Every night at dinner my wife and I each ask what the other learned that day
I send a text when I’m on the Manhattan Bridge over the East River, on the train, headed from work in Manhattan to home in Brooklyn. For years I rode my bike across this bridge every weekday. But at this particular job I can’t be a bundle of sweat; I need to be ready for a meeting any time, undrenched. So I don’t ride my bike, but I do look out the train window at other people biking along, jealous. And, before we enter the tunnels again, I text my wife. The text reads simply: “Bridge.” Meaning, I’ll be home in 20 minutes.
At 8 p.m. or so I walk in the door and wash my hands. I work in Times Square, and every day I brush surfaces touched by thousands of strangers. I don’t want to make the people at home, my wife and 11-month-old twins, a boy and girl, sick.
If you consider the moment with a disinterested eye here is what you’d see: The living room of a typical, newish condominium apartment in Brooklyn, furnished indifferently by Ikea, with a massive playpen for children taking up half the room.
The door opens and a heavyset guy enters. He sighs for no reason other than that he is home, and no longer in the world. He takes off his Polo shirt (he keeps on his undershirt) and hangs it over an office chair. His wife says “hey” but not much else; her T-shirt is stained with food from feeding twins, from cleaning up after twins.
She’s piling vegetables and rice noodles onto a plain yellow serving dish and putting that on the table. These two quiet, tired-looking people sit down in front of the food—tonight, summer rolls. They sit at an old folding table (folded) on folding chairs (unfolded), they put cloth napkins on their laps, and they eat.
They wet down rice paper and drop vegetables and thin noodles onto it and make conversation. Every night the same scene, the same question. “What,” asks one of them to the other, it doesn’t matter who asks first, “did you learn today?”
Me: I learned a little more about how to organize a presentation to a CTO at a giant corporation, and a little more about recursive functions in the computer language Scheme, but that was for fun. I learned how to encrypt files on my computer, at the request of a boss who is concerned about security. I learned that one team did not know what was going on with the other team. I learned a dozen little facts about technology—RightScale is a vendor for cloud services; this cache doesn’t care what’s inside; the continuous integration server will run tests against every commit—that are not interesting in conversation or anywhere else, but that filter through my head and find purchase on one of the magpie shelves that line my mental hoard. Someday maybe they’ll be useful.
Her: I learned about Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, because our daughter—whose foot is slightly spotted—may be thus afflicted. It’s not a big deal, no worse than a cold, although like anything it can turn into meningitis, or other awful things, in a small percentage of cases. Thus we must be vigilant about observing our daughter’s tiny feet. I learned that the man down the hall has pinkeye, that our son has a mild fever—probably from teething. I put pictures of some of these summer rolls on Facebook and a person writing in French said that the peanut sauce looked bad, even though it is delicious. So I learned from that as well. I learned that this person is a snob about peanut sauce.
Then we talked about the children, their moods and maladies, their squeaks and proto-words.
My wife is going back to school soon, to study project management for large construction projects. She is good with tools. I expect that over the next years our conversation will shift to discussions of masonry estimation and AutoCAD. And I look forward to that, because I like projects and infrastructure, although I will miss the current level of reporting on our kids. It’s like getting a newspaper delivered with their exploits: HAND, FOOT, AND MOUTH OUTBREAK FEARED. It’s the only newspaper I truly want to read. They’re going to go to day care, three days a week, and the newspaper of their life will continue, but it won’t be at the same level of detail. Some days will be banner headlines only.
I think a lot about the difference between a formal system and an informal system. The formal system is the system of rules as described. Do this and you’ll get a promotion. Do this and you’ll get published. Do this and you’ll find love. The informal system is the system of human interactions, all the secret territories of life that are only learned through experience, or with guidance.
To maintain ceremonial conformity, organizations that reflect institutional rules tend to buffer their formal structures from the uncertainties of the technical activities by developing a loose coupling between their formal structures and actual work activities. —John Meyer and Brian Rowan, 1976 (via)
I once believed that the informal system was nefarious, that if we just followed rules (which rules?) everyone (who?) would be happy (how?). But now as I’m older, as I’m a parent—you need rules, you need limits and boundaries, you need to preserve rights and keep people safe. And you also need people who can move the rules around.
What did you learn today? What’s most fine about that question is that it assumes that this was a day unlike the one before, a novel day, a day of signal. By asking it you imply that there was something going on today besides rote and ritual. By asking it every single day at dinner you create a formal system, a policy, and yet in response to this very predictable question you can expect news, novelty, fresh information, mysteries, secrets exposed. You ask, and then you count on the other person to say: Today I learned some new rules. And then I learned how to work around them.