The lazy, hazy, crazy, deceptively trivial days of summer

So it was great to spend the summer with you around, and I’m glad we got to see you off yesterday. All the best of luck for a great junior year!

I know one thing: you’ll be busy. I hope today, Friday, gave you a moment to catch your breath and prepare before everything hits.

Boy, was W&M quiet yesterday. I love quiet summer campuses; you feel like you own the place. Everything slows down, so slow you almost think time has stopped completely. Especially when it’s hot.

The word I’m looking for is languid.  Everywhere I went at W&M yesterday was languid: your dorm, Sadler, the gym, that brand-spanking-new fraternity housing (which looks reassuringly solid in construction, I must say <grin>. Unlike some frat houses…)

I’ll bet the Sunken Garden was magnificently languid. But I didn’t get there. I was running around like a chicken without a head, trying to deal with the storage facility, shopping, etc., etc. Maybe I should’ve spent a little more time being languid myself.

Another place that was equally quiet (if not quite as inspiring) was Merchants Square, over by Colonial Williamsburg. From there, I looked as far into Colonial Williamsburg as I could, but it looked awfully sleepy in there, too. Perhaps if I’d walked to the far end of Duke of Gloucester Street, I would’ve encountered hundreds of middle-age couples trying to reinvigorate their romantic relationships by sending innocent women to prison on trumped up charges of witchcraft. But somehow I doubt it.

(OK, I don’t watch as much premium cable as you do, but that Colonial Williamsburg commercial is the creepiest thing I have ever seen on television.)

I didn’t walk all the way through Colonial Williamsburg because I had other fish to fry. I wanted to visit your campus Barnes & Noble bookstore. You already know why: to see if they’d ever fixed that fake Thomas Jefferson quote that’s been plastered above the American History section for several years now.

Yup, the self-help-y nostrum that the folks at Monticello tracked down to the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969). The quote nobody who ever read Jefferson could ever imagine sounded authentic:


Of course, they haven’t fixed it.

So, as usual, I went in and narrated my whole long and pathetic story about this. Highlighted by being told by the legendary President of William & Mary, Taylor Reveley, “this is the kind of problem I can actually fix around here.”

And, as usual, I concluded on my usual plaintive note: surely someone, somewhere at Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater would care that he was still being mistaken for the admittedly quite remarkable Mr. Gombrowicz. Wouldn’t they?

And as usual I got my usual bemused reaction (you know, is this gentleman clinically insane, or merely extremely eccentric?) And I thought to myself, when I go back in a month, and next spring, and next fall, and someday for your commencement, nothing will have changed.

So I decided to think some more about this. Why should something so microscopically trivial be so hard to change? Could there be a lesson or two in there somewhere? Maybe.

For it to change, first, somebody at W&M or B&N would really have to care about changing it. It’s obvious that on the very long list of B&N’s problems, this one ranks at the exact opposite end of the list from, say,

But that’s not all. Imagine I found someone in the store who really did care about this. They’d have to choose an actual TJ quote worthy of the same place of honor (next to Jon Stewart <grin>). Then, they’d have to find someone who could format, print, and install a replacement piece of wallpaper that looked just like the one it replaced, and wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

They’d need the authority and budget to do all that. And who knows if anyone in the store is even allowed to touch the wall décor? Maybe that comes out of some store design or merchandising office at B&N College headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ. Who knows?

Regardless, it seems my strategy of talking to people inside the store — or even posting on their Facebook page — was probably destined to fail. It seems unlikely that anyone in B&N who could fix my TJ problem even knows it exists.

So I need to raise this from a microscopically trivial concern to something B&N would actually want to fix, even if only out of embarrassment. Maybe I need more external pressure. I could try President Reveley again. Or maybe the W&M American History Department (colonial and revolutionary-era American history is kinda a big deal down there, or so I’ve heard.)

Or maybe someone at Colonial Williamsburg. They own the land your bookstore sits on. And they seem even more obsessed about American history than me. (Come to think of it, how come nobody there has noticed this phony Jefferson quote?)

Maybe I don’t know who the right person is. Maybe I need to let them find themselves. That means getting some publicity. I bet this would make a pretty nifty tongue-in-cheek article for your campus newspaper. Light. Fun. A change of pace from the usual bad news about budgets and so forth.

Now who do I know who could suggest that to just the right editor?

Obviously, this is a toy problem. (It doesn’t even rise to the level of “first world problem” <grin>.) But like a lot of toy problems, it’s illustrative. It’s relevant when you want to actually change something that matters.

You need to understand the chain of actions that must happen for your change to take place. (Sometimes it’s a more complex set of events than you realize.) You need to figure out who has the authority and budget. You can’t assume someone at the bottom of the food chain will automatically pass your issue “up the ladder.” You don’t want to make the modern mistake of assuming a single Facebook post will magically galvanize an organization into action. You need to consider when other forms of outside pressure will be helpful (rather than counterproductive). You need to look for the best sources for that pressure. Sometimes, you need to involve the media. And if all that fails, think up another strategy.

I don’t know if my example is the most convincing one out there. But it reminds me there are important lessons to be learned from even the most ridiculously trivial stuff.

Most people are too impatient to learn those lessons. They don’t want to be bothered with the trivial. (To use my example, they’d just say, “my problem didn’t get fixed because those people are idiots,” full stop.)

But even trivial matters can often point to deeper, more useful knowledge — if you’re willing to follow reality where it leads you, and really think about why things are the way they are.




Random thoughts: from human uncertainty to hog butchering

A quick, less-than-cosmic post today… I just wanted to call your attention to Nick Kristof’s column in this morning’s Times, on philosophy and the humanities. (There I go again. But I’m only the messenger <grin>. And I know how much you admire Kristof — someone you really should find a way to introduce yourself to).

Kristof picks up on some of the usual suspects. Rawls’ veil of ignorance, which you yourself mentioned a few weeks ago. Singer’s animal ethics. And, of course, his reference to my fave-rave Yeats line didn’t hurt.

But my favorite part is his discussion of Isaiah Berlin (who I haven’t yet read but have gradually realized I need to read — he’s also the guy who thought up the famous Hedgehog and Fox metaphor):

Sir Isaiah argued for acknowledging doubts and uncertainty — and then forging ahead. “Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed,” he wrote. “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

I wonder if Kristof isn’t thinking about some of the criticism he’s received lately about supporting individuals and causes that turned out to be rather humanly imperfect. Regardless, Berlin’s quote is where it’s at. You can’t be sure. And you won’t always be right. But you still have to act based on your best and most honestly-arrived-at understanding of what needs to be done. The alternative is paralysis. (Just look around!)

In responding to Kristof’s broader praise of the humanities, a commenter cited Robert Heinlein, of all people:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I couldn’t help thinking: you’re lucky you’re not his kid <grin>.

Heinlein loved war too well and there are some aspects of human experience which seem jarringly absent here (where are love and sexuality? Maybe implicit in sonnet writing — maybe, barely). But his point stands.

I was thinking about this in myself. Even putting aside the stuff on his list that I can be forgiven for being incapable of (I can’t butcher a hog, but I’m no longer asking anyone to do it for me) I can barely cook a meal anymore. As you’ve noticed.

And if you don’t focus on it, you’re likely to be even worse.

(Some of what Heinlein is alluding to is why I was hoping you’d read Shop Class as Soulcraft, which helped me understand the deep human wisdom and fulfillment that exists in manual, physical craftwork… something that’s never come naturally to me — or you, I suspect.)

BTW, I wonder why people read Rand’s Fountainhead and not Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress these days. If arrested-development libertarianism is what you want, Mistress has a rollicking plot, more wit, and above all, none of Rand’s sociopathy.

Maybe I just answered my own question.

Thoughts on any of this morning’s ramblings?


What I want: looking back, and looking forward

I think you’ve written a wonderful personal manifesto for building yourself a good life.

I’m glad I asked you what you wanted. I want some of the same things, which tells you (perhaps) that some of those personal goals are a lifelong journey. Like the commercials say, Never Stop Improving, right?

I was going to suggest you print out your post and hang it somewhere you can see it, so you’ll often be reminded of what matters most to you in life. That reminded me I once did something similar. Nearly 16 years ago I went through the exercise of creating a personal mission statement. Re-reading mine, it definitely catches some of what was in the air back when mission statements were all that. I might’ve even started with someone’s template, like maybe this. Still, though, it also does reflect much of where I was in my life when you weren’t quite five years old.

IIRC, I had it on my office wall until we renovated our house and somehow it got packed away. It looked roughly like this:

Personal Mission Statement 1998 3

I think I did a really good job on some of that stuff. (For example, I wrote it six weeks before I started to lose weight — I hadn’t run a 5K, didn’t even own a bike then.) Other points, less so — not yet, anyway. Every day offers me new opportunities to do better!*

It also occurs to me that maybe I had a few more strengths than I gave myself credit for at the time.

It’s fascinating to have these snapshots in time. They show you how far you’ve come.

Fifteen years ago, I hadn’t studied Shakespeare or Homer; I hadn’t read Borges or Flaubert or even Rousseau. I knew practically no world or religious history, no philosophy, practically no biology. I hadn’t been to Europe. I don’t even think I was a Teaching Company customer yet — much less Coursera. All those lectures I’ve listened to and termpapers I’ve written over these years: they have absolutely changed my life. I actually have been learning and growing most days, and searching for understanding (if not always finding it <grin>)!

I didn’t mean to get sidetracked with my usual paean to the liberal arts.** Here’s what I meant to say: There’s an arc to a life, and it’s easy to notice the big changes — you get married, you have a child, he grows up and goes to college and maybe gets married. But you don’t always notice the little changes — in what you care about, what intrigues you, how you feel about yourself. That’ll be another nice thing about our shared blog, I hope: for us both to see those changes. It’s a good reason to keep a personal journal of whatever kind.

I am not avoiding your question.

So what do I want now?

Probably the thing I want most is one I can’t control: I want you to have the happy and meaningful life you want.

It seems to me you’re moving in the right direction(s)! So I’m very hopeful… but like most parents, I’m holding my breath. My child’s successes and times of happiness fill my heart, my child’s setbacks and hurts pain me more than my own. I’m sure Mom would say all that, too.

Years ago I would’ve felt guilty telling you that. Pressure, right? But it’s just the truth. I figure as long as I’m rooting for you to find your happiness your way (whatever that turns out to be) it’s OK.

It’ll have to be OK, because I can’t help it. And I’m concluding that’s mostly a good thing. If no man is an island (thank you for making me really read Donne’s poem) then parents and children shouldn’t be, right?

So, OK, what else do I want?

I think I’ve now done enough thinking and learning that I might have something to say in public. I want to find out. That means finally getting past whatever’s kept me from doing my own best writing. You’re writing columns (a big-time congratulations for an honor very well earned, by the way). It’s time I did, too, at least.

One thing should make that easier. Thankfully, I don’t seem to care quite as much anymore about what people think of me. I have to remind myself of that — it’s true, but I keep forgetting! (Heaven knows there’s enough crud being published out there by people who never seem to worry about that <grin>…) Also, for better or worse, I seem to be trending towards a bit less paying work. I’m still sitting at my desk as much as ever, but the difference seems to be Coursera courses and so forth.

So time does exist for real writing. And I’m fresh out of excuses.

Next, I want to get older gracefully.

I don’t mean I’m “old” already. You know what I say ad nauseam: 58 is the new 58. It ain’t 40. (Or 70.)

Maybe it’s watching Grandpa Bob up close, especially lately. Maybe it’s watching my own Dad the last few years. But I’ve been thinking a lot about aging well.

Of course there’s plenty of luck involved in that. But hopefully I can stay in shape (if my knees don’t give out)… and stay engaged, intellectually and otherwise. There are so many great new ideas out there, and old ones I haven’t come across yet… great new places to visit with Mom… and, for that matter, great new songs, bands, novels, scientific discoveries…

Above all, I’ll have to try not to get too weird, inflexible, and stubborn.

It’s easy for me to see the ways “other” aging people fall victim to their own vanities and sense of denial. But, as a human, it’s hard to see and act on my own. For example, I know perfectly well that the hearing in my left ear is slipping. It’s fine day-to-day, but it’s already a big problem at parties where it’s noisy and you really need “full stereo” to understand conversations. We shall see just how long it takes for me to go investigate a hearing aid. A year? Five? Ten? Every cell in my body resists the idea! (Am I gonna be that different from Bob, who at 92+, and with dementia, still hates the idea of hanging around with what he calls “senior citizens”?)

I will also probably be called upon to make thoughtful judgments about just how far I should ride my bike on these sore knees (when that inner voice is always saying, a couple miles more…) Will I ride the Ramapo Rally 50 mile next week, or just 25? The question answers itself — but that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer!

So… these 1,200 words are definitely not everything I want. (For instance… I need to be better about doing things Mom wants to do. I need to get productive earlier in the morning. If I’m gonna be a halfway skinny vegetarian, it’d be nice to learn how to cook food I actually want to eat (besides blueberry pancakes). And I still dream of someday moving up to Boston long enough to earn a Master’s Degree from Harvard Extension School.)

But it ought to be enough to keep me busy for awhile!


*Following in a long line of self-help clichés tracing back to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie, who toured the world in the early 1920s teaching people to tell themselves: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” People made plenty of jokes about Coué (a la Stuart Smalley). But ya know what, it’s another of those clichés that only got that way because it captured a bit of important truth. Mr. Smalley is now a United States Senator, after all!

**This week I delegate that task to Frank Bruni.

What do I want? Oh so many things!

I’m glad you asked me what I want, because sometimes I forget to ask myself that question. We can get into a rut where we’re completely focused on all the shit we have to do that we forget why we’re doing it (or that we should be doing something else). Once I thought about it, I realized I want a lot of things.

I want to improve as a person. I want to keep expanding my comfort zone. I want to get more comfortable with failing and rejection. I often avoid or ignore opportunities because I’m afraid one of those things might happen. Sometimes, I even throw away my ideas without considering them thoroughly enough because I fear they’ll go nowhere.

I want to develop more self-discipline and a stronger internal drive. I find it difficult to get motivated when other people aren’t expecting me to do things; that’s not to say I don’t work hard, but I struggle with the work I need to be doing for myself – searching for jobs and internships, personal writing, figuring out what I want.

I want to procrastinate less. I never finish things early, so I’m always scrambling put out fires and not preparing for the future.

I also want to learn how to be a journalist. I’ve written for newspapers for five years, yet I’ve never written a news or feature story. Even if I never become a journalist, it’s a valuable skill to have. More broadly, I want to become a better researcher, not just for my academic career, but so that I can market myself to future employers and write something meaningful and valuable.

I’d like to work for something greater than myself. Whatever that something is, I want to be an essential part of it, and I want it to benefit people. I want to use my natural talent for reconciliation to make a difference. Further, I want to contribute to and foster dialogue, rather than enflame it, but also have the courage to stand and fight when it would be easiest to sit on the sidelines; I want to be true to myself and keep building myself.

I want to be a good husband and father. I want to connect and I want to be happy.

Is that so much to ask?

What do you want, Dad?