It has been a while since I've written much personal stuff here at Cobb. A missive from Ambra at Booker Rising reminds me that there remains some currency in that 'stuff white people like' meme. Of course it's not white people but white white people - which is to say self-conscious Americans whose crunchy bourgie sensibilities and relative lack of perspective makes them think that via their consumerist selections and taste, that they are so profoundly different from the rest of humanity. If you think it means something to shop at Whole Foods, then you might be one of them. I am, half the time.
That fraction of me, half or not, wastes hundreds of hours scribbling notes into the ether because I think that what I think should have some permanent resonance. And so I am gladly a member of the Chatting Class of America, which tends to have some sensible distance from the fundaments of survival giving us the confidence that we can waste time if we feel like it. And for the small social rewards, we call ourselves bloggers, pundits etc. It's the ultimate in matrix management - nobody really reports to us and nobody gets in trouble if they defy us. It's actually rather part of the whole intrigue of it. We pretend to matter, we pretend to know. I'm half out of it because I retain a good bit of self-consciousness in all this rot - I have three actual children to raise who do report to me.
These days we are about to run into the complexities of adolescence, which is to say, we parents have to invent a scheme against which the kids can rebel and still remain in our control. Which is to say it's Curfew time. I am writing up a security plan this week, and I will present it via Powerpoint this weekend in preparation for the May 1 rollout. Here is an excerpt.
1. Always obey the law.
2. Remember that you are a minor. You are not legally an adult. You have no permission to do adult things. There are no exceptions. Ever. If you engage in adult behavior, you not only put yourself at risk, you put your parents and other people at risk. You cannot handle the risk. Period.
3. Trust is not given. Trust is earned. Trust sometimes. Verify always.
4. If you ever have a question, ask your parents, police officer, lifeguard, teacher or coach.
5. Fear and distrust are your friends. There is a reason that certain things gross you out. Your instinct is to remain safe.
6. Know your limits.
7. Ask stupid questions. Don't assume you know what's on other people's minds.
Since I live in a stunningly expensive neighborhood full of people who have never kicked been in the groin, some of this seems foolish. It is not. One of the primary mistakes of people in the upper middle class is that they often forget that their relative comfort is not permanent. Sure we all understand that good grades in school lead to acceptance at a better college and a better job and all that, but we forget about earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and bank failures. The trick to rising in society is defensive as well as offensive. The point of rising in society is to have society's rules work in your favor. So I never forget that this destination, as chic and comfy as it often seems from my own 'hood sensibilities, is not really a destination. It is a temporary reprieve and a temporary reward. Life is still about struggle.
The matter that eludes many of us is how to shift gears and struggle appropriate to one's circumstances. From my 90016 perspective, it is a lesson that many black Americans, but not only them, most Americans, fail to grasp. Obviously one of the simple lessons is that you don't call things 'white' when they are not. But I understand that's just one of the many failings of American society - we racialize. But what's much more interesting to me is seeing how it is that people construct themselves and comport themselves in social climbing (or rest).
For example. This weekend I did one of those instinctual things I tend to do, which is grab one of my kids and take them out to lunch for a treat. This time, it was with Boy and we went to Hermosa Pier and had Brazilian tri-tip out on the patio witness to the great exuberant parade of half-naked humanity which is Southern California beach culture. We talked about kids he used to hang out with and doesn't any longer. We did some girl watching. We identified who was local and who was not. I introduced the people watching subject from the perspective of girl watching by saying that one of the great benefits of living here is that we get some of the most beautiful girls - it's good to get spoiled so that you don't do foolish things for hot chicks later on in life, and also that he had the built in advantage of good looking sisters, so that he realizes that looks are just looks but character is something else. There is nothing so abjectly sad as a poor sprung boy. He said that this was the greatest place in the world to live. No son, it's not. It's just a place, some rules change when you go elsewhere. Some don't.
Boy, as I mentioned - or maybe didn't - has the capacity for sociopathic behavior. He's one of the rare individuals who in high school can hang out with whichever clique he desires. It's one of his mantras. "I hang out with everybody." Like me, he can have a Martian perspective, his capacity for focus can be scary. But he's good natured and mostly quiet with an easy, and goofy laugh. I have to prepare all of my kids for the ways I think the world will react to them - raised in Southern Cal near the beach and never kicked in the groin. It helps that they're smart - but they are not so single-minded. In fact, that's rather the issue.
Scholar may get a new nickname. She made the cheerleading squad for the high school. The tryouts were last week and she's still an 8th grader, but as an entering freshman she will have reached one of the pinnacles of American popular culture. Or stereotypes. Scholar just recently did a fairly awesome production for her Democracy in Action project getting people from about six or seven different organizations to respond to her requests for information and educational materials about the Giant Panda. When it comes to such projects, she can fill binders with the quickness. And when she quizzed people at her table, she cut the profile of what I imagine the great doyennes of philanthropy look like. She looked very model teen, the kind with the great smile without the aid of braces. She has never had a problem speaking with adults, despite her typical, like, teenage speech patterns. And I see in her, social power blossoming.
These two are my focus because they're getting to the point at which some focus is required on their part. All of their lives they have had the smorgasbord. And this is what they have become, busy, busy, busy. Up until 10pm because today was theatre rehearsal. I'm wary of the levelling that privilege gives all variety of activities. Soccer, gymnastics, junior guards, Scouts, youth group, honors classes. It's all a surfeit of blessings and something about it makes me uneasy. So I always joke about the big house and land we'll get when we move to Alabama - away from all this. Still, I know that's wrong. We need to be with people, the most people, the sophisticated people - because everything in society comes from people not from nature.
So on this Earth Day, my attitude is that it's all superstition. Turning off lights doesn't make you a better person. But I guess I have to steer my family and put out my crusty old man vibe so they can hear it - that I will build them a way to interact with as many people as possible and to keep themselves relatively clean and safe. Let them people-watch and evaluate character, the critical skill you can't get from pigs and chickens, trees and mountains. This will be part of my gift - to get them out there in the midst of the millions in society from this springboard of competence and privilege so that they can manage themselves, manage risk, manage time, and manage the intricacies of society from the side of those who can not only hang out with everyone, but lead.
I remember how they used to joke back at me at breakfast when I told them to take over the world. Like I was Brain of Pinkey and the Brain. And so I reminded them that they will have plenty opportunity to watch the character of their schoolmates and to try and make better choices based on the values we hold in Daddy's House. Sprite, still only 12, reminded us in prayer on Easter about our good fortune to have a close extended family when she knows so many who don't have both parents at home.
My sympathies go out to Joe, who has to speak about civil rights on a panel with some crusty old sit-in veterans. Where I am in this America is in the upper middle class where civil rights just don't get violated - where there are a great deal more subtle currents to monitor. MLK talked about the mountaintop of the middle class, but I'm dealing with the aerodynamics of the winds above the mountains. For now, my kids are high fliers and their wings are steady and growing stronger. This is the constant challenge of being the kind of dad I am, where sometimes having your feet on solid ground doesn't help at all.
So I remind myself of the basics and work not to get caught up in the moment. I only wash the car once a month and retain the Old School. I thought about trading in the BMW for a truck and realized it's past time. So I'll drive it into the ground. I'm remembering that there are still things worth picking out at the Goodwill store, even though we are net contributors by a large margin. I'm remembering that in the long sweep of history that Enrons disappear and Googles appear but the human body remains the same - still glad I can remember matters of haploid and diploid, solar flares and the area of a triangle. Whatever the social skills of my crew, some rules never change and that's where their knowledge must derive. But they will be competent to lead people back around to those central matters. That is my hope.
So far so good. We may go broke in the next year or two - it's anybody's guess in this economy. But so far, in the lower third of the upper middle class, life is good. Very good.