This morning one of my daughters was wrong. Shocking, I know, but it happens from time to time.
Our girls have been learning some simple ASL (American Sign Language) through YouTube videos. Our four-year-old, Maeve, who can sing her ABCs but not identify most of the letters yet, has made it from A to C in ASL. As she was showing us the letter D, she was making the wrong shape with her hand.
Evely, our six-year-old corrected her, but Maeve was resistant. Evely offered to replay the video they watch- a little girl who teaches ASL to her mother and then signs and sings an off-key and slightly reggae version of the ABCs- in order to help her learn to shape her D correctly. Again, Maeve was resistant and starting to get a little upset at the idea that she was wrong. She insisted that she would continue to make the D her way.
This is where my wife and I differ as parents. My wife is more of a pacifier. She sees my daughter getting emotional and assures her that it’s not a big deal, she doesn’t have to learn the correct D right now if she doesn’t want to. I’m much less of a pacifying presence. I simply remind my daughter that it’s OK if she doesn’t learn it right now, but… she is doing it wrong and therefore technically is not making a D with her hand. I think it’s pretty clear how that went over. My daughter went into emotional lockdown, buried her face in her stuffed donkey, and only responded in grunts for a few moments.
This is parenting, this is educating, and unfortunately, this is what happens regardless of how you parent or what educational philosophy you follow. There are no right answers in homeschooling (or any schooling), and unfortunately, most of life comes down to these sorts of social interactions where it matters less who is right and matters more how you talk to someone who you think is wrong.
I recently read an article about how to handle relatives who believe in conspiracy theories. Most of the tips (be empathetic, don’t make them feel less intelligent or try to debate each minor point) made me feel like the perfect example of what not to do when confronted with disagreements in real life. It felt like the author watched footage of conversations I’d had, saw how completely unsuccessful I was, and took copious notes to bring back to the others. Empathy in place of condescension. Understanding in place of exasperation.
Whether it’s my daughter or my adult relatives, it’s important to learn how to be wrong. And I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about myself. Being ‘correct’ isn’t the same thing as being in the right. Sometimes we have to be wrong, because we very often are. Even on the off-chance that we did get all of our facts straight (which can also be unlikely), it’s more often the social interaction- and the relationship with those around us- that we don’t want to get wrong.
From Morris’s Roosevelt biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, came this quote:
…the highest idea of the family is attainable only where the father and mother stand to each other as lovers and friends. In these homes the children are bound to the father and mother by ties of love, respect, and obedience, which are simply strengthened by the fact that they are treated as reasonable beings with rights of their own…Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt is a fascinating case study in family dynamics, and a regular preacher of moral virtue, especially seen in the relationship with his alcoholic, philandering brother. But he was not without his own massive faults.
His first wife died days after giving birth to his first daughter, in the same house and on the same day that his own mother died. Roosevelt went into such a long period of internalized mourning that he gave his daughter to his sister to be raised and hardly looked at her or talked about her for the first few years of her life.
It wasn’t until he remarried (to his childhood sweetheart) that he began to have more kids and turn into the father figure who would eventually write the lines above. His own father was described as both loving and imposing, charitable and demanding, and was always seen by Roosevelt as a genuine specimen of a good man.
Roosevelt himself was raised without formal education for the majority of his early childhood, but being the son of a wealthy New York family, he still had plenty of access to a large family library where he taught himself to read and write. He didn’t attend an actual school until adolescence, and was always said to be the most passionate, energetic, and articulate as compared to his classmates. In his life, he’d become an important academic scholar, prolific writer, and famous legislator, as well as a capable cowboy, rancher, scientist, and soldier.
It’s hard to know exactly how Roosevelt raised his own children, but they are said to have been given a lot of freedom to, like him, follow their curiosities without the overwhelming structure and responsibility hoisted on kids today. They weren’t in preparatory kindergartens or given constant homework. It’s not that respect and obedience aren’t expected, but true respect and obedience can only be cultivated in the presence of free will rather than dogma.
For Roosevelt, one of the most important values under his umbrella term of Americanism was freedom– often seen as expansion into new frontiers outside of the strictures of society. In those days, East meant the stuffy, formal, and even effeminate life of London and the rest of Europe. Roosevelt was a doer- someone who constantly pushed West towards the wilderness. For someone with such a strong internal moral code, he really seemed to believe that morality come from inside, and a man proves his morality when faced with the open freedom of the frontier, and apt metaphor for releasing our own children into the world around them.
My daughter, who currently goes by the name Hermione Granger, has brought Harry Potter fandom to a fever pitch in our house. While reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to her, I was struck by how foreign many of the underlying concepts of quidditch at Hogwarts felt to me. If you haven’t engaged with Potter before, quidditch is the only team sport available at wizard boarding school, and it seems to combine rugby with soccer, and a little hide-and-seek, all the while played on broomsticks.
The actual rules of the game aren’t what struck me as most odd, though; instead it was the way quidditch as an extra-curricular activity was structured by the administration at Hogwarts. I’d love to know how much of this is standard European behavior or maybe how much is J.K. Rowling’s fantasy. In any case, if you compare it to the standard Friday Night Lights-style artifice around American high school football or any other team sport, from little league on, you’ll notice one key absence: adult intervention. There are almost no teachers, and absolutely no parents, involved in quidditch.
There’s simply Madame Hooch, the impartial quidditch referee and one-time broomstick lesson instructor. The fact that Madame Hooch collects a paycheck at all is pretty mind-boggling, unless we imagine that she’s also working in the Hogwarts registrars office during the other 99% of her time. Apart from the referee, every other position of authority is granted to a student.
The team captains, though selected by a teacher, are students themselves. There is no coach in quidditch- the team captain runs the try-outs, selects the team members, and schedules and runs the practices. The captain is responsible for creating the plays and strategies for each upcoming match. We can imagine a character like Oliver Wood sitting in his dorm watching 35mm projections of Slytherin practices and scrawling into a folio with an energetic feather.
Even the announcer at the quidditch games is a student, only ever interrupted by Professor McGonagall when he succumbs to bouts of cursing, and hardly even then. The students play an entire tournament and not once does a single parent show up with a camcorder and a pizza party.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, it takes a serial murderer camped directly outside of Hogwarts for months to provoke the school into providing any adult supervision (for a game played fifty feet above the ground, flying on broomsticks). It comes in the form of one-dimensional Madame Hooch, who sits court-side and sleeps her way through the practices.
Compare that to a typical American extra-curricular, where it is an adult coach who builds the team, schedules the practices, assigns positions, plans the plays, and so on. Drive by a community park on a Thursday evening and you’ll see more adults than kids, camped out with umbrellas, lawn chairs, and coolers of Capri-Suns. The coach is typically joined by more than one assistant coach, and as a rule there’s at least one irate parent who’s job apparently is coaching (yelling) from the sidelines.
So what keeps Harry Potter showing up to Quidditch practice six nights a week, if not adult intervention? How on earth does the entire structure not fall apart, with the kids spending their evenings on the wizarding version of TikTok or up in their rooms playing with their gobstones? Apparently it’s all those things we typically want our kids to learn: love of the game, high personal standards, camaraderie, and self-motivation.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for The Sandlot-era sports, and sure Harry Potter is fiction, but the idea the children are given some autonomy, that they’re forced to deal with conflict resolution on their own terms, is not new. This is the basis of self-directed education: kids flourish when given freedom, autonomy, and responsibility. If you create a culture where kids are constantly told what to do- all you’re teaching them is how to wait to be told what to do. On the other hand, if left to their own devices, they’ll find reasons- internal motivation- to push themselves. Some will even step up to become leaders.
One of the hardest mental hurdles in self-directed education is the idea that you don’t sit down with the purpose of teaching your kids to read– not unless they explicitly ask for it. You don’t require daily reading lessons, and you never ask the question, “Is my child reading at grade level yet?”
Of course we’ve hinted at the value of reading (“This game would be even more fun for you if you could read what the characters are saying”) but never forced it. We bought practice reading books with Disney princesses, unicorns, and dragons, and we even have a large copy of Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons that’s been dog-eared at lesson 27 for a few years now.
Over that past year or so our six-year-old had developed the narrative that reading is just too hard, even though she was picking it up quite easily all things considered. Because it wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t fun. Of course our overwhelming urge as parents is to keep pushing it, knowing it will be fun once you can do it. But that “grit” mentality- the ability to push through something hard knowing it will be worth it in the end- is something that has to be experienced in order to be learned. And that’s hard, because the common culture is to push your kids through something hard, forcing them through hoping they’ll learn the lesson in the end (“See aren’t you glad you stuck it out?”).
Self-directed education takes the opposite approach. Our daughter will learn to read when she wants to learn to read. When she sees enough value in it that it becomes important to her. For her own reasons.
In life, at the end of the day, no one is going to push you. No one is going to force you through college or motivate you to become an outstanding employee and earn that promotion. No one is going to will you into writing that book you’ve always put off or starting that business of your dreams. Internal motivation, much like reading, is a foundational skill that, once developed, opens every other door behind it.
So we stopped suggesting (or nagging) that she learn to read, and yet we continued to read aloud to her on a daily basis. It’s actually a delicate dance- we never stopped enjoying the magic of books, but we never forced her to read to get her enjoyment from them either. The reading level of these books has grown, from C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, to the inter-generational conflict and time-traveling conundrums of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I really thought we’d step beyond the reach of her six-year-old mind, but she comprehended, slowly and surely, asking a lot of questions along the way.
The hardest part is to watch other kids in traditional schooling start to tackle reading lessons, phonics flash cards, and Dick and Jane. You know your child is certainly capable, but for whatever reason, she simply doesn’t want to try to read on her own. You can start to feel like a failure as a parent, because we’ve all been trained to treat our children’s progress like a race, a competition. If our children are falling behind academically, it means there’s a mistake somewhere along the line, a problem to be fixed, at least according to the popular mindset.
It’s hard to stand firm and wait it out. It’s hard to trust in our children that they’ll naturally want to do the right thing. And I could trot out the research and statistics on natural learning ages, but none of that means anything when you’re trying not to feel disappointed in your child for not being a savant at age five.
But then one day everything changed, like we hoped it would. Like we knew it would. She started seeing the signal within the noise of black squiggles on a white page. She was pointing to the words, sounding them out on her own. She picked up the Disney princess primary readers, stumbling her way through sentences. She did it on her own, with no one pushing her, and she got to own it- the pride, the success, all her own. She asked questions and we answered, but otherwise she was showing us how to read, not the other way around.
So I understand that other philosophy, the one that says we should always be pushing our kids, that if it were up to them they wouldn’t do anything but sit and play Minecraft all day. I can certainly relate to that fear. But that’s actually a problem that doesn’t solve itself as you grow up. I still have to convince myself to spend a few hours writing every week instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram. I still have to fight every day to turn on my internal motivation to accomplish my personal and professional goals.
So of course we don’t let our kids watch television all day. I see television and iPads like sugar: inherently addictive regardless of age. We all work to limit the influence. So sure take away the television for most of the day, but also take away the adult supervision, the schedules, the lesson plans, and the micromanagement. Allow your kids to truly entertain themselves- give your kids the ultimate freedom to grow and it’s amazing the lessons they can teach themselves.
The alternative is to teach them that motivation is someone else’s job, that all they need to do is sit around and wait for the grown-ups to tell them what to do.
The ongoing joke starting somewhere around 2018 is that everyone has a podcast. With the move towards ‘shelter-in-place’ rules the past few weeks, that maxim has only proven more true with more friends and relatives grabbing a microphone to unload their point of view. My cynicism has been grappling with how to feel about this, so I think a trip through podcast history might be useful in establishing context.
Back in the olden days of yore- a decade or so ago- basically two types of personalities drove the podcast movement forward. One one side, you have the comedian, announcer, or radio personality who can talk to anyone about anything and make it interesting. Examples of this range from WTF with Marc Maron, Joe Rogan, Pete Holmes, to Ben Shapiro, Rachel Maddow, Alex Jones, etc. These podcasts typically take the shape of a monologue and/or long-form interview filtered through their comedic lens or editorial worldview.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the subject-matter expert who takes the deep dive each week into their area of expertise. You see this in health-related podcasts, technology, politics, etc. Some include interviews, but many include panel discussions centered on current events, the latest technology news, business strategies, episodic analysis of Frasier, or cutting edge scientific research. These might be less far-reaching, but more fervently followed, especially the further niche they move.
A hybrid variation of the ‘radio announcer’ meets ‘subject-matter expert’ here is the well-produced, NPR-adjacent format seen from podcast ‘studios’ like Gimlet, Slate, and Serial-producers NPR. I see these as a separate category of podcast, more like a feature documentary than the daily local news segment. For the sake of this discussion, I’m more interested in the first two podcast genres, mainly because of the low production value and minimal editing required.
When podcasts first began, everyone was a hobbyist, because there wasn’t an industry around it. The only one seeing an upside was Apple, who basically “invented” podcasts to help market iPods. I’m hopeful that the last few years have seen peak podcast in terms of corporate influence, especially as the medium resists the type of detailed analytics-gathering that ruined the online version of news and print media.
And yet, while a podcast interview used to feel random and unique, most weeks in podcast land, the same few guests circulate through the top ten list the same way celebrities cycle through the late night shows when it’s promotional season for their new movie. In any given week, you’ll see the same name pop-up on more than a few podcasts, serving up half a dozen 1- to 3-hour interviews in the span of a few days, typically with a new book or show to promote.
For most of the podcasts, I think the comparison to television is apt. The comedian-based podcasts are the late-night talk shows, the expert and panel-based podcasts are the basic-cable niche channels, from CNN to HGTV. So much of traditional cable television becoming less relevant as time goes on, irrelevance accelerated by the internet and social media, which has blurred the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘influencer’ and ‘influenced’.
While the amount of “content” we are served a daily basis expands, it only makes sense that the expectations (and production values) drop. The more that we lose the distinction between creator and audience, the demand for who is “authentic” (or at least the Instagram version of authentic) rises to fill the gap. And COVID-19 has only accelerated this progress as we see Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert ditch their suits, interview guests over Zoom, and grapple with interruptions from their children and pets. See- celebrities ARE just like us!
Which brings be back full circle to the rise (again) of the hobbyist podcaster, and more than that, the rise of the amateur livestreamer in general. COVID-19 has seen my social media feeds flourish with livestreams from friends offering musical performances, tutorials, and classic vlog-style monologues (“hey guys!”). Most of this comes from people will little to no “influence” in the traditional sense. Just old connections, sharing something cool with their small group of friends. This new push of amateur content is beginning to trickle over from social media into podcasts.
I must admit that I was in the original camp that asks, do we really need to hear even more people rambling through an amateur podcast? Do we really need more “content”? Compared to people who do it for a living or have been doing it for a while, the average joe is probably not THAT funny or expert at anything. Not that our friends and family aren’t smart and humorous, just that we’re not making it our daily job to take smart and funny ideas and format them for an audience. The friends playing guitar into their cell phone aren’t going to be a slick as the rock star live-streaming from his in-home studio.
And yet, aren’t we all watching our friends Instagram stories and getting our news from that weird right-wing aunt who seems to have nothing else to do all day? Isn’t there something inherently more interesting about seeing a friend grow into an artist, than seeing a popular artist on social media pretending they’re our “friend”? In a sense, I should probably be more interested in what my friends have to say than someone like Conan O’Brien, even though Conan is probably going to be funnier than most people I’m related to.
So I’m interested in the shift from the celebrity podcast to the friends-and-family podcast. I might even like it. Like the Andy Warhol cliche, everyone gets their fifteen minutes of podcasting, sponsored today by Blue Apron.
There’s a moment in Scorcese’s Bob Dylan docu-fantasy for Netflix, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, where Bob Dylan is asked about the idea of “finding yourself”. His answer, excerpted below, is probably the most insightful moment of the film, and if the film were an essay, would stand as its thesis statement.
Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.– Bob Dylan
In one sense, the answer is the perfect rebuttal to that terrible phase we all go through sometime around college- the phase of “finding ourselves.” There’s nothing wrong with trying on new hats, like that week where you tried so hard to be a guy who wears a fedora. But “finding yourself” still promotes the harmful idea that the real you is out there somewhere, whole and intact, waiting to be discovered.
Taken to its worst extreme- and I can definitely see this when I look back at my own twenties- we end up sitting around and waiting. We aren’t even looking anymore, we’re holding out for our future self- the grown-up version- to show up and find us- to lead us into a future that we have no ability to build for ourselves.
As you get older, you realize that most of your heroes didn’t sit around and wait to find themselves or be discovered- they journeyed off in search of themselves, maybe found nothing, but along the way created some semblance of a personality and unique point of view, mostly through hard-earned experience.
Bob Dylan, of course, is the king of making- and re-making- himself. His list of varied roles, from troubadour to trouble-maker, are now cultural archetypes. However, as he remade himself, he also remade the world around him, from the world of protest music and 60s rock to the 70s Nashville resurgence, and so on. The best and most effective version of creating yourself, then, bleeds out into the world, because whatever you create of yourself must bear some reflection on how you see the rest of the world- and how you’d like see it changed.
Scorcese’s film, like Dylan’s music, is an attempt at world-building, a term usually reserved for science-fiction and fantasy literature, but becoming more common in our world of “cinematic universes”. Even the subtitle, “A Bob Dylan Story”, has to be an intentional nod to film franchises like Disney/Marvel, and origin story episodes like Solo: A Star Wars Story.
I’m not sure Scorcese would appreciate the comparison to Marvel, but consider the fact that the film is littered with fictional characters representing archetypal narratives (e.g. Sharon Stone as the “teen groupie”, the “promotor”, the “visual artist”, and so on). These characters are clear archetypes or literary personas, crafted like comic book charaters or commedia dell’arte. During the original tour, Dylan works on a similar concept, Reynaldo and Clara.
As world-building moved from niche to mainstream, from the Tolkien nerds like myself to the globe-spanning popularity of video games like Minecraft, television shows like The Walking Dead, and the rest of the Disney-verse, we’ve seen a shift towards the appreciation of self-invention. The internet, social media, and blogging have pushed this idea of world-building, of self-invention to it’s next logical evolution. In a sense, we’re all a Bob Dylan or a Marvel character, documenting our lives with the additional ability of post-production and selective editing.
Of course most of us won’t rewrite the book on rock and roll, or rake in billions at the box office this year. Our worlds are somewhat smaller. But we still have some concrete ability to create and re-create them as we re-create ourselves. So why not do it with intention.
How many people’s kids should I keep track of? Should I know all their names and ages? What if we’re related, does that change things? Nieces and nephews, how important are they? Are second cousins a real thing? Should I know what grade every one is in? Should I watch what my own kids did without me today or should I let them tell me about it?
How many friends’ weekends should I know about? Should I know what everyone did last summer? Should I follow all the updates and stay abreast of the current statuses? Should I reach out personally in case there’s something going on outside of what they’ve shared?
How many health and fitness gurus should I keep tabs on? Should I be taking notes or cataloging recipes? What about the new research they just mentioned, should I fact-check it? Should I make sure they’ve cited their sources, should I check Pubmed for a general consensus or opposing view from the scientific community?
How many celebrities should I follow? Musicians? Writers? Do they have a new project coming out or a Patreon I could be supporting? What about artists, how much time should I spend with each piece they share? Should I like it? What if its something painful and vulnerable, is Like really the best response?
What about comedians or satirists or political commentators? What if they have a great one-liner on todays headlines, should I read it? What if I don’t understand the context, should I find the news story they’re talking about?
How much news should I follow? Foreign affairs? Local? State? Domestic? What’s the government up to, especially those hundred new congressmen and women? Is it OK to just ignore anything about the President? Are there any bills I should be researching, Supreme Court cases I should have an opinion on?
Hows the global climate doing? Is there anything I can do about it? Is there anything I can learn about it? Were there any natural disasters? Should I be donating towards the relief efforts?
Maybe I should research the charities to make sure my donation is going to a good cause? Should I double back and research the news organization to make sure my information came from a good source? Should I triple back and make sure that the tech company’s platform that curated my newsfeed did so with minimal bias?
What about opinions that challenge my beliefs? Should I check in with the conservatives, with the christians, with the conspiracy theorists? Should I engage critically or just listen? Should I open a dialogue or shut my mouth?
What about my own thoughts, should I listen to them? Should I share them? Should I write them down and publish them immediately? Should I wait a day or will I wake up tomorrow in a completely new zeitgeist? Or will I wake up tomorrow and it’ll be exactly the same thing?
We’re outside in a queue, my family and I, about twenty people ahead of us, along an ancient rod-iron fence protecting one of those perfectly manicured Disneyland garden beds. Behind us come the occasional screams from the Matterhorn, a perfunctory sound that’s been added to my memory after the fact, like a laugh track on an I Love Lucy episode. Every few minutes the monorail punctuates the sky overhead: Disneyland’s inherent nostalgia has protected its own public transportation from being overtaken by Uber or Lyft, at least for now. We’re all in line to meet Mary Poppins, or at least a Mary Poppins, one of a few Marys we see throughout the day. By now, we’ve already met a half-dozen princesses, one villain, and a cartoon dog, and it’s only eleven a.m.
On any given day, there are people who are going to Disneyland (around 50,000 of them) and then there are people who go to Disneyland. Living in Southern California, you become keenly aware of the annual passholder type, much the way you become aware of someone who was just vaping a second ago. It’s a look and possibly a smell. For the passholders, it’s a difference in enthusiasm, but also a difference in how you see yourself and the world around you. A trip to Disneyland is either something you vaguely suffer through for your children’s sake, or something you relish, like a hobby or even an identity.
These days it’s normal to see pop culture behemoths taking the place of religion or group identity. Star Wars and Harry Potter get their own theme parks, temples of worship for an annual pilgrimage of their adherents. Comic book movies now require intricate knowledge of a made-up mythology that spans a dozen interconnected films and television shows each year. Real religious rituals have nothing on Tony Stark and Christopher Nolan. It’s all the same hero’s journey, but Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling just seem to offer a much fresher take than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At least the special effects are better.
As someone who grew up loving the literary world-building of Tolkien and Lewis, I’m always waiting to see if that next thing I loved as a child is going be given the Transformers treatment. Though if someone could make an honest Tolkien-inspired theme park, one where we mostly smoke pipeweed and listen to trees tell stories in poetic verse, I would get the annual pass.
Speaking of authenticity, I should take a moment to note the mind-boggling professionalism of these character actors in Disneyland. Even when saddled with a stunned two-year-old, their verbal diarrhea of princess-sounding jabber, replete with references to movie scenes and other characters, is astoundingly effective. They ask a few questions along the way, mostly to pause for air, but when faced with a frozen smile instead of a response, they gladly forge ahead as if to ensure that the child wouldn’t later be worried about having made such a social faux pas as standing with their jaw agape. To see them please child after child, an assembly line of successful acting, is to see a performance as captivating and mentally excruciating as Leo wrestling the bear.
As we’re standing in line for Ms. Poppins, we can’t help but watch each group ahead of us. Most are like us, exhausted parents with their overexcited children, stroller full of packaged snacks in tow. But you catch a few glimpses of the others, the I Go to Disneyland people. I notice one such group, a husband and wife in their fifties or sixties, no children, no excuses for taking up precious space in the already too-long line. We get used to seeing this throughout the day- people without children standing in line to meet a Disney character- and it’s unnerving every single time. The older they are, the more unusual it feels, as if proximity to death is in negative correlation to how much fun you should be allowed to have.
And yet it’s in these moments that we see mere role play move into complete role reversal. Mary Poppins, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty years old, is play acting that infamous adult, her fake British accent dropping references to spoonfuls of sugar or offering to fly a kite in the park. And standing on either side of her is that older couple, smiling like children, posing for a photograph. I just want to shake them and ask them: Who is the photograph for? What will you do with it? Will the husband bring it back to the office to show his coworkers? Will he frame it and put it on his desk? Will the wife post it on Facebook? Will it be part of their Christmas letter they send out every December? What is the picture FOR?
Yet Mary Poppins’ acting is so successful that for just this moment, she’s brought them into her altered reality, she’s made them feel like kids again. She’s brought them back to the childhood moment when they first watched Mary Poppins on the big screen. And I don’t think it’s that embarrassing of a metaphor to say the Mary Poppins must’ve been something like the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets of its time.
It’s hard to write this down without appearing, without actually feeling, like I’m judging these people. There’s a part of me that wants to pull them aside, let them know that this is all meant for children. That since they haven’t any with them, they shouldn’t be holding up the line because those of us with kids have eighteen more princess-meetings to go before the end of the day. It’s easy to see fun and pretend as the realm of children, and children alone.
What’s worse is that by the end of the day I myself was having fun, a different, though similarly sinister form of fun. I was having the fun that a parent has when living vicariously through their child. Like a dance mom standing in the wings of a stage, mouthing the names of the movements to herself, I was watching my daughters faces light up, and breathing in their excitement as my own.
It’s a reminder of how narrow my lens is, because I’m at a point in my life where most of my time is bound up with my children. The quality of my time is often subject to the quality of theirs. But as they grow older and eventually move on, my wife and I will be alone. Without our kids demanding so much of our time and attention, what will we do with ourselves? We’ll suddenly be so free to do anything. I guess then we could go to Disneyland without the stroller and the snacks and the three-month old baby. I guess that does sound kind of nice.
It’s a typical scene, a husband and wife trying to choose a restaurant for dinner. I don’t remember what it was like before the smartphone. I assume my wife and I would’ve gone out with spears and stalked the nearest wooly mammoth. I can’t remember. These days it’s a little more exhausting.
The paradox of choice, introduced in the early 2000s by psychologist Barry Schwartz, is perhaps the original “first world problem”. When it comes to problems that aren’t a problem, it’s the OG. The basic concept is this: when faced with an abundance of freedom and choice, we come up against anxiety, decision paralysis, and the fear of missing out.
It’s a controversial thesis, and not always replicable, but it certainly hints at something that resonates with me. We’re seeing the negative results of an informational over-abundance play out in our online lives. When you combine unlimited choice with complete access to pretty much any piece of information or any consumer product, making a decision can seem outright overwhelming. Just ask the thirty-seven items sitting in my Amazon shopping cart.
When picking out a restaurant, it’s already enough that we have a dozen types of food to pick from. Tonight I’m thinking sushi or Mexican or maybe pizza. Or maybe that place with the bowls. After narrowing it down by genre, you’re left with at least a dozen local restaurants. But that’s not the real overdose of information, because next comes the hundreds of neighbors who have reviewed each of those dozen local restaurants on Yelp or Google or the side of a bathroom stall in black marker. What was originally a choice between restaurants has become a choice between dissenting opinions, a choice between the types of people you see yourself as.
You move into a game where you are no longer evaluating restaurants, you are evaluating reviews of restaurants. You’re mentally reviewing the quality of the reviewer as a human and as a judge of quality. This person complained about the viscosity of the salsa, but then again they also sound like a complete asshole, so I’m not sure I should trust them. All the while dealing with the fact that the reviewer may not be real in the first place.
Freedom of choice combined with internet review culture has stunted our ability to go with the flow. There’s two ways to react to this flood of information. My wife goes for maximum information consumption. She’ll read every review, visit every restaurant’s website, comb through the menu, check their Instagram, and even call up the owner’s mother to assess childhood trauma that might affect the quality of the sashimi.
I am certain that she could come across a review written by her future self, detailing exactly how the meal would go if she were to eat there that very night, with pictures and a video testimonial, and she’d still want to check just a few more reviews to be sure.
I take the opposite approach. I shut the whole system down. I aim for the nearest, easiest restaurant. If there’s a restaurant a half-mile further with a half-star more, I don’t care. If it’s the Jimboy’s taco shop inside of a Shell gas station (not making this up), I’ll consider it. I let geography take the blame.
Of course, my wife ends up picking the better meal; it just takes an hour. And she spends the meal wondering out loud whether we should’ve gone with Option A instead of Option B. She gets a great meal with a small side of FOMO.
I pick a mediocre restaurant, or a restaurant that I’ve been to a hundred times before. I’m willfully unaware that there was a better meal out there, if only I’d put in a little extra effort. I get a mediocre meal with a very intentional attempt at ‘ignorance is bliss’. And a potential side of diarrhea.
So mostly we just eat at home. It’s easier and I already know exactly how my childhood trauma will play out on the steak.
At dinner the other night my daughter was complaining about some roasted radishes. My wife made the case that roasted radishes are a good substitute for roasted potatoes. I wondered how far we’d gone that we needed a good substitute for potatoes. I thought potatoes were doing their job just fine. My daughter made that case that they were yucky, and for additional emphasis she contorted her face into a cartoon grimace and held it there until she was sure we’d seen it.
Did you know, I asked my daughter, that not all food has to taste amazing? Sometimes we just throw in some spinach or mushrooms or something because it’s good for us, not because the taste is that good. Some ingredients just taste OK. And that’s OK because they’re really good for us.
She paused and muttered a “huh” to herself in a way that either meant complete understanding or complete ignorance.
“Is there anything else that you need to tell me?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Is there any other things that you want to tell me about?”
Let the information consumption begin.
The train is the common metaphor for the concept of thought- a speeding, shimmering train of thought that barrels through your mind day and night. And of course, because it’s my voice that sings this inner dialogue, I must be driving the train.
Consistent meditation begins to alter your perception of how thought exists, what thought is really made of, what thoughts are like. You first notice that you’re not in control of the train. You didn’t start the train, and more importantly, you often can’t stop the train. If you do, you suddenly realize that even though you just stopped it a moment ago, the train has already left the station again and you’re three more miles down the road to some unknown destination.
You didn’t pick the train out; you didn’t design it or decide on its destination. You don’t decide when the train should move from one station to another. You didn’t even get to choose what cargo would be on board. The train and its contents have been given to you, sparked by your unconscious, your past experience, or some external event that demands your attention. You never ask the train to take you to “Argument with Your Brother-in-Law” Station, “Coworker Is an Asshole” Junction, or even “My Imaginary Conversation with Paul McCartney” Platform. You are not the conductor. Maybe there are moments where you’re allowed to steer, but it’s more like a child pretending to drive a car by sitting on a parent’s lap. At any moment the wheel can be jerked from your hands.
Keep exploring and you become more concerned with the various conductors driving the train, careening your mind through the hills and valleys of ego and anxiety. Each conductor of the train, like emotions, feels unique in its methods and aspirations. The wellspring of thought feels heterogenous, like a collective, like a multitude of voices in the back of your head waiting for their chance at the wheel.
Imagine yourself standing outside of a dark cave. Inside you can sense the presence of animals, friendly dogs or hungry wolves, something protean and canine. They’re all prowling around in the darkness, making low grumbling noises. One of them lunges- either playfully or with a wolf-like intensity- into the light at the mouth of the cave. This is a thought breaking through to your conscious mind, grabbing you by the ankles and dragging you on board.
The mind becomes this low hum of voices, and meditation is the act of observing them from outside the cave. You begin to learn the names of the animals, this one is Insecurity, this one is Pride, and over here Social Anxiety and Loneliness are circling each other. And poor Altruism is cowering in the corner; he hasn’t been fed in months. Once in a while something lunges with enough power to grab you and take you for a moment or more.
Now imagine that you’re sitting next to your smartphone and you’ve left your notifications on. You’re observing your thoughts, watching the wolf-dogs as they quietly pace the floor, and a tiny audible ‘bing’ hits your ears. What’s the pavlovian response from your mind-wolves? An alert is like chucking a massive ribeye steak into the center of the cave.
With the phone notification, all external events become equalized. The same little chime sounds for the social validation of new likes on your post, an urgent text from a spouse, a sale on knockoff RayBans, the false threat of nuclear war by a cartoon president. Hearing a notification is a mainline of external anxieties directly into your source of thought.
Research is beginning to come out on the topic of notifications, mainly from the perspective of distraction and productivity, but there’s something deeper than mere interruption from our mundane office work. A notification is a distraction from being present, interference from being in whatever moment you were in.
If you’re sitting across from a friend at a coffeeshop, a notification still triggers the wolf-dogs. The potential range of that new information is so wide, there’s just no way that your mind is going to keep full attention on your friend’s story about her bad day at work. Our dopamine neurotransmitters are no longer interested in her predicament, but rather in this new unknown stimuli, in the variable reward of a notification that could be bringing us news of social validation much more valuable than what’s in front of us. Even if we overcome the urge to check our phone, we’ve already sent most of our thought patterns into frenzy.
You can experience this for yourself. Let one notification enter your ears today and don’t immediately check it. Sit quietly and watch your mind erupt.