Sunday, January 31, 2016

Childhood as war, and the lamentable and self-perpetuating logic of self-segregation

An African-American guy who was a schoolmate a couple of years younger than me from elementary school through high school died recently. I don't know what the proximate cause of death was, though I know he had had a stroke a couple of years before and never quite recovered.

I never really knew the guy all through school, though after the advent of Facebook I saw him post a lot there and came to realize that he was a very special soul with a keen intellect. So I got his number and went and had lunch with him, and we had a phenomenal conversation about many things we shared, from substance abuse issues to a kid with autism to...  Not long before he died, I took him to the funeral of another mutual friend, and we had another fine conversation. He was a special guy, though I think most people are if you are able to find time to talk with them,

The fact is, I've never really known that many black guys well. Part of it is because, and I have written about this before, childhood was a bit like war for me. I was skinny, with buck teeth, a geek, I didn't feel like I fit in. Then mom got me some braces and protected me from being skipped forward a grade, and puberty treated me well athletically, so that I was able to become a contributor to some high-powered sports teams, and briefly even a star on the track team, and I had some very pretty girlfriends. All this was very good for my ego, but it didn't fill all the holes.

I was never able to be much of a player at any of the mainstream sports, especially basketball, yearn and strive though I might (and I did). Aside from having some teammates on 4x400 relays in club track and field, the basketball court was the only place I ever spent much time with black guys.

For whatever reason, they didn't get placed into the advanced academic courses where I found myself: honors and AP this and that. Even in the era of integration, I was effectively in an almost entirely segregated school context. And whatever social, romantic and athletic success I might have had, the classroom was my home court. That was where I proved myself and fought to dominate. I don't think I was ever nasty about it, it was just home court where I fought off the demons of insufficiency that stormed inside me.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: childhood and adolescence were always proving grounds for me, and it was honestly difficult to make the time to know anyone particularly well, outside of the people I had known forever. Boys don't have deep conversations with one another, even when smoking pot and thinking that they are. We mostly jousted and jockeyed for position, formed cliques and bonds, told jokes to make one another laugh, and so on. And the gaps were particularly huge with people from social strata other than our own.

In this sense, I think, social networks are an pretty positive thing, because we get to see our peers let down their hair and share about what they care about. There is a lot of fronting and jockeying on Facebook, to be sure, but a lot of people being real as well. And if you push through the wall of the network and make time to get to know people, there are amazing things there.

But the Dunbar number still applies. It is very hard to get to know more than a certain number of people well within the context of 24/7/365.

In any case, this post has drifted, let me try to bring it back to where it started. My point is this: though as an educated white male in the South I would have objectively appeared to be in a position of strength as a child, I was in fact hounded and driven by insecurities, and thereby pushed into a sort of war mode. I felt myself inferior to black guys on the basketball court, which was a huge proving ground. I wasn't particularly good at talking to anybody. So I probably isolated myself and didn't develop relationships with people at all, and black people in particular. So that now, objectively considered, my life continues to be segregated, certainly more so than I would like for it to be. And this trend has self-reinforcing tendencies unless I try hard to break free of it.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

I have slouched in recent months if not years on writing book and movie reviews, which used to be a regular feature here on the blog. Part of it is that we haven't been watching movies as much as television shows.  But I have been reading.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust, by John Coates, is a tour de force, but it is not light reading. He was a trader at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank before going back to Cambridge to get a PhD in Neuroscience, if there is such a field. He writes about various parts of and influences on our brain and neurological systems: the amygdala, the hypothalamus, testosterone, dopamine, cortisol and a bunch of other stuff that I honestly can't remember, but roughly it's about how our brains and nervous systems process danger and stress and react to it, how we influence those around us in so doing -- and thereby shade into the realm of an epidemiology of fear and stress -- how some individuals do better than others, and how institutions, particularly financial institutions, could reform themselves to help them do a better job handling other people's money.

Obviously, this is a pertinent book here at the beginning of 2016, a stressful time when everyone in the world is trying to figure out what is happening, what will happen next, and what to do about it. I wish I could retain it all and synopsize it neatly for you, but I think the moral to the story is this: there is a profoundly physical component to how we handle stress, including market stress, and that physical component is in turn informed by our habits and lived experience, Over time, we can coach ourselves to be less reactive.

Blech. I should have written this weeks ago, when I finished the book. Instead I started reading another one.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Much obliged

As I mentioned before, I've been listening to a Gretchen Rubin book in my car, to wit Better Than Before. My sister Leslie said the book had been helpful to her in some regards. Of course, as I listen,, part of me is gently seething, because Gretchen and I were in college together and I envy her her incredible success. But mostly I have to admit she's worked her butt off to be as successful as she is, and that she's done good work. It's certainly better than any book I've ever published, and she seems genuinely motivated to help people with her work.

So Gretchen divides the world into four categories of people, as laid out below.

  • Upholder—accepts rules, whether from outside or inside. An upholder meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution. I am an Upholder, 100%.
  • Questioner—questions rules and accepts them only if they make sense. They may choose to follow rules, or not, according to their judgment.
  • Rebel—flouts rules, from outside or inside. They resist control. Give a rebel a rule, and the rebel will want to do the very opposite thing.
  • Obliger—accepts outside rules, but doesn’t like to adopt self-imposed rules.
And she's got a little quiz you can take to see which one you are. In a moment of weakness, I took the quiz, and was somewhat astonished when it told me that I am not a Questioner, nor a Rebel, but an Obliger.  Part of me wanted to go back and retake the quiz, but I know that my retake would be shaded by my resistance to my initial diagnosis.

Now I know these types of instruments are not super-scientific and all that, but still, I was mildly galled. But, as I reflect on it, there is certainly an element of truth to this confusion. Although, on the face of it, going out and getting a PhD in Russian Literature while sprouting all manner of facial hair, spouting some wacky theoretical jive, and partying pretty hearty might appear rebellious, I was in many ways seeking my dad's attention and approval. And since I left that life, I have worked very hard to be a pretty stand-up bourgie guy and consider myself deeply obligated to my family. For example, even as I type I am watching the clock and thinking about the sequence of the evening:  watch Star Trek Next Gen with Graham, make fire, discuss Europe trip, watch Downton Abbey with Mary, get to bed at a reasonable hour so I can get back out there tomorrow and earn money to support all of this and serve my clients well.
I even feel somewhat obliged to blog, because I know I have a small but dedicated readership -- and I love and thank you all -- who might bail on me if I let down on some sort of regularity in posting.
At times I have felt like the Giving Tree, who gives all and has nothing left for himself. But this is a bad dynamic and it encourages me to be pissy with everyone. The fact is, I love the blog, I love Star Trek, I love my family and making fires, etc. But it is perhaps symptomatic that I find it very hard to imagine living without them, because I don't know what my purpose in life would be.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Perchance to dream

For two nights in a row, Graham has been asleep by the time I went in to his room to snuggle with him. Last night it couldn't have been two minutes between his leaving the bathroom from brushing his teeth and me making my way in there and discovering him somewhat comatose.

In so many ways, I think that this is a worthy goal in life in general. To be so tired when going to sleep that you just pass out, and to have adequate trust in the world that you stay asleep blissfully until morning.

Today I've been out shoveling snow, which is great work to achieve the same effect for me. In fact I was just about to rewrite this post, but then I thought to search my blog to see if I had written the same thought before. Of course I had.

Now must eat lunch.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Inspector Gadget

At the library yesterday, I grabbed the copy of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget from the hold shelf and then was headed to the nave portion of the building to sit and read while Graham did his digging around for fresh books. On the way there, I ran into someone from the high school, and the conversation quickly moved over to Facebook. She said that she was able to see what I was up to, but was shy about posting herself. I assured her that it was the United States of America, and that no one was obliged to post anything if they didn't want to.

And then I sat down and continued reading the book, which I had started to peruse at David and Carol's in Princeton over Christmas. Lanier's core thesis is that human relations are coming to be defined by the internet and social media, that we are being flattened by the standards that they impose, and that this is an unqualified ill. So, for example, people feeling somehow obliged to post on Facebook and needing to apologize for not doing so. I kept reading, and I come these exhortations:

  • Don't post anonymously unless you really might be in danger
  • Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won't fit into the template available to you on a social networking site
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out
Hmmmm. These are some real and legitimate thoughts. Obviously, this blog is pseudonymized, for a number of reasons. For one, I don't want to sit here sweating the editing. I'd rather just write and let it flow. Just as importantly, I want to feel free to rail and be free with the topics I choose and what I open up about without worrying about colleagues and clients being able to Google me easily.

In some sense, I think that Lanier is overly focused on the impact of social media. Yes it is a little odd that people such as myself can have multiple selves: the blog me, where I dig deep, the Facebook me, where I mostly perform, and the LinkedIn me, where I put my professional face forward. I think that people often had these same layers pre-social media, but they were instantiated differently.

But he is doing some real and worthy thinking in this book and I will keep right on reading it, along with the other stuff I'm reading, right now Knausgaard (loving it) and Kahneman (struggling mightily), while listening to Gretchen Rubin in the car.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Yesterday was an excellent day.  I went to my morning meeting, then took Graham to martial arts. I have been having both him and Natalie sit in the front seat with me, both to help them mentally progress towards adulthood by putting them on nearly equal footing with the driver, but also to get me to think of them as quasi-adults. Also so their perception of the road will be more like that of a driver, in terms of speed of things approaching, etc.

Teaching Natalie to drive is leading me to believe this is prudent and wise. I have been surprised at how difficult it is for her to judge where curbs are, etc. Partially this is because I have never tought anyone to drive before, but I think it may also have to do with her having spent much less time on a bicycle than I did as a kid, and much less time driving go carts, bumper cars, and the like.  Whatever. In so many regards she is so much more educated and mature than I was at her age, I think. It's pretty marvelous, honestly.

While at martial arts, mom called and asked that we come to her house for a little while to spend a little time with her husband David, who's been having some health challenges and is a little isolated around the house. So we did that, and watched a good chunk of Carolina playing State.  Graham doesn't watch enough basketball, relative to the other boys his age around here, so it is definitely good for him to watch and develop a better understanding of the game and the players, so he can take part in that part of teen boy (or, for now, "late tween boy") bonding.

We hurried home before the game was over to beat the traffic, and I went out for a longish run in Duke Forest. A good thing to do, and I did it while a radio interview I had taped back in December aired on WCHL.

After I got home, I took Natalie out for driving practice, then watched Star Trek with Graham. After she had dinner, Natalie deigned to read with me on the couch, and I put a blanked over our feet and we played footsie. Our cat Rascal even sat on our feet briefly, completing the trifecta. To cap it off, Natalie watched a couple of episodes of Parks and Rec with me and Mary while we watched dinner.

So when I add it all up I probably spent a total of three hours with Natalie, and a similar amount of time with Graham. Yes, we were watching TV for part of it, co-consuming narratives, as I like to think of it. But that's OK. There were good discussions in there too. I won't delve into them here, but it was quality time.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The urge to invade

I was at a networking event, a happy hour, out in RTP yesterday evening and I saw a young woman standing alone.  Mid-20s, African-American, hipster, a couple of extra pounds, holding a beer. I knew she wasn't likely to become a client, and that's why I was there, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to say hello. She looked so lonely.

Turned out she was looking for her next gig, had some science credentials and some technical chops, but didn't really have the job she wanted.  We talked for a little while, exchanged cards.  I thought of a neighbor with whom I might connect her and told her to ping me on LinkedIn.

Then I went and sat down to talk to some white guys with grey hair. A more likely audience for a guy like me. Turns out one of those guys was an advisor himself, a colleague of my boy Riguz.  As I was bonding with these members of my tribe, I looked back up at the black youngster. She was sitting alone, slumping, disheartened.

Today I was processing my cards from last night and I looked her up on LinkedIn. Turns out, she went to an Ivy League school. I had to resist the temptation to call her up, ask her to send me her resume, and then forward it to my neighbor.

But where does this intercessory impulse come from? In general, there's really nothing better than hooking someone up with a job. I love doing it like little else. I suspect I saw a little of myself in her. When I was her age, I was much more fucked up, much less functional than her even. I wouldn't even have gone to an event like that, and if I had gone, I would have been pounding the free beer and trying to get up with a young lady or another.

Certainly I hadn't done anything whatsoever to make myself marketable to an employer. That was beneath me.  I so wish somebody had been able to pierce my shell at that age and guide me towards reasonable employment.  Lord knows my mom tried, I just wasn't ready, for a variety of reasons.

So yes, I want to nanny this nice young woman.

When what I really need to be doing is finding clients.

This is what I think of as my Rip Van Winkle instinct. Attentive readers will recall that what got old Rip banished from his household was his tendency to help his neighbors with their household projects, and not do jack around his own house. So he went on top of a mountain and slept for 20 years.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Pulling back the veil

I took Natalie for driving practice yesterday at the UNC Friday Center parking lots, which is an area we are getting to know quite well, between using it for biking practice for Graham and now this. On the way there, I began a discussion with Natalie of some of the big topics: including some of the complexities of my career path and how much stress they have induced at times.

I wanted to talk to her about goal-directedness in her own educational path, which is as thorny a question as one can get on. On the one hand, it's good for her to have a sense of the things she likes and to explore them in depth, and she is as pre-law as you can get and still be in high school. On the other hand, she's not even fricking 16 yet, and we want for her to retain an openness to the world and a sense of wonder and not get in this paranoid lock-down if-I-don't-do-every-extracurricular-possible-I-won't-get-into-Yale-and-my-life-will-be-over mindset, as is all too encouraged in today's high-performing high school cultures.

But how to direct her? In the course of the discussion, I actually talked to her about my own stress symptoms, some of which she observes in mornings, and also when I'm cranky and irritable, and then towards the end I said what I think is true, which is that parents feed the mental illness of Ivy League focus because we fear for the future because the world has been changing so quickly. (At least in every regard except that affluent white people have it easier than others.)

And in so doing, I pulled back the veil of parental infallibility, under which I labored until relatively late in adolescence. I mean, I saw my dad do some fucked up shit, which I won't go into here, and part of me knew my mom was in some way imperfect too, but the bedrock elemental presupposition that my parents were more or less perfect and that money more or less grew on trees persisted for a long long time.

And I wonder whether it was wise to have pulled back the veil, to have said to her directly that we don't know certain things, that we have fears, and that they to no small extent make us who we are as "grown ups."  Of course she knows. But it's sort of like Santa and the Easter Bunny, only bigger.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Long and the Short of it

In a very real sense, as consciousnesses participating in the world, as cogitos, all we have is time, and therefore the most important decisions we make involve time allocation and time management. Most of these decisions involve balancing long-, middle-, and short-term considerations. Money, as a unit of value representing stored labor (expended time), facilitates the management of time. It is a means, in a sense, of time-shifting. To a limited extend, one can work hard in the present and store up units of time for the future.

The problem is, we don't know when we're going to die. X-factors like cancer, inattentive driving (on our own part of others'), and chronic diseases threaten us at all times. These risks can be managed to a certain extent by managing how we behave (diet, exercise, sleep, mindful vehicle maintenance and driving, etc.), but there are significant risks that lie well outside our spans of influence.

On Friday, I went to the funeral of the dad of a family that were neighbors of ours in Durham 45-odd years ago and who went to the same church as us. Good people, not our twins in every way, but fine folx. One of the sons in the family spoke about his dad during the service, and he told stories of the great vacations they had gone on as kids and the memories they had made together, all six of them driving across the country to California in a station wagon ("I'm not sure that's even legal anymore") or circling the Arc de Triomphe five times before figuring out how to exit the traffic circle. Great stuff.

Which really brings it home that the most important decisions I can make now are to build strong memories for my family, and yes, vacations are an important part of it. We're supposed to travel to the UK this summer, and I know I really need to pull the trigger and start booking the trip, even though the conservative part of me keeps whispering that my practice is not yet generating enough revenue to run the household in a cashflow neutral way, and the markets are kind of iffy, to say the least.

Which raises another question. How important is it, fundamentally, that vacations be fancy? In some sense, traveling broadly exposes one's kids to a variety of the world and opens their eyes to difference.  I know the UK ain't that exotic, but I've got Graham's food allergies to think about, and they both love Hogwarts.

One the other hand, "seeing the world" is really just a marker of class status, a way to say "we are rich enough to travel.," Good memories can be formed locally too.

On balance, though, I really need to just pull the trigger and get this done.

Mom tells the story of how, in 1988, she and I were set to go travelling in Europe right after I graduated from college, and she got a phone call with a fantastic consulting opportunity. The guy who called her said she should come to Chicago or wherever right then. We were at the airport. She said no. We had a great trip. She got the gig.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Little things with Natalie

Coming back into the house just now, I heard music coming from Natalie's room: the soundtrack of Hamilton, which both of my kids have been enjoying in the privacy of their own earbuds ever since the CD that Beth sent came in the mail some time back. There is something exceptionally joyous about hearing music played aloud by these kids whose musical culture has been almost primarily individual (although they do listen to the same songs and like to sing along at times).

To digress slightly from where I thought this post was going when I started 2 minutes ago, I wonder how the fundamental nature of pop music might have shifted due to this change in mode of consumption. It kind of reminds me of the shift Ian Watt details in his 1957 The Rise of the Novel, which looked at how the novel, as it emerged in the 1800s via Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, and Henry Fielding, marked the emergence of the bourgeois individual, as it was the first major narrative art form to be ingested and digested individually, as opposed to collectively (think drama). And the novel of the time focused on the inner world of individuals.

So if teenagers get their music primarily from earbuds, is the narrative content of music shifting? And the relationship of the consuming individual to that narrative?

Blah blah blah

She also watches TV shows on her phone and her new laptop in her room, but she watches with Mary and me in the rec room a little. I think I may have mentioned how much fun it is to sing along with the theme song of Parks and Rec with her.  Another thing we enjoy together is, when Netflix (really I think it's Time Warner) is having buffering issues in the middle of shows and we get a little status bar at the bottom of a black screen that tells us that the show is loading, each time the bar moves a little Natalie and I have a little game of saying "It moved!" to celebrate its progress. It freaks out our cat a little. Oh well.

Monday, January 04, 2016


All too often I find myself scrolling through my feed, looking at pictures, watching videos, reading things my friends post. The real problem is not that Facebook is vapid, but that I am blessed with an incredible set of friends that put me in touch with a wide variety of types of discourse, and who have lovely children. It does, to some extent, blunt my initiative at times and my ability to peel out and express my own coherent thoughts. Oh well.

And yes, Zappo's does try to sell me shoes, even though I already bought some.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

In with the new?

Two things I like to read as one year turns into the next are the Economist's Holiday Double Issue, which is always full of stories about a bunch of random stuff from the past and from odd corners of the globe and of human experience, and the New York Times Magazine's "The Lives They Led" issue, which has short sketches of people who died in the past year. I always intend to read, but don't always read as much of, the Economist's forward-looking issue about the year coming up, with articles by various bigwigs.

Why is that, I ask myself? Does this mean I am essentially more retrospective than prospective in orientation? Perhaps, indeed probably. Or maybe it is just because I am skeptical about people's ability to predict the future, beyond its simple arrival. Or the fact that, when people are speaking of the future, they are intensely likely to "talk their book," which is to say peddle the version of the future they would like to see happen.

But that's true in a sense of the past as well.

In any event, the intensity with which the experience of individuals resonates with me indicates to me that I am doing the right thing by working with individuals, as opposed to trying to become a true investment analyst and manage pools of money for a fund or institutions.

For now, it's time to gear up and take Graham for a run over in Carolina North, which we used to refer to as "the woods" when I grew up in Glen Heights.