Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Son, My Buddy

On Father's Day weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of quality one-on-one time with my son. His Cub Scout pack held a 'lock-in' at the Philadelphia Zoo, where he and other scouts would spend Saturday evening through Sunday morning at the zoo, having access to see animals in the evening and the early morning free of crowds, having their time punctuated with some structured games and activities and the thrill of sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor of a cavernous education center in the shadow of a giant plastic tower shaped as a tree. Put another way, between the event and the fact that he has a couple of good buddies in the same scout pack, he was really loving life.

For me, maybe it wasn't quite my bag. Seeing zoo animals at 10pm wasn't exactly on my bucket list, and I had even less enthusiasm for sleeping on a rock hard floor while getting mosquito bitten completely surrounded by hordes of scouts and parents. It was sort of like the wounded soldiers scene from Gone With the Wind, minus the bayonet and rifle wounds. Admittedly, the fact that the day ended at 11:30pm pretty much had me totally exhausted and gassed (I have no idea how my kid with an 8:30pm bedtime managed, it was clearly all adrenaline). Oh yeah, I have to say, you haven't lived until you've had a chance to brush your teeth and wash you face in a public zoo bathroom.

All that being said, I really had a great time hanging out with my son. The two-hour drives down to Philly and back allowed us plenty of chit-chat time, and at seven years old, he's pretty much capable of having conversations around anything and I feel free (maybe more than I should) to speak to mostly speak to as an adult with some humor, joking and sarcasm mixed it.. I enjoyed his company. For example, my GPS has this bad habit of taking me through the most rugged (i.e. dangerous) parts of North Philadelphia whenever we visit, and this time was no different. So we'd enjoy conversations like this:

(Me locking the doors of the car enters a clearly not-so-nice neighborhood)
Daniel: Why did you lock the doors, daddy?
Me: Oh, you know. It's not the safest area here. I just don't want to get carjacked and shot in the head with someone driving off with you. (quickly changing subject) Hey look, I see all these Korean signs here. This must be Koreatown.
Daniel: Daddy, this isn't Koreatown. Everyone here is black.
Me: But how about all these Korean restaurant and stores? If you paid more attention in Korean school, you'd actually be able to read this stuff.
Daniel: This isn't Koreatown. If this is Koreatown, why is there a Domino's Pizza over there?
Me: You're half-Korean. You like pizza, don't you?
Daniel: Yeah.
Me: So there.
Daniel: I'm American-Korean, that's why I like pizza.
Me: Korean-Koreans like pizza. How about harabujee (grandfather)? He likes pizza.
Daniel: Oh yeah.

It's not profound, but these sort of random conversations where we sort of banter and laugh are the best. There were also some teachable opportunities, as I tried to get him to understand that he shouldn't equate black people to bad neighborhoods and street crime. I'm not quite sure how much he understood my schpiel on economic empowerment and job creation, but hopefully some of it took.

I think what I liked about that weekend is that it's proof that we can spent a lot of time with each other and not get on each others' nerves. It also helps that he largely likes the things that I like (well, Cub Scout sleepovers notwithstanding) and happily partakes in the same fast food junk that I like. I appreciate the fact that he actually likes hanging out with me and wants to hang out with me. I'm preparing myself for the teen and even tween years where I'll be helplessly uncool in his eyes, because I know it's coming.

Until then, I'll buddy around with my son, with dreams of this evolving into the cross-country road trip that we'll take someday... provided I can trust him with my car.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Not Your Father's Standard of Living

There are some days that I look at the standard of living I currently provide my family and compare it to that which my parents provided for me, and I scratch my head. My father was a research scientist and my mother was a registered nurse working part-time until I finished elementary school, and full-time afterwards, and I'm grateful that they were able to provide for a relatively comfortable life for me and my brother. We lived in a center hall colonial in a New York metropolitan suburb and somehow they also owned a number of rental properties on the side. They were shrewd in their investments and they were thrifty in their spending, all of which contributed to a financial health which enabled them to both fully fund me and my brother's overpriced college educations as well as my brother's further training to become a physician.

I think I have a pretty good handle of what my parents used to make and I know how much I make - and I can't get it around my head why they/we seemed better off than my family does. Even inflation adjusted and accounting for the fact that my wife is currently making less than my mother was as  part-time nurse, our income is much higher than my parents at their age given my salary significantly outpacing my dad's (side note: if you want to make a higher salary in the pharmaceutical industry, the business side is generally more lucrative than the research side. Right or wrong, it is what it is.) So given our greater income, why is it that:
  • My parents had a bigger house
  • My parents had an additional car
  • My parents had cash on hand to fully fund our college and graduate school educations
  • My parents are comfortably living in retirement
Look, I'm happy for them and it's not as if this is coming from a place of father-son competitiveness. I just don't understand the math. Part of it can be accounted for the extreme difference in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) (e.g. in 1986, it was 109.6, and in 2010 it was 224.9, which implies an almost the price of consumer products has approximately doubled in real terms), part of it has to do with inflated housing costs where we live.and part can be attributed to my wife and I giving more to church and charities. The interesting thing is that this phenomena is probably going to get worse. Much worse.

A recent opinion piece written by Matt Miller in the Washington Post argues that the government has been complicit in this growing tide of screwing the younger generation, most specifically those under 35 years of ageThere are a couple of specific examples highlighted in the article around the differences in the cost of living from yesterday and tomorrow:

1) College Education
2) Infrastructure
3) Health Care / Social Security Entitlements

These three costs haven't hit my generation flush in the face yet, but it will. Ten year from now, I'll have to shell out an ungodly amount for college tuition, the cost increase of which has greatly outpaced the CPI, with increasingly less government (decreased Pell Grants, Stafford Loans and state universities which will no longer be such a great bargain) support. We'll have to, by necessity, start paying through the nose for crumbling infrastructure which can no longer be patched up. And since there seems to be no stomach to make hard decisions around these, we'll continue to fund an even larger hole caused by socialized healthcare and entitlement programs.

Or we can just kick the can down the road and pass the bill to our children. Hey, it's not like that hasn't been done before.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Nursery School Finale

Last Friday, our daughter Sophia celebrated her graduation, or finale, at Christ Church Nursery School. There were no gowns or caps or "pomp and circumstance" music in the air. Instead, the kids, under the guidance of their teacher, provided a program of song and dance for the proud parents.

And I was proud of my daughter, even though in a cold intellectual way, it could be argued there was little reason to be. I mean, nobody ever really fails to graduate nursery school and accolades such as valedictorian and salutatorian and thankfully a far ways away. But perhaps no different than most other children, I've seen her grow up and mature a little intellectually and socially. She's certainly much more comfortable interacting and engaging in verbal give and take with her peers (although my wife would argue that she's gotten too comfortable in the verbal give, a.k.a. sassy, with her).

The celebration was really a recognition of the girls and boys growing up. I saw a glimpse of this when they did a very basic square dance routine when boys and girls stood in lines opposite each other and she hooked arms and spun with the only Asian boy in the class, Richard. It's ironic, most parents are terrified of our children discovering the opposite sex, though when done as 4-year olds, we find it irresistibly cute and encourage it. This was an exchange my daughter and I had afterwards:

Me: Who was that boy that you danced with?
Sophia: Richard.
Me: Is that your boyfriend?
Sophia: Yeah, I guess.
Me: He's sort of cute, isn't he?
Sophia: He's not cute. He's a boy.

Oh well. But give me eight years and I'll have my shotgun oiled up and ready to go.

Some may think it's silly to hold graduations for nursery school, but I like my daughter reveling and self-appreciating milestones such as these. I want her to recognize that there are milestones that she is going to hit in the course of her lifetime that she should rightly savor. It's good to take a step back, lift a glass of pink lemonade, treat yourself to a cupcake or a nice meal and bask in a good day which the Lord has made. God-willing, there will be many others for her to experience. And given this world which tends to minimize and leave the smaller blessings in life unappreciated, I'd rather her get in the habit of being overjoyful than perpetually unimpressed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Too Cool For Facebook

Facebook has been in the news recently, and pretty much all of it has been bad. The company is still reeling from its disastrous IPO, which offered the stock at $38 only to see it plummet to its current (at press time) $27 with accusations swirling that Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg knew about that the shares were overpriced and dumped them. Destroying $30 billion in market cap in less than a span of two weeks is pretty tough to do.

And this isn't even the worst news for Facebook. What's more troubling is that there's a growing population which is finding Facebook "uncool", which is pretty much the death knell. While decent, there's nothing extraordinary of the platform itself - what makes Facebook money is advertising revenue, and in order to generate advertising revenue, Facebook needs to (1) have people actively use it and add more personal data and information, (2) get more and more people on the network. Anything that jeopardizes those two factors is a direct risk towards Facebook's revenue model.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, teens are starting to opt for other social networking platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. Some of the reasons of the preference range from the other services being more private and intimate, with Tumblr allowing for more post creativity. Both services, in contrast to Facebook, allow for users to use fictional aliases which provide complete anonymity (though in theory, you could create an alias in Facebook, except it would it complicated for people to identify you for connecting purposes - I'm looking at you, Mr. Ethan Levy).

To be fair, the article makes it clear that Facebook is still in pretty good shape. Indeed, it's still the most prominent online community for teens, and from a disposable income perspective, it still has a stranglehold over the most lucrative age segments which are key to its ad revenue.

What I also found interesting is how disgusted some teens are by the prospect of their parents being on the same platform. I can appreciate the fundamental "uncoolness" of having your mom or dad posting things on your wall such as "It's chilly outside, make sure you wear your sweater" or "Don't forget to take the garbage out when you get home" or "My cute little boy! I remember when you were such a funny toddler and used to drink out of the toilet."

Of course, it freaks teens out to know that their parents have ulterior motives in wanting to keep tabs on them. It's the equivalent of the nightmare of having your mother teach at the school that you attend. In reality, Facebook enables privacy controls which allows privacy attributes to be assigned to every individual post, so in theory a teen could make, "I'm just dying for a Smashburger" visible to his parents but make "Who's up for scoring some beer tonight?" visible to a smaller circle of friends.

It could be argued that the preference for Tumblr and Twitter is just laziness around not wanting to configure those privacy controls; that it's simply easier to not live in the same proverbial online universe as your parents do. But I do think the core of it is really a perceived coolness factor which is immediately lost once parents "like" or use something. When it comes to fads and tastes (I'm excluding vices or age-restricted privileges such as drinking alcohol or driving a car), there tends to be a desire for the younger generation to have their own thing, to not simply piggy-back on their father's or grandfather's wave. When membership, not functionality, is what makes a social network great, it's becomes incumbent for companies like Facebook to regain the mojo of their "coolness" factor - and those sorts of challenges are complex.

For me, I'm just going to have to keep playing the cat and mouse game and adapt to the popular social networking sites so I can keep staking my children.