make the house a safe and comfortable place for family and friends.

He wanted guests (and my mom) to know how to use the toilet efficiently, and how to make the guest rooms comfortable, and how to use the electrical panel safely, and where my mom’s wedding gown was, and why guests don’t need to worry about the light in the bathroom (it’ll turn itself off two to three minutes after the last motion).  He also (politely) wanted the mail carrier to firmly close the mailbox (that mailbox got repurposed as a garden tool holder).  And he wanted guests to know how to use the HVAC system (as my friend Emily points out, the fact that the fifteen-point list of directions is identified as instructions “in brief” speaks volumes).

Our family when I was growing up wasn’t a completely organized and coherent thing all of the time.  I don’t say that to be critical (at all), or to suggest anything bad, but just to observe.  Our family now, with Dena and Ella and Liam, isn’t a completely organized and coherent thing all of the time.  I think that’s actually a good thing; some chaos and surprise is good.

As much as my dad had an organized mind, I mostly think of him in his later years as having a slightly bemused look of delight at the chaos that results when you have a bunch of grandkids running around doing what a bunch of grandkids do.  He might not have been as delighted with the chaos that we (okay, mostly I) introduced to his life earlier in life, but I think he (mostly?) found it more interesting than infuriating.  I hope my kids remember me mostly being delighted with the changes in directions that we have experienced, even if I’m not always sure how to approach them.

I don’t leave a ton of notes around the house (though I do have Welcome to Nightvale-themed lunchbox notes).  And my brain isn’t as organized as my dad’s was — far from it — so maybe I won’t.  But I am grateful that — a few weeks from four and a half years from his death — I am still getting guidance and love from my dad.


Read More

Science and Solstices

Jun 21

Early in the planning for Science Fair, Molly Ledford was considering writing a song called “Raised By Scientists” for Lunch Money to perform.  That didn’t happen (yet?), but I really like the idea of it — it is a very specific way to be raised.  To give one hint of what it was like, at least in the Childs household, I’ll direct you to a piece I wrote three years ago about having a chalkboard in our dining room.  (Incidentally, I just repaired that chalkboard, so it will again have a place of prominence after our move to Austin.)

But for the song of my childhood to be complete, it’d have to be “Raised By Scientists and Feminists.”  To give a hint of that, as I’ve also mentioned, and as the Deedle Deedle Dees memorialized in song, I chose Susan B. Anthony as the subject of a book report, and then dressed up as her to present it — that, along with the fact that I am reliably informed that my first question to potential preschool friends was, “Are you for the ERA?,” should give you a sense of that side of our childhood.

Thus came Science Fair.  The CD, as the liner notes indicate, was inspired by the lives of my parents, Ves and Holly Childs.  My dad (an electrochemist and feminist) died three years ago today — on the summer solstice, which, that year, was also Father’s Day.  I chose today for the Paste Magazine-hosted premiere of the video for Mates of State‘s contribution to the record in part to honor the date.  And then I also asked my mom, whose background you can read about below, to write a little about being a feminist in science and engineering.  Here’s what she wrote:

I was slow in coming to the realization that I was drastically underpaid and disrespected compared to my male coworkers. It was 1964 and I was in my second year of my first off-campus job, at Phillips Petroleum Company. I was using the company’s new IBM 7094 mainframe computer to model and optimize nonlinear systems like gasoline plants, a somewhat harder group of problems than those most of my coworkers were working on.

I knew that my job title (engineering aide) was different from those of my peers (research scientist, computer analyst), though my job was similar; I thought that was because I had been hired more recently than everyone else. I was grateful to have been hired at all, though I had a solid BS degree with a double major in math and chemistry and had done better on the pre-interview tests than anyone else who had ever taken them. The matrix algebra courses I had taken, expecting them to remain entertaining but useless, had actually given me a head start on understanding the project I was hired for.

Two things happened about the same time to open my eyes. First, the project my boss and I had been working on was ready to be written about and published. Second, the company hired another “engineering aide” in my department.

I learned that my boss was hiring another person to work on our project, primarily by writing a journal article; he and my boss would coauthor the article, and I would not. I got to figure out most of the computer coding and engineering simulations and to draw the illustrations for the paper. The article was so long that there was no room even to express thanks to me.

The new engineering aide was a young man with a high school diploma and a drafting class. His job was more clerical than technical. He was paid slightly more than I was.

Because I was a woman, I was classified as a low-paid, low-prestige employee and I was not eligible to publish technical work that I had done. I was enraged. But there was nothing to be done. Sex discrimination was perfectly legal, and, indeed, expected, by everyone except me.

Starting in college, I had worked on “desegregation,” as civil rights activities were then known. I hadn’t realized that women needed protection for their civil rights too. I knew that women in the sciences were regarded as “cute” or as interlopers; a physics professor referred in a class I was in (50 men, two women) to “girls in college looking for their M.R.S. degrees.” I knew that not many women actually worked in science or engineering. But my parents had encouraged me to pursue chemistry, though my high school had offered no science at all – my mother always told me that I could do anything I wanted, and that the women in my family were strong achievers. It had never occurred to me that I might be underpaid or disrespected at a fairly won job that I was doing exceedingly well.

Partly in reaction to my own experiences, soon after our third (and last) child was born, I started working for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have forbidden having different laws for men and women (excepting obvious areas like privacy and wet nurses). I spent ten years as a full time volunteer; another woman and I ran the field organization in Oklahoma. We lost the last legislative vote by one vote (that of a legislator who told our lobbyists he was going to vote yes, walked onto the floor, and voted no). I believe that, even though we lost, our ERA work made gender discrimination less socially acceptable.

Women still do not have constitutional protection, and job and educational discrimination continue, albeit in more subtle ways. I would really like to know for sure that my children and grandchildren will be treated fairly in school and on the job, regardless of their gender. I would particularly like to be sure that any of my beautiful little granddaughters who wanted to be a scientist or engineer, like me, would have a full opportunity to do so, and to be published when deserved and to be paid equitably. Perhaps this record will contribute toward that end.

– Holly H. Childs

I’m so grateful to my mom, and my entire family, and so proud of all of their work.  It’s not done: One, two, three.

You can pre-order Science Fair now, if you don’t have a local retailer that will be carrying it on its release on July 3.  Proceeds will benefit Girls Inc.’s science education programming.

Read More

Father’s Day

Jun 20

(Posted in January 2014; previously this appeared only on Facebook, it seems.)

On Father’s Day last year, I was, if memory serves, the first one up and over to my parents’ house. My dad was in the living room in the hospital bed we’d had brought in, and he was awake and alert.

I gave him a hug and said, “Happy Father’s Day.” He laughed a little, recognizing the slight oddity in wishing him a happy day when he had at most a few days to live, but said, in his weak but clear whisper, “It’s been great.”

I’m sure I talked to him more that day, at least to help with logistics, comfort, and so on, but that’s mostly what I think about as my last real interaction with him. He died that night, in much the same way he lived: with grace, courage, and strength.

For the past few months, I’ve been dreading Father’s Day because that was the day that he died (it fell on June 21 last year). Well, “dreading” isn’t quite the right word, but I’ve been at least assuming it would be a particularly tough day. And I suppose it has been, in that it still hurts to think about that three-week period from his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer through his death, and its anniversary has brought those thoughts to the fore.

It’s been an interesting morning so far, though, somewhat defying expectations. Ella is camping with her Girl Scout troop, returning in a couple of hours, and Dena got up ridiculously early to get to a triathlon. So it’s just me and Liam.

I stumbled out of bed, hearing a bunch of noise from the kitchen, and he was in there (at 5:45 or so), getting breakfast in bed together for me. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad,” he said, along with a hug. Unconsciously, I echoed my dad: “It’s been great.”

(An aside: Dena had given him instructions not to bring my breakfast in until 6:00 – figuring I wouldn’t want to be awakened before then – so he waited until 6:00 on the nose to bring it in, even though he knew I was awake. Alas, he had poured the milk in the cereal around 5:45, so it was just a tad soggy. But the toast and lemon curd were delicious.)

After breakfast, we went for a bike ride, looked at the sleeping ducks at Look Park, watched the Mill River flow by, talked about strategies for getting up the steep hills in cyclocross, set world records on the swings, and just…were.

More than I would have predicted, today – and the days leading up to it – have been more about my dad’s life than his death. Just as one example, we talked at dinner last night about the science fair projects I did every year with him, and my photo browsing has been a lot more focused on looking back at his 72 years rather than his last three weeks. What’s more, those conversations haven’t been like picking at a scab – we’re increasingly able to stay on the sweet side of the bitter/sweet continuum.

It’s all tinged with sadness, of course, but I’m getting more able to think about the simple truth of what I think of as his last statement to me – “It’s been great” – and, maybe even better, about my time as a father, and the time yet to come.

Indeed, it has been, and will be, great.

Other relevant posts:

Read More

More Light

Dec 22

My dad died six months ago yesterday.  It is convenient, I guess, that he died on the summer solstice (also Father’s Day this year).  It’s easy to remember and easy to mark the anniversaries.

I’ve never been particularly focused on particular dates – Dena and I have spent anniversaries and birthdays apart and we have managed to survive – but this winter solstice seemed likely to be important, which is part of why we’re in Arkansas for it.

Every single day since he died there has been literally been less light in our half of the world.  (Note, incidentally, that I used the term “literally” correctly.)  And for most of those days, there has been figuratively less light as well for me and I think for our family; the pain has been right below the surface, far more so than I expected.

But from yesterday through the one-year anniversary of his death, there will be, at least, more literal light.

– –

We’re planning to go get a Christmas tree tomorrow for my mom’s house.  (She and my sister’s family kindly waited until we were here so we could all go and could all decorate it together.)  We’ll set it up in the living room, probably ten feet from where he died.

So tonight I rolled out the big wooden box that my dad built to hold the Christmas paraphernalia.  This box, like many of his projects, went through multiple iterations until it hit the size and shape he wanted to hold it all.  It fits neatly under his workbench, rolls smoothly into the house, and was manageable with his ataxia.

It has been a few years since we spent Christmas anywhere other than in our own home.  We concluded that the hassle of travel and the desire to start our own rituals and traditions counseled in favor of staying at home and doing our visits other times of the year.  So I actually didn’t think that the holiday part of the visit was going to be much tougher than being here last month for the burial of his ashes (which, while not all giggles and kittens, was not terrible).

It wasn’t until I started getting the boxes of lights, decorations, and other stuff out that I started to get the reason people talk about the holidays being particularly tough in the grief process.  It turns out that, for me, it’s not about recent holidays, but about all of our Christmases. 

As I type this, I’m sitting at the dining room table with a couple of the boxes next to me.  One of them dates to when we lived in Oklahoma (25-plus years ago); it’s a Burpee Seed Co. box addressed to our home in Bartlesville.  It has contained, according to my dad’s distinctive print, “Mugs, bows, cookies”; “Tree Stuff, Angel,” “Balls,” “Star,” and, in the most recent version, “Tree Stuff, Remote Switch.”

Unpacking those boxes every winter was something I don’t think I realized at the time was important. I loved to put undeniably excessive quantities of icicles on the tree.  I loved that we had exactly one Christmas tree light that blinked.  I loved that our parents saved every single ornament we made, even the round piece of Styrofoam with scribbled crayon marks from when we were toddlers.

Nobody made a point of labeling what we were doing as a family tradition.  Nobody explicitly pointed out, “Look, we saved all these things because we love you.”  I’m not sure how conscious they were of the importance of what we were doing.  But that’s what it was about and what it is still about. 

That aching place where the traditions were is part of what makes it hard.  But I think it’s also what will make the additional literal light over the next six months be accompanied by additional figurative light as well.  I hope.

Read More

W. Ves Childs 1935-2009

Jun 24

vesphoto-792202(Re-posted in 2014 to get it into the WordPress site.)

W. Ves Childs of Fayetteville, Arkansas, passed away Sunday, June 21, 2009 in his home, surrounded by his family. He was born September 14, 1935 in Cale, Arkansas, to Orval A. Childs and Floy (Turrentine) Childs.

Ves once wrote of his childhood: “I remember my mother washing clothes in a huge cast iron pot over a wood fire in the back yard. I remember taking a bath in a galvanized tub beside the kitchen stove. I grew up as a farm boy near Magnolia, Arkansas. I have chopped cotton, plowed cotton behind a Georges stock, and picked cotton. I have castrated pigs and calves. We raised pigs, chickens, beef cattle, and ran a Grade A dairy. I won the showmanship award at the Arkansas State Fair.”

He quit Magnolia High School after the eleventh grade and finished college, in three-and-one-half years, at Southern State College in Magnolia. He earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Arkansas, where he met Holly Hartrick; they married on June 17, 1962 in Hamburg, Arkansas. Both Southern State (now Southern Arkansas University) and the University of Arkansas’s Fulbright College cited Ves as a distinguished alumnus.

After receiving his Ph.D., Ves worked for Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for twenty-two years, receiving international recognition for his work in electrochemistry and fluorochemistry.

3M, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, purchased technology that Ves invented at Phillips, and recruited Ves and Holly to join 3M, which they did in 1984, living in Stillwater, Minnesota. He served as Division Scientist at 3M for seventeen years (he used to say “seventeen winters”), continuing to develop innovative and economical technologies and continuing to receive international recognition. Ves and Holly retired from 3M in 2001, moved back to northwest Arkansas, and built a home west of Johnson.

He was an inventor on 52 patents, spanning his career; he authored five book chapters and numerous articles; and he spoke to major symposia and conferences. He was a 50-year member of the Alpha Chi Sigma chemistry fraternity and of the American Chemical Society, and a member of Sigma Xi and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. With Holly, he established the Arthur Fry lectureship in the chemistry department at the University of Arkansas, honoring their former professor.

Along with his professional accomplishments, Ves contributed to every community of which he was a part. He was elected to two terms on the Bartlesville Board of Education, including a term as board president. In Stillwater, he served on the Public Library Board and received the Stillwater Community Service Award. He was an active part of the governance of the Bartlesville First United Methodist Church and the Stillwater First United Methodist Church, and a lively participant in the Springdale First United Methodist Church’s Sunday School program, where he was known for asking unanswerable questions, and a member of the Springdale church’s library board. He was an affiliate member of the Washington County Democratic Women. He loved and excelled at duplicate bridge.

Ves was a brilliant, funny, thoughtful, engaged, and caring husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, colleague, and friend. He loved his family, he loved science, and he loved his communities. In retirement, little brought him more pleasure than answering the science questions of his grandchildren and thinking of projects to do with them. He also enjoyed challenging “experts” – including, emphatically, himself. When possible, he loved to do both at once, as when he and his granddaughter designed and performed an experiment to test the widespread (but, they showed, wrong) notion that hot water freezes faster than cold water.

He is survived by his wife Holly H. Childs, with whom he celebrated their 47th anniversary the week prior to his death; one daughter, Lisa C. Childs (Don Hendrix) of Fayetteville, Arkansas; two sons, Michael A. Childs (Jennifer Childs) of Hillsboro, Oregon, and William G. Childs (Dena Childs) of Northampton, Massachusetts; two brothers, O. Allen Childs of Little Rock, Arkansas, and S. Bart Childs of College Station, Texas; and six grandchildren: Ella and Liam Childs of Northampton, Massachusetts; Maggie Hendrix of Fayetteville; and Tynan, Kian, and Hope Childs of Hillsboro, Oregon. He was predeceased by one brother, Mac Childs of Magnolia, Arkansas.

Memorial services will be held at 10:30 on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas.

Memorial contributions may be made to the W. Ves Childs Science Education Fund at the University of Arkansas, Development Office, 525 Old Main, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701, or to Southern Arkansas University Foundation, W. Ves Childs Fund, Development Office, P. O. Box 9174, Magnolia, Arkansas 71754-9174.

Arrangements are under the direction of Nelson-Berna Funeral Home and Crematory of Fayetteville.

Read More


May 29

(Note: I’m re-posting this in January 2014.  It has appeared a couple of places, both in a note on Facebook and in our local newspaper in Northampton, but neither of those are now accessible. As people who know me already know, my dad died three weeks later, on June 21, 2009 (Fathers’ Day!).  Other posts I’ve written about him are linked to at the end of this one.)

Friday, May 29, 2009, 7:30 am

We had a chalkboard in our dining room.

It took a while for me to realize that this was unusual. Even after going to lots of other kids’ houses, it still seemed fairly ordinary, until someone (no doubt someone chalkboard-deprived) asked me about it. Evidently not every family had dinner conversations that regularly – frequently – required charts or drawings to explain. We did, and so there was a big green chalkboard dominating one wall of the dining room on Harris Drive in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

I’ve been thinking about that chalkboard a lot the last couple of days. I’m writing this on Friday, May 29. On Wednesday morning, I was in my office at the law school, packing up for the move to the deans’ suite for my new job. Along with packing boxes of books and decorations and toys, I took the chalkboard off the wall to move downstairs.

The chalkboard made the move with the family from Oklahoma to Minnesota back in 1983, but there was no appropriate wall for it, so it lived in the basement. I took it with me to college, and then it was with me in law school, and it was on my wall through my time in practice in D.C., and it’s been on my wall of my office at the law school since I started there in 2004.

I usually use the chalkboard-in-the-dining-room concept for laughs. But as I took it off of the wall of my office, and erased it – ideas for articles, explanations of torts doctrine from office hours, my kids’ doodles, and so on – I thought, just for a bit, about how the oddity of a chalkboard in the dining room had affected me. Not that I think it is exclusively responsible for, well, anything in my life except for some chalk dust on my clothes, but it is indicative of how we were raised: to ask questions, to learn, to challenge, to always – always – think.

On Wednesday afternoon (my cell phone “recent calls” listing tells me it was at 4:32), not long after coming home from packing the office and taking the kids to their violin lessons, I got a call from my mom, telling me that my dad has pancreatic cancer.

After a moment of shock, my reaction – and I expect the rest of the family’s – was to sit down and research pancreatic cancer. I (and I bet my siblings) found the Mayo Clinic’s site, we found the site about the chemo treatment that looked promising post-surgery (we don’t know as of this writing whether surgery will be an option), we probably all giggled, and then felt a little bad for giggling, at the name of the surgery (“The Whipple Procedure” – c’mon, you giggled a little too).

Back to the phone call, though. After telling me the news and a quick overview, my mom handed the phone to my dad.

After pleasantries and such and a brief acknowledgment of the diagnosis, he turned to what he was really wanting to talk about, which was not his diagnosis or prognosis – no, he wanted to talk about a global warming skeptic’s column that had been published by the local paper in northwest Arkansas. As usual, he’s going through multiple iterations of a response to the column’s silliness, with challenges interspersed into the copied-and-pasted text of the article. We talked about how best to try to get his response out there, where the author had gone wrong in his assumptions and his thinking, and so on.

Always think, always challenge. That’s what the chalkboard was about, at least in part. (To be fair, we also used it for messages.) That’s what he’s taught his kids and grandkids, to the extent that I have a graph on my desk from my daughter and him testing the widespread (but, they showed, wrong) notion that hot water freezes faster than cold water.

And thinking and challenging is what we’ll be doing with whatever comes.

Other relevant posts:

Read More