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

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