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

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.

A new version of the American Dream

These are the things I try not to do within an hour of going to bed: drink caffeine; eat sugar; use the Internet; fight with Caroline.  To that list of late-evening prohibitions let me add a fifth—no reading articles by Walter Russell Mead.  I made that mistake yesterday.  His three-part series on restoring the American Dream set my mind racing and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally got the horses back in the barn.  What follows is a brief recap of Mead’s argument about how the American Dream is changing and some thoughts about how I see a new version of the American Dream playing out in my own life.

According to Mead the first iteration of the American Dream was the dream of the individual family farm.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s version of the American Dream.  For two centuries the family farm was the organizing unit of American social and economic life; it defined how family members interacted with each other; it provided Americans with food, shelter and the material necessities of life; it was the backdrop against which people lived out the American version of the good life.

But the dream of the family farm began to founder in the late-19th century.  Sweeping geopolitical forces were to blame: the best farm land was already taken meaning new generations of Americans had to settle for marginal tracts in places like Oklahoma that were never meant to sustain agriculture; and improvements in agricultural production led to a glut of corn and wheat, and thus lower prices for farmers when they brought their crops to market.  The world changed, fast, and it left the family farm behind.

It took almost half-a-century for a new version of the American Dream to develop.  There was a lot of political and cultural turmoil in the intervening years, just like there’s a lot of political and cultural turmoil now.  People feared that the end of family farming meant the end of the American way of life.  But then a second version of the American Dream emerged, and it promised even greater prosperity and greater freedom than the family farm had before it.  Mead calls this second version the dream of the “suburban homestead.”

This is a dream that most of us recognize because it was vibrant in our lifetimes and has only recently begun to fade.  It was the dream of Leave it to Beaver: Dad worked, mom stayed home, the kids went to school, and life was awash in inexpensive, mass-produced goods (canned vegetables! washing machines!) that made life freer and easier than it had ever been before.

But now the dream of the suburban homestead has begun to come apart.  The forces unraveling it are as sweeping and unstoppable as the forces that sundered the dream of the family farm a century earlier.  For one, the good land is all taken (the nicest suburbs have become astronomically expensive; Caroline laments that there’s no way we could ever afford to buy a house in the suburban-DC neighborhood where she grew up).  And for two, the jobs that supported the suburban dream on a national scale are disappearing—either outsourced overseas or automated out of existence.  So if the suburban dream is dead, too, the question is—what takes its place?

Caroline and I have thought a lot about this over the last five years, though not on the grand scale that Mead thinks about.  For us the question has been more personal, as we’ve tried to figure out what kind of lives we want for our family and ourselves.  We’ve tried to use two principles to guide the big lifestyle choices we’ve had to make: We want control over our time and we want our lives to feel coherent.  I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

First—control over our own time.  For me, this has meant freelancing instead of working for a company.  In my twenties I had a few traditional jobs though none of them lasted very long.  On a gut level I had a hard time swallowing the idea that someone else would tell me where I needed to be from 9am-6pm five days a week, or would dictate how many days I could take off to spend with my family around Christmas.  I might have been willing to accept these constraints if I’d found work that I was incredibly excited to do, but I never did.  And at the same time I’d been given enough opportunity in life to make it feasible for me to strike out on my own.

As is often the case the price of time has been money.  I make a lot less than most graduates of the Harvard Class of 2003.  The key realization for me, though, was that all the extra dollars I would have made if I’d become a lawyer were not worth the sacrifice in personal freedom I would have had to make to earn those dollars.  And this, I think, is a calculation that rings true for many Americans who feel like they have enough money and enough stuff but not enough freedom in their daily lives to spend their time the way they want to.  (Of course, there are also many Americans on the lower-end of the class scale for whom this doesn’t ring true at all; contra Charles Murray, they’d eagerly trade time for the opportunity to work hard at a job that paid well.)

Second—coherence.  One of the things I like least about the suburban ideal is the way it divides life into discrete roles and identities.  Work and home are separate spheres.  Men and women perform separate roles.  Kids race from school to Cub Scouts to soccer practice.  There is a whole lot of moving parts, but it’s not necessarily the case that they all pull in the same direction or all reflect the same underlying values.

I don’t like the idea of my “work” persona and my “home” persona being distinct.  It feels discordant to me that I’d go off to a job and spend my whole day with one group of people, thinking and acting in one particular kind of way, and then I’d go home and be with a different group of people, thinking and acting in a different kind of way.  I want the cohesiveness of feeling that all the parts of my life are integrated; I want the coherence of feeling like I’m completely and fully myself in every part of my day. (I guess you could say that, in a sense, what I’m after is a 21st-century version of the family farm.)

To some extent this prioritization of time and coherence is idiosyncratic; these values reflect my particular disposition and the particular family culture that Caroline and I have put together, and certainly the lives we’ve crafted for ourselves have only been possible because of the above-average rates of education and opportunity we’ve received.  But at the same time it seems clear to me that our choices have been shaped by broader cultural currents; that they reflect a changing idea of what the American Dream looks like in practice.

It makes sense that each iteration of the American Dream would be shaped in response to the one that came before it.  The suburban ideal was desirable in large part because it was not the family farm.  Blue- and white-collar jobs freed people from having to toil on the land from dawn to dusk.  The consumer products revolution freed people from having to provide every material necessity by their own hands.  Safeguards like union jobs, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare—the whole social safety net extending from employers to the federal government—meant that families were no longer one false step away from calamity.

But progress had its price.  Once you get past the surface warts of the suburban ideal (the McMansions, the SUVs, etc.) it seems clear to me that the real price of the suburban dream was paid in time and coherence.  The coherent life of the family farm was broken into discrete suburban roles and identities that divided work from home and men from women; and the suburban economy instantiated all sorts of restrictions on how people spend their time: the time-clock, the 9-5, two weeks paid vacation, and (most banefully of all) the daily commute, which researchers routinely identify as the feature of modern life most anathema to personal happiness.

Last night I talked with Caroline about these ideas and when I got to the end she said, “So, what is it?  What is the third American Dream?”  I don’t know, of course, and Mead says he doesn’t know either.  The suburban ideal would have been hard to imagine in 1890 and it’s just as hard to picture what the iconic American lifestyle will look like sixty years from now.

But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.

Links to Walter Russell Mead’s essays on the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part I: The Crisis of the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part II: Recasting the Dream

Beyond Blue Part III: The Power of Infostructure 

Coming into focus

On Saturday night Caroline and I resorted to that simplest and most naïve of parent tricks: We tried to bribe Jay with a cookie.

We had tickets to see a play that night—The God of Carnage—and had enlisted the services of the same German exchange-student babysitter whom Jay had spurned a month earlier by fleeing to an early bedtime in his crib.  Hoping for a better result this time around, we told Jay that if he gave Ronja a chance, he could have a chocolate cookie before he went to bed that night.

But Jay’s fear of abandonment overwhelmed his desire for sugar.  When Ronja walked through the door at 6:45pm Jay burst into hysterics.  We calmed him down and tried to ease out of the house by having Ronja read to him as we hovered nearby, but as soon as I put my coat on Jay fell apart again.  We left him sitting in a chair by the window, waving to us as we backed out of the driveway, tears in his eyes, a single chocolate cookie in a paper napkin on his lap.

When I think back to what Jay was like during the months leading up to this third birthday, I imagine I’ll remember how much he hated to be left with a babysitter.  I also think I’ll remember these months as a time when patterns in the “wide wide world” (as the Pokey Little Puppy likes to say) started to come into focus for him.

Last Friday afternoon we were driving to pickup Caroline.  We’d been in the car for a few minutes when Jay asked, “Are we on Packard?”  Packard is a major north-south street in Ann Arbor.  We drive it almost everyday and about two months ago Jay started asking if we were on Packard whenever we’d drive anywhere.

Since then he’s added more streets to his repertoire: He asks about Washtenaw, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Hill.  He has a hard time identifying landmarks from his vantage in his car seat but there are two streets he recognizes.  He knows Thompson Street, which we turn onto from Packard, and where we meet Caroline each afternoon at 5pm outside the Institute for Social Research.  And he knows Colony Road, where we live.

The geography of Ann Arbor is slowly beginning to resolve for Jay.  The same is true for numbers.  For about a year he’s known how to count from 1-14 in the sense that he can speak, in the correct order, the words that represent the numbers.  But he’s had no clue what the words actually mean.

That’s beginning to change.  The other morning at breakfast he sat in his booster seat and held up three fingers. He looked at Caroline and said, “Is this four?”

She told him it wasn’t so he tried again. Watching him muster the dexterity to raise a specific number of fingers is a fun spectacle in its own right.  He strained to lift his pinky without upsetting the three fingers he’d already raised.  Then, holding four shaky fingers aloft he asked Caroline again: “Now is this four?”

Another counting example.  Last night after dinner Jay and I used his beloved screwdriver to take apart his Fisher Price telephone.  The bottom of the phone was held in place by six screws.  I unscrewed three of them and asked him to count how many screws were left.  Only a month ago he would have begun pointing randomly and spouting numbers willy-nilly (“One, two, four, seven”) but last night he pointed calmly to each remaining screw and counted, “One. Two. Three.” He may not be the next Ramanujan, but he’s making progress.

The most exciting recent development, though, is that Jay has begun to recognize the letters of the alphabet, and to find them in all manner of surprising places.

Predictably, his first love has been “J.”  He knows it’s a personally significant letter but he’s also figuring out that he doesn’t have exclusive rights to it.  Two-thirds of the food in our house comes from Trader Joe’s.  Over the weekend Jay found “J’s” on a jar of peanut butter, a bag of tortilla chips, a box of raisin bran, a gallon of milk, a container of yogurt, and a bottle of olive oil. (You might ask—when does it stop being exciting to find new examples of your favorite letter? The answer: not yet.)

That said, Jay is open to seeing other letters, too.  This weekend he spotted a couple “C’s” on our license plate, nabbed the “M” in “Murakami” on the cover of 1Q84, and called out an “H” on a box containing a DIGITAL THERMOMETER that we’d bought last week when it seemed like the boys might be sick forever (they’re better now).  Of course, Jay doesn’t understand the rules that govern letter placement—I’m not sure it’s even occurred to him that “Jay” and “Joe” share a sound—but you only have to run into the same letter so many times before you begin to ask yourself, “Why do I find it here but not there?”

All of this is pretty exciting to Jay but sometimes I wonder if it’s not a little overwhelming, too.  Maybe Jay had an easier time sleeping at night before he figured out just how long the distance is from our house to where his Mama works.

Still, those concerns seemed far from his mind on Saturday night when we arrived back home from the play.  The house was quiet. Ronja was sitting on the couch with a lamp on.  We asked her how the night had gone.  She said that as soon as we’d left Jay had asked her to put him in his crib.  “And the cookie?” I asked.  She laughed and told us he’d wanted to bring it with him.

Later, Caroline and I tiptoed into his room.  In the glow of his nightlight we saw him lying on his back with one leg bent at the knee.  His bunny lay beside his pillow; his uneaten chocolate cookie sat on a napkin a few inches from his head.

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