“We always make the decisions that make our lives harder”

Over the weekend we spent time with some new Ann Arbor friends.  The fit is good: Like us they have two young kids, and like us they’ve been trying to figure out where they’ll move in the fall.  Their choice came down to Houston or Madison, Wisconsin, and at the last minute they surprised themselves with their decision.

They explained their thinking over coffee while our boys and theirs played in remarkable harmony in the next room over.  At first they were sure they were going to Houston.  The city seemed to offer a great mix of easy neighborhood living with the amenities of one of the biggest cities in the country.  They could imagine an easy life for themselves in Houston, but they were afraid it wasn’t the one they’d end up having there.

“We always seem to make decisions that make our lives harder,” the wife said to explain why they realized Houston just wasn’t going to work.

In Houston, she feared they’d choose to live in an expensive neighborhood and incur a mortgage that would require her to continue on the intense career track she was eager to exit.  And they knew that even at that address, they’d have a 20-minute drive to bring their son to the preschool they wanted him to attend (even though there would have been other preschools closer by).  In short, while life in Houston seemed like it could be nice, they worried they’d get drawn into a situation where their overall quality of life was less than the sum of its parts.

And so they chose Madison as a way to force themselves into living less complicated lives.  The lower cost of living meant they could make career choices that were less based on salary considerations; and the smaller range of choices in everything from preschools to restaurants meant they’d be less compelled to reach for things that would have the unintended consequences of making their lives harder.

Last year I wrote several posts on this topic (here, here, and here), and it will be no surprise that their way of thinking resonates with me.  What I liked in particular, though, was the wife’s comment that despite what they want for their lives overall, in each individual decision they face, they often end up making the choice that makes their lives harder.

It’s strange to think that we’d ever choose to make our lives harder, but of course we do it all the time.  This is true when it comes to big decisions like where to live, what kind of house to buy, and where to send our kids to school.  It’s also true on a smaller level.

This past January, Caroline and I completed a “purge” of stuff from our house.  It was our third time doing this since Jay was born.  Overall we prefer to feel less hemmed in by our possessions, yet, we find that our individual purchasing decisions often cut against that general preference.  Do we need a nonstick saucepan?  (It sure would be nice for making scrambled eggs.)  Did we need a bouncy seat when the boys were infants?  Or a second sleepsack for Wally, who often throws up on the one we have?  The answer to each of these questions, considered on their own, would seem to be, “yes,” but if we keep answering that way, we end up with the cluttered house that we don’t want.  It’s just one example of how it can be hard to align broad goals with day-to-day decision-making.

Keeping life simple is probably my highest practical priority.  I think about the things we could prioritize in life- professional success, money, living in exactly the place we want to live, getting the boys into the best schools.  None of them come close to affecting my sense of happiness and satisfaction as much as having the space each day to breathe, and to enjoy life together with Caroline, Jay, and Wally.

Put that way, of course, who wouldn’t choose to have space to breathe and to enjoy the company of the people you love?  But even if it’s an obvious priority, it’s tremendously hard to preserve in the weeds of everyday life.  And sometimes you need to take drastic steps like moving to frigid Wisconsin to force yourself to live the way you want to.

A little bit of learning is a beautiful thing

IMG_3582It has been awhile since I’ve written.  This is partly due to Brainiac, which is taking up a lot of my writing energy each day, and partly due to the way that not doing something begets not doing it even more.

We have been well, though.  February has been a relatively healthy month for the boys and Caroline’s academic job search is progressing well, such that within a week or two we will know for sure where we’re moving this fall.  A couple weeks ago I took a short trip to Philadelphia, and as the plane took off from Detroit I had an unhappy thought: What if my previous post were to end up being the last words I ever got to write about our family?  I imagined Jay reading it when he is older, and after that I resolved to write less about beer and cursing in the future.

If there’s been a theme to my thinking over the last month it’s been intimacy—as in, how close Caroline and I feel to each other.  We’ve talked a lot about how it’s something that can slip away easily and unnoticed and how it takes deliberate effort to make sure we don’t lose touch with each other.  And while I don’t mean to yadayada over the best part, I’ll save saying more on this topic for later, because…

What I really want to write about are a couple of sterling developments that have made our lives much easier over the last six weeks or so.  They concern Jay who has taken a sudden but inexact interest in time, and who of late really likes to be the first one done with everything.  (And I offer these hopeful notes especially to my sister, who recently gave birth to her second son, and who will undoubtedly need these small graces in the years to come.)

Regarding time, a typical afternoon exchange between Jay and me goes like this:

Me: Today you have to do a 45 minute quiet time.
Jay: Actually, how about five minutes.
Me: Alright, maybe 33 minutes.
Jay: Maybe seven minutes would be better.
Me: Ok, seven minutes.

What’s beautiful about negotiating with Jay is that he can’t actually tell the difference between 45 minutes and seven minutes.  He knows one minute is a really short amount of time—when you tell him something will happen in one minute he’ll stay focused and wait you out—but above one minute he loses track and it ends up being all the same to him.  So, he goes agreeably into quiet time thinking he’s just won a good deal for himself, while I get to go back to work knowing I’ve got an hour, which is what I’d been gunning for all along.

And speaking of winning, the logistics of our days are working better than ever thanks to Jay’s newfound competitive streak.  He calls it beating, as in, “I want to beat,” and he wants to beat at everything: being the first one done with his breakfast, the first boy strapped into his carseat, the first boy brushed and pajama’d and ready for bed.  It’s actually incomprehensible to me that we would have stumbled upon such a perfect synergy between Jay’s desires and mine and Caroline’s and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The only looming complication I see is if Wally starts really wanting to win, too, in which case these fun evening races through the bathroom might get a little too hot.  But for now, Wally is content to shout, “beat, beat,” while counterproductively flailing his legs as Caroline attempts to strap on his nighttime diaper.