We, My fellow Americans, are not a nation of deep thinkers. We’re just not. We’ll spend our time building opinions on who should win “The Voice,” or a couple of hours debating the relative pros and cons of the BCS and think this passes for serious consideration. Even better, we’ve become a nation of “reposters,” passing along clearly outdated, inaccurate, or partially accurate stories which outrage us on Facebook without ever deciding to do our own fact checking before doing so.
We want to treat childhood obesity by banning “Big Gulps,” and mandating what kind of lunch goes to school. We blame the Xbox. How about the idea that in 1970 Americans consumed 2160 calories daily on a per capita basis compared with 2674 in 2008, and that we expend less energy while doing so. We have built suburbs where the only means by which to get around is via automobile. We bus our kids to school instead of having them walk. We don’t know our neighbors, so our kids don’t play outside – they go on pre-arranged play dates in a familiar others’ home. Our whole way of life – up to and including how we’ve built our neighborhoods – plays a role, but we decide that the coke machine in the high school café is the culprit. Meanwhile no one is reconsidering how we build our neighborhoods.
When a tragedy like that which visited Newtown Connecticut occurs, even before the grief has subsided, we have political pundits on both sides of the gun control debate and frankly the mental health profession staking their ground for the debate that will ultimately occur. We allow ourselves to be polarized to believe there is but one cause and effect to such a senseless tragedy. There is not.
The President told us the day of that tragedy it is time for meaningful action, where upon the analysis from the pundits was “make no mistake, the President was talking about ‘gun control.’” I am willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt when he says “meaningful action,” and as such I don’t know what makes me angrier – that the pundit went to that place so quickly, or that he might be right. The question, then, is “what is meaningful action?”
Meaningful action is not a simply debate on gun control. We continue that debate on the bumpers of cars all across this country. Meaningful action is not a vast expansion of mental health benefits to an already expansive health care reform mandate. I’m not entirely sure “meaningful action” is within the purview of the Federal government, but I’m quite certain “gun control” is not where the conversation should start.
The second amendment was the framers’ guarantee that the American people could protect themselves from the government. A gun control debate is really a question of how much of your constitutional protections you want to cede back to the government from which the founders sought protection in the first place. I know – I’ve seen infographics on Facebook about how many more deaths occur in the US due to gun violence in any other industrial country. Fact is, I don’t know of another industrial country that has the constitutional right to own a gun – Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala do. It’s part of our constitution – for the politicians out there, if you’re going to accuse each other cowardice for not doing what we need to do for gun control then I challenge you to propose rescinding the second amendment and let’s have that debate.
Meaningful action should be a meaningful debate – serious consideration on ALL of the factors that could lead a young man to slaughter his own family and then visit evil upon elementary school innocents – and determining what is the Federal Government’s role (if any), the State governments role, and most important our own INDIVIDIUAL roles. This man was able to execute his plan because he had access to guns – perhaps the question is what his plan would have looked like if he didn’t have access to guns. Doubtless, seeing the violence inflicted, it would have been just as vile just executed in a different way. We do know this school shooter killed himself when he knew the first responders were approaching – I wonder what his tack would have been had he to consider that any of the adults in that building could have been an armed first responder.
We want so much to fix that which is wrong, but we spend exactly no time thinking about the cumulative effects of everything that’s wrong.
In the aftermath of 9/11, we allowed the Federal government to turn our airports into military encampments, and ultimately federalize security. Frankly, we’re no better protected than we were 12 years ago – we just have the Federal government controlling the system. We allowed the Bush administration to pass the Patriot Act, which granted the government sweeping powers – in other words we allowed the government to restrict our personal liberties and gain control. Political opportunism knows few bounds.
We need meaningful action and thought about accessibility to mental health services, to be sure, but we also need meaningful action and thought about what causes dispossession and disconnect leading someone to seek mental health services. The shooter here was the 20-year old son of a public school teacher; because he was under age 26 (under heath care reform), we would have been eligible to have been on his mothers health insurance – insurance which if it is typical of most public employee plans, would have included relatively rich mental health benefits. Access here was not the issue, and while that is not the case in every instance, the fact remains that even if this is a “mental health issue,” the cause and effects are broad and the solutions are myriad. The answer is not “better MH funding.” It seems to me that individual responsibility comes to bear here, those closest to him had to know something was wrong; it further seems to me that if there is a funding issue for MH Services, it would be access to general education for those living with a loved one with mental illness. Last on this point, that’s just my view on this case and my own prejudices – lets have that data-driven conversation, put our assertions aside and see what the data tell us. THEN we can form our opinions on what the data are and debate that.
In response to massive house foreclosures, the government made it easier to refinance underwater homes if mortgage payments were late. So those who overbought their homes, and could no longer pay their inflated mortgages and stopped paying, could keep those houses. Meanwhile, those who were bought a responsibly priced home, kept making mortgage payments when hard times hit, couldn’t refinance because they were current on their mortgages. It’s exactly these counter-intuitive results I’m warning of and arguing against.
We don’t need a response to violence of one person. We need a broad understanding of the consequences of the structures we have in place – we need to be thinking about these issues before we have a school shooting, not in response to one. We need to thoughtfully consider ALL aspects of what our society has built instead of slapping yet another series of regulations down to cure the problems caused by the aggregate.
My heart breaks for the families and the children of Newtown, Connecticut.
My dog has cancer. Stage 4 Lymphoma. A month ago, he started having diarrhea and vomiting. We went through all kinds of tests until this past week when we had some really invasive tests.
The thought that he could have cancer had crossed my mind in passing once or twice, but I brushed it aside. I keep telling myself we have made the right decisions based on the information we have had. It still doesn’t feel good. How could I not see that my beautiful little dog was slowing down?
I’m watching him now – so lethargic, not eating. It hurts so much to see him like this.
When we’ve been away and come home, he comes running down the stairs – you can hear his nails clicking on the stairs, *click, click, click*, as he comes rocketing down to greet us at the door – and when he arrives, he’s so happy to see us his rear end flops around the way a bigger dog’s tail might.
I’m looking at him – that beautiful dog, that guy that makes me smile to just say his name – and I just want to burst into tears.
I know I expected far more time with him. He’s only halfway through his life expectancy and we thought he would see our family grow up just a little more. A week ago, we had no reason to believe he wouldn’t. Today, we’re wondering if he’ll be with us for Thanksgiving. He’s never done anything but bring us sunshine, and love, but I look at him and my heart breaks just a little more.
I’m so sad, so heartbroken.
I remember the day we brought him home – he was maybe 2 months old, maybe 3-and-a-half pounds; smaller than my slipper. He picked us out, and he had a (comparatively) big lump of poop on his head. He wanted to be with us and he’s never known another family, never lived anywhere but in our home. The day we brought him home, we promised him we would take care of him his whole life – this would be his forever home and that he would never live anywhere else. I guess we just thought we were making a longer commitment.
On Thursday night we got the news – we could have left him at the hospital to start treatment on Friday or take him home. We decided to take him home to consider our options – we were assured that if we started treatment on Monday vs. Friday it would be fine. We decided upon a course of treatment, but couldn’t begin on Friday – we had to wait until Monday. We’re now questioning why we didn’t start on Friday as he seems so much more lethargic today. We just have to remember we’re making the best decisions with the information we have at the time we make them.
In the meantime, we’re just trying to make him as comfortable as possible and spend as much time as possible with him – taking the time to love him. We’re happy when he gives us the smallest sign – he’s failed to eat his all time favorites like peanut butter and cheese. We’re feeding him bites of leftover chicken every 10-15 minutes – anything to get low-carb calories into him.
I want so much to see him happy and healthy again. When we take him in the car, we let him out of the house – from which he bolts, and runs around the block of houses, a smile you can almost see on his face. I know he’s never going to be “healthy” again, but I’m hoping we will see him happy. I love this dog so much – he’s the sweetest, most gentle animal – and I’m incredibly sad, but the worst part is that I know I’m being incredibly selfish. He has no expectation, he just has the here and now. Here’s to the here and now, Pokey.
Growing up is hard. I mean really hard. Adolescence is such a strange time when one is trying to figure out the world, processing all kinds of things. Feeling the way between other people and independence. Its a confusing and weird time; looking back all those challenges and questions that seemed so novel and overwhelming seem so routine in retrospect, yet at the time they are all challenges to self definition.
It’s a time when a person is figuring out who he or she is. Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to do? No one knows what they want to do when they’re so busy trying to figure out who they are. I wonder, then, what it must be like for a person who is already trying to figure out where or if they fit in, to realize they might not. How hard must it be for a person, already struggling with identity issues, to realize that they might be gay.
“As a kid, before I ever hit puberty, I always knew I was “different”. While every kid thinks they are different for many reasons, I nonetheless KNEW I was different in a different sort of way. I could go in to all the variables of how I was different, but suffice it to say, I knew at a very early age that I had to be guarded about who I was because of people’s prejudices. I knew the syllogism without having the slightest clue as to what a syllogism was: Odd people are treated horribly. I was odd. Therefore I would be treated badly if anybody knew I was odd. ” Quora post
I can’t imagine how hard adolescence must be carrying that as a realization or belief. Adolescence was hard enough for me, and I carried no such questions, perceptions or doubts. I never had to sit down with my parents and have a “conversation” that I wasn’t going to bring home a girl because I was gay. I never had to wonder or worry if my parents were going to reject me. It’s awkward enough to imagine sitting down and having a conversation with the parents about sexuality and feelings never mind discussing a topic that they’re unprepared for, that could possibly shatter their dreams for you, and one after which you may be judged.
I have always believed it is my job as a parent to prepare this child for adulthood. Its a special relationship, parent to child, because it evolves and changes so much. Time moves so quickly that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the little baby you once nurtured is growing into their own person. There comes a point where it doesn’t matter what you want for that child – what matters is what they want, and its your job to help them find what they want or need wherever that takes them.
I wish that we didn’t make it so hard on people who may not be what society wants them to be. Every passing joke must make it that much harder for a young person who feels they might be different, and when mom and dad make those comments it separates them from their child that much more. And yet these things happen so blithely.
I want to think that if either of my kids brought home a same sex “friend” it wouldn’t result in any major, earth shattering conversation – it would be met with the same awkwardness bringing home any “friend” elicits. If your kid can’t explore who they are with you as witness, it doesn’t mean they’re not exploring – it means you’re keeping them away. It’s not them, its you.
I don’t know how I would handle it, but I know I love my children and no matter what I feel about it, it’s my job to accept them as people. And that’s where we fall down as parents all the time, and I’m not of a mind to fall down. The fact of the matter is that these children are growing up and making their life decisions whether or not I’m included, and I want to be included – no matter what.
I consider myself to be a fortunately sheltered person. In the greater scheme of things, relatively few truly horrible things have come into my life, or those I love. I have known but one person, many years after our acquaintance in college, who was found murdered. I’ve known a few young people who had passed far too soon and too young, but through natural causes. I’ve never had to identify the remains of someone I knew or cared for or loved nor have I ever had to process the death of someone I’ve known who had died from accident or manslaughter or suicide.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, among adolescents suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the United States, a rate of 6.9 suicides per 100,000 people in that demographic and it is by far more common among young men than young women. A sadly not-uncommon occurrence, but a devastating one for those left in its wake.
And so it was that this past weekend an apparently popular and athletically gifted young man made that choice.
I had never met him and knew him only by extension and yet I am greatly saddened by this – I’ve met his brother, an apparently fine young man himself, and am told his parents are some of the most wonderful people you would want to meet. I am told that by my teenage daughter, a fine young woman in her own right and one whose impressions hold great credibility with me – any family warranting her approval is one to be approved. Yet, somehow this young man decided that there was but one way out of his pain.
It breaks my heart to believe someone so young with so much greatness in his future made this decision. It breaks my heart that he would leave his family and community at such a loss, and that he could be so tormented inside as to do the unspeakable. To the outside, he left no apparent signs that he was troubled – always seen with a smile on his face. My mind races to so many places considering him: the despair, anguish and helplessness his parents must be feeling; how his brothers are feeling; how his loss will affect those closest and those near to him.
Consider, in his family’s faith, suicide is an unpardonable sin: ”He who commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself in the Hell Fire (forever) and he who commits suicide by stabbing himself shall keep on stabbing himself in the Hell-Fire.” Imagine then to a family of faith countenancing a beloved son facing an eternity in hell, never to be joined with them in the heaven of their faith.
There is so much to fear when children begin their adolescent journey, and as a parent, so many opportunities to look back and wish for that “do over” – how many times have I replayed situations in my head and wished I had made better parenting decisions. I want so desperately to be a good father and I worry so much whether I have been and whether I’ve made the right choices along the way. I can’t imagine the journey these apparently “nicest people you’d ever want to meet” must be making right now. At the start of the weekend, they were parents to several star athletes and gifted students with so much promise in their future – at the end of the weekend, they had lost a child to his own hand. The anguish must be immeasurable and is unfathomable to those of us who have never made that journey.
On Sunday afternoon, the High School had been opened for students to meet with grief counselors – and many took the opportunity. It saddens me to know that they had to do that. With those of us who are older, we can be angry for the selfishness involved in a suicide – it’s hard to be angry with an adolescent for that; adolescents don’t often have fully developed critical reasoning capacities – often its in their nature to be selfish. My heart breaks for his family, and my heart breaks for his community. So many unanswered questions and so many young lives left to process the unfathomable.
I hope I’ve built a relationship with my daughter that includes an ability to talk to me about anything – I don’t know that I have, and that scares me. I feel such sadness thinking about the guilt and anguish his parents must be feeling, and how the lives of his brothers – and those around him – have changed.
I do know this – I will never miss the opportunity to tell my children that I love them. Life can do great damage to you if you don’t believe you are loved or lovable. Suicide is not painless.
Today was the 25th anniversary of a high school friend losing his mother. He recalls learning of his mothers’ passing in 1987, sitting in front of a classroom door…recalling it “as if it happened yesterday.” I was reminded of this somewhat by accident. I don’t remember the day – for me it sits in the back of my mind as just another day in late junior year of high school. For him, his whole world changed.
What strikes me about this is that he tells me, “You were there that day. I really appreciated your genuineness. Little things make a big difference, and you did make a difference for me that day. You may not even remember. But I do.” I don’t remember. I can’t imagine my 17-year-old self having any degree of genuiness in sharing grief with another young man whose world had just changed.
I didn’t dare ask him for details – he was reliving a grief on the anniversary of his mother’s passing, and it was not about me – but I have to admit wanting to know what I could possibly have said or demonstrated to him to have caused him to recall a genuine response and to have made a difference for this young man. This was at a point in my life when nothing truly bad had ever happened to me. I had both grandfathers pass away within months of each other when I was but 8-years old, but other than that my life was relatively untouched by trauma. I had no point of reference, and no word in my vocabulary for “empathy,” never mind a true ability to demonstrate it. I apparently had said or done something right at the right time.
I have no idea what it could have been, but he remembers it…and says that I made a difference. I’m not sure I know how that makes me feel. I don’t know if I should take pride in knowing that at some point in my life I have made a difference for one person at one point in time, or I should be ashamed not to know what it was. I had to triangulate a bit to realize that I would have been there, and I felt badly not to have remembered what surely would have been significant news in our small high school – I can’t remember an announcement, nothing. But there I apparently was. Wednesday, March 27, 1987.
I’m still not sure I know how I feel about failing to remember, but it does speak to this truth: you never know what small gesture will live on behind you, whether or not you remember. Kindness and, indeed, slights, can be remembered a long time and it is a choice we continuously make in choosing our path. I can’t believe he would have remembered something that surely was but a small gesture, especially given the magnitude of the experience for him, but he does which only makes it that much more important to remember to demonstrate kindness – no matter how small – to someone at any chance you can. When else can a small gesture, a small emotional investment, and brief time commitment live on for 25 years or longer? When thought about in these terms, however that genuiness took shape all those years ago it could have only lasted a few moments – a few moments which were fleeting moments of time regardless of how they were spent – but those moments live on. An exponential return of time for a few wisely spent moments by a then young man, and recalled not at all by the now middle-aged man.
Little things mean a lot – a point driven home once again.
I think about my dad a lot. I can’t believe it’s been almost 4-years since he passed away – 4 years – and there’s not really a day that goes by that I don’t think about him in some manner, shape, or form.
He wasn’t “taken” from me, although I do think he left us before his time. I know people who have had their loved ones taken from them, and I cannot imagine the pain of all that unfinished business.
He slowly grew older, and weaker, and time and his body just caught up. Most likely his most important lesson to me was his last. While we’re growing up, a parents’ role is to give you the tools you need to be an adult. Some of us do better imparting that knowledge, and those skills better than others, but by and large that’s a parent’s job. The very last thing he did was show me how to grow older and how to die.
Seems a morbid thing, but truly, that too is an important job of a parent. He faced his illness, made the decisions he felt he had to make regarding his treatment and he knew when enough was enough. When blood transfusions could not replace the blood cells his body was losing , and it was clear that treatment was really just prolonging the inevitable, he decided it was time to stop fighting. He had spent a lifetime arranging his affairs, and it was time.
He was a remarkable man and I hope that I have the strength and the force of character to face my own mortality as he did. He was a role model to me in so many ways and looking back, it really didn’t surprise me that he handled his situation as he did. He accepted his fate long before I did, and he showed me the way. It takes a very special person to do that, and I thank him for giving me that example.
I don’t get to his grave nearly enough, but I do speak to him every day even if it is just in passing. How many times could I have used his advice and guidance over the last 3+ years? Almost every day, but I have also applied lessons he gave me almost every day too. He gave me the tools, sometimes I have to reach back an apply them, but he gave them to me. Oftentimes, I would be much better off if I more actively practiced his lessons, but because of him there has never been a situation I have been unable to handle.
I love you, Dad, and yeah, I still miss you like crazy. I wish there was some way I could let you know somehow how truly special and important a person you were. I hope I can do so in giving your grandchildren the example you gave me.
I spend a lot of time in my own head. Its a trait of the introverted. It gives me time to regroup, think things over, gain a little understanding. Sometimes, though, the net effect is that people around me think I’m checked out, or that I’m distant or don’t care. I really do like parties, but I prefer to spend time with people one-on-one. I’m not anti-social – far from it – however the energy it takes to handle interacting with large groups of people takes me a lot of time to rejuvenate.
I also struggle a lot with self-confidence. I had a hard time speaking up for fear of looking foolish – even when I have specific, well founded ideas. I worry about finding the right word to get my point across, and because I’m spending time searching for those words it frustrates people while they wait for me to get that word. Most people are satisfied with the word that’s “close enough,” but that’s not me…I’ve learned that if I’m not specific, I spend more time explaining nuance. Nuance which is then lost on most people.
Writing is always a good means to get thoughts out of my head – I can take the time to be reasonably specific, take the time to sort through my thoughts, and reach out to the outside world. The problem is, sometimes, no matter how much I’ve thought about something, I just can’t come up with something to write. Imagine that – spending so much time in my own head, and I don’t have anything to say.
I can be a text book case study of an introvert. I’m told I have a unique point of view, that I process information differently than others. I make connections that others don’t.
With Introverted Intuition dominating their personality, INTJs focus their energy on observing the world, and generating ideas and possibilities. Their mind constantly gathers information and makes associations about it. They are tremendously insightful and usually are very quick to understand new ideas. (http://www.personalitypage.com/INTJ.html)
That’s pretty much me.
So, with all of that as introduction, I’ve got nothing. No interesting connections, no funny observations, and no ideas. Just a lot of nothing…I guess I’ll just have to think about that.
The day after Superbowl XLII, a game lost by the New England Patriots in the last 90 seconds after an 18-0 season, I wore a winter jacket emblazoned with the “Flying Elvis” logo of the team. I would have worn it if they won, and I hated the thought of being a hypocrite – for me supporting my team isn’t about associating myself with winning. For the love of God, I’m a middle-aged Red Sox fan – I know for a fact it’s a lot more fun to associate yourself with winning than with losing, but for the majority of my life associating myself with the Red Sox was more about humilation. In fact, Massachusetts released Red Sox license plates in 2003. I got mine just before the whole Grady Little/Pedro Martinez blunder in Game 7 of the ALCS. There I was driving around wearing shame on my car for an entire year.
There was a point at which I was heavy into flags. I acquired all kinds of flags to display outside – countries I’d visited, sports championships, historical flags. One of my favorite ones was the yellowGadsden flag. I had begun displaying it in support of the US armed forces and as a message of defiance to those who would do harm to this country.
Funny thing about symbols and flags, though. A symbol replaces words. It holds meaning to those who display it and who observe it, but those meanings may not be the same and what we take from those can be very different. For me, when I fly an American flag, I’m proud of my country and for what it stands. I am proud of our system of law, I am proud a country of this size and power can transition political power will a ballot cast by the people and not at the mouth of a rifle. In many countries, vacuums of power typically follow transitions of leadership wherein despots and others will take the opportunity to seize it. This is a message I am proud to make.
However, for people in other parts of the world, it can be a symbol of oppression and of violence – whether that is right or wrong. When you choose to accept a symbol, you choose all connotations of that symbol. I fly the American flag because I accept all connotations, can and will argue with those who express a negative association with it.
Sadly, there are those who choose to appropriate symbols to increase the credibility of their own cause and to create the perception of a cohesive message in lieu of actually having a cohesive message.
I no longer fly that Gadsden flag. It is a message several centuries old and for me the meaning of which is rooted in the earliest history of the United States. However, the political opportunists associated with the Tea Party have appropriated the meaning of the flag – at least for now, after all the flag itself is a couple hundred years old. The Tea Party is a movement with no true cohesion, no formal set of guiding principals, and no structure of which to speak. The Gadsden flag gives meaning to a structure without meaning on its own. Since I don’t know what meanings and associations I’m taking on when I associate myself with it, I choose not to make any statement with the flag.
You cannot pick and choose what meaning you’re advocating when displaying a symbol – you accept them all, which is what makes a symbol so powerful, but interestingly not displaying a symbol can be just as powerful.
Earlier this month, we were asked to wear the color purple to memorialize and support several students who had committed suicide after prolonged bullying. Imagine feeling so hopeless and so helpless that you feel the only way to escape the daily torment is to kill yourself. I was never the popular kid, but I never – not once – felt so out of control that I felt I had to take drastic measure to escape. There are few things I support in life more than the equality of all people and their right to be themselves – indeed, see my thoughts above regarding my flag. No child should be emotionally tortured because their sexual orientation may not be “traditional.”
However, I chose not to participate. By choosing not to participate, I was not rejecting the premise and not rejecting the support of those who may need it. I was rejecting the notion that this was the only way in which we acknowledge our caring. The color purple means nothing to me – I have no basis on which to draw an association between purple and anti-bullying. If I do not understand the associations behind the symbol, I’m not sure I’m willing to display the symbol. It doesn’t I don’t support those being bullied. It means that I’m not bought into the symbol and it’s meaning. Much like those who associate meaning for the Tea Party with the Gadsden Flag – they don’t know what they’re buying when they display the flag in general or with the Tea Party in specific, they just know they’re pissed off.
I’m pissed off that a child feels the only way out of a bad situation is to kill him or herself. I’m pissed off that the adults in these kids’ lives are either so oblivious or don’t care enough to find out what is going on in their lives, that those adults haven’t created a situation where that child feels safe telling them about their trouble. I’m pissed that the adults in these kids lives have allowed these children’s peers to gain social power in a culture of violence. I’m pissed that bullies have been empowered to do their deed unchecked.
I feel sad for these kids. I don’t know that I need to display purple to express this. I’m not even sure you could get a consistent definition of “bullying” from those who did participate. We do more to support the victims of bullying by not tolerating bad behavior, by confronting bullying behavior when we see it, and by building a trusting relationship through our own behavior and by taking responsibility to exercise control in a situation. Wearing the purple symbol is fine, but it means nothing if you don’t modify your own behavior.
Symbols are powerful in their capacity to express a meaning. When displaying a symbol one must be sure of the meaning being expressed. Be conscious of the symbols you choose to display, but when you do choose to display them, display them proudly and live to the meaning – even if it’s just supporting your football team.
Doubt. Self doubt. It’s so hard to keep everything in order and prioritized – so hard to know if you’re doing the right thing or keeping the right things in focus. I am proud that I was able to find opportunity out of what could have been a loss of self and identity – to find personal and professional growth, and to have an opportunity of a lifetime to build a relationship with my son at a young time in his life.
I have a job I couldn’t love more, something that speaks to everything I’ve wanted my professional life to be. I wonder, though, if in pursuing professional excellence, I’m compromising what I have built with my son.
I was away for a couple of days last week. The night before I was leaving, he was anxious and couldn’t sleep. I left before he awoke the next morning, I came home after he was asleep and wasn’t awake when he went to school. I was gone for two days but it must’ve felt like all week to him. I picked him up at school that day and he gave me a huge hug. We spent the weekend hanging around – haircuts, video games, snuggled on the couch. But then there are the times he just “wants to be alone.” I’m exhausted from the traveling, and actually take a midday nap – from which he wakes me up, just wanting to play, but I’m just not up to it.
I’m conflicted because I have more time with him than I ever would with a more traditional job, but not as much as I used to have and sometimes, like this past week, I have big chunks of time when I’m not available to him. It makes me sad to be so happy with the direction of my professional life while experiencing this readjustment. He’s used to his Dad being a “stay at home” dad, a student and available to him all the time.
This summer will be my first on this new job, and it will be one of the busy times of the year. For two summers he and I had all that time for each other, and now it will likely be the polar opposite. I’m trying to figure out a way to include him in my scheduling plans – hoping to be able to take him to some places he may not have otherwise have seen, but to him it will not be the same summers he’s become used to. We both have had a gift, he just doesn’t know how much a gift it has been and I worry that I didn’t take full advantage of it or that I will lose what we had.
I’m writing this at 1 in the morning, because I can’t sleep…probably because I took that nap earlier, and as such the cycle will likely repeat itself – he’ll be up when I’m not and I’ll be grumpy when I do get up because I’m tired and then I’ll feel guilty about it. And then my week will start again with more time away. So, I’ll now go to bed, and when I get up I’ll make the conscious decision not to be grumpy. I hope I pull it off, because I don’t want to let this slip – it’s far too important.
Here’s what I appreciate about the night sky: On a clear night, there’s a clear picture. And here’s what it says about life to me.
From a distance, all these bodies are about the same size with only slight deviations – some are brighter, some are slightly more tinted in color, but they’re all about the same size to the human eye. It’s our proximity to these objects that skew our perception: from our vantage point the moon – a body 27% the size of our own planet – is roughly the same size as our sun, an object 100 times the diameter of our own planet. Jupiter, a planet 2.5 times larger than the rest of the planets, looks like a shiny dot in the sky, and about the same size as Mars. On a really clear night, you may be able to see one arm of the Milky Way galaxy across the sky…but only one arm.
We see the stars organized as patters in the sky – Orion, the Great Bear – but at the end of the day, their alignment in these shapes are created by our view from our place in the universe.
Our proximity, or lack there of, creates a bias and an inability to see magnitude in the big picture. We see patterns where none exist, we misjudge size. When we’re so deeply involved in a situation, we overestimate the importance; when we’re invested in a situation, we create patterns where they may or may not exist. When we look at the sky, we see millions of similar individuals in the sky when in reality they represent a diversity of size, color, depth, and magnitude. Our sun is the most important star in the sky, it heats our planet and makes life possible; in reality its a mid-range yellow star with no particular features. Its our dependence on this object that makes it important.
Yet, from a distance, we only see similarities. Only barely detectable to the eye are the differences between Red Giants and White Dwarfs. Betelgeuse has a detectable red hue to it if you’re paying attention. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, but how many of us could pick it out? All those distinctions get lost in our distances.
How many times do we let distractions close to us cloud us from the larger picture – nearby lights or a cloudy, overcast sky that keeps us from seeing the stars at night? Not unlike our every day life.
I appreciate the night sky. It gives me a little perspective, perhaps because of the utter lack of proportion it shows us. You can look out over millions of years, millions of light-year distances and see only similarities in the aggregate with the odd-outlier standing out among the many. I don’t wonder about other life or about the vagueries of the universe, I’m far more simple than that. The night sky puts much of human interaction into perspective as a function of our lack of perspective in the night sky.
I started doing a bit of a thought experiment – according to the Census Bureau, the US land area is 3,531,905.43 square miles and with a 2010 population of 308,745,538 there are 87.4 persons per square mile. There were 46,792,300 people living in the 50 most populous cities in the United States in 2010, or a little more than 15% of the population (15.15%).
Those 15% of the population live in just over 11,000 square miles (11,006 to be more or less exact) or 0.312% of the US land mass, for a population density of 4251.5 per square mile. Clearly, because these are the 50 largest cities, they do not represent “average.” So, I decided to remove those 46,792,300 people in their 11,006 square miles from the US population density to see how that changes things for those of us who do not live in the largest 50 cities.
If you do not live in one of the 50 largest cities, on average you live in a population density of 74.4 persons per square mile.
So then I increased the scope to the largest 100 cities. That covers 19.4% of the US population – 59,847,102 – and .488% of the land mass who live in a population density of 3470.75 per square mile.
I then brought the list to the top 275 most populous cities in the US, places with names such as Temecula, California (population just over 100,000) and a little place called Green Bay, Wisconsin (104,000). 27% of the US population lives in .76% of the landmass with a population density of 3127 per square mile. The other 73% of us living in 99.24% of the rest of the country live 64 to a square mile. But it’s much more complicated than that.
According to the National League of Cities, there were 19,492 municipal governments in the US in 2007. In 2007, 257 of them reached over 100,000, currently there are 275 so these numbers are somewhat out of date, but still point to the idea that the “Average” American does not live 87.4 per square mile. The question is though, how much of that landmass is actually inhabited at all.
In “Fooled by Randomness,” Nassim Taleb talks about this idea – that we’re easily fooled by statistics and that there are plenty of examples where 90% of a given population can be above average. His example: A village of 10 people – 9 of whom earn a salary of $30,000 and one desperately poor chap who earns $1000 yearly for an average yearly salary of $27,100.
There are 50 states and when their individual population densities are compared, 27 have an average population density greater than average. Consider this for a moment: New York State has the 7th highest population density in the country – 412.3 persons per square mile. But the “average” New Yorker does not live in even that great a population density. Remove NYC’s 42% of the state’s population – remembering that because it’s the largest city in the country, by definition it is not average – and its 303 square miles, and what you’ve got a density of 239.26 per square mile.
And here’s something else to consider, the 23 states with lower than “average” population densities account for only 19.1% of the country’s population, meaning the 27 states with higher population densities are where 80.9% of the population live.
In 2003, the Census Bureau classified 94.6% of the country as rural open space. So, if we multiply the 3,531,905.43 square miles by the remaining 5.4% we come up with 1,907,228.93 square miles and a population density of 161.88. If we go back to the beginning of this post by subtracting the populations and landmasses of the 275 largest cities in the US, the average population density decreases to 119.34.
Now after having done this analysis over a few hours, I came across the Thoreau Institute’s website detailing much of my own exploration – http://ti.org/vaupdate36.html with an XLS download no less. Their agenda is different than mine – theirs is to explore the environment, mine was to explore numbers – but their data was helpful in that pursuit.
The real US population density would seem to be about twice what the official numbers show. But I’ve wiped out 94.6% where people “don’t live” from the landmass calculation, how come it only affected the population density by 100%? Because where people do live, we live in clusters, in areas where the land is largely developed. If you remove from consideration areas where few people live the actual density in which we live isn’t affected. If no one lived in those areas, the real density wouldn’t have changed, so clearly some people are living there. By removing cities with populations over 100,000 from the mix, the density number rises by about 36%.
The numbers are skewed and the “average” does not tell the true story of how close together we live.
In April 2001, my new bride and I honeymooned aboard the SS Norway for a Western Caribbean cruise. It was an enormous hulk of a ship – the largest passenger ship in existence at the time, surpassed in 2004 by the HMS Queen Mary 2. As not only the largest, but also the oldest, It stood as a reminder of the not so distant transatlantic past of passenger vessels transporting passengers from Europe to New York and back over a period of weeks.
It served as a Caribbean cruiser – repurposed from its previous duties – among the specially built Carnival liners. Its refined nature contrasted against the newer and far more garish ships set it even further apart. Because it was built to withstand the pounding of the open Atlantic, it was a peculiar choice to cruise the shallower and more docile Caribbean sea. Its hull was far too deep to dock along the shorts in most ports of call, so tender boats were called to duty to transport its cruising passengers to shore. The trappings of the ship were clearly from another, more refined age with accents of real brass. The cabins had been retrofitted – the interior largely renovated – and therefore had sometimes peculiar shapes and sizes about them. Where there had once been a swimming pool in its life as the SS France, there was now a disco.
The existence of such a ship was a puzzlement. It first sailed in 1962, a bold statement of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantic to create what happened to be the last of the year-round transatlantic superships. When first conceived in 1956, it was to compete with Cunard and the United States Lines ships – and while built in competitive spirit, it was short sighted; As the ship was being built in the late 1950s, air travel began to overtake transatlantic shipping as the preferred means of intercontinental travel. It began life as a bit of a white elephant and sailed for a mere 12 years before being hulked in 1974 when oil prices soared and government subsidies for the running of the ship dried up.
It was then resurrected by the Norwegian Cruise Line in 1979 and rechristened, and renovated in 1980, into the SS Norway. By the time we took our honeymoon, NCL had been purchased by Star Cruises and plans had already begun to circulate about plans to bring the Norway to Malaysia for Pacific cruising. Even as the ship received facelifts, maintenance had been cut back and by the late 1990s it had experienced several incidents and breakdowns. By 2001, NCL had introduced “Freestyle Cruising” on all of its ships except for the Norway – her repurposing showing as the design would not support the open concept of the more modern ship.
We cruised on the Norway one more time in January 2003 – well after the point at which we understood would be her final cruising before being recommissioned in the Pacific. After having cruised on a Carnival vessel, we came to more fully appreciate the ship for what she had once been. A few months later in May, the ships boiler exploded in the port of Miami killing several crew members and injuring others. Upon hearing the news, we could not help but to wonder if any of those hurt or dead would’ve been someone who had served us a few months before.
While sad and shocking, it was not a surprise given the maintenance cut backs and other not-wholly dissimilar incidents in the past: in 1999 it was out of commission for three weeks after a fire in Barcelona. And so it was that the SS Norway came to its end on an Indian beach after having been towed there for demolition. It was a ship that seemed to be born just a little too late, never quite fitting in; but it was a beautiful ship, a destination in and of itself.
This is a video I put together from smaller clips I had of a ride on one of the tenders back to the Norway from Great Stirrup Cay during a rather unsettled weather pattern on that January 2003 cruise:
You’re becoming your own woman and watching you grow up has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. You’re ever more the student than I was. You’re beautiful, bright, and your own person. I am very proud of the things you are and the things you are not.
You have situated yourself to be able to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish, and in a less than a year you will be start making the first decisions of your adult life and in a little more than a year you will accept what I hope is your first diploma. It seems not that long ago I brought you home from the hospital, that I visited your Kindergarten classroom, that I walked with you on your first communion and now you’re on the cusp of some of your first adult milestones.
I say I hope your high school diploma is but your first diploma. I want college for you, but I want for you to want that – and I think you do. I don’t want you to decide to go to college because I want it for you, I want you to make that decision because you want it. I want you to choose it because based on knowledge and belief, earning a college degree will provide you the best opportunity to follow your interests and passions. Simply earning a degree will not get you a job or a career you love, but it will best position you to do so.
I want you to choose a college and a course of study based on your interests and passions, not what is the most cost effective or what has the most cache, or what has the potential to earn you the most money long term. You have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life, and it’s an unfair thing we do to young people asking them to know what they want to do with their lives. If you don’t know what you want to major in, that’s fine – there’s plenty of time for such things. You should know something about what you want, though. If not a course of study, then a location where you think you want to study, what you want to spend, or what you want to pursue in sport. Maybe that means taking time away from school and exploring the world. Something, anything. Without one anchor, you will have too many opportunities and choices to make. Allow yourself to make decisions that make the most sense, and the more anchors you can put down, the easier your decisions are to make.
You’re coming up to one of the most exciting and scary times of your life. I am here for you to give you as much guidance and love as you need – I will go to the ends of the earth to make sure you have the opportunities, but at the end of the day it will be your choice. Whatever you decide, it will be the first decision of your adult life. I am so proud of the young woman you have become and I love you.
I wonder sometimes about what we’re doing here. Not really in that eternal existential sort of way, but more in terms of what is real. How much of our wants, desires, needs are prepackaged and sold to us. Apple has become the largest company in the world, with the largest market capitalization by selling us things we didn’t know we “needed.” I remember when the first video iPod came out, my first reaction was, “who wants to watch a video on a 3” screen?” The same is true of camera phones, and indeed cell phones before that.
Our “needs” are analyzed, packaged and sold. We’re willing to pay more for something familiar, so we’ll spend $1.75 for a 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke over the $0.88 for a generic store brand. Car manufacturers don’t really manufacture anything – they assemble parts sourced from other companies stamped from their specs. They’re really engineering companies, or perhaps not even that given that a substantial amount of the engineering work is outsourced too.
We choose one box restaurant over another even though they sell the same food sourced from the same place. Want a McDonalds Chicken McNugget? It’s the same Tyson nugget you can buy at the supermarket. Tyson is just a marketing company selling variously sourced chickens. McDonalds is nothing more than a marketing company promoting franchised restaurants selling cooked, variously sourced food stuffs. We’re given food, made to taste more “real” with artificial flavors and processing.
You can go to Ikea in Connecticut and buy the same particle board television stand you can buy in Stockholm. Buy a Chevy in the United States that’s sold as a Holden in Australia. We come up with neologisms to elicit a feeling or to avoid negative connotations – “Infiniti” to elicit that sense of infinite possibilities or “glicee” to avoid the stigma of “computer generated print.”
We have made ourselves nothing more than small, economic units. Where we’re not used to earn money through acquiring products and services, we are used for the information we create which is then used for the purpose of selling us products and services. Despite the variously viral rumors Facebook will begin charging for use of the site, the fact is its not the use of their site that costs money – the use of the site MAKES money. The user is not the consumer, but is the product. The same with Google. Our relationships and interests have been monetized, in fact it is difficult to think of something that hasn’t been.
It just makes me wonder why we spend our lives earning money doing things we don’t like that we then spend on things we’re told we want at prices made higher by the cost of telling us that we want them. I criticize DisneyWorld and frankly most of Central Florida for being nothing but a facade and a fake, but in a way it’s honest – it doesn’t try to pretend its anything but fake. Which is more than what most of what we consume can say.
Randomness. It’s the concept that allows for the possibility “000000″ will come up in a random number generator, or that your older iPod would play the same song twice in a row (Apple has since modified the “shuffle” feature so it’s actually a little LESS random). It’s the 1 in 195,249,054 chance your PowerBall ticket will have all 5-numbers plus the powerball. In the entirety of baseball history, only one record has been set that couldn’t be predicted by randomness — Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, this according to Leonard Mlodinow in The Drunkards Walk.
In Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, it becomes clear that intelligence is not the major driving force behind success, and in Outliers Malcolm Gladwell makes clear that what makes an outlier is positioning oneself within one’s time to take advantage of opportunities. In retrospect, success appears guaranteed. In reality, it’s all in the positioning to best take advantage of opportunities — in essence to place yourself in position to be that 1 in 195,249,054, to make the most of your randomly chosen opportunity.
We cannot control randomness. We can position ourselves to take advantage of those random opportunities which present themselves to take us to where we want to go. I was a college undergraduate and an underclassman at that, struggling to put together a full time schedule when I enrolled in a 300-level course without having taken the prerequisite. On the first day of class, I arrived with my add/drop slip in hand, hoping that I could get signed into a course I had to take and get signed out of this course. From the first moments of that course, I was captivated by the professor and his enthusiasm for the course material. I not only put the add/drop slip away, I decided that I was going to take this course regardless of obstacles because it was interesting as hell, and thus set forth the direction of my undergraduate education, graduate education, and my career path.
My entire adult life was shaped by my scheduling this class in which I was presumably over my head, but by which I was completely captivated. But for my need to build a full time course load for the semester, I may still be wondering what I want to do with my life some 20-odd years later.
I was attending this school because I didn’t get into my first choice, and since I was paying my own way through school, I needed a state college. I applied to this school because my friend, whom I met because we both happened to be working in the same shopping mall while I was in high school, was going there.
Because I had done well in my undergraduate courses, and because I happened to stumble upon a recruitment brochure for a graduate program hanging in the psychology department offices, I applied to a school with which none of my professors was acquainted and was granted what was tantamount to a free ride. A completely random chain of events, and without any one of these myriad things happening, my life would certainly have been different.
There’s no good luck or bad luck. Things happen more or less on a predictable basis. Sooner or later, someone will buy that 1 in 195,249,054 lottery ticket. It’s not luck, it’s probability no matter how remote that event will happen, and the person to whom it happens is completely random. And guess what? The odds that it will happen to you specifically are even longer than that it will happen to someone in general.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because they’re random events, and sooner or later it has to happen to someone. There’s only one way to weigh the odds more heavily in your favor and that is to best position yourself to take advantage of opportunities. You cannot be the 1 in 195,249,954 if you have not even bought a ticket.
I have a neighbor that reminds me of the Tow Mater character in the movie “Cars.” Now, if computer animated anthropomorphic automobiles aren’t your thing, “Mater” is a well-intentioned, but socially-inept and poorly maintained rusted-out heap of a tow truck. He’s a little simple, not very bright, but loyal to his friends and is always of the best intentions. And that is my neighbor.
Mater has a knack for making mistakes – he wants to follow the rules, but sometimes life gets a little too complicated for him, so he keeps it simple. He just kind of makes his living helping other cars out of their messes as the proprietor of “Tow Mater Towing and Salvage,” and it seems kind of difficult for anyone to stay too angry with him for too long – he’s often misunderstood, even though he’s acting with the best of intentions. He does the best he can with what he’s got.
This is my neighbor. He makes a living doing odd jobs, “landscaping,” and doing residential “clean outs.” He finds some interesting things doing these jobs – often expounding on these finds to anyone who asks him how it’s going for him, and is more likely than not to offer to share his bounty. He will listen when you talk, and will try to make sense and draw connections to his own experiences – even though you may get the sense he doesn’t fully “get” what you’re saying to him. He does his best to make connections, to put people and things together – more often than not, awkwardly, but he cares enough to make those connections.
Here is this genuine, thoughtful man – he’s more than a little “odd,” but he seems to me to be one of the most genuine and caring people I know. He wants more than anything to make people happy – and the funny thing is, this guy always seems happy. He walks down to the bus stop with his daughter every morning and every morning they’re actively engaged in conversation, playing games together. In thinking back, I cannot think of one time he has ever had anything negative to say about any situation or anyone. Everything in his life is an opportunity. He doesn’t have very much, he lives with his mother, and yet he seems perfectly happy in his life. One gets the sense that not a lot of people make time for this man, yet if they did, they might discover a little something.
We have this tendency to get so wrapped up in the pursuit of “life,” whatever that may be – making the sales quota, hitting that ROI, turning a profit; commuting to work, navigating the office politics, getting that email out on time; coordinating sports schedules, food shopping, balancing the check book…”winning.” And after all of that, there’s no time to read a book or enjoyment in that Sunday drive. We don’t make the time to see junior off to the bus stop. Meanwhile, our children grow up without us noticing and “life happens” while we’re too busy making other plans.
“Tow Neighbor” might just have the right perspective on things. EVERYONE can teach you something, even if they don’t know they’re teaching you.