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So I’m on the job market. It’s a terrible time to be looking for work; friends of mine who are in much better positions than me are freaking out. I’m pretty level-headed about the whole thing. I’m pretty level-headed in general. I like to think this is a good thing—I’m adaptable, not easily fazed, etc. It’s quite possible this is a bad thing—I am prone to accepting the things that I can indeed change.

It’s hard to know.

The more I look around, though, the more I’m convinced that it’s neither apathy nor denial. Allow me to justify my sangfroid, or moreover, let me evangelize to you. It’s especially important for parents, because if your kid is anything like mine, there are fan blades and there is excretory matter and sometimes things go flying. Keeping it together is how we get from here to the other side—and, for me at least, a foundation that I can rely upon for why I should just let it go, well, it’s a source of strength in dark and dangerous times.

So. To econ it up a little bit, let me motivate it thusly: Let’s say you face a choice. You can either have a fifty-fifty chance of winning $1.60 or $2.00 or a fifty-fifty chance of winning $3.85 or $0.10. If you’re like most of the subjects in the now seminal Holt and Laury 2002 paper, Risk Aversion and Incentive Effects, you’d go with the “safe bet”, even though you’ll earn less in expectation; roughly 2/3 of their subjects made such a decision.

Why? Why the heck do people leave 7 cents on the table every time they make this decision? There’s very little out there that critiques this decision. This particular field of economics is justifiably concerned primarily with documenting and describing human decisions—positive economics—and not so much with how people ought to make decisions—normative economics. This is all good and well.

The take-home I’d like to present is this: please, please, PLEASE take the risky, high-payoff bet when the stakes are this low. If you want to remain contented with your lot, this is almost impossible without some groundwork first, because people don’t like to walk away with ten measly cents.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I drew up a quick Excel table with random numbers and what-have-you, and recalculated it five times. In the first drawing, the safe bet outperformed the risky bet in 2 of 5 recalculations. Once, choosing always-safe outperformed always-risky over 100 independent drawings, earning $5.95 more than always-risky. But in all the other sets of drawings, risky beat out safe. The five outcomes were (π(risky) – π(safe) )= (-$5.95, $20.85, $7.45, $37.60, $30.90).

I’m not saying you should take big risks. I’m not even necessarily advocating that you take on more small risks. Mostly what I’m trying to say is: it hurts to go home with a dime, but it’s best not to put too much weight on any one event. You barely miss the train one day and just make it another day. A crappy waiter at a restaurant? It happens. A bad interview can hurt, but over the course of a lifetime, these events even out, and the brainpower we spend on them is almost certainly wasted.

By the same token, so your kid is brilliant and polite at age 2? Might not last to age 3. The baby lets you sleep through the night at 4 months? Enjoy it while it lasts.

Paying attention to the long view can make you more confident, more humble, and more grateful; more emotionally and financially stable; and better at handling momentary crises. If that’s not a recipe for a good tactical parenting, I’m not sure what is.

ARTIST: Dar Williams
TITLE: The Christians and the Pagans
(from Gunther Anderson)

Amber called her uncle, said “We’re up here for the holiday
Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay”
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree
He watched his son hang candy canes all made with red dye number three
He told his niece, “It’s Christmas eve, I know our life is not your style”
She said, “Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it’s been awhile”

/ G C Am D / / Em C Am D / / G C Am D / /

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses

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the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.
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To Violet, on the first week of Advent

I
While you sleep, at long last, in what is hopefully a warm room,
the searchlight of a roving mind swings around, time after time.
In the car
on the way home
your mom and I make up a Death Cab for Cutie song:
“Another cold night in Cleveland
in my brown corduroy jacket
I drove alone”
And this is that through which we move, my love.
A mountain range, a peak of which we each are fast approaching,
and as Poincaré before me, I fire light across the distance,
trying to tell you the time.
.
II
1999. Two-by-fours in the barn, ready to go,
I sat with a piece of scratch paper, trying to figure this out:
A regular pentagon contains a rectangle and a triangle;
three-sixty plus one-eighty is … five-forty, which means…
and I couldn’t figure it out then; a little bit of shame in front of my grandfather.
Now, though, a better version of me:
five-forty divided by five is one-oh-eight,
and so each of the five exterior triangles is isosceles
and the paired angles then have angles of…
one-eighty minus one-oh-eight is seventy-two
(which divided by two is thirty-six) and there are
five pairs of those angles, which means that
those angles take up five times seventy-two
is three-sixty degrees of the total interior, which
means the total amount in the points is five-forty
minus that three-sixty,
which is one-eighty,
which you divide by five,
so that each point in a regular star
should have thirty-six degrees.
.

III

Lay me in a bed with amber glow filling the room,
and place the sound of fun outside, ready to start playing
at the moment I am to awake, so that I can lie there
and bathe in vicarious jubilation.
Place me in the back-right of a blue Ram van, driven by
my father, and let us stop at Great Bend or Clarks Summit.
Let me know when we see “Deer Crossing” signs,
so I can count down from ten.
Put me back again in the passenger seat,
with my head in my hands, not yet on paper half the man
I couldn’t quite convince myself to convince them
I would come out to be.
Sit me in the dark, illuminated by punctual flashes,
with you on my lap, and your mother’s warmth behind us,
and the lights of the tree. We bathed in our own jubilation
and you in the middle of us all.
So this one I just wrote. Happy Advent!

It’s Women’s History Month, which seems totally well-meaning and ironically marginal. Today’s worship was put on entirely by women; all the songs were written, lyrically or musically, or both, by women; all the greeters and ushers and offering collectors were women.

I consider myself a feminist.

The feminist movement, as far as I can tell, has never been to keen on embracing its male members.

This has always been complicated for me. One thing that irks me, and always has, is the idea that I have no authority to my voice in a given arena. This may well be typically white and male, but I do not brook limitation easily, nor do I recommend others do the same. I consider my insistence on the validity of my opinions regarding the experience of others very different from myself to be an open invitation for others to voice similarly valid opinions regarding my own experience and that of others like me–which is to say: I think the ultimate arbiter of the validity of an opinion should be the validity of the opinion, and neither the character nor characteristics of its holder.

This strikes me as entirely harmonious with advancing the interests of women and men the world over.

It irked me more today than it ever has, and now upon reflection, I find that I am frustrated with both the men and women who came before. First and foremost, with the men, for letting the problems of gender relations go untended for so long, for allowing oppression and subjugation to continue (and at what cost!), but also at women, and some feminists in particular, for (in my mind, at least) fucking it up when trying to delineate the conversational space in which we could engage with gender.

This may very well be the result of the naive sort of egalitarianism that comes with being a white male born into opportunity, if not the exact lap of luxury. I acknowledge that my stance of ahistoricity is probably unfair, given that history as benefited me and hurt others, and so calling history out of bounds and starting from the status quo will always benefit those currently benefiting.

Still, I find it personally very frustrating, and have always done so, but more so now than ever.

It comes down to a fundamental problem. Are gender biases, misogyny, and gender inequality (in the mind of practitioners) fundamental or circumstantial?  I hold that they are circumstantial–by which I mean that I believe there exists the possibility that children could be brought up in such a way that they would have no natural reason to exert or embrace gender biases.
I guess, in some sense, it comes down to an even more fundamental problem. Given an unpleasant past, should we shut the past out in order to cut off ties with it or should we remember it to ensure that it never happens again? My fear with the latter course is that an ignominious past carries with it ideas, the seeds of revolution, and as time passes, one can never be sure that there won’t come along those who will say it was better then, who will then revive the hatred and the anger, reactionaries who find power by fomenting hatred. My fear with the former is primarily the Santayana bromide: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In truth, though, I disagree with Santayana–sometimes the memory of the past carries cautionary tales, and sometimes it entraps us.

This is not to say we should fail to honor the memory of those who struggled before us. Mostly, I suppose, this is to say that, to me, it seems that the best way to honor the memory of those who struggled is to set that struggle down, eventually. Our foremothers and -fathers did not turn soil by their industry so that we should have to again; instead, they did so, so that we might have greater freedom, a choice to make. Nor is this to say that I think the struggle is over, but again, I think some of the solution here is to dress for the job you want.

This is where the personal part comes in. I do not deny the advantages I had, nor can I deny the evidence before me. Where I grew up, half of my Calculus AP class was female, and many of my female friends went on to become engineers and doctors and lawyers and businesswomen. I lived on the edge of the bell curve.

I have a daughter, though, now, and while I do not want her to be bound by the limitations society might seek to place on her, nor do I want to have our relationship mediated by a society of women who claim that I cannot speak to her about gender, oppression, or a fight for freedom. There is no one in the world who can compete with me in my desire to see limits cease to be where she is concerned. I wish no chains upon her. I will teach her calculus and how to swim, how to code, how to choose colors and how to play guitar. Cheryl and I are good parents and she will be amazing, a force unleashed upon the world.

I wish nothing less for every woman in the world, and not just for the benefit of womankind, but for the benefit of everyone.
The service today was fantastic, by the way, but discussion of gender is not something that should be relegated to Women’s History Month, but something we should be talking about often–nor should it be limited to womanhood. Being a man is a complicated thing, and there’s very little community among men to figure out how to be a good one. Some talk in church about it would not go astray.

Finally, if there’s something I’d like to see in the feminist movement, it’s an invitation and appreciation for men to do their part in advancing the cause of women’s rights and equality. As Eileen McGann sang (from Journeys, which is a great freakin album):

Boys are brought up from the time they are small
to believe that they have to be tough
and they’re taught not to cry and they’re trained not to feel
for they’re told that it’s womanish stuff
but it’s only the wise that consider the cost
and only the brave who can change
until women and men join as allies and friends
and gain all of themselves in exchange, so

Here’s to the men with the vision to see
and the qualities everyone gains, oh
here’s to their courage and her truth
and their part in the breaking of chains, oh

….

————————

I had more to say; I can’t remember it all. I just want everyone to be better. I want gender not to matter so much. I don’t think the great message of Women’s History Month is that we should forget history–just that maybe we shouldn’t let it rule us, but we should be willing to set it down as history, like we do with Rome or might should with the bible.

Anyway, the title of the talk was “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” but I’m placing bets on the idea that friggin brilliant ones do.

Cheryl thought it first, apparently. Violet’s gotten into this habit of sleeping one day and being awake the next. It seems like a pretty nice life, to be honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of online parenting articles and blogs lately–well, a lot for me, at least–and it really seems like there are two competing, self-reinforcing, and (it seems to me) incredibly counterproductive tones. Articles are either:

  • full of panic, uncertainty, regret, self-flagellation and questioning as to whether they can parent at all, let alone well
  • defensively authoritative, occasionally accusatory, forthright mandates on how to raise your children

These are both broad generalizations, so I run the risk of just having conjured this out of thin air–this objection and criticism of my hypothesis is totally valid. If I’m wrong, please convince me that that’s the case. The fact is that these occur to a greater or lesser degree, from the most shrill to the most tender, but I think there is something fundamental at the root of it.

Evidence of this phenomenon:

Can a Lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child's Cognitive Abilities? -- New York Magazine
Bossy McBossypants (I love Catherine Newman's writing, by the way.)
Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?
Will your Preschooler Need a Tutor? (Seriously.)

It drives me nuts. Before I go on, I should probably establish something. While I think hyperanxious parenting is wrong-headed, neither do I subscribe to the idea that parenting just comes naturally and parents should just chill out and do what occurs to them. Lots of people are stupid or inexperienced or even downright malicious.

Somewhere, though, around the Vietnam era, I think, we lost our collective sense of authority. My guess is that we actually realized how incredibly terrible authority can be in and of itself, when it is incorrect. I am considering the possibility that there was a systematic loss of faith in authority on a social scale.

This is really hard stuff to talk about and think about, by design, almost. It’s complicated and abstract and I think, ultimately, amounts to what feels like and what we may as well consider a fundamental spiritual shift. Religion was way into authority and when the world was religious in a big and serious way, which is to say, when the people who wrote things that got read by others, when the idea-makers were religious, authority was truly a big and serious deal. Feudal lords told their serfs what to do. Parents told their children what to do. Authority stemmed from on high, followed the chain of command all the way down into the right hand of the father and the switch there held was held to be, truly, an instrument of God.

Science takes authority out of the hands of individuals and puts it in the hands of Nature–from the point of view of scientists. It is great and fantastic for this reason. It makes progress more rapid because ideas are pitted against each other and they fight and may win or lose, but ultimately (by which I actually mean “in the limit”) there is no individual who is an authority. It is here where we learned to defer to the wisdom of numbers, and authority over any individual child became more diffuse.

There are, suddenly, if not “right” and “wrong” ways to handle your kids, there are better and worse ways. Malnutrition exists and can be prevented. Your kids should be vaccinated and a hug every now and again decreases the likelihood that they’ll go shoot somebody later–maybe not to zero, but still, we as a society would appreciate it if occasionally, in addition to spanking your kid, you let them know you love them.

One of the difficult aspects of science stems from the fact that human society is necessarily atomistic. While authority in the divine sense may not exist, expertise certainly does. If you want to have your appendix removed or know the difference between a charm and a strange quark or solve a third-order differential equation, you can’t just ask anybody. Well, the beauty of it is that you actually can, and, given enough time, a lot of people will be able to develop the expertise to tell you the answer or provide the service. Which is to say that simply because you do not have expertise does not mean you can’t get it.

Still. It’s pretty costly to get it. You have to observe the same stuff for a long time in order to really get it as well as somebody else gets it. Some people may never get it. And there’s a big fat undecidable proposition required for the whole endeavor: positivism. It’s undecidable because it can never be clear whether anything is true or causal or whether it just looks that way.

The two of these combined, philosophically, I think. Suddenly in the middle of the century, like say post-WWII, there’s a new “priesthood” — very deeply involved in the actual war, like the killing of a lot of people — made of scientists. While these scientists may not claim to be authorities over things they know nothing about, they do claim to have models that describe the world well, which translates poorly into English as knowing the “truth.” There’s a big hole when you try to claim that it’s the “Truth,” which is that one of the founding assumptions is the assumption that the “Truth” is knowable: positivism.

It turns out, for real, that it doesn’t “matter” whether the truth is knowable, if all you want to do is make a really good guess at what will be the consequences when you perform/observe a certain action.

I attribute the most recent part of this to literary critics. Post-structuralism pulled off a hell of a feat of equivocation by hijacking the fact that light travels at the same subjective speed but that time passes at different subjective rates depending on your frame of reference. They used that intuition to stake a claim that the fact that the Universe behaves in a way described by the General Theory of Relativity implies, in some fuzzy way, that the Universe is, generally, relative.

Maybe it seems like none of this stuff is relevant to your parenting or my parenting. I contend that that is not the case. When Barthes declared “The Death of the Author,” how could that not have had an effect on parenting?

It had a heck of an effect on individuals’ senses of identity.

It had a heck of an effect on characters in our stories.

Authority was revealed as a hoax, and with the Vietnam War, it was revealed as a dangerous, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt hoax. American culture was well-suited to accept this belief, I think, being composed primarily of the progeny and products of incorrigible contrarians. So a dash of French philosophy, some depressed post-war writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and later Saul Bellow, and even later, Don Delillo…

Out of time. It’s Halloween! More on this later.

This post is fabulous. Oh, different cultures. If you’re feeling awkward explaining condoms to your kids (ok, maybe college age kids), just send them this link for an incredibly entertaining experience. This must be new; if it isn’t, it should have been part of Slate’s YouTube Sex Ed special (featuring the brilliant (and fetching) Supreme Court scholar, interested parent, and Slate.com contributor Emily Bazelon).

I kid you not, child of mine. You are verging on the region of negative marginal benefit with respect to your cuteness.
Violet2

I say this because this past week was incredibly unproductive. …which is not to say that things aren’t going well. They’re going fantastically. Still, at some point, I will eventually have to stop staring at you and accomplish something.

(Violet’s started cooing. For minutes and minutes and minutes at a time. Literally cooing, like as in “…gurgle gurgle coo… ga coooo…heh coooooo…”

It is unbelievably cute. Heart-rendingly so.)

So from this, I imagine you get the basic idea: such literally incredible cuteness, in that I wouldn’t have believed it, cannot believe it, that the parents actually cannot stop paying attention to the child long enough to hunt/gather and hence begin to wither away, taking along with them all sources of sustenance for the ever-more-ravenous child. It’s a cuteness death spiral, kid, and I’d advise you to be more annoying more often if you want to make it to adolescence, let alone to college. If increasing hunger makes you less cute, it may be our only chance.

Violet1

We had a good weekend, though, kid. Red got to meet you and you, her. It was the first time it really felt like fall. Mom’s wearing her traditional seven layers of clothing to counteract the effect of our shoddily-constructed and poorly insulated (aka affordable) house. We went to a corn maze with quite a posse, all dressed up in flannel, and somewhere around midday, the sun reminded us that this is At-effing-lanta and so we ended up in short-sleeves with sunglasses. The next day your Mom and I and you and Red went for a walk in the woods with the dog. It was beautiful. We took lots of pictures. More of those later, I suppose.

Oh, and one time when you pooped, it was a lot, so I said that if pooping were a competitive sport, you would’ve won the “Pooper Bowl.” It was just as funny then as it is now. I love being a dad.

I’m reading Cryptonomicon and it’s a pretty spectacularly great book. I’m reading parts of it aloud to you, mostly when you’re upset, which is totally okay, despite the fact that the language is a little objectionable (if you object to certain language), I am not repeating my parents’ parenting failures by reading you Stephen King novels. It’s just a nice little — well, not little — book about codes and code-breaking and information and WWII and, tangentially, heroin-addiction and neuroses and social fluency and holocausts.

There’s an idea that has just been presented, about three kinds of people. Roughly, those who think talking is the opposite of doing something, those who think talking counts as doing something, and those who talk with the hopes that they’ll figure something out about the way things are or how things work or, as Bobby Shaftoe puts it, “what the fuck is going on.” Shaftoe notes that these kind of people usually try to engage other people, and hope they’ll join in.

It’s fun. It’s one of the wonderful parts — maybe the most wonderful part — of being a grad student. It runs in your family and extended family and I think you’ll enjoy it, too. If not, your upbringing is probably going to be pretty frustrating.

There are lots of examples – what will be the effect of new downtown dormitories for Georgia State University on the average rent in the area? More on everything later, though, eh?

For now, I’ll keep demonstrating how to make particular noises and practicing the alphabet and numbers with you. If it gets annoying, coo twice to let me know. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, coo three times. If you’re afraid we’re being overheard, we’ll have to work out a simple code. Instead of “coo” say “ba,” instead of “ba,” say “ga,” and instead of “ga,” say “coo.” That should fool ’em.