A heightening of specificity

Their descent was mainly a heightening of the specificity of what lay below- fields revealed as plowed and perpendicularly furrowed and silos as adjoined by canted chutes and belts and an industrial park as individual buildings with reflective windows and complicated clumps of cars in the parking lots. Each car not only parked by a different human individual but conceived, designed, assembled, from parts each one of which was designed and made, transported, sold, financed, purchased, and insured by human individuals, each with life stories and self-concepts that fit together into a larger pattern of facts

-from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

I’ve used several metaphors to describe what it might be like for Jay and Wally as their understanding of the world grows more complex (e.g. coming into focus, learning the lay of the land).  I like the idea in this passage that understanding can be thought of as “a heightening of the specificity of what lay below” and recognition of “a larger pattern of facts.”

Jay knows he has a fire truck.  Lately he’s discovered that his fire truck has screws and batteries.  Someday he’ll learn that his fire truck was made in China.  Eventually he’ll begin to imagine the Chinese assembly-line workers who put it together. (Then he’ll hit his 30s and he’ll stop imagining the assembly-line workers because that seems to be what happens as you get older and busier.)

And one day after that he’ll learn that if you follow the pattern all the way out, it falls apart.

Sometimes a companion, sometimes such a kid

I’m often impressed with the things Jay knows how to do.  He’s nimble with a screwdriver.  He has decent command of the subjunctive, especially when it suits him (“Uh, maybe I can have two cupcakes?” he said the other night). And his short-term memory runs laps around my own.

But just as often I’m surprised by the types of things that confound him.  I received a socket wrench set for my birthday that we’ve been playing with almost every night.  To put a socket on the wrench you need to be able to apply pressure in two directions—one to push a button on the back of the wrench, and another to press the socket onto the male end of the wrench.  I figured it would be easy for Jay but after playing with it for a week, he still doesn’t have it down.

He’s also not very good with patterns.  Yesterday morning Jay, Wally, and Caroline were sitting at the dining table playing with blocks.  Caroline built a bridge.  One side of the bridge was a blue block stacked on top of a beige block; the other side was a beige block stacked on top of a red block.  A blue arch spanned the two sides.

Caroline asked Jay to build a bridge that looked just like hers.  He started sorting his blocks.  He recognized quickly that he needed two beige blocks, one red block, and one blue block, and that the red and blue blocks should be on different sides.  But he had trouble thinking vertically: He put the red block on top of one of the beige blocks and the blue block on top of the other beige block.

Caroline pointed out that this was wrong and prompted him to try other combinations.  He switched the blue block and the red block and when Caroline shook her head he hesitantly switched them back.  It was clear he was grasping for a solution, and it was funny (and surprising) to me that something so seemingly obvious was completely bending his brain.

Following the workout with the pattern blocks, Wally took a nap and Jay and I went out to buy a book—David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I’ve put off reading for nearly two years but which last week began to feel like exactly the book to get me through the last month of winter.

I buckled Jay into his car sear and we headed for Nicola’s Books, out Jackson Avenue on the west side of Ann Arbor.  It was Sunday morning, so there wasn’t much traffic.  Sitting in the back with his puffy hood around his head, Jay called out stop signs and asked me to find “a good song” on the radio.  I told him it didn’t exactly work that way, but we found some Bruce Springsteen and were happy.

The bookstore turned out to be tucked into a strip mall, which I didn’t realize at first, so we sped past it.  I pulled into a hotel parking lot and Jay asked why we were turning around.  I explained that we’d driven by the bookstore accidentally.  He didn’t seem concerned.  In fact, I think the mishap only added to his sense of adventure.

When we walked into the bookstore a man approached us and asked if we needed any help.  He was in his twenties with a full beard, wearing a kilt—the perfect indie bookstore counterpoint to the green shirts and khaki pants at Barnes & Noble.   The oddness of the kilt didn’t seem to register with Jay.  He asked the clerk, “Do you have The Pale King?” The book was waiting for us behind the counter.

After we paid we went next door to Barry’s Bagels.  I didn’t have high hopes.  The odds of getting a good bagel in a strip mall whose other tenants include Curves and T.J. Maxx seemed low.  But there was a line inside and Barry’s extensive menu was listed above the counter in a font that called to mind an authentic Jewish deli.  My impressionable, optimistic brain shifted quickly from “There’s no way this is going to be good” to “Maybe you’ve just stumbled upon the single best bagel west of New York City.”

We ordered a sesame bagel with cream cheese, a small coffee, and a small cup of milk. I told Jay he could choose where we sat.  When he settled on a table in a corner by a soda machine I suggested we try “this one over here instead because it’s sunnier.”

Jay sat up on his knees across the table from me while I used a flimsy plastic knife to even out the lump of cream cheese they’d put on the bagel.   No sooner were we ready to eat then Jay said in an urgent, no-joke kind of voice, “I have to go pee, I have to go pee, I have to go pee.”  Normally I would have been annoyed at this 11th-hour curveball, but as Jay ran down the line of tables towards the bathroom, I saw the way the other diners smiled at him as he raced past, and I just felt proud.

A few minutes later, back at our table, we began to eat.  I tore the bagel into two uneven pieces and Jay’s eyes lit up when I handed him the bigger one.  Then I leaned back in my chair and thought, “This right here is the good part.”

And it was. Jay silently ate his bagel, stopping only to angle his paper cup just enough to get the straw into his mouth. I looked across the table at him and for a few minutes felt completely and utterly content.  It was nice to do something I actually enjoyed doing, and to get to share the experience with Jay, and to imagine that maybe he felt just as content as I did.

But the spell didn’t last.  The fraying began with a blob of cream cheese that fell from Jay’s bagel onto his chair and which he then scooped up with his fingers and ate.  Then he tipped his cup too far and spilled milk down the front of his shirt.  Then he turned his attention to the sugar packets in the little ceramic container at the end of the table.

For a moment I felt perplexed.  In the same way that I was surprised that Jay couldn’t figure out how to stack the blocks that morning, I had a hard time understanding why he needed to go and muck up our perfect little breakfast mood.  Of course, that’s just the way it is with kids, and not just when they’re two.  Jay goes in and out of focus—sometimes quite capable, sometimes a charming companion—other times surprisingly feeble or as an inexplicable as a house pet.

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Jay’s first good haircut

In the nearly three years he’s been alive, Jay has had fewer than five good hair days.  We thought one of them was a sunny day in September 2009 when we posed for a photo that served as the front of our family Christmas card that year.  In retrospect, it’s pretty clear we were wrong:

As soon as we realized that Jay’s precious newborn hair had turned into a social liability we started giving him home haircuts using clippers.  He despised the experience so we didn’t do it often.

We’d cut his hair short and let it grow out until it was so long he couldn’t see.  There’d be a few days each haircut cycle, however, where Caroline would say he looked like a hunk.  One of those days happened to be his second birthday:

Despite Caroline’s preference for the Tom Brady-look, we stuck with the buzz cuts. They were simple and free and I thought Jay looked fine with short hair, if not maximally adorable.  But this fall my friend John heckled, “Jay looks like a little Russian thug.”  

So in December we decided to let Jay’s hair grow out in preparation for his first barber shop haircut.  The transition was rough.  As his hair grew out the mistakes we’d made when we’d last clipped his hair became more glaring: Behind his ears he had several stray hairs that grew so long it was as if they were sprouting out of a mole; and the hair on the back of his head was so uneven you would have thought we’d cut it with pinking shears.

But we stayed the course.  In the middle of January his hair started to look good again- not gorgeous, but better than it had for months.  Then seemingly overnight Jay’s hair went from long and decently attractive to mullet.  That’s when we knew it was time to make a call.

Today Jay got his first real haircut, at a place near campus called Arcade Barbers.  We talked up his haircut all week- how Jay would get to sit in a race car chair, wear a cape, and eat a lollipop.  Jay seemed excited but I was nervous. He’s brave under some circumstances like getting his shots, but skittish under others like when he ran screaming from a pony ride this past fall.  I wasn’t sure which side of him the barbershop would bring out.  Caroline figured that the likely outcomes ranged from “minor meltdown” to “utter calamity.”

But maybe Jay realized that if he botched this, it was back to bathtub buzz cuts and looking like a KGB goon until the age of maturity.  So he got into that race car. He didn’t flinch when the clippers came.  And he walked out of that barbershop looking like a proper little boy.

Even Jay knows a funny name when he hears one

This morning I have an essay appearing on The Millions about the experience of reading The Brothers Karamazov.  The essay is framed around a little joke that Jay and I came to share during the weeks I was reading the book.  Excerpt below. You can read the whole thing at The Millions

For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.

coverStinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).

A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna KareninaWar and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience…[keep reading]


The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

Yesterday I wrote about how the concept of “friction”—things that slow us down and lead to inefficiency—can be applied to raising kids. I argued that while Jay and Wally create a lot of friction in my life, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to think about friction and family life. In fact, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have thought about it more than I have and have come to a very different conclusion than I did yesterday.  In their family, the reduction of friction is one of the highest goals.

Stevenson and Wolfers are economists.  They were profiled two weeks ago in The New York Times, which is where I learned about them.  She is 40, he is 39.  They are partnered but unmarried and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Matilda.  They are also big figures in the sub-field of economics known putatively as “lovenomics”—the study of the economic tradeoffs and happiness calculations involved with life decisions like getting married and having kids.

The theme of the article was how Stevenson and Wolfers, who are both on the faculty at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, use their academic research to guide their family life.  They think purposefully about the tradeoffs between different activities and they try to strike the maximal balance between leisure, money, professional achievement, and all the other good things in life.

To achieve this balance they hire people to do many of the tasks they don’t want to do themselves.  As the Times article put it: “If you’re relatively affluent, as they are, they recommend outsourcing child care and domestic chores so you can spend your time on more leisure or economically worthwhile pursuits. That’s what they do.” Stevenson and Wolfers hire people to do their cleaning, their grocery shopping, and to drive them to and from work.  They also have a nanny who takes care of Matilda from 8am-7pm every weekday.

Most of the choices they make are typical for people in their tax bracket and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them as such.  I have plenty of friends who have more money than time in their lives and I know that that for them, hiring people to help around the house just makes life more manageable.  What’s more unusual about Stevenson and Wolfers is the philosophy behind their choices, particularly in the context of parenting.

In a story in The Washington Post that ran a few days after the Times profile, Stevenson said she tries to “maximize the quality time” she spends with Matilda and to minimize the amount of time she and Wolfers spend on the tedious, boring, and frustrating sides of parenting.  In practice, this means that they have their nanny feed Matilda breakfast, get her dressed, pack her diaper bag, etc.  And because they outsource so much of the drudgery of parenting, they can spend more of the time they do have with Matilda on fun activities: coloring, singing, dancing.

This seems perfectly reasonable and I understand the need for childcare help when you have a demanding job. Yet as I read about Wolfers and Stevenson a queasy feeling started to well in my stomach.  On a gut level, something about an efficiency-maximizing approach to family life seemed wrong to me.  I don’t like boredom or frustration either, but instinctively it seems to me that it’s important to have at least a measure of them in your life.  When I thought about why that might be, the answer I kept coming back to was friction.

As I wrote yesterday, friction makes it easier to steer.  But it occurred to me last night that that’s only half it’s value in the context of family life.  Because not only does friction make it possible to steer—it also makes it possible to feel.

Over the weekend I wrote about how I spent my birthday taking care of Jay and Wally.  The day featured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of frustration—just the daily brew that Wolfers and Stevenson try to avoid.  But the slowness of the day—the absence of efficiency and top-shelf stimulation—left its own kind of quiet impression.

The late-novelist David Foster Wallace, who would have turned 50 today, also thought that friction is a necessary condition for feeling.  Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011, a little more than two years after he took his own life; it is set in an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois and it’s about boredom.  Wallace left a note with the manuscript that began to explain why he thought boredom was so important:

Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.

I don’t know if real awareness lies on the other side of boredom or if it’s part and parcel to the feeling—and bliss is a little far-out as a description for what I experienced on my birthday.  But I do agree with Wallace that in order to really feel alive you need to be willing to let some friction creep into your life.

American culture emphasizes making life easier, smoother, less painful, more efficient. But if you go too far in that direction you end up as a body sailing blissfully through a vacuum.  Friction lets you feel life, experience its texture, take its shape.  In this sense there’s no better source of friction than raising kids.

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The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kids make it easier to steer

I’ve read several articles in the last week that have set my mind racing.  The first was the series of essays by Walter Russell Mead that served as the basis for my recent post “A new version of the American Dream.”  The second was an essay by a psychologist at Swarthmore named Barry Schwartz that appeared in The New York Times last Thursday.  Schwartz wrote about “friction” in the economy—forces that slow commerce and lead to inefficiency.  He argued that while capitalism pursues efficiency at all costs, as a society it helps sometimes to have some friction.

Over the weekend it occurred to me that Schwartz’s argument is relevant to family life, too–that his definition of friction is a nice way of explaining the real value of the constraints and commitments, boredom, frustration, and fatigue that come with raising kids.

Here, according to Schwartz, are two examples of friction in economic life: The first is a company with a bloated payroll; the second is a mortgage lender that takes longer than it should to process loan applications.  In both these cases business is not getting done as fast or as cheaply as it could be and the free market doesn’t let stragglers hang around; it blindly wrings inefficiency out of the economy.  If one company is bloated, a leaner one will take its business; if one bank is slow to process mortgage applications, prospective homebuyers will go somewhere else for a loan.

This is mostly a good thing, Schwartz says.  He argues, “It is important to understand that increased efficiency is the only way a society’s standard of living will improve.”  A good example of greater efficiency leading to a higher standard of living is the way agriculture has changed over the last 100 years.  In 1900, in the last years of era of the family farm, food costs accounted for 40 percent of the average family’s household budget; today, thanks to the efficiencies of agro-conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto that have replaced the family farm, food accounts for only eight percent of the average family’s budget.  This leaves a lot of money left over for luxury and leisure.

So less friction (and more efficiency) is good.  And if you believe, the men running for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s the only good.  But Schwartz agrues that while too much efficiency may never be bad for a company, it can create all sorts of problems for a society.

He gives several examples of the perils of too little friction.  They range from easy access to credit cards, which leads people to buy all sorts of stuff they don’t not really want, to the popularity of home equity loans which (until recently) allowed homeowners to live beyond their means.  Too much efficiency was at the root of the subprime collapse, too.  Banks made too many loans too fast; they thought they understood the risks they were assuming but in reality they didn’t have a clue; and our whole economic system was already out of control by the time most people realized something was wrong.

Schwartz uses the metaphor of a speeding car to dramatize why friction can be a good thing: “The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.”

So now to kids and friction.  Jay and Wally slow down just about everything I do in life.  It takes fifteen extra minutes to get out the door when I’m bringing them along; childcare responsibilities mean I have about half as much time to write as I did before Jay was born; and when a friend emailed recently proposing we meet in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, he might as well have been proposing we meet on the moon, so utterly infeasible was the whole idea.

A lot of the time I chafe against the friction that Jay and Wally create: I wish I could get out the door faster; I wish I had more time to write; I really wish I could climb that mountain. But at the same time, and as I’ve written in the past, I think there’s a lot of value in the friction kids provide.  Caroline and I can’t turn our lives on a dime, which means we have to think harder about where we want to go and proceed with more commitment once we get there.

Because I can’t quit working to travel the way I did when I was 25, I’ve had to be more thoughtful about the type of work I do and how it fits with the other things I value in life. And in a few years the boys will start school and we’ll be even more rooted in a place than we are now.  Sometimes it’s nice to have the option to move if you don’t like where you are; more often I find it’s useful to have pressure—friction—forcing me to make the best of it wherever I am.

The downside of kid-induced-friction, of course, is that it’s a lot harder to change course once you start down the wrong path.  It’s harder to extricate from a bad marriage when kids are involved and it’s a lot easier to change jobs when you don’t have to worry about the financial responsibility of taking care of a family.  But so far I’ve found that having kids has been more helpful in the sense of giving me a point in the distance to aim for than harmful in the sense of rolling towards a tree and being unable to turn.

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A short post on my birthday

Today is my 31st birthday, though it hasn’t included any of the usual festivities.  Caroline has been in Vancouver for a research meeting since Friday morning and won’t be back until late tonight.  Jay, Wally, and I have managed pretty well on our own.  They haven’t cut me any slack but there have been no hammer blows, either.

My first rule for spending long periods of time with the boys is: let happy kids keep doing whatever it is that’s making them happy.  In practice this meant that I spent twenty minutes this morning sitting on the bathroom floor watching Wally play with the shower curtain (while Jay did idled the time in his booster with his bowl of oatmeal).  Part of me was eager to get on with our morning errands but I reminded myself, “The errands can wait; better to take an easy twenty minutes now than to fight through a hard twenty minutes later on.”

I’d share the details of the errands but typing them out would only double down on just how un-celebratory they were.  After completing them my plan had been to drive to Burns Park to take advantage of the sunshine and spend an hour outside before lunch.  But Wally fell asleep in the car on the way home; rather than roust him so that his brother could play on the playground, we parked in a sunny spot of our driveway and I let him nap while Jay splashed in the puddle-cum-mud-hole at the end of our driveway and kicked a soccer ball with the amazingly patient and kind nine-year-old girl who lives next door.

(To further feather this girl’s cap, it should be noted that later in the day she came by and delivered two boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints that I’d ordered back in December and which definitely counted as the best birthday surprise of the day.)

Following Wally’s nap we went inside for a long lunch and then an even longer time lying on the floor doing who-even-remembers-what in the playroom.  All I can tell you is the boys were happy and that maybe for the first time ever, Wally beat up Jay. (The two of them were lying in the pack-‘n-play and Wally started to claw amiably at Jay’s face.  Jay squealed to be rescued.  I picked him up and told him that he did a good job not pushing his brother back, but inside a little part of me was embarrassed for him.)

Overall I relied on inertia as much as I could to through the day.  It occurred to me that this is opposite the way birthdays are usually paced.  Birthdays tend to be more planned and deliberate than most days of the year and they carry the expectation that you’ll enjoy them.  I’m happy to enjoy my birthday, of course, but as I wrote in June, a few days after Wally was born, “I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them.”  When my sister called this afternoon and asked if I was having a fun day, I was relieved to be able to say that fun, in the sense of steak dinners and vodka shots, had never really been on the table.

So here we are now.  It’s 8:15pm.  Both boys have been asleep for almost an hour already (I packed them off to bed early).  Caroline is due home in about six hours.  On the table in front of me there’s an empty glass of Zinfandel and a mug of coffee ice cream topped with crumbled Girl Scout cookies.

I wouldn’t call it a grand birthday, but I’m happy to call it mine.