Jorn Haahr, 1935-2019

Jorn Haahr

My father, Jorn Haahr, died this month. He was a kind, gentle, smart man, who I learned so much from. If you ask people about him, after hearing adjectives like “kind” or “generous,” I think they’d tell you about how he was able to fix anything or how he’d go out of his way for you. He was a wonderful, loving father, who always showed his love in his actions.

For example, being willing to pick up his teenage or twenty-something son with a ride from anywhere, at any time. And being very matter of fact when I screwed up, in big or little ways, always focusing on the practical question of “What do you do next?” Dad was not one for beating yourself up about a mistake.

My father was born in Skive, Denmark, the youngest of three brothers, and grew up during Denmark’s occupation in World War II. He met my mother when she was studying in Copenhagen and he came to the U.S. to be with her. He worked as a power systems engineer, first in Boston, then in New York. He and my mother provided a happy, encouraging, loving family for my sisters and me.

I got to spend a lot of unstructured time with my father in my late teens, what can be a tough age for fathers and sons, with summer jobs in or near his office in. When I worked in his office, I could see that colleagues valued him for being the same always-competent, always-calm person that he was at home. We usually commuted together, taking a bus from Riverdale to Lower Manhattan, giving us a chance talk casually, more like peers than we ever had been. It was a different environment to be with my Dad in and helped set an easygoing, accepting tone for our adult relationship.

(Susan, now my wife, would later sometimes commute with my Dad by train and have similar unstructured times with him. It’s a very scary thought to have your Dad and your girlfriend talking without being there, but I know she always appreciated him from that time.)

When I first moved out to California – and was quite a mess – my Dad ended up visiting me four times in a not-quite year. Now, he’d been working in a remote office for a Palo Alto company for a few years at that point and I don’t think he’d ever visited them before, but, in that time, he found reasons to make a trip to the head office roughly once a quarter. And we got to do things together – adventures like walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and getting lost on the way to Sausalito – in a setting where he let me lead.

My father’s last several years were very hard, caused by a surgery that lead to a series of medical catastrophes. This man who had been vital and energetic until he was seventy-eight was left largely incapacitated. As much as the actual end makes me sad, I’m equally saddened by how much he – and we all – lost earlier.

What stands out about his personality to me is his humility and his innocent goodness. I realized that my Dad will always be the biggest part of my conscience. It is his voice in my head that I’m arguing with when I’m bending the rules or embarrassed about something I’ve done. And remembering his skeptical look of “Is that really what you want to do?” keeps me honest.

Dad, I love you and I miss you. And I always want to be the person you’d have wanted your son to be.

“Great is the truth, and it prevails”

The title of this post is the motto of Horace Mann, the high school I attended. The cover article of this week’s New York Times Magazine is a collection of stories of sexual abuse by teachers of students at the school, largely from around the time I was there. I knew all the teachers mentioned by name in the story and could recognize at least a few of the students involved.

My first reaction to the story, in an email to a friend, was “Amazing how clueless I was.” But that’s not quite right – I wasn’t as unaware as I wish I could claim in retrospect. For example, I had been on the trip where the incident which lead to Stan Kops’s firing occurred and had heard pretty concrete rumors about his firing. I definitely knew the stories and jokes about Joe “Clutch & Touch” Klein the driving teacher, which surfaced in another story. I think I’d also heard rumors about Mark Wright, but he was fired when I was in seventh grade (when he had been my art teacher), so I’m not sure I’d have understood the details, had I heard any.

The surprise in the article, for me and many others, are the apparently well-confirmed stories of Johannes Somary. I was never in Glee Club – anyone who’s heard me sing will know that – but many of my friends were. And many absolutely worshipped Somary. I was friends with one of his sons and fondly remember playing poker at their house. In this case, though, I was totally clueless. No rumors at all. Stories of the great man’s talent, his ego, his wealth, his eccentricities, even of the girls with crushes on him, but not a whiff of anything like predation. His story makes this scandal feel far more intimately bound up with the school than the others.

The Times article is upsetting and valuable, but is also quite odd. Hints are dropped about Inslee Clark, blaming him by innuendo for an environment of sexual abuse, but without the author actually saying so. The quantity of semi-anonymous sources seems exceptional outside of national security stories. While one paragraph mentions other schools, there’s very little in the way of comparisons or context. I’ve never seen a Times article explicitly name its editor before, but this one does; in this case, it’s another Horace Mann graduate (and, I should add, someone I both respect and have a lot of indirect connections to). But there are a lot of Horace Mann alumni who now work for the Times and that leaves the feeling that this story got special handling. To what effect? Is it gentler than it otherwise would have been? More prominent? As an outsider, I can’t tell.

On the other hand, the school’s reaction to this article is, to say the least, off-putting. It is the worst kind of bland, institutional damage control, hiding behind policies that make the Catholic Church look forthcoming. The school admits in weasely terms that it’s fired faculty for these kinds of accusations, but seems to make it clear that it hushed everything up. Yes, thank you for pointing out there’s a national hotline for abuse, but actually saying you’ll give information about crimes to prosecutors would be a better acknowledgement of the school’s responsibility.

Horace Mann, when I knew it, provided a great education. I’ve benefited tremendously from it; I’ve long said that my experience there had much more impact on me than college did. But it did so in an environment that seemed consciously envious of the traditions – the trivial, the honorable, and the sadistic – of English public schools. When I attended, students were mostly called by their first names, but it wasn’t many years before that they were all “Mr.” to the faculty. Academic standards were high. Teachers that verbally abused students were common. It is very sad that Inslee Clark, who probably did more than anyone else to bring the school into the modern world, is being tarred for hushing up or contributing to an abuse problem. How much was his fault? What did he know and what did he do? I wonder if anyone alive can say.

(I mostly knew Clark from taking a Kennedy Years elective he taught. He’d been inspired by John and Bobby Kennedy; the class reflected his continuing belief in the optimism of the New Frontier. But I also knew the stories of his drinking. Looking back, I could see that he drew energy from teaching and from baseball, but the rest of the time he seemed fatigued, distractible, and mired in depression.)

Conflated with all this – especially given the article’s focus on abuse of boys by male teachers – is the homophobia of the time. By the time we were in the upper school, we all knew that Inky Clark and Stan Kops were gay, but we snickered about it; back then, no students were out of the closet and open empathy for a gay teacher was difficult for high school students. (Not impossible – our much-beloved and untarnished-by-any-scandal theater teacher was very out of the closet.) Did homophobia make it harder for the school to acknowledge the problem? Are the abuse cases of young girls still hushed up, even more difficult to talk about? Or are they just not as newsworthy?

There are many tragedies here. The article discusses at least two suicides and the deaths of a few men who were broken, shadows of their original promise. The abuse, even when the victims recovered, was traumatic. And the school, when it acted to remove predators, apparently did nothing to prevent similar abuse happening somewhere else.

What I’m left with is a feeling that we all find it easy to turn away, willing to find some excuse not to see something so difficult. Does the truth prevail? Sometimes. And sometimes only when it’s too late.

Dreaming of male answer syndrome

I woke to a dream where I was talking with someone who was either a former colleague who I couldn’t quite place or Ken Cosgrove. We were listening to music, definitely ’60s vintage jazz. He said he thought it was Chick Corea on drums. I insisted it was Jean Arp.

Ok, so neither my colleague’s pianist nor my dadaist sculptor/painter was playing the drums, but my answer was totally out of left field, where his made at least a little bit of sense.

Even in my dreams, I’m not just wrong, I’m reflexively, stubbornly, and dramatically wrong.

The things we carried (personal electronics edition)

For a recent family vacation, we had with us

  • two iPhones
  • two iPod nanos
  • a speaker/docking station for the iPods
  • a MacBook
  • a Kindle
  • a Panasonic LX3
  • a Flip Mino
  • and a Nintendo DSi

At one point on the outbound flight, Susan was reading the Times her Kindle, Matthew was playing on his DS, Allie was watching The Little Mermaid on Susan’s iPhone, and I was catching up on work email on my laptop. All the devices got used quite heavily on the trip.

I compare this to traveling a little more decade ago, when Susan I were on the road for a few months straight and had nothing closer to any of these than a compact 35mm camera. (We did use a lot of payphones and internet cafes, though, and picked up the International Herald Tribune when possible.)

(Updated to include a few minor things.)


Allie, our three year old, just told me she’d do something “soonly,” obviously generalizing from an observation that she wanted a word that ended in “-ly” for that role. Matthew, our son, didn’t make the same types of errors at that age. He’s nearly eight now and a very good reader; I’m not sure if he sees the distinction between adjectives and adverbs today and it doesn’t seem to interfere with his speaking, reading, or writing.

Allie also refers to her school, the Eureka Learning Center, as “My-reka;” for Matthew, it was always “Eureka.”

I’m reminded of Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules, which posits that there are two different mechanisms in the brain for modeling language, represented in the title as “Words,” for memorizing vocabulary and irregular forms, and “Rules,” for grammar and declension/conjugation of regular forms. Allie’s language development seems to be very rule-centric.

Both our kids are great with language. But it seems like they’re wired a bit differently from each other.

New York, July 2008: A vacation in Links

(I blogged a little about our trip, posted a couple of FriendFeed and Facebook messages, but wanted a little bit more. At the same time, it seemed like too much effort to actually write details about everything and, with us back for three weeks, I doubt I’ll get to that. Instead, I decided to linkify my notes.)

Virgin America.

The view from our window:

Sarah & Brian’s wedding. David Stark Design. Prince George Ballroom.


American Museum of Natural History: astrophysics camp for Matthew.

South Pacific. Fireworks with the Philharmonic.

Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dizzy’s Club. Marcus Roberts Trio.

MoMA. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Buster Keaton’s One Week. Cafe 2.


August, Osage County.

The Met. Jeff Koons on the Roof. Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. Petrie Café.

John’s Pizza. (Bleeker Street, of course.) Cones.

Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Waterfalls. Grimaldi’s. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.

Katz’s Deli. Russ and Daughters.

Tang Pavillion.

Staten Island Ferry. Playing the Building.

Thunderstorms on the way home:

(Image from Flight Wait.)

New York can still be magical for me

I moved away from New York two decades ago for a life I enjoy a lot in San Francisco, but tonight we had one of those magical nights which you can only get in a city like New York.

The center of our evening was seeing South Pacific at Lincoln Center. It’s a great production of one of the great musicals. I’d never seen South Pacific before and I was surprised at how uncliched it was. While some of the story didn’t seem particular fresh and it couldn’t be controversial in the way it was in 1949, thanks to progress in society, I think they found something deeper in this production than I would have expected. Despite the disappointment of seeing an understudy for Kelli O’Hara, all the performances were great. It’s the type of show which reminds you how powerful live theater can be.

Then, walking home, we were surprised by beautiful fireworks in Central Park, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic. There’s nothing quite like walking along and seeing the sky light up like that.

These both followed doing some things with the kids and just being out and around the city. The day wasn’t too hot and humid, unlike a few recent ones. All in all, what one wants in a city vacation. I love living in San Francisco, but still miss New York when I’m not here; tonight reminded me of why.

Why I don’t blog more

In theory, at least, I like to blog. I’ve tried to do it for at least five years. And I’ve never averaged more than one post per month.

I’ve come to realize that there are two things which I consider important in my life: my family and my job. (This should be an obvious fact about a married professional with two children, but I’ve rarely stated it that way for myself.) Most of my time is spent on one or the other. Add in the things I can’t seem to avoid, such as commuting or home renovations, and I’m left with almost nothing. I’ve lost touch with lots of friends. I rarely end up replying to personal email. My job is my only hobby. I do the other things I want to do — work out, cook, read books, see friends — much less than I’d like to.

This applies in the internet space, too. I don’t blog often. I haven’t written any open source code in years. I use Wikipedia but I don’t contribute back very often. I don’t post photos publicly.

It’s also why I haven’t tried out social networks. It seems that I have a hard enough time keeping up with my existing friends using traditional means that adding new techniques wouldn’t help — it would just create more obligations for me — though I’m beginning to rethink that.

So, maybe, when I ask myself why I’m not blogging, I need to remind myself that, in fact, I’ve made it less important than the few things I do actually find important. And I admire the people who blog well quite a lot, especially if it’s not their full-time career.

It was twenty years ago today…

I first moved to San Francisco twenty years ago. It was a different city then, and I was a different person, but it’s been a great place to live. It’s felt like home since just after I got here.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had been told to take some time away, grow up, and figure out if I really wanted to be in school. I had never been west of the Mississippi. On April 22, 1986, I took a People Express flight from Newark to San Francisco, paying $99 on the plane. I stayed at the Embarcadero YMCA, where I paid $20 per night. The desk clerk told me I had a room on the fifth floor and asked if I minded something facing the street; I thought it was fine, not realizing until I got to the room that there was an elevated freeway about a car’s length from my window.

That, of course, encapsulates a few of the changes to San Francisco. The Embarcadero Freeway is blessedly no more, a casualty of the Loma Prieta earthquake and San Francisco doing some sensible urban planning. The YMCA hotel is now the Harbor Court, which runs $220 per night, according to Trip Advisor.

I’ve had a bunch of different lives here: single, part of a couple with Susan, and as a parent; working for CalPirg or in Silicon Valley or as a consultant; renting and as a homeowner. Every life change has made me see new parts of San Franciso. In my early time here, AIDS and homelessness drove the tone of the city, which had a “we’re in this together” feel in those days. During the boom, geeks like me were (almost) the cool kids, though I never made it to cool kid. Now, as a parent, the awful state of the public schools, the frothy housing market, and the consequent flight of the middle class leave me depressed; at the same time, the physical plant of the city is better than ever: the new De Young Museum, the ballpark (which I voted against, but now approve of), Octavia Boulevard, the Ferry Building, and the soon-to-open Third Street Muni Line are all good things.

San Francisco feels more divided to me than it has before. There used to be some cohesion to being the most liberal big city in America, but now it feels like the infighting in local politics is dominating all the big issues. It almost feels like the city, after a long time as a forward-thinking place, has just fallen off the map.

I’ve lived and traveled elsewhere since I first arrived — back to finish school, some time in the UK — but I’ve been here for a total of about fifteen years of the last twenty and expect to call it home for as long as I can see.