On Life and Death

Okay, don’t really want to go too deep here, but I have been thinking about such matters as I was back home in Springfield, VA today (have I mentioned my deep and abiding hatred for the traffic in Northern Virginia) for the funeral of my godfather.  He was an awesome, awesome, man.  Yes, it is super-cool that he was a Air Force Colonel and fighter pilot, but his awesomeness was in his kindness and generosity of spirit.  He (and his wonderful wife) welcomed not just me, but Kim and all our kids into his family.  And honestly, whenever I have needed to remind myself that conservative Republicans and conservative Christians (of the Catholic sort, of course, in this case) are not the enemy, but good people with a sincere difference of opinion, I would think of him (though, part of the success of our relationship was pretty much never discussing politics, but in the most oblique fashion).

So, yes, of course, it is sad that he died.  And I feel bad for his wife, daughters and grandkids who will miss out on his loving presence in their lives.  But living 84 years while staying sharp as a tack to the end and not having a long, lingering illness at the end?  That sounds pretty good to me.  A life well lived (and I learned today that he had survived presumably terminal kidney cancer twice, fifteen years apart).

Could not help, but think about the contrast with the last funeral I attended– my friend Craig Brians.  The funeral for a man in his early 50’s, who dies suddenly leaving  young children behind.  That was the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced.  Today was the celebration of a long life, well-lived.  Alas, none of gets the choice in such matters, but that is certainly what we can hope for for ourselves and our loved ones.

Don’t just live in the moment– save it

I read a recent NYT essay castigating those like me from taking time to record life instead of just “live in the moment.”  I almost wrote a blog post, but I didn’t.  I’m glad I waited because John Dickerson has a terrific response that captures my own thoughts perfectly (great stuff, so I’ve excerpted a lot):

 Last weekend in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle wrote about putting our lives “on pause” in order to tweet, text, or take a selfie: “When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.” A few months ago, also in the Times, Nick Bilton wrote that we’re all so busy capturing moments, we’re not living in them.

This is a false choice. You can live in the moment and capture it…

These people are a chore, but people have been abusing the mouth by talking too much for ages. If you are tweeting and not paying attention to the world around you, then you’re just a bore. It’s not technology’s fault or a change in norms. If you go out to dinner with people who are constantly texting, it’s like going to dinner with people who won’t shut up about their golf game or their wireless speakers. It’s also true, though, that for some people, talking too much or taking a thousand photographs is the way they experience the world…

When you pause to write about something—even if it’s for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you’ve got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the largerworld [emphasis mine]…

 Photographs, and particularly selfies, get a lot of criticism for distracting us, but they are even more powerful passageways to meaning than the written word.

Surprise fireworks at wedding across the street.
Surprise fireworks at a wedding across the street.

Courtesy jfdickerson/Instagram

Here’s a picture of surprise fireworks that broke out across the street this summer. Taking the picture didn’t diminish the surprise; I’d already experienced that. But what I did capture was the kids rushing from their beds and all of us hovering around the window. I suppose there were a few moments lost to possible consideration of the larger role fireworks play in man’s winding path toward meaning, but the fireworks went on for a really long time, so I think I figured that out too…

In the past, you took a photo, you hoped it developed, you relived the moment, and then entombed most of the pictures in a shoebox or a photo album. Now we carry those moments with us. The first time I played guitar with my daughter, I might not have been 100 percent in the moment when I made a video of it, but I don’t think I missed a chord, and when I’m stuck on a plane I’m very happy to hear her play. I am happy to swap the seconds I expended getting the video in place for the moments of escape the video provides from the middle-seat armrest competition…

One of the great things about children is that they have no other concern than to be simply interested in things. It is considered by some the height of mindfulness to approach the world afresh like a child. So perhaps we’ve got this all wrong. If we practice hard enough, we can become thoroughly interested in even the simplest things of daily life, the way a child would. The smallest things would become so meaningful, they might even be worthy a few words or a photograph, whatever method you use to capture them.

You all know that I love photographs and photography.  Sometimes those photos interrupt “the moment.”  But that is far outweighted by the value that comes of preserving– and even better re-living– that moment when I see that photo again.  Or the joy that comes with sharing that moment with others that I know care to genuinely experience it vicariously.  Or even like Dickerson’s photo above.  That gave me a great sense of wistful parenthood even though I don’t personally know Dickerson (did meet him once– great guy) or his kids.

As for me, I’ll keep interrupting those moments to capture them, engage with them, and share them here, on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr

What parenthood is really about

Oh man did I love this essay from an unmarried, child-less 42 year old.  Especially this part:

Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. In fact it seems from the outside as if these people have joined a dubious cult: they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.

I have never even idly thought for a single passing second that it might make my life nicer to have a small, rude, incontinent person follow me around screaming and making me buy them stuff for the rest of my life. [Note to friends with children: I am referring to other people’s children, not to yours.]


Kids and dogs

Part of me thinks its really stupid to waste my time ranting against what stupid people write.  But sometimes I cannot resist.  Such as this completely absurd Allison Benedikt piece in Slate on how you should not get a dog if you plan on having kids.

Now, there’s a nice essay to be written on how becoming a parent changes your emotional relationship with your dog.  In our case, the dog really did go from our baby to a beloved, but definitely subsidiary member of the family.   Emphasis on still beloved (especially by all the kids) and well-treated.

In Bendikt’s case, the lesson is that having three kids four and under (that always seemed nuts to me) and a high-strung, barky dog don’t mix.  I’ll absolutely give her that, but to generalize from that that one should not get a dog if you are going to have kids is beyond absurd.  For one, from a practical standpoint, you can’t beat how fabulous they are at cleaning up every crumb your toddler spills.  In our case, Lira did a great job of deep cleaning the carpet wherever David spit up (which happened a lot).  Gross, yes.  Effective, yes.

Anyway, here’s the kids with our beloved (and departed) Sasha from Easter 2012 (and damn, they grow so fast!)


Hidden tattoos

I don’t like tattoos– never have, never will.  And neither does “Dear Prudence” advise columnist Emily Yoffe.  Anyway, she had a question about tattoos in an on-line chat today and it inspired me to wonder just what percentage of the public has a tattoo.  Fortunately, NCSU has a subscription to Roper Ipoll so I could easily look up the data and found it in a 2010 Pew Survey.  They give a number of demographic breakdowns as options, but surprisingly, not age.  Anyway, the overall figure is 24% and here’s the PID breakdown:


Now, what actually surprised me most, is the fact that there’s way more tattood people out there than you realize– unless you have x-ray vision, that is.  Check this out:


Anyway, some day when I’ve really got nothing better to do (so much to grade!) I’m going to download this dataset and run some models with this variable.



Apologize already

I really enjoyed this Shankar Vedantam segment on NPR about the great difficulty people have with apologies:

In a recent paper, researchers Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick reported on what they’ve found happens in people’s minds when they refuse to apologize. They find that parents who tell their kids that saying sorry will make them feel better have been telling kids the truth — but not the whole truth.

“We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have,” Okimoto said in an interview…

“When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.”

Ironically, Okimoto said, people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity…

Okimoto believes the research, in fact, may provide a clue on how best to get people to apologize. Our conventional approach, especially with kids, is to force people to apologize. But if people are reluctant to apologize because apologies make them feel threatened, coercion is unlikely to help — that is, if a sincere apology is hoped for.

Support and love, by contrast, may be a more effective way to counter the feelings of threat involved in an apology.

In short, it seems to me you have to be confident in yourself to apologize and place yourself in a position of relative weakness.  A failure to apologize when one is clearly in order strikes me as a failure of confidence in oneself to be able to admit you were wrong.  As for myself, like most people, I used to have a lot of trouble apologizing and admitting I was wrong.  Not so much, anymore.  I would posit that as I’ve become more mature (and, yes, self confident), that it has made it much easier for me to apologize when I get things wrong.  And I do feel the better for it.  Only hinted at here, is that, for the most part, one is way better off admitting fault and accepting responsibility and moving on.  Seems to me that there’s few things most of us hate interpersonally than a non-apology (“sorry if you were offended”) apology.

I’ll leave the final word to Kurt Cobain.

Relationships vs. ambition

I think a lot about the topic of ambition, especially when I was recently at a political science conference.  In looking around those I know in the discipline, easily the biggest difference between those who publish the most and are at the most prestigious universities versus those in a more humble position (I’ll put myself somewhere in the middle) is not intellect, but ambition.  I had a great serendipitous discussion while there with an OSU professor I used to work for and he reflected on the fact that he really had accomplished quite a lot, but that his current family situation was not the greatest and perhaps the two were related.  As for me, I’ve always felt that NCSU is a perfect place because it is a solid program where I have good students and plenty of respect in and out of the profession, but allows for a much more reasonable work-life balance, i.e., lots more time with those four crazy kids, than if I were just a few miles down the road at Duke or UNC.  Anyway, very interesting piece in the Atlantic recently about the trade-offs between ambition and relationships:

The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at the heart of many of our current cultural debates, including the ones sparked by high-powered women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter. Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back. Which is more important? Just the other week, Slate ran a symposium that addressed this question, asking, “Does an Early Marriage Kill Your Potential To Achieve More in Life?” Ambition is deeply entrenched into the American personae, as Yale’s William Casey King argues in Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue­ — but what are its costs? …

When I asked about the connection between ambition and personal relationships, Kammeyer-Mueller said that while the more ambitious appeared to be happier, that their happiness could come at the expense of personal relationships. “Do these ambitious people have worse relationships? Are they ethical and nice to the people around them? What would they do to get ahead? These are the questions the future research needs to answer.”

Existing research by psychologist Tim Kasser can help address this issue. Kasser, the author of The High Price of Materialism, has shown that the pursuit of materialistic values like money, possessions, and social status-the fruits of career successes-leads to lower well-being and more distress in individuals. It is also damaging to relationships: “My colleagues and I have found,” Kasser writes, “that when people believe materialistic values are important, they…have poorer interpersonal relationships [and] contribute less to the community.” Such people are also more likely to objectify others, using them as means to achieve their own goals.

So if the pursuit of career success comes at the expense of social bonds, then an individual’s well-being could suffer. That’s because community is strongly connected to well-being.

In a similar vein, I also really enjoyed this take on Sheryl Sandberg from journalist Elsa Walsh.  Here’s what I think is the key bit:

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.

Boom.  Now, I don’t want to judge Sandberg, because if she is happy with her life, than more power to her.  But I think Walsh’s idea of balance sound more like happiness to your typical human being.  I’m pretty sure I could be a Harvard Professor instead of an NC State professor if I had truly dedicated myself to that goal.  But I have no desire to be up two hours before my kids are so I can answer emails.  Nor to simply see way less of them.  I’ll take the trade.


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