The People Problem

I am about 8 years old.

My parents are out for the evening, and I am home with my younger sister, and Beverly, a baby-sitter we both like.

Beverly introduced my sister and me to Happy Days, which at the time struck me as the coolest, most amazing half-hour of television I had ever seen. (Aayeee!)

But not tonight.

Tonight we will watch Soylent Green, which will be my introduction to the dystopic tone that will characterize most of the best example of science fiction movies from my youth. (“You maniacs! You Blew it up!”)

In 1992 I left my mentor’s shop and opened my own commercial photography studio in a defunct swine slaughter house in Ashland, Oregon. The very first job I landed was shooting for a local appliance store. I don’t remember what I was shooting, but I remember the only place they had for me to set up a little table-top studio was in the television department.

I remember this because as it happens that was the day the Rodney King riots broke out in Los Angeles, and coverage of the riots was on every TV set in the store.

It was surreal.

It also confirmed all of my suspicions about what the future held.

Then, and against expectations, the 1990s turned out very well for me.

Within a year I had closed up my shop in Ashland and moved to New York City.

Less than seven years later I was signing a lease on a mid-town loft office space, and in that time I had also collected a wife, a child, a dog, an apartment in Manhattan and a house at the end of Long Island. I was not yet 34 and that was, in terms of material wealth and social entrenchment, far far more abundance than I imagined, or even hoped for when I was 14, or 24. I began to wonder if the age and attitudes in which I was raised were an aberration. That maybe what I was experiencing now was this wonderful American stability and normalcy I had read about, seen on TV, but never thought I’d experience.

Then the Dot.com bubble burst and wrecked my wife’s business.

Then the planes flew into the Trade Center Towers and wrecked everything.

We had not intended for so much time to elapse after the birth of our first child to begin to try to have another, but our apple-cart had been upset. The stability and normalcy we enjoyed in the late Nineties that gave us the confidence to undertake (at the time) daunting proposition of creating and being responsible for another human being was gone. “Soon, but not yet,” we kept saying to one another, and the years ticked by.

Two things happened to change that.

The first was that sometime in 2004 I tracked down an old friend and colleague and when I caught up with him and found out he and his wife had had a second child.

“My wife and I started late,” he explained (he was in his late 40s when his first was born), “and that we realized that Isaac (their son) is not going to have us around as long, and if we didn’t make him a sibling, after we die he’d have no immediate, life-long family members.”

The other thing was the day after Christmas there was a terrible tsunami in the Indian ocean, and two stories came out of the disaster that helped me understand why I had always found the framing of human beings as a plague, a framing not uncommon on the Left side of political thought, discomfiting.

The first was the story of an English family on holiday in a Balanisian resort.

Ahead of the tsunami, the water had receded out onto the reef, and tourists and locals alike were delighting in exploring the exposed rock (this reasonates with me especially, because as I child, I lived for the extra-low minus tides that came two or three times a year to the beach near our house. I would have been one of those people oblivously poking around the rocks.)

Then a young girl in the English tourist family remebered something she’d just been taught a few weeks earlier.

“It’s a tsunami, mummy! The water’s going to rush back!”

Of course when she said, many other people who knew this but had forgotten realized she was right, and hundreds, maybe even thousands of people rushed to high ground and were saved.

At the very same time, the Mokens were having one of their jamborees where they all get together to trade, share stories, make marriages, swap wives and whatever else they do at these jamborees.

Then water rushed out, exposed the reef, and most of the Moken thought “This is awesome! Let’s go get some fish.”

But an old man warned, “As fast as the water rushed out, it will rush in three times as fast. We have to get in our boats and go out to sea.” The Mokens, who number only a few thousand, got in their boats, went out to sea, and were saved.

What I realized is that whatever problems we face as a species, the answers are going to come out of someone’s head, and it’s very hard to know ahead of time which problem is going to emerge as the most pressing, or who is going to have the answer. And by March of 2005, and with no more  stability and normalcy in our lives (less, actually) my wife was pregnant with our second child.

I’m prompted to write all of the above by a recent series of posts by Pascal-Emmanuel Gogry over at the TheAmericanScene.com.

On of the first things I remember noticing about PEG (That’s what he likes to be called. He’s French, and aspires to be known by three letters, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Bernard-Henri Lévy) is that PEG didn’t seem to suffer the sort of anxiety about becoming a parent that seems to be commonplace among young adults from middle-class backgrounds.  If anything, he seemed positively giddy about marrying his girlfriend, knocking her up, and being a father.

And then about a year and a half after I notice this about him, he did just that. He got married, his wife got pregnant (by him, I think) and now he’s one of those people who (charmingly in his case) pollutes my tweet-stream with insipid boast and inane observations about parenthood. (And just to be clear, I admire him tremendously for it.)

PEG credits his Catholic faith for inspiring and fueling his enthusiasm for parenthood and children. As the secular child of a mixed Catholic/Jewish marriage, I say whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.

My family, playing at being sea-people, The Abacos, 2008

 

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27 thoughts on “The People Problem

  1. Simply beautiful.  I’ve been following this discussion over the last week, and I think your piece hits the nail on the head in a way that the abstract argumentation that dominated the discussion could not. As a scientist, I find children to be the most amazing people because their minds aren’t clouded by pre-judgment like adults. You always learn the most from children.

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  2. “The other thing was the day after Christmas there was a terrible tsunami in the Indian ocean, and two stories came out of the disaster that helped me understand why I had always found the framing of human beings as a plague, a framing not uncommon on the Left side of political thought, discomfiting.”

    Here is a somewhat relevant example of the genre:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/06/19/republican-candidates-families-why-do-they-have-so-many-kids.html

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  3. Soylent Green is people!! Umm … sorry … carry on.

    Do you admire PEG’s lack of anxiety about becoming a parent? I find it a bit foolhardy? reckless? Of course poeple shoudl have anxiety about becoming a parent, it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world.

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      • Soylent Green is not people, or parenting is not one of the hardest jobs in the world? Anyway, I’ll find out for myself in three months (the second part, not the first).

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        • The problem (he confidently asserted, with a full two months and a half of parenting experience under his belt) is that people make parenting into a bigger deal than it is. It’s bad for both parents and children. Parents go insane under the pressure and, well, so do the children. Unless you’re sending your child off in the forest to live among the wolves, underparenting is better than overparenting.

          The logistics and mechanics of taking care of a baby (eg feeding, changing diapers) are *fine*. And they’re even more fine if you don’t stress about it too much (ie don’t sterilize feeding bottles (which is bad anyway), don’t wash the pacifier after it’s fallen to the floor (which is bad anyway)), etc. so again not stressing leads to not just more peace of mind for the parent and the child but also a better outcome for the child. The baby sleeps in our bed not just because it’s (probably) better for her but because when she wakes up for a feeding my wife just has to turn around, pop her boob in her mouth and go back to sleep. The baby sleeps better (she hasn’t woken up more than once per night since she was a week old, which makes everyone’s eyes pop out of their sockets when we tell them), probably reaps long-term psychological benefits from the attachment, but most importantly we sleep better, which keeps us sane.

          In other words, having broad principles of not stressing out, having few rules, etc. is not only better for your children’s wellbeing but your own mental health, and lowers the bar to having more children.

          Bryan Caplan calls this “serenity parenting” and wrote a book about it, and I think it’s a wonderful phrase which captures exactly the ethos we try to have. My Mom called it common sense.

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          • I remember when my son was an infant, and I thought to myself, “Man, this is much easier than you thought it would be. I mean, you don’t get much sleep, but everything else? Cake! And you’re pretty damn good at it, too.” I didn’t realize that the complexity of parenthood increasese almost exponentially with every passing year. I agree with sonmi, if you’re not anxious about parenting, you have no clue what you’re getting into. Don’t get me wrong, having a child is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s filled with wonderful moments that would justify just about any level of anxiety, but it’s also difficult, whether you’re underparenting or overparenting or just-right-parenting.

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            • Yup, this is quite similar to what my mom said – in a way, infancy is the easiest time (for a baby born physically healthy, of course). The parents might be physically exhausted, but the more intense worrying and anxiety has yet to come. (I’ll tell my mother some random guy in the Internet said almost the exact same thing as she did :) )

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              • Happy to confirm anything your mother says. Eating your vegetables? Yes, it’s good for you. Running with scissors? Yes, you will poke your eye out.

                Also, congratulations, and good luck. Get some sleep now, though.

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                • Oh my commenting time is out of whacked because I’m not living in the US at the moment. Working for an unspecified multinational in an unspecified Asian country. (Actually, I do need to go to sleep now).  Doesn’t sound very liberal, does it? Especially considering it’s an oil and gas company. (Sacrilege!! Heh). Oh well, we can’t all quit our jobs for higher principles, and I’ll cop to being a coward as well.

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            • Infants are surprisingly easy I’d say, at least in terms of what I expected, as long as shit doesn’t bother you. An infant is basically a sometimes-loud, sometime-smelly, cute vegetable. It gets easier and easier until about eighteen months, when they really start talking. And complaining. And deciding they don’t like something. And making that very clear. I always thought toddlers would be easier than infants, but that has not been the case in my experience.

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              • Same experience here.

                Infants can be easily contained. If they’re upset 95% of the time you can solve it with milk, a diaper change or attention. They sleep all the time.

                Toddlers cannot be let out of your sight for longer than a few seconds, they inexplicably freak out and throw tantrums because you put their grilled cheese on the wrong side of the plate, and they completely refuse to go to bed when they’re supposed to.

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              • I never put up with fussy toddlers.   If they didn’t want to eat something they didn’t have to eat it.  They’d get hungry and I’d feed them what was there.   Most of that arbitrary fussiness is just an attention mongering scheme anyway.

                My son developed an aversion to eggs.  His mother wanted to make a big deal out of it and I stopped that, saying, let him eat what he wants and soon enough he’ll like eggs again.   Took him about three or four months, everyone else was eating eggs and pancakes and he said he’d like to try an egg again.

                Let a toddler get hungry and they’ll eat what’s put in front of them.   Eating should be a pleasure, new foods an adventure.   It’s when dinner becomes some sort of episode such as one sees at the vet’s, where some poor animal is made to ingest a pill that things get ugly.   I’m convinced all the Sturm und Drang of dinnertime is what leads kids to eating disorders.

                I’d be cooking and ask the kids “Hey, wanna try this?”   They’d come over and I’d fish a bit out with hashi and put a piece in their mouths.  If they liked it, great.   If they didn’t, I’d say, well, this is what I like.   They ate stir fry veggies from the time they were tiny and never gave me a minute of trouble about it.   One kid really was allergic to poultry and we never did figure out why, but that was easy enough to work around.

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      • Raising kids can be loads of fun.   Newborns are a fair bit of work but they’re such lovely little creatures it’s worth the lack of sleep.   But once they’re up and running around, I realized, “hey, these are my kiddoes, I can make them happy, tell them things and they’ll believe them, raise ’em up according to my own lights, gosh, what an opportunity to revenge myself on the world at large through these little monsters.   I’ll turn them into the cleverest little critters you ever did see, I’m the person who knows ’em best, I’ll work out what they’re really good at and encourage that sort of thing.   Hard to say what that is at this point, little green apples that they are, but boy howdy, they’re mine all mine, mwahaha, my genetic material, made in an act of love and my greatest accomplishments if I play my cards right.   I’ll comfort them when they’re crying and laugh at them when they’re silly and send them out into the world, as the geto bois would say ‘to represent'”.

        The very idea, that people should be anxious about becoming a parent.   I can understand people not wanting to be parents, every couple ought to spend at least a few years on their own, just the two of them, enjoying that phase of their lives.   But kids aren’t a great burden, they don’t need much attention, they just need it all the time.   Never realised how much love was in my heart until I became a parent.

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        • I don’t mean anxious in the sense that you don’t want to have children because you’re terrified of all the hard work. Just normal anxiety – will I be a good parent? Am I going to do right by this child? Or am I going to screw this up so bad Medea would seem like a good mother in comparison? That kind of stuff. Anyway, I was raised to believe that anxiety and worries are good things; they make sure you are prepared and ready :)

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          • Ecch, the fact that you’re concerned about these issues tells me you’d make a fine parent.   It’s rather like learning to drive a car, in some ways.   In the beginning, all things are hard.   A newborn will put bags under your eyes from lack of sleep.   But as with driving a car, the parent eventually comes to enjoy the task.

            Thing is, a good parent has to be the grown-up in that situation.   I told my kids straight out, I’m not your good buddy, I’m your Dad.   If you act responsibly, I’ll treat you as a responsible person.   I hate having to tell you what to do, the goal here is for you to do the needful.”

            But when they grew up, I also had a formal ceremony on their 18th birthday, renouncing my right to tell them what to do.   I offered them my friendship instead, changing my hat from Dictatorial Dad to Their Greatest Fan.

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      • And another thing, kids are so different from each other.   Even as infants, they’re unique.   They grow up so fast, and in such interesting directions, I found myself falling in love with my children, over and over, for different reasons.   It’s great when you’re their hero but it’s even greater to watch them become people in their own right.   I used to tease my kids, saying “You’re so much smarter than I was at your age.   Gosh, I wonder if I’m even your Dad or not.   I feel like a little donkey who gave rise to a racehorse.”

        The strangest and most interesting moment with my son, the youngest, was when a woman we’d known from Guatemala came to stay with us for a few weeks as a house guest.   She was one of those astrology types, much given to mystical baloney of that sort.   My son, then eight years old sternly addressed her.   “Magic” he said “tries to control the world.   Science tries to understand the world.   That’s why science is always going to win.”

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