The Landmines

So, I have one kid in college. People keep asking me, “how does it feel? Did you cry when he left?”

Actually, I was less sad than I expected. I didn’t cry. Sure, I miss him, but he’s doing what he needs to do, and it’s all good. In some ways, it’s a huge relief. Not just because there is less laundry and less driving. It’s also because I’m done.

I had a college-bound kid. I got him there. Boom. It doesn’t always happen. The teenage years are full of land-mines ranging from mental health issues to drug dealing friends to sheer laziness. But my kid is in a good school that we can afford and, hopefully, he’s mature enough now that we’ve left those dangers behind.

Ian is a separate case. I have no idea what will happen to him, but at least there’s no worry about the landmines.

A friend told me that two days before her son left for college, the kid got stinking drunk, puked on the sofa, and curled up in the bathtub. I told Jonah about this kid and he laughed. He asked, “aren’t you glad that Ian will never do that?” First, I said YES. Then I said no. Jonah told me that the correct answer is yes, because Ian finds his own happiness, and it doesn’t involve destroying his liver and ruining upholstery. Because Jonah is a very, very good kid.

I suppose that there are still landmines that Jonah will face in college. He could sleep through his classes, fail his exams, and drink too much at fraternities.

So, let’s talk about fraternities. I’m not a fan. I’m trying not to be too judgy, because they serve a real purpose on large college campuses. They help to create communities. But, but, but. The drinking. The dubious traditions. The exclusivity. The group think. The everything I hate.

Jonah has been attending the fraternity parties. He’s got open access to booze without any bother with a fake license or anything. The cops and the school don’t care, which surprised me. I thought they would be cracking down on drinking after Penn State.

The only barrier to the booze and the parties have come from the frat brothers themselves who usually don’t want too many freshman boys at their parties. They want the girls. But Jonah has been getting in, because he’s good looking and because he learned how to fix taps and kegs, while at his job at the tavern this summer. Jonah is on the guest list at several fraternities already after three weeks of school. Ugh.

The only mercy is that I don’t have to see this. I will admit that I have monitored his activities using the “Find My Friends” app. (Shhh. Don’t tell him.) But he’s forty minutes away, so I can’t smell his breath or know what time he stumbles in.

He’s taking a heavy math-science course load, so he isn’t going to be able to get into too much trouble without us knowing about it. His grades will reflect his ratio of studying to partying time effectively. Hello, FERPA form! And he’s an adult and he knows it. College is on him. If he fucks up, he goes to community college.


Higher Ed Drama

My Facebook people are ranting about the woman who killed her kid, was accepted to Harvard’s grad program, and then disinvited because some faculty feared the FOX News backlash.

And now Chelsea Manning has been disinvited from Harvard, though they are still inviting the rest of the reality stars. (This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World.)

Meh. Meh. Meh.

I’m have a hard time getting worked up about the slights to the child abuser and the traitor. There’s so much going on here though. We have famously risk adverse academics and an academic-hating alt-right who are spoiling for a fight. We have the business end of higher ed that wants the big names to build their brand. We have left-oriented, insulated faculty who think that they must keep the barbarians on the other side of the wall.

Always Be Exercising

I just came from my morning run. Today, again, it was a walk, because I had a lot of things that I was thinking about, and it is impossible run and think at the same time.

I’m in the midst of sorting out two very different articles for two different publications. I figured out my angles yesterday, and today I’m moving around the blocks of information in my head to create the story. I’m in a good mood, because I know where I’m going.

Along the way, I half-listened to Slate’s culture podcast. I waved at the 80-year old Martha and Bill Finch’s grandmother who take their walks every morning, chatting the whole way about grandkids and their husbands’ gout. They will go back to Florida, when the snow falls and whenever the state gets power again. I stopped to chat with the three-year old twins who proudly showed me their pink name tags that they got at nursery school. Seven bold deer on the appropriately named Deerhill Road tried to stare me down, and the wild turkeys awkwardly squatted in front of a pretentious house with French doors.

I’m pretty lucky. I know that I am. Once I figured out that being a freelancer who works from home meant that you really had to exercise every day to keep your marbles — and alright, I’m an idiot. I only figured that out last April — I’ve been either doing a morning spin class, running, or walking for an hour about six days a week. I have the time and this idealic neighborhood to run around in. I belong to one of those $20 per month gyms – nothing fancy – but it’s clean and the classes are free. The spin classes are packed with cool women. I don’t actually know their names, but I know how many kids they have, what grades the kids are in, and where they went on vacation last month. On days, when it’s just me and the computer all day, it’s a good thing to interact with real people.

In the past few years, I’ve spent more on sneakers and tights and all. But it all gets used a lot and keeps my knees in working shape.

I did four 5K races this summer.

But by some people’s standards, I’m a slacker. It’s not unusual to meet women at the gym or jogging along the path by the river who exercise for five hours a day. They have long sinewy arms and sunken eyes. Driving to Ian’s high school last week, which is adjacent to the richest zip code in New Jersey, we passed dozens of high-end gyms that boasted high intensity spin classes where the instructors yell at you until you pass out. I see a lot of eating disorders among middle-aged women at these gyms.

We were talking about wealthy people in the last thread. Gotta add exercise to one of the characteristics of the super wealthy. But I suppose that isn’t new. From Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities:

The phase pops into his head at that very instant: social X-rays … They keep themselves so thin, they look like X-ray pictures … You can see lamplight through their bones … while they’re chattering about interiors and landscape gardening … and encasing their scrawny shanks in metallic Lycra tubular tights for their Sports Training classes.



Inside the White Supremist Movement

I don’t usually listen to podcasts. When I’m working at my computer, I prefer tomb-like quiet. My commute is one flight of stairs. And when I run, I listen to an embarrassing mix of country, rap, and Beyoncé.

But this morning I couldn’t run, because all my running bras were in the wash. So, I walked two miles instead. For some reason, power walks require podcasts, not an embarrassing mix of country, rap, and Beyoncé. I pulled up The New York Times’ podcast, The Daily (Tuesday, August 22) on Spotify.

Michael Barbaro interviewed Derek Black, a former white nationalist whose father was the former grandmaster of the KKK. Black grew up with those people. His father also ran one of the big white supremacist websites. Black started up his own blog for white supremacist kids at age 12.

In the podcast, he describes the ideas that are at the root of the movement. For example, he says that they don’t just hate black people. Anti-Semitism is a big part of their ideology, as we saw on display at Charlotteville. The members wouldn’t describe themselves as a hate group. They just think that the world would be better, if different people lived in their own zones. They oppose globalism. Lots more in the podcast.

And then he went to college. And his views changed. His views didn’t change because professors were indoctrinating him or yelling at him. No, his views changed because he became good friends with an observant Jew, who even knowing about Black’s political views, invited him every week to Shabbat services at his house. There, around the table, he talked politics and social ideas with the other guests. They slowly, over the course of the year and during many conversations, convinced Black that he was wrong about his ideas. They brought information and studies to show him that countered the arguments that he had grown up believing.


Okay, rant over.

Black walked away from the white supremacists. His family barely speaks to him anymore. And the pain of the rejection was palpable on the podcast.

He talked about the content of Trump’s speeches and pointed out lines — lines that were meaningless to me — that echoed and supported white supremacist messages. White supremacists, he said, were a small fringe movement, but some of their ideas have been absorbed by Republicans.

Why is this Black guy not a regular on CNN? He knows more about the movement than any of the other pundits that their show. I learned more from this podcast than I did from hours and hours of CNN viewing this week.

Thoughts on Charlottesville

I just returned from a long drive to the South. In twelve days, we were in NJ, DE, MD, VA, NC, VA, WV, and PA. Needless to say it was too much driving, and we have vowed that the next vacation will involve staying in one place for the entire time.

We were driving through VA when the problems in Charlottesville broke out. I momentarily considered a detour to Charlottesville to get a story, but I had two very tired kids in the backseat. They just wanted to get home. I feared them more than I feared the skinheads, so we stayed on course back to home.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t really understand the South. The first time that we visited my in-laws in North Carolina, we toured Fort Macon.  When the guide started talking about the War of Northern Aggression, I whispered to Steve, “what is he talking about?” I had never heard of this term for the Civil War.

But what I do understand is compromise, because that has been the way that the North has dealt with the South since the Revolution. For good or for ill, the country has turned a blind eye to evil practices in order to keep the nation together. When compromise hasn’t worked, there’s been conflict, riots, and war, of course, but then we very quickly return to compromise.

The compromise that we’ve had since 1960’s is that as long as African-Americans can vote and are not overtly discriminated against in terms of education and employment, then we will allow Southerners to maintain certain myths about their past – the whole tragic nobility of the South. We would allow them to honor their ancestors. We would allow them to pretend that slavery casts no shadow on today.

Well, when we uproot statues in their parks, when we punch holes in their myths and traditions, when we point out that grand-daddy was kind of an asshole, then that compromise unravels. There’s no question that the Nazi’s that marched through Charlottesville were a mentally unwell minority. However, there are a number of people down there who have been unhappy about the unraveling compromise. They might not wear swastikas, but they voted for Trump.

Honestly, I am not quite sure of what to do about this situation. Clearly, we can no longer have statues of Robert E. Lee in public parks, but how can you tell a group of people that their past and their ancestors are shit, and then expect that they will vote for our candidates and support our platform?

One way to have Southerners walk away from their culture is to heavily invest in modernity. We stopped in Raleigh on our long drive across North Carolina. Steve’s old college roommate lives there with his adorable wife. They are just about the nicest people that I’ve ever met. And like all super happy people, they started up an ice-cream store. Their business is booming like just about the rest of the town. Raleigh is a mix of Northerners who have come down to the new banking centers, university eggheads and students, and employees in all the new science and tech businesses. They have the largest, newest, shiniest high schools that I’ve ever seen.

Maybe by creating a better future in those states — more places like Raleigh — the South will more easily walk away from the past.

Admissions Games

So, Donald Trump wants the Justice Department’s civil rights division to investigate and sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.

There are about a hundred ways to take apart Trump’s assumptions about college admission practices. I have exactly twenty minutes before Ian gets home, needs lunch, and then a drive to the community college for computer class. Let’s see how far I can get…

If you want to talk about one group pushing out another group from one of the finite positions in higher education, then the group to attack isn’t African-Americans. They make up a very small faction of all students at elite colleges in this country.  A 2015 article at the Atlantic points out that at ” all top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years.” Not a big number.

So, if you want to target one group that is taking an increasing number of spots at elite institutions, you really want to look at international students. There are way more of them than there are African American students. Colleges are increasingly seeking them out, because they can pay full freight of tuition. Some rushed numbers that I pulled up from

African-Americans International
Rutgers 8% 7.2
NYU 5.9 15.2
Columbia 6.4 17.9
Princeton 8.6 11.1
Harvard 7.3 11.4
UCLA 3.4 12.7
Univ. of IL 6.4 15.4

Secondly, all the research shows that the biggest problem is that excellent poor/minority students do not apply to elite schools when they have great GPAs/SATS and would be admitted. They are intimidated by the whole process and are fearful of leaving their communities. So, they end up at less selective local schools, where they sometimes end up paying more — a phenomenon known as “under-matching.” And elite colleges want to make it even more difficult for those kids by creating a new application process.

Thirdly, admissions offices have quotas for all groups. It’s way easier to get into college if you’re a dude. It’s easier to get into college if you aren’t from the Northeast. Asian girls from New Jersey have a much tougher time getting into elite schools than white dudes from North Dakota.

So, if Donald Trump really wants a completely unbiased system, then schools wouldn’t take into account gender, state, race/ethnicity, legacy, athletic prowess, and ability to pay full ticket cost for the school. Good luck with that.

Summer Books

I’m looking for book recommendations.

I have Everybody’s Fool on the coffee table, but haven’t read it yet. It’s Richard Russo’s continuation of Nobody’s Fool. I sometimes love Russo, sometimes he bores me, so I’m not diving into this book with gusto. Still,  Straight Man is one of my all time favorite novels about academic life.

So, give me ideas for the summer. I’m doing a lot of waiting around for Ian to finish activities, which is a perfect time for power reading. I’m looking for quality fiction and non-fiction, as well flat-out trashy fiction. (hello, wendy!)