In the Age of Big Data, Some Little Data

Those little data points

We live in an age of Big Data. I get that. Nate Silver, Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt — data rock stars. Big Data is like a Big Vinnie — the serious mob enforcer. And like Big Vinnie it has a habit of getting us into strange waters.

Now Big Data tells us useful stuff — that we are marrying later, putting off having kids, living longer, retiring later, getting sicker.

I don’t do numbers as a rule of sanity, but lately my thoughts have turned unexpectedly to certain numbers that, when strung together, are numbers that inform. I’m not talking Big Data here. These are minor data points that might otherwise go unnoticed without a little data visualization.

Let’s consider a few data points in a bigger data set, the “delay of marriage” numbers, and what they might mean individually — no predictions or major causation — just experiential observations.

Age 47: The wedding — 10 years older than bride, no sweat (assuming you are in reasonably good health and physically robust). Mustn’t forget, however, that weddings are a test of physical endurance without food (for the bride and groom) and with lots of dancing and drinking.

Age 49: Time for kids — past time. The physical endurance required for weddings becomes little more than a 5k walk compared to the ultra Marathon of birthing and parenting. Dad-to-be may get to count and time contractions (gets to write down those numbers) and Mom-to-be will get to experience those contractions (every one of them). And then there are the hours of sleep (usually less than 4); diapers (gadzillions) — the numbers add up so quickly in this gathering data storm.

Age 49.5: Taking stock of the career path (weighed against the 18 years you will have to prepare for the college cosmic cash crunch) and deciding to reinvent the self (make some decent money) which means that at less than 20 years from traditional retirement age, you are starting to build wealth from basically zero.

Age 50: And before you know it, Dad has stumbled through this milestone just in time for the kid to get up and rumble around. Keep in mind you are now trying to outrun someone who is nearly half a century younger than you are. Not a fair match. And still only 4 hours sleep.

Age 54: That grand rite of passage — first day of school. You look around at the throng of very little people — all pretty much the same age lining up for kindergarten or pre-k or whatever counts as the first day. You raise your eyes to see the parents hovering helplessly over their cherishables, and you realize that there is no one in the parent throng even remotely “of your generation.” You will achieve even greater clarity when at pick-up one day, some cheery 28-year-old mom will say to your tiny student as she points in your direction, “ Oh, look, your Grandpa is here!

Age 54.5- Child’s first pet — After a series of hamsters, gerbils, lizards, fish (all creatures with remarkably short life spans), their sudden demise will give old Dad the opportunity to explain mortality to a 5-year-old multiple times and to stake out a family pet cemetery amid the hostas. You can consider it a chance to refine your death “elevator” pitch (useful later at a more personal level when child achieves adult status).

Age 56: All these pets are delaying tactics for the inevitable begging for a puppy (at about age 7). And before addressing the “Great Dog Issue,” one comment on the tiny pets. Do not (I repeat, DO NOT!!) even consider the cute little grow-a-frog kits that will find their way into your mailbox or inbox. The little data point to remember here is 15 — those little African frogs live to be 15–20 years old (assuming it doesn’t get eaten by a sibling) which means you still may be cleaning and feeding froggie when you are past 70. And no escape through “return to the wild.” These are lab bred frogs and they will die in minutes if released into the stream across the street. But go ahead and test your conscience — and don’t forget to get your story straight for the kid in college.

Age 56+: Now for doggie data points — this is critical, mark them down. Your child may be 7 or so when you give in to the relentless dog quest — usually after the child promises to walk and feed and play with the dog every single day. This promise will melt faster than snow on the car hood in the sun — that is an absolute fact. Given the probable life span of the dog (12 years or more), you will be walking the dog maybe 10,000 times over that time and will have disposed of at least 9,000 bags of doggie done it. You will spend enough money on vet visits to finance at least one semester of that college on the far horizon (remember this number when we get to the college section). And because your child will be in perhaps the second year of college when the grim reaper arrives for your now beloved dog, you will be the one to witness firsthand the agonizing death and grieve this brutal loss. At that time Dad will be 69. And then you get to make the phone call to college kid with the news (remember all that practice with the rodent/reptile carnage). But on the bright side — you still have the frog.

Age 55–56: Now back up a little until just before the dog era. At the age 6/7, soccer, little league, or some athletic endeavor will run through your busy schedule. And you, being a good Dad, will volunteer to coach the little folk in chasing a soccer ball perhaps up and down a field. You can go to the gym regularly and play tennis, bike, ski and all, but none of it will be enough to prepare you for running up and down that field with these energizer children who never, ever tire. And after thumb dislocations, hamstring tears, turf toe and assorted other indignities, you will also hear the inevitable, ”Hey, Pops, can we do PKs now?” (this means you in front of the net serving as point-blank target). Forget about sliding kick blocks or diving for the ball, unless you are fond of extreme pain that lasts for a very long time.

Age 62–66: What can be said about the adolescent years? Teenagers find 40-year-old parents a hideous embarrassment. Imagine the horror of explaining 60-year-old parents to your best buds. And parent night at high school is one of those times when you get to exchange information about your child with a teacher who is about half your age and who sees you as an antique to be dusted and then ignored. But on the other hand, the prom is nice — you might get to host a party. You will be stunned to see how grown-up your child looks in a tux or a prom gown. Then you will remember what you did at your prom. Sigh. And teach the kid to drive? There are no words.

Age 66: On to college beginning with the EXTREME STRESS of the admissions gauntlet. But that will not prepare you for the shock of the first-year tab for that fine institution. Combine that with the futile fight for financial aid. At this time you are making more money perhaps than you did in your thirties (if you haven’t been downsized already), but not nearly enough to handle the six-figure mountain you must climb. This will pretty much guarantee that the financial aid police will scoff at your request for help. Which leaves you three options (in the absence of a winning lottery ticket): 1. burdening your child with crushing debt; 2. draining your IRA/401k; 3. refinancing your house. If you choose option 2 or 3, you get to forget all that retirement nonsense as you watch the little pile of money you have accumulated vanish into the mega growth plans of the college of your child’s choice. Then you get to work until you drop or more likely crumble in place.

There are so many other numbers over the years — mostly the number 1: First sled ride, first bike ride, first ski ride, the driver’s license thing, first date, first failure, first academic crisis, last ride in the car seat, first day away from home at summer camp, first serious health crisis. And they all fall along the timeline of the aging parent in surprising and unsettling ways. For example, the child driver’s license quest coincides with the parent cataract surgery (16/65). Timing is everything.

The numbers do add up to a sobering, exhausting total. But then again, when you see the decent adult your child has become, there is more than enough joy to go around. Count on it. And then try to get some sleep.