Friday, September 26, 2014

Let's wait on the money

            As you may have heard, a month or so ago someone hacked into the photo archives of a bunch of famous and semi-famous actresses and, after retrieving a large cache of nude photographs and posting them in a publicly accessible place on the web, set off an orgy of downloading and subsequent hand-wringing over public morality and internet privacy. Presumably these two things played out among different groups and each had their own type of fun with it (I guess a few hypocrites might have done a little of both).
            The only article I read about this episode was this one by Molly Lambert, an entertainment writer for the website Touching on some of the larger themes spinning off from this episode – internet privacy, mob dynamics, women and media – it’s worth a read. The reason I bring it up, and the whole episode more fully, is that I came away from her article thinking about the subtle role money played in all of this. Entertainment companies rely heavily on a few strategies to grab consumers’ attention and convince them to pay for the movies, music, and games they sell. When it comes to selling women (and that is an intentional malapropism), sex appeal is an easy choice. Provocative photo shoots, barely-clothed struts in music videos, sex scenes in movies, even the glamour and glitz of red carpet interviews all are designed to stoke a biological reaction, to prick peoples’ curiosity, and to get them to pay up in order to see more.
           That more doesn’t have to actually be sex or even nudity. The power really lies in the curiosity and the questions that follow: what are this star going to look like in this movie? What about that show? How about at this awards ceremony? How about when they go to the dry-cleaners? With these efforts the entertainment companies are like shark scientists chumming the water to bring out the sharks. The scientists keep throwing out bloody meat to grab the sharks’ attention, trying to manipulate the sharks’ biological reactions to make them go somewhere they might not otherwise go.
            In this analogy, the Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, etc photo hack and subsequent mob download was like having one of these shark scientists fall overboard and get attacked. The sharks weren’t doing anything different than what the scientists had been priming them to do over and over again – come up to the boat and take some bites. The reaction was already pre-programmed into the system.

            I wanted to touch on this dynamic between advertising and human reactions as a way to talk about money and kids and how kids are supposed to learn to handle money. A capitalist economy demands that all companies scramble for consumer dollars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From a business perspective, competition is a great motivator. It challenges people and companies to do things and do them better: to try new manufacturing processes, to reach out to new markets, to improve their product quality, to lower prices, to explore new ideas.
           From the consumer side though, this constant competition for dollars means we get buried by advertising. Our daily existence now contains an endless assault of images, catch words, manipulations and games that seek to worm their way into our consciousness, play with our emotions, and overwhelm our decision-making processes in an effort to grab some of our money. In the face of this onslaught, it’s hard to say ‘Stop’ and harder still to clear away all the noise and make cogent decisions about what is important or how to spend your money in useful ways.
            Which brings me to kids and money. The conventional idea about learning how to handle money is the one I grew up with. I started getting a small allowance as a five or six year old. I think it was a quarter once a week ostensibly for taking out the trash and doing what other chores were asked of me. The idea was that I would patiently save my quarters to buy something I wanted. For a while this was Matchbox cars. Then it was baseball cards. One summer I think I mostly bought candy. At some point my parents took me to the bank to open a savings account so that I could also learn about how interest works and come to appreciate how saving some of those quarters could increase my overall total over time.
            This was all well and good and I guess I learned how to overcome my immediate impulses to buy something in order to save for something else. But, in an era where every website and app pumps out advertisements by the truckload, book order pamphlets from Scholastic come home twice a month from school, PTA events are sponsored by local real estate agents, and the calendars our school requires every student to buy contains a giant ad for a local orthodontist on the back, I wonder if this kind of early exposure to the capital machine might do more harm than good. Isn’t teaching young kids about money by giving them money akin to teaching interns at the zoo to feed the lions by giving them a meat-sicle and dropping them into the lion enclosure? It feels like they don’t have a chance.
            Or imagine a six-year old faced with the allure of an ice cream truck? How can it make any sense to a kid how to decide whether he should buy an ice cream or not? He knows he wants it. The colorful, happy signs on the side tell him how good the ice cream tastes and how wonderful it will make him feel. The only reason to hold off is that his parents say he shouldn’t – because it will ruin his dinner or some stupid thing like that. That’s a no-win situation for everyone but the person selling the ice cream.
            And, even if the kid has decided to hold on to his quarters to buy something else he wants, he still isn’t getting at the real challenge behind managing money. He’s just holding off on one want for another. Since his parents are covering all the necessities, since he doesn’t have to figure out how he’s going to buy food for the next month or afford the clothes he needs for work or the gas he needs to get around or the rent he has to pay, there’s no larger context in which to learn a productive lesson about making difficult choices and living within his means. It’s just ice cream now or candy later.
            Might it be easier to handle if there was no actual money involved? Can you talk about advertising strategies and how they make you feel with a clearer head if there’s no actual chance to buy the ice cream? Isn’t it easier to see the various games that are being played within the system to attract your attention if you start from outside? Might it be easier to ignore the chum if you’ve had a chance to look at what it is designed to do?
           I don’t know for sure, but in our family we’re giving it a try.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's the News?

            For the past five to seven years, I’ve been living in a news bubble, largely avoiding stories and news reports from the world at large. I hadn’t planned to do this. Until Pip could talk I listened to the news on the radio while we snacked or played. However, as he got more capable, this arrangement stopped working. He would start to play with a toy while I was listening to a news story and before I knew it the toy would come flying across the room. It turned out I couldn’t pay attention to both Pip and the news. One thing had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Pip. So, the radio got turned off. The bubble got turned on. Polly’s arrival a year or so later fully cemented this arrangement.

Now that Pip and Polly are in school, I suddenly have time to pay attention to the news again. I read the Washington Post at lunch and browse through the Economist – a gift from Ava – in the evenings. When the first issue of that magazine arrived, I was overwhelmed by all the crazy things that were going on in its pages: Russia has annexed the Crimea and is trying to take over more of eastern Ukraine? Large parts of Syria and Iraq are being controlled by some metastasized terrorist group I’ve never heard of? Police units are rolling out tanks in Ferguson, Missouri? A commercial airliner disappeared over the Indian Ocean and another from the same company was shot out of the sky a couple of weeks later? I wondered if the world had exploded while I was out of touch or if this was just a normal condition that I was no longer used to.

I also began to wonder exactly what it was I was supposed to do with all of this information. When I was in high school and college these kinds of stories thrilled me. They represented history in the making. They were context for understanding the world. They were data that I could use in my future life. The people and places in those stories represented a world that was different from the one I was living in, one that was more important, one that I could strive to join. Even in grad school, I read the news with a purpose. I was studying Islamist politics and geographies of capitalism and globalization. Everything I saw in the news had the potential to show up somewhere else – whether it was in an example in a paper, in a conversation with other students, or in some lecture by a visiting professor. All of this was something to know so that I could be a part of it.

            Now, on the other side of school and kids, none of that feels true anymore. As I have found myself lured more deeply into random on-running news-stories – Scotland is voting to break off from the United Kingdom? – I am coming to realize that in my present life there is little to no difference between reading the news in the Economist and flipping through the pages of US Weekly. In neither case am I reading for any particular reason beyond curiosity and escapism. President Obamas plan to fight the Islamic State has no more immediate bearing on my life than some celebrity’s hemline. Regardless of what I read in the paper, the most pressing questions I need to answer – how are the kids doing at school, when is soccer practice, what issues are cropping up at Ava’s work – are all hyper-local. The world where all these news stories are happening – be they the financial impacts of Brazils presidential election or stolen nudes of famous actresses – feels farther away than ever.

            This idea that the news is just another form of entertainment is not revelatory. One only needs to look on the main page at Yahoo to see Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices and Kim Kardashians latest shenanigans intermixed with headlines about Russia’s geopolitical strategies and gun control questions in Florida. The headlines on that page target the interests of very different people, but they all appeal to the same instinct – a desire to read about some other world, a desire to step outside your own for a little while.

            What is interesting to me in all of this is what my reaction says about where I am in my life. I guess it reflects something of a mid-life crisis. The dream that I would be a part of these stories, that my world would somehow overlap or interweave with these, has faded away, leaving me unsure about how to relate to things I use to easily understand. I still want to read about the world beyond my doorstep. I’m still interested to learn what’s going on in Beijing and Baghdad and Moscow. But, to my surprise, I no longer want them to come closer. In fact on most days, I’m happy for them all to be just as irrelevant as the latest controversial pop lyrics, to be curiosities that I can read about, enjoy, and then easily put away. We’ve got plenty of challenges to work out within the four walls of our home. I no longer have the time or interest to claw my way into the news world as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Fathers worry about their sons because boys do stupid things. Fathers worry about their daughters for the same reason.

             A couple of weekends ago our family went to a birthday party for one of Pip’s friends. It was held at the friend’s home and, as it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, everyone got boxed up inside. With fifteen or so seven and eight year olds bouncing around and only a few parents about to provide some minimal supervision, things got a bit chaotic.

            In one of the rooms, the hosts, in an attempt to provide some direction, had laid out a bunch of different games for the kids to play. These were largely ignored at first in favor of building sculptures out of marshmallows, grapes, and toothpicks. However, as the party went along various kids began picking among the assembled options for things that interested them. At one point I looked in to see that two kids had set up a chess board on the floor and were attempting to play a game. One of the kids was definitely a less experienced chess player than the other – the latter was walking the former through the moves the various pieces could make with relative, though by no means perfect, accuracy.

About five minutes later I heard a great deal of ruckus coming from the same room. Peeking around the corner I witnessed two additional kids now crouched down beside the board basically yelling at the less experienced kid, competing with each other to tell this kid what they were doing wrong. One of the interloping observers even shouted something to the effect of,

            “You might as well start over. You’re doing it all wrong.”

The less experienced kid definitely appeared overwhelmed and in shock from the hyperactive, sugar fueled onslaught of these two know-it-all observers.

            As I watched all of this through the doorway, I felt caught in a state of hesitant uncertainty. First of all, none of the four kids around the board belonged to me. Second, it wasn’t a physically dangerous interaction. The house was quite loud, and the know-it-alls’ yelling was not in and of itself out of place. Third, the bullying effect of their actions was not apparent to any of the other three kids. They weren’t intentionally ganging up on the fourth. They were caught up in a competition between themselves that led them to gang up on the fourth. It would have been very easy to read the whole interaction as one of hyperactive silliness if I hadn’t seen the fear in the face of that fourth kid. It was this fear that finally prompted me to step in and ask the kids to calm down. They did to some extent, but the effect of their yelling had already been writ. A few moments after I turned away, the less experienced kid quietly pushed down all the pieces on the chessboard and left the room, bringing an end to the game.

            This small drama has stayed in my mind the last couple of weeks for two reasons. First, it was a discomfiting reminder of how violence happens even in ‘safe’ situations. The kids around that chess board were smart, good kids from decent families. They were not looking to exact any kind of violence on someone. But, the chaos of the environment and the competition of the moment overwhelmed their consciousness of what actions are right and respectful and obliterated any awareness they may have possessed regarding the emotions of the person they were ostensibly trying to coach.

Second, there was a gender component to the equation. The less experienced kid in this episode was a girl. The other three were boys. And, they were belittling her over a game of chess, a game whose history skews toward masculine associations. I don’t know that this drama in itself represents anything in particular, but it seemed in alignment with a pattern common in many male-dominated arenas – the girl’s knowledge was deemed unfit, even when her playing partner set up the board wrong and was making his share of mistakes as well.

Both Wired magazine and the Washington Post published commentaries this week talking about how women in the technology sector are systematically overlooked by male supervisors, have their skills routinely questioned, and have their contributions to projects regularly downplayed. These patterns do not result from conscious misogynism. I imagine that there is a general discourse in the technology sector that women and men are equally good at coding, but that women have not tended to get in to the field to start with (I know this thinking was true in my engineering classes two decades ago). But there is a difference in saying the right thing, believing the right thing, and doing the right thing. The last of those three is the hardest to get to as it means not only being aware of the patterns but also reprogramming many of the social cues and unconscious responses that create those patterns. These unthought elements, the ones that pass by unnoticed in day-to-day interactions, the ones that get reproduced accidentally in the pressure of the moment, the ones that get reinscribed in a sugar-fueled competition over which boy is most right about a chess move, are the ones that continue to perpetuate the structural inequalities of the world into which we were born.

I’ve be thinking a lot about Polly since watching that chess game because while Polly wasn’t the girl on the other side of the board that day, one day she will be. I once imagined or hoped that wouldn’t be the case. I thought perhaps enough would change by the time she entered the adult world that she would be able to largely avoid the agony of such ridiculousness. Watching those eight-year old boys enact exactly that ridiculousness has quashed that hope, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I don’t know how Polly should respond to those boys lost in their own particular world. I don’t know how to prepare her to persevere through their stupidity. I’m not sure how to tell her what is to come.

In the face of all that uncertainty there is one hope to which I still cling: that when it is her turn to face it the idiocy – in whatever form it appears - she will enough knowledge and support around her to call it out for the ridiculousness it is.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


A scene from toothbrushing time on Thursday evening:

As we put away our toothbrushes, Pip looks up at me and stares. His eyes are basset-hound droopy with little freckled puffs of skin underneath. He pulls momentarily at the shorts on his turtle green pajamas, the ones with the monkey peeking out through a bunch of bananas. He tries to stretch the shorts back down to where they used to ride, but he’s grown so much recently they just pop right back in place, snug against his skin. After a second tug, he turns away and spits some leftover toothpaste into the sink. Then comes the following exchange:

Pip:      My head is pounding.

Me:      Yeah?

Pip:      My leg is sore.

Me:      Oh.

Pip:      My thumb hurts.

Me [trying to keep bedtime on track]: Well, it sounds like you had a fun time.

Pip [suddenly smiling in wonderment]: Yeah. Now I know why everyone wants to scrimmage.


This fall Pip is playing an organized sport for the first time. Last year in first grade, a couple of his friends started playing soccer. During recess and after school they would talk with Pip about what they were doing and who they would be playing that weekend. By the springtime, Pip was kicking a ball around the playground with them, shooting at the school walls, and playing games of one on one. He also began asking me questions about the game itself, what the rules were, how often teams scored, why players wore shin guards, etc. Ava bought him a ball, and we started passing it around the backyard after school and on the weekends. By the middle of the summer, Pip was certain. He wanted to try playing soccer. 

            While I was excited by his enthusiasm, I also worried that the reality of playing little league soccer would not be nearly as great as he imagined it would be. Pip loves to run and loves games where he gets to chase and be chased. However, the only time he’d dribbled a soccer ball around was with me or his friends and neither were trying that hard to take it away from him. Also, the only games he’d seen were the couple of World Cup matches we seen in June. Neither of these things could approximate the chaotic scrum that is the soccer of six and seven year olds.


            After the first practice, my worries were validated. He didn’t like it. The drills were not as easy as he thought they would be. He struggled to kick the ball as far and as hard as he wanted. He couldn’t dribble as quickly as some of the other kids. He didn’t always understand what the coach wanted him to do. It was not the same as merrily kicking the ball around the backyard with a couple other friends.

            He came home that evening uncertain that this soccer thing was going to work out. He told Ava he had fun – because he knew that’s what he was supposed to say – but then followed that statement up with a list of frustrations. He was not ready to chuck it all and do something else, but the question had been raised in his mind.

            The next practice came three days later. At the start the head coach had the kids do a few warm-up moves - jogging forward, jogging backward, running with high knees, hopping with wide knees – then told them to sprint to the other end of the field. Now, as I already said, Peter likes to run. And, as it turns out he is also the oldest and tallest kid on the team. When the coach said go, he took off full blast, leaving everyone behind and reaching the other end several strides ahead of the next kid. When they turned around to go back Pip jogged the whole way with a big, toothy smile splashed across his face.

            After that sprint he was in. Throughout the rest of the practice he felt more in control of what he was doing. He wasn’t bothered by the things he couldn’t immediately do. He didn’t let the antics of a couple of wandering kids distract him from what the coach was teaching. He took water breaks and immediately ran back on to the field to keep going. He knew now what he could do.

            As the concluding activity of last week’s practices – the team’s third and fourth ones together - the head coach split the kids into two groups and organized a scrimmage. It was something to see. On one hand, the kids are old enough to play the game with something approaching skill. There were flashes of positional awareness, some legitimate defensive patience, and even an occasional pass. On the other hand, they’re still young kids susceptible to getting drawn into a kind of cannonball madness in which a scrum of players builds around the ball, kicking and slashing until it somehow pops out to the side and someone can run with it. Then the scrum barrels along in hot pursuit. In those moments, the game is closer to rugby than soccer.

Pip was thrilled to be a part of it all. He patrolled his part of the field, staying just outside the scrum and jumping on any opportunity to chase a ball down. (He wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it once he got it, but he’ll get there). As he waited for one of these opportunities to materialize his shoulders would roll in, his neck would stretch forward, and his hands would hover out away from his hips. He looked like a raptor getting ready to launch from its perch. A maniacal smile and hooting giggles accompanied his every move.


            Pip’s team plays its first game on Saturday. I don’t know whether they will win or lose. They have a couple of players who attack well. They have a couple of players who possess a good feel for defense. I don’t know at this age and in this league how much of either is enough.

I do know that Pip will play, and will go after it with everything he has. I imagine he will get his share of bumps and probably wake up sore on Sunday morning. And chances are, regardless of the result, he will be ready to go back to practice again next week.