Saturday, January 10, 2009

Intergenerational Letter to My Nephew


I'm writing a guide book about how to use information for some pretty common reasons: finding a person you need to meet, getting to know a subject pretty quickly (also known as appearing smart when we know next to nothing), and comparing different threats or opportunities so we can make an informed guess about what to do next. Everyone does this every day. But not too many folks talk about how they do it cause they're either too secretive, busy and distracted, or insecure that someone may think less of them because all they did was put a few keywords into Google.

There have also been quite a few books on the information that's out there -- even how to find it. But websites come and go. People can only retain so much and even less if they're not actively putting it to use. And that's the inspiration for the book. There aren't very many of them about how "to use" information.

When you decide what books to read what's your main source of inspiration? You already know the author? Someone in school recommends it? You find out something about it on the web? I'm curious.

One of the things that used to set me off when I was your age was when someone who's now my age would talk about how bad things are now and how great they used to be. The word for this is nostalgia. It sounds like a category you click on when you're bidding on eBay for a distant board game you used to play as a kid. Certainly you came upon this word in a similar way I did -- through sports memorabilia -- baseball cards in particular. What it really is, Harry, is an illness. It actually comes from homesick pioneers who miss the stability and comfort of the towns and lands they left to go settle somewhere new.

Anyway I don't believe that things were so great when your dad and I were growing up. I mean that in terms of the house we grew up in but I also mean that in terms of the times we grew up in too. Take music for instance. The radio had a few stations that would play the same 6 songs over and over until you wanted to puke all over your Keds or Buster Browns. Not pretty and very repetitious. Take movies. We actually thought it was a big deal when major movie releases made their way to TV and we got to watch half of it (minus the scenes that got canned by the network) before we had to go to bed. I guess you could say we were easily entertained.

The one good thing about this was that we had to entertain ourselves a good deal of the time. Our days were not programmed so that every hour got filled with some place we needed to be. It forced us to invent games. Just ask your dad. We devised many novel torturing rituals. The ones I remember were about who could watch what show and when. What if we were in a TV trance and had to change the channel? We had to get up. The idea of TIVO or DVRs were too remote for us to imagine, even we geeks of the tall, strong radar antennas.

It also forced us to master the fine art of "hanging out." To the passing stranger hanging out always looked like nothing was going on. It was just a flock of teenagers outside some stores at the Whitman Mall or some fast food place on Route 110. But we were actually sharing in and learning from each other's pet peeves, crushes, tyrannical stepparents, and forces of nature we had to overcome (bad teachers, menacing bullies, girls out of our league, etc.) Best of all it was up to us to do the overcoming. Our parents weren't that interested. I mean they cared about our grades and who we brought home with us. Families are families and some things never change. But in those days parents sat with parents and kids sat at the kids table. We loved each other but ... If you asked your friend who their other buddies were and he said his mom or dad? Not much chance we'd be hanging with that bud again soon.

That reminds me. Your aunt had a job interview recently at her University where she would be working with undergrads instead of the graduate students she works with now. The hiring manager told her that there was now a special office set up to work with Millennials and their parents. Did you know you were a Millennial? That's because your generation has been so scheduled that when they hit an unclaimed time slot they panic. They don't know where to go next. My theory is that their parents (people like me and your dad) have been so involved with their kids that your generation never learned how to properly hang out. There are some real upsides to being ignored by your parents. Some are obvious:

* Make your own fun
* Not have to be anywhere anytime soon
* Get away with murder

It's easy to make fun of my generation and I'll do everything in my powers of memory to aid in the pile-on effort. We were so easily impressed that a camera where a picture appeared 60 seconds after snapping it was "revolutionary" -- even if there was nothing else you could do to it. "Delete" meant you threw the Polaroid in the garbage. "Options" meant that you could go to Beefsteak Charlies salad bar and pop all the shrimp you could stand. This is actually a true Solomon story.

Nowadays you wip out your iPhone and you get Zagat ratings for all the noveau Thai restaurants within a 4 block region of the street your GPS is directing you to turn on. Terms like ADD, Asperger's, and lactose intolerance had not been invented. The working definition for hyper disorder was troublemaker and kids were treated with disdain instead of meds. Kids with dormant peanut allergies scarfed their PB&Js and then went into shock. We didn't know why. We didn't wear seat belts. Some of us passengers didn't wear seats. How pathetic is that? Parents tried to quit but most of them kept on smoking. Boom boxes ruled the beach. Carrying them around built upper body mass -- those suckers took 12 DD batteries. Kids only stayed after school when they were bad. Daycare was called going to grandma's house. Those were the good old days.

But here's the thing, Harry. Along with these pathetic older ways came some real benefits from parents letting kids venture out on their own. The biggest pay-off I think was in hanging out and grasping how other people operate in a real, immediate way -- how they flinch, rub their eye sockets, tense their shoulders, laugh at funny things, laugh at serious things. Basically everything they communicate without actually talking. Texting was not an option back then and doesn't come into play. However the amount of looking down everyone does with their own devices causes a whole host of issues (in addition to traffic accidents). Questions like where am I and what's going on around me are having less and less meaning for people when that question relates to a virtual place and a social network like Facebook. It used to mean a street corner, phone booth, or some other hangout that's no longer a popular meeting place.

I notice this with Jeremiah and his Asperger's, Harry. He has a hard time picking up on nonverbal cues. He needs to be taught what people say with their eyes and bodies because he doesn't pick up on it. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that we now have names for things that need to be diagnosed and treated. This is especially true as the lines between being gifted and being handicapped start to blurr. The same mind can be both brilliant and feeble. It's becoming more common to recognize honor students with special needs. It's not like the world is divided between bright and stupid like we were taught to believe.

All I'm saying is that sometimes us adults intervene a bit much. Instead of letting a kid navigate the lunch room we create special therapies that role play around lunch room simulations. It makes the most basic social setting into a laboratory. Too much fuss.

The other benefit of growing up in the older days is a little harder to describe. It's not so much relating to others as it is about dealing with uncertainty. We as parents have done everything possible to eliminate this from your life, Harry. Our intentions are good and pure. That doesn't mean we really thought through all the other nonsense baggage that comes with it. We want to protect you from illness. We want to expose you to great ideas. Nothing new about that. Some day if you want your own, you too will want the best for your kids.

The difference between now and then is that we never knew what was coming next. It wasn't programmed. It wasn't scripted. A lot of it was improvised or made up as we went along. It's hard for parents to admit this anymore. But sometimes the fixes that kids find themselves in are far better teachers than any classes, books or games.

I remember shoplifting a bunch of records from a department store -- that's kind of like Wal-Mart but with more formal displays of the merchandise, not just some towering piles of cartons. It was so out of the question that an honors student like me would try to steal stuff from a store that when the security guard called my house, our stepfather hung up the phone on him. He actually thought it was a crank phone call. When I was in high school a group of us would pile into a Volkswagen Van and take far off field trips to look at colleges without credit cards or cell phones or the slightest idea of where we'd end up.

I'm not saying that flirting with danger builds character or that you need to pull senseless, stupid stunts to learn right from wrong. I'm just saying that direct experience is often more instructive than taking someone else's word for things. I think we as parents discourage our children from doing things on their own because we want to protect you. When the danger outweighs the adventure of it that's a smart move. But when the danger is that we're going to freak out just because you're on your own and learning how to work things out without us? That's not right. It's as if some parents have completely forgotten the greatest certainty of all -- not just what it was like growing up but just how hard that is -- even for someone as smart, mindful, and adjusted as you, Harry.

And there's plenty of adjusting to be done. You are entering a world of knowing every genetic twist of fate from cancer risks, to baldness, to the traits we pass down. I don't find that kind of knowledge to be liberating. Having foresight actually makes me feel less in control of something I never expected to control in the first place. Stumbling through the blindness of uncertainty can be a blessing. Just ask someone older than you.

So hindsight is 20:20. Teddy Ballgame's is 20:10. Either way the best way to deal with uncertainty is to get some experience figuring out how to make things work for you. Thanks for indulging me in a look back. Time to start looking forward to your Torah reading.

Lotsa love,

Uncle Marc

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