Monday, May 31, 2010

Wanting you

My lovely wife was away in California all weekend helping her sister and brother-in-law with their new baby. Having your first newborn is a little like staying up for a week solid and then having some stranger throw everything you own into the air at once.* To maximize both the time with her sister and her own children, my wife flew back to New York through Sunday night. She didn't sleep much on the plane,** and after four days of nights up she was too exhausted to walk an aircraft carrier.

Yes, an aircraft carrier. Each fleet week, military ships glide up the Hudson and open themselves up for free tours. Visitors can climb on trucks and tanks, sit in cockpits, slide the bolts on rifles. The four of us went last year, but Q has been quite mom-centric these days, and she elected to stay home with her tired mother.

It was just The Boy and I, then, two men out doing men stuff. Or something. The Boy, like nearly all American males, has a fascination with military hardware, one that I had*** myself. Unlike most American males (whatever the age) we live in a place where we actually get to see some of it.

The Boy is big now and makes for great company. He doesn't tire easily, and we walked every civilian-accessible foot of the USS Iwo Jima in a couple of hours, which is a lot of ground to cover. We headed first up to the flight deck to look over the aircraft before the crowds g0t crushing, and he was particularly excited to see the Cobra. Chinooks have been powering up and down the Hudson for the past few days, escorted menacingly by a pair of Cobras. It's hard not to want to see such things up close, and he loved sitting at the Cobra's baffling controls. We then went back down the steep grade ("Use low gear," a sign advised) to the belly of the ship, passing service men and women posing for photos with tourists holding guns. The Boy sat at the wheel of a giant cargo truck, then an amphibious assault vehicle of some sort. The longest line was for the M1A1 tank, but we waited. When our turn arrived, we scaled up to the turret, and The Boy asked me to take a picture of him in a helmet. He even slid into the tight driver's seat and asked for a photo of that, too. Later, he asked his mother to print out photos of him doing all this to put up somewhere important.

Back before we begin this day, The Boy and I get bagels to keep our heads out of our stomachs until we get back from the ships. He likes poppy seed with scallion cream cheese, and I spread what smooshes out of his onto mine. We sit at the window. Across the street, I see the "U.S. Army Career Center," and then he sees it and reads the awning. He asks what it means, and I tell him. Before I finish, he says "I know, dad."

But I don't know how to tell him both that the people who make up the military do an important job and deserve our respect and that I don't want him to do that job. I want him to understand the absurdly real risk these people take on — to understand the gravity of their commitment. And with that commitment comes, I think, a moral glow (for lack of better term) that I take no issue with. How, then, to let him know that here's something really really good (in the moral sense) that I don't want him to do?
Me: ...
Me: People in the military do important things.
The Boy: I know, dad.
Me: They help to keep us safe, and they deserve our respect.
The Boy: I know, dad.
Me: They risk a lot to do what they do. It's not like playing video games.
The Boy: I know, dad.
Me: [long pause] You know, I really don't want you to—
The Boy: —I know, dad.
I think he does understand, even better than I.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone.
*Except it's not like that, or anything besides just what it is.
**JetBlue charges 8 bucks for pillow and blanket. Sheesh.
***Okay, and still have a little, though it's strictly man professional.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Okay, so just a little more on stopping and quitting

At the end of my previous post about stopping and quitting, I said that there was more to say about all of it and that I'd stop there. Well, at least the first was true.

I've been ruminating about stopping and quitting a fair amount more since then, mainly due to the excellent reactions and commiserations I received.* Seems I'm not alone in struggling both with not quitting and with failing to make much sense of why that is. All signs might point to giving up (jobs, habits, marriages, whatever), but a lot of us don't and don't exactly know why.

As I said before, I do think honest, straightforward reasons do explain some of the resistance to quitting—heavy investment (of time, money), say, and the general cultural conditioning against ever quitting anything. (We're told pretty much right away that nobody likes a quitter). Enjoyment might even have been derived from the thing, whatever it is.

But what about when the straightforward reasons just don't sufficiently justify sticking something out? And what about the not understanding? Part of what stalls me at this point, I think, has to do with not really knowing how to take my own reasoning about quitting.

Let me try to be a little clearer. I'm not the hugest fan of Malcom Gladwell,** but a recent article of his on espionage for The New Yorker nicely gets at the problem here. He begins with the story of "Operation Mincemeat," a bold and successful plan by the British in World War II to leak false information to the Germans about a pending Allied invasion. It's a fantastic tale told exceptionally well, and with a powerful lesson. Gladwell writes:
It is not just that secrets themselves are hard to fact-check; it's that their interpretation is inherently ambiguous. Any party to an intelligence transaction is trapped in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called an "expression game." I'm trying to fool you. You realize that I'm trying to fool you, and I—realizing that—try to fool you into thinking that I don't realize that you have realized that I am trying to fool you.
Oddly enough, we spy on and fool ourselves, too. I'm sitting right here, so I'll use myself as an example. Why don't I just give up my academic research, such as it is, and get seriously going on some of the writing projects I've been meekly pecking away at for a while now? When I put myself on the couch I get to thinking that I probably fear what might happen if I actually made a real run at writing—that I might not get beyond sucking badly or (worse?) that I might not suck all that much but can't get anyone much to notice my not sucking. But then I think that these worries (that I might always suck or be always outside) is really me fooling myself into finding a way to stay between everything, to have more "could haves" to console myself when I get to wondering, in the end, about what happened. And then again, maybe I'm fooling myself with that, too.

However fractal-like this gets, I've learned that quitting can lead to good. I have seen a few of those close to me bloom after divorce, and others make themselves new when time demanded it. But anyway like just about every parent ever, I worry over what my kids see when they observe me (which they, like all kids, scarily do), even more so than what I say. I'd like them to use more "dids" than "should haves" if they wonder about me.

Will they know when to quit?  Will I?

*Thanks Twitter, Facebook, and blog-reading folk. I really appreciate the thoughts.
**The guy can tell a good story, but Blink was just awful.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stopping and quitting

Turns out I'm very good at stopping things, less so at quitting them.

The distinction is an important one, actually. Take, for example, my academic career. My trajectory past graduate school was a little nontraditional in that after (finally) graduating, my first jobs were not really in my field. I did teach philosophy courses more or less and lucked* my way into two of the best universities in the world, but I was mainly a faculty member in writing programs and not in Philosophy Departments. My plan was to fill out my list of publications and courses taught while earning (very little) money until I hit the academic job market lottery.

My number never came up — at least for a tenure-track job. I did, though, manage to take a small step into university administration (again more or less through luck). I found myself with much more time and less stress than as a "pure academic," or someone whose livelihood depends upon scholarly production and the glacial peer review process.** I could read what I wanted, write for whomever I pleased.

But for some reason, even though I stopped my academic research, I couldn't quite quit it. I'd find myself browsing the on-line article databases, collecting PDFs to read on the train home, starting fresh Word files with titles heavy on clever. Those Word files usually stayed short while the pile of unread articles grew, as did the list of non-academic writing projects that I wanted to pursue.

Okay, sure, it's understandably hard to quit the career I spent over a decade preparing and striving for, particularly since I'm still part of a university, still showing up in classrooms to talk about ideas. At this point, however, I will have no professor position — the job market is too tight and my resume is too anemic. The life of an academic isn't as glorious as it used to be, too, given the terrible pay and ridiculous politics inevitable with groups of people who can't be fired. I have every reason to quit entirely.

Quitting can be glorious. The Boy had been a solid member of his school's chess club, which meant going nearly an hour early to school each Thursday and Friday for lessons and scrimmages. Then there were the three-hour practices one Saturday afternoon a month, and frequent tournaments. He only ended up competing in two of them (he was snowed out once), and the second he won first place in his division. (He even brought the first-place trophy for his first show-and-tell turn.) He liked chess. He wanted to play chess.

And then he didn't. About a month ago or so, The Boy no longer sped out of the house on Thursdays and Fridays, even though his best friend kept at it. Each time we asked him whether he wanted to go to lessons or practice, he answered with a firm "No." That was it; he was done. Space in his head once reserved for chess is now occupied by baseball, and he's the freer for it.

Why is quitting so hard? Perhaps for the same reasons that ending things are hard. As a friend of mine once nicely put it:
For me, however, starting is fairly easy; the drama of writer’s block is largely alien to me. To the extent that starting is mysterious, that’s more-or-less okay, because, even if you can’t dial it up at will, the whole process is one of getting from nothing to something. Starting is a practical problem, easily overcome, if it’s a problem at all. Finishing is a metaphysical problem, full of subtleties and abysses. Finishing involves knowing –knowing!—when something is enough (for what?), when something that hasn’t existed before is finally wholly and completely itself.

Well, that’s enough of that.
He's talking here about academic writing in particular, but the lesson applies wider, I think. Knowing when something is enough is the hard part, and merely stopping without quitting only causes the commitment part to accrue. The commitment outstanding means being haunted by something else I should be doing, regardless of what I'm doing at any particular moment. I've got to figure out how to finally quit some things and free myself for others.

There's more to say about all of this, of course, but I'll stop here.

*Luck had everything to do with it, but I'm pretty sure that I deserved and earned my right to be at those fancy schmancy places.
**I once submitted an article to a journal for publication, and the editor held on to it for a year before finally telling me that he didn't think he'd send it out for review. The article eventually found a home, but since sending work out to multiple journals at the same time is considered poor form, I was put back quite a bit. And everyone in academia has similar stories.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Let them make cake

Two days before Q's party, a classmate of hers asked how many birthdays Q has. I know the feeling: First it was her birthday proper, with gifts wrapped in Amazon boxes and (from us anyway) in the New York Times.* Then my wife made blue-frosted cupcakes for Q's Pre-K class, enjoyed by all except for that inevitable classmate with the egg allergy.

And then there was Q's actual party. My wife has earned a solid reputation in the neighborhood for executing great parties, and this one wasn't unusual. What was unusual, though, is that unlike past years, we decided to have the thing in our (little) house instead of in our apartment building's playroom. This meant having fewer kids than usual, but some sacrifices just had to be made.**

A smaller guest list made more intensive activities possible. Q liked the idea of a cooking party, and so did we. Each guest was greeted with a paper chef's hat (individually sized and stapled) and an apron to decorate. Instead of ordering pizza, we gave them their own ball of dough to stretch and roll and sauce. While their early dinners browned in the oven, the kids made animal cupcakes to accompany the barn cake my wife had made. The results were, as you can see, lovely.

Cupcakes done and corralled, everyone ate the pizza they made. Interestingly, almost everyone had leftovers—and everyone wanted to take them home. (As far as we can remember, that's a first for any party.) Guests also took away their cupcake in a special box, their hat and apron, and a cake and cookie recipe book. Little was left.

Q smiled the whole time.

Until that night. After opening all the wonderful presents from those who came to celebrate with her, she slowly slid into tears. Q almost never cries about anything. My wife and I asked her why she was sad. She said she didn’t know, and I believed her (and I don’t always believe her). The day had meant a lot to her, but, unlike her brother, she struggles with attention. It’s as if she can feel the weight of all those thoughts of her, and they finally got too heavy. Or at least I think that's what it was; it's hard to say.

I suppose it's now an old story—at least 300 years older than the philosophers who first told it (and as new as the newest science)—that we arrive blank and are written on by the world until we leave. This picture suggests that the longer we go, the more we're taught, the more we understand. But I think it's something like a half-truth. Childhood has all sorts of knowingness—of cruelties in particular—and adults often find themselves bothered and saved by mysteries. No matter how old one gets, there are always puzzles, and the pieces keep getting smaller. I hope that I can help her appreciate not understanding, and that she can do the same for me.

Happy birthday, Q. We love you.

*Never too early to introduce a little liberal bias, right?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

America's — and The Boy's — game

All of a sudden, The Boy is into baseball. He walks around the house swinging at imaginary pitches, rises early on game days.

We've never been huge baseball fans in our house (despite my wife's attempts to anchor our appreciation of the sport). But however mysterious, it's fun to watch him love the game, especially before all the knowing comes in. He gets to have moments like this:

I may have slowed things down a bit and added a little soundtrack (thank you, Aaron Copeland), but it does feel just like this.

Even Q is slowly coming around, I think.