Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Far from family

When my parents came out this past holiday lull between Christmas and New Year's, my lovely wife and I managed to sneak out to see the movie Michael Clayton, which was fantastic. (Congrats, Tilda Swinton, on your oscar.) The theater we saw it in sits in our old West Village neighborhood and is one that we used to go to often two kids ago. Along with a movie, then, just the two of us had a chance to remember and not miss the life we had in New York before Q and The Boy essentially reset our memories.

Counting Michael Clayton, we’ve seen roughly three movies in the theater since summer 2003 (including Cars, which probably shouldn’t count for present purposes). This isn’t all that difficult to explain:  We work pretty hard.  During the week we get home in time only to ask what the kids had for dinner (my wife coming home at least a half hour after I do), and I usually leave before they rise. It's no surprise, then, that we devote weekends to the kids and that nights after they finally give in to sleep tend to involve a lot of low-impact activities.  Like sitting.  And since our families are either half way or all the way across the country from us, we haven’t often had the chance to lean on them to distribute the load that usually leans on us.

Still, a little relief from parenting now and then is the least interesting part of having relatives close by.  After all, family don’t merely watch the kids, they get to see them, and vice versa.  I often wish we were closer to everyone so that Q and The Boy could get to know their grandparents, their Ong and Ba Ngoai, their aunts and uncles and cousins in some way similar to how they’ve come to know my lovely wife and me. Which is to say thoroughly and up close. We talk a lot about family in our house, and goodness knows we take and look at lots of pictures of everyone. (According to that little gray bar at the bottom of iPhoto, we’ve crossed the 19,000 mark in our digital photo collection alone.) And there are weekly phone calls, photos sent out by my wife every other week, cards, and twice-yearly visits. But Q and The Boy don’t help wrench stumps from the ground with a chain and a Jeep or feed koi or craft springrolls or bait hooks for the delectability of channel catfish. Q and The Boy likewise have large, quick personalities that (we think, anyway) sometimes need to be seen to be believed.  And they also need to be reminded who they could be by someone other than us.  Missing, then, are the kind of experiences useful for building a rich story of family.  Some stories are best heard straight from their tellers.

This is all true, and I haven’t stopped wishing that it were otherwise for them. But I was also struck by something else when my parents visited this December.  When any family visit, we tend to remind ourselves that we live in New York by going out to a fancy-ish restaurant and indulging our way down its menu. We did that with my parents this time, too, a nice steak place in Tribeca. The meal was memorable, as expected, but not as memorable as the conversation that passed over the broad plates.  I found myself missing my parents as adults, thinking about how much I’d like to know my family as they are now, and how much they could still know of me as I am now. I’ve been pretty far away from them for many years now and have (more or less) found a home and made my way in New York.  I have my own family with its own ruts and rules.  Over the years, I’ve acquired my own shelf of theories and explanations, revisions of and replacements for many of the ones they started me off with. I’d like to know how they’ve changed, too.  And much has simply happened to so many of us over the past few years — both good and bad — and it’s hard not to feel remote and removed.

We’ve talked about this, my wife and I, and I know she feels as I do about her mother and father, sisters and brother.  And though she and I have been a part of each other’s family for over fifteen years now, I still feel like I’m just beginning to know them in many respects.  (Internet messaging chats with my younger sister-in-law (among other things) keep us closer; still, I have to think that it’s not quite as good as hearing first hand the laughs each of us trigger in the other.)  When out to California for family visits, we strive to find children-free time with my wife’s parents and siblings, but things (and children) being what they are, we usually end up talking out the few hours left after all the kids have gone down for the night. (This is also officially a shame given that my wife’s parents live in wine country.)  We find ourselves wanting more time to catch up on months worth of living.

Funny thing is, the more I thought about it, what’s allowed us to miss them in this way, to want to know them again now, is the years and miles between us. As Stanley Cavell nicely puts it, "I must disappear in order that the search for myself be successful."  Without leaving, it would be too easy to sit in the same chair at the table, to sleep in the same room — to be too familiar, as it were.

I’d like to think that I more or less succeeded in my search — or that I’m at least looking in the right places.  It’d be nice to hear a little about and see where others who are so close to us came back from.  As always, I suppose, it’s scaling the distance that proves the hardest part.  And one mile never equals one mile.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Practical advice for next Halloween (and why it's probably not a good idea to Trick-or-Treat at the behavioral economist's house)

Elizabeth Kolbert has a nice little article in the current (Feb. 25, 2008) New Yorker magazine on a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational:  The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions in which he tracks regularities in people's irrational economic behavior.  Her opening example of the kind of thing that interests Ariely certainly struck home with me — namely how suckers buyers into ordering something else (and therefore spending more than they would otherwise) just to save a little on shipping.  The upshot is that our valuations of things prove wildly susceptible to contextual factors, including those that have nothing whatsoever to do with the choices at hand. Example:  One experiment demonstrated that simply asking people to write down the last two digits of their Social Security numbers influenced their responses as to the maximum amount they would pay for a fancy bottle of wine.  Those with lower Social Security numbers maxed out at a significantly lower levels than those with higher numbers.  (Perhaps this effect can help explain a little of my own economic tendencies, which is to say cheapness.)

But behavioral economics isn't just for college students anymore.  Kolbert notes:
One of the more compelling studies described in the book involved trick-or-treaters. A few Halloweens ago, Ariely laid in a supply of Hershey’s Kisses and two kinds of Snickers—regular two-ounce bars and one-ounce miniatures. When the first children came to his door, he handed each of them three Kisses, then offered to make a deal. If they wanted to, the kids could trade one Kiss for a mini-Snickers or two Kisses for a full-sized bar. Almost all of them took the deal and, proving their skills as sugar maximizers, opted for the two-Kiss trade. At some point, Ariely shifted the terms: kids could now trade one of their three Kisses for the larger bar or get a mini-Snickers without giving up anything. In terms of sheer chocolatiness, the trade for the larger bar was still by far the better deal. But, faced with the prospect of getting a mini-Snickers for nothing, the trick-or-treaters could no longer reckon properly. Most of them refused the trade, even though it cost them candy. Ariely speculates that behind the kids’ miscalculation was anxiety. As he puts it, “There’s no visible possibility of loss when we choose a FREE! item (it’s free).”
Interesting results, no doubt.  But I'm more curious to know whether Ariely will get more trick-or-treaters next year than last.  In any event, turning trick-or-treating into a psychological trial — trick-for-treating, in fact — would put a refreshing spin on all the gluttony.  Something to think about for next October.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

It's the last few hours of that special day nestled right in the middle of February's cleavage, and I couldn't resist sharing the great gifts my wife and I received from the kids. The Boy has been almost telling us what we were getting for several days now — we genuinely didn't know — but Q has been a vault, refusing even to offer the slimmest hint one way or the other despite some clever prodding from my wife. As soon as we walked in tonight, they revealed the drawings and paintings they made for us (including a respectable Sponge Bob sporting a heart, courtesy of The Boy) and the matching mugs they picked out all on their own (with, admittedly, a little help from the babysitter). It was hard to stop hugging them.

One thing is obvious: We drink an awful lot of coffee.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. Love all around.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coming and going

Always keep to the right; move quickly. When it's as cold as it has been these last few days, stow your glasses in your pocket for the walk or your breath will scarf up and over them until they're useless. Your face should be empty. You've timed the lights by now, so you'll barely register the streets. Visitors who come to marvel at the construction or to understand the destruction at Ground Zero can be unpredictable; be ready to negotiate them. Traffic will run against you, but you belong here, too; make them make way if you have to. Don't forget to notice the moon if it's there before you turn for the stairs down: today just a slight curve of white, the last sip of milk that lingers in the bottom of a glass. If you're lucky, a low plane will bank into the arriving day and light up.

You'll need your hat until you're on the PATH train. The cold runs deeper than you do, so respect it. Always take the same stairs because neatness counts. Pick the second car — it opens at your stop in the right spot. Remark favorably upon the wisdom of standing aside and letting the passengers off first. In the moment between the train's coming and going, remember how The Boy looked when he stepped out of his room this morning, blinking against the one light you were eating your cereal by. Remember how he always pauses, muzzy from sleep, before he instincts his way into the bathroom to relieve himself. And then how you look in at Q heavily asleep amid a riot of blankets and stuffed animals. And how you bend for a hug from The Boy before sending him back to bed (though you know he probably won't return to sleep). Before the train doors close, recall the quiet you left the house in. Respect it; it is older than everything.

The train lurches left just out of the station, so hold on as the doors close, preferably somewhere high where fewer strangers touch. Be inside yourself. Think about what you have to do today, but not too much.

At your stop, don't run; you won't miss your connection. Resist buying bad muffins and bad coffee. Don't resist wondering where all these people go. They haven't put out new books in the terminal bookstore since forever, so don't bother. Stay up by the platform and think of things; write down the remotely interesting thoughts that bother showing up. When the train lumbers in, head to the rear for a seat and you'll get one. You won't remember how the ride went.

If you step off the last train coming and it's snowing like it is today, close your eyes now and again to let the flakes suggest themselves to your face. Lean a bit when you stride up the steeper paths to your office. Pay attention to your toes. Go in the back way and take the stairs; there will undoubtedly be candy or cookies and you'll likely want an excuse.

Move your work a day forward.

On your way out to the train, pocket some of the ubiquitous candy for Q and The Boy and your wife — only the good stuff. You'll accelerate down the stairs because you will think you'll be late, but you won't be. Sit close to the front door in case you can catch the express if it's late. If it's not, you'll be on the local, which is fine, too. Either way you can't catch the evening going, no matter how many times you try. You will step off the local in the dark.

Walk across the platform to the PATH train waiting or coming. Stand away from the door, but you'll still need your hat against the wind. You can have a seat at the third stop where the train breathes out most of its riders, but standing will feel better. Off the last train going, the traffic will again run against you at World Trade, so keep moving. Keep your face blank. (Smile without thinking, though, if you re-listen to a message from your wife and the kids.) Maneuver the dripping ceiling. Walk up the moving escalator.

It's okay to wonder if the tourists at Ground Zero are the same from this morning; many will be taking pictures of something mysterious. If you need milk or apples, you might be able to fit in a stop at the Amish market. If not, go home by 7 World Trade and the big red balloon sculpture; wonder how they illuminate the marbled benches from below. Anticipate the wind as you near the river; you'll probably need to look away. Appreciate that you can ascertain a few stars even in this city, but check that those aren't the lights of jets on approach to La Guardia (they're both wonders, but the second one is less so, for some reason, by now).

Once inside your building, there will be mostly meaningless mail. You will share the elevator with a dog that's just been walked. The hall will suggest someone else's dinner; the dish will be unknown and unknowable. Hesitate, just for a moment, at your door to listen for the laughs that you will walk into.

Go home. Come home. Be home.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Chúc mừng năm mới

Happy Tết, or Lunar New Year.

My wife celebrated by talking about Tết at The Boy's school, complete with a book, Tết treats (dumplings and shrimp chips), miniature cream puffs (homemade), and little red envelopes filled with lucky candy. Q came too dressed in her red áo dài (pictured above along with The Boy in his — at least for pictures at home). As usual, Q's favorite part of visiting The Boy's school was getting to wash the dishes.

Many customary wishes accompany this holiday. I'll pass along my favorite: May a myriad things go according to your will.

Here's to the Year of the Rat being a good one.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Duper Giant Fat Tuesday

The first president I remember — the first one I have my own memories of — is Reagan. We lived in a small Kansas town that at the time seemed rather far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.'s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the "Air Capital of the World," by the way), which meant that it was designated a first-strike target by that other superpower. According to predictions and all sorts of maps with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would go up with Wichita, and so in hearing about and watching Reagan versus the Evil Empire I felt part of something epic. I even went so far as to write a research paper for high-school English entitled "America's Red Threat," in which I argued for more or less eternal vigilance against the spread of domestic communism. I still have that paper and look at it now and then — a fossil that rather pristinely preserves a time and a mind.

Times and minds are, to say the least, different in all sorts of interesting ways, but again it's hard not to feel the size of the moment. Odds are (at least right now) that a Democrat will win the 2008 election and will likely serve for eight years. And given that the Democratic nominees include a woman and an African American, odds are that a woman or African American will likely be the first president that our kids remember. I had believed that such a thing would happen, of course, and in my lifetime. That it could happen so soon is testimony both to the utter train wreck that is the Bush administration and to the possibility of reinvention that American democracy affords itself. My new hope is that by the time Q and The Boy arrive at our age most people will think it odd to mention, let alone make much of, a candidate's race or gender or religion. That a candidate won't have to put forward a position on torture because only one position will be habitable. Such a hope doesn't seem all that frivolous today.

Anyway, I'm off to indulge myself with Super Duper Tuesday results from across the Internets, but first one quick story. On our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Sunday, we came across smiling Obama supporters passing out flyers and stickers. (We took the flyer but passed on the sticker: we strive to keep our stroller as neutral as Switzerland.) Back on our way, we asked Q and The Boy who they thought would win Tuesday, and they both said Clinton. When asked the same question tonight before bed, Q yelled out "Roger Federer." Now that would make for an interesting paper.

Happy Super Duper Giant (Mardi Gras) Tuesday.

(Note: Delicious U.S. cookie courtesy of my wife.)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Okay, so this is just cool

If you've got about three minutes, have a look at this — a great idea expertly executed.