Yesterday afternoon was my first block of free time in weeks, so I brushed off the dust of Hillbilly Elegy, which has been sitting in my pile of books-that-should-be-read for months. I read it in one big gulp; it was that good. As soon as Jonah wakes up, I’m going to demand that he reads it.
The memoir is about one kid who managed to escape the culture of poverty thanks to luck, the Marines, and his Mamaw, who saved him from his own bad decisions and his mom’s bad decisions. He talks about the positive aspects of the Appalachian, Scot-Irish culture – loyal, family oriented – as well as the bat-shit crazy parts of the lifestyle, which has resulted in generations of poverty and misery.
I read the book from the comfort of our Crate and Barrel armchair that swivels, so I can put my feet up on the large picture window. I glanced up from the book from time to time to watch the women speed walking in their $100 running pants and the teenagers zooming by in their graduation-gift Cameros. It’s a world apart from the J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio.
Yet, it’s not.
People fuck up here, too. In between the speed walking and the calorie counting on iPhone apps, there is a whole lot of wine drinking, which is somehow a more socially acceptable form of addiction than weed. There are teenagers who screw up in exactly the same ways as teenagers in every other community across the country. There are dubious debts, like second mortgages to pay for private colleges that aren’t worth the $300,000 price tag.
And while our community doesn’t have the divorce rates and rotating boyfriends that plague other parts of the country, we’re the only family that I know that actually eats dinner together every night. Kids spend long periods of time by themselves or with nannies that have no authority to reel them in. Kids work very hard at times, especially in the highly regimented sports programs and tutoring worlds, but other times, they are supremely lazy. They have no expectations for home chores or sibling babysitting. Even though they all go to college, the parents and consultants micomanage the process for them.
There have been lots of recent studies (too lazy to find the link right now) that show that the wealthier families are spending more on educational programs for their children than ever before. And that’s all true. But in between those scheduled activities, there is a parenting vacuum. Parents set up the activities and even drive them from place to place, but don’t talk with their kids or guide them or yell at them when they screw up.
My parents, who were the first generation college attenders and who came from very rough family lives themselves, are appauled at the bad habits that they see around them in their own UMC town and in ours. Entitlement is its own evil culture. Wealth can protect people from bad habits for a short time, but it’s not fool proof.