Category Archives: Family

Today’s Teens’ Tepid Take on Transport

My kids, all three of them, have had an extraordinarily luke-warm attitude towards getting their driver's licenses and based on conversations I've had with some of their friends' parents they aren't the only ones. Sure there are still plenty of kids chomping at the bit to get their licenses the day they turn 16, but the percentage of kids who don't seem too excited about it seems much higher these days than when their parents were that age. Why is that? Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen might provide a clue in his answer to the question of why he's so excited about the potential of car-sharing services:

Ask a kid. Take teenagers 20 years ago and ask them would they rather have a car or a computer? And the answer would have been 100% of the time they'd rather have a car, because a car represents freedom, right?

Today, ask kids if they'd rather have a smartphone or a car if they had to pick and 100% would say smartphones. Because smartphones represent freedom. There's a huge social behavior reorientation that's already happening. And you can see it through that. And I'm not saying nobody can own cars. If people want to own cars, they can own cars. But there is a new generation coming where freedom is defined by "I can do anything I want, whenever I want. If I want a ride, I get a ride, but I don't have to worry. I don't have to make car payments. I don't have to worry about insurance. I have complete flexibility." That is freedom too.

While Andreessen is talking about the future of car sharing services (which by the way seem much more likely to succeed in dense urban environments than in small urban/sprawl environments like where my family lives) he's stumbled on an important influence on our kids today – they don't need cars to connect with their friends because they have smartphones, computers and game consoles to connect.  Sure their parents had phones, but with the exception of the lucky few who had their own phone lines in their bedrooms they had to share the phone with the rest of their families and had zero expectation of privacy. Today's kids don't just have private phone conversations they have the ability to have private video chats which their parents could only dream about 30 years ago.

In the case of our youngest, who is well into his 17th year of life and has no desire to get his license, he doesn't even have to leave the living room to play games with his friends. Thanks to Xbox Live he plays games with/against them all the time. His dad had to use that shared family phone to call his friends to coordinate a time to meet at the arcade to watch each other play Galactica. Once that beautiful day in the early 80s rolled around when he got his first Atari system he called his friends over so that could play Atari football head-to-head!

The point is that teens are decreasingly equating a driver's license with freedom. In fact our youngest has flat out said that he's dreading getting his license because he doesn't want the responsibility. On the other hand his dad is pushing him hard to get the damn license so he doesn't have to keep getting out of bed an hour earlier than normal in order to get the kid to school in time to catch the bus to the career center!

But I digress. There truly is a large behavioral shift going on with the younger members of our society. Thanks to the mortgage meltdown many young adults no longer assume that homeownership is all that their parents thought it was cracked up to be, and now that people have mobile networks at their disposal they're no longer socializing in the same way either. Of course kids will still want to get together to party and act like the fools they are, but how often they get together and how they get there is changing very quickly and those habits and patterns will last into their adult years. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

A Guide to Man Training

It's interesting to be the father of a young woman who is in college and dating. What's interesting is not the act of dating – I really don't want to think about the whole thing – but the realization that she's saying things about her boyfriend that her mother (and the unfortunate ladies I dated before meeting her) likely said about me. I get to hear them because I'm usually in the vicinity when she's talking to her mom about this stuff, and I get the call when her mom isn't available for some reason. Any port in a storm, right?

What that means is that I'm in the enviable position where I get to observe that confounding species, the dating woman, from a safe perspective. Kind of like watching a lion from a blind. Anyway, it occurred to me that while the advice she's getting from her mom is invaluable there's a certain perspective that only a dad can provide and it might be helpful to share. Without further ado here's some dating advice from a wizened, middle-aged dad who doesn't want to see anyone get hurt:

  1. Some guys just aren't domesticable so you need to figure out where your line is and when he crosses it you MUST be prepared to cut and run. 
  2. Prioritize. You can't have it all so figure out what's important to you and look for that in whoever you're dating.
  3. If he's an ass to people he thinks aren't important, like waiters and desk clerks, then he'll probably be an ass to you some day.  This really applies to everyone, not just guys you're dating.
  4. This one's important – if a guy treats you like crap when he's been drinking, even once, then you absolutely must dump his butt. If a guy lays a hand on you in any way without you wanting him to then you must not only dump him but get the authorities involved. Also, don't tell your dad until after the jerk has been locked up so your dad doesn't do something to get himself locked up.
  5. If a guy says he can't stand your friends then dump him immediately. One caveat: if he doesn't like one of your friends and that friend is kind of high maintenance then he might be doing you a favor. In all other cases he's likely an insecure, jealous jerk who wants you all to himself and that's not healthy for anyone.
  6. Don't think you can change his fundamental character. If he's not "nice"when you first meet him then he's not going to magically become nice just because you've cast your pretty eyes on him and granted him the favor of your company. Ain't gonna happen.
  7. Don't forget that you really are unreasonable sometimes and that your expectations can be out of whack.  You're human, not perfect, and you shouldn't take it out on him when he points it out (at least the first time).
  8. Don't ask your dad for dating advice. Secretly he wants you single so he'll likely give you some really bad advice like, "Break up with him and enter a convent." Reserve dad for the important events like threatening to castrate your ex if he doesn't leave you alone.
  9. Listen to your mom or another older woman in your life if your mom isn't available. They've been training men for a long time so you might as well take advantage of their experience. 
  10. Remember that whatever redeeming qualities your father might have it took the women in his life (mother, wife, sisters, aunts) a very long time to beat them into him. Unless you're dating a far older man – something I most definitely don't recommend since older, available men are usually that way for a reason – you'll have to live with the fact that you're in the man-training business for the rest of your life. Men don't come ready-made and we should all have "much assembly required" tattooed on our foreheads.
  11. Last point and it's the most important: your heart will be broken. Whether it's from a break up or from his insenstivity your heart WILL be broken. That's what happens when you open yourself completely to another human being. And that's okay because you'll recover and when you do you'll be far stronger and more prepared for running the marathon that is life. 
  12. I lied. There's one more point: ice cream helps recover from heart break. Alot.
  13. I double-lied: Calling your mom helps too, and in a pinch you might be able to talk to dad AND he might be able to resist giving you advice for once.

Well Duh

Sometimes you just have to be slapped upside the head to have some sense driven into you. I was catching up on some reading and came across this piece from Sasha Dichter and these words struck a chord with me:

In today’s world we all are continually experimenting with the lines between connection / productivity / responsiveness and distraction / rudeness.  Two colleagues of mine suggested the following four rules for managing incoming email and handheld devices, which I liked:

  1. Turn off desktop alerts of new emails coming in (the little box that pops up)  (in Outlook: File > Options > Mail > Message Arrival > Uncheck “Display a Desktop Alert”)
  2. No reading email before breakfast
  3. No reading email while in transit
  4. No phone or email in the bedroom

My own scorecard is as follows:

  1. I turned of desktop alerts for new emails about a month ago and I love it.
  2. I almost never read email before breakfast and when I do it’s a sign that I’m under a crazy deadline or stressed for some other reason.
  3. Hmmm.  I made a rule a couple of years ago not to look at my phone while in elevators, and I’ve stuck to that (it had become a reflex), but I spend enough time in transit that I don’t know that I can commit to this one.
  4. I do have my phone in the bedroom but I can honestly say it’s 95% as a time-piece and alarm

In reality these four rules are a really low bar.  Increasingly I think we will all be playing with the limits and rules that work for us, and everyone’s line will be different.  What makes me nervous is when I get reflexive about checking.  That sort of unconscious behavior feels unproductive. (Emphasis mine)

My wife has flat out told me it annoys her how much I check my phone. At the table, when we go to bed, etc. and today when I was checking out at a store I realized I was checking my phone even before the clerk was saying thank you. In other words I'm being exceptionally rude to the people around me, and what bothers me most is I'm certain I'm missing signifcant chunks of conversation with my family. My kids are only a few years from flying the coop permanently – two of them are already in college – so this is just crazy behavior. Do I seriously want to waste the limited days they're still under my roof with my nose stuck in my phone? Obviously not.

For some reason it took reading a stranger's blog to bring me to that "Well, duh" conclusion. I plan on using some of his rules augmented with some of my own to do better.

 

21?!

Unbelievably, at least for me, Celeste's and my oldest son turns 21 today. As in 2-1 and able to legally drink in any state in the union. How the heck did we get here this fast?

Normally I'd say he's a great kid, but these days that would be wrong because he's a great young man and not a great kid. He's beginning to make his way in the world by going to school, holding down a job and generally being a productive member of society. He's already encountered some bumps in the road and I'm encouraged by how he's dealt with them without losing what really makes him special: his caring for those around him and his incredible sense of humor even on a bad day.  Honestly I couldn't be prouder of him and I can't wait to see what the next 21 years bring. The future is very bright for this kid, er, young man.

Happy birthday Michael!

Kids_2012

Erin, Michael, Justin

In Retrospect

Over at Letters of Note is a great letter written in 1974 by an WWII veteran and pilot on his deathbed to his grandson:

But, in spite of what I've said, there is much, in life to enjoy – to relish. There is also much that can be done to make life worth while and living worth the "candle." There is a rich heritage of literature and music that awaits your investigation – it's there for the taking – in the libraries of the country and in the archives of the museums. There is poetry and prose – enough to fill all the hours you can spare to listen to them and more knowledge, on every conceivable subject, than you can assimilate in a lifetime. It's all there just waiting for you to ask for it or to seek it out. Don't overlook it or pass it up for less important or less meaningful pastimes.

Most important of all is ability to savor life, to taste of it in as many variances as you can – while you can. Life never looks so short as when you look back on it. Unfortunately you cannot do this until it has passed you by. So, as you go through life, don't overlook the "Lily in the Field," the newborn puppy, the fledgling bird – for they are as much (or more) of life as the tall buildings, the shiny automobiles and the possessions we tend to place so much importance upon. If you can do just this much – life will be more meaningful for you…

And my favorite paragraph, one that I would echo for my own children:

If I could package (with ribbon) those gifts that I would most like to give you, I would. But how do you package integrity, how do you wrap honesty, what kind of paper for a sense of humor, what ribbon for inquisitiveness?

Becoming a reasonably mature, moderately organized, marginally integrated member of polite society

Around seven years ago Gene Weingarten wrote a great column for the Washington Post titled The Peekaboo Paradox in which he profiled a DC-based performer named Eric Knaus, aka the Great Zucchini, whose niche was birthday parties for 2-6 year olds. Ends up that the big Zuke was a little on the immature side:

Eric's misadventures with traffic tickets are symptomatic of larger problems involving his inability to conduct life as a reasonably mature, moderately organized, marginally integrated member of polite society.

Take his apartment . . . please.

I did get to see it, finally. On the morning of the day I was to arrive, Eric awoke to discover he had no electricity. So he quickly had to get cash and run to the utility company. He knew exactly what to do because it had happened many times before. That's his tickler system: When the lights go out, it's time to pay the bill.

As I entered the apartment, to the left, was a spare bedroom. It was empty, except for a single, broken chair. Down the hall was the living room, with that couch and that air hockey table, which was covered with junk, clothes, cigarette butts and coins. ("You want to play? I can clean it off.") Coins and junk also littered the floor, along with two or three industrial-size Hefty bags filled with Eric's soiled clothing he'd brought back from a summer camp that he'd helped staff, three months earlier. The closets were completely empty. There were no clean clothes.

The kitchen was almost tidy, due to lack of use. There was a fancy knife set and a top-of-the-line microwave, neither of which, Eric said, has ever been deployed. There was also a gleaming, never-used chrome blender and a high-end Cuisinart coffee maker that was put into play exactly once, when a woman who slept over wanted a cuppa in the morning. Most of these appliances were purchased in a frenzy of optimism when Eric moved in almost a year ago. ("You know how when you get a new place, it's all exciting, and you say, Mmm, I'm gonna get me a blender and make smoothies!")

The cupboards were bare. The only edible thing I saw was a 76-ounce box of raisin bran, the size of a small suitcase.

I read that passage and immediately thought, "There but for the Grace of God and getting hitched to the right woman go I." When my wife met me I was the Great Zucchini sans any talent and now, almost twenty years later, I've been molded into a reasonably mature, moderately organized and marginally integrated member of polite society. – and thanks to my wife's continuing efforts and the rapid departure of almost all testosterone from my body I am now a marshmallow of a man who irons his own shirts, washes his own clothes and has the social life of a Trappist Monk. 

Weingarten benefits from marriage too - I've known other men who approach Eric's level of dysfunction, including myself. I'm saved by the fact that I've been able to hang on to a competent wife.

Yep.

Young men take note: if you want to avoid a living out of Hefty bags get thee a competent wife. Also note that if you read the whole column you'll wish that at times you could be the Great Zucchini. That would be more than okay,  it would be terrific, because if you do allow yourself those moments of zucchini-ness you'll be a wonderful dad.

The Miracles and Limitations of Modern Health Care

My wife and I spent yesterday at Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem with our youngest son. Our son has been dealing with a condition called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), which in layman's terms means his heart will sometimes beat really fast – like 200 beats-per-minute fast – for extended periods of time even if he's sitting still. He was in the hospital for a procedure called a cardiac ablation which, if successful, would prevent these episodes from happening in the future.

The way the ablation was explained to us is that the doctor would send catheters through major veins in the legs to our son's heart and, depending on where in the heart the problem was, either burn or freeze the part of the heart that was causing it to go into this abnormal rhythm. Our son would be put under general anesthesia for the procedure and it would likely take about four hours. They would provoke his heart into going "wonky" (that's our technical term for it), identify the problem area, treat it and then observe it for a period of time to make sure they got all of it. If they needed to they'd freeze or burn more spots until they had the problem area taken care of.

Here's the really amazing part: if all went as planned we'd have our son back home the same day and he'd be under orders to take it easy for four days, not lift anything heavy for about a week, and then he'd be back to normal. To us this was truly a miracle of modern medicine – our son would have a heart procedure as outpatient surgery!

Thankfully all went as planned and we had our son home last night. Truly amazing.

Unfortunately modern medicine also has its limitations. While we were in the waiting room during our son's surgery a doctor came out and met with a mother and grandmother waiting near us. It was very early in the morning and most of the folks in the waiting area were asleep, thus it was pretty quiet. We tried our best not to eavesdrop, but it was impossible not to hear pieces of what the doctor was telling the mother – that her child did indeed have some rare, malignant cancer. It was also impossible not to hear the mother's crying and her mother trying to console her. And quite frankly it was impossible not to break down ourselves once they left – I haven't cried in public since I was a child, and I'm not ashamed to say that I just couldn't hold it together. I can't imagine going through what that family is going through right now.

Right now our country is dealing with a lot of change in our health care system thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. There's (rightfully) a lot of discussion about how our health care system and the related health insurance industry work. The debate often focuses on cost and on whether or not we're moving towards a system of "socialized" medicine similar to Canada's or the UK's, and if we are, whether that will lead to a stall in medical advances that have led to every day "miracles" like what our family experienced.

Those are all worthy discussion points, but after yesterday all I could think was this: when it's your child in the operating room you really don't care how expensive the procedure is, you just want him to have whatever it takes to make him well. I would gladly live in a cardboard box in order not to have to hear what that poor mother next to us heard. Whatever we do I hope we continue to work towards making sure that fewer and fewer parents have to hear that their child doesn't have a miracle available to them at any price.

To Be Thankful

One of the benefits of getting older is that you have the opportunity to experience good times, bad times and everything in between. Sure we've all had varying degrees of both good and bad experiences, but the older you get the more of each you've seen and the more you can appreciate the truly good times. It's hard to know what it feels like to be out of work until you've done it. It's hard to understand what true heartbreak is until the person you thought was the love of your life ends up not being the "one", and the relationship you thought would last forever goes down in flames. It's hard to understand true loss until you've lost a loved one to illness or accident. It's hard to understand the burden of being responsible for another human being until you've been a parent and had to shepherd your children through the tumult of childhood and the hell that is adolescence. In short, when you're young you don't know s*** because you haven't experienced much yet, and in turn it would be unreasonable to expect you to have the perspective necessary to know how thankful you really should be for what you have.

As a parent it's both frightening and bemusing to watch your children go through the process of discovering what good times and bad times truly are. Watching them learn that earning a "D" on a test isn't a tragedy, but not being able to go to school because your parents are out of work certainly could be. Seeing them suffer through a relationship because they don't understand that there are so many people out there who will treat them better, or on the flip side, watching them walk away from a relationship with someone who loves and respects them for who they are because of a short-term need. Or listening to them gripe about their crappy phone, and of course extolling the virtues of their friend's phone – you know, the friend with the cool parents who make sure they always have the latest and greatest – without ever considering how lucky they are to simply have a warm, safe place to sit and talk on their supposedly-crappy phones. It's bemusing to watch because we have the perspective that they lack, and it's frightening to behold because we know how much pain they'll need to experience to gain it.

If you've been on Facebook recently you've likely seen a new meme, or trend, that you could call the "Thankful" exercise; every day throughout the month of November people are sharing something for which they are thankful. Sure it's a bit hokey, but it's also useful to take a moment each day to remember how many reasons you have to be thankful. Of course I say this after having not participated at all to this point, so let me take a little of this space and your time to share just a few of the reasons I'm thankful:

  • First and foremost that I have a marriage that gives back to me so much more than I've put into it. Of course that means I have a wonderful wife – I'm not just saying that Celeste – but there are many marriages between two good people that haven't worked out, so I'm eternally thankful that ours has. As Celeste told me two nights ago, we're in a great place right now. I don't think we could know how great a place we're in if we hadn't had 20+ years of good, bad and ugly places up 'til now.
  • That I have three great kids who seem to still like their parents after all these years. Yeah, they do their share of weird and idiotic things, but they're great people and I look forward to seeing them gain some perspective.
  • That I have parents I can still call for advice and perspective – in particular a mother who calls BS when she hears it.
  • That I have a brother who I talk to as much as I ever have even though we live hundreds of miles apart.
  • That I have friends who have literally been with me for decades, through thick and thin, who know me better than I know myself and still let me call them friends. 
  • That I'm surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws and we all like each other.
  • That my grandmother has lived to the wonderful age of 93, and that my aunts are there for her – and that my aunts don't beat me up for not seeing my Grandmother as often as I should.
  • That I have a job that I truly enjoy and allows me to spend huge chunks of time with people I love and respect. 
  • That I've found a church that has welcomed my family and has made me feel at home. 
  • That I have a house/money-pit that has truly become a home – a vessel containing over eight years of memories with my family. 

I could go on, but I think you get the drift. Thanks for indulging me, and if you're so inclined please feel free to share what you're thankful for on this fine day.

When Parents are Full of S***

The two oldest of our three kids will be heading to NC State in a few weeks, our oldest for his sophomore year (transferring from UNC Charlotte) and our middle child for her freshman year. Our son has already changed his major from business to a biology-chemistry double major. Our daughter is in First Year College and as of right now is thinking of majoring in engineering, but who knows what degree she'll end up with? That's as it should be since one of the core benefits of a college education is the opportunity to try different things on until you find something that fits, if you're lucky.

A couple of weeks ago we were on vacation and during dinner my daughter mentioned that she might want to major in Italian (I think it was Italian), and I made the brilliant statement that she shouldn't major in a language because you can always study a language independently by taking a course later. That statement was followed by something like, "You should study something practical that, if you wanted, you could practice in any language you might happen to learn." My mother, who was also at the dinner, gave me the look that is normally reserved for people for whom she feels sorry, and drolly asked if that's why I majored in English. Ouch.

I later told my daughter that her Dad had a moment where he was indeed full of s*** and that she should study whatever she is truly interested in, something that she can be passionate about.  Sharing this particular tale of parental malpractice was inspired by this letter written to Ted Turner by his father when young Ted informed the old man that he wanted to major in the Classics at Brown:

There is no question but this type of useless information will distinguish you, set you apart from the doers of the world. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower, and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner. Incidentally, he was a contemporary of mine in Mississippi. We speak the same language—whores, sluts, strong words, and strong deeds.

It isn't really important what I think. It's important what you wish to do with your life. I just wish I could feel that the influence of those oddball professors and the ivory towers were developing you into the kind of a man we can both be proud of. I am quite sure that we both will be pleased and delighted when I introduce you to some friend of mine and say, "This is my son. He speaks Greek."

Note to my children: if I ever write or say anything remotely like this please tell me I'm full of s*** and feel free to not visit me in the home if I live long enough to get there.