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David's Saga: a continuing series on work today and related issues. Episode 15: Giving Wisely

In the previous episode, David and Susan had quite the fireside chat: from whether work-life balance is overrated to whether their mismatched sex drives could be fixed. In the end, they changed the topic to something easier: trying to figure out the wisest way to volunteer.

David opened the discussion: "The foundational question is whether it's better to serve the most needy which is what pulls at your heartstrings, or to serve those with the greatest potential to profit, like when medics on the battlefield triage, allocating their limited resources to the people they're most likely to save."

"But when there are people starving in Africa, you can justify helping gifted kids in America?"

"Actually, yes. Help the gifted and you're more likely to create a ripple effect. The gifted have the most potential to be wise leaders in government, nonprofits, companies. They're the ones with the best chance of curing cancer, of preventing me from getting a third heart attack, or any heart attack."

"I can't ignore the most vulnerable. Do you really think Jesus was misguided when he said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me?"

"Fine. You serve the least among us and I'll serve the most among us and you'll feel good about yourself and I'll have done more to improve humankind."

Susan realized she wasn't going to get anywhere with David, so she switched from strategy to tactics. "I think I should volunteer at a nearby public school that has mainly poor kids."

"You're going to give them piano lessons? That's just what will most help them out of poverty."

"What if I directed a play there, a musical, maybe something political like Rent or even Les Mis after school. Even you've always said that theatre can be transformative."

"True, hearing those lines again and again penetrates. And the teamwork and the poise, and it's so motivating. I've never seen kids work as hard as when working on a play."

"And not just the actors: the set builders, the prop person, even the ticket sellers. Okay, I'm going to see if I can find a school that will let me do it. I still have a teaching license so I'll bet some school will."

"Actually, I think a principal with half a brain will be thrilled."

"Okay David, what are you going to do to volunteer?"

"Like I found out at work, you sure can make a big difference by volunteering for some government lobbying group. Government has huge power, especially today."


"Yeah, but that's my day job. I should do something different. Maybe something local so I can see the benefit, like create a Mentor Match website where adults and gifted kids could sign up to mentor kids."

"Yeah, but is Sage Valley the place on earth with the greatest need, excuse me, the place you can make the biggest difference?"


"How about this? I try to raise say $100,000 and then issue a challenge to the membership of the Society for Neuroscience--that's 46,000 of the world's leading brain scientists. Something like, "The first scientist who can reliably predict IQ from a genome or brain scan would win the $100,000 prize.'"

"Why that?"

Because it's not politically correct to study intelligence so the government, foundations, and biotech  companies aren't studying it. The $100,000 prize would incent scientists to study that very important thing."

"Why is it so important?"

"Because if we can understand the biological basis of intelligence, we may be able to develop a cure for mental retardation--a huge percentage of violent felons in prison have an IQ well below average. And that knowledge could also be used to enhance normal intelligence. While intelligence can be used for good and for evil, there's no question that a smarter populus would end up being a net good for humankind."

"Yeah, that's what the Nazis said."

"There's a world of difference between developing a drug that a person or a prospective parent could elect to take to ensure her child had normal intelligence than the Nazis who wanted to sterilize people, kill people, to create a master race."

"You're dreaming."

"After seeing that my just writing a white paper changed health care for every American, I'm in the mood to keep dreaming big. You go and direct Rent, I'll go and try to raise some money."

"David, I'm actually enjoying this sort of deeper conversation. We haven't done it in a long time. How about we do it again soon, maybe even tomorrow night? Any idea what you might like to talk about?"

"How about the future?"

"Until tomorrow."

I hope to post the next episode late tonight or tomorrow morning.

David's Saga: A continuing series on work today...and related topics. Episode 14: The Marriage

In the previous episode, David and Susan settled into life in Sage River, doing their jobs remotely. Less stressed, they were able to work on their parenting skills.

Next, they turned to their marriage. Sitting by the fire, Susan began. "You know, we've become more like roommates than anything else."

"I just care more about work than you do. We only have a certain number of heartbeats. I believe life is best-led when we spend as many of them as possible contributing, being productive."

"That's just too Calvinist for me. I need to leave room for pleasure. If I work nonstop like you, I'll burn out."

"I did have two heart attacks, you'll recall."

"Shouldn't that have been a wakeup call?"

"It was, for a couple weeks, but then you somehow forget. Or you think, "Better a short but very productive life than a long and happy but less contibutory one. I mean, I could be happy spending all day hiking with the dog, watching comedies, eating, having sex..."

"That's one thing we don't have."

"I don't know if it's just that my sex drive is lower than yours or that I'd simply rather be working."

"That scares me, David."

"Whatever the reason, that's who I am. You know it, I know it. We've tried everything: positions, fantasies, how-to books, toys, porn, sex therapist: 'Communicate your needs better, make date nights, light candles.' Same advice you get in Cosmo and Redbook but it just doesn't work for us. Remember when we walked out of the therapist's office, you said, "For our $150, we'd probably get more benefit from retail therapy?"

"So what do we do?"

"What we are doing: accepting each other as-is. I've read a ton that says that mismatched sex drive is the most difficult sex problem to cure. We've worked hard at it for a decade and all it's done is made our relationship worse. I think we're wisest to follow The Serenity Prayer: accept what you can't change."

 "That is a tough one to accept, David."

"Is there really only one definition of marriage? One definition of love?  Susan, do you love me?"

"I'm not sure what love is."

"You know I love you and what that means for me is that I'm always glad to see you, be around you, do the things we enjoy doing together. And we have the memories of our years together. It gives our relationship gravitas. Isn't that enough?"

After a long silence, Susan changed the topic-- to the future: their future, their son Adam's future, and more broadly, the future of jobs, the future of the world.

I hope to post the next episode tonight. 

David's Saga: A continuing series on work today: Episode 13: Life Away from the Big City

In the previous episode, fed up with the Bay Area, David and a reluctant Susan decide to move.

And they had geographic freedom. David's big win at work enabled him to convince his boss to let him work remotely--He'd only occasionally have to come to the San Francisco office. And Susan had only a few piano students so she wouldn't lose much income by moving.

They decided on Sage River, Washington (a fictitious name for a real city,) an hour from Seattle but light-years away in feel: green, safe, and where a nice home costs $200K. Plus, it was a tight community. For example, nearly every week, there was a fun fundraiser for some good cause. And importantly, there was a friendly public school, with 15 or 20 kids in each class, and teachers who had a better sense of perspective than those Bay Area teachers who viewed algebra in elementary school as more important than learning how to estimate, the details of the Peloponnesian Wars more important than real-world one-on-one conflict resolution, who prioritized academic rigor over developing creativity and kindness let alone enjoying the oh-too-transient breathing space of childhood.

The transition from San Francisco to Sage River was easier than they had feared:

David had no trouble working from home: The files he worked with were as available in Sage River as in San Francisco. He met with colleagues by phone and Skype. Whatever distractions were caused by working at home were compensated for by his zero-minute commute. No matter how much he had told himself that traffic is out of his control and so should stay calm, he just couldn't. By the time he had arrived at his desk each morning in San Francisco, he was already a little dissipated.

Susan also discovered the wonders of Skype and taught her existing piano students that way. And she attracted new students with a YouTube video she created on how to learn to play the piano by ear. The method was simple yet effective: By trial and error, plunk out songs you can hum--like Mary Had a Little Lamb. Each trial gives the student's feedback and soon most students are learning to play by ear and via a much more pleasant process than learning to read sheet music and doing Hanon exercises.

And because life was simpler, David and Sandy had more time and energy and so, for example, they were able to focus more on how to deal with Adam's ADHD diagnosis. 

They realized they were being defensive in summarily dismissing it. No, they still didn't think the answer was to make Adam take amphetamines for the rest of his life. But they agreed that a more unified front on parental boundary-setting was called for. So they agreed to, for example, when Adam threw a fit when asked to take his own cereal, they wouldn't give in. Instead, they'd say something like "Adam, I know you don't want to act like a baby. You want to be a big boy. Well, big boys take their own cereal. I know you can do it."  And if that doesn't work, "I'm disappointed in you, Adam. I know you want to do better. Well, if you take your cereal, you can have breakfast, otherwise you'll have to stay hungry." Parenting by guilt, with reward and punishment added as-needed.  And if despite all that, Adam continued to tantrum, they agreed they'd ignore it--giving him attention would only positively reinforce his bad behavior. That was their mantra: "parenting by guilt." David and Susan weren't then perfect parents but good-enough parents.

Next, it was time to look at their marriage.

I hope to post the next episode tonight.

David's Saga: A continuing series on work today. Episode 12: An ADHD Diagnosis and a $300 Dog-Off-Leash Ticket

In the previous episode, David had a huge win at work:  His white paper led to Congress's passing a single-payer health care bill, signed into law by President Hillary Clinton.

Alas, David had little time to bask--there was a problem at home: His son Adam's teacher had referred him for special ed testing and the diagnosis came back: attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

David and Susan had always known Adam was an active boy. They had observed him in class and saw that Adam had a hard time sitting still but David said, "I' don't remember having to sit for so long and do so much academic stuff in first grade. They hardly even have any recess." They considered Adam to be a normal active boy.

But when the school called David and Susan to attend a meeting with Adam's teacher, a special education teacher, the school psychologist, and the principal, they were sobered. 

The school psychologist explained:  "Perhaps in the old days, when 1st grade curriculum was more loosey-goosey, Adam's not paying attention, his distracting the other kids, could have been tolerated but now with the Common-Core Curriculum's ratcheted-up standards, we just can't let it go--not for his sake and not for the class's. We recommend he see a psychiatrist for therapy and at least a trial on Ritalin." 

His teacher nodded. The special education teacher nodded. The principal nodded. David and Susan didn't nod. And David, as only David would, responded: 

"You put active boys on a Ritalin leash because it makes life easy for you. Sure, you want every kid to be a compliant little worksheet doer but if you made the lessons more interesting than "Do problems 1-48 the odds" and allowed active boys to move around more, you wouldn't need to drug them. Put my son on an amphetamine to make your tenured life easier? No fucking way!"

David felt a bit of that pressure in his chest but took a couple of deep breaths and it went away. And David stormed out with Susan, embarrassed, following. Susan said, "Let's take the dog for a walk in the park. We can be calmer there." 

At the park, David said, "Let's let Casanova off the leash."

"David, you know it's dogs on leash here. Don't."

"Screw it, "David said. "Silly rule."

David and Susan agreed there was nothing so wrong with Adam that he needed to be drugged. Rather, that overly constraining school with its passivity-insisting teachers just wasn't a fit. But they felt they couldn't send Adam to either of the other two local public schools: Most of the kids there are from deprived backgrounds so the curriculum had to be dumbed-down--Adam would learn far less than he could and should. And those schools simply were not safe.: "Knife fights, razor-blade fights...in an elementary school?!"

Their musings were rudely interrupted by a man's voice: "Stop right there!" It was a park policeman. "Your dog is not on a leash." 

"Brilliant deduction," David sneered. 

"I'm sorry officer." said Susan.

"Put that dog on the leash." And David did. "Now let me see your driver's license." And he wrote David a ticket.

David couldn't restrain himself: "I can't believe you're doing this. You couldn't make it as a regular cop so you're showing how powerful you are, Mr. Park Policeman?!  What this going to cost me?"

"I don't know."

"Bullshit. You know."

"$300. "

$300!"  He felt a bit of that chest pressure again, so he took deep breaths, and it went away.

After the cop left, David said, "Susan, we gotta move out of the Bay Area. This place is crazy: the schools, the traffic, the crime,  the keep-up-with-the-Joneses, and shit like this--$300 for having your dog off the leash in an empty park?!"

"And lose your job? My piano teaching clients? And make Adam change schools?"

I hope to post the next episode tonight.

David's Saga: A continuing series on work today. Episode 11: Data Analyst as Hero

In the previous episode, while recovering from his second heart attack, David decided he wanted to abandon underwear marketing in favor of a non-profit career. And after volunteering at Physicians for a National Health Program, he was offered a job there--although at half what was earning as an underwear marketer. He just had to convince his wife.

And he was scared to try. After all, before heart attack 2, Susan had still been cracking the whip: "Just get another marketing job, David. Trying to change careers will mean a big pay cut. We can't afford that."

But much to his surprise, Susan needed no convincing. If for guilt alone, David's second heart attack made Susan realize that, lest she become one of the 6+ widows for every widower (and early,) she shouldn't force the husband she claims to love to do very-full-time work he hates and finds exhausting. She shouldn't push him back into the yoke, back to being a beast of burden.

So without a mote of observable resistance, Susan said, "Of course, David. I'll support whatever you choose to do."

David knew it was a mercy pass, like how someone might sleep with a person s/he feels sorry for. But that wasn't going to stop him, so he gratefully accepted both her get-out-of-jail-free card and the job as a data analyst for Physicians for a National Health Program.

Although he now worked longer hours than when he was an underwear marketer, using every IQ point to find nuggets supporting single-payer health amid the mountains of data, he hardly noticed the time and came home night after night no worse than pleasantly tired.

And just six months later, all his hard work paid off. He submitted a white paper to his boss showing, convincingly, that the nation's health--from rich people to poor ones--would be far better under a single-payer health plan. And with the insurance companies out of the picture, the cost would be lower. His boss was ecstatic, immediately gave David's white paper to the lobbyists, who in turn used it as the core of their presentations to key members of Congress. And just one year later---a blink-of-the-eye in government time--a single-payer health plan passed both houses of Congress and President Hillary Clinton eagerly signed it.

So David, an obscure data nerd, nearly single-handedly revolutionized health care in the United States of America.

His salary was doubled so he was now making what he had as an underwear marketer, but now he was doing work he considered vital. Next, David turned his data-analytic skills to figuring out the best ways to implement single-payer health care. All was right with his world, at least with his work world.

I hope to post the next episode by 11 AM today. 

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