Musings on my 30th Birthday

The Four Failures

Anyone who looks at the list of Musings topics will immediately realize that I haven't had a good year. Physical, social, and cognitive things all combined into a debilitating mess. I've written about that already. Things are much more stable now, but not well. One of the problems that remains is my viewpoint of my life as abject personal and professional failure, a problem of Worth. Objectively, this is very difficult to call true, but my brain is stronger than rationality. So I've decided to write about these problems and concerns, that perhaps I can follow the advice of my therapist to realize the positive parts too.

The inaugural speech of the President occurred the day before my birthday, and the State of the Union approaches. Given that, and the fact that Bush the 2nd said "freedom" 27 times in his address, I was reminded of a different President, one I respect much more and one the current regime much less. A few years ago, Harvard Magazine ran an article calling FDR "a traitor to his class" by reigning in the excesses of Kapitalism. Even seventy years later, the successors of the robber barons have not forgiven him, as this article demonstrates. Delivered January 6, 1941, the Four Freedoms speech is one of his most well known. Interestingly, most of this State of the Union address deals with military preparations, for the war foreseen in Europe. Only a small part at the end deals with the reasons, the freedoms for every human. Reminded of these Four Freedoms, I decided to organize my life into the Four Failures. The next four short pieces expand on the concepts. I'll list the Freedoms here, and you can read on for the Failures.

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom of every person to worship God
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Failure of Expression: Dirty Old Men and the Marriage Market

Julia was my teaching assistant this summer. You can see her in a couple of the birthday party pictures. She's tall, striking, Chinese, and dresses well. Also, she and her boyfriend are quite happy together. We were friends before, so to plan or discuss issues or just chat, we would go to dim sum lunch in Chinatown, as an American boy and Chinese girl, both dressed in fine business casual clothes. This is not very common; on at least two occasions, I was the only white guy in the place. As you might expect, people stare a bit. Expressions ranged from bemused to hostile, generally with the unspoken question "What is she doing with him?" The answer is just having lunch, of course, but imaginations can create entire untoward worlds. Most people just looked. Some went further. Once, two twentysomething Chinese boys at the next table pretty much stared at Julia through the meal. I joked that if I got up that one of them would ask her out. That's amusing, but not who made the worst impression. It was the Dirty Old Men. Every town has some, maybe married, maybe not. They sit in the back of a place, and consider it their right to gawk at young female flesh. Or in this case, leer with disapproval. Even I, as her escort, was a bit uncomfortable.

Am I destined to become just a lonely, Dirty Old Man? Will I succeed in my search for a partner? Not all the Dirty Old Men are single, though that subgroup is likely the most pathetic. Actually, most are not. Maybe they looked for the wrong thing. Maybe they settled for less. Maybe they had it but it fell away. Given the number of American divorces, lots of people fall away. On the other hand, divorcees succeeded on the Marriage Market.

What is the Marriage Market? It's just taking the dominant theory in America right now, Economic Man, and applying it to a new problem. In the Marriage Market, every person has a value as a spouse, that value is known or calculatable, and people make rational decisions. We could obfuscate things and class them up with terminology and symbols, like the economists, but I don't think that's necessary. Everyone knows the market is the way. Even Catholics tell me that. As with all good economic advances, this was invented at the University of Chicago, by Gary Becker. Researchers have worked on the topic for thirty years. This piece talks about male preference for subordinate partners, and this paper proposes advances with Canadaian examples. This Australian article provides a solid short summary. Here's a fundamental statement from that piece:

People like to believe in the "someone special for me" myth, and to some extent it is true - people have different tastes, and what works for some will not work for others. However the simple fact is that if you got 100 men and 100 women to interact, and asked the men to rank the women ("which one would you rather spend the rest of your life with"), and asked the women to rank the men, you would get a very high correlation. People won't admit this, especially once they are married, but it is true.

Under Marriage Market theory, I am currently very near the bottom of the rank list. The lack of results are impossible to ignore. I am not married or dating; nobody calls me attractive. On the Marriage Market, I am a failure. To avoid becoming a Dirty Old Man, I must change my market, improve my score, and/or reduce my expectations to match my standing. This is a cause for great introspection, and perhaps outside assistance.

Failure of Worship: The Primacy of Obedience

Occasionally, I tune my television to EWTN. That channel is a very influential part of Catholicism's public square, and at the very least I should know what's going on. This will not become a rant about the channel, though if you want one sometime, ask me about the Twelve Fruits Mass. Rather, here are two stories which illustrate a view of Catholicism.

First, a personal email I sent while watching a program on October 10. "I just switched on EWTN, because their listing right now was a show called "Your Vocation." The woman, Mrs. Mount, and pastor (in full cassock) described her vocation as, in order, wife and mother, supernumerary in Opus Dei, then work at Catholic Distance University. Ms. Mount is describing a story of a woman in Wyoming, a "wife and mother", who used the University. She made sure to say wife and mother first. I'm now scared. Is this what my church offers young smart females?"

Second, a comment from one of the presenters, Benedict Groeschel. I was watching Sunday Night Live on December 19. Fr. Groeschel is an old bearded man, in a grey robe; his guest was a member of the Sisters of Life, dressed in full blue habit. He was speaking about letters he received after a recent program. "They had another idea in their minds and they heard that. They didn't hear what you said. I'm sorry to say it seems to be a problem of more conservative people. ... That's not helping the church, not when people have a very quick trigger finger."

Why did I pick those two examples? They talk about Catholicism as Obedience, the growing normative understanding. Everyone must maintain discipline in all dogmatic and practical aspects. The letters to Sunday Night Live are just a side effect - a bit annoying, because the writers jumped to conclusions, but the idea of correction is encouraged. There is a strict hierarchy; as someone reminded me last month, "Priests should always be addressed as Father, since they are higher in God's Plan of Salvation." Additionally, all introductions of modernity should be avoided. The Tridentine Mass is preferred. Music should be is Gregorian Chant, or at the very least music from no later than the 18th century. If the Novus Ordo must be used, the primary focus should be exact translation of Latin, not understanding by the faithful. Issues of exactness, such as not using blue cloths in church, are cause for celebration. Sexual issues are primary in importance. Defined roles are important; women are in habits and orders, or wives and mothers. As various Bishops stated during the campaign, abortion is the only issue that matters in politics. Contraception is the most important issue in the lives of the faithful. Despite what St. Paul wrote, Obedience is the highest virtue. Our Pope told the Jesuits as much.

The shining examples of this movement are Opus Dei. They have great discipline, even literally - mortifying the self. They thoughtfully provided for the total separation of males and females in their New York building, even during prayer. They have been rewarded with power and influence and special status outside normal church structures. Their founder was canonized very quickly, a symbol of his and his movement's appropriateness. I have not accepted this new understanding, and so Catholicism will move on without me. Will I be able to remain in the American Catholic church in twenty years? I am not sure. Will I even want to?

Failure of Want: Professional Nothingness

I was not made to be a research statistician. I was not made to be a professor. This is quite disappointing. When I was 16, I wanted to be a math professor, to live the quiet solitude of upper middle class life, the simplicity of reading and lecturing and grading. A few years later, I realized that statistics, model building, was my vocational calling, but I still wanted to be a professor. Even while working, I wanted to return, get hooded, and settle into the academic life. Since both my parents were high school teachers, and my father an adjunct professor, tenured professor would continue the American dream.

Instead, I struggled through first-year coursework, had to take remedial mathematics, barely made the dissertation proposal deadline, and soon will have to apply for an extension to graduate. That's not failure, per se, but certainly nothingness. In the annals of research statistics, I might get a single paper out of my dissertation, a little footnote. My teaching isn't bad, but that doesn't matter. Teaching doesn't get you Assistant Professor jobs. It doesn't get you citations, or a name, or tenure. And besides, it's not like I've won any awards. One or two or five compliments a term don't really mean much; they can't go on CVs. Meaningless and worthless they are without the medal.

Sure, I have the tools to become a great businessman (assuming I can get the happy and healthy in order). Yet it's difficult to describe my lack of success in the proofs, what matters in the professor world, as anything but failure.

Failure of Fear: Life and Death

While 30 in America is a celebrated day, and the milestone where young adulthood truly ends, it used to be a much bigger deal. In 1850, approximately half of all babies born in the United States did not reach their 30th birthday, and according to the best Census statistics, life expectancy was about 40. That was an improvement; Medieval life expectancy was about 30-32, in New Testament times maybe 25. Jesus had an longer than average life, actually. In India, average age at death even in 1920 was only around 25. While infant mortality improvement accounts for much of this upgrade, diseases and medicine help everyone. In 1900, a white male American of 10 could expect to live about 50 more years; now it's a little over 60. The actuarial tables give me somewhere around 45 more circuits round the sun.

I cite this first to extol the virtues of modern life. A world where populations have to deal with obesity, or can cross a continent in one day, is so strange to our experience that we struggle greatly with the ramifications.

I cite this second to talk about the fragility of modern life. Back in May, I had a moment of fragility. Around 8 PM, I was returning from a store via the Ryan, driving safely around 50 mph in the right line. People who drive that road realize my mistake. An 18-wheeler didn't see me and shifted from the center right lane. I thought he was very close, but didn't know how close until I got clipped. The back bumper of my car fall apart, and I took a spin, winding up in the center left lane. During the moment when I spun facing traffic, I realized that I was but one heartbeat away from finding out about the promise. For whatever reason, my number wasn't pulled that evening. I would up facing basically forward, uninjured, and the cleanup crew commented on my good fortune. Looking at the point of impact, another 18 inches forward would have blown my tire, putting me into the wall. At least two drivers swerved around me; any of them get distracted by the radio or phone or coffee, if only for a heartbeat, and I don't have a birthday party.

Getting hit by a truck, in and of itself, is not failure. What is failure is that I was, and am, at least sometimes afraid of death. If I had better faith, I would not have this fear.

Failure: A Summary

If you had asked me for my life goals exactly on my 20th birthday, I would have given you five: Ph. D., marriage, tenure, solid spiritual life, and a happy death. Ten years later, I have accomplished zero. I'm a thirty year old student who doesn't make $20,000 a year. Though I've bounced around on the marriage question, finally making the call only a year and a half ago, I've never been kissed. I likely can't even get a tenure-track position. I'm not following the seemingly normative faith pattern. I'm afraid of dying. On any decent scale, zero out of five is not success.

This page has gone to extremes. That was the point; I wrote negatively to try to remove the causticness from my system. The page is supposed to be Drain-O for my troubled soul. We'll see how it takes, as I enter Lent and the months of my melancholy. As I write on Fat Tuesday, the fatigue and darkness have begun to affect me. No human knows what will arise between now and Easter Sunday, certainly not me. I strive to retain the joy of my party day, or at least an objective outlook. Will the Joy win? or the Failures? I do not know.


Written between 21 January and 8 February 2005.

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