The Light of the Tiny Screen

Steve looked up from the paper on Sunday morning and said, “Ross Douthat is on a roll.”

In his long Sunday op-ed, “The Age of Decadence,” Ross touches on the nihilism that I wrote about last week. He writes,

The truth of the first decades of the 21st century, a truth that helped give us the Trump presidency but will still be an important truth when he is gone, is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling forward toward transhumanism or extinction. Instead, we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.

Like me, he doesn’t see political revolution, just stagnation and corruption. He has a few lovely anecdotes — The Frye Festival, Thanos, Uber — meant to highlight the lack of new ideas and the frauds that dominate our world. I have another one.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle emerged from their Canadian igloo to give a speech at a JP Morgan event in Florida last week. According to the gossip blogs, which are always right, they made a cool million with a talk about Harry’s difficulties dealing with his mother’s death and his years in therapy. Apparently, three different countries covered the security for them.

Now, it’s a sad tale, but Harry is the hardly the only person in the world who lost a parent at a vulnerable age and now goes to a shrink. JP Morgan paid him all that money along with a private jet, because he was catnip for super, super, mega rich people, who would then invest money in their bank. Famous people want to meet famous people and then swirl all their beautiful money together and make more money.

The only people who seem to really be bothered about these sorts of events are the basement dwellers who comment on those blogs, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with this couple. (To be fair, they also hate Prince Andrew and have some very juicy gossip about Uncle Pervy as they call him.)

I have been saddened by the post-presidential Obamas, who seem to have also cashed in on these sorts of events. They aren’t exactly Jimmy Carters quietly building houses for poor people in their spare time.

And as an army of publicists create Instagramable moments for the masses, things are getting worse. Fiddling, while Rome burns.

With a child with special needs, I go to a lot of presentations about how to navigate the system for adults with disabilities. And it’s all bad. As long as Steve and I are around, my kid will be fine, but what happens when we’re gone? What happens if his brother can’t fill the void? What happens to individuals that don’t have parents that have our resources? The lack of any sort of safety net in our country is terrifying. It keeps me up at night, which is when I read the gossip blogs.

I sort of want to delete this post. Pessimism is bad for one’s brand. Screw it. Publishing.

Bedroom Reno

It’s Girlie Friday, so let me show you the before-and-after of our quickie bedroom redo. Basically, we just pulled the wallpaper down. I got a $150 headboard on Wayfair and a new duvet cover at Pottery Barn. We put in a new light fixture. That was it.

I know I still need more art on the walls, but I usually take forever to figure out what’s going to go where. Art will happen eventually.

The first picture is the real estate picture from the original owner. We just dumped our stuff in the room seven years ago and then really did nothing. The furniture are mostly hand-me-downs from dead people; the chair and side table are new.

Electrician Gossip: Excerpt From the Newsletter January 30, 2020

Here’s an excerpt from the latest newsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe!

January 31, 2020

Hi all!

We’re in the midst of some minor home renovations. Two rooms that remained pretty much untouched since we moved in — our bedroom and office — are getting some love. Nothing fancy, because a bigger job is on the horizon. Just a little paint, some rearranging, and new lighting. 

The electricians were here all morning putting in overhead lights in our dimly lit office. When they were on the way out, I grilled them about business, because I’m nosy like that. I am super interested in jobs that don’t involve college, both because it’s a good topic to write about and because my kid, Ian, may or may not be able to hack traditional college, even one that has supports for kids like him. 

So, the guys told me that business is great. They were slammed by the recession in 2008 and had to cut their workforce in half, but that things have picked up again. Lots of people are doing construction on their homes and renovating their dimly lit office space, so the work is there.  

I asked them if they are hiring new workers. They said that they would, but that “kids today don’t want to do physical labor. They just want to play on their cellphones.” It’s hard for them to find workers. 

I asked them about schooling. Did they recommend a particular program or trade school? Nah, they told me. They teach people on the job how to do things. The old guy said that he went to college, but didn’t want to work in an office, so he became an electrician. He didn’t need his college education for the job. The young guy said he went straight from high school to the job. 

I asked them if the guys who came from trade school were particularly good. They told me that those programs weren’t very helpful, because the best way to learn how to do a job like theirs isn’t from a textbook, but by experience. 

I couldn’t exactly ask them if their job paid well, but the old guy mentioned that he lived locally. So, he’s making enough to afford the high home and taxes in this area. The young guy said he lived out in western Jersey, where houses in the woods are plentiful and relatively affordable. The old guy said that the good thing about being an electrician is that “you can work as much as you like.” He works for this big electric company during the day and then works for a buddy in the evening. That evening work is probably off-the-books, so that means that extra income never shows up on salary scales.

I’m going to continue my annoying questions of workers and owners of businesses. College isn’t for everyone, and parents like me are looking for answers. 

If you want more on this topic, we talked on the blog about a friend who is sending her honors student son to automotive school next year. Also, I wrote about a girl, who decided to go to a trade school, after college last year. 

Thanks for reading! Laura

Bypassing College

I managed to check off my entire list of work chores before 10:00am. Somedays, things go faster than others. So, what does that mean? Lots of time wasting on twitter and blogs today! Woot! First, let me tell you a story.

Steve and I went out for dinner with friends last Saturday night. Because our kids are all around the same age, we talked about colleges. One couple had decided to go the traditional route for their kids and was spending serious cash on a private college and an out-of-state college. That family will be paying back loans for thirty years.

The other couple of double lawyers was sending their Uber-smart son to the engineering program at an in-state college. The second son had decided that he didn’t want to go to college at all. The kid is also smart and in honors classes with a good GPA, but he just had no interest in higher education. He wants to go to automotive school. He just loves cars and that’s it.

So, the parents did the research, and they’re sending him to a for-profit automotive school, where he’ll commute from home. He’ll be done in two years and do what he loves most, which is to tinker with car engines.

Apparently being a car mechanic these days isn’t just lug nuts and oil changes. It’s very technical. It requires a lot of comfort with computers and high-end machinery. Car dealerships are having a hard time finding people with that sort of knowledge, so they are offering nice salaries and benefit packages.

When blue collar jobs become white collar jobs.

Middle class parents are slowly getting more savvy about these options. I expect to see more of this in the future. Are there downsides?

DIY College

This is the first day in over a month, when I’m the only person in the house. No in-laws, husband, teen, or a college kid needing three meals a day. It takes a big block of time to get serious work done. An hour here and there don’t add up to many words. I’m relishing this moment and making plans for myself for this spring.

My chore chart isn’t completely clean. We have to start the paperwork to assume guardianship of Ian. I have to sign him up for ACT and SAT testing. We need some repairs on the exterior of the house. I already got one quote and am having heart failure about that number. I also am helping Jonah out with some college stuff.

When we sent Jonah off to college two and half years ago, Steve and I thought we were done with parenting. We assumed his college experience was going to be like ours. Our parents hauled our stuff to the college and then really had nothing to do with us until Christmas break. They checked in every three days, but that was about it.

Yeah, that was an error. Jonah ended up needing a lot more help, because the college was massive with so little oversight over the kids that he got a bit lost that first semester. So, we readjusted our approach to him and now we’re more hands on.

Just for an example, let’s talk about housing. His college doesn’t have enough dorms for all its students. In his freshman year, he lived in dorms that hadn’t been renovated in decades. There was no air conditioning, so he couldn’t sleep for two weeks during a late fall heatwave. So, like most sophomores he moved to an off-campus slum.

This slum creates all sorts of hassles for Jonah. Jonah got stuck being the guy who was responsible for the electricity and internet bills. He had to shake down the other five roommates every month to pay the bills. Time suck. They had a guy who somehow ended up living on their sofa all last year without paying rent. This year, they made him take an official room, when someone moved out, but the sofa kid stopping paying rent. So, the landlord made them evict him yesterday. Meetings, phone calls, time suck.

The toilet broke last year. The kids had to jiggle the handle to make the water stop running. They told the landlord, and he did nothing. Then they went away for the summer. The last kid who used the toilet didn’t jiggle the handle, so the water ran in the toilet all summer. The landlord wants them to pay the $2,000 water bill. They’re fighting it. Time suck.

As un upperclassman, he has a chance of getting a good number in the school lottery to get better housing next year. It’s a great building with A/C, wifi, study lounges, and exercise room, but the guys that he was going to live with can’t afford the 10K per year cost, so they want to find another slum. Looking at housing = time suck.

Housing is such an issue at his school that private developers have stepped in to build dorms around the college. A new place is opening in the fall, but it’s going cost too much for his frugal friends.

I spent some time looking at this private dorm. (Here it is.) I was kinda surprised that colleges were working with private developers to make their dorms for them now. It’s a pain for the students, because it’s a full year lease, and students don’t have any support from the school, if one of their roommates flakes out. If Jonah does the spring semester abroad, then he’ll have to find a replacement for himself. (Time suck.)

I guess these private developer-college arrangements are more common. My cousin’s kid in Floria lives in one of those dorms. I might spend the morning asking around about them.

The other big Jonah job for the week is help him with a summer internship. More on that later.

Excerpt From Jan. 17 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from my latest newsletter. Please subscribe, folks!

It’s January Jersey. Which means the sky is a greige color that all the designers are putting on their walls.

I know all about griege, because we’re in the middle of a painting project at home. Between being grounded in the house with various medical testing for Ian and a dull spot in between writing projects, I have some time on my hand. I decided that it was time to rent a steamer from Home Depot and tackle the last two rooms in our home that still had the previous owner’s wallpaper on the walls.

So, our bedroom furniture is covered with plastic tarps, and my office is inhospitable, until we can finish the job. When we embarked on this plan, I expected to finish off in a week or two. In reality, we are still a month of weekends away from applying any paint — griege or otherwise – on the walls. 

I have a writing topic on hold. The topic is all approved by an editor, but we’re just waiting for one of the presidential candidates to bring up a specific education topic. The candidate is not cooperating, so I’ve done a little background research and am just waiting. And catching up with my other job, which is housewifery. 

I never planned on being a stay at home parent, who works gigs on the side. I planned on having a prestigious job in the university or a policy think tank. That’s why I wasted most of my twenties in graduate school and finished the PhD. But here am I. Drinking rosé with the soccer moms and spinning away the muffin tops on Monday mornings. 

On most days, that’s just fine. I have time to paint walls, check in on my mom, make sure the college kid has filled out the right forms for next year’s dorm assignments, attend IEP meetings, talk with the lawyer about the guardianship papers, and arrange appointments with a contractor who has to fix the hole in the foundation by the garage. 

Other days, I get impatient with my situation. Freelancers don’t get the choice assignments or get paid very well. I miss teaching college classes, even six years later; though I don’t miss grading papers, which always sucked. I miss the identity of a full time job. 

As a neurotic progressive, I also feel guilty. Others don’t have the option to have a flexible job. I’m able to support my kids, both the special ed and the typical one, so they’re two steps ahead of kids who don’t have a parent like me. Which is totally unfair. In a world that is falling apart, I’m staring at Benjamin Moore paint colors so long that I have actual opinions on Grey Owl grey versus Metropolitan grey. I should be out there in the thick of things, making changes, instead of looking at Pinterest boards. 

I handle the guilt by writing. Writing is a source of guilt, too, because writing is becoming more and more of a rich person’s game; there are fewer and fewer traditional journalism jobs. But it is an effective soap box. I also join local political organizations and progressive parents groups. 

There is a growing parental political movement happening. Parents — okay, mostly women — are showing up at board of ed meetings and state house protests. They’re forming letter writing committees. They’re organizing fundraisers for political candidates. Not all of them are progressive, of course. One group of parents in New Jersey just pushed back against a new vaccination law. Other groups are too focused on changes in our own privileged town, and aren’t advocating for all kids. But there are other parent groups that line up more with my political leanings. 

This situation isn’t getting a lot of attention from the press, because most journalists have full time jobs in the cities. Even the education reporters aren’t showing up to Board of Ed meetings. I am. And so, weirdly enough, being a stay at home parent gives me a professional advantage. Life is funny that way. 

So, on this greige day, I’m working and not working at the same time. At noon, I’ve got a date with Lauren at the hair salon who will make my hair a more uniform red and give me a good Jersey blowout. And we’ll talk. She’ll tell me about her mixed race family and her husband’s contracting hustles. We’ll talk about her middle school son and his struggles in school. I’ll walk out of the salon with sleek red hair and some fodder for half a dozen articles. 

At some point, I’ll figure out how to make more money from all this working and not working, but that’s for another day. 

OPINION: Marching band sets the right tempo for many special-needs kids

With plumed caps and braided epaulets for miles, marching bands are a staple of the high school football game. Students stride purposefully around the field with piccolos and tubas, and synchronize their steps to Billy Joel medleys, homages to Mary Poppins and even a snappy march or two from John Philip Sousa. Girls in flared skirts and knee-high boots triumphantly wave flags or twirl wooden rifles. 

In some ways, marching bands are anachronistic today. The frozen smiles and stiff-legged choreography of these bands harken back to a 1940s Esther Williams technicolor movie. The twirling rifles feel vaguely sinister in this post-Sandy Hook era. Yet they hold a certain magic, too — a place of innocence and sincerity not found elsewhere in the dystopian world of the modern American high school. They hold a different kind of magic for the kids who participate in this activity.

Along with the A/V club and the stage crew, marching bands have long been safe places for kids like the socially awkward girl, Michelle, from the 1999 cult flick American Pie, who annoys everyone with tales about band camp. The typical participant is not a super star on the football field or in student government. 

Marching bands also draw in kids with various learning differences, including those with high-functioning autism. For these students, marching band is an activity in which they can participate with peers. With its unique combination of exercise, dance, music and rigor, it also may be a place where they heal.

More here.