Time Travel and How I Got to Be Thirty

At the turn of a decade, I feel obligated to ask myself where the time has gone. It just vanished. One minute it was here, the next minute it wasn’t. Why is that? Why does everything seem like it was just yesterday? Why do I feel like I’m prematurely old, like I’ve time-traveled from twenty to thirty? Also, why can’t I grow a beard?

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in thirty years: time only slips by when we let it. Looking back on my life, the slowest moments were the ones I thought about the most, for better or worse. Thinking is the key to pausing the clock.

It worries me that my memory is foggy, or gone, of things that happened less than ten years ago. My wife will tell me a story from our trip home one summer, and I’ll have no idea what she’s talking about, like I’m hearing it for the first time, even though I’m one of the main characters. In my twenties, I got used to having my nose to the grindstone, so much so that a trip with my family was just another task on my list. I developed a habit of efficient thinking, sparing brain cells only for thoughts and ideas that helped me get something done.

This all changed in the middle of graduate school, the busiest years of my life. Three things happened: I camped, hiked, and spent more time with my family; I stopped watching TV every night; and I kept a journal. As a result, my life has more details, and I can actually remember them.

Life is like a book. If we never stop to think, it is gradually compressed into a few brief pages, an executive summary, and, looking back, that’s all we have to represent it. But as we ponder on our days, weeks, and years, simple experiences gain substance and value, life grows, and pages are filled. Reflecting on life is one of the secrets to making life full of memories and meaning.

But reflecting doesn’t mean just stopping to smell the roses; it means stopping to watch ourselves smell the roses; it’s not just lifting our gaze from the path that will fall under our next footstep and seeing the trail ahead; it’s stepping off the path to a different vantage point, one that reveals our last thousand footsteps and our next thousand, including our destination at the top of the mountain.

It’s not enough just to seize the day; any other life form can do that. When a dog escapes from the backyard, it holds nothing back, running, jumping, slobbering, wagging, living life to the fullest. Even dogs can seize the day. It’s not enough to squeeze our day for all it’s worth, if we don’t savor it, internalize it, understand it, remember it. Making time count involves using that thing which sets us apart from any other animal: reason, or critical thought.

After we make the most of our day, we have to make sense of our day. Then, we can learn from our mistakes and recognize and appreciate the roses or the inspiring vistas that we didn’t know were there. Not only will our story be full of details, but it will have a theme.

So, at the dawn of my fourth decade, I’m going to step back and reflect on where I’ve been, how I got here, and where I’m headed. What is my theme? And what will it be going forward?

The products of this reflection will appear here as soon as I have time to write about them. For now, I’ll share some advice, which, having completed my twenties, I now have the authority to do: take some time to think. Turn off the TV, or the computer, and talk over the day with a friend, or a child, or a spouse, or with yourself. Think into your journal, or in prayer. A decade from now, you might be glad you did.

Farewell to Minnesota

CSCC

By now, Minnesota is long gone. We barely noticed the Minnesota corn fade into Iowa corn as we rolled south on our annual trip to California – south on highway 35 to meet 80 in Des Moines, then west on 80 for 1,700 miles, through Lincoln, Laramie, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally dropping down into the heat and smog of the Sacramento Valley.

Unlike previous summers, this trip will have a different ending. When August comes and we make our way east, from the west-west to the mid-west, we won’t return to the unemployed, student-poverty, cramped-apartment life. Those days are finally behind us. Soon, our student debt will be dwarfed by a home loan, the most money we’ve ever not had, and we’ll begin the perilous tenure-race-track. But we’ve landed a job, and a house, and we couldn’t be happier.

When we arrived in the Twin Cities five years ago we were overwhelmed with an ambiguous feeling of excitement and anxiety. Our excitement evaporated with the summer heat, leaving only an anxious first winter ahead. My wife and I exchanged many frown-smiles with eyebrows raised during those first few months. It was a new type of adventure. Though we had lived far from home, on both coasts and overseas, for short periods of time, this was a 2000 mile move to a place we knew only from Jeff Foxworthy jokes.

With time, we learned there was more to Minnesota than notorious winters and an excessive number of lakes. I quickly learned about real winter camping. Not California-winter camping, where you drive 3 hours to find snow and then go sledding all afternoon in a t-shirt. I’m talking about stay-by-the-fire-or-freeze-to-death-in-minutes winter camping; why-am-I-doing-this?-because-it’s-awesome winter camping. None of my camping adventures deserve more hyphenated adjectives than those. Combine the thrilling winter options with the infinite waterways, available after the thaw, and you have an outdoors that doesn’t disappoint.

In addition to the excessively cold, persistent, harassing winters, and the lakiness (it’s like the entire state is sinking into a water table, and it’s only slowed by the annual freeze), we also discovered other people who didn’t seem to mind their location, some of them foreign and some native to the state.

First, we were blessed to find a dense collection of quality people who shared our lot – non-resident, diaper-changing, post-undergraduates, the majority unfamiliar with negative 20 degrees. This is the graduate-student-family-housing demographic, a mix of couples and families of different stages, ages, backgrounds, home countries, climates, languages, religious and political perspectives – extraordinary diversity.

Second, we were blessed to know some true Minnesotans, all of whom enjoyed the winters, or at least claimed to. These people have conquered the debilitating cold like vikings. They’ve mastered the long winters that bring grown Californians to tears. Their down-to-earth, hearty optimism was inspiring. Among the residents and non-residents, we found some of the best people we’ve ever known.

So, most important to the state are the people. At first, nothing could outweigh climate in our judgement of the place as a suitable home. It was unsuitable. Even finishing graduate school seemed tentative. But the people are worth their weight in gold viking armor. They’re worth their weight in farm-fresh cheese curd, and they turned the scales for us.

If the kids had immediately fallen asleep after we waved farewell to the messy old apartment complex, I might have had a moment to reflect on the great people we knew and the great time we had. Now that I have a moment to reflect on it, I’m sad, even a little teary-eyed. To the state as a whole – I’m sorry for making fun of you behind your back. To our friends – farewell, it was great, keep your stick on the ice. And to anyone considering or worried about moving to the land of lakes, especially the city of twins – it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

Why Kids Are Always Crying and What To Do About It

You may have noticed that kids cry, uncontrollably, for no apparent reason, all the time. It’s one of the defining features of being a kid – totally losing it, just because. If your kid doesn’t exhibit these behaviors, there might be something wrong – you should consider seeing a psychiatrist.

At this point, my wife and I have stopped asking why, partly because we don’t have any spare brain cells for such a deep and perplexing question, and partly because we’ve realized that kids just aren’t adults, which is why we call them kids. They haven’t grown up yet, physically or emotionally, so they lack experience and reference points, making it impossible to distinguish between a life threatening emergency and something small and trivial. Because they’re emotionally tiny, every molehill is an emotional mountain.

In addition to lacking perception, kids are emotionally hyper-responsive and indecisive. In case you hadn’t noticed, they can swing from giddiness to despondency and back in a matter of minutes, even seconds. I think the clinical term is spazoid. They’re still calibrating their emotional reaction mechanism, which seems more like an on/off switch than the dimmer or a dial of a non-spazoid grown-up.

And now, finally, the point of this post – what we’re supposed to do about this emotional roller coaster. I think we have three options: 1) pull them off because they’re too short for the ride, 2) smile and wave from that spot where they let parents wait and take pictures, or 3) take the seat next to them.

The first option seems easiest, the second I’m not sure about, but the third seems best, especially as our kids transition from the merry-go-round to the Matterhorn. Our job is to support their emotional growth, teaching them to distinguish between mountains and molehills and adjust their emotional dial accordingly.

The problem is, this requires having a little-person perspective. As rational, logical adults, it’s hard to understand where our kids are coming from. We need to step into our toddler’s Stride Rites or baby Robeez. We need to get down on our hands and knees and see life from an infant’s viewpoint. Then, things might make more sense. We have to be the mole.

On a less positive note, I just remembered a third and more common reason kids cry – to make us crazy spazoids. It’s not an emotional roller coaster, it’s emotional warfare – their objective is to hijack our sanity and their strategy is a sensory assault. In this case, the second option above, smiling and waving, is probably best.

Indoor Homemade Baby Swing

I’ve written a few times about the kid difficulty function and how having more kids is like scaling up a business. We make fewer mistakes as parents, hopefully, in theory, as the number of kids increases.

Another result of scaling up is that the oldest becomes the experimental child, potentially with more psychological issues than the youngest, but also more resilience. By number four I’ve finally perfected the baby swing. This contraption has progressed from a chest harness hung from a door knob, with our first kid, to a three-dimensional spring-loaded recliner, with our fourth.

More kids demands more parenting ingenuity.

homemade baby swing          Homemade baby swing

Seizing the Day vs Investing in the Future

My little girlThis month marks the beginning of my last semester of graduate school. We’ve been here in Minnesota long enough to witness a road work project from start to completion, barely; long enough to have three babies, none of them twins; long enough to have lived in three different apartments, and to have a toddler grow up into a kindergartener. But, soon, hopefully, I will finish my PhD, at which point we will move on with our lives.

Finally – that’s the first word that comes to mind. Finally, I’ve finished school. Finally, I can start a career. Finally, we can find a home and establish some roots. Finally, we can make friends that we won’t say goodbye to as soon as we get to know them.

The problem is, life is full of finallys.

I think we all struggle at some point with the grass-is-always-greener mentality, sometimes in combination with the best-is-yet-to-come mentality. As a result of this combination, there are multiple fences and multiple lawns, the current one worse than the next. Another lawn is often greener than our own because our sprinklers are aiming over the fence.

We have to water our own lawn.

There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead, saving for tomorrow, investing now in something that will pay off in the future; unless our happiness gets tangled up in the saving, investing, and putting-off; unless we sacrifice so much of the present that the future loses its meaning or its value; unless the future never actually becomes the present.

Too often, we put happiness, good times with family and friends, thank yous, I’m sorrys, and I love yous, on hold, until tomorrow, the weekend, graduation, or summer vacation. Instead, we have to be happy now, enjoy the journey, carpe diem. We have to invest in today.

My wife and I started college and our family at the same time, a decision we’ve never regretted. But in my first couple years I reasoned that studying for 12 hours, only to spend a few minutes with my wife and kids each day, was a necessary sacrifice. I was investing in myself, in my education, so I could get a better job, and hopefully have a more flexible schedule and more reliable income down the road, at which point I’d spend more time with my family. I’ve since changed my strategy.

They say that regular stock market investments early in life are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more, in the long run, than investments of twice the amount later in life. So, I think many of us weigh the trade-off in this way: work hard now, work less later, versus sacrifice family time now, enjoy family time later. The assumption is that the financial future is more important, and more valuable, than the family present.

The problem is, the same forces at work with financial investments also apply to investments in family and friends, and life; as with money, compounding interest creates rich relationships with loved ones as well. This is all theoretical for us, since we’re pretty new at the family thing, and the life thing, but I suspect that the preschool years are just as important as any others, both for us and our children.

I think, and hope, that spending quality time with my kids, now, will help us build a relationship that will weather adolescence, fingers crossed. So, rather than having financial security when my kids reach high school, I’d prefer to barely get by in exchange for some family security. Hopefully, we can have both. But I’d rather err on the side of family.

Read more here.