A claustrophobic in a closet

Yesterday I wrote about the challenge of figuring out when to enforce household rules with Jay and when to make exceptions based on particular circumstances (like when he’s sick).  Last night I was reading The Pale King and I came across a funny passage that fit with the day’s theme:

‘It was on either Twilight Zone or Outer Limits– one of those.  A claustrophobic guy who gets worse and worse until he’s so claustrophobic that he starts screaming and carrying on, and they trundle him off to a mental asylum, and in the asylum they put him in isolation in a straightjacket in a tiny little room with a drain in the floor, a room the size of a closet, which you can see would be the worst thing possible for a claustrophobic, but they explain to him through the slit in the door that it’s the rules and procedures, that if somebody’s screaming they have to be put in isolation.  Hence, the guy’s damned, he’s in there for life- because as long as he’s screaming and trying to beat himself unconscious against the wall of the room, they’re going to keep him in that little room, and as long as he’s in that little room, he’s going to be screaming, because the whole problem is that he’s a claustrophobic.  He’s a living example of how there has to be some slack or play in the rules and procedures for certain cases, or else sometimes there’s going to be some ridiculous foul-up and someone’s going to be in a living hell. The episode was called ‘Rules and Procedures,’ and none of us ever forgot it.’

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A heightening of specificity


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.

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: Kid make it easier to steer

A new version of the American Dream