I used to think I was learning something when I found out how old a person is, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong end of the timeline.
Someone’s current age will reveal something about their health or whether they'll respond to a text with "LOL" or an emoji, but the real insight comes from considering the world of their births.
When Abraham Lincoln was born, Thomas Jefferson was president and Kentucky was the nation’s frontier. When Ronald Reagan was born, marijuana was legal under federal law, but banned in California, and the first radio station was nine years from launch. When Oprah Winfrey was born, she was legally prohibited from attending school with whites in her home state. These and other situations provided the backdrop for what they would read, whom they would meet, how they would perceive their communities and how they would live as adults.
In a way, we have several birth years, each related to a particular type of maturity. What year was it when we first became aware of world events? What was happening in the economy when we started to earn a living, or save for retirement? What were the parenting trends when we had children, or when our parents had us? The stories of our lives are written against a backdrop of social, political, and economic events that etch their own imprint into our worldviews.
I was born five weeks before Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and 11 months before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy opened his infamous hearings into Communists in our government. We held air raid drills at school, standing in front of our lockers to shield ourselves from the nuclear bombs the Soviets might drop on us. I am, in many ways, a product of the Cold War, and I have no doubt that my parents’ approach to childrearing reflected their own experiences with the Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.
I joined the workforce in the 1970s, when inflation was high, stock prices were low, and oil prices were skyrocketing. Those patterns have influenced my approach to our finances for more than 40 years. If I had begun working five years earlier, or five years later, my perceptions and discipline would be much different today.
Usually, we discuss age groups in wide swaths, like 18-34 or 40-65, but this generic approach hides a ton of detail that would help us understand each other better. Even our preoccupation with “generations” (Boomer, X, Y, Millennial, Zombie, Codger) mixes too many variables when it comes to understanding any specific person.
Clearly, we don’t learn much when we ask someone how old they are now. The more relevant question is, “How old were you when….?”
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I know a number of people who never want to be early for anything, and they drive me crazy. (Okay, it’s more a putt than a drive, but it pushes my buttons either way.)
The people I am talking about—and they know who they are—seem to view punctuality as a power struggle. They believe the person who arrives first has the most free time and, therefore, is least important. The person who is last to arrive finds everyone else waiting for him, which means HE is the most important. Everyone else has lost status while he was texting in the driveway.
This is actually a cultural protocol in some nations, especially in business meetings, so I see the point about status, but I’m happy to give the power to whomever needs it most. If someone feels special because I am waiting for them, that’s my no-cost gift to their egos. If they get off on the idea that I’m anxiously longing for their arrival, I’m happy to bring joy to their (terribly insecure) lives.
My own view of time is not quite so hierarchical, and I find it very helpful to arrive early.
When I get somewhere ahead of schedule, I can stop in at the men’s room to see if I’m having a bad hair day or if I’m suffering from booger droop. I can check my notes to remind myself why I am here, or I can find out whether Beyonce liked my like on Insta. If it’s a social event, I get to spend more time with friends, shoveling, um, wisdom on them from the moment the bar opens until they’re stacking the chairs.
Mostly, I like being early because it lets me finish early, which I think of as highly efficient and productive. If we can start 15 minutes ahead of schedule, we can finish early, as well, and I can free up more time to watch Jeopardy!. (I feel so much smarter now that James is gone.)
Yes, there are those unfortunate days when I arrive a half hour early and my interlocutor is 20 minutes late and I run out of posts to like or BREAKING NEWS!!! from CNN. By the time the meeting begins, I’m feeling like a real putz for cooling my heels for almost an hour, and I have no doubt that the person I am meeting feels the same way about me.
Of course, if I was really worried about other people’s disapproval, I’d never venture out of the apartment and I’d hide in the closet when the Grub Hub guy shows up with my donuts. But I am braver than that, ready to put myself out there and risk being thought of as less important than the alpha in the room.
If I’m ever an hour early, though, I think I’ll just spend some time loitering in the men’s room. As regular readers know, that’s always a source of mirth.
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Maybe they don’t mean it that way, or perhaps they do, but there are some statements that I hear repeatedly and they just rub me the wrong way. If you were writing a blog, you could be whining about this stuff, too…
Time for some audience participation: what comments drive you up the wall or over the edge or around the bend? Add your faves to our comment section this week and we can all cringe together.
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When hand crafting is no longer a plus, initial thoughts on diseases, and a blabst from the pabst, brought to you this week from a clean desk and a very cluttered mind…
Of course, all the people reading this post are incredibly tech savvy 8G gurus who can program a computer and surf the web and click on this button to become subscribers. Right?
Dad would have been 95 today, and so...
My dad owned a small business, which meant he worked 12 days a week. Every so often, he’d take me downtown with him on a Saturday morning and I’d get to play with the T-squares and the copy machine and, best of all, the electric erasers.
One such morning, we’re walking past the library (now the Cultural Center) on the way to breakfast when a beggar comes up and asks for money for food. My dad declines to give him any cash, but he says we’re going for breakfast and the beggar is welcome to join us. And so, our party of three parks at the counter of a diner near the IC station under Michigan and Randolph.
The waitress takes a look at our guest and declines the opportunity to serve him, but my dad insists and notes that he is going to pay the bill for our new friend. Then, dad sits between me and the beggar and talks with the guy during breakfast. I have no recollection of the conversation, but the amazing part to me was that they had a conversation at all.
Dad was a patron of the art of panhandling, adjusting his largesse for the originality and personality of the donee. It was a good bet that the people who asked for money had made some big mistakes along the way, but it was an equally good bet that my dad, like almost all of us, could have made a comparably bad move that landed him on the street.
After we parted from our new friend, dad said he preferred to buy food instead of handing over cash, because the recipients might just buy booze if left to their own devices. Once, he said, the guy asking for money simply admitted he was a drunk and would spend it on hooch. Dad gave him extra points for honesty and financed his next round.
(Modern note: Doesn’t it seem very patronizing and patriarchal for him to have forced his judgment on the beggars regarding how they spent their money? Wasn’t that a blatant assertion of colonial power, cultural appropriation and severely infantilizing? In hindsight, now that I am superduperly woke, I am mortified that he bought them food. What a privileged bastard he was.)
Fast forward to a family vacation in New York, when we’re walking with our daughters on 42nd Street near Grand Central Station and a man comes up to ask for some change and I decide to buy him a meal. It costs more than spare change, of course, but it does more good, even if I am paternalistically imposing my choices of nutrition on an otherwise sentient soul. After I make sure my new friend is served, I relate my childhood story to my daughters, and they remember.
Fast further forward, my girls are grown now, with children of their own, and I received a note from one of them about buying lunch for a beggar. Maybe, one day, their children will do the same.
Some heirlooms are well worth passing down.
What story do you tell from your childhood, and what story do you want your kids to tell about you? Please share your memories in the comments section and subscribe if you haven’t done so already.
More than forty (yikes!) years ago, I wrote a presentation about the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology. The technology of the time was the pocket calculator, and my concern was focused on the tendency of garbage in to become garbage out.
I was writing for high-school students and my point was that we need to know the basics in order to catch our keyboarding errors. Type 5 times 7 into the calculator and your answer should be 35. (Really, I checked this.) But enter the information incorrectly and you might get 28 or 40 or some other error that you wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t spend so many hours memorizing multiplication tables.
It was a brilliant argument and, of course, every student who heard it threw away their calculators and bought a gross of #2 pencils. JK. Instead, they all assumed they would be company presidents and their minions would do all the heavy lifting, and addition.
Fast forward four decades and I find I must sound the alarm again, this time in response to a more insidious danger of technology that comes in the form of masters who look like servants. Yes, I’m talking about you, Siri, and your co-conspirator, Alexa, and whatever Google calls its viper at your breast.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone is going nuts about Siri taking notes when your kids sing that baby shark song, but that's just a head fake. Our internet gods will announce the end of eavesdropping and we'll lower our guard once again. That's when they'll pounce or, more accurately, devour our paychecks from ambush.
That's because you might have paid to have Siri live with you, but Siri doesn’t work for you. Siri works for the companies who buy advertising and positioning opportunities from Apple. Alexa serves the highest-margin clients of Amazon. They reply to your commands, but their hearts belong to someone else.
In-home assistants are the avant garde of the robot revolution, the takeover of our lives by artificial intelligences that smile and smile while being villains. These devices are undermining the consumer’s advantage online, and eliminating the race to the bottom that is the design flaw—and consumer edge—of the internet.
Search engines enable us to find exactly what we want at the lowest total cost. We can see which offers are promotions paid for by advertisers and we can check the reviews of the low-cost offers to find out if anyone actually received the products they bought. We can take the offer that’s highest on the page, knowing somebody paid Google for the placement, or we can take a few minutes to refine our search and determine the best overall value for ourselves.
Delegate those decisions to Alexa and you might as well declare that money is no object. There is no simple way to ensure that she or Siri or the Google thing will get the best deal for us. We own the device, but we are absolutely not the customer.
When we buy a house, we don’t confide our maximum offer to the real estate agent because the agent works for the seller. We engage the agent, but the seller pays her, so her duty is to them, not us. We apply similar skepticism with insurance agents, stock brokers, lawyers and doctors, because we know they get paid more for certain advice and less for other recommendations.
We’re inclined to lower our guard, though, when the same servant that’s making our buying decisions is also playing our songs and ordering our pizza. She sounds so friendly and servile and efficient. How could you not trust her to get you a deal on humidifier filters?
The more we rely on counter-top assistants to handle our day-to-day activities, the more we’re likely to pay for everything we buy. Trust me on this. I was right on target with my prediction 40 years ago and I am overdue to be right again.
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.