Imaginary Fathers

In July 1985, about two months before he died, I had my last serious conversation with my father, Alan. It was a short conversation, and it was not good. In one blow, it seemed to cancel all the gains I thought I had made in a lifetime of trying to win his attention and respect.

Alan was 81. He had, from a lifetime of smoking Pall Malls, been suffering severely from emphysema, and during my visit he could sometimes be found seated before the back-yard picnic table, motionless, his head bowed, as if in profound contemplation. Cupped in his hands like an offering was a silk handkerchief.

Was he praying? Never. His profession was as a physicist, at the Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. His philosophy was “logical positivism.” Because we were an enlightened, “liberal” family, we were encouraged to call him by name—Alan—rather than “Dad” or “Pop.” The equivalent to Jesus, for Alan, was Bertrand Russell. In fact, Alan cultivated, rather obnoxiously, I thought, some of Bertrand Russell’s mannerisms: a certain stubborn scowl when he was about to pronounce upon a manner of principle. One of his favorite conversations—a kind of set piece, delivered in donnish tones—was a lecture disproving the existence of God.

After a stint at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, Alan had acquired a faintly British accent that he would accentuate in certain rhetorical situations, when he might pronounce the word “structure” as “struck`-chuh” With furled, thunderous brow: “Mathematics is the study of struck-chuh!”Alanwas built like Russell, too—short, wiry, small-boned. He wasn’t thin enough to be called “elfin.” He was more like a gnome—a small gnome. Bent over his silk handkerchief in the back yard, Alan wouldn’t be praying. He’d be drooling. For spans of 20 or 30 minutes, he’d remain immobilized, captive to the flow of mucus from his nose.

But he was indoors, now, at the kitchen table, and we were talking about one of Bertrand Russell’s chosen—Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I mentioned that I’d always regretted not having learned German, that German still seemed to be the language of the marketplace in Europe.

Alan allowed that it was regrettable, and then added this pronouncement: “Son, until you know German, you’ll never understand Western culture.”

“Until you’ve played shortstop,” I retorted coldly, “you’ll never understand American culture,” and Alan realized that he’d stung me. He immediately shut up.

But the exchange seemed to epitomize all of the differences between us, especially the pain in being, though reasonably smart, intellectually inferior to one’s father. Why the hell did he have to rub it in?

My father had never deigned to do ordinary things with me, for he’d never thought of himself as ordinary, nor had he ever much cared to be. In fact, he was not ordinary. A child prodigy—a polymath with not only a photographic memory, but a pronounced musical talent, and a poetic imagination—Alan should have been born in England into an aristocratic elite, like Bertrand Russell or the mathematician G.H. Hardy. They would have cultivated him like some kind of rare orchid, as somebody special, for that is how he regarded himself. My Aunt Eth recalls that when he returned from his first semester at Harvard he announced that from now on he refused to sleep on anything but “black satin sheets.” He was conspicuously, proudly eccentric. In high school in Montclair, N.J., he was teased mercilessly. He once described to me how the students would line up behind him and mimic his bouncing gait when he walked.

After graduating from Harvard in the class of 1925, summa cum laude, in chemistry, instead of going straight to graduate school and a doctorate, Alan left academic life in order to work as an accountant in New York City. His mother was dying of tuberculosis. Forever after, as a scientist, in spite of his intellect, Alan was playing catch-up ball.

Later in his life, when Alan had, on the basis of his best-selling book “Crystals and Crystal Growing,” acquired a national reputation as an educator and won the Millikan Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers, whenever other physicists invited him to join their departments, they discovered, to their astonishment, that he lacked the Ph.D. All negotiations would stop. He could never be hired full time by a university physics department. He would remain at Bell Telephone Laboratories until retirement.

I remember when, wondering aloud whether I should go for a Ph.D. in English, Alan actually tried to discourage me from it.

“Nope. You don’t need one.”

I didn’t believe him.

As somebody special: That was how Alan tried to lead his life. In a way, he was as romantic as Don Quixote. He would construct his own version of the Bloomsbury Circle in the suburbs of New Jersey. It was almost possible. Bloomsbury. Nothing I’ve read describes the feel of the household that Alan and Jaynet (my mother) ran more closely than Virginia Woolf’s description of the Ramsay household in her novel “To the Lighthouse.” The scientists whom Alan collected around himself and who were regularly in and out of our house were some of the most intellectually successful men in the world. They included two Nobel laureates in physics, Philip Anderson and William Schockley, men like Philip Morrison who’d been involved in the Manhattan Project, as well as men in other fields, like the composer Virgil Thomson. Alan had assembled a sort of salon. But as fathers, they were inept. They were like spoiled children, far too self-centered to love their own kids.

Alan, himself, had never particularly wanted to be bothered with raising children. “Interesting little organisms,” he was fond of joking. Like the Ramsay household, indeed like the households of most of the other Bell Labs scientists, ours was cemented by the tireless, almost heroic ministrations of a mother whose loyalty to her husband and determination to spare him the boring details of daily life was self-abnegating. From the sexually “liberated” perspective of today, my parents’ nearly 50-year-long marriage looks quaint, almost comic.

Jaynet even bought Alan’s clothes for him as for a child: She would pick them out and present them to him. Years later, when reading in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” the story “The Voyage to Laputa,” a satire of the intellectuals in The Royal Academy who live on a floating island and are so absorbed in their study of the music of the spheres that the only way to get their attention is through a “flapper,” I realized at once that the “flappers” were the scientists’ wives.

Weekends, our household tiptoed carefully around the dining room, where Alan had barricaded himself to write. I remember being dispatched to call him to lunch one Sunday, and marveling at the legal pad he was writing on. Page after page of mathematical nomenclature, algebra. It had been jotted in a breakneck, accurate script, like the tracks of an Olympic skier cutting and banking downhill through a succession of gates, digging in with a parenthesis, then a series of linked quadratics closed off with another slice of a parenthesis, and so on down into another concatenation. It was as ifAlans mind had been continuously outrunning the hand that could record its movement. It was Mind on its feet made visible. In 1985, when Alan died and I was clearing out the house, I came across all those legal pads covered with identities. I discovered what he had been up to. He had been trying to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem.

We lived in the country on seven acres in an old farm house my parents had bought in the Depression for $5,000 and had restored. It was a place of long silences, creaking floors. Its interior felt like a judge’s chambers, different shades of amber brought to a high Augustan polish. It was a simple house, without ornament, its tidiness and simplicity dictated by a Puritan aesthetic which I associate with a political liberalism whose style, for all its apparent modesty, asserts a kind of moral arrogance. It’s the arrogance implicit in the Socratic dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words: “If you have not examined your life with the rigor that we have, then your life isn’t worth living.”

Every once in a while, auspiciously, a car would go crackling past on the gravel road. It was an event. Or a cow might wander through the rail fence. On weekends, there was nothing to do. I liked baseball, but there was hardly anyone to play catch with. I spent entire weekends alone hitting a threadbare tennis ball out into the field east of our house and judging the result: a low liner for a single; a higher liner that ricocheted off the pear tree for a double; a triple if it hit high up and took an erratic bounce into “the corner.” A homer if it carried over Thompsons’ hedge. A double play if I hit a pop up and could catch my own pop fly with one hand.

One late-April Sunday when I was 12 and conspicuously bored, Jaynet ordered Alan out of the dining room to play catch with me. It was around 2:30 on a pale afternoon, maybe an hour to go before the return of a hopelessness as faithful as the tide, the growing certainty that tomorrow was Monday: school. I remember that afternoon vividly. It was the one and only time that Alan played catch with me. And it was embarrassing.

Out on the grizzled lawn, where a couple of daffodils had declared themselves, in the weak New Jersey light, Alan resembled nothing so much as a small animal surprised outside its burrow. The sunlight puzzled him. Gamely he held out my Uncle Matt’s old catchers mitt as a target for me to hit. I had a good arm. I thought that quite possibly I could blow his hand off. I tried to. The throw was wild. He lurched sideways, knocked the ball down. Stiffly in a dignified manner, he stooped, scooped the ball up. He was still expressionless. With an abrupt push, as if he were fending off a bee, he forced it back.

We went through this ritual for 20 minutes. Then I let him go. It was costing him too much. He didn’t know how to do this. He had no idea what to say, like “nice throw” or “a little high.” He was completing, doggedly and without pleasure, an assignment.

By the time I was 16 and playing some organized baseball, I had resolved that, when I had a son, I would play with him as often as I could. I would give him the very kinds of attention that Alan had, either out of debility or plain self-centeredness, refused me. It was not an idle fantasy. It was a silently resolved strategy. My desire, of course, was as sentimental as it was psychological—the ideal dad would take his boy fishing, I thought, though now I know better.

“Strategy.” I think that the strategic manner in which I imagined nurturing a son I learned from Alan, though his strategic bent of mind was never turned to nurturance. When Alan would level his attention on a project, however, the intensity of his concentration was almost terrifying. It was absolute. And that is primarily the way í remember him: watching him at work. Other fathers might cuss out a lawn mower that wouldn’t catch. Or kick the car. Alan would simply stop. He’d stop and think awhile, his breath wheezing through his nose—hiss and hiss like something mechanical until, abruptly, a solution clicked. Then, step by step, arranging parts in the sequence they’d come loose, he’d direct at the poor lawn mower a logic even that sullen machine could not refute. Then, just as systematically, he’d refit each wrench upon its peg-board silhouette, re-index every drill bit, every nail—this small, half-German intellectual who, I came to believe, could probably figure anything out if he decided to put his mind to it. Stephen, my brother, and I were never sure just what he thought of us. Had he hated us, he wouldn’t have shown it. When, in a reasoning, mildly troubled tone he once explained to me, In war, people hurt with tools, it gave me the creeps. He was one of the men inventing those same tools. He was a patient man. There was no telling what he might invent.

During World War II, when the Bell Labs was doing weapons-research, Alan developed a crystal useful in the SONAR detection of submarines. In the late ‘50s, when Soviet Russia stunned America by being the first nation in the world to put a satellite in orbit, there was a scramble in this country to upgrade curricula in science and mathematics. Nuclear and thermonuclear weapons had, by that time, been perfected anyhow, so many of America’s top physicists turned their talents toward pedagogy.

Alan’s book for the Doubleday Science Series, “Crystals and Crystal Growing,” was like a cookbook. The almost apparitional way in which a crystal could reveal itself inside a solution was tantalizing, mysterious. Most crystals are beautiful, and like botanical phenomena they appeal to the human instinct for classification. Crystal-lographic taxonomies are geometrical, and in the early ‘60s, Alan began constructing, with cardboard and Elmer’s Glue, three-dimensional, polyhedral models. He worked at home a lot. He’d stump down to the cellar at 9 and, troll-like, come stumping back upstairs for a Manhattan cocktail at 5. He worked on the weekends.

By 1985, the polyhedra had almost entirely taken over the house. The geometrical structures that filled Alan’s head were irrepressible. They had broken out into the light of common day and lived, like placid pets, beside us, grazing on counters and bookshelves. Or they hung from the ceiling, human spider webs, ideal solar systems, mind made visible.

Betty Wood, Alan’s colleague at the Lab and, like him, a crystallo-grapher, told me once that the character Felix Hoenniker in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cats Cradle” was based, in part, on Alan. Its possible. In Vonnegut’s 1969 address to the American Physical Society in New York, Vonnegut described his fictional invention of Ice-9 like this:

While I was writing the story about Ice-9, 1 happened to go to a cocktail party where I was introduced to a crystallographer. I told him about this ice which was stable at room temperature. He put his cocktail glass on the mantelpiece. He sat down in an easy chair in the corner. He did not speak to anyone or change expression for half an hour. Then he got up, came back over to the mantelpiece, and picked up his cocktail glass, and he said to me, “Nope.” Ice-9 was impossible.

This sounds like Alan, though it could be almost any one of the physicists who were in and out of our house. The following passages from “Cat’s Cradle,” though, describe Alan, with an accuracy that’s almost spooky, as seen through the eyes of a child:

“. . . making that cat’s cradle was the closest I ever saw my father come to playing what anyone else would call a game. He had no use at all for tricks and games and rules that other people made up. …

“He all of a sudden came out of his study and did something he’d never done before. He tried to play with me. Not only had he never played with me before; he had hardly ever spoken to me.

“But he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he shewed me his teeth, and he waved a tangle of string in my face. ‘See? See? See?’ he asked. ‘Cats Cradle. See the Cat’s Cradle? See where the pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow.’ “

Like Hoenniker, Alan was so awkward in his attempts to express affection that, for children, his attention bordered on being scary. It

was inhuman. When Alan would talk to me, the double-barreled intensity of his gaze, coupled with his curiosity, seemed unnatural. I felt like the subject of an experiment, a fly under a microscope.

The way in which the ocean, in “Cat’s Cradle,” crystallizes into “Ice-9” is like the way Alan’s polyhedral models imperceptibly and inexorably came to invade our house, until they dominated it. But mostly I remember Alan frowning over his work and knowing that I mustn’t interrupt him.

The best side of Alan was when he abandoned his British pretensions in favor of a sly, Yankee wit, a common-sense tone. Alan had always nursed a special fondness for E.B. White s literary style, and as a science writer in his later years Alan perfected a style that, like White’s, was urbane and homespun at the same time. But Alan’s intellectual style was a virtue for which, in my first 17 years, I had little use. î longed for a simpler father—someone like Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”—a guy without Alan’s slippery irony and without his vanity. I wanted some corny, tough-talking but loving, proletarian, someone whose face I could read, whose emotions I could understand, someone who liked to watch baseball on TV— who maybe even played in an industrial league. I wanted someone who incarnated so thoroughly and unquestioningly the stereotypical values of American manhood that they’d rub off on me and I’d know, as most of the other boys in the world seemed to, how to act.

I was a scrawny boy, timid and hyper-sensitive, almost paralyzed with shyness. I could see that somehow, against my will, I had the misfortune to have been born radically different from the other neighborhood kids. They tinkered endlessly with lawn mower engines, building buggies in which to rip around the woods, following the bridle paths. I’d stand sentinel beside two legs in dungarees sticking out from under a car. After an hour or so, I’d quietly slip off, walk home alone and climb the stairs to my room, where I could reread one of Claire Bee’s Chip Hilton books or play my 1954 edition of APBA Baseball when Bobby Avila won the American League batting title with a .344 average. If the weather was decent, I might spend another weekend conducting imaginary baseball games alone,’ hitting my tennis ball into the field. Life in the imagination seemed easier to live alone than with other kids.

Although I didn’t know it then, I was much more like Alan than í knew. It was my imagination, not my physical frailty, that made me different from other kids—almost freakishly abnormal. Yet most of the fantasies í cooked up were ones in which I was like Chip Hilton, hyper-normal. In my solitary, imaginary baseball league, the better the player, the blander, the more wholesome his name. The two superstars on my team were Bill Smith and Bob Jones.

If there was any task Alan was unequipped for it was that of showing me or anyone how to be a normal American boy In order not to feel like a freak, I had to learn boyhood on my own. I studied it. I was a scholar of normality. By the time I entered college, I had come to interpret Alan’s inexpressiveness to me as a sign of his infinite forbearance, a sharp sigh of annoyance perpetually withheld, but just barely. His disappointment with me must be so profound it bordered on contempt, contempt for the obvious frivolity of my life—a life devoted exclusively to play, to hitting tennis balls alone into a field and hunting for them, to reading comics.

In 1974, as I was writing my Ph.D. thesis in Boulder, Colo., my son, Zachary, was born. I had gone ahead, despite Alan’s scoffing at the Ph.D., to get one, and when I mentioned to the wife of one of Alan’s more celebrated Bell Labs colleagues Alan’s advice against the doctorate, Lee had cackled with laughter. “Sour grapes!” she declared. Meanwhile, though, I began consciously to put into action my resolution of 15 years before—to give Zack the kind of attention that Alan had denied me, to give it strategically, with premeditation, like an artist. Or perhaps a better word would be “scientifically”—to give it scientifically.

It seemed that Alan, in his own work-habits, had, however inadvertently, taught me something after all. He had shown me by his own example how, if one were truly serious, to undertake a project. It should be planned, like a chemical experiment. One should try to anticipate as many outcomes as possible, even unwanted ones.

The Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman “ in the chapter “Cargo Cult Science,” wrote:

There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned studying science in school … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they’ve been eliminated. . . . The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.

Alan’s projects had been intellectual, not directly concerned with people. But if one’s project were to be a decent parent, mightn’t the same kind of forethought be useful? Isn’t attention a form of love?

Since birth, I had been imagining fatherhood and constructing my own boyhood. Now that I had a son, I found that by putting what I had been studying for so many years into practice, I was able almost wholly to fill the void left by Alan s indifference to me. I found that by being the father that Alan should have been, I could almost magically create, in my own person, the father I had hardly had. I could be father and son at the same time. I could have an ideal father retroactively—a believable fiction—while raising a real son better than myself, a version of myself as I might have been.

I taught Zack to ride a bike as my Uncle Jim had taught me, by running alongside the bike and catching it just as it was about to tip over. More tentative, more playful, and far more serious was the ritual of teaching Zack, when he was 3, how to throw and to catch a baseball. With a gleam in his eye, he would mimic my theatrical wind-ups, as if he imagined he were scaring me, as if each wind-up were an omen, a gathering thunderstorm. It would be something far more terrible—his fastball—a thing of limitless potential.

In my experience, intellectual superiority, for all its glamour, is hardly ever nice. In his essay “Technically Sweet,” based on a remark by Oppenheimer that the solution to the manufacture of the atomic bomb was “technically sweet,” the poet Reg Saner expressed poignantly, in both personal and universal terms, the moral dilemma of intellectuality:

If on this serene afternoon 1 ask myself about inner distances and outer ones, their causes—like answers that open on questions—keep disappearing into each other. Oppie’s wounds and ambitions. Hitlers childhood.The admirable, astonishing persistence of Madame Curie. Allure of the technically sweet. The ruinous pleasures of ego. Indeed, doesn’t my own egotism, like all long-range weaponry, depend on the illusion of distance?

Not long ago, I had dinner with a group of physicists in Los Alamos. Suddenly I was surrounded by all the shoptalk I had grown up with. My hosts were scoffing bitterly at the super-collider project in Texas. Nothing but a great boondoggle, they said grimly, knowingly, though they were sure that the physicist in charge would eventually get the Nobel.

I listened attentively, thinking “Sour grapes,” thinking how many times I’d listened to this same conversation as a child, and to similar discussions in my own field of endeavor, about the MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize. And I wondered for the nth time at the deadly, addictive charm of intellectuality, at the vanity that goes with it—at Alan’s unlimited vanity, and my own.

About the Author

Jonathan Holden

Jonathan Holden’s seventh poetry collection, “The Sublime”, won the 1995 Vassar Miller Prize. He is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University.For more information please visit,

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