Life, the Universe, and Everything
“What year were you married? What year was the baby born?”
“We were married in 1987, Abuela. Jacob was born in 1991.”
MariaPaula’s grandmother had started to show signs of mild dementia something over a year before and had recently moved in with her only granddaughter. As grandmother’s cognitive abilities continued to slide, she asked “What year were you married? What year was the baby born?” more and more frequently. By the last year of her life, she would ask “What year were you married? What year was the baby born?” several times in the same hour. Robert and MariaPaula always offered the same patient, truthful answer. They had been married for three and a half years when Jacob joined them.
At the height of the potato famine in January of 1852 in Ireland, a young mother addresses her husband. “We have little food and less money. Our son, our only child, is not yet two months old; he is hungry, as are you and I. There is barely enough food for the three of us. We cannot afford to have your father live here anymore. You must take him to the poor house.”
Her husband says that he cannot leave his elderly and infirm father at the poor house, that the poor house is a euphemism for starvation, disease, and death. “Yes, times are tough,” he says, “but where there is life, there is hope.” The husband points out that they are a family albeit a poor one and that what happens to one is what happens to all.
The wife persists. “Take your father to the poor house,” she insists. “The food that your father eats is food that we could give to our son.”
Look! Up in the Tree! It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a... It’s a Child?
On the Stanford Early School Achievement Test appeared the following question: five year-old students were shown three pictures, a kitten in a tree, a snake in a tree, and a child in a tree. The children were asked, “Which of the these would cause you to call 911”?
Sandra, mother of an adorable five-year-old posed this question to our running buddies over breakfast one early morning last week. You may wish to take some time to consider whether a kitten in a tree, a snake in a tree, or a child in a tree would compel you to call 911 before reading ahead. Take all the time you need. I’ll wait right here.
It’s hard to imagine how he did it, but in order to avoid burdening his family with difficult end of life decisions that would have ensued from his prolonged illness, my good friend Dan Scharfman died last night. As his undergraduate room mate and friend of 35 years put it, “A gentleman to the end.” Without higher order cognitive functions, Dan was still more thoughtful that anyone I've ever met or am likely to meet. It would have been hard for his family to determine when to take Dan off life support. So he spared them the trouble. He left us peacefully last night, January 20th, 2013.
At 55 years of age.
A good man. Gone too soon.
There is nothing more important than my child being Number One. It's not about skills; it's about place value. Unfortunately, I've been going about the business of making my child Number One all wrong. Fortunately, I now know what to do to ensure that my child is Number One from now on.
Previously, to ensure that my child was Number One, I helped her by making sure she was studying constantly and by doing her homework for her. When the homework got too difficult and time consuming for me, I hired tutors to do her homework and write her papers. I also had to make sure that my child understood the work so that she could do well on exams. When my child would try to fall asleep after five or six hours of studying with her tutors, I would poke her and slap her to keep her alert and attentive. Of course, I also prepared her snacks high in carbohydrates to keep her focused. When these foods didn't work efficiently, I gave my child amphetamines and an intravenous glucose solution.
Look, I'm just going to come right out and say it: Telling your child that she should work hard so that she can be Number One is just stupid.
Because, by definition, only one person can be first. It's arithmetic. As easy as--forgive me--one, two three. If your child is first, then somebody else's child isn't. That's all there is to it.
Having your child focus on being Number One is stupid, damaging, harmful, and demeaning. Because if she fails to achieve Number One-ness, then she has failed in the eyes of her parents. And if she does make it to Number One-ville, then she has learned to treat her classmates as objects.
Much is made of Malcolm Gladwell's "Ten thousand hours," the thoughtful insight that to achieve proficiency, the equivalent of five years of full time work is a necessary condition--if not a sufficient one. The Beatles played clubs in Hambourg for ten thousand hours before appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show; Steve Jobs futzed around with computers for ten thousand hours before moving on to enforce his prodigious ability worldwide.
What isn't mentioned is how many people put in the requisite ten thousand hours and achieve competence but not success. My buddy, Kevin, played guitar for ten thousand hours and didn't make it to a German Coffee House never mind CBS. There is something to be said, certainly, for how beautifully he plays. Here's another question: What else could he have done with his time?
"No hats on the bed!" A woman screams at a visitor. "Get that hat off the bed! Now!"
"OK," says the man. "But, by the way, why? Why must I take my hat off the bed?"
"Hats on the bed are bad luck! Terrible bad luck! Years and years of bad luck! Get that hat off the bed!"
"OK," says the man. And walks out of our scenario to appear in another blog post somewhere else.
"My mother taught me that hats on the bed are bad luck just as her mother taught her. Everyone knows that hats on the bed are bad luck!" The woman shouts at the retreating figure.
Ignoring for a moment the silliness of all superstitions in general, why this particularly silly superstition--no hats on the bed--in particular? Some religious traditions--don't eat pork--are said to originate in an evolutionary adaptive imperative--trichinosis is unpleasant. Could there be a REASON why this woman is hysterical about a hat on the bed?
Bob Blitzer wasn't just a great math teacher; he was a good man: my first openly gay professor--and this was the early 70s--he was a force of nature in the classroom. He drew an inverted parabola on the board. "'Y equals negative X squared' looks like a missile," he began. "No, it doesn't. 'Y equals negative X squared' looks like a breast."
Can YOU think of a better way to engage adolescents in the subtleties of curve sketching?
Bob was a tireless advocate for struggling students. His office hours weren't Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10:00 to 11:00 am. His office hours were any time he was awake. He taught like a mad dog. As long as you were willing to learn, he was willing to teach. No problem was too simple. From what I could tell, no problem was too complex either.
1) My six year-old daughter is having a birthday. What should I do?
2) My 14 year-old daughter loves animals, wants to see a bear in the wild. What should I do?
3) My 16 year-old son is the third chair out of three trumpet players in the school orchestra. What should I do?
Which of the following responses is more likely to facilitate children who grow up to be competent and content?
1) My six year-old daughter is having a birthday.
1A) I'll call the party planner and have them set up a bounce house, a train track, pony rides, and a petting zoo. We'll have Cinderella and a dozen other princess characters in costume. They'll perform several original skits. We'll invite all the first graders from all the classes in the school, about a hundred children. The caterer will focus on finger food for the kids and, of course, a full buffet and mimosas for the adults. My daughter will spend most of the day being photographed.