Category Archives: friends

Are We Old Yet?

Ten days ago I was riding my mountain bike into work when, thinking excessively about rattlesnakes due to a spat of recent news stories, I paid less attention than I should have and soon found myself tumbling over my handlebars. I landed hard on my left shoulder followed by my head which hit the ground fairly hard also. (I was wearing a helmet.) For the better part of a week I could barely lift my left arm, my back hurt, and I had low-level headaches and difficulty, it seemed, recalling names. I felt old. A day later I got an e-mail from my high school friend Lara, informing us that a classmate was very ill with recurrent cancer. He died four days later. In an exchange of e-mails many of my friends reflected on death and our mortality.

In one forwarded e-mail a classmate wrote “I still find it hard to believe that we have lost so many of our classmates at such young ages, and so many tragic ways.” I was a little taken aback by that. Had many of my classmates died? I confess that I’m somewhat out of touch with my high school class. I only attended our 5 year anniversary, and since I’ve spent the majority of my adult life far away from Utah my intersection with classmates to get updated on the happenings of others had been sparse. Except for Anne Jahries Sleater who had been shot and killed by a mentally ill woman, I couldn’t recall another death.

With a little help from Google, I found the 2007 Life Period table published by the Social Security Administration and proceeded to estimate how many of my classmates would be expected to be deceased by now. Of 100,000 live male births, 98754 would be expected to be alive at age 18 (graduation), and 94800 would be expected to be alive at age 43 (present). That means that about 4% of my male class should have already passed away. The numbers are better for female classmates, of whom slightly less than 2% should have died. Assuming a 50/50 class of 400 students, about twelve of our classmates should have died by now.

During a phone call with a friend I mentioned that we’re getting close to the age where death won’t be so rare among us anymore. That, thankfully turns out to be somewhat of an exaggeration. Our annual probability of death for the next year is still under 0.3%. And looking at the published survival curve below, it seems we’ve got another twenty years before we hit the knee of the curve. Following the 1900 curve, it is easy to appreciate how different our lives are now than those of our grandparents or great grandparents: we may be losing some classmates, but few of us have lost our children.

Survival Curves

Survival Curves from the Social Security Administration

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Spiritual Osteoporosis

A couple of Sundays ago Jeremiah and I were walking outside of our church building. He looked up at me and his sweet, still-nine-year-old voice asked, “Dad, why don’t we ever have the Sundays where we just come for sacrament meeting and then go home like we did in Pittsburgh?”

“Did you like those Sundays?” I asked back.

“Yeah, because I could come to church, read and go home without having to go to Primary.”

“Well, we had those Sundays in Pittsburgh because of President Swenson. You can ask him about it when we meet them for dinner.”

Jeremiah, who is usually very shy and is very keen on spending as much time as possible with his friends, didn’t ask President Swenson why some Sundays he didn’t have to go to Primary, but he was at least civil when we dragged him away from his friends in order to have dinner with the Swensons, because he knew that our guest had provided him such blessings in the past.

We had a wonderful dinner with the Swensons, even without discussing the non-traditional approach to Stake Priesthood Meetings that had led to periodic Primary cancelations. If the Swensons didn’t need to drive back the next day and if our kids were not starting school the next morning I would have insisted that after finishing dinner at the Indigo Grill that we find an all-night diner where we could eat deserts and drink hot chocolate for hours while they told us stories from their three years running an LDS mission in Chile. Just being with them again made me feel so alive, so glad to be Mormon, so willing to learn from their three years of experiences since I had last seen them. But we couldn’t. We did, however, hear some of their stories about the earthquake that struck Chile on February 27, 2010.

Both Joe and Jolene said that what was so dreadful about the earthquake–the sixth strongest earthquake ever recorded that lasted an unbelievable three minutes–was the noise, a noise so dreadful that Joe was convinced at the moment that it was the end of the world. But the tragedy of the earthquake, they said, was the tsunami. The government had issued a tsunami warning, but tragically lifted it just before a tsunami actually hit the coast, sweeping away to their death relieved residents returning to their homes. As we said our goodbyes, the Swensons left us with “one faith promoting experience,” of a family who, just before they returned to their home on the coast, had the undeniable impression to run, to get to higher ground. Fleeing, they saved their lives. (Jeremiah asked us “Didn’t God love the dog left in the apartment too?”) Letting up my guard too early, returning home  too early–this is what the prophet Jeremiah warns me of (see Jeremiah 29:4–7 and 42:9–16).

Within Church we speak a lot of not letting up too early, of enduring to the end. In its most insipid form, enduring to the end is quietly slipping away from life without committing a moral sin, maybe even requiring that we keep up as conscientious  home or visiting teachers. But it is an enduring that need not be demanding. As we find ourselves wracked with cancer or burying a child, we will certainly struggle not to curse God as we endure, but in our rhetoric, enduring is passive: it is not doing something. Yet life insists that we do; men were not made to merely endure. As Edith Hamilton wrote, “Men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life” (The Greek Way). Biologically we need impact and stress. Take, for example, osteoporosis, a topic of which I’m no expert but for which I participated in a discussion with an expert 13 years ago over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Sweden. The expert, a medical physicist, was developing a method for quantifying bone loss in women. The key, he emphasized, to reducing bone loss was high impact exercise. The bones had to be stressed, put to the limit, reminded that they needed the calcium for strength. Astronauts, I’ve learned through NOVA episodes, face significant bone loss when they are in space for extended periods. Absent gravity, the bones get lazy and start letting go of their calcium. This is quite a challenge NASA biologists need to address for any long human trip in space, to Mars for example.

Driving home after the Swensons’ stories about the earthquake and tsunami, I kept thinking “Have I returned to the coast too early?” Our home teacher here in San Diego points out that there is no way Wendy and I could be as needed here as we were in our previous ward; the ward cannot provide the same stress to our spiritual bones (a simple fact that he encourages us to accept). I can accept the fact, but I must be careful with the consequences. It is too early in my life to relax on the beaches of San Diego, the remaining journey is too long, and if the Church cannot provide the stress my bones need, something else must. I must flee the comfort of the coast, scrambling up the carmel cliffs, pounding my bones, and even when I think I’ve reached safety, made it home, I need to keep running.

For the people of the Book, both Jews and Christians, exile is the normal and inescapable lot of mankind on Earth. One can go further and say that the myth of exile, in one form or another, lies at the core of all religions, of any genuine religious experience. The fundamental message embedded in religious worship is: our home is elsewhere. (Leszek Kolakowski)

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First Day of College

Today is the first day of college for our oldest son, Alec. I believe he is nervous and excited, simultaneously feeling the liberation of studying the expansive curriculum of college (as opposed to the teaching for the test he has experienced over his years in public k-12) and the anxiety of the more competitive pool of peers. On Facebook he  simply posted “First day of class!” I’ll need to check back in a few hours to see what the updated post is. This momentous event brings to mind my first day of college 25 years and a month ago. Fall is normally a spectacular season in Salt Lake City, and my first day of college was spectacular: blue skies, pleasant temperatures. But best of all, I was carpooling with my best friend. Here is what I have previously written about that day, with names changed to protect the innocent.

Just before eight the next morning, I got in my silver Jetta, a used car my dad had bought me, drove over to Waterbury, and picked up Amy. As I felt God had blessed me the day before by speaking to me, this morning I felt even more blessed by God in that Amy’s sister Kathy had moved to Washington, Mary had moved to Logan to attend Utah State, and Nancy and Theresa were now both down at BYU, leaving me to be Amy’s primary schoolmate as we started classes at the U.

Driving up 13th East that morning, listening to David Bowie, talking with Amy, I was nervous and excited, wondering what this university experience would be like. In the year since Mary had told me she was moving on [from me], Amy had become my closest friend, and having Amy in the car with me gave me a sense of confidence as I pulled into the campus as a first day freshman.

All the stories about the lack of student parking seemed greatly exaggerated as we pulled right into a spot in the parking lot by the business school. The ten-dollar ticket we found upon returning to the car taught me to be much more careful about checking where a “U” (student) lot changed into an “A” (faculty) lot. I accepted Amy’s offer to split the ticket with me, a most unchivalrous act, my mother said, but since Amy and I were just good friends, I didn’t second guess myself much. We didn’t get any more parking tickets, and, as a bonus for our extra care and attention, we got more exercise by parking farther away from our classes.

Alec is living on campus, so he doesn’t need to worry about parking, and he wouldn’t be singing along to David Bowie if he were driving. Rather than having his ex-girlfriend 90 miles away, his is living two floors beneath him. But despite the differences, I imagine he is feeling the same way I was and will have a vivid memory of this bright and cool day. (Although Alec is living in Pittsburgh so it is more likely to be of a gray and muggy day.)

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Existential Wave Functions: A Proposed Model of the Self

I recently spent a week at my parents, staying in the bedroom where I had slept throughout high school and much of college. The room is essentially unchanged, except for my cork board and posters that are long gone. The home itself is comfortably similar, although my parents have added a back deck, and my dad is frequently, though usually unsuccesful, modifying the basement shower. Sitting outside on the deck or the concrete steps of the front porch, I’m struck by how much smaller scale everything seems. As the owners of the old Eggertson place tear down their car port, I notice how close the Holdners’ house is. I fancy I could throw a baseball from my aprents front yard and have Lyle catch it in his driveway. Even though I could always see the Wasatach peaks towering over the valley miles away, I realize my world was very small. But persistent. It has been ages since I’ve seen any of my old neighborhood peers, yet their parents are still here, and the facades of the houses where I played and deviated are still unchanged.  I’m tempted to walk over to the corner of my parents’ yard, climb up on the cinderblock wall, and walk over to David’s house to see if our shack still stood behind his garage. But I can’t imagine my knees enjoying the climb, nor the new neighbors tolertating my intrustion into their space. It isn’t all exactly the same.
On Thursday Susan Hunt picked me up for lunch. Over the ten years I’ve lived in Pittsburgh we get together for lunch or dinner whenever I’m in town for work or to visit my parents. We decided to eat at Ruth’s Diner, someplace we have never eaten together over the 25 years we’ve known each other, despite frequently driving up Emigration Canyon together. I ordered a pork loin sandwich; Susan had chicken enchiladas. We both drank water with lemon.
We talked mostly about her faithlessness draging her bishopric-first-counselor husband down, and about my potential move from Pittsburgh to San Diego or Palo Alto.
Eventually, inevitably, our conversation turned to our “Tribe” reunion eight months previous. The “Tribe,” a term coined, I believe, by Christina but never used by me, consisted of friends from high school. Everyone that I would have consider part of the “Tribe” attended except for Julie, who was apparently persona non grata, and Becky, who was living in Texas. David, a friend more of Nate and Curtis than a member of the group, came along also. The reunion consisted of a flurry of group e-mails planning the event, a Friday afternoon hike to Cecret Lake in Albion Basin and a Saturday evening dinner generously hosted by Nate at his house in West Jordan.
I couldn’t say, really, what had caused the “Tribe” to congeal in the first place. The girls had, I believe, attended the same LDS ward, and the guys had all gone to elementary school together. The first social interactions between the guys and girls had to have been initiated by the girls’ preference dances where Christina had asked John to one and me to another. I had fallen in love with Cindy, had my favorite high school date with Lara, became best friends with Susan, and become complexly intertwined with Christina. Amazingly, we had all mostly stayed friends through high school, the beginnings of college, missions and marriage. I had kept in touch with almost everyone reasonably well, at least until I moved to Pittsburgh ten years ago, when Susan became my only regular contact.  For our many years of separation and the variety of courses our lives have taken, we, for the most part, all got a long remarkably well, assuming our standard roles. And when we didn’t get along, it was also just as it was 25 years earlier.
As Susan and I talked over our lunch, a comment of her’s caught my attention: “I always think I’m a completely different person now. But after spending the evening with everyone, I realized: we’re all just the same.”
For the sameness of others, there was a lot of evidence. Lara pretty and quiet, sitting removed from the drama generated by Christina and me at Cecret Lake. Nate flittering among all the pretty women. Curtis making humorous, irreverent quips.  Me trying to be philosophical about it all.  And one friend—despite her frequent, almost violent, assertions that the girl we knew in high school was long dead—had mannerisms and assumptions that were so consistent with her former self, talking with her had the feel of a time-travel short story. Considering all the frustration we had experienced 25 years earlier with her, it wasn’t surprising that another friend  later commented “I wanted to grab her husband and ask ‘How do you cope? Do you lock yourself in the basement and scream?'”
Yet by any reasonable measure we, were not the same people. We were all married, several of us for over 18 years; Nate was working on his third marriage. We were all parents. We had mortgages. Over the 18 years of my marriage,  I knew I had changed a lot. Friends in Pittsburgh point out the tangible differences in me over just the past five years. I was a better parent to Jeremiah than I was to Alec, eight years older. I had experienced  professional, social, religious, and personal triumphs and failures. I had lived in Madison, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, exposing me to a far greater cultural, racial, meteorological, and economic diversity than I had ever experienced growing up in Utah. Six years of cognitive therapy had surely changed something in me. I had to conclude that Nate’s divorces, John’s bouts of unemployment, Cindy’s living in Atlanta, Susan’s years of prosecuting sex crimes, Lara coping with her husband’s cancer had, among the multitude of other life events, had similarly changed them.
We were obviously different. We were undeniably the same.
In the 1950s scientists used radioactive traces to estiamte that 98% of our atoms are replaced each year (see NPR story on atom replacement). Materially we are not even close to being the same person. But the organization of that changing matter, from the DNA in our cells to the neural connections in our brains would have been largely similar to what they were in high school.
Searching for a suitable metaphor for personal persistence, I inevitably turned to mathematics to try to find a suitable answer, or at least a metaphor for what we are. Am I a line integral along a particular parameterized path through space-time? Am I a convolution between some my  “self” and the system of the universe? This seemed close but still left me unsatisfied. For example, the assumption of system invariance ignores the important aspect of my modifying this universe-system. I needed a more complex metaphor.
Musing on metaphors of the self, brings to mind a favorite saying from a former mathematics professor of mine:
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of the Social Sciences: Your in-laws can never really who you are since their act of observing you changes who you are.
I believe for “in-laws” there are a variety of substitutions that could be made. In fact, can you get together with any group of associates (friends, colleagues, in-laws) and not be modified by their presence? Of course the essence of quantum mechanics is the wave function.
So I ask, Can we think of ourselves as existential wave functions, akin to the quantum mechanic models of Heisenberg, that must match the boundary of conditions of the external world? When we gather around old friends, don’t they exert boundary conditions on us, boundary conditions similar (but not identical) to what they exerted on us in the past, thus eliciting from us present modes of existence similar (but again, not identical) to the modes exhibited by us in response to their presence in the past? When the group of friends becomes larger, are not the boundary conditions even more constrained, and thus evoking from us even more similar (to them) modes of existence?
The modes of a wave depends not only of the external boundary conditions, but also on the medium of the wave. For my analogy, the wave medium is our constituent self: the pattern of our material existence encoded into our DNA, the structure of our actual cells and organs, our history recorded in the neural connections in our brain. So since my medium is continually evolving, I can never exert the identical modes I did previously in response to a given set of boundary conditions.  But our self is not equally moldable throughout our lives. Obviously our bodies mature as teenagers (and then decay), but our minds also become less plastic as we age. Consequently, while we’ve been continually adding to my personality, the weights assigned to these changes decrease as we age, thus, perhaps the twenty-plus years of personal modifications since the “Tribe” was last together are but mere modulations compared to the personality formations while we were students together.
The “self” is not just a passive accumulation of past experience and response to external conditions, however,  but an active agent in the universe that can choose, in part, how much energy to exert into a particular mode, energy  minimization principles seem to fit well both with my wave theory of existence, and the observed continuity of the self I’m struggling to explain. When at the reunion I put my iPhone on Nate’s stereo dock, I set the music to play David Bowie, not Mary Gauthier, even though these days I listen to the former less than the latter. I assumed that none of my friends would know who Mary Gauthier was and this ignorance would require from me the energy of explanation, possibly even justification. Bowie, on the other hand, required neither explanation nor justification for my friends. Couldn’t it be similar to other aspects of our lives? We revert back to our old, familiar modes so as to minimize the energy we must exert? In fact, does not any sub-group of associates make use of a particular sub-language and mythology based on a common history to minimize the energy required to interact? Should we feel bad that we have different faces for different people? This model would suggest not necessarily.
Am I satisfied with my wave function metaphor with its modes of existence? Not really, but I think it is a good start at explaining the constancy we perceive amidst the change we experience. There are some interesting implications of the model. For instance, you cannot have one self that is portrayed in all circumstances, since each circumstance has a unique set of boundary conditions and thus require a different mode of existence.
Do I think that I’m the same person I was twenty-five years ago. Not at all. But I do think I’m similar, and I think that is good. While I am at times frustrated that I wake up each morning the same, less-than-desirable person (think Tillich, “You Are Accepted”), cannot I also be relieved that there is continuity in myself? Isn’t it good that for all the differences in the paths our lives have taken, Susan finds a “sameness” in me that is pleasant?  And more, wouldn’t I find it more frustrating to not have continuity? Without the continuity of my personality, couldn’t I wake up each morning with a different set of desires (books, music, clothing, for example), incompatible with the set I went to sleep with? (I hear an echo of a David Hume argument in my mind). My daily life retains value today because I’m essentially the same today as I was yesterday. But looking back at myself, I’m very glad that my wave function has, I believe, aged well.
I think my next metaphor might resort to cheese.

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