Suburban Elegy

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.


The Timer Went Off

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors; How a Filibuster Works; Hard Work Matters More than Brains

Jonah’s college acceptance letter has triggered the reality that he’s going to be gone in six months. I have six months left to parent, before he’s gone. He’ll be on his own. And there’s so much left to teach him.

Why Smart Girls Are Better Than Cheerleaders; Why You Should Never Rinse Pasta After You Finish Boiling It

There’s still so much that he doesn’t know, and I don’t have much time. The ten minute drive to his high school is the only time where he’s captive, strapped in the car, forced to listen. I babble using the morning news as the entry into topics that we never talked about before. I have to give him a crash course on life. How did I forget to teach him the difference between the House and the Senate?

The House Writes the Budget Because the Founders Thought that the Branch That Was Closest to the People Should Have the Most Say Over Money and Taxes

Yes, he’ll have to figure out a lot of this on his own, but I could have taught him this earlier. I wasted time. We were too caught up in the details of life — the homework and the soccer practice. And then his friends and cellphone shouted me out.

Your Great-great Grandfather Was a Famous Oboist; Was Napolean Really Short?; Never Put a Red Sweatshirt in the Washing Machine With White Undershirts

He’s undercooked. How is going to fare on a college campus that first semester without this information? This is what happens when a neurotic parent and former college professor starts to panic. She lectures.

Are the Kids Alright?

While the rest of the world is falling apart, the kids — at least here in this suburb — seem to be struggling, too.

We got a five page e-mail from our superintendent yesterday about drug use in our town. They did two major Xanax busts in the school last week. One girl, an honor student, OD-ed after taking ten Xanax this month. We’re going to have a major, emergency meeting at the school next week to talk about the abuse of drugs in town. I’m hearing rumors about good kids from good families getting into major trouble.

I’m supremely grateful that my kid is kept super busy at track practice. There’s little way, despite a high level whining, that we’ll let him drop out of track. We want him busy as he enters into his second semester of his senior  year. I’m looking into sending him away for the summer on an Outward Bound adventure just to keep him away from certain friends.

When we came back from out ski trip last weekend, we found a broken window above my desk. There was a large footprint on the desk. Someone had been in our house.

We called the cops and then a security company. The cops said it had all the earmarks of a teenager. Nothing was taken. The house wasn’t trashed. The cops said that teenagers, who knew we were away, probably used our house for a party. Since the house wasn’t trashed, it was probably somebody that knew our kid. Apparently, this happens a lot. It won’t happen again, because our house will be Fort Knox after the security company finishes flipping a switch next week.

The school district stopped hiring substitute teachers to save money. So, when the teachers are absent, the kids can come and go from the school whenever they like. One parent told me that her son had four free periods last month and used that time to get into a lot of trouble. She said that she can’t manage her kid, if she assumes that he’s in school, but he’s actually roaming free.

Teenagers get into trouble. I did. But I’m hearing about them doing things — break-ins, vaping in the bathroom, smoking weed in the middle of the day — that makes my past stupidity laughable.

To keep my kid safe, I’ve got him on a very short leash. Which makes him pissed off at me. Parenting is tough.

Ice and Ill

We’re encased in ice. The driveway, which wasn’t shoveled in time, is a fine sheet of black ice. I might try to hack away at it with a corner of a shovel in an hour or two, when we are supposed to briefly go above freezing. I would rather that the postman didn’t wipe out on our front steps.

I’m working for a bit. Waiting for some return e-mails, and keeping up with the news. But mostly, I’m monitoring a sick kid upstairs. Strep throat again. He’s watching a movie wrapped in a purple blanket. A glass of ginger ale with a bent straw and bite-sized carbs on a green napkin.

There are certain rituals that MUST happen when you’re sick in this house. Mommy and boy movie time is one thing that always happens. A few years back, Jonah got a five-day stomach virus. We watched all the Marvel movies, from XMen to the Avengers, that week. I’ll go upstairs and join Ian on his movie binge in a moment.

Since I’m sealed in this tomb of ice and illness, I’m cleaning the tomb. I put away the Christmas ornaments and manger. I can only deal with Christmas clutter for two weeks. I think my OCD is getting worse, as I get older. Today’s plan is to purge all the random plates and bowls from the kitchen. One green plate and one small blue bowl will get packed up for the Good Will.

And I have to read every article about Trump’s secretary of education pick. I’ll have to do some school choice articles soon, and I’m trying to choose the best angle.


How To Not Raise a Bro

Steve and I watched Ryan Lochte and the asshole from Stanford this summer with a great deal of concern. Those privileged, good looking, talented boys/men are very much like the kids in our town. We desperately don’t want our kid to be a “bro” – a partying kid who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. But how do you counteract the general culture that they swim in it all day long.

Jonah got in trouble a couple of weeks ago. It was a relatively minor infraction, but it required a real punishment. He was grounded and his phone taken away. We then read every instagram note, snapchat story, and text message on his phone. Wow, he swims in dangerous waters.

He, like all the teens in town, are “friends” with hundreds of other kids. Kids he doesn’t even really know. These “friends” post pictures and videos of their parties gleefully recording every shotgun, every pong game, every blurry eyed drunk face. Idiots. And it’s not just the skateboarding, shop class kid. It’s the AP honors kid, the going to Harvard kid, the marching band kid.

And then a friend who has two teenage daughters warned me that I needed to watch out for the girls now that Jonah got so cute over the summer. She said that I would have to be careful, because girls would start launching themselves in his direction. So, we had lots of talks about all this over the weekend, but would I be a terrible feminist, if I asked the parents of girls to talk with their daughters about this, too? Perhaps teenage girls shouldn’t give themselves nicknames on their finsta-accounts that call themselves “hoes.”

Another parent in town was so dismayed by his kid’s behavior and the general culture of the town that he made his kid drop out of school and join the military. That seems a bit extreme. The parents who put their kids in fancy Catholic schools in the area say that the same problems exist there, too. In fact, the private kids are even worse, because their parents go away to Thailand for two weeks and leave the kids alone in their McMansions with an unlocked liquor cabinet.

As much as we would like, we can’t wrap our kids in cotton and lock them in their room until 25. How do you parent properly, when other parents aren’t? When other parents buy the booze for the kids? How does a kid make good choices, when he lives in a world where everybody else is making bad choices? Should we move to a cabin in the woods until everybody else grows up? Tell me, readers.

The First Five Colleges (Part Two)

With all the hours that I’ve been logging on special ed stuff this spring, Jonah’s college chores got pushed to the backburner. We knew that we were going to use our vacation week this summer to look at schools, but we didn’t know which week. After I figured out Ian’s camp schedule and Jonah’s cross country schedule (the team has already started training for next fall), we picked our days and Steve got the okay from his job.

We’re going to look at five colleges during that week. Any more than that and the little brother will rebel. So, we’ll start the week with a two day stay at Block Island, which is a little football of an island off the tip of the Long Island. We’ll get their via a ferry in Rhode Island. Then we’ll visit University of Rhode Island, University of Connecticut, U Mass at Amherst, Univesity of New Hampshire, and University of Vermont. In between the tours, we’ll do fun things for Ian. There’s about two to five hours of driving every day, which isn’t horrible.

I’m a little worried about dragging Ian around to all those tours in one week. He’ll love exploring the campuses, but hates listening to one person talk for extended periods of time. It takes so much energy for him to understand people that he shuts down after a while and gets impatient with all the blah blah blah.

Jonah’s high school guidance counselor told him to apply to twelve colleges, so we’ll have to tuck in the rest of the schools as day trips during the summer or over the holiday weekends in September. We’ll go without Steve, because he can’t possibly miss that much work. Over the summer, there are no weekend college tours.

I know these tours are silly. They focus on amenities. The tour guides can’t tell you anything important like the quality of the instruction and the financial burdens on students. Other parents take them far too seriously. Still, they are pretty interesting.

When we visited SUNY Binghamton, the tour began in front of the career development office — a huge, modern section of the student union. Clearly, they put a lot of money here. After-college job prospects was a huge focus of the tour. The tour guide rattled off the names of all her friends who had lined up jobs before graduation.


The First Five Colleges (Part One)

We’re behind! We’re behind! Steve said with more than a hint of panic.

A couple of months ago, Steve and I divided up the evening meetings. I went to a special ed meeting, and he went to the high school junior parents’ college meeting. At that point, Jonah (and our) college preparation consisted of one tour. We visited SUNY Binghamton last summer, because it was sort of on our way to Cleveland. He took the SATs a couple of times. And that was about it.

We hadn’t made a list of schools. He definitely hadn’t hired a college counselor. Steve came back from this meeting completely freaked out, because I guess other parents have already done all that, plus taken their kids on a dozen tours.

The guidance counselor told Steve that college tours are now mandatory. And we’ve done one.

Behind! Behind!

Colleges applications to schools have skyrocketed, because most kids now apply to schools using the Common Application. Remember filling in those forms with a little bottle of WiteOut? Yeah, that’s no more.

The Common App is actually a great thing. It has lowered the obstacles to getting into college. And anything that increases access is a great thing.

However, colleges hate it because now they are swamped with applications. It means that they have to hire more people to read all those bloody things. People are needed to keep track of declines, accepts, and wait lists. It means that they may not know exactly who’s going to their college until mid-August. And it fucks up the college rankings, which uses the ratio of applications to admits as a variable in determining selectivity.

So, colleges want to make sure that they are accepting people who are likely to attend. They do that by keeping track of the kids who call the admissions office to ask questions and the kids who go on the tours.

On College Night at the high school, about 50 schools set up tables in the gym. Kids walk around with their parents whispering in their ears, pick up applications, and fill out cards to request more information. (Don’t even get me started on the money spent on marketing to kids and parents.) My niece’s private school recommended arriving at College Night with preprinted labels w/name, address, phone, and e-mail. That way, the kids can hit all the tables, and not waste time writing out that information by hand at all 50 tables. Because the colleges are keeping track of who fills out those forms.