May 7, 2019

Well, the conversion of our apartment building into a mini-dorm continues. Though I put in earplugs last night to shut out—or at least mute—any noise this morning, I awoke to my body vibrating with every hammer stroke, along with the entire structure around me. Nevertheless, I’m determined to continue too:

Another major player in my life was my father, who was—arguably—my primary parent and who would exert a powerful influence over me long after my mother divorced him and moved my brother and me halfway across the country. He was brilliant, it must be said—perhaps the most intellectually vital person I’ve ever known.

Everyone called my father Red, but it was years before I connected this nickname with the color, it sounded so completely different to my ears. He used to wear a nylon stocking over his head to train his dark red hair back, like Einstein’s. Throughout my childhood he spent the better part of every day holed up in his study, reading, except for the hours he taught at the university. I’d knock on the door timidly, afraid to interrupt him at his work.

When I was a child, he was the one I took all my questions to because he—literally—knew all the answers. He gave my brother a chemistry set (Doug says he was six at the time) and bought us both a microscope with which we peered at the one-celled organisms he brought home in jars of swamp water. He took us butterfly hunting, sent away for eggs, and eventually hatched from cocoons a cecropia moth and the most spectacular luna moth I’ve ever seen, even in museums—huge, pale green, its body covered with white down and its extravagant tails tinged with pink. Cases of insects of all kinds stood propped on dressers and hung from the walls.

He took us lizard hunting on cross-country trips. In our bedroom was a terrarium filled with reptiles. He created tools for their capture—a slip noose on the end of a fishing pole for the collared lizards that sunned themselves on the rocks of Oklahoma, a two-pronged fork on the end of a broom handle for the lizards that camouflaged themselves under the sands of New Mexico.

In Carlsbad Caverns we caught a giant millipede that wound up in the terrarium too (even with all those legs, it couldn’t move very fast). Throughout the southwest, we took night rides to capture tarantulas by the glow of our headlights. Near the Desert Museum outside Tucson, we caught two sun spiders—the most hideous arachnids I’ve ever seen—and put them in a jar. Later we discovered they’d completely dismembered each other.

On one of these trips we found an egg, brought it home, and waited to see what would hatch out of it. What finally emerged was a hog-nosed viper, a tiny spotted snake with a flattened nose. For weeks my father sent my brother and me down to the Triangle—the vacant lot at the end of the block, overgrown with weeds and nettles—to catch insects to feed it, but, curiously, it never seemed to eat. From among the last slides my father sent me a few years before his death—he was cleaning out mementos—I held one up to the lamplight, only to see that tiny snake swallowing a lizard twice its size.

There was the time Dad captured a porcupine and kept it in a barrel in the basement till the stink became unbearable. The time he fired his gun into a crevice in a rock and dragged out a rattlesnake. The time he returned from Mexico with the back seat full of five-foot iguanas, which he donated to the local zoo.

He took my brother hunting and both of us fishing—at the Twin City lakes and in the northern wilderness, where we would rent a cabin without water or electricity. Each morning we would row out on Lake Owen or Radison at dawn to the call of loons—and catch sunfish, crappies, bass, and northern pike that my dad would scale and fry up for breakfast. On one trip we even went on a long trek through the dense woods (in Minnesota, you had to worry about poison ivy, not poison oak) eager to see a small, newly discovered lake.

These are the activities that I shared with my father and brother in the years before my parents’ divorce. And this is the expurgated version of my relationship with my dad—the one without any mention of how much he intimidated me, the one he would have allowed me to write without threatening a lawsuit.