Appearing Elsewhere: Achievement character; why marriage and babies don’t mix for the poor; and a review of the new Obama biography

Over the last couple months I’ve had a few pieces published in elsewhere that I want to share with you.

The first is a profile of Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at Penn, called “Character’s Content.”  Duckworth studies “achievement character”- the personality traits that correlate with success in school. She’s identified several traits as particularly significant-grit, self-control, delay of gratification- and her objective is to find a way to measure and cultivate these traits in students, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods:

“Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes,” she wrote in a paper titled “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance in Adolescents,” which served as her first-year graduate thesis and was published in Psychological Science in 2005. “We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline … We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.”

The second piece, “When Having Babies Beats Marriage” was published yesterday in Harvard Magazine and looks at the research of sociologist Kathryn Edin.  You might remember Edin’s work from a couple of posts I wrote earlier this year about the stereotype of ‘hit and run’ fatherhood among poor men.  In this piece I explain Edin’s surprising- and to my mind powerfully convincing- explanation for why marriage and childbearing have become decoupled at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

But even as low-income Americans view marriage as out of reach, Edin asserts, they continue to see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful activity in their lives. “One theme of Doing The Best I Can is that poor men really want to be dads and they really value fatherhood,” she says. “Both women and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder see having kids as the ultimate form of fulfillment”: given their bleak economic prospects and minimal hope of upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities available to them. Middle-class women have substantial economic incentives to delay childbearing (a woman who gives birth right after college earns half as much in her lifetime as the classmate who waits until her mid thirties), but those incentives don’t exist for poor women. As Edin writes in Promises I Can Keep, “Early childbearing is highly selective of girls whose characteristics—family background, cognitive ability, school performance, mental-health status, and so on—have already diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them further.”

And lastly, a review of David Maraniss’ new biography of Barack Obama that ran in the Christian Science Monitor:

This is the second time that Maraniss has tried to narrate presidential ambition and his first effort was surely an easier one. His 1996 biography of Bill Clinton, “First in His Class,” told the story of a born glad-hander with an insatiable desire for other people’s esteem. Clinton was complex and confounding as president, but the source of his ambition was easy enough to locate.

Obama’s ambition is more obscure. Maraniss seems to have tracked down just about everybody who ever knew the young Barry Obama, including his neighbors in Indonesia, high school classmates in Hawaii, college roommates, and old girlfriends. To a person they recall Obama as a nice guy – easy-going, private, smart – but never as someone who thirsted for greatness or even seemed uniquely equipped to achieve it. Many echo the sentiments of Obama’s first boss out of college, who said that Obama “did not stand out in any material way.”


A storm and a singer at church

Yesterday morning we visited the First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor.  For Caroline and I it had been awhile since we were last in church; for Jay and Wally it had been forever.

After dropping Wally off in the nursery, Caroline, Jay, and I slid into a pew a few rows back from the front.  “What’s this,” Jay said, pointing at the book on the backside of the pew in front of us.  Caroline blushed.  In a whisper I replied, “It’s the Bible.  We’ll explain later.”

The Gospel reading was Mark 4:35-41.  Jesus takes his disciples in a boat across a body of water and the weather turns. “There arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.”

The disciples are terrorized by the storm but Jesus is not: He’s asleep in the back of the boar, his head upon a pillow.  The disciples grow so scared that they shake Jesus awake.  “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”  Here I picture Jesus rubbing sleep from his eyes, physically pained to be awake but aware of his responsibilities, just like I felt when I’d hear Wally crying at night and stagger downstairs to make him a bottle.

“Peace, be still,” Jesus commands the storm.  Just like that the seas abate and the wind settles.  Once the threat has passed he turns to his disciples.  Now it’s their turn to get it.  “Why are ye so fearful?” he says. “How is it that ye have no faith?”

“How did Jesus manage to sleep during the storm?” the Reverend asked at the outset of his sermon.  “And why, had they not woken him, had he been willing to leave his followers at the mercy of the storm?”

As the Reverend explained it, Jesus slept because he had faith.  He had faith in God, yes, but he also had something more than that.  Jesus had faith in disciples—in fact, more faith than they had in themselves. He trusted they knew how to steer the boat and maintain the oars.  When Jesus stood up and said, “Peace, be still,” he wasn’t just speaking to the storm; he was speaking to the conflict and doubt raging in his disciples’ hearts.  Calm down.  Be still.  You can handle this.

I liked this reading of the story a lot.  I liked that although the story features what is essentially a divine miracle—Jesus lifting his hand and taming nature—the real message might be that we have been endowed with the capacity to take care of ourselves.

At the close of the sermon the offering plates were passed.  As they moved back and forth across the pews, I kept coming back to a question I come back to often: When does it make sense to place my faith in my own abilities and my own knowledge, and when does it make sense to say, “I don’t know. This is more than I can handle.  Please tell me what to do.”  Too often, I think, I underestimate my capacity to steer my own fate and make of my life what I want.

I was thinking about that tension—the line between divine will (or chance or chaos) on the one side and human initiative on the other—when the Reverend announced that a member of the congregation had a birthday coming up that week.  His name was Bud.  He raised a hand from the front pew and I leaned around Caroline to get a look at him.  He was wearing a yellow shirt and a big ol’ smile and he must have been pushing 90.  The Reverend explained that Bud was a composer of music, including some church music, and that to celebrate his birthday the church’s choir director was going to sing one of Bud’s pieces.

The choir director stood up and placed a sheet of music on a stand.  Her name was Bonnie.  As it turned out, she was also going to have a birthday that week.  “A big one,” the Reverend said with an unholy grin.  “It ends in a 0…and it’s not 40.”

Bonnie laughed and used her fingers to flash a “5-0” to the congregation.  Then she took a breath and prepared to sing.

I love the moment just before someone you’ve never heard begins to sing. Bonnie wore a dress and a cardigan and had short brown hair and glasses.  Who could tell based on her appearance what was about to come out?

So when she opened her mouth the first notes of the song nailed me back into the pew.  She was a high soprano with an opera singer’s range and intonation.  She sang crisply, piercingly, her whole body still except for her mouth.

As I listened to her sing I thought about the sermon and in that context what struck me most about the singer’s voice was how thoroughly human it was.  There is an instinct to see or hear something beautiful and to see in that beauty the movement of a power bigger than us.  But I when I heard her voice I did not think, “God created that voice.” Instead I thought, “She created that voice”—through who knows how many hours of practice.

As a father raising two boys and a man still figuring out the shape of his own life, it was a nice reminder that between life and death, there’s a whole lot we can do on our own.

A sweet and savage feeling

Late afternoon they crossed a road that ran to the south and in the evening they reached Johnson’s Run and camped at a pool in the otherwise dry gravel bed of the watercourse and watered the horses and hobbled them and turned them out to graze. They built a fire and skinned out the rabbit and skewered it on a green limb and set it to broil at the edge of the fire. John Grady opened his blackened canvas campbag and took out a small enameled tin coffeepot and went to the creek and filled it. They sat and watched the fire and they watched the thin crescent moon above the black hills to the west.
-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Late afternoon on Wednesday I set off at a trot from the Institute for Social Research on Thompson Street where Caroline works. My legs were stiff from hours at my desk and I could still feel yesterday’s run in my quadriceps. It was also hot. The digital sign in front of Tappan Middle School had flashed 94 degrees when we’d driven by just a few minutes earlier.

As I ran away from the ISR and turned onto Maynard Street I saw out of the corner of my eye Caroline and the boys pull away from the curb. I felt a tingle of panic in the base of my stomach, just like I always do in this part of the day: The only way I’m getting home is if I run.

Earlier that afternoon, after they’d woken up from their naps, the boys and I had stopped at Whole Foods on our way to get Caroline. The previous night we’d made pesto for dinner but, as it had turned out, the basil plant in our backyard had only enough leaves to make sauce for one night. So now we had to supplement. We walked into the supermarket and Jay made to pull a cart out of the corral.

We don’t need one I told him.
Why not?
Because we’re only getting one thing.
What are we getting?

I observed myself saying “pesto” out loud in the entryway to Whole Foods and laughed. Later, in front of the display case, I said I wanted the artichoke and lemon pesto but Jay said he wanted the roasted red pepper pesto. Didn’t he know that roasted red peppers went out of style in the ‘90s? In a flash it seemed important that I show Jay that his choices matter, too. I put the artichoke pesto back on the shelf and laughed at myself again.

Two miles in my running route swings by Burns Park, which is where Caroline takes the boys before we reconvene for dinner. I don’t run with my glasses on which means that for an hour each day the world becomes soft-edged and indistinct. I tried to remember what color shirt Caroline had been wearing when she’d left the house that morning. As I ran by the park I spotted a slender figure in black and waved on faith. Bolstering my case was a small blob of orange at her feet: Wally in his shorts.

For the first 20 minutes of the run I felt fresh but after that the humid air began to press on me. The hot weather had seemed novel earlier in the day when I’d been sitting in the shade on our porch with a glass of iced water. But now, as I turned into County Farm Park and began to climb the first rise in the dirt trail, the heat took on a more pernicious edge. By the crest of the hill I was breathing hard and for a moment I slowed nearly to a walk. After a few strides my legs reengaged and I sped forward down the path.

When I go running I feel further away from Jay and Wally than I do at any other time in the day. This is a literal truth (we spend most of our days in the same house) but the feeling isn’t merely a reflection of distance. Often when I get home from a run Jay runs out the front door before I’m even up the driveway. When I see him I’m filled with the sad feeling of having gone away to do something he’s not old enough to understand.

But on Tuesday I pulled up panting in front of our house and the garage was empty. The house was locked and I’d left my keys next to my glasses in the front console of the car. Caroline and the boys shouldn’t be long now.

A couple minutes after I’d stopped running my face still felt like it had been bludgeoned with a frying pan. I stepped across the row of hastas that lines our driveway and took a seat against the house and opened the copper spigot that protruded from the brick: The water rushed out as if from a dam break. Then I picked up a pink plastic beach bucket, filled it beneath the torrent and dumped it on my head.

I sat like that, filling the bucket and dumping it, gasping each time the water struck my scalp. Then I drank from the pail and loved the way the water filled my mouth and streamed down my cheeks. It wasn’t living on the frontier, but it also wasn’t the same as a glass of water.

Lost River 2012: Jay and Wally take their places in great tradition

On Saturday morning I stood on the front porch of Cabin 11 and watched Jay run by. He had a large stick in his hand—ostensibly a sword, I would learn later—and he didn’t even glance my way. Instead his sights were set on the long-limbed four-year-old running up ahead, a boy who was, at that same moment, plunging down a steep bank into the dried creek bed where it was said the fairies lived.

The creek and the cabin were in Lost River State Park, a stretch of woods in Mathias, West Virginia that doesn’t call any particular attention to itself. I’d never heard of it until after Caroline and I started dating. In May 2004 she told me she was going to a state park for this annual camping trip her family took with two other families. I asked if I might come. She shook her head. “The families made a rule. No boyfriends or girlfriends allowed. We’d have to be engaged for you to come.” If I’d understood what Lost River is, I would have dropped to one knee right then and there.

Of course, what Lost River is is hard to say. We can start with the facts. Every year for 23 straight years these same three families have spent a weekend together at the park. The families are similar in composition: Two parents, two kids. And the kids are similar in age, ranging from 26-31 today, which means that when the tradition started the oldest (Caroline) was in first grade and the youngest was possibly still in diapers.

The activities for the weekend are the same every year: Speed croquet, a hike, a craft project, and all sorts of no-assembly-required games like Red Light, Green Light and Mafia. Food is big as you might imagine. The same family is responsible for breakfast every year and the dinners tend to be elaborate, particularly when you consider that everything has to be cooked using the dull knives, thumb-sized cutting boards and slow-boiling electric stoves supplied by the West Virginia Parks Department.

There have been some changes in the last 23 years. There are, I gather, fewer kid-produced talent shows than there were when Caroline and her running mate in the group were in their talent show primes, and there’s a lot more wine consumed now that there used to be. It is, it strikes me, somewhat surprising that these two things would move inversely with each other.

This year was technically Jay’s second Lost River but I consider it his debut. He celebrated his first birthday there two years ago and we missed last year’s trip because it coincided with Wally’s due date (and, as it turned out, his birthday). But at three-years-old Jay was a fuller participant in this year’s events, even if his memory isn’t quite ready to lay claim to them. As he went to sleep each night beneath the eaves of the cabin, it was easy to imagine Caroline, twenty-three years younger, lying down beside him.

The only hard part about parenting at Lost River is the combination of the late adult-nights and the early kid-mornings. Otherwise, it’s bliss. Jay and the other boy his age ran freely between the cabins and seemed to find inexhaustible potential in every little pebble and twig they encountered along the way. And Wally, should he start to walk anytime soon (and it seems that he might), will owe a debt to the many pairs of hands that joined with his this weekend as he walked, herky-jerky like a foal, over the tree roots in front of our cabin.

There is, I discovered this weekend, no end to the satisfaction a parent can take in watching other people enjoy the company of his children. I’ve glimpsed this before, during family holidays and when friends come to visit, but it was in particular relief this year at Lost River. For three days it felt like Jay and Wally were the community’s children (or maybe it felt to the community like Caroline and I were shirking our duties). Wally dazzled and snuggled with anyone who’d pick him up; Jay rolled pizza dough with Maia, played monsters with Greta, let Matt carry him home after he fell down a hill, shared conspiratorial smiles with Molly, and helped Kathy pack the cooler for lunch.

In a weekend saturated with good feelings, the strongest emotion for me was a sin: I just couldn’t help but feel proud watching those boys operate in the world.

On Monday morning, after the traditional farewell breakfast (oatmeal with all the fixins’) we drove home to Michigan. Caroline and I debriefed the weekend as we drove north through the farms and hills of western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. As we merged onto the PA turnpike somewhere near Pittsburgh, real life began to settle back in and I could feel the West Virginia woods grow still.

Since we’ve been home Jay has continued to talk about Lost River and I’ve noticed a change in the way he says the words. A week ago Lost River didn’t mean anything to him. Now the name of the place is joined to memories of a group of people and a way of feeling about the world. I hope it stays like that for a long, long time.

Between passion and punishment: A moment in Jay’s shoes

Yesterday afternoon, 3pm, the house lay like this: Jay was downstairs in the playroom, having just been admonished to do a whole lot better at “quiet time” than he had the day before; I was upstairs with sweet Wally in my lap, bottle cocked in my right hand, leaning back against the wall and settling him down to nap.

The previous day at this same point, Jay had started whining from the playroom—something about wanting a blanket.  I don’t like whining at any time, but particularly when I’m putting Wally to sleep, and so I’d stormed downstairs angry at Jay (in the process, surely arousing the sleepy Wally more than Jay’s bleating would have had I simply left it alone).

Anyway, Jay whined the previous day and so when I prepped him for quiet time yesterday I was sterner than usual: I reminded him about how he’d been bad during quiet time the day before and how that had cost him his afternoon fruit leather. “Really do we want that to happen again?” I asked him.

So I was upstairs with Wally and naptime was proceeding normally when from the street outside, I heard the loud and unmistakable sound of an Ann Arbor city trash truck making its way down our block.

Now, Jay loves trash day.  Every Monday night we put out our three containers—trash, recycling, compost—and throughout the day on Tuesday Jay runs pell-mell to the living room window whenever one of the trucks comes by.  In the small, repeating orbit of his life, trash day is certainly one of the main events.

When I heard the trash truck I knew that Jay must have heard it, too, and immediately I understood his dilemma: Just a few minutes earlier I’d scolded him not to leave the playroom and not to yell upstairs for me, yet there coming down our block was the truck and surely if Dad knew what was going on he’d make an exception and let me run and see, but how (how!) to let him know?

As I sat there feeding Wally I grasped all this at an instant.  For a moment I felt like God, possessed of complete knowledge of the passions and conflicts roiling that little boy’s mind.

And in that same instant I recalled feeling as a boy the same way Jay was feeling now: I remembered exactly what it was like to be stuck between a parental admonition on the one hand and an overwhelming desire on the other, with the conflict intensified to the level of a tragedy by the recognition, in Jay’s mind, that I did not have the specific circumstance of the trash truck in mind when I made the general rule about not leaving the playroom.

To make matters even worse, Wally sleeps with a white noise maker which was humming simultaneous with the sound of the advancing trash truck, and which made it next to impossible for Jay to communicate with me upstairs without yelling in a very loud voice which, of course not minutes earlier I’d expressly commanded him not to do.

Yet I heard him trying to get my attention. Between gasps of the trash truck’s air breaks and beneath the blanket of white noise there he was, whispering, hoarsely: “Daddy, Daddy.”

For a moment I considered ignoring him.  But then I recalled again the utter torment of being in his shoes, the soul-evacuating despair he must have been feeling just then, and I did something I almost never do: I paused naptime.

I took the bottle from Wally’s mouth, stood up, and walked out into the hallway. “Jay,” I called down the stairs.  “You can go see the trash truck.”  Before the words were out of my mouth—before Jay could even begin to ponder how it was that his dad knew the design of his heart—Jay was sprinting across the floor, rejoicing in the improbable benevolence of the universe.

And as he stood at the window I went back to feeding Wally, proud of what I’d done for Jay, feeling elevated by the boundlessness of my compassion.