What Your Dentist Doesn't Want You to Know
I suppose others will talk mostly about John McCarthy's career and achievements. I'll talk about his life, his character, and his sense of humor. Which may be self-serving, since I am among other things a humor writer.
Recently I was telling John about a humor piece I was thinking of doing about a set of phrases that ad writers think make good copy. Phrases like "Weird tip" and "old trick." "Secret easy tip." The ones that get to me are "Invented by a schoolteacher" "Discovered by a mom." I see a lot of these on Facebook. I think there's an element of conspiracy theory - the authority they claim doesn't come from medicine or science, but from some hidden layman's underground. John cackled and cited older ad copy on the same theme: "What your dentist doesn't want you to know..."
The very next day Facebook said to me: "Clever Mom Reveals Free Trick to a Wrinkle Free Face - Dermatologists Hate Her."
John was what's called a red-diaper baby. His parents - my grandparents, Jack and Ida - were Communists and labor-union organizers. Ida reported overseas for the Federated Press, brought the case of Sacco & Vanzetti to Anatole France's attention, and organized unions in Wisconsin. Jack organized fishermen, dry-cleaning deliverers, Boston trolley workers, and longshoremen on both coasts. He was an associate of Harry Bridges and at one time West Coast head of the CIO. He also was a business manager for the Daily Worker, a sardine fisherman, and a carpenter.
Jack also disguised his identity to avoid being deported. He claimed that he was born in San Francisco, and that his birth certificate had been destroyed in the ought six earthquake. So he didn't talk about his boyhood in Ireland. I think this left John with a lifelong uneasiness about talking about personal history.
Once Jack McCarthy went to Chicago on Party business. When he came back he brought a Belgian Shepherd puppy the family called Sophie.
That's short for Sovieta.
John loved and admired his parents. He made them proud by excelling in Los Angeles-area communist youth groups. But he considered it significant that he was drawn to mathematics. He sometimes mentioned other children of American Communist Party leaders who went into math.
He lived at home when he went to Caltech, and began his drift away from the radical left when he went to Princeton. Apparently he dutifully tried to be in a Party cell when he first got there, but there was only other member, a janitor, so they gave it up. You need three. By the time I first remember John talking about politics, I'd say he was a liberal. By the time I was in high school he was a Nixon supporter, and before long he was a conservative. (Let me mention that his parents eventually became disillusioned by events in the Soviet Union and left the Party.)
John loved to sing. He must have known many dozens of union songs, but he never sang Joe Hill, or The Union Maid. Instead he sang a funny song about the very fat man that waters the workers' beer.
I'm sure you all know this song. We can sing it later.
The very fat man adulterates the workers' beer with strychnine, methylated spirits, and kerosene, and then dilutes it with his watering-can. He does this for profit, and because "a strong and healthy working class/Is the thing that I most fear." That amused John, as well as the final verse in which the very fat man appeals to ladies to pity him. "For the water rates are frightfully high, And the meths is terribly dear, And there ain't the profit there used to be, In watering the workers' beer."
When John moved away - far away - from Communism, he didn't get religion. He wasn't against religion at all. In fact he and Jerry Pournelle formed a group called Atheists for School Prayer.
A joke John sometimes told was about two priests talking. One asks the other, "Do you think the church will ever drop this insistence on celibacy for priests?" The other replies, "Not in our time, father, and not in our children's time, but perhaps in our children's children's time."
John could be naive. When John and Marvin Minsky were graduate students, they frequently traveled together, and when Marvin and Gloria Rudisch began going out, John often came along. One day Gloria took the two of them to meet her parents and her grandmother, out on Rockaway Beach. Gloria told me, "I was kind of worried about Marvin's shyness re answering all the boyfriend questions my parents were likely to ask."
"Without telling a lie about the situation, soon after greetings were exchanged, I said 'Why don't you talk to John while Marvin and I take a short walk on the beach.'"
John was perhaps a little surprised that Gloria's parents were so interested, but he gave a good account of himself. When Gloria and Marvin came back, she says, "It was obvious that John had made a real hit with my folks. However I summoned up my courage and introduced Marvin as my fiance."
Gloria's family adapted to this just fine and soon were mad about Marvin. But having invested so much energy in understanding John, they kept a lifelong interest in his doings. My favorite part is that John had no idea what was going on and why Gloria's family were asking him all these searching questions.
John was a great father. When my parents had a genuinely amicable divorce, it was the 1960s, a time when divorced fathers often saw very little of their children. When my parents requested joint custody it was the first time their family lawyer had ever encountered that request. I think my parents also got joint custody of the joke about the man who's going to Connemara, God willing.
John saw no reason why Sarah and I shouldn't become mathematicians. He raised us to think logically and scientifically. That was how he thought. Once, when his health was failing, I took his temperature and then carried the thermometer into another room to read it in better light. I showed it to my husband. John was angry. He said, "Any time there's a number, I want to know about it immediately."
John also loved words and language. He sometimes used them to communicate in clear but non-standard ways. When he was discouraged about something, and wanted to express that, he'd just say
If I were doing slides, there'd be one with the word Gloom on it now. All caps.
Or if he was not happy about something somebody, let's say me, was doing, he'd say
Or if some people, let's say me and Sarah, were talking too much about things he didn't want to hear about, he'd say
But on the other hand if something was funny, didn't actually make him laugh, but he wanted you to know, he'd say
When we were staying in Edinburgh, with Sid and Kitty Michaelson and their family, Kitty marveled at how American John's language was. She imitated him saying "Boy oh boy Kitty this sure is good." Which surprised me, until I listened and noticed that John really did say "Boy oh boy."
John had great ideas, and not just in the fields where he worked. Prior to the bicentennial, he had an excellent scheme in which the U.S. would have a birthday party and invite everyone in the world. He had worked out quite a lot of the logistics - how many planes it would take to bring everybody, where they would stay.
However, John tended to delegate his social life to his wives. Unfortunately for the world, John was between marriages at the time of the bicentennial. No wife, no party.
Had there been such a party, John might have sung the song about Alexandria, which recaps the plot of the opera Thais. It rhymes "heavily" with "devil, he" - "hat of me" with "that girl's anatomy" - "stupor sent" with "booze of more than two per cent" and "what a joke on me" with "for that there dame to croak on me." John improved it by writing a final verse which rhymes "the consequence" with "untaken-up concupiscence. "
My daughter Kitty points out that John was generous, a good present giver. I think she's jealous that John got season passes to Great America, so Timothy could go every week.
He was an open-minded man. When one of his favorite science-fiction writers, Lois McMaster Bujold, praised the romance writer Georgette Heyer, John started reading Heyer, and analyzing her writerly techniques. Relatively few computer science professors are seen publicly reading Regency romances. His favorite of her books of course was the one with the steam-engines and the aeronauts.
Also he had great hair. (I don't think he would understand why you're laughing.)
I know my father scared some people. He'd raise his eyebrows at them. He'd make them define their terms. He severely frightened several young men who visited our house by asking them how much steel they thought Japan produced in a year.
But not only was he a convivial, generous, and funny man, he was a radical optimist, a category he invented.
A radical optimist is a person who believes that things will turn out okay - even if people don't take his advice.
Additional stories told while vamping for time, before actually starting talk:
|▶ 3:32||Susan McCarthy||Additional stories told while vamping for time, before actually starting talk|