Happy Birthday, Dad

When it comes to creativity and storytelling, my sister Linda Jines got all the talent. She, for instance, is the genius who thought up the title “Freakonomics.”

In what we hope will be the first in a long line of guest blog posts, today she toasts my father on his 73rd birthday.

fatherLevitt’s father in his balaclava.

Edina, Minnesota
January 2008

My father is seventy-two years old. He is an inveterate outdoor jogger, running several miles a day year-round, even when the temperatures here in Minnesota don’t just dip below zero — they actually attach ankle weights, dive below zero, and stay there.

This winter is one of the coldest in memory — it’s jarring to turn on CNN and see a graphic referring to your home state as “The Nation’s Icebox” — so I decide to hand-knit my dad a wool balaclava to wear while he runs.

My husband and son and I meet my parents at an upscale Tex-Mex restaurant on a frigid Saturday afternoon in mid-January.

With a flourish, I present my dad with the hand-knitted balaclava, made of soft, heathery blue merino wool.

“A balaclava!” he exclaims, adding shyly, “I’ve always wanted a balaclava.”

This floors me, because in my forty-five years of acquaintanceship with him, I’ve never known him to speak shyly. He’s a physician, and his gruff, no-nonsense manner has led to more than one comparison between him and television’s irascible Dr. House.

He turns the balaclava wonderingly in his hands and then puts it on. At first he settles into it warily, like it’s a spooky old diving helmet. But it’s only seconds before he settles into its corrugated softness, leaving it on as he picks up his menu.

Michael,” my mom says to Dad, reprovingly.

“That’s Sir Michael,” my husband interrupts — because in his balaclava, my dad looks like some kind of doughty Spamalot super-fan.

Dad decides on tortilla soup and then says, “Wow! This thing is warm!” yanking off his unsettlingly Arthurian headwear to my mother’s relief. To be honest, people are pretty much staring.

“That’s what kept the soldiers warm at the Battle of Balaclava,” I tell him proudly. “The pattern is the real deal — it came out in 1919.”

“Real deal?” he splutters, slamming his hand on the serape-covered table. “Their heads couldn’t have been too warm, then, since the Battle of Balaclava was fought in 1854.”

It was foolish of me to volunteer a piece of military history, since in addition to jogging, my father’s other hobby is reading first-person accounts of war. After lunch, the five of us are heading to a nearby library to hear a local man read about serving as an infantry lieutenant in World War II.

The author begins the presentation humorously, describing how he bumbled his way into the army, a recent high school graduate, absolutely unsuited to lead. Toward the end of the hour, though, in a shaking voice and often through tears, he struggles through descriptions of frequent and terrible shelling, persistent diarrhea and constant cold, and the horror of coming up from the trenches after each round of bombing to discover which of his fellow soldiers had been disemboweled or rendered legless, armless, or faceless.

Dad loves this book. This book, unlike my time-tripping balaclava, is the real deal. He can’t wait to get to the front of the line to meet the author; while having his book signed, Dad discovers to his delight that the two men grew up just blocks away from each other, and that the author’s boyhood home had been part of my dad’s paper route.

As we exit the library, the dry, horrible cold assaults us instantly. I burrow as deeply as possible into my parka, glancing at Dad. He is smiling and humming as he walks, an indefatigable septuagenarian who still works six days a week as a gastroenterologist — the word “retirement” seemingly as foreign to him as the phrases “It’s natural to get a ‘B’ on a test sometimes,” or “What really matters is that you tried your hardest.”

All this talk of war and balaclavas triggers a memory of something my father taught me during frequent trivia cram sessions for the televised quiz-show matches I participated in as a high school senior. I remember his telling me that some wag had taken the phrase “A man can plan,” and anagrammed it into “Panama Canal.”

I look again at Dad, striding through the frigid parking lot, balaclava on his head, signed book tucked under his arm.

A man. A book. A balaclava. What does it all add up to?

A Black Boa Oval Man.

Or a Baklava Anal Combo, if you prefer.


It's good to see Linda so excited that she actually couldn't wait for a next blog to comment on some of the readers' responses (#13). Great!

By the way, I noticed the family name of the author in question being "Devitt"... and that he grew up in the same neighbourhood as Levitt...

Now, this made me wonder, wouldn't it be interesting to learn some more of the effects of having a particular family name!? As opposed to the stories you have been telling so far on the effects of having a certain name. I mean, we all know that it helps getting noticed if your family name is Kennedy, Bush or Clinton, but how about less 'famous' names, such as my own Vandeven... (it's actually Van de Ven, as it's originally written in the Netherlands, but that's not really important). So far, it doesn't seem to have benefitted me -nor did it lay in my way... But would I have been offered less changes if I would have had another family name!?

Sorry, wondering off a bit... but that's a big compliment to Linda, as she wrote an evocative, inspiring short story on family.

All the best!


Dan B

As a second yr medical student I did a presentation in my GI class on your father's work. He is a very impressive guy in an undeserved field. Hope he had a happy birthday.


Ahhh, that was a nice story. Thanks.

Ernest Gunn

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama! is a well known palindrome.

It has been superseded by the more modern

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal - Panama!

from Guy Steele.

Princess Leia

I wasn't getting at first that it was Linda writing, so 1) I thought it was Steve who knitted the balaclava, and 2) I was getting really angry that he could be a better knitter than me.

Freakonomics lover

Wow you Levitt's have one sweet dad!


What a beautiful story, and a beautiful balaclava! How would it be possible for me to get the pattern of the balaclava seen in the photo? I've failed to knit two square-shaped hats thus far, and I feel I may be destined to fail at any attempts to take on a balaclava, but I still want to try!

I can't wait for Linda's next entry. Does she have her own blog?

When I was in high school, my mom knitted me a blue Angola cardigan hoodie. It took her about 7 months to finish and then another three months to revise the details. During those 10 months, I could see blue Angola threads flying all over the house. My mom was not a master knitter, or even a speedy one. But the wait was well worth the reward, I loved the cardigan. Thanks Mom, I love you!

Thank you for your story and the photo, Linda!

the Gooch

"A man can plan" is not an anagram of "Panama Canal."

There are 3 n's in the first phrase, only 2 in the second.

A famous palindrome is "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!"


I agree with Jesse's sentiment. Also, funny that she mentioned "Spamalot" as my first thought upon seeing the photo was, "The Seventh Seal."


It appears your sister inherited the storytelling ability and you have inherited his curiousity. A fair deal. I hope it a long time before you both inherit anything else from your father.

barbara kalina

Wonderful tribute to a tough as nails dad. Please provide name and author of the book by the infantry lieutenant--I am also addicted to these books.


Thanks so much for your inquiries about the book my dad loves. It's called "Shavetail: The Odyssey of an Infantry Lieutenant in World War II" by Edward L. Devitt. Here's the URL if you'd like to buy it from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Shavetail-Odyssey-Infantry-Lieutenant-World/dp/0878391614
I can't help but notice that no one's asked for the balaclava pattern . . . ; )))


No! I'd love the pattern - that's amazing. I feel like I've seen it before on a joke knitting card (go to Loopy Yarns in Chicago).


Not fair to hoard talent in a single family.


Do you mind letting us know the author/title of the book she mentions?


"Baklava Anal Combo" would be a great name for a jazz band.


Possibly "Koala Lava Can Bomb".

Great article, I hope we hear more from Linda in the future.


Two things:

1) How can a man like this be the father of Steve Levitt? Switched at birth?

2) I hope you give your sister a royalty for EVERY BOOK you sold--because without that way-cool title, I'm thinking the book, as interesting as it is, might not have been the hit it is! (You guys would have probably named it "Various Statistical Analyses of Seemingly Unrelated Events, Along With Conclusions Drawn by an Economist and Journalist."

Ha! Love ya, man!

Kathy Reavis

The balaclava is terrific.I would love to have the pattern, or info where to purchase the pattern.

Kelly Y

I think your dad is awesome! I have had the honor to speak to him numerous times the last couple months. In fact I saw him just a couple days ago. My son has been one of his patients. He is very dedicated and works very long hours. He has helped my son tremendously and I am very thankful that he is his Dr. He gives 100% to his patients. He even calls to check up on my son. That is what I call dedication! He doesn't seem gruff at all to me.... and I love his stories he tells. You must be very proud of him.