Monthly Archives: June 2008

The rules

Once in a while I toy with a blog post for a long time before publishing it — sometimes many months, as in the case of this one. I knew that I wanted to tell the story of The Grape, tie it together with my interest in flying and in computers, and prognosticate about similar leanings in my son Jonah, but as sometimes happens, the ideas didn’t quite gel, meandering aimlessly in search of some relevant point to make.

And then, as also sometimes happens, current events provided the frame for my story. So, let’s begin with The Grape:

When I was about five years old, my mom brought me and my sister on a routine trip to the local supermarket. As we entered the produce aisle we found to our delight that grapes were in season again. Immediately my mom plucked a grape from a bunch on the shelf and popped it in her mouth. She gave one to my sister, who did the same. She gave one to me and I stared at it, aghast. “I can’t eat this,” I told her. “We didn’t pay for it!” My mom patiently explained that it’s OK if people take one or two grapes as they walk by. “But that’s stealing!” I protested. “If everyone did that, there’d be none left!” Other shoppers turned to see the little boy making accusatory sounds at his mom. “We’re going to buy some anyway,” my mom said, still holding out a grape to me, “so it’s OK if you have one.” No, I insisted — we had to wait until they were paid for. Losing her patience, my mom uttered through gritted teeth the punchline of one of my family’s most-retold stories about me: “Eat. The. Grape.” I flatly refused, and she pointedly fed more grapes to my sister. We went home sore at each other, and for the rest of her life, I would express dismay at her occasional willingness to commit (very) petty larceny, such as taking home a hotel towel or an interesting salt shaker from a restaurant; and she would come back with, “Eat the grape,” which became her shorthand for my irksome excess of honesty.

A few decades later, on a visit to Tucson for a wedding, I decided to find an airplane rental club and spend a morning exploring the local airspace. I tried to persuade my friend Bruce, also visiting Tucson, to come along for the ride, since he’d expressed an interest in learning to fly and had tried it once or twice. In the conversation that ensued, he told me his interest had flagged: “I just want to fly. I got bored with all the rules and procedures you have to follow.” “Are you kidding?” I returned. “That’s the best part!”

The words sounded strange coming out of my mouth — what a bizarre thing to admit enjoying — but it was true, I enjoyed the arcane radio protocol, I enjoyed filling out navigation logs and filing flight plans, I enjoyed checklists and weight-and-balance computations…

In fact, I enjoyed flying (it occurred to me) for the same reasons that I enjoyed road rallies. In Pittsburgh in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my friend Steve and I participated in several amateur road rallies of the “time-speed-distance” variety, where the goal is not to run the course in the shortest possible time but to follow the route — mostly picturesque rural roads — as accurately as possible, armed with a sometimes deliberately misleading set of “route instructions” devised by a more or less devious rallymaster, and a complex set of regulations for how to understand them. (To this day, one of the top Google hits for “road rally” is a document that I helped to write long ago.) The pretty scenery, for me, was secondary to the intellectual exercise of driving in a rally — just as I considered the rules and procedures to be “the best part” about flying. (True to his nature, the one time Bruce tried a road rally, he grew impatient with the route instructions, tossed them into the backseat, and struck off at random into the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania — with the enthusiastic support of his equally bored rally partner, Andrea. “And today that woman is my wife.”)

Rules — I love ’em. I love the way simple ones gives rise to complex behavior, whether it’s a game of Go or the orderly society that emerges from (for instance) people paying for their produce before eating it. It’s no wonder I was drawn to a life of writing computer software, where rules per se achieve their purest realization. A computer program is nothing but rules, after all, and with some care and some artistry it can be made elegant and simple and still create a very rich set of behaviors.

Obviously not everyone is as enamored of rules as I am. So what’s the attraction? It must have something to do with a need to impose order on a bewildering and uncertain world — bewilderment and uncertainty that comes from the irrational behavior of other people. This is a common bit of pop psychology. Being unable to fathom irrational behavior, and withdrawing from even trying, explains, for example, the popularity of Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock (who, interestingly, is a hero especially among computer programmers).

My son Jonah seems to be like this. He is always keenly aware of the rules in any situation, and alert to anyone not following them, or to any other source of unfairness, and quick to call it out. Most of his friends are not so preoccupied about fairness, but he does have one or two who are paralyzed by fits of red-faced outrage whenever anything doesn’t go according to the rules.

Having witnessed a couple of those fits, and thinking back over my own life, I’ve lately come to think that those who love rules are at a disadvantage to those who can abide their neglect, who can tolerate ambiguity better. Mr. Spock was only the first officer aboard the Enterprise, after all; it took the greater resiliency of James T. Kirk to be the captain. And while one of Jonah’s friends is pitching a fit, the others are still running around and having a great time, completely unfazed.

This is what brings us around to current events. This week the U.S. Senate will debate the so-called FISA bill that, among other things, gives retroactive legal immunity to the Bush administration and to various large corporations for illegal warrantless wiretapping activities dating back to before 9/11, and prohibits any details of those illegal activities from ever coming to light. You could have been the subject of illegal surveillance, and if this bill passes, as it is expected to do, you would have no legal recourse for finding out about it, ever. Does this sound fair? Of course not, and those who love playing by the rules have been up in arms about it — red in the face and all but paralyzed, like one of Jonah’s fit-pitching friends. As DailyKos’ Hunter writes:

So, why have activists spent so much effort opposing retroactive corporate immunity as part of new FISA legislation, when there are so many other things in the world to be outraged about? […] It demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the law

and

We were never told why it was so all-fired important […] the only rationale available seems to be the most cynical one — it is merely doing the bidding of companies that provide substantive campaign contributions.

So we citizens can believe all we like that everyone’s equal before the law, but in fact if you’ve got pockets deep enough, you can buy whatever kind of law best suits you. Very likely this has always been the reality in America (as it has throughout human history), but all past attempts to tilt the playing field in favor of the powerful and the well-connected at least pretended to be for the common good. This bill does not, and that’s what’s so jaw-droppingly wrong with it: it says that the vaunted “rule of law,” the very bedrock of the Enlightenment and the principle that has always guided America no matter how far she’s strayed from it, is now officially just a fairy tale, and only fools will henceforth strive toward that ideal. If you’re wealthy, go ahead and break whatever laws you like; your pals in Congress will patch things up later.

How many generations will it take for America to recover from abandoning even the pretense of fairness? How much civil unrest? How much political violence?

This is another reason people like me love rules — we can see what life would be without them. But if the rule of law is just a fantasy and always has been, then laying it bare like this might be just the thing we need. Give everyone else a chance to see what life is like without rules. In the end, I predict, though the cost may be high, everyone will love them like I do.

Whaddya know, mosquitoes still whine

Last year I wrote,

I know and accept the reality of age-related hearing loss, especially in high frequencies […] Can it be that we’ve had silent mosquitoes flying around? Is it possible I lost my hearing at only the precise frequency that mosquitoes emit?

Would that I had! Mind you, I’m not saying I want to be deaf. But last night, around 2am:

eeeEEEEEE!

A mosquito in my ear! In two seconds flat I was on my feet and wide awake, a process that usually takes two cups of coffee and about three hours. I turned on all the lights in the house and hunted the mosquito, hyperalert. (It was a warm night, so Andrea and the kids were sound asleep in a tent in our backyard; I was indoors because I worked at the computer late into the night.)

I got one glimpse of the mosquito but couldn’t kill it, and after a fruitless half hour of stalking it I did the only thing I could: turned off all the lights, smeared citronella oil all around my head, and got back into bed, eyes wide open and muscles tensed to leap from bed once more and deal hot mosquito death.

By 3am I was asleep again, finally. The box of citronella wipes said they last for about 3 hours, and this morning at 6am:

eeeEEEEEE!

I’m afraid to go to sleep tonight. If I am again awakened by a keening whine in my ear I believe I’m fully capable of doing a Harry Caul on my bedroom in search of that damn bug.

There is no end zone

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Dads In Media blog-a-thon.]

Some time ago I wrote,

The movie […] teaches that worry is an inextricable part of parenthood, which is a comfort in a way. Thanks to Finding Nemo, when I encounter a worrying situation in my role as a father, I cope a little better. I know that it goes with the territory, that it’s universal, and that there’s a right way to deal with it.

An even more potent touchstone for teaching us to accept the worries of parenthood is Parenthood, the 1989 film by Ron Howard, and its central point is nicely summed up in a scene between Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) and his son Gil (Steve Martin). Frank has learned that his black-sheep son, Larry, is in deep trouble with the mob. While ostensibly asking Gil’s advice about whether to help Larry pay off his gambling debt, Frank’s really coming to terms with the hardest truth about having children: no matter how long you and your children live, if you love them, you never stop worrying about them.

Just earlier in the film, Gil had a fantasy in which his troubled young son Kevin grows up to be confident, successful, and happy, praising his dad in his valedictory address at college. Fantasy-Gil reveled in a job well done. Now here is Gil’s father with the dismal news that:

There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance. Never.

And yet for all the worrying about children (of all ages) that occupies the film’s many parents, the message of the movie is a positive one: that lifelong worry is a small price to pay for the profound joys of parenthood. This too is summed up neatly in a scene where Grandma interrupts Gil’s obsessive fretting with a seemingly irrelevant story.

Back in business


Joseph Costanzo, Jr. and infant Jonah
at The Primadonna, October 2002

I’m not the only one who started a new job this week. I have company in the person of Joseph Costanzo, Jr. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, once lionized (including by me) as the region’s greatest restaurateur, then disgraced, now resurgent with the opening of his new restaurant, Cafe Costanzo, in the “Uptown” neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Buona fortuna Signore Costanzo! I will keep my promise and visit your new restaurant soon.

Vitamin C

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, a cult classic, was published in 1992 and set in a mildly dystopian not-too-distant-future. (One that reality grows increasingly to resemble bit by bit.) In the story, it becomes the goal of some characters to capture and analyze a sample of a new street narcotic called “Snow Crash.” But distribution of Snow Crash is so tightly controlled that when a user buys a hit from a dealer, it comes in a dispenser with a ten-second timer, already counting down. The user is obliged to inhale it on the spot, or watch it spray uselessly into the air when the timer reaches zero. Posing as a buyer, Y.T. receives her hit and, rather than inhale it, tosses it straight up into the air. A flying machine zips in overhead, catches it, flash-freezes it in liquid helium, and disappears with it. Other devices facilitate Y.T.’s escape from the dealer’s lair. The security expert behind the operation, Mr. Ng, later says, “We now have a sample of Snow Crash, something no one else has been able to get. It is the kind of success on which reputations such as mine are constructed.”

I know how he feels. On Monday I started my new job, as a software engineer for Google, a plum position for someone like me that (despite the vast size of Google’s engineering organization) is notoriously hard to get. It was the culmination of a job-hunt process in which I was fortunate enough to have more than one Silicon Valley technology giant vying for my services, and as a result, I’m riding a confidence high.

When you have successes like that under your belt, it’s easy to be confident. But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: to succeed in the first place, you need confidence to try things worth succeeding at.

This is something that has been weighing on my mind and Andrea’s for a while, at least since our last meeting with Jonah’s kindergarten teacher. She told us that he has the capacity to be a class leader and lacks only the confidence to step up to some challenging tasks, to stop following the pack. This critique rang true; we’d observed in Jonah a tendency when trying new things to expect he’d be unable to do them. This despite our encouragement and his obvious competence.

Where can you get the confidence you need to achieve your first successes?

Understanding this catch-22, my dad sought to instill confidence in me and my sister from a very young age. He referred to it as “vitamin C” and frequently touted its magical power to make the difficult easy. The way to have confidence, he told us again and again, was to be sure ahead of time that you could do whatever it was you were trying to do — hit a softball, ride a bike, flip a pancake. Before trying something tricky, focus your mind. See yourself accomplishing it. Then do it. If you fail, it’s not because you can’t do it — obviously, since other people can do it, so why not you? It’s only because you didn’t use enough vitamin C. Try again, and focus harder on feeling confident.

This approach worked on me and my sister, after a fashion. We grew up feeling confident and we were therefore adequately bold in the choices we made (which is, after all, the very purpose of confidence). Much later in life, though — after I had developed real confidence — I recognized my childhood version of that feeling for what it really was: bravado, the insubstantial cousin of confidence, insubstantial because it’s unfounded.

Bravado does some of the work of true confidence, but it fails you when you need it most. Worse, whereas a surfeit of confidence makes a person calm, cool, and collected, an excess of bravado produces arrogance. For I had learned that “Vitamin C” meant being sure you could do anything, and if deep down you really aren’t, then how can you convince yourself that you are — other than to tell everyone how capable you are? Other than to brag, that is.

So how did I finally develop “real” confidence? By the passage of time, mainly, during which I racked up meaningful successes once in a while, developing my skills and developing my self to the point where I’m finally satsified with who I am and what I can do. Many years ago I would have claimed to be satisfied, but I would have been wrong, and here’s how I know: I no longer feel like I have something to prove all the time. When I was younger I did, boy howdy did I.

So now I’m in a serene confidence zone, which is great for me, but what about Jonah? He’s only six. He hasn’t had decades to develop his skills or his personality. We’re back to our main question: Where can you get the confidence you need to achieve your first successes?

Until this past Sunday, I had a gimmicky answer to that question: to get real confidence, act as if you have it to begin with. Just as pretending to laugh can lead to real laughter, pretending to be confident can get you through tricky situations, producing real confidence.

For example: when I started college, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. For the first several days I was desperately lonely until finally I’d had enough of that and decided to do something about it. Spying a group of fellow freshmen chatting together — complete strangers — I pretended confidence, strode over, broke into their conversation, and made them my friends. Lifelong friends in some cases, as it turned out.

So the pretend-confidence thing worked for me on that occasion, and on a number of others. With pretend confidence I was able to accumulate enough successes to form a foundation for real confidence. And until Sunday, that’s the advice I gave whenever the subject arose of how to become confident.

But then on Sunday I saw something that made me change my mind. I had decided it was time for Jonah finally to learn to ride a two-wheeled bike. (I wrote many months ago that he already had, but it turned out to be a false alarm.) Andrea and I took him and Archer to the empty schoolyard and began giving cycling instruction. Archer lost interest pretty quickly, but Jonah gamely tried several times to balance the bike, standing on one pedal while kicking off the ground with the other foot, as if riding a scooter. He was getting visibly better, his kicking foot staying off the ground for longer and longer intervals, when he declared he was tired and would do more next time. He unbuckled his helmet.

At this point, Andrea channeled her high school self and began cheerleading. She encouraged him so insistently and so, well, cheerily that he could not resist — he refastened his helmet and did another circuit of the schoolyard, this time a little better than before. Again he told us he was done and again Andrea cheered him on to another lap, and another, and another. Finally she persuaded him to try sitting down while pedaling and letting me let go of the bike — and away he went, a little wobbly but undeniably riding a two-wheeled bike entirely on his own!

Jonah lost all trace of tiredness. He rode around and around the schoolyard with the biggest possible smile on his face, so drunk with accomplishment that when he fell and scraped up his legs, or when he rode his bike straight into a wall, he wasn’t deterred even a little bit. He just wanted to keep riding. And that’s when something about the past few months clicked into place for me:

In the time since our parent-teacher conference, Jonah has learned to read ever-more challenging books and to write a paragraph-long “book report” each week; he has started taking piano and karate lessons; and he has cultivated a new and better group of friends than the ones he had before. Each of these developments was accompanied by more or less whining from Jonah about being unable to do this or that, but these protests fell on unsympathetic ears as Andrea and I insisted that he not only could, but he must. And because we compelled him, he saw again and again that his protests were false: with a little work he could figure out a sentence full of long words on his own, he could find the right notes in a tricky piano exercise, he could learn to ride a bike in a single afternoon. And now Jonah is visibly more confident than he was just a short time ago.

So now I think the premise with which I started this article is wrong. To succeed in the first place, you don’t necessarily need confidence to try things worth succeeding at. Just as good is having someone loving, persistent, and occasionally merciless driving you to discover for yourself the amazing things you can do.