We’re Out Here

We’re out here.

In the middle of the reddest townships in the reddest counties in the reddest states, we’re out here.

It started to happen after Newtown. The look in their eyes, the sadness on their faces. Something about the way they carried themselves clued you in. It was safe to admit where you stood on the issue.  And when you hinted at it, you could see the relief replace the sadness. At least for a little bit, it was ok to talk about.  For real. To share what you really thought, not the red-friendly version of it.  Not the version you tell most of your pals, because you’re afraid that if you told them how you really felt about the guns they keep wherever people keep guns, you’d be pretty lonely pretty soon.  Not that version, the real version.

It’s happening again, exponentially more.

Profound disappointment is an expression.  I’ve seen it on my own face many times over the last 48 hours, a quick glance in the mirror that turns into a stare.  And I’ve recognized it on lots of other faces too.  More faces than I would have believed, in this really red place that I happen to live in.

Maybe it’s recognizing that expression.  Maybe it’s the way they respond to a hallway “How you doing” greeting with, “Oh, hanging in there.”  Maybe it’s how they don’t laugh at the sexist joke about your candidate that a mutual acquaintance just told.

Something clues you in.  You get the feeling that it’s ok to open up.  So you let your guard down and admit where you stand.  Something you take a decent amount of care to protect, at the very least downplay, in this really red place.

A hallway greeting turns into 45 minutes, and you leave the conversation believing that things really are going to be ok.  There is some goodness coming from this.  A deeper, safe relationship starts to form.

This is happening.  A lot.  Far more than I ever would have believed, in this really red place.

We’re used to keeping things to ourselves.  To biting our tongue.  To staying quiet when an acquaintance assumes that we share their perspective — maybe because we look alike, or maybe just because we live in this really red place.  We’re used to not fully engaging.  To suddenly realizing we’re late for something when the conversation turns to the evils of social safety nets or the silliness of unisex bathrooms.

When you’re surrounded by it, it’s easy to feel like you’re wrong, or that somehow you must not understand something that everyone else understands.

Or that you don’t belong.

And then this happens, and it fills you with renewed energy for your values and beliefs.  Things you’d always felt, but that you’d started to question out here in this township, in this county.  You remember what it feels like to fully be yourself in a new relationship.  Unguarded.

We’re out here.  Even in these really red places, we’re out here.  And we’re finding each other.  And we’re realizing that we really do belong.

And we can’t wait for our next opportunity to vote.

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Loss Aversion

I went on a 4-day business trip recently, and our kids aged about 7 years while I was gone.

I left an 11-year old who gets angry when his mom or I start to read “Goodnight Moon” because he knows it’s the last book before bed, an 8-year old who falls asleep on our lap with his thumb in his mouth, and a 6-year old who can’t get enough of his bouncy seat.

I came home to an 11-year old who rolls his eyes at my jokes and answers my questions with grunts, an 8-year old who’s learning to play euchre, and a 6-year old who’s figured out how to request my electronic permission to download anything from the App Store, and then grant that permission on my behalf without me knowing a thing about it.

I’m afraid to go away again — I’ll come back and they’ll be driving.  Although it would be nice to get picked up at the airport.  Maybe they could buy me a drink on the way home.  Make it a double.

We don’t notice the gradual, until we do.  Until the accumulation of gradual amounts to significant and hits us right between the eyes.  Until we have to look around them instead of just being able to peer over them.  Until they’re putting on our shoes to run outside to get the mail.  Until they ask us — for real — what we’re scared of.  Not things like heights and spiders and thunder.  Things like betrayal and mortality and loss.

Researchers have discovered a bias that’s hard coded into our neurons and synapses.  It’s called loss aversion.  Loss aversion simply says that we’ll put more effort into hanging onto something we have than we will in gaining something we don’t.  It explains why many of us bog down our IRAs and 401k’s with treasury bills and money market accounts, passing up stock market gains for the guaranteed safety of 1 or 2% per year.  It explains why I have half a closet full of shirts that I haven’t worn for 3 years, yet I wouldn’t pay $0.25 for any of them if I ran across them at Goodwill.  But because they’re in my closet, giving them away would hurt way more than losing a quarter.

It might explain why we have such a hard time watching our kids grow up.

Turns out we’re all afraid of loss.  Every day is a day closer to watching them head off to college, or to start their own family, or to sail to some remote island to help save the whales or study an indigenous people who haven’t been exposed to cell phones or Little Debbie snack cakes.

It’s pretty ridiculous, especially when you consider the alternative — them not growing up.  Nobody wants that.  I can’t wait until they’re old enough to stay home by themselves.  I can’t wait until he’s old enough to drive his younger brothers to practice.  I can’t wait until they can pack their own lunches.

And then the first time we walk into the kitchen and catch one of them packing their own lunch, we wonder where the time has gone.  And we get nostalgic over the time gone by.  The time we’ve lost.

These ought to be happy occasions.  Signs that they’re on the way to independence, and that we’re finally on the way to some peace and quiet around here.  We should be celebrating these moments, not regretting the time that’s passed.

Psychologists have posited a mitigation technique for loss aversion.  When you’re afraid that loss aversion may be misleading you into a bad decision, remove yourself from the situation by pretending you’re advising a close friend.  Turns out fear of loss doesn’t impact the quality of our decisions when we’re deciding for someone else.

So let me give you some advice, my close friend.  Choose to enjoy those moments.  They’re signs that you’re doing some things right.

Oh, and try taking some of that cash from under the mattress and putting it in the stock market.

You can thank me later.

The Best Thing

I loved engineering school.  Loved it with a capital L.

Learning the principles of how the modern world works the way that it does — mechanically, electronically, chemically — fascinating.  Solving equations derived to mathematically describe those machinations?  With multiple decimal points?  Be still my beating heart.

But that’s not even the best part.  That’s just the appetizer — the opening act.  The shrimp cocktail before the steak.  The Wallflowers before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  The best part, without a doubt, is turning to the back of the book to check your work.  That’s right.  The greatest thing about engineering school?  The answers are in the back of the book.

That certainly doesn’t make things easier, just more certain.  You know immediately — the surge of dopamine when you see that the number that took you 47 minutes and 3 calculators (remember those?) to compute matches the one on page 897, or the dismay when you see that no, the baseball that Joe Carter hit to win the 1993 World Series in fact wasn’t traveling at mach 14.93 (a speed that would send a baseball out of Earth’s orbit, not just out of the Toronto SkyDome) when it left his bat as your calculations indicated.  Back to the drawing board.

Most of the time, life doesn’t give us such feedback.  Sometimes it does — like the time that I suggested (less than half jokingly) to my wife (then my girlfriend) that we sell all of our possessions (I calculate this to equal $759.47 in TODAY’S dollars — that’s right, we were loaded) and use the proceeds to follow the Allman Brothers Band around the country until we ran out of cash (I’d still do it, but only if Gregg and Dickey reunite.  I think we have slightly more than $759.47 worth of stuff, but you’d have to ask her.  She keeps track of these things.).

The feedback I got from her following that suggestion was rather clear.  But most of the time, life doesn’t give it to us as clearly as her “your brain is no larger than that of a goldfish” look.

No, most of the time life leaves us wondering.

Did I really need to yell at our younger 2 sons for horsing around like that — and was I yelling for the right reasons or because I couldn’t control my anger?  What are the right reasons for yelling at a 6- and 8-year old?  Will that yelling work at all, or will it just be more for the psychotherapists to unravel years down the road?

What can I do to show my wife that after 23 years as a couple I love her more than ever, even though my recent behavior certainly might not indicate it?

Are we doing the right thing by continuing to deny our oldest a cell phone until he’s 13, when all of his friends have them (no kidding, it doesn’t appear that he’s just telling us that)?

And where in the heck did I leave my glasses?

I wish I could turn to the back of the book.  Page 1473:  Well done, Dad.  You nailed it.  To the third decimal point.  Or nope, try again.  Check your assumptions and boundary conditions — maybe that’s where your error is.  And by the way, your glasses are on the kitchen counter next to the Keurig.

Engineering school problems are full of handy assumptions — heat transfer problems are perfectly insulated, so don’t worry about heat loss to the environment.  Frictionless surfaces on constantly-inclined planes.  Ideal gases.  Assumptions that make the calculations easier.

Maybe that’s the 2nd best thing about engineering school.  The assumption of an ideal, frictionless world where you don’t need to factor in the environment.

No wonder I liked it so much.

Purpose

I fell out of love with baseball a couple of decades ago.  Which makes it remarkably strange (that’s why I’m remarking on it) that one of my favorite recent activities is helping coach my 8-year old’s baseball team.

“Helping coach” gives me far too much credit.  Owen’s team has two exceptional coaches.  Both former college athletes, Damon and Josh manage to mask the intrinsic competitive fire that allowed them to perform at that level, in order to focus on making sure the boys are staying positive, having fun, and most importantly learning about the game.  Damon and Josh certainly don’t need my help with the baseballing, but with 11 energetic 8-year olds in the dugout at any given time, I serve as an extra set of eyes, arms and legs.

During the games, we’ve settled into a routine.  I hang out in the dugout during the first 2 innings — at this age, the boys pitch the first 2 innings and the coaches pitch to their own teams for the remaining 4 — shouting out the batting order, making sure each kid has a batting helmet before they trot out to home plate, trying to keep them focused on the game and not on filling one another’s hats with dugout dirt.  When it’s our turn to head out to the field, it’s my job to make sure everyone knows their positions and to grab the catcher’s gear to help him put it on, talking to him about what he’s going to do on a pop foul or a hit that trickles just beyond home plate.  Starting with the 3rd inning, I coach first base when we’re up to bat so that Damon can pitch.

I have a purpose, and I know exactly what it is.  I’m not the head coach or the assistant coach, I’m the dugout support doing what needs to be done to keep things moving as smoothly as 11 8-year olds playing a very patient game can possibly move.  Fulfilling that purpose, knowing that I have a specific job and that it’s helping the team, is incredibly satisfying.

There are very few times when we know our exact purpose.  When we know what the specific expectations are of us.  When we know why we’re here.  Most of the time we’re just finding our way, fumbling along and maybe getting lucky and getting something right once in awhile.  Most of the time, we’re just wandering the base paths hoping to trip on a base.

We were in a meeting to find out the results of our youngest son’s recent testing.  There were a couple of school psychologists there, along with the school corporation’s Director of Special Education.  We were in a kindergarten classroom, sitting on little kindergarten chairs around a little kindergarten table.  A box of kindergarten tissues in the middle of the kindergarten table.  We were all dressed for work, the Special Ed Director in a suit.  There were laptops open on the little table typically reserved for big yellow pencils and finger paints.

There was lots of explanation of test procedures and methodology.  Lots of praise for what a sweet boy Gabe is and what great parents we must be.  The build up, leading to the diagnosis.  They looked at me as they told us that Gabe falls on the autism spectrum.  Janet would tell me later that they’d asked her previously how I would react to a diagnosis — apparently it’s the dads who typically go into denial while the moms accept what some part of them already knows and get down to the business of how to help and what to do next.

But in that moment, listening to their words, something happened.  Something fell into place.  An internal switch was flipped.  I felt sudden warmth, like I was being wrapped in a blanket, gently squeezed.  And there was a very quiet whisper, “This is why you’re here.”

I think it’s the only time God has talked to me, or maybe just the only time I’ve been listening.  In that moment, I was learning my purpose.  Yes, to be the best husband I can and the best father I can be to our 2 older boys.  But maybe even more so, to help raise this special child who will some day do something very extraordinary.  We’ve been trusted with him, because some day in some small (or maybe large) corner of the world, he’s going to do something or be someone that makes that corner a better place.

All of that was in that whisper.

I listen for more whispers, hard.  To be reassured that we’re on the right track, that the day-to-day struggles are all part of the plan.  I tune in more.  But most of the time it just feels like wandering the base paths.

For now, purpose is enough.  Maybe the purpose of it all is the search for purpose, and when you find even just a bit of it everything else somehow falls into place.  We grab the catcher’s gear and help them suit up while giving a pep talk.  We trot out to first base to pat them on the back when they hustle out a ground ball.  We call out the batting order.  And we know, somehow, we’re fulfilling a purpose.  Maybe there will be more whispers later.  For now, it’s just the 1st inning.

The Most Nuts

It’s the questions that will make you the most nuts.  The why’s and the how come’s and the what if’s.  The hypotheticals and the rhetoricals.  The questions at just the wrong time, because can’t they see you’re juggling one pot on the stove that’s about to boil over with another that their 3-year old brother decided to pull out of the drawer and use as a drum, while trying to use your sock (still on your foot) to clean up the milk one of them just spilled?

There are a lot of things about kids that will do it to you, but it’s the questions that will make you the most nuts.

You want to be patient, to encourage their inquisitiveness, to be fully present with their curiosity.  So can’t they just ask their questions when it’s convenient?

It was one of those moments when 8-year old Owen asked the question about keyboards.  One of the wrong moments.  I’d snapped at him with the standard “because that’s just the way they are.”  Then followed it up with, “Why don’t you ask Siri?”  Not my proudest dad moment.  Don’t ask me, one of the most important people in your life.  Go ask a faceless robot.

Later that night, with all three kids in bed and the house quiet, I remembered his question.  And remembered my response.  He’d gone to bed with that as one of our last interactions of the day.  I wanted to fix it, to be able to have a real conversation with him first thing in the morning about the origins of QWERTY, so I turned to the place I turn to most in desperate situations like this.  Google.  Why are keyboards arranged the way they are?  In seemingly random order.  Why aren’t they alphabetical?  Or even in reverse alphabetical order?  Something other than QWERTY randomness, at least.

Google wasn’t frustrated by my questions.  She (Google’s a she, right?) informed me that QWERTY has been with us since the 1870s.  Not only were keyboards not attached to glowing screens in the 1870s, they weren’t even connected to any source of electrical power.  The word “keyboard” itself didn’t exist — it was called a “typewriter,” and the keys were mechanically linked to actual physical letters.  When pressed hard enough, the levers activated to press the physical letter through an ink ribbon, imprinting the letter onto a sheet of paper.  Through several iterations, a Milwaukee newspaper editor named Christopher Sholes discovered that the QWERTY layout we still use today was optimal for preventing mechanical keys and ribbon from getting jammed.  (Brief aside — yes, we have Milwaukee to thank for at least two things that should be obsolete — the QWERTY keyboard and Miller Lite.)

Full of pride, the wise dad, I explained this to Owen at breakfast the next morning, complete with pictures of that great relic of the past — the typewriter.  I was surprised when, instead of heaping platitudes of dadness upon me, he looked at me as if I had two additional heads sprouting out of my shoulders.  Stunned, he asked, “Why hasn’t anyone ever changed it?”

“I have no idea,” I sighed, and bit my tongue before I could add, “Go ask Siri.”

Why hasn’t anyone changed it?  There are alternatives.  Now that keystrokes fire electrons, unencumbered by tangling ribbons and mechanical levers, there are better, more effective keyboard layouts to get the electrons to turn into characters on the screen.  No matter how fast you can type now, you could learn to type even faster with one of these more efficient keyboard layouts.

The simple answer is that habits are hard to break.  We have a collective habit, and changing it would be really, really hard.  Pack-a-day hard.  12-step recovery program hard.  In a way, our habit has us stuck with QWERTY.  At least until brain wave technology enables characters to show up on the screen just by us thinking about them.  Assuming that innovation could get by the powerful QWERTY keyboard lobby.  They apparently have a stranglehold on the industry.

We’re stuck with something because of 150-year old limitations — the limitations of mechanical keys and ink ribbons.

What else are we stuck with?  Rather, what else are we sticking ourselves with?  Are we stuck driving cars and trucks to get places because of all of these roads and highways?  Are we stuck with fossil fuels (until there aren’t any more fossils) because we have to use all of the refineries and infrastructure?  Are we stuck with too many things, because changing them would mean too much of that very thing — change?

Why hasn’t anybody changed it?

I remember asking these kinds of questions too.  Looking at something that just didn’t quite make sense, and asking why it was the way it was.  After you hear “because that’s just the way it is” enough times, you stop asking.  God must want it that way.  You lose the curiosity of childhood, the wonder and awe of a world that doesn’t quite make sense, your brain adapting to all of these new experiences, assimilating them into your understanding.

And maybe that’s why the questions make you the most nuts.  Not because they’re asked at the wrong time.  Not because there’s no good answer.  But because you realize that you yourself have stopped asking them.  Because you learned long ago to accept things the way that they are, because that’s just the way it is.

And that’s a tough realization.

A few days later, on the way to piano lessons, Owen asked another question.  “Why do turn signals work the way they do?”

I held back the instinctive because that’s just the way they’re made, “I’m not sure.  How else could they work?”

“Well, if you’re following the GPS then the car could just signal automatically.  Or maybe you could just say ‘right turn’ and the signal would come on.”

Not bad, I thought.  The kid has ideas.  And even if I’ve lost the ability, or the curiosity, or the naivety to ask these kinds of questions, I can still listen to him when he asks them.  And when I do that, I realize that maybe they’re not so nuts after all.

The Odds Are Always Changing

Once you know the truth about Monte Carlo simulation, it spoils everything.  Like finding out about Santa Claus.  Or watching your childhood home run hero testify in front of Congress about steroids.  Discovering that Mickey Mouse is actually a cigarette-wielding, middle-aged woman with a Cheap Trick tattoo, not because you wanted to but because what 8-year old can possibly resist peeking through the propped open back lot door while Mom and Dad are juggling his 4-year old brother and trying to pay for $12 ice cream cones?

Innocence lost.

I sat down in one of my first college courses a couple of decades ago, and knew I’d found the right course of study.  There it was, right there on the syllabus — Monte Carlo simulation.  I knew of two Monte Carlos:  the fancy European city that serves as a playground for the rich and famous, and the bitchin’ hot rod (the 1985 SS model — black with the red stripe down the side that traces the wheel wells — what a gorgeous vehicle).  I didn’t know which of those 2 things we’d be simulating, but either way it was gonna be cool.

So it turns out that Monte Carlo simulation is the most misleading name for anything in the history of everything.  To my 19-year old dismay, I discovered that it has absolutely nothing to do with chic European cities or bitchin’ American hot rods, and everything to do with probabilities and mathematical equations.

Bummer.  Talk about a buzz kill.

It turns out Monte Carlo simulation is a statistical method that allows the user, given a set of event probabilities as input, to mathematically describe the potential outcomes of that set of events.  It can be used to predict any number of outcomes — from whether or not you’ll get a flat tire on your way to work tomorrow to how many total points will be scored in the Super Bowl.  The more completely you can describe the inputs in terms of their real probabilities, the more accurate your prediction will be.  Nate Silver had a really, really well defined set of inputs to the 2012 US presidential election, and used Monte Carlo simulation to perfectly predict Barack Obama’s near-landslide victory in the electoral college, when most media outlets were calling his race with Mitt Romney a dead heat.

It’s pretty cool stuff.  Not mullett-cool like a black ’85 Monte Carlo SS, but cool nonetheless.  And unlike the chic European city, it’s anything but elegant.  It ain’t calculus.  There are no integrations, no derivations.  No tricky LaPlace transformations.  It’s nothing more than running the same set of equations over and over and over and over, adjusting the potential probabilities and examining the outcomes.  Once the inputs are defined, computers run the probability equations thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of times in order to converge on a solution set.

Before computers, when math was elegant, this type of analysis was near impossible.  Mathematicians and scientists derived equations, beautiful equations that perfectly captured the essence of the principle.  Equations describing universal truths, you can find God in those equations.  Real mathematicians didn’t just chuck a bunch of percentages into a computer to see what it spat out.  Mathematics is refined elegance.  Monte Carlo simulation is uncivilized brute force.  F1 versus top fuel dragsters.  Tchaikovsky versus Metallica.

Hardcore mathematicians cringe at the very idea of Monte Carlo simulation.  It’s a special kind of cheating.  Shoving a bunch of equations through a microprocessor thousands of times per second certainly can’t solve anything.  Can it?  The elegant derivations themselves are the perfect predictors, aren’t they?

We were at the doctor’s office, at the appointment that was to cap off the first trimester of our second pregnancy.  The appointment that was going to tell us we were through the woods, that we could tell family and friends, that we really were going to have a baby this time.  With one pregnancy ending in miscarriage prior to this point, we’d been looking forward to this appointment with nervous anticipation ever since the home test had first suggested the news.  That day, at that appointment, the calculations were clear.  The probabilities resulting from the simulation had never been higher — we were going to have a baby of our own.

Then the probabilities changed.  Drastically and quickly.  The nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat.  For several minutes that seemed like days she searched, passing the monitor over my wife’s stomach again and again, our own hearts sinking with every pass.  “I’m sorry,” she finally said without making eye contact.  “I’ll get Dr. Kindig.”  We were destroyed.  It was happening again, in what seemed like the cruelest way possible.  In the course of minutes, the inputs to the simulation had changed drastically.  The probabilities plummeted.  This didn’t fit the elegant equation, either.  Not at all.

I put my arm around my wife and kissed her forehead, through my own stunned tears.  Her body shook as she sobbed.  It was happening again.

Dr. Kindig came in and immediately recognized what was going on.  She’d been with us through the first one, which had turned out to be something called a molar pregnancy.  Without getting into details, her words at the time were, “Sometimes pregnancies go wrong, and sometimes they go really wrong.  This is one of those times.”  And here we were, almost two years later, convinced that we were going through it all again.  The calculations were certain.  In that moment, it was impossible to argue with the probabilities.

Dr. Kindig put down the medical files, grabbed the heartbeat monitor and locked eyes with my wife.  “Lay down.  I’m finding that heartbeat.”  Everything about her was sudden fiery determination, as if by brute force of will she was going to bring that baby to life.  Somewhere, the coefficients in one of the equations adjusted ever so slightly.  The probabilities marginally improved.

The moment the monitor touched belly, a heartbeat, too fast to be an adult’s, sounded loud and clear through the speaker.  “There it is,” she said.  Brute force.  The probabilities adjusted instantaneously.  The resulting odds suddenly improved.  Dramatically.  That perfect equation?  It had long since fallen apart in a flurry of chalk dust.  There was no single equation that could predict this.

I was slower to adjust than the probabilities.  I didn’t believe it.  “Are you sure?”

“Trust me.  I’ve done this a few times.”  Brute force.  The probabilities smiled down on us.

Desperate sorrow morphed into joy.  Sobs turned to laughter then back to sobs.  The simulation settled on a solution.  The probability had never been higher.  We were, indeed, having a baby.

We’ll never know if Joe (he’s now 11) was just hiding, playing the first of many jokes on us, or his heart really wasn’t beating.  Part of me is convinced that through brute force of will and touched by the divine, Dr. Kindig didn’t just find his heartbeat.  She got it beating again.

Do the probabilities take divine intervention into consideration?

As disappointed as I was to discover the truth about Monte Carlo simulation, the truth about that tattooed lady in the Mickey Mouse getup, I’ve come around on brute force.  Brute force, perhaps with a touch of the divine — kind of like an ’85 Monte Carlo SS.

 

I’m Terrified of Winning the Lottery

I avoid the lottery as much as possible.  That’s not exactly right, because “avoiding” the lottery makes it sound like intentional action.  It isn’t.  98% of the time, it doesn’t take intentional action, the lottery is quite easy to ignore all on its own.

But occasionally, the prize gets so big that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s all over social media, and good old fashioned antisocial media too.  People talk about it at work waiting for the coffee to brew, and at the soccer fields waiting for the kids’ practice to end.  All of this attention drives the prize even higher.

“Did you get your lottery ticket?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter with a stranger in line at the grocery store.

“What would we do with all of that money?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter at the dinner table, followed by a brief lesson on probability for the wide-eyed kids, who’ve convinced themselves that a Lamborghini Diablo is in their near future.

Like everyone else, when the jackpot is big enough to be news, I buy a ticket.  Because I’m scared I’ll win without one.

I have an irrational fear that my numbers will come up, but I won’t have a ticket.

Years ago, as I was falling asleep with the TV on, the lottery drawing came on.  It was just a standard jackpot, but it initiated a panic attack.  The first number caught my attention — 8, the day of my birth, our first child’s birth, and the digit I’ve adopted as my “lucky number.”  Then came the second number — 31, my wife’s birthday.  Then the third — 11, the month of my birth and the birth of our second child.  Was I really lying in bed watching all of my lottery numbers get drawn, without a ticket in my hand?  The fourth ping pong ball exited the chute — 9, the month of our anniversary and third child’s birth.  I started to sweat, and felt a tightening in my chest.  I reached for the Xanax.  Then came the fifth number — 44.  Whew.  No significance there.  Well, other than 44 being the number of my favorite baseball player as I was growing up — young and naive enough to believe that athletes were heroes — Cincinnati Reds center fielder Eric Davis.  But that was quite a stretch.  There are a dozen more meaningful numbers I’d pick before ever getting around to 44.

I hadn’t won the lottery.

Thank goodness, because I didn’t have a ticket.

Ever since, I’ve managed to ignore the lottery, not giving it much of a second thought.  But occasionally, that’s impossible.  There was a recent jackpot that exceeded, or came darn close to exceeding, $1 billion.  Largest jackpot ever, impossible to ignore.

The day of the drawing, I bought my ticket.  With my numbers.

Birthdays and anniversaries — my numbers.

At the dinner table, we talked about what we would do with all of that money.  11-year old son decided we’d buy an English Premier League football team — preferably Sunderland or Everton (who just so happened to be looking for a primary investor).  Middle child — always the pleaser — 8-year old son decided to give it to our church.  6-year old son decided to use it to buy Snoopy.  Whatever that meant, I was pretty sure we’d be able to afford it.  My wife and I even got caught up in the daydreaming — it’s near impossible not to.  We joked, and laughed.  And our oldest said, “You know, I read that that kind of money corrupts people, so maybe we shouldn’t have even bought a ticket.”

I don’t know where he read that, but he’s probably right.

Happiness is a popular topic among social scientists.  Studies are done.  Books are written.  More studies are done.  Who’s happier — left- or right-sided brain people?  Which make you happier — cats or dogs?  What ice cream flavor makes you the happiest?

Some of these studies are reputable.  A couple of them caught my attention recently.  In one of them, Princeton researchers determined that beyond an annual income of $75,000 for a family of four, money doesn’t add to our level of happiness.  This $75,000/year seems to be the magic number — certainly not enough to fund every fantasy or satisfy every earthly desire, but enough to pay the mortgage, feed and clothe everyone, and maybe take a yearly vacation to the beach or the mountains.  Below this income level, money apparently can buy some amount of happiness.  Above it, not so much.

In another study that’s almost 40 years old, researchers found evidence for a “happiness baseline.”  Studying long-term happiness, they found negligible statistical difference in the happiness levels of lottery winners and amputees.  While winning the lottery typically resulted in a short-term “happiness boost,” happiness dropped in the following years to pre-lottery levels.  Similarly, while losing a limb to an illness or accident led to a short-term drop in overall happiness levels, victims returned to their original levels of happiness over time.

This is fascinating.  Over time, someone with 5% of the wealth and 75% of the limbs of someone else can be just as happy.  Maybe even more so.

Back at the dinner table, things had taken a turn for the worse.  Oldest son was angry — he’d just been told that despite our imagined billionaire status, he would still need to finish fifth grade (and probably even more schooling than that).  Middle son was crying — he’d realized that all this talk of a new mansion on the beach meant we’d sell the house we lived in currently, apparently the only house he ever wanted to live in.  Youngest son was even upset — worried that Snoopy would die because we had no idea how to feed a cartoon dog.

Everyone eventually calmed down.  Our oldest realized he’d actually miss school, especially seeing all of his friends every day.  We convinced the middle one that we weren’t going to move, and if we ever did we’d look for a house with a swimming pool.  We assured the youngest that someday we’d get another dog — a real one that we know how to feed.  Our oldest reminded us that that kind of money corrupts people.

I’m terrified of winning the lottery.  But maybe it isn’t because I’m afraid my numbers will come up and I don’t have a ticket.  Maybe it’s really because in lots of ways, especially the important ones, I’ve already won.

 

Engineering the Kids

Eleven years and four months into being a dad, I think I’ve learned the hardest part about it all — doing nothing.  Doing something is easy.  The baby’s crying?  Change his diaper.  Baby still crying?  Warm up a bottle.  Still crying?  Rock him to sleep.

Still?  Whiskey.  For me.

I also think I’ve learned that the older they get, the more you have to do nothing.  As much as you want to get on that bus with them on the very first day of school just so you can make sure they get there and find their classroom, and then heck you’re already there so you might as well stay for lunch, you have to stand in the driveway and watch that big yellow deathtrap kidnap your offspring.  You have to stand there and watch it drive off into the distance, until in a panic you run to the garage, jump in the car and chase it down, all the way to school, parking across the street and watching to make sure he gets in ok.  Because how do you really know otherwise?

As much as you’d like to pull the referee aside and explain away that traveling call because he really is such a good kid and would never do anything against the rules like that on purpose, you have to do nothing.  Except use it as a teaching moment during the ride home on the occasional unfairness of an otherwise relatively charmed life.

As much as you want to do something, anything for crying out loud don’t just stand there and watch them suffer, you stand there.  And do nothing.

And you learn later, sometimes much later, that they weren’t suffering after all.  They were doing something else entirely — they were learning.

When my wife and I tell people that we’re both employed as engineers, one of three things happens:

  1. They insist that we must have the most efficient, well-run, process-driven household of anyone on the face of the planet, ever.  “I’ll bet you’re never late to anything,” they say.  Or, “Is anything in your house ever out of place?”
  2. They suddenly remember a prior engagement, dinner reservations that they must rush off to, or Fluffy’s appointment with the groomer.
  3. They look at us with pity and mutter, sometimes in a barely audible whisper, “Oh your poor children.”

While 1 and 2 are more frequent, #3 is definitely the most accurate.

Oh our poor children.

Human beings, all of us, are naturally hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, even when none exist.  I had a piece of German chocolate cake at one in the morning, and look at that, I weigh a half pound less today than I did yesterday.  I think I’ve discovered the next diet fad.  We’re easily fooled by coincidence and correlation, looking for singular cause and effect relationships wherever we can and completely missing the larger system hard at work behind the curtain.

When future engineers are learning to be future engineers, this becomes ingrained even further.  Mostly because the seemingly best way to learn to solve engineering problems is to turn them into singular cause and effect incidents.  Make a design change to the widget and run the analysis to see how the stress changes under load.  Tweak the gains in the controller and watch what happens to the response in the signal.  Change a valve position and examine the effects on the laminar and turbulent flow.

So already hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, and trained to look for them even harder and exploit them in the world of levers and pulleys, electrons, and chemical reactions, society somehow allows us to procreate and wreak all kinds of havoc on our next generation.

Oh our poor children.

Surely this happens with other occupations.  Surely accountants help their kids set up spreadsheets to track allowance and expenditures.  Firefighters always on the lookout for safety violations that could burn the house down.  Government officials must spend even more of their time than the rest of us convincing their children that yes, indeed, they really do know what’s best for them.

For engineers, it’s looking for cause and effect.  One evening, I actually heard these words tumble from my own mouth:  “We’ve just got to find the root cause for why he won’t settle down in his crib until he’s been in there for an hour and a half.”

Then we discovered magic — the magic of do nothing.  Quit trying to fix whatever might be wrong.  Restrain the urge to take action, with handcuffs and rope if necessary.

I’d like to say this was brilliance on our part — that we analyzed the system, conducted a thorough fault tree analysis and determined that nothing was the right course of action.  I’d like to say that.  Truth is, we’d investigated everything on that stupid fault tree and were completely out of ideas.  Not to mention exhausted and irritated with each other.  Totally defeated by a 6-month old who just happens to be absolutely reliant on us for his survival, we sat.  And we did nothing.

And the little &*%^ was asleep in 45 minutes.

Then I turned back into an engineer, “You know what this means?  At this rate, tomorrow night he’ll fall asleep in 22 1/2 minutes!”  And we were right back where we started.

We’re still afflicted by this need to fix things, by the urge to intervene and figure out the problem, by the compulsion to do something.  But we’re getting better.  And it’s a good thing we’re getting better, because from what I understand there’s a whole lot of letting go in our future.  Driving lessons.  First dates.  College.  A friend with adult children told me, “Your worries don’t go away as they get older, they get more expensive.”

We go to work and try to make things as perfect as they can be.  To find the problems, analyze the root causes, and fix them.  To make efficient processes more efficient, productive systems more productive.  And then we come home to a happy mess, and try to do nothing.  Nothing, except listen to how they navigated their days, in all their complicated elementary school glory.  Trying not to fix, trying not to suggest alternative courses of action that might’ve worked out better, trying to just listen.  Because we’re learning that they aren’t machines that need maintenance to function at peak efficiency, that they don’t need to produce at 100% accuracy, and that usually they’ve got to figure this out for themselves.

They’ll settle down in their cribs in half the time all on their own, if we just get out of the way and let them.

 

 

 

The Worst Kind of Connected

I’m the worst kind of connected.  So connected I don’t even realize how connected I am.  I’ve got devices connected to other devices connected to vehicles connected to email accounts connected to thermostats connected to appliances.  The engineer in me thinks this is cool.  Maybe someday, as I’m pulling out of my driveway, my connected oven will tell my connected vehicle that I forgot to turn it off.  My connected vehicle will apply the brakes, shift into reverse, and take me back to the garage.  Or better yet, remotely shut off the connected oven for me.  And since everything is logged into Facebook, my connected vehicle will post a selfie and automatically tell all of my connected friends about its accomplishment.  I won’t even have to lift a connected finger.

The CIA doesn’t need to implant a chip behind my ear to know where I’m at, who I’m with, and whether or not I remembered to floss this morning.  I’ve done it to myself with all of this connecting.

My dentist assures me that floss isn’t connected.  Yet.

I work in Columbus, Indiana, a cute little town with architecture that rivals that of Chicago and San Francisco (I’m not kidding).  Columbus, Indiana is located about 35 miles south of where I live on the south side of Indianapolis, a not-so-cute big city with architecture that rivals Toledo.

I got into my car on a recent weekday morning to drive to work, and noticed a message flash onto my iPhone screen.  It was Google maps, politely informing me that the route to Columbus was clear and it should take me 43 minutes to get there.

Wait, what?

Even with no more than two or three sips of coffee in my system, this struck me.  I caught my breath, dropped the phone on the passenger seat, and looked over my shoulder to see who was there.  Was there a Googler living in my backseat sending me these messages?

I spent most of the drive trying to figure out how my phone knew where I was going.  I have toast for breakfast on weekdays, but not on weekends.  Did the connected toaster alert Google?  I get up earlier on weekdays.  Was the connected low-flow shower head the culprit?  What about the connected alarm clock?

Then it occurred to me.

I’m not too connected.  I’m too predictable.

The Google algorithms had figured out the pattern, that’s all.  When I plug my phone into the USB port in my car at 6:15am on Wednesdays, I’m headed to Columbus, Indiana.  The algorithm wouldn’t need to be terribly complicated to figure that out — even with just a semester of C-plus programming, I could probably code it myself.

This didn’t make me feel much better.

My phone knew where I was going without me telling it or asking it how to get there.  My phone knew I wasn’t getting an early start on a west coast hiking trip via Boulder, Colorado, where I’d stop for a 2-day layover to sample street music and local IPAs.  My phone knew I wasn’t headed to the airport to board a private jet to Madrid to close the big deal and then hit the town with our new business partners for tapas and martinis.  My phone knew I wasn’t rushing to the ER, where I’d gown up for immediate surgery because there was a horrifying waffle iron incident at the local Bob Evans and I was the only surgeon in town skilled enough to perform such a delicate, life-saving operation.

No.  My phone knew I was driving to Columbus, Indiana, to spend a good portion of the day sitting behind a desk typing characters into a screen, and the rest of the day sitting at a conference table with 4-10 other unfortunate souls typing characters into screens while pretending to listen to whoever happened to be talking at the moment.

My phone knew all of this, and more.  Powerless to stop it, my phone did what any well-meaning travel companion would do.  It told me the route was clear.

The reality of my existence hit me like a ton of bricks.  Or a ton of feathers.  A ton of something.  I’m that guy.  The guy 19-year old me swore I’d never be.  Aren’t I supposed to be feeding tens of thousands of malnourished children?  Playing to sold out shows at Red Rocks?  Curing cancer?

This bothered me.  I thought about it most of the day, wondering how this had all come to pass.  I drove home in silence.  No music.  Not even a Freakonomics podcast.  Thinking about it all.  Could I still do all of those things I told myself I would do?  Was it too late?  Was I destined to live a life accurately predicted by 20-somethings with bad facial hair and closets full of hoodies?

I parked in the connected garage and walked into the connected house, all of this weighing on my mind.

And then I smelled dinner on the stove.  And I saw a bottle of wine on the counter.  And there were two boys sitting at the kitchen island doing their homework with the help of a beautiful woman who looked a lot like the girl 19-year old me fell in love with a couple of decades ago.  And there was a third boy running to me with his arms extended, yelling “Daddy’s home!”

And everything fell right back into place.

And suddenly, the algorithms didn’t bother me so much.

Google might’ve known I’d be in that exact spot at that exact moment, but it had no idea that I was right where I needed to be.