Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Are Women Smarter Then Men?

The seven minute video story at the bottom, about a group of friends in Chile, is a true joy. Do yourself a favor and start your week with it. How wonderful that these women have been friends for six decades. And I love their quirky personalities and exquisite taste in baked goods. Best of all, the beautiful “punchline” at the very end.

The Good Wife has had a similar group of close friends for close to two decades. To the Chileans, the Olympia Coffee Klatchers are mere pups.

For decades, in Ybor City, FL, Mother Dear has spent almost every Saturday morning enjoying Cuban coffee and cheese bread with the same girlfriends.

Big Sissy has been walking her Northwest Indiana ‘hood with the same few girlfriends for decades.

Increasingly, positive psychologists are telling us what we already instinctively know. Life is most meaningful when lived in community.

In fairness, some men make time for one another. My closest friend at work has helped lead a raucous book club in Tacoma, WA for the last 20-30 years. Of course, when Oprah learned about “Gower”, they were invited onto her show. And Older SoCal Bro gathers for coffee with a few male friends most Saturdays. And I run with the same group of male misfits a few times a week. We’ve had women members, but we’re so uncouth, they don’t last long.

Despite some evidence of male bonding, I can’t help but conclude women are more intentional, and therefore smarter, about investing in friendships. Why is that?

Every Team is Better and Worse Off Because You’re On It

Atul Gawande, one of my favorite authors, is about to gain a wider audience through this new book that will do very well.

His New Yorker essay, Cowboys and Pit Crews, got me thinking about how we live our lives on a never ending series of teams whether grade school classrooms, athletic teams, art and music based teams, community groups, home owners associations, church councils, families, school faculties, work teams, book clubs, special interest groups, political campaigns, boards of directors, etc.

You would never guess that if your only frame of reference was elementary, secondary, and higher education classrooms in the United States. Students almost always work on things individually and faculty almost always assess students individually. Sure, sometimes students work in small groups, but they’re not taught to be thoughtful observers of small group dynamics. It’s rare that they’re ever asked why some small groups work well and others don’t. Too often, teachers wrongly assume students already know how to be good teammates. As a result, students tend to be clueless about group dynamics.

And since teamwork doesn’t factor into student evaluations, they’re even less self aware of their team-based strengths and weaknesses. They’re hardly ever asked the most basic group process related questions such as, “What do you do well as a team member? What’s most challenging for you when working closely with others? Where could you improve?”

Every person, you included, has specific skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that benefit and hamper all of the teams they are on at any one time. Which of your skills, knowledge, and personal attributes do your team’s often use to positive advantage? And how does your presence on teams sometimes limit their effectiveness? What could you do better as a teammate?

Aren’t sure how to answer those questions? Welcome to the “Almost Everybody” Club. It’s not your fault. Individualism is so pervasive in American life, schools think about students as cowboys  and cowgirls despite the fact they’ll live their lives on pit crew after pit crew.

 

Life After Work

As is often the case, I’m confused. One day last week Ron Lieber, a Times blogger, summarized research from The Journal of Consumer Research that finds older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences—like a library visit or an afternoon spent gardening—as they do from extraordinary ones. Then, on the same day, with stories of extended trips to exotic locations, the Times David Wallis’s published a contradictory article titled, “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road”.

Wallis writes that between 1993 and 2012, the percentage of retirees traveling abroad rose to 13 percent from 9.7 percent and about 360,000 Americans received Social Security benefits at foreign addresses in 2013, about 48 percent more than 10 years earlier. Wallis illustrates this trend through examples of people like Lynne Martin, 73, a retired publicist and the author of “Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World”:

Three years ago, Martin and her husband sold their three-bedroom house in Paso Robles, Calif., gave away most of their possessions, found a home for their Jack Russell terrier, Sparky, and now live in short-term vacation rentals they usually find through HomeAway.com. The Martins have not tapped their savings during their travels, alternating visits to expensive cities like London with more reasonable destinations like Lisbon. “We simply traded the money we were spending for overhead on a house and garden in California for a life in much smaller but comfortable HomeAway rentals in more interesting places,” Ms. Martin said by email from Paris.

Another couple in the late 60s sold their house, bought a Recreational Vehicle, and started volunteering full time for two nonprofits. So far, they’ve repaired damaged homes in 28 different states.

One of the older vagabonds, or Wallis’s term is better, itinerant baby boomers (IBB), said, “I used to dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to get away. But then. . . life happened.” That’s probably the key variable, whether older people have pent-up wanderlust.

Wallis explains that many IBB’s are traveling on the cheap, volunteering for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finding free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org which puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000. Given the manner in which most retirees are traveling, maybe the two pieces aren’t completely antithetical after all.

The common thread is that retirees are choosing experiences over material possessions. Listen carefully everyone under 50 and you’ll hear the collective, “Ah shit, why did we accumulate all this crap?!” Personal finance researchers tell us one-third of seniors have nothing saved for retirement. It’s a good thing ordinary experiences prove so fulfilling in later life.

Both pieces were short so an important subtopic was left out, just how similarly retired partners think about how to spend the last chapters of their shared lives. I know many couples think differently about their idealized post-work lives. What to do when one person wants to see the world, and the other, the backyard?

I’m the opposite of the IBB who dreamed about all the places to go. I’ve been very, very fortunate to travel and live all over the U.S. and on three different continents. Don’t tell the Good Wife, but I’m content to walk, swim, run, cycle, and drive throughout our hood, our state, and the Western United States and Canada. She wants to travel to Spanish speaking countries so I should probably renew my passport. I will take one or two or three long distance trips for the team. But I’d be just as content taking the labradude for a walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

When Our College Graduate Moved Home

Our culture emphasizes independence first and foremost. Young people fortunate enough to go away to college are supposed to be independent upon graduating. But of course it’s a process, especially given mounting student loan debt. Moving home is seen as a negative, but it doesn’t have to be.

On Monday mornings run, the posse and I were passed by a car driven by a recent grad who lives with his parents in our ‘hood. Like many people who live in this hamlet, I learned he works for the state government, meaning he probably earns $50-60k/year. His parents are from Vietnam. If both parties can suck it up for three years, he should have at least $100k saved.

From afar, Asian-Americans like our neighbors seem less anxious about their children’s independence. They also seem more comfortable caring for their parents in their own homes. Dare I say they’re better at blurring the generational lines.

We’ve enjoyed having our college graduate live with us this summer. Recently, her mother said to me, “It’s been nice getting to know her again.” I agree. She’s working a few part-time jobs, saving money for an eventual move to Chicago. On Monday we went on a hike on Mount Rainier. Today we had a D&D Club lake swim (Dad and Daughters).

She cooks on Tuesday nights and feeds and walks the Labradude. She works for a catering company on the weekends so every Sunday morning I excitedly open the refrigerator to see some combo of leftover chicken, green beans, salmon, salmon spread, and wedding cake. I make her a green tea latte on Fridays.

We had a misunderstanding a week or two ago. Tears were shed. We’re conflict avoiders so we tipped toed around each other for two days before finally talking it out. She gets credit for taking the initiative.

She’s wonderful, same as her younger sissy whose company we’re also enjoying right now. Second Born is between her summer camp counseling job and her second year of college. Tonight we watched an episode of American Greed together. We also dig “Love It or List It”. The other day I was working on the humble blog while she was watching HGTV and video clips on her phone at the same time. I told her I couldn’t concentrate. No tears were shed. I’m going to miss her beginning next week.

When it comes to our young adult children’s independence, maybe we should chill. It will happen. Not in the exact way we’d draw it up, and not on our timeframe, but it will happen. Until then, the Good Wife and I are going to appreciate their presence in our lives.

Tipsoo Lake/Natches Peak

College grad to the left. Handsome Devil middle. Taylor Swift fan to the right.

 

 

 

On Robin Williams and the End of Life

In reading people’s reflections on Robin Williams, I’m amazed at how many people met him in “real life”. Nearly everyone has a story. Case in point. In the summer of 1997, our family was walking across the UNC Chapel Hill campus when I saw a crowd gathering. It was Williams on a break from filming Patch Adams. It didn’t matter that there were only twenty of us, he was “on”. My infant daughters were unimpressed until I told them he was Aladdin. In a few years, Mrs. Doubtfire would loop in our house for months on end.

I propose we make t-shirts for the minority of people ripping Williams for being selfish. The shirts could say, “I’m clueless about mental illness in general and severe depression in particular.” Or “I struggle to listen and learn.” Or “I lack understanding and empathy.” That way we could side step them altogether. When you don’t understand something like suicide, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, it’s admirable. We’d all be better off if we demonstrated more curiosity and humility.

I’m far from a mental health expert, but I’m indebted to some of my first year college writing students for teaching me about depression. Other people, like Molly Pohlig, continue to teach me about it. I’ve learned, as sad as it is, some people get so depressed they think they’re doing their family and friends a favor by ending their life.

Journalists writing about Williams often reference recent suicide statistics which I find staggering. Especially for my peers, white men, 50-54, who have the highest rate of suicide. We have to get better at identifying and helping the most susceptible among us.

A positive thought. In part, Williams will live on through his incessant television and film work. That’s a cool aspect of being a successful artist. An easily accessible legacy. Today, in the U.S., I’m struck by how we ignore the elderly and quickly forget the deceased.

In thinking about Williams’s legacy, I’ve thought some about my own. Initially I thought, if anyone wanted to remember me, all they’d have is lots of academic publications including a lengthy doctoral dissertation. And no one loves me enough to revisit those! In all likelihood, not even the occasional newspaper or magazine essay, or this blog’s archive, will live on.

If I’m lucky, I suppose, some aspects of my kind and caring Mrs. Doubtfire loving daughters will remind people of me on occasion. Somewhere in Florida or Indiana my sister is saying to herself, “It’s not all about you.” Since she’s right, more than likely then, like most people, I’ll be forgotten in relatively short order.

Recommended.