Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Very Tiny Universe Corner

We’ve been watching a lot of Star Wars recently, and talking about Star Wars, and posing all manner of Jedi investigations into hypothetical Star-Wars related scenarios. Was Ahsoka Tano alive when Darth Vader saved Luke? If Yoda always has a green light saber, and Luke builds a green light saber when he becomes a Jedi, why does Obi-Wan have a blue one? Will Leia become a Jedi ghost when she dies? I would say that Walt drives the interest, except that Sam is just as into it, and really, our plunge began with a set of knock-off Lego figures we ordered in a fit of desperation last fall, to bribe Walt during toilet training. The bribes worked. Our very tiny universe corner of characters expanded to include Kashyyyk troopers, alien oboists, subsets of subsets of Clone Troopers, and of course, their origin stories and back stories, complete with annotations and fold-out inset illustrations. The young readers section of the local library has roughly six thousand Star Wars-related titles, all of which arrive into our home mangled and drawn across, with pages taped together, that is, when the books are there at all. Most of the time, they are checked out, on reserve, out with the book mobile. And yet, we always check. However full our wheeled cart with other picture books and board books we stoop to the low shelf of Easy Reader Fiction (J E LEGO, J E STAR WARS), full of new hope.

I know more about Star Wars than I ever meant to. But I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of Star Wars. This all became painfully clear as I toggled through the magnificent and idiosyncratic Star Wars Minute podcast. Star Wars Minute is just that: a Star Wars movie watched a minute at a time, with following commentary of ten to forty minutes by two mega-fan hosts talking with guests. The guests include Daily Show writers, New Yorker cartoonists, foppish literary types, tenured scientists, comedians, even the guy who draws Dork Tower. Which is to say, a whole lot of people who know a lot about Star Wars, in the way that I think I know a lot about growing corn in a planter box, or professional wrestling, or building a pretty decent X-Wing fighter out of spare parts from the Lego bin under the sofa. A lot of knowledge for everyday life, but much less than what might begin to pass as professional knowledge in the larger vocational world (or barring that, the world of amateur podcasting). Much as I love Star Wars, I can't begin to imagine loving it that much.

A few weeks ago, at the rehearsal dinner for my friend Ben’s wedding, I sat next to a therapist. He was an uncle from Los Angeles. His practice was cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the model my therapist in Chicago uses, and so we got to talking pretty easily about his work. He had given a talk at a conference that week, in which he asked all of the assembled therapists to rank themselves by percentile. He knew from giving that talk previously that very few would say they were in the top 1%, 5%, even 10%. The therapists were too self-aware and polite to judge themselves so favorably. But he also knew that the majority would say they were somewhere around 70%: better than maybe two out of three other therapists in the room, which didn’t really work either. They couldn’t all be better than average. But how then to account for the inevitability of ever being merely an average therapist? Was it narcissism? Were they perhaps too good at reframing their own narratives to correct "errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, magnifying negatives, minimizing positives and catastrophizing”?

I really appreciate Adam Strassberg’s op-ed in the Palo Alto online newspaper, about parenting after the most recent suicides at Paly and Gunn. Beyond his practical tone, caution, and optimism, I was struck by what he said about regression to the mean, as it applies to parenting and expectation:

“the ‘more’ of a quality any parent possesses, the less likely their child will equal or exceed them in that quality. If you are very good at mathematics, your child is unlikely to be as good or better than you. If you are a great musician, maybe they will manage to be a mediocre musician. If you are a polyglot, they may stammer in English alone. And then there is that most damnable anxiety: If you attended an Ivy league college, your child is unlikely to attend an Ivy league college.”

It reminded me of the study in Thinking Fast and Slow, where Daniel Kahneman describes working with the Israeli Air Force. The data showed, time and again, that rewards for improved performance worked better than the punishment of mistakes. Nonsense, the flight instructors insisted. Disciplining cadets for bad execution led to better attempts the next time, while praise invariably led to complacency, and a mistake in the near term. However Kahneman explained that poor performance was typically followed by improvement, as excellent performance was followed by a drop-off, the idea that performance followed first regression to the mean, rather than the intensive influences of the teachers, was a pedagogical bridge too far. What role did the instructors play in such inevitabilities? 

Our goal, when we started swim lessons, was to get Walt water-safe by the start of summer. With three boys under the age of five, we wanted to arrive to the various swimming pools and cabin-home visits with at least one hearty swimmer. Walt is nearly there. He flits and floats with the best of them, kicking his legs mightily, lurching under the water and popping his head up to turn the goggles inside-out and look up from the step. I have a few hundred videos of the sequence on my phone. Walt loves his teacher. He knows his schedule inside and out, and he likes to ask, every day, whether it’s a swim lesson day. Really, Sam is our natural swimmer. From the first moment we lowered him into the water, he squealed and poked his way across the pool, albeit in our arms. But Sam is only two years old. Walt showed no interest until suddenly, one day, he did, and since swim lessons start at age three, he became our designated dog paddler.

There’s a fantastic moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo tries to jump the Millenium Falcon into light speed, only to find that the hyperdrive is broken. The deflector shields are failing. The star destroyer is only a good hit or two away from destroying it. It’s not fair, Han says, It’s not my fault!

This is maybe Han’s finest moment. He puts the Falcon into attack position, steering the Falcon into the enemy’s blind spot, where it seems to disappear. There is a nice moment of camp as the Falcon passes over the bridge of the enormous enemy ship. The captain and his first mate duck. I didn’t remember that detail until I heard it on the Star Wars Minute podcast, and the video shows it clearly. For all of Han’s bravado, he’s a pretty decent pilot. Despite the enormous ship and all of its technology, his implacable calm at having to visit Darth Vadar to deliver the bad news, Captain Needa loses the smaller ship. He is probably a good pilot, too, but he is most certainly toast.

I know that I harbor an unhelpful pessimism, bordering on cynicism, to think that fighter pilots will improve only with positive reinforcement. I trust that the data shows what it shows. I’d like to live in a world where constant encouragement forms the bedrock of real learning. But I know it isn’t true. Or, I suspect it isn’t, at least not without risking that worse form of discouragement, benign neglect, by which every encouragement becomes an excuse for just not thinking too hard. Of course, I'm biased. I do my best work when I am writing in the shadow of some impending failure, however imagined. I don’t really want my boys to grow up with that kind of doubt but I also worry that they might never push themselves very hard to do anything well without it. What I like about cognitive behavioral therapy is how there is a through-line to everything. Every behavior follows some precedent. Every context is interrelated. Like the Star Wars expanded universe encompassing every licensed and unlicensed manner of books, comic books, video games, toys, and other assorted media beyond the original movies, there is seemingly no way forward that does not also require simultaneously doubling back to check for consistency and logic while also altering the narrative to conform better to the present moment. Which is to say, the explaining itself becomes a kind of creative sense-making: entirely democratic, and also, full of irresolvable contradictions.

Wouldn’t it be great, a friend with no kids said the other day, if you could harness all that Star Wars-related learning and put it to use learning something important? I smiled and nodded, but of course, I didn’t really agree. Learning doesn’t work that way. At this age, what matters, I think, is that the boys develop a curiosity about anything and then pursue that curiosity on their own: imagine it, think about it, read about it, talk about it. What really matters is that the boys are well. We’re all pretty happy. I'd like to think we’ve slotted naturally into the elite stanine of parenting, as I’m sure my children are exceptional, our household a veritable hothouse of thriving children, my sensitive husbanding a perfect gift to my lovely wife. I know better. I’ve seen us tottering around the kitchen, putting dinner together while starting yet another episode of Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles. Surely, we could work harder. Chess lessons. Language classes. Tai Chi. Who knows really now how we are falling short. Every Friday, as Walt and I walk the half mile to swim lessons, I tell the stories of the first trilogy of movies, skipping the torture parts and minimizing the Ewoks, drawing out the Leia-Han kiss, which Walt loves. I can hang in for a few rounds of questions, though I’m at a loss to say whether Luke ever gets married, how Obi-Wan flies around the universe to advise other Jedi, when Han and Leia have their babies. Not even the Star Wars Minute hosts know those answers. That part of the story hasn’t been written yet, at least not officially.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Teaser #2 on Disney Video

Saturday, April 4, 2015

My TedX Talk

Last February, I was so pleased to participate in the TEDx conference at Palo Alto High School. Here is the talk that I gave there, "The Things We Don't Mean to Prepare For."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

There Is Only One of Everything

Last fall, I decided that all of the super hero theme songs were in my iTunes collection. They had been there all along. I was sick of toggling over to YouTube at red lights and in parking lots, only to burn through cellular data searching for the anthems of Spider-Man (vintage 60s), Green Lantern (cheap CGI reboot), Wonder Woman (poorly aging 70s show of my youth). And then, always: was the Bluetooth synched, were we in range, was the song so popular it had some ad click-through that terrified Baby and brother with some decibel-busting plywood pitch. Already, the pantheon was expanding faster than I could keep ahead of it. Our home celebrated bit player crossovers at Marvel and DC Comics, off-market Tinker Bells, the green fish on roller-skates with the British accent. And I didn’t really know. Did Ice Man even have a theme song? No, Daddy, one with words. It's not a theme song if it doesn't have words. So, now, Ice Man has a theme song. Performed by Kenny Loggins, of that oh-so-permanent-making flash of nostalgia by which the back catalogue slowly fills with Cyndi Lauper (FireStar!), Paul Simon live at the iTunes Festival (Falcon!), and Mr. Caddy Shack himself.

What are the Danger Zows? Walt asked yesterday on the way to preschool.

I turned down the Loggins. 

Well, I said, it's where you go when you fly in a really fast airplane.

He thought about this for a moment.

You mean Florida?

My parents live in Florida. I could see where this might end up.

Not Florida, exactly, I said. It's more like where army planes go.

He liked that answer.

To fight bad guys? 

Sure, I said, they used to. There aren't a lot of bad guys left who fly planes as fast as ours.

What about Lex Luthor? he asked, or maybe Wonder Woman. Her jet is invisible.

What about Elsa? I asked. Walt hates Elsa. He loves Elsa. I’m pretty sure Elsa keeps Walt awake late at night, wondering about her freezing power and pretty hair.

No, not Elsa! Walt said. Then, after a few seconds. Can we listen to “Let It Go”?

I've tried mixing in a few non-tights, semi-animated options. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" was a hit for a while, then the Mary Poppins soundtrack, "Everything is Awesome," "Nice To Be With You." A couple of weekends ago, Cait asked me to download "Midnight Train to Georgia." The one by the old blues guy, she said, and there was something like 300 versions on iTunes, mostly vintage and adult contemporary and karaoke versions, even a live cover by the Indigo Girls cover, but none by an old blues guy. Did she mean the Indigo Girls cover? Because I had my own, complicated, Elsa-like feelings about the Indigo Girls. So, we settled on the Gladys Knight version, and after a few listens, Walt started getting the "Woo Hoo!" in time with the chorus, and then he started asking questions.

Are they going to buy a minivan when they get to Georgia? 

Are they going to drive a car to the train station? 

Why is the mommy singing the song and the daddy isn't?

Are one of them your friends?

There’s a great Tom Hanks interview from a couple of years ago over at The Nerdist. At one point, talking about Busom Bodies, he joking refers to the 1980s as, “you know, that time in America when nothing good happened.” It’s funny how much has aged poorly since that seeming golden age of my synth-rock, anti-Communist, pro-aerosol youth. Not just Kenny Loggins, with the hoop, hair gel, and white T. I had forgotten until a friend reminded me recently that there was a stretch of years where Randy Macho Man Savage’s whole gimmick was to threaten to beat his wife.  I tried to put on He-Man for the boys, as an alternative to the snake-fighting Lego ninjas, and we didn’t make it much past the credits.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews have aged marvelously. Walt and Sammy don't deny it. We sit on the sofa and clap along to “Step in Time,” while the boys bounce on the cushions and kick furiously:

Of course, I’m always waiting for one of them to fall, and fall into the other, or splay and bonk head-first into the table, floor, wall, hutch. Who am I to deny them the manic pleasures of childhood? The guy who will take them to the ER, I guess, though so far (knock on wood), we're all intact.

Chuck Klosterman had a nice thought recently about “Boyhood,” that, in scene after scene, it plays against our movie-going expectation that dangerous situations will always end in violence. Year after year, Mason’s friends make skateboard ramps, careen in cars, handle guns, intoxicate themselves, and everyone is fine. Time passes. Before you know it, Mason is off to college. I have a year still before Walt is as old as Mason in the first shot of the movie, and since I watched it, I’ve had a kind of helpless wonder at how exceptionally hard it is to acknowledge happiness and trust it. There is a great poem from Margaret Atwood’s 1974 collection, You Are Happy, that I’ll paste below. I remember reading it first as an undergraduate and loving it as a love poem, though now it inflects all these great secondary readings about stability, pleasure, and of course, bittersweet loneliness. There is only one of everything, of course, and if you’re a super-hero, then you’re lucky to get a theme song at all.

There Is Only One of Everything (Margaret Atwood)

Not a tree but the tree
we saw, it will never exist, split by the wind and bending down
like that again. What will push out of the earth

later, making it summer, will not be
grass, leaves, repetition, there will
have to be other words. When my

eyes close language vanishes. The cat
with the divided face, half black half orange
nests in my scruffy fur coat, I drink tea,

fingers curved around the cup, impossible
to duplicate these flavours. The table
and freak plates glow softly, consuming themselves,

I look out at you and you occur
in this winter kitchen, random as trees or sentences,
entering me, fading like them, in time you will disappear

but the way you dance by yourself
on the tile floor to a worn song, flat and mournful,
so delighted, spoon waved in one hand, wisps of roughened hair

sticking up from your head, it's your surprised
body, pleasure I like. I can even say it,
though only once and it won't

last: I want this. I want

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vast, Encompassing Circle

It's a strange thing to worry about writing with a newborn in the house. The baby sleeps, his brothers race and cavort, suffer and secret off into their room for secret fun. In the tub last night, Walt held out a plastic yellow cup to Sam, whispered, "Mug," and both broke into hysterics. This happened at least eight times in a row. Toward the end, Sam picked up a plastic brick and whacked it at Walt's head, which often signals the end to such fun. Except Walt didn't flinch. He offered the mug faster. Sam whacked harder. They both kept laughing. Being the oldest, Walt is easier to get out of the tub. We offer the new shiny carrot: bubblegum-flavored mouthwash. Still, Walt is heartbroken to leave the bath when Sam gets to stay a little longer. Sam is thrilled to stretch out in the tub, more than half its length now. Sam has a lower boiling point but he recovers from his heartaches faster. Such is the lot in life of the middle child toddler, I guess. I still don't think of Sam as the middle child, since only five weeks ago he was the younger boy and Walt was the older. Walt is older still, but of course, now he's the oldest. Now, Monty is the baby. He gets his own bath and bedtime, and hours upon hours of being held by the people who love him, which these last two weeks has included my parents visiting from Florida, showing up first thing in the morning to get us an extra hour of sleep, fold laundry, hang curtains, make meals, help with the preschool drop-offs and pick-ups. Cait and I have even gone out on a couple of afternoon dates. Tomorrow, we're off to JC Penny's to take a family portrait. Then it's back to the trenches, the wonderful pleasant trenches, to keep our heads down and the boys amused--stories, games, drawing, backyard LARP-ing--and at night, if the baby is sleeping and the boys are sleeping and Cait is sleeping, if there is any time leftover, I'm sitting down to try to work piecemeal through something that can become the next poem, essay, book. Which is its own kind of romantic worry, that there will be more time, but also, that such time is worth saving outside of the present moment, before it races past memory and into imagination; when, whatever else we feel, we feel very needed and alive. 

Poem Written in A Copy of Beowulf

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

― Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Purge #3

Things are going. They are nearly gone. That corner where we kept the shiny appliance boxes in case the machines broke or we needed to return them? Clean and papered over. The snap-in child seat strollers? Pushed to one side and wheeled, ended to end, beside the makeshift tool box, Christmas decorations, and emergency earthquake kit. A new steel shelf is up and ready to store still more dry goods, paper products, and pounds upon pounds of diapers and nut butters. Never mind we are a five-minute drive from several supermarkets and one conspicuous wholesaler, or that we have done this twice before. The garage is our off-site bunker. We’re ready to unleash the baby swing, neglect-o-pod, co-sleeper, and bouncer. In the meantime, several boxes of books can be bought for two or three dollars on Amazon. Find Cait's seller page. Look for the poetry books I bought in graduate school, and then schlepped to Romania, Indiana, and San Francisco, the baby books with purple and red page borders, the copy of Infinite Jest I bought to read before the last baby arrived, the companion guide to Infinite Jest I eventually read instead.

TimeOut Chicago ran last week a list of gone-but-not-forgotten theater companies in Chicago. I had to check that my beloved StageLeft was still there, in the building down the street from the old apartment. Katie and I saw The Good Person of Szechuan, there, and a couple of hometown musicals, but the one that knocked our socks off was Mrs. Mackenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues, about a high school teacher who has an affair with her ambitious, if cynical student, to whom she later outgrows her usefulness. This was April, 2002. The play was heartbreaking, especially the Clapton-esque fan favorite that the boy became, riffing onstage, at the very end: all skill and no heart. The Famous Door, however, is long gone. A few weeks after “Mackenzie’s….” Katie and I took in their all-day, one-hundred-roles adaptation of Cider House Rules. We had never seen anything like it. We became members there, too, though even the manager warned there probably wouldn't be a next season. The theather that housed company is now a gym. The neighborhood that houses the gym has turned over a few of its landmarks: the Turkish restaurant with the mat seats, the pet store, the used-record shop with the Specials poster in the window.

Last March, when the books came out, I paid the discount author's rate to buy two boxes filled to the brim with each: poetry in one box, memoir in the other. The boxes are gone now. The books are gone, too. I've sold them at readings and given them to friends. I donated one copy to the local library and sent another to a man in Kentucky, who wrote to say that he'd just gone through something similar. Last week, I bought a used copy of the memoir from Amazon.Com for fifteen cents. I was curious who was selling the book so soon after it came out. The copy was in pristine shape, unsigned; hardly opened. Whoever purged that copy did so quickly. 

Cait and I’s lesson plans are set (more or less) two and three weeks out. We've fixed the closet door and kitchen drawer, the bath mats, grill grate, dishwasher valve, and socket. We have a new rice cooker, new car seat, new computer cables, new diaper rash ointment and dozens of AA and AAA batteries. The tubs of baby clothes, sorted by size, are stacked by the garage door. I brought in a couple of the baby toys that Walt spotted when we were putting away bikes the other afternoon. I plugged in the batteries and, as he flicked the different switches, various Sesame Street characters took turns popping through doors and singing their songs. I knew all the songs and could imitate the voices pretty well, which thrilled Walt. Sam was thrilled, too. Across the room, for a few beautiful minutes, he had the whole burgeoning LEGO empire to himself, though of course he eventually toddled over, climbed up onto the sofa, and worked poor Cookie Monster until the orange cookie finally refused to pop back up.

Walt was twenty-one months the day that Sam arrived. I remember a whole spring of sepia-toned afternoons, gardens in full bloom, and long walks around the block with my only boy. I remember reading a few of the sibling books and going for long runs through the neighborhood, listening to music on my phone, certain Cait would call any minute to say the labor had begun the new baby was on his way. Of course, she never did. Sam came into this world right on time, and a few days later, we were mapping out our afternoons and evenings, me with Walt and Cait with Sam, our routines suddenly simultaneous and escalating and two-fold, like birds arriving to the duck pond where Walt and I used to take crackers and stale bread to kill the morning, or Gremlins breeding in darkness. The reality of two kinds under two years of age set in. We were off to the races.

Now, of course, those exhausted mornings chasing one boy out the door while holding the other in my arms, warming up some milk, have matured into busy afternoons at the park, quick trips in the car, long plane flights when the boys travel well and we know enough to (usually) stay ahead of their distractions and (sometimes) make it into a game. Our Gremlins are furry and cute again. The afternoons are again sepia-toned. Sam and Walt can scoot their balance-bikes through the neighborhood and I’d like to think, because we’ve done this before, I’ll do a better job of enjoying the first few weeks of Three-Pete’s life. Probably, I should know better. All those easy routines and comforts of becoming a family that fall apart, Jenga-like, with missed sleep, spiked fevers, or cantankerous siblings, may compound exponentially; what more than a few friends have described as dropping out of man-to-man into a zone coverage. Then, we’ll emerge out of our fog. Walt is already four. Sam is two. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Our new plan is nearly complete. I’m glad we’ve made one, regardless of whether it will prove to be of any use. For now, at least, we have the clean floors, tidy shelves, and stockpiles of food to sustain these next few weeks of waiting.