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May 24, 2011

As I watch my younger son transform his 235-pound post adolescent body into 260+ pounds of hard college athlete, I saw the grim focus of someone aching for control.  When I see my older son spend hours in a never-ending assault on impossible perfection playing the French Horn, I see that same fatalistic focus. Aspiring for control is at the core of what makes us human. We educate to gain knowledge to control what’s around us; we level mountains and forests to control the landscape. And every four years, a gaggle of egomaniacs blather, pontificate and pettifog to control us.

To me, the decade after puberty is the time when humans lash out in the most aggressively open ended attempts at control. For the young, the stakes are greater – I know a young man who found control by becoming an Army Ranger (several years after graduating from Yale), and a young woman who asserted control by choosing Amherst as her college over Yale (where she had gained Early Action Admittance). Conversely, the crushing failure to control your destiny by college rejection, losing the job you wanted or the spouse you fantasized about is especially excruciating for the young.

Why do we need control?  When tornadoes and floods and a bad winter completely take away control, what follows is not the suicidal depression of bereft survivors, but gratitude to have maintained control over their heartbeats.  But in a society that has been layered up with any number of methods for personal control – sports, education, career, social hierarchy, etc. – it’s pretty easy to be distracted by the trees of good grades, a cool job, or even totally awesome shoes and forget about the fact that, at the end of the day, none of us has ultimate control over that beating heart – the time we have alive.

I write all of this because, yes, I am a control freak, albeit one with a sense of humor about it (humorless freaks call ourselves “reasonable” and “prudent”).  And despite the desire to control virtually everything the sense of my lack of control is so embedded in me that even my most earnest efforts are halo-ed in ironic low expectations.

That anomaly is directly attributable to my “formative years”. I grew up in the classic Mad Men, alcohol-infused environment where the family’s control over the resumé, the neighborhood, and shopping at Brooks Brothers was vital, but I knew from a very early age that almost everything else had the real potential for chaos.

It is a cliché but a true one, that notes, “Children of alcoholics guess at what normal is.”  Simulating normalcy via flailing attempts at control when your life started in chaos is absurd. Typically I have confused exhaustion for control – the sense that if I am fully spent at the end of the day, it can serve as a substitutionary state for control.  If I’m exhausted beyond further effort at least I know I did as much as I could.  This is thin gruel when realizations inevitably fall short of expectations, but when you are truly exhausted, there aren’t too many options other than acquiescence.

Realizing that I had eaten the equivalent of one extra Milano cookie a day, every day, for 30 years and those calories ended piling on over 100 pounds onto a normally pudgy bod, any expectation of personal control I might have at 50 was laughable. At first I didn’t even acknowledge how in denial I was – I bought a very expensive Kevlar canoe, thinking that if I had the canoe, I could connect better with my body.

But the great thing about making idiotic misjudgments is that they are idiotic and don’t work.  If you survive them, you pretty much don’t repeat them.  Specifically, at least. Yes I ended up deleting most of the poundage, while only using the canoe once in a decade.

And as this gigantic bulge of demography called “Boomer” passes through the snake called “our time on earth,” it is now a majority of us born after World War II but before Vietnam who are discovering that despite the exquisite machinations of control freak focus we put over our children, they are who they are.

The double Ivy-league legacy ends up being rejected by any-Ivy-anything and going to schools that could accept his or her academic record.  The kids that were always testing and trying to gain control by self-endangerment (drugs, casual  sex, tattoos) typically need to blow out and bottom out despite every attempted parental control method. As those extensions our egos manifest themselves, despite all our efforts at control, we are left with ourselves.

So I work out about 100 minutes a day, six or seven days a week, to give myself a sense of control but also to have control over that period of my day.  I have about 8 or 10 people who work for me to extend my control into the things that I care about in the workaday world.  But ultimately, probably because Don and Betty were my parents, I have the abiding, disquieting, and ultimately sad realization that whatever control I might have over the incidentals, the ultimate control over almost everything else is not possible.  Ultimately, as an architect, I end up helping others gain control over a part of their lives they might not be able to see potential in – the physical structures they use.. But I have no illusion that the control I might express over a design lives beyond its initial realization. Gravity, weather and whim change everything as soon as the paint is dry.

Hopefully our lives are the essence of good intentions. Even the most deluded control freak knows that major league batting averages are a far rosier outcome (perhaps .a 27% success rate) than life usually rewards all our best efforts at control. But Quixotic effort has its own reward in failure.

The irony is that the more control you gain, you come to realize the less of it you really have.  Astrophysicists were thrilled when the Hubble telescope was upgraded so dramatically that they could actually see so far into space that they expected to see evidence of the great après Big Bang slowdown in the expanding universe. They were devastated to realize that despite all calculations made by so many to describe the mechanism for cosmic control that predicted a slow-down, the universe was actually speeding up, (at a bizarre rate of speed). Only by being so certain could they understand how little they knew…

Kinda where a lot of us are.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Jenkins permalink
    May 25, 2011 2:28 pm

    One of your best posts, Duo. There’s a lot to think about here. How do we help our kids to harness the energy of their tremendous desire for control? How do we motivate ourselves to take action when we realize how difficult it is to change the world or even change ourselves? I liked your story of buying the canoe and then realizing that hard, consistent workouts were the key to controlling your weight. It’s at that point that many of us would give up. You didn’t and that’s impressive.

  2. jon saltzberg permalink
    May 26, 2011 7:45 pm

    I admire your courage in taking an unflinching look at control in our lives; I myself am afraid of looking at this issue in my life because, when we’re kids, it doesn’t lie that far from violence; how do we, as boys, try to get control in our lives over other boys? through beating each other up; or at least that’s how it was in the culture I came from; and I’m scared of fistfighting, I think…I think that’s one of the reasons I have so much admiration for you; it’s that you’re able to look at your weaknesses without judging yourself or beating yourself up, something I hope to be able to do with myself at some point.

    As for the Brooks Brothers materialism you allude to in your post, I want to remind you of what the great actress Myrna Loy, who was a great movie star in the 1930’s and 1940’s once said, “Life isn’t about having and getting, it’s about being and becoming.” I think she has something there.


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