Role Play

February 18, 2019

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.

Finding the Best vs Making the Best of It

February 5, 2019

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.

Insidious Nature of Push Notifications

January 31, 2019

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.

The Anxiety of an Open Day

January 24, 2019

There is an immense comfort in being buried under a pile of work, completely smothered by a warm blanket of tasks to accomplish. Some latent desire for authoritarianism makes me want to point to my calendar and see it all spelled out- here’s sixteen hours of chores that people need from me. Things people need from me. I can derive a lot of value from that. More importantly, I can rest easy taking no responsibility for the rest of my day, since I’ve been given all this stuff to do.

An empty day, like a holiday or weekend, having no one telling me what to do, introduces the paradox of choice. Sure I have an immediate family with strong opinions of what I should do, but more often we all approach a Saturday morning with wide, blinking eyes peering back and forth at each other. Imagine prisoners cowering in the dark when suddenly the doors burst open and a blinding beam of light shines in before them. Is this freedom? Dare we step into it? What will we find on the other side?

And just like that we have been given complete responsibility for ourselves, at least for a few hours until we have to run by Costco or get to that seven-year-old’s birthday party. As the demands on our time disappear, we are left with the bittersweet balance of freedom and responsibility.

Naturally the next thought should be about death, how soon it is, how intangible and yet unavoidable. Any momentary feeling of freedom or choice should always be viewed in the context of our inevitable destruction. It’s a reminder that you’re free to choose, but not that free. There’s still plenty that happens outside of our control. And beyond that, death reminds us that even our freedom itself is always limited. One day it disappears. Your freedom is even more valuable, more intense, because it doesn’t last.

I imagine the pearly gates and St. Peter looking down on me from behind a podium of textured cloud. In this scenario St. Peter is primarily concerned with what I did with my free time, with the freedom granted me. And that’s the anxiety that I’m thinking about here, that even in a completely open day, I can’t shake the feeling that I need to accomplish something.

This idea reveals the value of a religious tradition like the Sabbath. The only way to conquer the anxiety of not being told what to do, is to have some ultimate authority, some deity on high, explicitly telling us to do nothing.

Empty Moments

January 16, 2019

Waiting for the eggs to finish cooking – open the news and check in on the entire world.

Going out to walk the dog – grab the headphones and listen to a podcast.

While the barista makes your coffee – check your email and delete a few unwanted promotional offers.

Your daughter steps out of the room to grab a book – find the right animated GIF to respond to your friend.

Putting the car in park and turning off the engine – look through recent photos I took so I can begin planning my next post.

Your wife is looking up something on the calendar – ingest some Twitter.

Waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green – clear your Facebook notifications.

Taking a shit – scroll through Instagram until you’re ‘All Caught Up’.

When I was a smoker, I was always on the lookout for a break in the flow- that chunk of free time for a cigarette. Finished my meal a few minutes early? Step outside. Just arrived at the grocery store? One in the parking lot before I go in. Commercial break? I’ll be right back.

This was not usually a conscious effort. I was not actively thinking about when my next cigarette would be, but when a good ‘let’s grab a smoke’ moment would strike, my body would react instinctively. As if responding to a signal implanted in my mind under hypnosis, my hand would walk itself down to that rectangular bulge in my pocket, a fresh pack of American Spirits (or Marlboro Lights or Newports or whatever it was that year). I’d find myself carried out the door to the nearest open patio.

There was no inner dialogue with myself (Fancy a cigarette, Brian? I think I do, Brian. Then let’s go stand by a dumpster alone under that six inches of ledge protecting us from the rain, Brian. ). I never really asked myself because I never needed to ask myself. Asking me if I wanted a cigarette was like asking Rivers Cuomo if he wanted to date an Asian girl. It all happened automatically, a habit ingrained over years of mindless self-indulgence.

I may be overly sensitive to the gravitational pull of my iPhone, but I do feel the same impulses rising up. Unlike cigarettes, a smartphone isn’t inherently bad for you, which makes it more or less insidious, depending on how you look at it. In some ways it’s easier to quit cigarettes because you can look at quitting as a black and white choice. You can remove them entirely from your life, because you’re not also using them for anything productive or meaningful. When it comes to smartphones, however, we still would like to engage with them, which means we have to actually deal with the underlying problems, namely our fractured attention, our yearning for distraction, and our fear of silence.

Charlotte’s Web

January 9, 2019

Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall- the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

In the course of one year, new spring to dying winter, Charlotte’s Web explores the feelings that come with facing our own mortality. I’ve been reading it aloud to my daughter for the last week or so, and am struck by its simplicity- both the clarity of E.B. White’s writing and the idyllic farm life he portrays.

It’s hard not to get lulled into the nostalgic dream of pulling up the stakes and starting over on some wild frontier. Fern, an eight-year old girl, is given free rein to roam the countryside, as long as she returns home for meals and sleep. There’s not even a hint in these pages that something bad or dangerous might happen to her. Instead, the parents’ biggest concern is that their daughter sits on a milk stool in the corner of the barn and stares at the animals all day. The town psychiatrist explains that in her age group, most of the boys have far less interesting things to say than farm animals, which sounds about right.

But of course we suburbanites can have a golden-age nostalgia for farm life, seen through the lens of an Americana past, having only experienced it through books or their respective film adaptations. As Charlotte says, “People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” In a world of Snapchat and selfies, it feels easier to hope that your daughter would rather sit in a barn all day, insulated from the Henry Fussys of the world.

Meanwhile Wilbur spends most of the time fretting about his impending slaughter, trusting in his friend Charlotte to save him. As we were reading it I searched my memories for how the story ends. Wilbur can’t die, and yet I’m certain it must end with tragedy, as it clearly foreshadows. And then I remember the unhappy twist at the end.

Remembering that, I found myself eager to finish it. Not to see the look of devastation on my daughter’s face when (spoiler) Charlotte dies, but to watch how she processes it. To see what she makes of the transition from the sad death of Charlotte to the new birth of her children. As someone who thinks about death a little too often, I wanted to know how she’d handle the idea that Charlotte wouldn’t be around forever. Well, of course my daughter was determined to deny it flat out, arguing to me that of course Charlotte will come back by the end of the book, flipping ahead and pointing to the illustrations of Wilbur talking to spiders as proof. Well I would never turn down a chance to talk about mortality to my five-year old, so away we went.

And yet imagine my surprise when it’s Fern’s journey that ends up hitting me so profoundly. Fern has such a good time on the ferris wheel with ol’ Henry Fussy that she turns into a positive brat, whining to her parents for more money to spend with Henry and intentionally missing Wilbur’s big moment. If Charlotte’s death is a useful lesson for children, then Fern’s sudden transition from childhood into adolescence was written for the parent reading along. One one level, the message is the same: seasons change, nothing is forever, so treasure your relationships with others.

We’ve read a few bittersweet books recently. After reading The Giving Tree the other day my daughter said she loved it because it was a “happy and sad one”. That describes everything, it seems.

Camera Carousel

January 7, 2019

I stood next to my daughters as they rode in circles on a carousel. It was the ultimate forced move into helicopter parenting- I’m required to stand there in case my two year old gets thrown from a plaster panda bear, even though she’s four feet off the ground, affixed with a massive leather strap, and all on a contraption moving at the brisk pace of three miles per hour.

As we turned in circles and I searched the horizon for balance, I thought about taking a picture of them. We’d been on carousels before and the natural inclination these days is to snap a few shots to archive as digital proof- See! Your childhood was fun! We gave you magic for only three dollars a ticket! Show that to your therapist when she starts to blame us!

But then I remembered, I already have pictures of my daughters on a carousel, I’m sure of it. One of the girls at least. So do I really need another picture of a kid on a carousel? I mean, it’s not like they’re climbing Mt. Everest here. It’s a goddamn merry-go-round. Maybe if they were actually doing something impressive, like a magic show or a spot-on Christopher Walken impression, then I’d get out the camera. But they’re just sitting there, mildly enjoying themselves.

What would I do with a picture of my kids on a carousel? I could send it to my wife, but she knows what they look like on a carousel. I’m sure she’s taken a few of these pictures herself. She’d get the text message, she might smile, then she’d scroll on by, not even saving it to her phone.

What about sharing it? I haven’t posted to instagram in months, so I’m not going to break that fast with this. Even if I could catch a truly authentic moment of happiness- hopefully with a little lens flare or golden hour glow, find just the right filter, a witty caption and ironic hashtag, etc- what would be my time investment here? One simple picture would turn into a series of jobs that may take my entire afternoon: photographer, photo editor, art director, copy editor, social media strategist. How long is this carousel ride anyway? Could I even look at a phone for more than a minute while spinning in circles? Just the thought of it makes me dizzy and overwhelmed.

So I didn’t take a picture. I stood a few feet away, at the request of my 5-yr-old, who wanted the world to know how independent she was. I watched as they went up and down, as we all traveled in circles between a pretzel cart and an H&M. And I wondered if I’d finally reached peak photography, peak social media, peak sharing. If we’d all start to feel dizzy from spinning in circles, bobbing up and down, staring at our phones.

How to Start a New Project

January 4, 2019

Starting new projects is fun. A new beginning is adventurous, a journey into the unknown. I consider it a day wasted if I haven’t spent at least a few minutes imagining the start of some new project, new idea, maybe even a new life.

Unless of course we’re talking about something public. Something shared. Something new that’s going immediately out into the world. Then creating something new sounds intimidating. And journeying into the unknown sounds a lot less adventurous.

There’s plenty of good advice for starting at square one, for launching your next big world-changing idea. But most of that advice is terrible. Except for the advice to ‘just start’. That one seems pretty spot-on.

Solving Math Problems with Math Problems

August 24, 2018

To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. To a math professor who sees the need for more female math students, everything is a math problem.

The context of her article- there are not enough females in STEM- and the core of her argument- that this comes from an institutional lack of confidence in female abilities in STEM- are going to be growing increasingly debatable in the future, but they aren’t necessarily bad causes to get behind. Advocating for more equal access to education is an important cause.

The fundamental issue is her complete misunderstanding of what makes a student love a subject, what makes a human intrinsically motivated to learn.

All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — “fun.” Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. 

Something tells me that the author either doesn’t play a musical instrument, or at least doesn’t enjoy it. As a kid I played the trumpet in school band. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t practice scales and I never sounded that great. I haven’t touched a trumpet since. 

That pattern could be repeated for any subject in school, from high school Spanish to whatever mitosis is. We did the drills because we were told to, because we needed to get through, then we we dropped it.

On the other hand, I picked up the guitar after high school, without the help of a credentialed teacher (oh my!). I sucked at it for a long time. And before you argue that the guitar is inherently “cooler” than the trumpet, just google Chet Baker- the honest-to-goodness coolest musician ever. Regardless, at a certain point, you realize that if you want your fingers to move like Clapton, you’ll need to work on your scales. And you do it.

The same goes for all skills that actually matter in life. We learn them when we need to learn them. It doesn’t really work that well the other way around, or else we’d all be bilingual literary geniuses with perfectly balanced bank accounts.

The root of her argument- that students need more self-belief when things get hard- is definitely a problem in our current education system. Something tells me that mandatory math drills aren’t quite the open door to confidence she makes them out to be. Drills are a great tool, but only after you have buy-in from the student. 

We could force every kid to practice scales and chords on the guitar every day in school. How many of them are going to really going to play with the passion and prowess like Jimi Hendrix at the end of it? How many will hate it more and forget it sooner?

Link to Article: Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.