Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Post 17: Mission Impossible: Faith/Politics Integration

With the calendar turning to 2012, we are again in an election year. And this season brings up one of the most perplexing, vexing and open questions for which I have no good answer: what does it look like for a completely sold-out follower of Jesus to fully engage (in a healthy way) in politics? Is it possible for an elected official to reach the most influential wings of the political heirarchy and not significantly compromise his/her religion along the way?

There are obviously large swaths of the country who believe that adhering to biblical virtue implies voting for a particular type of Republican- folks like Bush II in the 2000/2004 elections, and folks like Santorum, Perry, or Palin today. Needless to say, I reject this idea- not necessarily because I disagree on “the issues” with any of the aforementioned (I probably agree around 50% of the time on the headline issues), but simply because I find the approach and persona of these figures deeply dissatisfying- to the point where I really wonder if we are indeed worshipping the same Lord, as we both whole-heartedly proclaim. Of course, I don’t know any of these candidates personally, only through the media. And the media loves to see the worst in everyone, so I could stand corrected upon closer inspection. When I look to the alternatives, I typically see a Democratic candidate with whom I will be in agreement on somewhere less than 50% of the issues, and for whom my disdain in their approach/persona will roughly approximate what I feel towards the Republican candidate. The glaring exception to this rule is (was?) of course President Obama- I was hopeful of his presidency 4 years ago as he captured the hearts/minds of the younger generation. He wasn’t in the national eye prior to his campaign long enough to be dirtied up by the process, and I was thrilled with how he took down the Clinton machine. I stand today disappointed like many that he has thus far been remarkably ordinary/unimpressive as a president.

In light of this sad realization, the most dominant theme that I have converged on over the last several years is the idea that the two primary parties are largely indistinguishable in terms of what they offer to the American people. Sure, they may squabble vigorously over the issues, but they are identical in the sense that they are both beholden to interests that hardly represent the majority. A wise observer once remarked that the Religious Right and the hard core Secular Left are in many ways ideologically equivalent. This is why to me, there is little difference between watching Fox News on the one hand, or MSNBC on the other. They each shill for their own, and this is totally a mutually reinforcing, rational equilibrium from a game-theoretic perspective.

I was once somewhat active and willing to help raise money and host fundraisers for promising candidates who shared my aspirations. Disillusionment with candidates from both sides of the aisle and the feeling that nothing that I do matters anyway started to chip away at my enthusiasm. But perhaps more than anything else, what really got to me was that I didn’t like the kind of person I became when politically engaged. What good is it to try and win arguments and debates if you feel like you’re losing yourself along the way? Less active soon became almost complete withdrawl. For a while, I justified my unwillingness to engage by pointing out repeatedly that Jesus did not come as a political movement, and that His methods were too radical for the politics of His day. I would think that this is even more true today than it was 2000 plus years ago. At the same time, I also wholeheartedly believe two other things- the first is that Jesus came to redeem EVERY sphere of human existence- and so politics is a subset by definition. Secondly, I think that more than any other nation, we absolutely get the government we deserve, and so inaction is actually implicit agreement with the status quo. The more I think about such things, the more my apathy masked as righteousness gnaws at me.

This leaves me in a very in-between space, which is obviously the title and recurring theme of this blog. Most folks I talk to agree that the political culture in this country is pretty rotten, and a major housecleaning would be the minimum to get things going in a better direction. I personally think that the spirit of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are essentially the same- they both feel that the incumbents are across the board corrupted, and the catalysts for both movements were uber-egregious bank bailouts. There’s this underlying sense that there is way more common ground in our society than meets the eye. As of this writing, it appears that the leading candidates on the Republican side are Mitt Romney, New Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. The only one who even remotely captures the spirit of non-establishment is Ron Paul. Some of his ideas are so out there that you know they’ll never get implemented (going back to the gold standard) but I love his stance on cutting defense spending. Our country’s obsession with this notion of safety is just as culpable for bankrupting us as entitlement programs. The remaining three feel like uninspiring, man-the-ship guys who will more or less maintain the mediocre standards of their predecessors.

I suppose this is the best we can do. And it leaves me essentially where I’ve been for a long time with this whole politics things- at sea. If folks have a better alternative in mind, I’m all ears. This country has given me too much for me to not care anymore, and there has to be a way to integrate our civic duty with the commandment to love our neighbor.

On a happier note....my little boy isn't so little anymore.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Post 16 - There are benefits to raising kids in the city, right?

I think NYC is the best city in the world. Sure- I constantly complain about things that make city life difficult. It’s crazy expensive, and only getting more expensive The subways are unreliable- especially on weekends. Pristine white snow turns into black slush within hours. There’s no In-n-Out burgers, Chick-fil-A, and other cheap eats that resonate with my proletariet palette.

My complaints notwithstanding, we are still largely fixtures in a relatively transient city. There are many reasons, but foremost among them is our commitment to our church. Family-wise, with one set of in-laws to the east in Long Island and another to the south in Staten Island, Flatiron is a pretty optimal location to make grandchildren equally accessible to both sets of grandparents. There’s a nice little family friendly park just steps away, three great grocery store options all within a couple blocks (Eataly, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s), and the real zinger- the best budget mexican food in the tri-state area (Calexico) just got a two-year lease to set up their food cart at the end of the block.

But then the little prince came into the world. And of course, everything changes. For the first time in our thirteen plus years in the city, we began to ponder living elsewhere. I’m not sure exactly when it started- probably the day we went in for Samuel’s 4 day old check-up and the doctor started calling him “the little Olympian”. That sentence fragment got me thinking, and given my hopes and dreams of raising a world-class soccer player (I know it’s a crazy fantasy, yes), I soon realized that I lived a long way from the nearest soccer field. But regardless of whether or not S shows any promise as an athlete, I just can’t imagine him growing up surrounded by concrete. I was raised in what I’m guessing is a typical suburb where me and all the neighborhood kids played soccer in the early AM, football in the afternoon, and basketball in the evening. Since I lived off the 17th hole of a very nice country club, we had “access” to a wonderful field and the greens keeper would routinely have to chase us off his fairways. But that was all part of the fun- and since he had 35 other holes to take care of, we quickly learned how to break down our make-shift field, run like bank robbers through the woods in different directions, and just wait him out before resuming our activities.

As a regular helper in our church’s Kids program, I have the privilege of spending a lot of time with some terrific kids between the ages of 7 and 12. I can confidently say that one of the defining traits of our community is the presence of excellent parents, and so I often find myself asking them about raising kids in NYC. Parenting in any environment is a sacrifice, but I do believe it is even more so in the urban jungle. What I hear a lot about is how the transaction costs associated with sporting activities (or any activity, for that matter) can be quite high. So if you want to get your kid involved in soccer- then guess what- the field is not a stone’s throw from chemistry lab- it’s actually a 30-45 minute bus ride from the classroom to Randall’s Island. Time is already the most scarce and precious of resources, and this is particularly true for that marginal hour or two. If this is a route we want to go- then a whole bunch of other things we do with our lives probably become compromised- starting with that church which is the main reason we’re here in NYC to begin with.

The lack of a team sports-friendly environment is in and of itself enough to make me head for the ‘burbs. But what’s really nutty about raising kids in Manhattan is the craziness around getting your kid into the right schools. I recall about 10 years ago a work colleague of mine telling me how stressed out he was about his kid getting into the right nursery because the wrong nursery would spoil his chances of getting into the right elementary school, which would mess up his chances of getting into the right middle school/high school, which would mess up his chances of getting into the right university and then he won’t get the right job and marry the right person and the kid’s life would be ruined because he wasn’t at the right nursery. As absurd as this sounds to the mind as I read it, it is much harder to escape this than I thought. In some sense, his mindset is nothing more than the evolution of the same core principle that made my parents and in-laws cross an ocean and enter a completely foreign country for the sake of their children. Whatever it is, they passed it onto us so that it’s now hardwired into our CPU.

We have some time before we have to make any serious decisions, but as of now, all options are on the table. If I had to decide now, I would probably opt for outside the city. The little prince should be walking soon, and we’ll see how he takes to all the sports gear that loved ones got him for his first Christmas. I’ve been throwing him a little mini-football the last couple days and he doesn’t seem to realize something is being thrown to him until after it bops him in the head and lands on the floor. We’ll also learn a lot later this month at his first birthday- there’s a Korean tradition where at a child’s one-year, the parents will place several objects in front of him and the one he chooses represents his future destiny. There’s a pencil (a scholar), string (a long life), rice (he’ll never starve), and of course, money (self-explanatory). I’m placing a fifth item- a soccer ball, and if he chooses that- then we’re one step closer to house-hunting! ;)

S doing the the traditional Korean bow on New Year's to grandparents and receiving money.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Post 15: A Better Tomorrow

In our culture, the mere act of having children reflects some measure of optimism in society’s future prospects. I’m guessing a sentiment shared by almost every parent is the hope that their children will see a better life than the one they saw. Certainly this was the rationale for both mine and the wife’s parents coming to the United States from the Koreas. They took significant (but calculated) risks in making the trek here, and it’s fair to say that their hopes for a better tomorrow were largely realized in the lives of their children. The American Dream was alive and well in all its glory for our parents’ generation’s progeny. I envy the fact that it is unlikely that I will ever feel that same kind of satisfaction of having taken a significant risk and seen it pay off in such a grand fashion in my own kids. In fact, it is more likely than not that my children will realize a less prosperous lifestyle- both in absolute and relative terms.

Of course, economic well-being is only one component of a life well led. However, it feels like there’s a growing sense among large swaths of our population that we can no longer take the premise of economic growth and higher quality of life in the future for granted. There are well-documented statistics regarding the shrinking middle class, zero real wage growth over the past several decades, growing income inequality, jobs going overseas, etc. These all point to the broader meme that the American Dream while not dead does not have the same promise that it had yesteryear. Now, of course we as Americans live in a bubble where the worst off here have problems that the poor in other parts of the world would love to have. That being said, I do think that the political ramifications of zero (or even negative) economic growth would be damaging, and a realization of this state of the world would test the resilience of our social fabric.

To some extent, the aforementioned sentiment has been captured in the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement that has announced its presence over the past month or so. I have to admit that my initial reaction to seeing the protest was dismissive- not because I didn’t see validity in its premise, but because all protests seem futile in the long run. But more than a month in now, and with similar movements being spawned in other cities and nations, this seems to be more than just the 15 minutes allotted to some fringe of our country. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and thus I am generally hesitant to join in with any political movement. I spent some time talking with people at the main site last weekend, and the divergence in worldview between me and the crowd that I was speaking to was quite apparent. Yes- we all agree that the taxpayer-funded bailout of the banking industry was the single greatest heist in the history of mankind, but shouldn’t homeowners who took out mortgages beyond what they can reasonably afford bear some of the blame for their part in the housing crisis? I thought the blame was somewhere around 50-50, but the consensus among the crowd was that it was more like 99-1. And that was after I had “dropped some totally legit science” (their words, not mine) on their heads.

Despite this and a multitude of other differences, I think there is one thing that the protesters and I can definitely agree on: something is deeply wrong with our political regime and it’s not clear to anyone exactly what can be done about it. The problems seem so overwhelming, it’s hard to even know where to begin. One of the most common statements you hear from those who find this movement vapid is, “What do they want? Where are their lists of demands?” I think the very fact that no one can clearly define their discontent and reduce them to a set of policy prescriptions is part of what makes this movement so widespread. In my mind, trying to reduce OWS to a political action committee is similar to those who want Christianity defined as a set of beliefs and behaviors- it’s convenient for sound-bite media and when you get down to brass tax, of course there are things you want to get done. But at some level, it’s too broad and you’re not going to get any consensus on things at that level of granularity. As some protesters put it so eloquently on their placards, “Sh%! is F-ed Up and Bull-Sh%!”

In attempt to put some words to what is vexing the theoretical 99%- I offer the following. What is really bothersome about our system today is that there appears to be essentially a partnership between the State and a handful of industries/entities. The most obvious one is the banking sector- not only because of the bailouts from 2008-2009, but the ongoing free put option that debtholders in these banks have to the Taxpayer allows them to borrow at zero percent (i.e. below market) interest with the objective of having them rebuild their balance sheets. The gross lack of fairness of such a policy notwithstanding, the moral hazard implications for this are staggering. Unbelievably, this is just the tip of the iceberg on how regulation basically crowds out competition, and allows the biggest banks to get bigger, to the point where they are “too-big-to-fail”, which basically means they can hold the rest of the US economy hostage. Our current president (and his predecessor) folded like a wet noodle when the time came to “be the change we want to see”. Now, the average US citizen probably has little idea of what was stated above- all they know is that “Sh%! is F-ed Up and Bull-Sh%!”. Importantly, I don’t think this is a Right/Left or Red State/Blue State thing-maybe it’s not 99% but I would bet that well over 75% of the country identifies with the core sentiment of the movement. It seems silly to consider the average citizen of the United States as politically powerless since we are all taught that democracy is fundamentally about empowering the people. But I would argue that in any complex system, there are emergent phenomena that lead to properties that are far away from what you would expect when examining the initial design.

Trying to restore some measure of virtue to our politics sure seems like a pipe dream. I’ve largely thrown up my hands and decided that there is no point in expending limited time/resources to the political sphere. But then it would be correct to rebuke me and say that I and anyone else with this disposition is getting exactly the government we deserve. Fair point- so we are at sea. At some level, I think I just go back to my fundamental premise that the Gospel is about redeeming both individual lives as well as institutions, and the church really is America’s (and the world’s) last best hope. Specifically, I certainly don’t have anything to offer, other than perhaps more time on our knees. As Karl Barth wisely stated, “To Clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder in this world”. If we could only get the protesters at OWS to buy into that idea...

So on a lighter note....

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Post 14: The Other Decision - Vaccines

About a month ago, I mentioned how the first real deliberate decision the wife and I had to make for S was sleep training. That statement is only partially true. The real first decision we made on his behalf was actually made a couple weeks before he was born- and that choice is to figure out who S’s pediatrician is going to be. And that decision is essentially about one issue: vaccines. Before going into this topic, I should probably indicate that I haven’t come to a firm conclusion on the topic, and a lot of the data that I’ll be talking about below is potentially subjective. Perhaps the only thing I’m sure of is that I get a little queasy around folks who are doctrinaire (either about the pros or potential cons) of vaccinations. When I talk to some parents about it, it feels like I’m talking with a Likud representative or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Emotions can run at a fever pitch, but I suppose that’s how almost everything is when it comes to parenting these days.

I grew up under the impression that vaccines were one of the all-time great innovations responsible for dramatic improvements in the quality of human life. They are rather cheap to administer, and diseases that used to threaten entire communities are essentially eradicated today due to widespread vaccinations. I largely embraced the conventional view and like most pre-parent people, I didn’t really give this much thought... until my friends started to become parents.

Then over the past couple years, I started to notice something. This is purely anecdotal but a too-large-to-ignore percentage of folks in my not-too-distant social circle were dealing with the challenges associated with raising a child w/ autism. If anyone has ever been around a child with autism, it’s an incredibly difficult situation and I have so much admiration for the parents that I’ve seen who deal with this condition courageously/admirably. Autism rates were supposedly 1 in 10,000 a couple decades ago and they’ve risen to the order of 1 in 100 today. It seemed like 1 in every 15-20 parents I knew were in this boat. Furthermore, every single one of these autistic children are boys. If you do the math, what set off a little bit of an alarm bell within me was that my colleagues and peers seemed to be experiencing this at a rate that was far higher than the unconditional mean. To be totally frank, many of my friends are similar to me in that they are a little older when having children, and on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. A couple articles I read indicated that autism is one of those rare conditions who’s prevalence appears to increase with socioeconomic status.

When I asked these parents about their experience, a not insignificant portion- (maybe even the majority) believe that the vaccinations were the root cause. I am not formally trained as a biochemist, and so I cannot comment or critique the validity of their thesis, but suffice to say that these are individuals with the best educational training the world can offer, and some are experts in medicine. What’s even more interesting though is that children growing up over the past decade or so though is that cheap/easy access to HD camcorders and storage allowed us to document their lives moment by moment (I have nearly a hundred of Gigabytes of video/pictures already on Samuel!). One close friend has a wife who was a videographer before she became a full-time mom, and so she has hours of footage every week. When she went back and watched the videos of her son after receiving the diagnosis, she specifically noticed a drastic change in his behavior in the days/weeks following a particularly intense sequence of vaccinations. Of course, it’s just one data point, but an interesting one.

When I began to consult the medical profession about whether or not there is a linkage between vaccines and autism, I got an extremely strong reaction. Books written by doctors reference study after study that indicates that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism. The first pediatrician we interviewed, I asked what he thought about the possible linkage. He promptly rolled his eyes, said that parents who are out there saying that vaccines are linked to autism have lost their minds and are responsible for a potential public health crisis, and furthermore stated that he refuses to take on any child where the parent is not willing to stick by the vaccination schedule recommended by the American Pediatrics Association 100%. I certainly appreciated his candor and transparency, but for the record, we decided not to go with this pediatrician.

To be fair, there are equally strong and charged statements that come from parents of children with autism. Some have written extensively (the Internet was made for this kind of stuff) about their reasoning for why a linkage exists, and they are accusing the medical profession of “poisoning our children”, and argue that there is a vast conspiracy between Big Pharma and the Medical “Priesthood” that perpetuates the myth that there is no downside to vaccinations. Vaccines are certainly a big business, and so there’s enough data to support a conclusion like that, if you’re the type that wants to go there. Especially with ever increasing amounts of evidence that seems to support the idea that big government and big business are largely indistinguishable.

At this point in the game, I have decided to hold off on giving S any vaccines. It’s not because I think big Pharma and the State are evil (well, actually, about the State....). I do find mandatory vaccinations schedule today a bit heavy-handed- especially things like Hepatitis B- why does an infant need to be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease? But the primary reason why we’ve decided to go this path resides elsewhere. At some level, this boils down to me going against the advice of the medical establishment. Isn’t it a little arrogant to think that I know better than all the doctors and institutions that have come to the conclusion that sticking to the vaccination schedule is the best for my child? This is a totally valid question and I suppose I am swayed a little by experience in my own field. As most of you know, I’m in the business of investing. I may not know anything about most things, but I think it’s fair to say that I am reasonably qualified to speak on matters of investing/finance. After 13 years in my profession, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that conventional wisdom as determined by the finance and economics equivalent of the AMA (you know- professors at places Harvard and MIT) is somewhere between 80 and 100% wrong about how best to invest your money. Yes- I repeat- the vast majority of financial advisers who the general public go to for investing wisdom are giving you advice that is at best suboptimal, and quite possibly at odds with your goals. What makes this comparison relevant is that there are interesting similarities between investing and medicine. While both fields have benefited enormously from deploying mathematical rigor to the problems they seek to solve, there are severe limits to reductionism. In addition, I think that one of the things that leaves both fields in tenuous places is that there is really no common way to think about risk. Statisticians/Economists try to capture it as the 2nd moment (variance) of a distribution, but in reality, risk is a highly subjective concept. What I perceive as a very safe investment is perceived as unbelievably risky by another. What I perceive as a very risky medical intervention is viewed as very safe by another. Thus attempting to come up with general rules that work across any reasonably sized population is unlikely to be fruitful. The medical establishment has taken the view that there is no relationship whatsoever between vaccines and autism. I’m actually not quite so sure, but perhaps more accurately, I am more willing to bear the risks of not vaccinating than I am of bearing the risk of vaccinating. Life is about trade-offs, and this is the one I’m comfortable with right now.

No doubt that there are physicians who are reading this whose opinions I deeply respect that might think I’m foolish for coming to this conclusion. I am fine with that. In some sense, what this whole exercise has demonstrated is that you really can’t outsource the important decisions in your life. If I don’t believe something deep within the core of my being, then it doesn’t matter who says it’s a good idea. In any event, so much of parenting is less about what is objectively the best thing to do and more about what approach meshes well with one’s internal compass and overall disposition. I don’t want to sound relativistic, but I guess I feel like there are so many ways to do parenting well, and it’s less about the rules and more about general rhythms. In that way, it’s quite similar to stage 4 faith as I understand it [go to Post 1 for a definition]. There was a time when I thought that believing something because some pastor or author who I respected held that view was sufficient. But in many ways, this thinking is quite similar to believing that one’s relationship to God needs to be mediated through a priest. My reading of the bible tells me that a grave mistake that is repeated throughout history by the people of faith is the belief that some surrogate exists or that knowing God through a proxy is sufficient. There is understandably an enormous temptation to think that there is someone or some elite group of people that has “the answers” or at least “a blueprint” to making everything work well. We all want to feel concrete under our feet. However, I have attached myself to this wildly optimistic (and ambiguous) idea that we have direct and personal access to the God of the Universe and that His statement, “I am the Truth”, implies that the truth about all the important things to make life work can be known directly by each of us. Granted, I can’t prove that this approach is working. I don’t always hear perfectly and the periods of silence when I can’t hear anything are maddening. The Richard Dawkins of the world would be correct in dismissing my judgment as irrational and my only response would be similar to the one the man born blind gave to his interrogators in John 9:25- “I was blind, but now I see.”

Conan O'Brian hair style

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Post 13 - S's Surgery

About a week ago, S had a minor surgical procedure to correct a malfunction in his left kidney. We had known about this issue since he was about 6 months in the womb, and we were monitoring it since he came out of the wife. Since a person only needs 1 kidney to function, there was no impact on his life thus far as his right kidney is perfectly fine. For the most part, this is the kind of thing where most people don’t even realize there’s an issue until they start drinking in high school/college years and one’s kidney starts to go into overdrive. Nonetheless, the doctors recommended that we perform this procedure now since the sooner this is corrected, the better. Given that it had a high 90s success rate (and little downside, other than the fact that he had to go under), we acceded.

The simplicity of the process notwithstanding, we were still a little queasy about a 4-month old having surgery. Yours truly has managed to avoid the medical system for most of his life and has never so much as taken prescription medication. The one time surgery was recommended for a torn labrum in my right shoulder, I decided to instead enlist in the help of our church’s prayer team- and I am happy to report that a lot of prayer, and a little change in diet, and some simple physical therapy has led to a shoulder that has completely healed itself. The thought of S going back to the same hospital months after his birth really irked me. I probably have a slightly irrational fear that only bad things happen when engaging with the medical system, and so I am admittedly not at my best when dealing with hospitals and doctors.

The surgery was totally fine. It took a little longer than expected, but as of now, it’s been deemed a success. It was after he came out of the operating room and entered the recovery wing is when things got difficult. I had figured that since sleep is essential for a recovering child, we would have our own private (i.e. quiet) room in the pediatrics ward to get S back to 100%. However, they showed us to a room which was set up for two, and there was another patient behind the curtain in the room where we were assigned. As we settled into our designated quarters for the next 24 hours, I was annoyed with our situation as the child on the other side of the room had his television on at a volume that was likely to preclude S from getting the sleep he needed to get well. Even more disruptive was the manner in which he would holler/moan loudly every 5 minutes or so, thus pretty much ensuring that as soon as S was lulled to sleep, he would be startled awake by the sounds on the other side of the curtain. I had finally had it after S was woken up the umpteenth time, and I decided to make my way over to the other side of the curtain to politely ask the young boy to turn of the television, and quiet down so that my 4-month old son who had just endured a surgical procedure could get some sleep.

When I rolled back the curtain, what I saw could only be described as heartbreaking. On the bed was a quadriplegic child with the face and torso of a 10-year old, but arms and legs that were emaciated and mangled in a way that rendered them physically useless. He clearly could not communicate in an articulate fashion. When I made eye contact with him, I wasn’t sure if he saw me, but I was sure that he had no idea that I was the man sharing a room with him. What was probably the most heartbreaking of all was the sadness in his face. There was no parent in the room with him, no family member tending to him, the only contact he received was the nurses who came in every so often to change the channel, feed him, or give him a sponge bath. Here I was dreading the fact that S would have to spend another 24 hours at the hospital, and I later learned that this poor young fellow had been in the hospital for quite some time, just laying in bed all day, alone the vast majority of the time, unable to communicate meaningfully with other people, and no family or friends by his side.

I thought about these two young boys- my son and this severely disabled fellow briefly sharing a physical space, and yet their lives could not be more different. S had both his parents in the room with him, 2 of his grandparents, and countless other friends and family praying for him during his brief stint in the hospital. This other boy was completely alone. In a matter of hours, S would be back in his home, being tended to and loved on by so many, continuing a life full of blessings and promise. This boy right now is likely still in the same bed, watching the same cartoons, and moaning and hollering in the same unexpectedly predictable way. It all seemed just so... unfair. How is it just that one child is dealt a hand like S, and another is given such a drastically different lot? I had a moment where I was just so upset at the boys parents- how could they just leave him in a hospital like this, and then it occurred to me that perhaps the boy’s parents are not alive, or perhaps they just couldn’t take trying to tend to him anymore. Indignation quickly became empathy.

I first felt a deep sense of shame as my frustrations with this helpless boy revealed how self-centered and myopic I can be when it comes to the comfort of my precious son. I turned my anger towards God, and I was reminded how in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevksy shares his view that the suffering of children is an inescapable objection to God’s goodness. This objection to my faith was never more poignant than in seeing this boy’s situation. I recall when reading TBK many years ago, issues like “the problem of evil” and “how can a good God allow innocents to suffer” were something to ponder, but it was always done at a safe distance. I knew (know?) so little about genuine suffering- it was more of an academic exercise where reconciliation of two seemingly contradictory ideals was the goal. But everything changes after becoming a father. The same question is out there, but the power of logic is subordinated to narratives and personal context. It’s a little bit like what happens when I see a homeless person on my street- I used to try and assess the likelihood of individual X- as a recipient of a random act of kindness- might allocate those resources towards unproductive/addictive substances. These days though, it’s less about assessing that probability and more about realizing that at some point many years ago, these people too were probably being doted on and receiving the same kind of love, affection and hope that S is experiencing today. We all begin with such unbridled hope and endless possibilities for infinite upside. My mind can’t help but to ponder, “What went wrong between then and now?”

I’ve always felt that those (like Dostoevsky) who criticize our faith for its inconsistency had a very valid point. However, a gentlemen who I’ve gotten to know recently mentioned to me that he likes our church because we are comfortable living with the inherent contradictions in our faith. I thought that was keen insight into one of the key attributes of our community. Seeing S’s life path cross this boy’s in the pediatric ward of NYU was a perfect demonstration of the kinds of contradictions I am forced to get comfortable with. I suppose when God told Adam to “fill the earth and subdue it”, He was telling us that the evil in the world is not something that requires an explanation, but instead something that must be confronted and subdued by the children of God.

Samuel learning how to do praying hands on cue:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Post 12: Sleep Training

For S’s first 90 days or so, we as parents didn’t have many choices to make. For the most part- parenting has been a reactive affair- we generally respond to whatever S needs- and thus far, that’s just food, diaper changes, and nap time.

But in the past few weeks, we embarked on our first truly deliberate act as parents: Sleep Training. I’ve never heard the term prior to becoming a parent, and so for the non-parents out there, sleep training is about trying to get your baby to sleep on their own as long as possible. As parents know, the significance of this cannot be overstated- being able to put a child down at 7 PM and not worry about having to do anything until 7 AM the following morning is one of the great milestones that all new mom/dads look forward to. As I read various parenting websites, it appears that S is a great sleeper, but that basically meant that he slept from 7 PM until 1 AM, and then 1:15 AM until about 5 AM, and then 5:15 until about 7. Apparently 6 consecutive hours qualifies as sleeping through the night for a newborn, but the aforementioned schedule certainly didn’t meet my standard of mom/dad being able to sleep through the night.

There is no shortage of theories and materials out there written by folks with diametrically opposing views on both the methods and virtues of getting a child to sleep through the night. One camp advocates for letting a baby “cry it out”, which at the extreme implies that you plop a baby into the crib at 7 PM, shut the door, and don’t return until 7 AM the next morning. The expectation is that a child may cry- up to several hours if they’re the persistent type, but eventually they’ll give in and go to sleep, hence the term cry it out. No sooner did this method develop some modicum of acceptance that a class of “researchers” came out talking about the dangers of allowing a child to cry for too long. The claim was that a child’s mental/emotional development could be severely compromised if subject to long periods of crying, and they therefore advise that parents constantly tend to a child’s needs. The downside to this attachment theory approach was obviously spoiling an infant to the point where, well, they become spoiled children/adults and nobody wants that, and so we can naturally see how the cry it out method started to gain some traction in the first place. And the pendulum continues to swing...

What surprises me as I read a lot of the literature out there is the deep, borderline fanatical passion with which each group argues its case. Like most things in life, the answer to the question of how to get a child to sleep through the night is probably “it depends”, and what’s best for most kids is probably some combination of the two extremes. But when you combine the neurosis of parents, and the dogmatic religiosity of most researchers, you end up with is something that resembles our public discourse. Each side claims to have “the answer”, and whichever path a parent chooses- there’s this lingering voice in the back of our heads warning us that we’re creating some kind of permanent damage- either by raising impetuous pansies, or emotionally stunted future criminals.

As one might expect, my inclination with S was to put him in the room at 7 PM and come back at 7 AM the next day. The little voice in the back of my head whispers, “Don’t raise a wimp... It’s time for him to be a man!”. Thankfully, the wife resides on the other end of the spectrum, and she’s ready to pull her hair out if S so much as cries for 30 seconds. We met in the middle, and so far, the results seem to be promising. When we put S down at around 7 PM, he usually puts himself to sleep with minimal whimpers, if any. The past several nights, he’ll stay down about 8-9 hours- not quite the whole night, but certainly an improvement to two weeks ago. The hardest part has been that 3:30AM to 6 AM window- keeping him down during that time is a challenge, and one we’re still probably a couple days/weeks from declaring victory. But freedom does appear to be around the corner.

Regardless of when we get there, there’s still the theoretical possibility that we were either too harsh (or too easy) on S in this endeavor. As wise parents remind us, you don’t really know what kind of job you did as a parent until it’s basically too late to do much about it. I don’t think they’re trying to be fatalistic about things; they’re simply highlighting the basic reality that our control over the child-rearing process is inherently limited and our best bet is to just roll with who we are and let the chips fall where they may. While I have no idea if this sleep training is causing some form of longer-term harm, I do believe that there is no doubt in S’s mind that his parents love him very much. Him knowing that is actually all I really need in order to sleep well through the night.

100 Days Old


Friday, April 15, 2011

"And may their first child be a masculine child" -Luca Brasi

Dear Samuel,
A significant part of your father’s view on life has been shaped by books and movies. One of the things I look forward to is reading and watching the classics together and guiding you through the process of discovering truth. There is something satisfying about digesting the thoughts of a writer or filmmaker who lived in an entirely different time and context, yet you are able to connect to their ideas in a manner that speaks powerfully in your own life. And it’s even more fun when you are able to do this with others who are traveling a similar road.

One film that we will probably view together multiple times is the Godfather Trilogy- a film about the rise and fall of the Corleone organized crime family. The first part of the series was made even before your father was born, and it was widely considered to be the best film of its era. Nearly 40 years and two sequels later, it [the entire trilogy] is now widely considered the best film of all time, and that will still probably be the case 40 years from now when hopefully you’ll be sitting with your own children watching this epic drama. There is so much to discuss, we can’t possibly get through all of it in one sitting. But here are a few things that resonate most with who I am and how I view the world.

One of the attributes of all good drama is the presentation of man as neither all good or evil but rather inherently flawed with the possibility of redemption. The most compelling characters of the film have a myriad of shortcomings- not the least of which is that for the majority of the trilogy, they use violence, deception, and murder to achieve their business objectives. To be clear, your father doesn’t condone any of this! However, there is something about their story that drew me in- perhaps because I saw myself in their narrative, or because some deeper truth about the nature of reality was revealed through their broken lives.

The family’s journey starts in the town of Corleone, Sicily with the birth of Vito Andolini in 1891. Vito is a seemingly ordinary boy who is thrust into a difficult situation by circumstances beyond his control. His father Antonio and older brother Paolo are killed by the local warlord because they refuse to genuflect to him. Vito’s mother goes to the warlord and begs for Vito’s life to be spared, but the warlord refuses, and Vito’s mother is martyred while giving Vito a chance to escape. He ends up being secretly transported out of Sicily by donkey, and finds himself on a cargo ship traveling across the Atlantic and heading to America. He arrives in New York as a young boy with no possessions and unable to speak the language. In some sense- all great stories start this way. No one is born extraordinary- but it is instead how we deal with the difficulties that life presents to us that will determine whether or not we unleash the extraordinary potential that exists within all of us. No doubt there will come a point in your life where some external factors will force you to leave what is familiar/comfortable and you may find yourself in what seems like a foreign land without the wherewithal to make it. I encourage you to embrace this challenge and not shy away from it. Though it is undoubtedly a difficult and uncomfortable place to be, it is also when you know you are at the beginning of your own version of the Hero’s Journey.

Later in on the film, we see Vito as a young man in the little Italy section of New York City working in a grocery store. It is not a particularly glamorous position, but it’s clear he is someone who does what is asked of him faithfully. One day, the local mafia chief comes into the grocery store with his nephew and speaks with the grocery store owner (Vito’s Employer). The chief suggests that the grocery store owner give a job to his nephew, and the grocery store owner who receives protection at the hand of this man is forced to accede to these demands. Vito sees the conversation that’s just occurred and he knows what’s coming when the store owner approaches him. The employer explains that he must hire the warlord’s nephew, and that means that there is no longer a position for Vito. In what ensues is a wonderful display of Vito’s character and disposition. His job has been unfairly taken away from him- by a combination of hubris/nepotism on the part of the mafia chief and cowardice on the part of his employer. However, Vito does not lash out- he instead expresses his gratitude for what has already been given to him, and indicates that what he will remember most is the kindness of his employer and not the unceremonious manner in which he was relieved of his duties. Many wise men believe that having this kind of attitude is one of the keys to happiness. Your father is doing his best to live with a similar lense on life, but when he falls short as he often does, he reminds himself of the virtue that was encapsulated in this brief sequence.

Finally, there is much debate regarding what the film is really all about. The common view is that the film gave the gangster’s perspective of the Mafia as a necessary response to a corrupt society. The Mafia represents an alternative to the state as the entity that establishes both society’s rules and its enforcement. And the Mafia as represented in the Corleone family has a long list of virtues to go along with their more obvious shortcomings. There are many interpretations- all of which are valid. But I think I find this film so compelling because the Corleone family’s desires are really the desires of ever man. While the family business through most of their history operated in the realm of vices like liquor, prostitution, and gambling, the goal was always for the family business to become a force to be reckoned with in the legitimate world. In the third installment of the trilogy, Vito’s son Michael sells the Corleone family interests in all the seedy businesses in an attempt to purchase a controlling interest in a real estate enterprise called International Immobiliare. While his attempts ultimately fail, I viewed the family’s struggle to emerge from the underworld into the business world’s primary stage as a metaphor for every man’s desire to be recognized and respected by his peers. In some sense, the fact that they failed is the film’s way of saying that our attempts to achieve this kind of recognition and legitimacy from our fellow man is futile, and that the one and only source that could imbue the kind of meaning and purpose in our life comes from Above.

There’s so much more to say, but perhaps it’s best at this point to just wait and see what you take away in your first viewing. I’ve scheduled your first viewing to be on your 15th birthday, which was around the time I first saw it. We’ll watch it together, because in the immortal words of Don Corleone

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”