Monday, January 24, 2011

Making the Turn

I like to play golf alone.

It’s a social game, that’s what everybody says--nothing like being out there in the fresh air with your best buddies--but for me some of the best times are when it’s just me and the ball. My dad taught me the game fifty years ago. He’s been dead for thirty-five years now, and I’m still playing with him. Sometimes I think there’s just not room for anyone else in our twosome.

We used to go out on summer evenings, when the shadows of the big oaks lay upon the fairways like the first footprints of night. Sometimes we only finished a few holes before someone came out in a golf cart and called out that my father had to go to the hospital to deliver a baby. I think that’s why to this day I don’t like golf carts. Our time playing together was adolescent love, rushes of adrenaline bordering on lust that regularly overcame my good judgment. I wanted so badly to hit every shot perfectly for him that I practically quivered as I stood over the ball.

My blue-eyed dad and me
Being too anxious always made me swing too fast, which, given my swing mechanics, resulted in big hooks. I was close personal friends with the sand traps on the left side of every green. Dad was patient with me, or not. It’s hard to say which. At the time, I thought not. I thought he was pushing me to be perfect. With every snap hook he would toss another ball onto the close-clipped bermuda grass and tell me to hit another. After three or four shots, I would settle down a little, maybe from fatigue, and not rush the shot and hit a beauty.

I say I don’t know whether he was impatient or patient. With him, it was hard to tell the difference. He was insistent. Which is that? Patient or impatient? He gave me golf pointers, but the do-overs weren’t for swing diagnostics so much as execution. He wanted me to see that I could do it, I think, to have that confidence. But the way it felt to me was that he wanted to see for himself that I could, and it left me feeling that I could never do it well enough for him.

We would talk about our rounds over dinner, replaying every shot. It’s no wonder my poor mother went mad. When I played alone, as I did often those summers when I was thirteen and fourteen, I rehearsed those dinner table recaps. “I was three over after fourteen,” I imagined telling him. “All I had to do was par in for seventy five.” I had never had a seventy-five at that point, at least not one without a lot of mulligans. I thought he would be so proud. He was right there with me on those last holes, and the quivering and the hooking began.

When I play now, I go late in the day, as my father and I did, walking alone with my bag in the slanting light. There aren’t many big oak trees on the local municipal course, but the air has that same lazy softness, with a hint of the cool weight that will come at dusk. If the sun is at my back and the ball as I address it is in my shadow, it is my father’s shadow as he stands behind me, watching. He had deep blue eyes and a perpetual squint. He was quick to laugh and quick to anger, but his eyes always looked the same, as though they were trying to see something they could not quite. I used to think it was some part of me he was looking for, but I was never sure just what.

If I am playing alone, I don’t think about anything but golf. Everything else is gone. I am ageless. It’s not about the score for me, it’s entirely about the shots, the feel of the club in my hands, the tempo and balance of a good swing, the rise of the ball off the tee, maybe a little draw at the end, just enough to give some extra roll.

I don’t play often, haven’t since I was a boy. I’m not sure why. Work, kids. That’s what I’ve always thought, although maybe it just isn’t the same if I can’t hit that perfect shot for Dad. Besides, it’s only a game.

When I was young and practicing law, I put one foot in front of the other and marched down a path I thought was leading somewhere. I imagined I was a master of the universe, but I see now that I was merely a cog in a great commercial wheel. I had fun, but anybody could have done it, anyone could have taken my place at the oar.

Somewhere along the way, the narcotic of youth, the drug of immortality, wore off. I always knew I would not live forever, but not really. You don’t feel your own mortality until you do, and then there is no going back. You can see a future without you. Such a thing never existed before in my imagination.

My grandfathers both lived to be a hundred. Maybe I will too. With all those years ahead of me, if I am lucky, what should I do? Get better at golf? No, I don’t think so. There is still time to make a difference in the world, and the lingering residue of my youth is stubborn hopefulness, an enduring conviction that if I drop another ball and take another swing, I will hit it perfectly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vini, Vidi, Vinci

Amy, Amy, Amy, what have you started? You’ve churned the waters of the tranquil private lake of WASP parenting, causing unbearable angst and doubt for so many parents of young children. “Should I lock my child outside until he obeys?” they are asking. “What about food while he whines on the porch and shreds the screen door? Is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich okay, perhaps shoved through the doggy door, or must I still serve only locally-grown organic?”

A young miscreant
These are tough questions, to be sure, but what about those of us for whom it is too late, those whose children have somehow survived our oblivious coddling and lurched out of the nest? What are we to do? Are we to be consigned to the hell of regret for all the ways we failed to do what was best for our children? Oh, god, just push me off on the iceberg now and get it over with.

To those parents, the ones for whom the die of child raising is already cast, I say take heart. If you let your kids do what they damn well pleased, you have done the right thing. Even though you may now think (or perhaps thought at the time) that you were just lazy, you have been saved from yourself, and your children from you, by nature.

We have a game in our family called “What Would Darwin Say.” We play it all the time to try to link modern habits and traits to their evolutionary roots. For me, it’s sort of my way of saying it’s not my fault. What chance do I have to influence behavior when matched up against millions of years of natural selection?

Like so many others, I tried to limit the time my young children watched television and played video games. For my first three children, we didn’t even have a televison in the house for a long time. This resulted in them spending a lot of time at friends' houses and me finagling invitations to Super Bowl and Oscar parties.

Those first three babes were out of the house by the time the video game tsunami hit, but Meg’s and my boys were right on the beach, in little thatched huts. We were even contributors to the disaster. We like educational computer games, and Chris and Nick were solving math problems to find the puffer fish or save the planet from asteroid strikes at ages when attention still had to be paid to the risk of drool on their keyboards.

The result: they got good at math and hooked on blowing up asteroids. Naturally, when games like Nintendo came out, they were in. We resisted. But there were all those long cross-country car trips during one phase, and what parent hasn’t kept his eyes on the road and not questioned why it was so quiet in the backseat.

Later, when we started finding Gameboy handsets hidden under their pillows, we played hide and seek. I have to say, this was probably a significant contributor to their deductive reasoning ability, as they always found them, even in the freezer, under the French fries (no, extreme cold doesn’t seem to degrade performance).

We sparred like that all through high school. Some of the strategy games seemed pretty cool, I must say, but all of them were time sinks. That’s the problem, right? No one thinks that a little bit of Mario the Little Tailor or Civilization is going to rot anyone's brain (any more than an hour of Tom and Jerry over sugar frosted pops), but the damn things are addictive. They suck down time that the bit of Puritan in all parents thinks should be spent playing outside, making friends and doing homework.

Ask yourself this, though: Why are video games so addictive? Obviously they stimulate some pleasure center of the brain that keeps us coming back for more. What else does that? Sex. Daring risk-taking. As a species, where would we be without sex and daring risk-taking?

In fact, can you name an activity that stimulates us pleasurably that is not arguably good for us? (Not counting the ones that require ingesting other substances.) It only makes sense that nature would wire us that way: If it’s good for us, we’re programmed to like it so that we’ll do more of it. It’s more about dopamine than dopes.

So certain am I of this thesis that I have come up with a term for it: the Video Immersion Darwinian Imperative. VIDI, for short.

So, go ahead, rents, give in to the inexorable forces of nature. As Bob Dylan said, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” This has the added advantage of letting you sharpen your own video-game skills in plain sight in your living room instead of sneaking off to the bathroom or the garage.
VIDI is here. Can Vinci be far behind?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Metaphor Man

Nick was home from his first semester in college and we were out walking the dog when I gave him some pithy piece of advice. He rolled his eyes. What? I said. It’s good advice, right?

He said it was. So why the eye roll? It’s just that I’ve heard it a million times, he said. It’s one of the things you tell me all the time. The only thing you vary is the metaphors you use to make your point. He looked at me the way I remember my grandmother looking at me during a kind scolding. You use a lot of metaphors, he said.

So, I am metaphor man. (I fancy myself a writer, after all.) Actually, many of my rambling windups to some moral are more like parables. Blame that on growing up on the King James Bible and William Faulkner.

Morbidly curious about the breadth and depth of my nagging, I asked Nick how many things I “tell him all the time,” and how big a slice of the Dad Advice Pie Chart this one would be. He said this particular one---Don’t Procrastinate---was a big one, probably accounting for a quarter to a third of the whole.

That’s good. If one is a quarter to a third, there aren’t more than three or four. How bad could it be to boil my guidance down to three or four bromides, delivered via charming morality tales?

Actually, it turns out the number is more like eight to twelve, according to Nick. Still, not so bad. He promised that when he got back to school, safely out of range of another metaphor, he would send me a list of my core pieces of advice and indicate their relative percentage of the whole. I’m thinking it will make a good self-help book. The cover will be a Roz Chast-like pie chart with a harried dad, perhaps dressed in a preacher’s robes, pointing to it from behind a pulpit.

Cartoon by my daughter, Ashley
(with her recollection of Dad's little homilies) 
I know children have to make their own way. I write about that all the time. The trouble is, when push comes to shove, I can’t help trying to be helpful (the way I see it), or shut up (their point of view). I think I may have an over-active part of my base brain that takes everyday fears about my children and runs them through the fight-or-flight loop that is reserved for those times we are about to be eaten by something with sharp teeth and a big appetite.

It’s almost physical. If I fail to remind my children of something important that they need to be doing, I begin to feel uncomfortable, experiencing the same kind of low-level anxiety that you feel on the airplane to Europe when you wonder if you turned off the stove. What if, in my heroic effort to be a non-nag, something dreadful befalls them that a gentle nudge from me could have prevented?

I’m addicted to protectiveness, I fear. That and motivational inspiration. I haven’t yet tried “Win one for the Gipper,” but there’s still time.

The other night, Meg and I were trying to remember when Nick learned to sing from his diaphragm. We think it was in a theatre camp he attended in Santa Barbara one summer, when he was about eight. The camp only lasted a few weeks, but whatever they told him stuck. Ever since that summer, he’s been able to blow the roof off.

He only has to be told once, Meg said. And she’s right. He can read lines for a play and know them almost immediately. He has practically perfect memory for song lyrics and movie dialogue, even after many years.

So, why, you might well ask, do I feel the need to tell him the same things over and over? It’s one of life’s little mysteries.

One explanation might be that I can see and hear that he remembers song lyrics when he sings, or arcane bits about dark matter when he talks about a Nova program we watched long ago, but I have too few external indicators of whether he remembers the advice I have given him, especially now that he is (mercifully, as far as he is concerned, I’m sure) living too far away for daily checkups. I realize that it is possible that he remembers what I say and ignores it, but it is such good advice that that seems unlikely. What boy would ignore his father’s good counsel?

Nick is studying computer science. Perhaps he’ll invent a chip and display that will glow green in each category of the Dad Advice Pie Chart when the advice is remembered. Instead of bothering him, I could just check the chip.

Speaking of the Dad Advice Pie Chart, I still haven't received the list of my eight to twelve core pieces of advice. If you read this, Nick, send it along. Don't procrastinate.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Uncle Miltie in the House

My son Chris, who I have raised to be a good boy, is showing disturbing signs of intellectual independence. (You’ll note that this is a recurring theme in these posts on the joys and futility of fatherhood.)

Our budding economist. Will he want to
steer markets, or want them set free?
In his third year studying economics at the University of Chicago, Chris is starting to actually know stuff, so that when we talk about public economic policy, for instance, and I begin railing about some libertarian voodoo economic theory involving low taxes and buoyant growth, he looks at me soberly and says that the studies he has read indicate that raising taxes always depresses GDP.

Darn, I knew I should have encouraged him to go to Berkeley rather than the home of Milton Freidman.

What about the tremendous growth in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent (yes, you read that right, 91 percent)? That was a different time, he says. Huge expansion after WW II, both here and abroad. Not comparable to today’s world.

Okay, how about the expansion in the 1990s after Bill Clinton raised taxes? This is about the point when he reminds me of the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. (Credit where credit is due: our family got that one from Aaron Sorkin, via Martin Sheen on “The West Wing.”) Just because one thing follows another, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the first event caused (or didn't impede) the second. There are lots of factors that make economies expand and contract. Tax policy is just one of them.

The question, Chris says, is not whether tax increases depress growth, but how to structure the tax system to do its job most efficiently. He favors tax reform that eliminates tax expenditures (targeted deductions and credits), thereby broadening the tax base. A broader tax base would allow a progressive tax structure with lower rates at all income levels.

Another inconvenient truth he let me in on over winter break is that when jobless benefits expire, hiring goes up. Even in a recession. The implication is that, as my conservative friends like to say, people collecting jobless benefits don’t even look for work until the sugar bowl is empty.

All this, of course, makes my bleeding liberal heart palpitate. I want the government to help the needy. So does Chris, by the way. What he is trying to show me, though, is that my knee-jerk reaction to throw money at the problem might not be sound economics.

Chris has always been intellectually patient (part of the reason he’s such a good chess player). He doesn’t jump to conclusions. He likes to have facts and coherent theories. And he looks for them wherever there are good thinkers, whatever their political stripe. He reads Gail Collins and David Brooks with equal interest (and occasional chuckles). He studies John Maynard Keynes side by side with Friedrich Hayek.

The conversations he and I have now remind me of ones I had with my father when I was in law school. My dad was a Goldwater conservative. I wasn’t as liberal then as I am now, but we still had plenty to debate, and debate we did. During one late night extravaganza, he interrupted some point he was making and looked up at me and said he wanted to go to law school. He was a doctor, and a brilliant man, but the legal training I was getting was making me more rigorous analytically, and he wanted that edge too. I never told him so (I wish I had), but I always admired him for that, not for the implicit compliment of my debating skills, but for wanting to get better himself, for wanting to be able to better parse public policy questions.

Like almost everyone else who lives in Nancy Pelosi’s backyard, I am desperately looking for the silver lining of Speaker Boehner, even though orangish-tan, rather than silver, is more the color we associate with him. Maybe, as President Obama once joked, the new Speaker is himself a “person of color” and, as such, will have appropriate empathy for the poor and downtrodden---right after he repeals their health-care benefits. There is this hopeful sign: John Boehner cries as easily as my grandfather after a couple of glasses of sherry, and my grandfather had a big heart.

So the leader of the new Republican majority is a sentimental guy who votes like a prison warden. How do you reach a guy like that? Probably not with tightly reasoned logic and white papers. Probably not with late-night father-son debates. I think we’re going to have to find another way.

Embracing Chris’s willingness to take good ideas wherever he finds them, I suppose it is remotely possible that a Republican House could be good for the country. Certainly the voters thought so. I’ll admit that we Democrats are wusses when it comes to cutting spending. We just don’t have the fiscal discipline to send young kids home after school to an empty house, or their parents to the grocery store with an empty wallet. But spending does have to be cut. Everyone can see that.

Or maybe not everyone. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate economist and New York Times columnist, has been saying for a long time that we need more, not less, government spending, at least temporarily, as starter fuel for the economic engine. He recently criticized President Obama for giving credence to Republican ideas like “belt tightening.”

I admire Paul Krugman, and I agree with him most of the time, but what does it mean if we can’t talk to each other? Giving some credence to the other fellow’s point of view is almost always the best way to start a dialogue. “Few people can see genius in someone who has offended them.” (Robertson Davies)

If we speak only the language of our own ideas, we will be understood only by those who share that language. On my visits to Italy I’ve noticed that slowing down my English, using enthusiastic hand gestures, even adopting a Tony Soprano accent, has not helped me be understood. I have to use their words to get them to see what I am trying to say.

There are common languages we all speak. Love is the big one, of course, and it has a long, stimulating, tradition in politics. Another, more practical, substitute is humor. If Hitler had been funnier, we might all be speaking German.

Everyone loves a good political cartoon skewering some bloated politician. Even though we tend to laugh loudest at jokes made at the expense of our political enemies, we usually see the humor in any really good joke, sometimes with embarrassment. Who hasn’t choked off a chuckle at a particularly funny jab at stereotypes, racial, gender, whatever. I’m not talking about Nazi rants, just the little off-color nuggets that have a recognizable grain of truth. It is that flickering insight into a point of view that might be offensive if presented straight up that might help us learn to speak to one another.

Perhaps we need both Uncle Milties in the House: Freidman and Berle.

Which reminds me. Have you heard the one about John Boehner taking Nancy Pelosi to his favorite bar? The bartender looks a lot like President Obama. Boehner waves to him and says...

(Painless Econ 101. An amusing Keynes v Hayek rap)