Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

In the United States, Sara Zaske says, we use the label “free range” to describe parenting practices that “place a high priority on fostering self-reliance, independence, and responsibility in children,” but in Germany, “it’s normal.” Because German parents believe “that handling risk is a necessary part of growing up,” they let “children play and learn without constant supervision and correction, trusting them with simple tasks and choices.” German parents worry too, she writes in Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, “but they refuse to let fear drive their interactions with their kids.”

Achtung Baby

Achtung Baby is at its most valuable when describing concrete observations, such as how children in Zaske’s Berlin neighborhood walked to school and hungout at playgrounds alone, and when providing historical and cultural context (for example, “Germans, after all, know something about the dangers of a culture of control” and “I was starting to get the message about how things were done in Germany: Show up on time. Pack your own bags. Get your paperwork in order. Be prepared. In short, be responsible.”). I also appreciated Zaske’s willingness to tackle Americans who over-parent directly and without apology (“[R]elax a little on the attachment issue”).

The book runs into problems in two areas, however. First, Zaske’s writing felt flat. Her tone shifts from journalistic to conversational in whatever the opposite of “seamlessly” is, and I personally had no desire to grab a drink with the mama reflected in the more memoir-ish mode. Second, no matter how many times Zaske qualifies (e.g., “The current German approach to parenting is by no means uniform”), she makes sweeping generalizations about both nations, relying on regional and class-specific anecdotal evidence often enough to rankle (e.g., “In these conversations one thing struck me over and over about the German mothers in particular: they had almost no guilt about putting their young children into child care…. These comments were vastly different from the attitudes of the mothers I knew in the United States, including myself.”).

That said, like Pamela Druckerman (on French parents) and Amy Chua (on immigrant parents) before her, Zaske can arguably be forgiven for the light she sheds on important topics. She sticks flags in the sand on the significance of things like universal preschool, play-based education, generous recess, optional elementary homework, social-emotional learning, push back on testing, and leveling with kids about sex—phenomena supported by reams of research—and I found myself nodding and even audibly agreeing: yes, Sara, YES.

If you aren’t now, if you think kids should be using flashcards rather than sharp knives or if you find yourself saying, “Be careful,” all the time, yours would be well spent reading Achtung Baby.


Astroball: The New Way To Win It All

I never should have read Astroball. First off, sports, bleh. What a waste of time. Second, Ben Reiter is one of several Yalies named Ben with whom I’ve hungout over the years and not the one I hit it off with most. But I confused him with a closer acquaintance and requested an advance copy. By the time I noticed Reiter’s suave smirk on the rear dust jacket, I’d already finished the preface and the prologue (yes, it has both, and yes, you should read both), and I couldn’t have put the book down if I’d tried.


That’s because Astroball is about baseball the way Remember the Titans is about football. Sure, Reiter explains how the Astros went from being the team with the worst track record and prospects in the league to winning the 2017 World Series. But the consummate storyteller uses his unusual level of access to both players and the Astros front office to interweave dramas with much more widespread appeal: How an industry undergoes a revolution. How a parent’s fidelity to their inner compass can transform the course of a child’s life. How peeling back the layers of a professional victory almost always reveals some combination of hustle, skill, and luck, but mostly hustle. How a liability in one context becomes an asset in another. How organizational change done right looks a lot like nation-building. How a supportive romantic partner behaves in a crisis. How human instinct, though repeatedly proven fallible, remains indispensable.

In prose with just the right balance of sobriety and artistry (e.g., “If a pitcher’s arm was the most valuable and fragile asset in baseball, a pitcher’s psyche was second”) and transitions that hum, Reiter introduces his stories’ concepts and characters, sometimes dozens of pages in advance, so that even a reader who gives fewer than two shits about baseball knew Carlos Beltrán from Carlos Correa and locked herself in a bathroom to absorb the blow-by-blow of a playoff game in peace. A game I already knew the winner of. It’s seamless, really, Reiter’s melding of backstory with story to produce a narrative of a magic process that’s magical in its own right.

Take, for example, the following two vignettes about America’s pastime that teach as much about psychology and systems science as sport:

In the cage, Bonds showed Beltrán how he liked to set the pitching machine to top speed, more than 90 miles per hour, and then gradually move closer and closer to it, training himself to react to pitches that arrived quicker than any human could throw them from a mound. Even more useful, to Beltrán, was the way he described his mentality. “Sometimes you’re in an oh-for-ten slump, and you might start to doubt your ability,” Bonds said. “But you have to understand that every time you walk to the plate, the person who is in trouble isn’t you. It’s the pitcher.” A decade later, when Beltrán arrived for his first spring training with the Astros in February 2017, he knew that he appeared to his young teammates as Bonds once had to him. He was at least seven years older than almost all of them, earned 30 times more than some of them, and was by then a nine-time All-Star who had hit 421 home runs. During his first days with the Astros, he approached each one.


Sig Mejdal hated the World Series. He loved it, of course. It was the whole point, the simulated goal when he had spent his boyhood flicking the spinners of All-Star Baseball, the real one as he endlessly tweaked his models during all those late nights above his fraternity brother’s garage. Intellectually, though, he hated it. Baseball wasn’t a game like basketball, in which the best team—the Golden State Warriors, say—could reliably defeat almost any opponent at least 80 percent of the time. Baseball excellence could be judged only over the long term, and yet its annual champion, the club that history would remember, was decided after a series of no more than seven games. Any major league team could beat any opponent four times out of seven. “I wish it was a 162-game series, instead of seven,” Sig said. “But it’s seven. In every game, you have somewhere between a forty-two and fifty-eight percent chance of winning. Which is very close to a fifty percent chance. Which is a coin toss. The World Series is a coin toss competition.”

If you like tight writing on fascinating topics, read Astroball—no interest in sports or analytics required. If you already read Moneyball, trust me, read Astroball too. I’m betting if you do, I won’t be the only new member of Ben Reiter’s fan club.

Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create a Life That You and Your Child Both Love

“Very small changes can make a very large difference,” veteran preschool teacher Faith Collins writes. It’s a sentence that epitomizes this calm, unassuming parenting book packed with helpful strategies that can stand alone or be knit into a comprehensive approach to raising connected, competent, and considerate kids.


Some edicts will be familiar to those who read Harvey Karp or follow Parents magazine on Facebook: give choices with firm boundaries, provide “scaffolding” so children are challenged without being overwhelmed, create intentional routines, use positive language, etc. But Collins isn’t afraid to break from the crowd—poo-pooing, for example, giving warnings and labeling emotions when kids are upset. Ultimately, she offers an uncommon take-home message: find reciprocity, with both parent and child responding to each other’s requests quickly and positively.

In her variation, “turning no into yes” isn’t just about parents digging deep to embrace messy milk pouring: it’s turning the tables and getting children in the habit of saying “yes” and, barring that, “coming up with a response that’s still positive.” The key is assuming that good intent lurks behind kids’ actions. “Most of the times children say no, what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t feel as connected to you right now as I wish I did,’” Collins says. This shift in thinking can improve our lives, she asserts, and it starts with treating lack of connection like hunger: a need parents must address before turning to the problematic behavior that stems from it.

To increase connection—and the compliance it inspires—Collins supplies the acronym SMILE for “Singing, Movement, Imagination, Love, and Exaggeration.” SMILE doesn’t just work with toddlers. My eight-year-old can throw some serious shade when reminded that dirty clothes are expected to find their way to the hamper, but when I make like Demi Lovato and sing, “Baby, put your so-cks … in the laun-dry,” the eye roll I get comes with a grin and a clean floor. Collins packs the SMILE chapter with revelations (toddlers who laugh while they’re hitting, running away, or touching stuff that’s off-limits, for example, “are almost always [asking] for movement”). She follows them up with practical tips (e.g., “When cleaning up, pretend you’re squirrels scurrying around to put nuts away for the winter”) and helpful caveats (“If you use humor and a child responds with anger … she’s longing to connect in a different way”).

Subsequent sections of the book adeptly address topics like managing anger (that of both parents and kids) and promoting impulse control. I especially appreciated her advice on when to back off, reducing a request or retracting it entirely, and how to recognize when children need an adult-led activity (spoiler alert: when siblings start bickering). Also included are homegrown tips such as “don’t get mad, get sad” (where you say “oh, poor spoon” when a kid throws their silverware onto the floor, instead of hollering), launching a “pouring in the love campaign” by lavishing a child with displays of affection to help them reset, and offering “hand-over-hand help” which seems to mean gently forcing your kid to do the thing you’ve asked, like putting on a shoe.

Collins’ background in the Waldorf-inspired LifeWays model comes to the foreground in the chapters on promoting independent play and a pleasant home life. “Very young children are often capable of much more than we give them credit for,” she writes, teaching readers how to “transform household tasks into enrichment activities” and “be busy but available.” Here, too, reciprocity is essential: “If we want children to be able to ignore us, diving into their own experiences,” and not get sidetracked when putting on their shoes, how can we expect them to drop what they’re doing whenever it’s convenient for us?

There’s no magic to it all, Collins assures, in both content and tone, just years of interacting with children and keeping an eye on the research. To save you a few decades, she created this cheat-sheet of a book, complete with two-page chapter summaries for the sleep- and time-deprived, to prove we can “have it all” (meaning young kids and a life that’s enjoyable). While I found her a bit dismissive of the burdens young children impose on even the most creative and upbeat of parents—and would have appreciated a more focused approach, particularly when dealing with the concept of strengths—there’s no question Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers is one of the very best books on parenting kids who aren’t babies anymore but haven’t yet hit the tween years.

This review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

When We Rise: My Life in the Movement

Cleve Jones is the Forrest Gump of the gay liberation movement. Harvey Milk? Mentor and buddy. A bunch of dudes sitting around trying to come up with a symbol? He was there as they decided on the rainbow and dyed the first strips of fabric. San Francisco AIDS Foundation? He co-founded it. The memorial quilt? That was all him. But in When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, Jones captures not just landmark moments, but the feel of an era that lives on in the memories of a select and dwindling few.

When We Rise

Reading Jones’s description of his childhood feels like a fireside chat with anyone who can count decades on more than one hand, except that person has a way of capturing sexual desire in words (e.g., “Among the authors one could frequently find was Mary Renault, whose novels about ancient Greece and Alexander the Great included stories of bold and loyal and muscle-bound warrior lovers that kept me awake at night, squirming into my mattress) and an epic coming out story:

Dad bought me a new bicycle that afternoon, and as we drove beneath the palm trees into our driveway on Calle del Norte I took a deep breath and broke the news. He was silent, staring straight ahead over the steering wheel for a long moment, then turned to face me. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because it’s important, Dad. You need to know. I’ve joined the gay liberation movement and I’m not going to live in secret anymore.”

His face got red and he snarled back, “Great. Tell me all about it. What do you like best, getting fucked in the ass or sucking cock?”

As Jones’s adventures begin, the book’s descriptions retain both simplicity and vibrancy:

Another active member of the group was Jim Briggs, a short, balding, rotund little man who lived in a trailer park nearby. His place was so filthy with cats and food debris that it made me uncomfortable, but Jim regularly entertained impossibly good-looking guys, so I got over my discomfort and hung out often. Jim taught me how to speak like a queen. He loved gay jargon, was the first person to call me Mary, and demonstrated that the word “please” has at least two syllables.

Throughout, Jones manages to place the reader right there in the moment and at the same time to lend it historical perspective:

I was born into the last generation of homosexual people who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way that we felt. It was simply never spoken of. There were no rainbow flags, no characters on TV, no elected officials, no messages of compassion from religious leaders, no pride parades, no “It Gets Better,” no Glee, no Ellen, no Milk.

In San Francisco I had stayed with Gary and Ron on 16th Street just a few blocks from the Twin Peaks Tavern at the corner of Castro and Market Streets, with its bold plate-glass windows overlooking the busy intersection smack in the center of the city. I’d never seen a gay bar with windows before.

The baths back then were really pretty great. The only diseases we had to worry about were easily treated with a shot or a handful of pills, and it was a point of pride for all of us to go down to the City Clinic at 4th and Mission to get tested every month. We’d get a ticket with a number and wait for a bit in the lobby…. Everyone saved their City Clinic exam tickets and you’d see them on refrigerators and bathroom mirrors, taped up as proof of responsible behavior and reminders for one’s next visit…. My routine was to check in, shower, wander the hallways and mazes, have some sex, then shower again and sit in the hot tub.

The book isn’t perfect, in some places recounting details that resonate only with the author and in others lacking the specificity needed to keep the reader engaged (there are only so many times it’s interesting to read about charged eye contact). And Jones arguably attempts too much, adding in snippets about the labor movement, geopolitics, and more throughout in a way that feels jarring and unfocused:

The Quilt was on tour again but I had less and less to do with the running of the NAMES Project…. Mike and the core group kept things running despite the terrible attrition rate of our volunteers. Many of those who had been there to help us with the first display were dead now. Their shoes were filled by another wave of volunteers. Then they died. That’s how we lived then. Our friends died; we made new friends; then they died. We found new friends yet again; then watched as they died. It went on and on. In Eastern Europe the Soviet Union was breaking apart.

Bush took the nation into war in August 1990. We marched in the giant protests against the Gulf War with our signs, “Money for AIDS, Not for War.” The death rate soared. Every Thursday morning we would pick up the Bay Area Reporter at any of the local gay bars and businesses. The obituary section grew to fill two, sometimes three full pages. Every week, almost everyone in the neighborhood would read that someone they knew had died. We lost over a thousand people a year, just in San Francisco, every year for over a decade.

But his generation’s experience of battles on all fronts, of not knowing how to begin to fight back against the many wrongs of the world, might be something Jones intended to impart to readers by leaving us reeling. Perhaps rather than explain the sense of overwhelm, he passed it on, much as he made the AIDS death toll more poignant than even his vivid statistics allow by acknowledging the death in the second half of the book of almost every character introduced in the first. From that perspective, Jones achieves precisely what he sets out to accomplish: “I want new generations to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost, and what we won.”

Gripes aside, modern history lives, breathes, loves, and dies on the pages of When We Rise.

Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It

Let’s say you wanted to create the most boring sounding field possible. You might call it “systems science” and choose topics of study like dams, oil rigs, and water treatment plants. But Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik will have thwarted your plans, producing as they have a page-turner about the paradox of progress: “as our systems have become more capable, they have also become more complex and less forgiving, creating an environment where small mistakes can turn into massive failures.”


Meltdown covers “large-scale meltdowns like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global financial crisis” as well as smaller failures that “seem to stem from very different problems,” but have similar underlying causes and means of prevention. “That shared DNA means that failures in one industry can provide lessons for people in other fields: dentists can learn from pilots, and marketing teams from SWAT teams.” In prose that’s both gripping and easily digested, Meltdown summarizes research on “why diversity helps us avoid big mistakes and what Everest climbers and Boeing engineers can teach us about the power of simplicity” as well as “how film crews and ER teams manage surprises—and how their approach could have saved the mismanaged Facebook IPO and Target’s failed Canadian expansion.”

Clearfield and Tilcsik demonstrate a knack for choosing fascinating subjects like hackers who can use an antenna and a laptop to control your insulin pump and the La La Land flub at the 2017 Oscars. They also abide their own lessons in the imparting. Since systems are ripe for failure when they’re (1) complicated and (2) tightly coupled (meaning lots of stuff is closely tied together in a way that begs for a dominos-style reaction), the authors dumb down the material covered as much as possible (e.g., “TEPCO’s engineers worked in what psychologists call a wicked environment. In such environments, it’s hard to check how good our predictions and decisions are. It’s like trying to learn how to cook without being able to taste the food. Without feedback, experience doesn’t make us into better decision makers.”). Then they reformulate key points so as to add in a little slack for the reader to catch up. The result? A failure-free work of nonfiction.

Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life


“Don’t Call Me Princess” is Peggy Orenstein’s best hits album, and like “Michael Jackson Number Ones,” the content justifies its own compilation. Few pop stars can identify important topics, compose poetry about them, and deliver it with perfect pitch; most do one or two, but not all three. It’s similarly rare for a journalist to write critically on subjects that don’t seem salient until she dubs them so and with diction that sings (e.g., “April is a distraction, as would be any student who cannot catch up but will not drop out”). Plus, I learned cool stuff.

The following excerpts showcase Orenstein’s insightfulness, in the form of introspection and empathy, detail and synthesis:

Looking back on her career, [Nobel prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn] believes she was subject to plenty of bias; like many successful women in nontraditional fields, she was just particularly adept at denying it. “I was oblivious for a long time,” she recalls, “and that’s the way I coped. It was very much a defense. If I had stopped and thought about it, I would’ve felt so vulnerable to it.”


It isn’t easy to watch a daughter’s incipient forays into romance and sexuality. If Miranda [Cosgrove, Nickelodeon’s “iCarly”] embodies the wish that girls could engage in the former without the latter, Chris was acting out a parent’s desire to ensure it. Most of us don’t (and can’t) chaperone our daughters at school, at concerts, at public appearances. Most of us accept, if with some ambivalence, that our daughters have to navigate the turbulence of romantic life on their own. Most of us have no choice but to let our daughters go.


In its zeal to find them, science has outpaced the medical, psychological, and ethical implications of its discoveries.


For years I had thought of myself as a Weeble, one of those roly-poly children’s toys that “wobble but they don’t fall down.” I had, after all, survived breast cancer in my thirties, an age when it tends to be especially deadly; after three miscarriages and six years of infertility, I got pregnant in my forties with my daughter. There were other crises, too, of the heart and the head as well as the body—how could there not be after five decades of living?—but they didn’t define me. I’ve always popped up fine. Yet lately, incrementally, I had begun to feel defective, emotionally diminished rather than strengthened by trauma, in danger of becoming the sum of my pain. Had that happened after this latest bout of cancer or before? I couldn’t say. But I felt cleaved, a word that also means its opposite: cleaved to this body, whether I liked it or not, and from it by its many betrayals.


During the “Mommy Wars” of the early 2000s, women who stayed home with children were pitted in the media against mothers who worked for pay and neither side emerged a winner. Womens’ insecurities were ripe for exploitation: after all, in what I would come to call a “half-changed world,” others’ choices can feel like a rebuke.


Whether or not they worked outside the home, the vast majority of women had made concessions to parenthood in a way that men, for the most part, still do not. That’s why words like “balance,” “trade-off,” and “work-family conflict” have become as feminine as pink tulle.


Women complained to me that their husbands didn’t pull their domestic weight, but time after time, I heard them let men off the hook. A thirty-eight year-old technical writer I interviewed in San Francisco was typical: “You know,” she mused after running down a litany of frustrations, “my husband is really involved compared with his own father.” I pushed, pointing out that this sets the bar too low. Shouldn’t we be comparing men’s involvement with that of their wives instead? “Well,” said another mom, “you can’t really expect that.” I tried putting it another way: “It seems to me that women, whatever their arrangements, feel like lesser mothers than those of the previous generation. Meanwhile men, even with minimal participation at home, feel like better fathers.”


[T]here are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs—who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty—are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception…. [And] school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper, and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business…. It doesn’t seem to be “having it all” that’s getting to them; it’s the pressure to be it all. In telling our girls they can be anything, we have inadvertently demanded that they be everything. To everyone. All the time.

All the Dirty Parts

dirty parts.jpg

I was worried for Daniel Handler, after reading his persuasive New York Times op-ed excoriating the publishing industry’s shunning of sex in books targeted at teenagers—and became even more so when I learned the title Lemony Snicket had chosen for his counterpoint: All the Dirty PartsHe’s going to have trouble, I thought, making it dirty enough to live up to all that hype. Spoiler alert: My concern was misplaced.

“She got up and went to the bathroom and came back wearing only my shirt. I was on my back on the bed. She stopped at the edge of the bed and clutched my hair a little. Then she moved so she was on my mouth and just rubbed there. Her moans were so unpretty I knew it was real. She tasted like everything, like a girl, like a person, like a creature. Midway I tried to reach for her and she said no and like this came on my mouth like I wasn’t even there and I, so much, loved it.”

The novel begins by unceremoniously dumping the reader inside the mind and body of a teenager:

“Wish I could explain, how these things feel like seduction, even though I know they aren’t. If you rumple my hair and leave your hand for a minute on my neck. If you sit and put one of your legs up on something even if you’re in jeans. If you lick something off your finger. If you put on lipstick. If you rub your own bare arm. If you bend down for any reason to pick something up off the ground. If you talk to me.”

And throughout, Handler is faithful to his protagonist, capturing in the book’s structure how academics, parents, and even legitimate passions like artistic expression can fade to the fringes of a young person’s consciousness, their focus almost entirely absorbed instead by sex, romance, and friendships.

All the Dirty Parts isn’t just a profile in horniness and loneliness, however. Handler tackles a plethora of important, complex issues like homoeroticism, the impact of pornography on one’s sexual concept (or as a behavioral economist might describe it, “anchoring”), and the fuzzy boundaries of consent. The book’s arguably a little heavy-handed, didactic even, when it comes to gender equality and the slut-stud dichotomy, but that’s certainly a message teenagers can stand to hear repeated.

Most importantly, Handler’s writing soars throughout:

“Abby was always scared of the condoms afterwards. She wouldn’t touch them and she wouldn’t throw them out in her house, in case her snoopy mom brush-cleared the wastebasket. So afterwards we’d walk around the neighborhood with little cloudy bundles, eggs of damp latex all tissued up, so delicate in my hand in my pocket like the baby we were trying to avoid. Nighty-night. Go to sleep in this trashcan outside the sandwich place.”

He manages to lace this quick, absorbing read with both wit (e.g., “Four years ago I think, I thought anal sex just meant you were really particular about it”) and descriptive elegance (e.g., “Right there, on her arm, the sort of beautiful spot like what made pioneers think, let’s put a town here”) all without sacrificing poignancy (e.g., “I miss her, I’m coaching at myself as I trudge toward school, like I missed a bus. Not like a limb, a life, an everything.”).

Read All the Dirty Parts. Allow your teenagers, if you have them, to read All the Dirty Parts (perhaps in conjunction with Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex). Muster the courage to discuss All the Dirty Parts. Each of these actions will fascinate, satisfy, and educate. Like any good novel—and sexual experienceshould.

Being a Dad Is Weird: Lessons in Fatherhood from My Family to Yours

Ben Falcone wants you to know he’s not fancy. Take the following passage: “[O]ne of the best ways to be a good dad is to find a great lady to be the kids’ mom[,] … a great wife who is a great mother…. My own mom is a great lady.” Does Ben Falcone, Hollywood director, know a synonym for “great”? He must. At the very least someone at HarperCollins could have been paid to look one up. But that’s not the vibe of Being a Dad Is Weird.

In this short memoir, Falcone is just a simple, nervous guy from the Midwest with a handful of common observations on parenthood (e.g., “All of that pales in comparison to the worrying I do about my kids. I worry—oh how I worry—about my kids.”). The lackluster writing is partly thanks to Falcone not having his normal arsenal of facial expressions and gesticulations to help sell a funny line, but I’m guessing it mostly owes to the manuscript’s origin as an internal memo of sorts, a Christmas present for his dear old dad. But at some point, someone decided to run with the folksy style. Even Melissa McCarthy’s introduction lacks carefully crafted sentences and deep thoughts. I almost stopped reading a quarter of the way in, wondering why anyone would publish something so devoid of literary effort.

But I decided instead to pull over a metaphorical chair and just listen to the stories of this guy who didn’t major in English and maybe had a beer or two. I started laughing. Toward the middle I giggled so often my husband demanded to know what Twitter storm I’d discovered. Falcone certainly has a knack for narrative, and his dad gave him plenty of material:

  • The only bright spot of the entire week was getting to watch my dad attempt to ride a bike. My father is good at many things, but cycling is not one of them. Apparently, growing up in the 1950s in a scrappy part of Philly is not conducive for learning how to ride a bike in a super-mellow fashion. He kept falling off the bicycle, becoming more and more enraged, not at himself for his lack of skill but at the actual bike. After a particularly bad fall, he started yelling, “Stupid fucking bike. Stupid island! Fuck you, Ocracoke!” Or I might be making that part up. But it’s fun to think he was yelling, “Fuck you, Ocracoke!” Because no offense, Ocracoke—you might be great for some people, but for fifteen-year-old Ben, you were a real shit-show. My dad has since sincerely apologized for that trip to Ocracoke…. I forgive him, of course. I mean, at least he can admit that taking advice from a bird-watcher, when you are not a bird-watcher, is not a good policy when it comes to your vacation plans. But how was my dad to know how lame Farley’s taste in vacations was? He didn’t have the Internet at his fingertips to google “Best spots to take a wimpy fifteen-year-old on the North Carolina shore.” 
  • My older daughter was born a devout Christian. Sometimes she looks out her open window, holding a cross. No shit. She stares at the sky, holding her small golden cross. I have to assume she’s praying. So this one morning, my kids were eating their gluten-free pancakes (KA-FUCKING-BOOM! I am a great dad!) and my then-three-year-old looked up at her mom and said, “Boy, God sure did give me an itchy vagina.” My wife looked away, trying not to laugh as I instantly panicked. But my daughter continued. “I mean, man. It’s really itchy.” I began to focus on astrally projecting myself to anywhere but where I was at that moment…. The tiny blond child took a pause. I praised all that was holy that she was done. But oh no. There was more. “Whoooo. It’s just super itchy. So God made me have an itchy vagina.” My older child, being fully pious, gets very offended by this kind of chatter. She was compelled by the spirit to correct her sister, posthaste. “Georgie! God would never give you an itchy vagina. He might kill you, or strike you blind, but he would never give you an itchy vagina.” My wife, no longer able to keep it in, burst out laughing, as my older daughter demanded to know what was so funny. I began to clear the plates from the table (people may have still been eating but I didn’t care). I just had to get those plates to the sink; that way I could put another four feet of distance between myself and this “situation.”
  • Kelly wouldn’t miss a beat, and he would good-naturedly yell, “Ben! Get your pop outta the john!” I’d walk in, past the person invariably at the urinal, kick open the stall door, and find my pop snoozing away. I’d nudge him, and he’d say, “What? What’s happening?” Then he’d see me and say, “Hey, buddy,” as casual and breezy as if we were having a quick beer together (not that I was old enough to drink beer, but you get what I mean). “Pop, you’re asleep on the toilet again.” With that, my dad would look down at himself, smile, and say, “So it would seem.” I’d step out, he’d splash some water on his face or whatever he needed to do to get himself together, and go back out toward the band as if nothing had happened at all.
  • Whatever my dad had done was bad … [so he] got busy. He knew my mom was coming home from work soon, and time was wasting. I was informed that we were having fish for dinner. I was fifteen and am from the Midwest, so I was not exactly thrilled. But I sucked it up because I knew my dad must have really messed up royally if he felt the need to cook an apology fish. Fish is fancy. Fish is for company. And holidays. And clearly, for apologies when Dad really pisses Mom off.
  • Normally my dad drinks white wine (he can just fuck up a bottle of chardonnay), but the occasion seemed to call for the solemnity of a red. I started to tell my dad a story about my grandma, his mom [who had just died]…. Whatever I was telling him must have registered with him in some form or fashion, because he looked at me with a tired, sad look and said, “I’d toast you, son, but you have no wine.” I politely informed him that he had my glass of wine in front of him, as well as his own. Then my brother turned to him and said, “You also seem to have my wine, Pop.”

Problem is, in telling these tales, Falcone proves he can be smart and insightful (e.g., “He taught me to always say what’s on your mind, which is advice I actually never took—my mind is a sea of unsaid thoughts sometimes pried loose with too much coffee or scotch”), as well as convey dry humor in writing (e.g., “I needed an island for uninhibited girls determined to make a man out of husky shy Italian kids. But I got a rainy island full of old bird-watchers. We watched a lot of David Letterman.”). He also occasionally provides real parenting advice (e.g., “My father’s belief, which I have also adopted, is that parents are responsible for attempting to keep their children from the truly big fuck-ups in life. The smaller stuff is the stuff that kids need to navigate for themselves.”). That left me wishing Falcone and his editors had tightened and gussied things up a lot more, moving the reader from one anecdote to another with less filler and more precision.

As it is, Being a Dad Is Weird isn’t terrible. It’s good even. But it could have been great, really great.

Who Gets What—and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design

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Economics is dry and dreary, right? Not in Al Roth’s hands. With the accessibility of Bill Nye and the relatability of those Mythbusters guys, Who Gets What—and Why explains the ins and outs of matching markets (as opposed to financial and commodities ones that trade in interchangeable things like stocks and gold). Roth covers everything from dating websites to kidney transplants, from jobs for young doctors to public school assignment, using each to demonstrate that “[m]arkets are human artifacts, not natural phenomena,” and those who design and redesign them change lives.

“Economics is about the efficient allocation of scarce resources, and about making resources less scarce,” Roth begins, and then modestly reveals how he and a handful of others used algorithms and clearinghouses to create a Nobel-Prize-winning field of study with a plethora of practical applications.

Roth tells fascinating tales, describing, for example, how the matching of football teams to play in bowl games and the market for coffee beans have evolved over time, all the while teaching basic principles of market design (e.g., “The first task of a successful marketplace is bringing together many participants who want to transact, so they can seek out the best transactions. Having a lot of participants makes a market thick.”).

Through good pacing and foundation-laying, Roth manages to entertain (e.g., “At the Wetherby School in England, a school Princes William and Harry attended, the spaces reserved by newborns fill up early each month, and the school advises women scheduling cesarean sections to have them on the first of the month, if possible, to get a place before all the spots are gone”) without sacrificing nuance (e.g., “Notice the tension between commoditization and product differentiation—that is, between wanting to sell in a thick market to buyers even if they don’t care who you are, and trying to make your product special enough that many buyers will care enough about you to seek you out”).

He also deftly discusses political hurdles to market improvement, like real estate agents increasingly serving as unnecessary middlemen who withhold easy-to-match exchanges; “[s]chool choice divid[ing] parents into two ‘parties’ [with p]eople who live near good schools becom[ing] the ‘walk-to-school party,’ while those who live elsewhere become the ‘school choice party’”; and areas like healthcare and financial trading rules where “lots of market participants [have] a stake in the status quo.”

Despite disappointment at others limiting the transformative power of his work, Roth maintains optimism “about what can be done through careful design and monitoring of a market to fix it if it isn’t working well” as well as no small amount of wit (e.g., “Doctors don’t automatically think of economists as fellow members of the helping professions”).

The last few chapters would have benefited from a bit more tightening, but on the whole Who Gets What—and Why is virtually an ideal work of nonfiction, as engaging as it is educational.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood


Trevor Noah is either one of the most talented human beings in eternity, or he found himself an epic ghostwriter. Probably both, because Born a Crime sets out to produce a narrative that’s both gripping and funny while also imparting a brief cultural history of South Africa. Which should be easy, because what could be more amusing than injustice and bloodshed, right? Not only does Noah not fail miserably, the end result is nearly flawless. Even the one hiccup is arguably a matter of style in this rarest of birds: the nonfiction page-turner.

I could go on about how achingly relatable I found Noah’s descriptions of grappling with everything from religion to abuse, how his treatment of political issues struck the ideal balance, neither too specific to his own circumstances nor too didactic, how the revelrous perfectly complimented the revelatory. But I’ll let him speak for himself instead:  

I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down.

One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call. “Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.” “Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.” “Sorry, Dave!” And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t.

As for that flaw … Each chapter stands alone, beautifully crafted and tight. Most of them also demonstrate awareness of placement within the book as a whole, not repeating information, but that system breaks down a few times, most noticeably when Noah’s “middlemen” friends Tom and Alex are introduced to the reader in a chapter following one in which they featured prominently. He also twice delivers the line, “Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls.” But we’re talking minor annoyance here, and only to someone who reads the book in a sitting or two (now whose fault are the high odds of that happening, Trevor Noah?).

Aside from that small detail, the book sings, and sings, and sings. Because in Born a Crime, Noah shows he has what many celebrity writers lack: the ability to determine which personal stories shine light into everyone’s darkness, and a commitment to telling them in a way that grabs the reader and never lets go.