No, really, I am a good husband

So, interestingly, my wife took some exception to my “why I’m a great husband” post.  So, I’m clearing the record here.  I’m only a very good husband.  I falsely assumed that my wife could detect my tongue in my cheek in the the title, but, like emails, maybe everything is not entirely clear in a blog post.  Mostly, though, it was this that bugged her, “And, she does the substantial majority of the cooking.  But even when she doesn’t, dishes are mine. ”  So, in the interests of blogging accuracy and spousal harmony, I shall clarify.  I pretty much never cook.  It’s just that when nobody cooks (e.g., Wendy’s and Bojangles, etc.) I still do the dishes.  And when I go to Political Science conferences to learn about fascinating (and not) research and to hang out with old friends in cool cities, dishes are on her.  So, there you have it.


Why I never give up the internet

I was going to put this in quick hits, but I loved this New Yorker essay from Matthew J. X. Malady to make it share.  He “unplugged” for 72 hours and I totally love his response to it:

During the world’s longest weekend, it became clear to me that, when I’m using my phone or surfing the Internet, I am almost always learning something. I’m using Google to find out what types of plastic bottles are the worst for human health, or determining the home town of a certain actor, or looking up some N.B.A. player’s college stats. I’m trying to find out how many people work at Tesla, or getting the address for that brunch place, or checking out how in the world Sacramento came to be the capital of California.

What I’m learning may not always be of great social value, but I’m at least gaining some new knowledge—by using devices in ways that, sure, also distract me from maintaining a singular focus on any one thing. I still read deeply, and study things closely, and get lost for hours at a time in sprawling, complicated pieces of literature. Since moving to California from Manhattan a couple of years ago, I’m almost certain I’ve paid attention to more sunsets and cloud configurations and blooming flowers than I had in the previous decade. But I also enjoy being able to find out what year Chinua Achebe published “Things Fall Apart” in roughly three seconds. And, while it is true that, as Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, and others have pointed out, my desire to learn in this manner means that I am opening myself up more completely to advertising saturation and affronts to personal privacy, I’ve made the choice to live with and combat such vexations rather than proceed through life overrun with stagnating curiosity.

Yes, yes, yes!  My favorite thing about the internet.  I am always, always learning.  No way would I voluntarily give that up.  A couple times a year when we visit my grandmother-in-law I am without any internet for most of a day.  And it’s usually a lovely day, but I feel absolutely no need to voluntarily untether.  There’s too damn much to learn.

Everybody gets a car

Okay, not everybody, just me.  I’ve been driving a 1998 Toyota Corolla for my daily commute since 2002 and from 1994-2002 a Geo Prizm (Corolla by another name) was my primary car, so it’s been a long time in Corolla world.  The car still runs great, but the interior is ever more falling apart (literally, the cloth on the room falls in front of my daughter’s face in the back) in various ways so I decided that after all these years I’d buy another car to last the next 14 or so.

So, you wouldn’t think my minivan would be the key player in this, but it was.  For years I’ve driven the Corolla (120 hp) and a 2000 Maza MPV with a 4-cylinder engine.  Short version: most of my adult life driving underpowered cars.  Then, two summers ago we replaced the MPV with a 2012 Kia Sedona.  We were focused on the great value and not even thinking about power.  But, wow, do we love that 274hp engine.  My thinking was I wanted my daily car to be at least as much fun to drive as my minivan.

I started with the Mazda 3, as Mazdas are known for being sporty and this is a really well-reviewed car.  It was nice, but the 3i, with about 150hp while clearly better than the Corolla, was less peppy than I expected.  So, onto the 3s with a truly amazing engine that gets 184hp (and similar torque) while also averaging 28/39.  Wow.  Great car.  So, why didn’t I buy one?  Honestly, I love technology, but just give me a standard speedometer (that’s a tachometer dominating the instrument display below) rather than a pop-up digital display and so not a fan of what looks like an Ipad stuck on top of the dash.  Also, the better engine in the 3s only comes with all the bells and whistles when I mostly cared about the engine.

2016 Mazda Mazda3: Dashboard

Okay, sure, I could get past this, but thought I’d keep on looking.  Turns out, if you want a compact car with good MPG, and horsepower and torque in the 170-180 range, the only other real option is the Volkswagen Jetta.  It is also great fun to drive and it has a noticeably roomier back seat and trunk than the Mazda.  And here’s the look for the driver:

2016 Volkswagen Jetta: Dashboard

So much better.  And, that unobtrusive touchscreen in the middle perfectly syncs with your Iphone with Apple CarPlay.  Very, very cool.  So, put that all together, and, anyway, more than you wanted to know, but that’s how I ended up here.

Ironically, I ended up getting the SEL which has all the bells and whistles I wasn’t so concerned about, but it comes with the 1.8 turbo engine I love and my first ever sunroof, which I am very excited about.

Also, I tend to get obsessive over major purchases.  One of the reasons I try not to make them too often.  And there’s so much you can read about cars on-line.  Let’s just say dozens of blog posts could have been written in the time I was reading on-line about cars.  So, sorry for your lost posts, but it should be at least another decade before this happens again.

Will you be my friend?

Loved this Vox post on how the physical spaces (and the policies behind them) in which we live, militate against adult friendships.

Why do we form such strong friendships in college and form so few afterward?

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. [emphasis in original] That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

Some of this natural social mixing follows us to post-collegiate life. We bond with people we work with every day and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.

Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it’s so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.

Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you? …

There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist…

The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

But I do not think we should just accept that when we marry and start families, we atomize, and our friendships, like our taste in music, freeze where they were in college. We shouldn’t just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.

We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us…

But we can do something about the places where we live. We can make them more conducive to community and spontaneous social mixing. We know how to do it — it’s just a matter of agreeing that we need it and changing policy accordingly.

Yes!  First, a bone to pick.  Our neighborhoods are totally safe for unsupervised kid frolicking.  Please.  My neighborhood now is physically just like the one I grew up in full of kids frolicking.  The difference is the parents.  In fact, the neighborhood in which I frolicked is still there, of course, and I never see any kids frolicking in it.

That said, the larger points are pretty spot on.  As an extrovert who loves spontaneous interactions, I find this especially frustrating.  There’s a family a couple doors up he are quite happy for spontaneous interaction when their son is playing in their front yard, but otherwise forget it.  And that’s about it.  A few years ago we had some friends who we could literally drop in on when we walked by with the dog.  It was awesome.  And then they moved away and I figured they’d be irreplaceable– I was right.

I don’t doubt that a fair amount of this is our built spaces and our policies, but at this point I suspect it is mostly our culture.  Even if we all lived in places that encouraged more spontaneous interaction, at this point so many people think every damn interaction (especially for their kids) needs to be planned.  And the more everybody thinks this way, the harder it is to violate these norms and have some friends you can just drop in in (like Elaine and George dropping in on Jerry!).

Personally, I’m fortunate to have some good friends at work with whom I can have spontaneous interactions, but I sure wish I had that in my neighborhood, too.  Damn modern American life.

Whether you call autism a “disease” or not, we should want less of it

Just finished listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Steve Silberman about his new book on the history of (our understanding of) autism.  Fascinating stuff.  And really upsetting to realize how much a single mis-guided psychiatrist, Leo Kanner, did so much to make my older brother’s life (and my mom’s, in blaming her for his autism) so much worse.  Here’s some from Dylan Matthews in Vox:

What society thought of as the natural course of autism was actually a very skewed view of what happened to autistic people when they were put in institutions. For decades, the recommended course of treatment for autism was institutionalization.

Parents were routinely told they should put their child in an institution, quietly remove their photographs from the family albums, never speak of them again, and enlist in decades-long courses of psychoanalysis to think about why they were motivated to wound the developing psyches of their children.

Not only that, he literally blamed the mothers for being emotionally distant “refrigerator mothers.”  Imagine hearing that as a mom (as my own mother did).

Why has autism exploded in diagnosis?  Primarily because Kanner’s rigid, short-sighted definition, was finally overthrown in the 1970’s by one that actually reflected reality.

Anyway, Matthews’ piece has a really interesting interview with Silberman (read it, you should), but I just can’t let this beginning part go:

Most people think of autism as a disease, a major impediment of which an increasing number of children are “victims.” But over the past two decades, a growing number of adults on the autism spectrum, myself included, have rejected this frame and called for non-autistic “neurotypicals” to respect and accommodate “neurodiversity.” We believe that autism is a natural and in many ways desirable variation in how people think, not a great evil to be stamped out.

To neurotypical people, this may seem like a shocking reversal. But as science journalist Steve Silberman writes in his new book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, the man who discovered autism, Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, conceived of it similarly, as a way of thinking that brings blessings as well as hardships

I don’t know that we need to “stamp out” autism, but there would be a lot more happier people in this world (those with autism and very much their families) if we worked to remediate it in all but mild cases.   Because of Alex, I’ve known a lot of  of kids with autism.  Sure, some kids seem to get along okay, but just cannot stop talking about Thomas the Train or some particular video game, but lots of kids are quite impaired in their daily functioning due to their autism.  And whatever “desirable variations” in thinking that may be there are little compensation for the sensory overload,  anxiety, and other difficulties that so often come with autism.  For some people who are less impaired, that’s “who they are” and their identity and they can function reasonably well in the world– all well and good.  Nobody’s trying to stamp you out. But there’s lots of people with autism where it creates a major impairment in the ability to function in society and to enjoy life.  I’m absolutely not willing to accept that as “neurodiversity” but rather something we as a society (and myself as a parent) should be working to overcome to whatever degree we can through various therapies, medications, etc.

Anyway, really looking forward to reading Silberman’s book, but just had to get that out there.

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

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