A father and son put on a show

On Friday afternoon I was returning home from taking my son Max to his guitar lesson.

It’s not uncommon for me to pick up food on the way back. This time it was Korean fast food. Seoul Street in Ann Arbor.  Good stuff.

It’s a cold day. Max and I approach the front double doors of the restaurant with hat on and hood up. At the risk of sounding rather racist… the doors exhibits the type of jenky infrastructure funk that one comes to expect from excellent, authentic food joints run by foreign nationals. The left door has a sign that says “other door” – and the right door, a sign that says something to the effect of “pull hard”.

Max is independent. “I want to do it.” I patiently let the door defeat him, wait for his plea, and assist him in opening it. It really is ridiculous how difficult it is to open that door, I think to myself.

So, we go to the counter and get both laminated menus – one for each of us. I decide up front that we’re going to get an order of Bulgogi BiBimBap and another Bulgogi lunch box – think of a bento box. I become dimly aware of a person sitting on the bench across from us, watching us.

Max: “I want chicken.” So, another bento with chicken. Top it off with an order of vegetable rolls – think sushi rolls, but no fish.

I place the order. “Twenty to twenty-five minutes,” says the guy.

“Fuck me…” I think to myself.

I seat me and Max on the bench chairs. I feign an “oh, *you’re* there” look, with a smile, at the figure sitting at the bench, with the requisite smile of friendly acknowledgement, and she comes into focus: a matronly but somewhat obese woman, with a very kind face. Middle aged, probably… or else her obesity was taking its toll and adding a few years. “I’m middle aged,” it occurred to me then and occurs to me now.

Our eyes meet briefly. She *was* watching us. The show is on. Max and I are the willing actors, she the sole audience member. The Seoul audience member, LOL.

“Can I take my boots off Daddy?”

“Well, no. But you can take your coat off. Do you want me to take your coat off?” I do it. My actual eyes interest in the – hopefully – waning bluster of winter wind outside. My minds eye, on the other hand, are fixed on the woman.

“Why can’t I take off my boots?”

“Well, because the floor is dirty, and there’s a lot of water on it.”

“Why?”

“Well, because people come in here from outside to buy some food.”

“Why do they buy it?”

“Well, because… we need a way to make sure that… things are fair…”

I don’t know how to continue this line of reasoning but luckily I don’t have to, because Max becomes distracted. “LOOK, John…” – often he calls me by my first name, which weirds some people out but, whatever – “there’s a door!”

I look behind myself. “Ah, so there is.” I nod with a thoughtful frown as fatheringly affected as I think I can muster, and I wonder silently at this point, “I wonder how she’s enjoying the show?”

“What’s behind the door?”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a closet.”

“Can we open the door?”

“Well, no.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not ours to open.”

“Why?”

“Well, because we don’t own this store.”

A group of people who had been dining at the table behind us have been in the process of leaving at this point. They approach the door. The point man is young man, maybe a teenager. He attempts to open the wrong door. It won’t budge. He pushes open the other door and the party is gone.

“Why don’t we own this store Daddy, why?”

“Well… because,” and I really am at a loss here. I hear the woman chuckle, motheringly, knowingly – I wonder at what? At the innocence of the question, or the futility in trying to answer it? The comic ineptitude of a father? Whatever its genesis, her reaction emboldens me a bit. I become aware of a growing sense of self-disgust, but also a sense of weird gratification, out of the whole episode. I decide to continue.

Doing my best Robert Reed, “some things we own, Max, and some things other people own.”

In the spirit of projecting the idea of ownership to people outside of our family, I consider adding, “we can’t own everything, Max…” but ultimately reject it; “no, it has too much of a whiff of entitlement, a bit too Mitt Romneyesque,” my subconcious may have told itself in the split second I made the decision. “Think of your audience.”

“This woman is working class.”

Our attention diverts to the rivets in the chair. This leads to an episode in which Max precariously perches on the chair, and slips, and falls face-first on the floor.

Now, one sensitizes to the severity of an “injury” like this as a parent of kids this age, and – I have learned – desentitize to it after the children leave toddlerdom. Her reaction was a gasp. Mine, at the same time, was a casual “are you OK?”

Max breaks the fourth wall, looks at the woman, looks at me, and makes his decision. He picks himself up and says:

“Yeah.”

The woman’s food comes up. She collects it and, as she leaves, she turns to me and remarks, “you’re a good father.” The only think I can think of to say is, “ahh,” in a hand-wavy, negating gesture, but with a smile. “Thank you.”

And I think to myself, I’m not a good father. I mean, I’m OK. I’m pretty good. I could be a LOT worse. But I’m no paragon of fatherhood, either. I’m a product of our times who genuinely loves his kids and his wife, and who wants them to be happy. But there are a lot of things for me to improve, and some I work on. Some I ignore. And I’m OK with that.

But by the end, the profound disgust of the whole act has really set in on me. I played my part, and dare I say Max played his, and seemed fully aware of the exhibitative (?) nature of the whole episode. It’s not our first time. I’m not proud of it. It literally left me feeling somewhat queasy, our collaborative affectation, and – more to the point – the fact that we pulled it off so successfully. The fact that she bought into it.

Not that we have an unhappy family, I thought then and think now. Far from it. But it was a bit of a facade; our family, like all human dynamics, is a complex hairball – but a loving hairball, I’m lucky to say. Not the neat, clean package of Americana we sold to that woman… far from it. But fuck it – let her have her little fantasy.

It occurs to me know that perhaps she was in on the ruse from the beginning. I very much hope that that is the case.

All the world’s a stage, huh?

The food was excellent, by the way.   Max was right about the fried chicken.

16. March 2014 by johnumbaugh
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Pickets at the Posh Shop

Another excerpt from I am a Strange Loop that I found particularly interesting.

Pickets at the Posh Shop

 

As I suggested above, your recently returned roving sweetheart might well hear an extra level of meaning while listening to Aimable chastise Pomponnette. Thus a play or film can carry levels of meaning that the author never dreamt of. Let’s consider, for example, the little-known 1931 play The Posh Shop Picketeers, written by social activist playwright Rosalyn Wadhead (ever hear of her?). This play is about a wildcat strike called by the workers at Alf and Bertie’s Posh Shop (I admit, I never did figure out what they sold there). In this play, there is a scene where shoppers approaching the store’s entrance are exhorted not to cross the picket line and not to buy anything in the store (“Alf and Bertie are filthy dirty! Please don’t cross our Posh Shop pickets! Please cross over to the mom-and-pop shop!”). In the skilled hands of our playwright, this simple situation led to a drama of great tension. But for some reason, just before the play was to open, the ushers in the theater and the actors in the play got embroiled in a bitter dispute, as a result of which the ushers’ union staged a wildcat strike on opening night, put up picket lines, and beseeched potential playgoers not to cross their lines to see The Posh Shop Picketeers.

 

Obviously, given this unanticipated political context, the lines uttered by the actors inside the play assumed a powerful second meaning for viewers in the audience, an extra level of meaning that Rosalyn Wadhead never intended. In fact, the picketing Posh Shop worker named “Cagey”, who disgustedly proclaims, after a brash matron pushes her aside and arrogantly strides into Alf and Bertie’s upscale showroom, “Anyone who crosses the picket line in front of Alf and Bertie’s Posh Shop is scum”, was inevitably heard by everyone in the audience (which by definition consisted solely of people who had crossed the picket line outside the theater) as saying, “Anyone who crossed the picket line in front of this theater is scum”, and of course this amounted to saying, “Anyone who is now sitting in this audience is scum”, which could also be heard as “You should not be listening to these lines”, which was the diametric opposite of what all the actors, including the one playing the part of Cagey, wanted to tell their audience, whose entry into the theater they so much appreciated, given the ushers’ hostile picket line.

 

But what could the actors do about the fact that they were unmistakably calling their deeply appreciated audience “scum” and insinuating that no one should even have been there to hear these lines? Nothing. Theyhad to recite the play’s lines, and the analogy was there, it was blatant and strong, and therefore the ironic, twisting-back, self-referential meaning of Cagey’s line, as well as of many others in the play, was unavoidable. Admittedly, the self-reference was indirect - mediated by an analogy – but that did not make it any less real or strong than would “direct” reference. Indeed, what we might be tempted to call “direct” reference is mediated by a code, too – the code between words and things given to us by our native language (Malagasy, Icelandic, etc.). It’s just that that code is a simpler one (or at least a more familiar one). In sum, the seemingly sharp distinction between “direct” reference and “indirect” reference is only a matter of degree, not a black-and-white distinction. To repeat, analogy has force in proportion to its precision and visibility.

23. November 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Strange Loops and Mosquitos

I’ve been reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop, which has been very engaging.  There’s a passage concerning evolution that I think is such a devastating rejoinder to the most simplistic understandings of the nature of evolution that – despite not finding it anywhere online to cut and paste – I’m going through the trouble to type it out here – which is a thing of significance for a lazy man like me.

Does a mosquito even have the tiniest glimmering of itself as being a moving part in a vast world?  Once again, I suspect not, because this would require all sorts of abstract symbols to reside in its microscopic brain – symbols for such notions as “big”, “small”, “part”, “place”, “move”, and so on, not to mention “myself”.  Why would a mosquito need such luxuries?  How would they help it find blood or a mate more efficiently?  A hypothetical mosquito that had enough brainpower to house fancy symbols like these would be an egghead with a lot more neurons to carry around than its more streamlined and simpleminded cousins, and it would thereby be heavier and slower than they are, meaning that it wouldn’t be able to compete with them in the quests for blood and reproduction, and so it would lose out in the evolutionary race.

The whole book is worth a close read.

10. November 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Solving the problem of viral marketing

Interesting article on MIT Review: US Military Scientists Solve the Fundamental Problem of Viral Marketing.

Basic thesis is that these people have found an algorithm to identify an effective “seed” in, for example, a social network where a message (viral marketing, or – perhaps – propaganda) and propagate throughout nearly the entirety of the network.  Finding an exact solution is an NP-complete problem, but they have found an effective heuristic that runs in polynomial time, apparently.

The paper can be read in full here.

22. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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4-H and how it changed the landscape of American agricultural practices

Fascinating article, Farming as Rocket Science, in the Sept. 7 issue of The Economist, in part about the 4-H club’s role in shaping American agriculture:

In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. Older folk resisted such newfangled ideas as planting hybrid corn bought from merchants rather than seedcorn from their own harvests. Enter the 4-H movement, which gave youngsters hybrid seeds to plant, then waited for the shock as children’s corn outgrew their parents’. Later youngsters promoted such innovations as computers.

How interesting, and clever, of 4-H’s administrators to do this.  Our youth are often much more willing to be the vanguard in adopting technologies like this; we should probably listen more often.  Probably a bit of a platitude, but… a good reminder.

I mentioned this to Heather this morning, and she conjured up Monsanto… which is a fair point.  We should balance the new with the old.

I wonder if there’s some sort of evolutionary model that explains how and why people – generally – start off exploring more progressive and radical options earlier on in their careers/lives, but this gradually winds down as they get older – like a simulated annealing drawn out for 80 years.  There seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence for this… but is it indeed the case?  And why, above “people just settle into their routines?” – That answer seems unsatisfactory.

16. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Enter Colonel Blotto

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing some (nearly all by now, I think) of Scott Page‘s lectures on Model Thinking (link to his – free! – Coursera course).  Nearly all the lecture sequences are very, very good.  But one of the sequences that really captured my imagination is the set on the game of Colonel Blotto.

Here’s Page’s introduction – this is the same video that is in the introductory video to the sequence to his Coursera.org course.

Since my undergraduate days I’ve been a big fan of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and – in particular – the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma – and these games have really helped shape my thinking in a lot of ways.  So it was (happy) surprise to me that I had never heard of Blotto games.

Here’s another video that explains, in terms of Blotto, Bush vs. Gore in 2000 – and also, how one might defeat an incumbent at a game of Blotto – by increasing the number of dimensions. Kind of reminds me of the Blue Ocean Strategy‘s iconic Strategy Canvas idea.

The other videos are definitely worth a watch – as is the whole course.

15. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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The weekend… Again…

Another week gone.  Unbelievable how quickly the time passes.  I had no theme in mind when I started this post, and it is getting depressing fast.  Maybe I should wrap it up before it gets any worse.

13. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Max’s First Day

Max’s first day at preschool was yesterday.  How time flies.  Indeed, the days are long but the years are short.

Though there were some tears when Heather dropped him off (on both sides I suspect), Max clearly had a good time and was very stimulated…. kept repeating all of the things he did during his first day.  He is excited for his second day – tomorrow.  ”Day” is really overstating it; it’s really just a couple of hours.  But when you’re that young… an hour can seem like an eternity.

Max’s 3rd birthday is in less than a month.  There is a box from Amazon that has a couple of presents for him – Chutes and Ladders, an Etch-a-Sketch, that sort of thing.  I keep tormenting him that he can’t open the box until his birthday.  It frustrates him a little but he knows it’s a game and laughs about it.

11. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Would like to post but… no time

Originally I was going to post just to register that I didn’t have time to post anything tonight… which is bullshit in retrospect… I mean I have some time.  I just hadn’t thought of anything to post about.

Then I thought of a few things.

My son Max is going to be 3 years old in less than a month.  That is crazy.  ”The days are long, but the years are short,” – my friend shared that depressing wisdom with me the other day.  How true it is.

Max is really making himself understood.  We are having real conversations, and he is regularly asking me about things that I have no good answer to.  Dark things, sometimes.  Like the nature of death, or why people do mean things sometimes… it can get uncomfortable, but I am trying to be as upfront as I can with him.  He is a sensitive boy but I don’t believe in varnishing the truth.  I think he can handle it.

Oliver is getting more communicative each day.  Yesterday he repeated “yellow” and “black” to me, pretty clearly.  That was very exciting.  I never thought that something like that would be exciting – but it really is.

In other news – I went to work today.  Most days I’ll stay at home.  I’ll go in normally one day a week.  Anyway, on this particular day, after lunch at the Korean restaurant, I make a stop at the barber.  It was time for a haircut – big time.  I asked the barber to shave it all off – which she did after confirming with me twice that that was what I really wanted.  It’s just something I do every year or so… mostly to manage the dandruff, frankly (kids, don’t say I didn’t warn you).  Anyway, I popped back into the office and sat at my desk and began working as if nothing had changed.  There were about 8 other people there.  Nobody said anything.  I kept a straight face but internally I was rolling… LOL.

04. September 2013 by johnumbaugh
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Around the World

This is one of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen.

Which is ironic because I remember remarking to my friend back in college how much I loathed the song (he liked it), possibly because it was being overplayed in the clubs we went to… and they must have been using the 30-minute version… club music fatigue.

Now, I actually like the song – but I love the video.  So yeah… Daft Punk.

What turned me on to this is a mashup of what looks to be 40s or 50s footage of Charleston-style dancing.

I’m not sure which video is cooler.

31. August 2013 by johnumbaugh
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