Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

What I’ve Been Reading

Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty? Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.”

The Tale of Two Schools. Fieldston and University Heights are in the same New York City borough but worlds apart. How much understanding between their students can a well-told story bring? A lot it turns out.

The Hunt for El Chapo. The story of how the world’s most notorious drug lord was captured. Sure to be a movie.

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core. When a comedian points out the way in which the current priorities don’t add up, it earns even the attention of those who haven’t thought much about school since they graduated. But the brutal math of the New York City school system is no laughing matter.”

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Entering students at my uni will read this novel and discuss it during orientation in early September. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that steadily gets more and more interesting up to the very end. After 50-75 pages, I may have set it aside if it hadn’t been “assigned”. The story of a family of five. The dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University. Recommended. It will resonant strongly with those most sympathetic to the animal rights movement.

Bill Simmon’s Big Score. How a failed newspaper writer built a new kind of media empire at ESPN. I’ve completely tired of Simmon’s act, but still found this an interesting “new journalism” case study. A few factoids. The four major sports are worth a combined $91.2b. ESPN’s worth $50.8b making it the most valuable media brand in the world. Bill Simmons has 2.6 million twitter followers, I’m up to 46. 

On deck—American Crucifixion by Alex Beam. The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

In the hole—Family Life by Akil Sharma.

 

How to Live—Patrick, Jess, Alyssa

• Patrick and Jess married in August, 2012. Eight months later they were watching people finish the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded next to them. Both lost left legs. Patrick, “We’ll figure this out.” Jess, “As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were.” A touching story about love and resilience nicely told by Eric Moscowitz. For anyone wanting inspiration on how to live. And listen to Patrick speaking last week. “Sewing the threads of community.”

• Last week, Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the last eight years, gave her first interview. Hagiographic, but lots of excellent insights, especially on the importance of selflessness, teamwork, and kindness. A must watch for my daughters.

 

 

Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

My Daughters are Funny

J is in her first year of college, A in her last. Most college students exchange texts with their parents daily, but not us. We stay in touch via email and every week or two throw in a video phone call to remember what they look like.

Here’s my daughters’ email response timeframe:

• Months. Any message having to do with Ukraine, textbook receipts, tuition details, or federal taxes.

• Weeks. Any message having to do with family birthday reminders, travel planning, or the future more generally.

• Days. Any message having to do with popular culture generally.

• Hours. Any message that includes a picture of their dog or a video clip of laughing babies.

• Minutes. Any message having to do with television comedy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or the movie Bridesmaids.

Case in point, this morning I sent A this message:

I admit, yesterday’s episode of New Girls (viewed while spinning this morning) was pretty good. And amazingly, one reference to crack, but none to alcohol. Brooklyn 99 was good too. Spoiler alert—Cwaazy Cupcakes.

She must have been swimming or stuck in a small class with a kick ass professor, because it took her one hour and twelve minutes to send this reply:

Fact check: She (Zoey Deschanel) was actually crying while drinking from the minibar bottles because they’re so tiny. And YAY glad you’re watching B99 (that’s what insiders call it).

Electronic quirks and all, I love them.

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The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

We Have Lost the War on Drugs

So says Vermont’s Governor, Peter Shumlin. And it’s impossible to argue with his conclusion. Last week Shumlin dedicated all 34 minutes of his annual State of the State speech to what he described as Vermont’s “full blown heroin crisis”. Here’s a nine minute long PBS NewsHour segment on Shumlin’s speech. “In every corner of our state,” Shumlin said, “heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us.” Most of what follows are excerpts from the New York Times coverage of Shumlin’s speech.

Sumlin wants to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as “a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration.” “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Governor Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”

Last year, he said, nearly twice as many Vermonters died from heroin overdoses as the year before. While it may be acute in Vermont, it is not isolated. In the past few years, officials have reported a surge in the use of heroin in New England, with a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths, as well as robberies and other crimes common among addicts. Those same statistics are being replicated across the country. Lawmakers in virtually every state are introducing legislation in response to what is rapidly being perceived as a public health crisis.

“The Centers for Disease Control and most national experts agree there’s an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in America,” Dr. Harry L. Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner, said in an interview. He said the rate of overdose deaths across the country had tripled since 1990.

“Nationwide, more people die of drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes,” he said. And nearly 80 percent of inmates in the state are jailed on drug-related charges. The governor made a plea for more money for treatment programs, noting that incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of treatment at a state-financed center costs $123.

Mr. Shumlin also wants to encourage discussions on ways to prevent addiction in the first place. He is providing a grant for a team that made a documentary film on heroin addiction titled, “The Hungry Heart”, to visit every high school in the state.

I learned of Shumlin’s bold speech shortly after reading an essay titled, “A Mission Gone Wrong” by Mattathias Schwartz in the January 6, 2014 New Yorker. I highly recommended Schwartz’s piece. He thoughtfully weaves several decades of US drug policy throughout the story of a recent joint US-Honduran drug mission gone horribly wrong. Long story short, it is impossible to limit the global supply of drugs. The only way to minimize their impact is to somehow reduce demand.

Upon finishing Schwartz’s engaging and depressing history lesson, I concluded that our national drug policy isn’t just the least effective of all our government’s domestic and foreign policies, but it has been the least effective for decades. I like to give our government the benefit of the doubt, meaning I assume most government workers are rational; we learn from our mistakes; and consequently, our policies gradually improve over time. None of those assumptions hold when it comes to the War on Drugs. Our policies are irrational and unchanging. As a result, the negative outcomes are totally predictable.

 

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80′s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”