Dying as a Life Lesson

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.

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Introverts and Writing

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.

Power of Symbols

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 and the Boy

His First MLB Game at Fenway Park
We converted "standing room only" tickets into an evening in the Fenway Park press box for his very first major league game. An amazing evening for the two of us.

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.

“He’s not perfect.”

“He’s not perfect. You aren’t either, and the two of you will never be perfect. But if he can make you laugh at least once, causes you to think twice, and if he admits to being human and making mistakes, hold onto him and give him the most you can. He isn’t going to quote poetry, he’s not thinking about you every moment, but he will give you a part of him that he knows you could break. Don’t hurt him, don’t change him, and don’t expect for more than he can give. Don’t analyze. Smile when he makes you happy, yell when he makes you mad, and miss him when he’s not there. Love hard when there is love to be had. Because perfect guys don’t exist, but there’s always one guy that is perfect for you.”
― Bob Marley

“He’s not perfect. You aren’t either, and the two of you will never be perfect. But if he can  make you laugh at least once, causes you to think twice, and if he admits to being human and making mistakes, hold onto him and give him the most you can. He isn’t going to quote poetry, he’s not thinking about you every moment, but he will give you a part of him that he knows you could break. Don’t hurt him, don’t change him, and don’t expect for more than he can give. Don’t analyze. Smile when he makes you happy, yell when he makes you mad, and miss him when he’s not there. Love hard when there is love to be had. Because perfect guys don’t exist, but there’s always one guy that is perfect for you.”
― Bob Marley

The Night Sky

This image of the “Pleiades Cluster”, or “Seven Sisters” as it is sometimes known, is one of the brightest open clusters to exist near our solar system, as well as one of the few clusters that can be seen with the naked eye.

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.

The “Average” US Population Density

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.