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

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.




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