Friday, April 5, 2013

Citizens of the Future

A couple months ago I scaled back the writing here. I've been posting only once a month after about five years of weekly entries. At first the absence of bilious dread in the pit of my stomach, after pecking away on Wednesday and Thursday and producing nothing but drivel, was a huge relief. But back in the weekly post days, after I suffered with writer's block and own capacity for inanity, somehow I was always able to throw something together by Friday afternoon. I always felt good coming home for Shabbat and knowing that in some sense I had sewn up the week. This grind was abandoned because I thought it would free up some time for other writing. I do have a novel in the works but my progress has been erratic. The weekly struggle to make my concerns interesting enough to read about must have been a panacea for more than just keeping up writing momentum. Since there's no self-imposed mandate to give them a writerly spin, my problems have become incredibly boring. I find myself in a melancholic fog.

Perhaps it was my disciplined blogging that kept me sane three years ago when Joe College was in the application throes. Or maybe post traumatic stress syndrome has clouded my memory. Spuds is interviewed, due to his sixteen college applications, by the radio show Marketplace for a piece about college application and the Internet. He tells the interviewer that he, and most of the kids he knows, relied on ranked lists of the most selective colleges. We did some school visits and looked at class size, the percentage of students who actually graduate and naturally, famous alumni. Schools reported as being “need met” or generous with financial aid were given extra attention. Nevertheless, the choices available and the enormous amount of information disseminated via Internet induces vertigo. Spud's list is based partly on online research but also anecdotal reports from friends and gut feelings. One school, Rhodes College in Memphis, is chosen because the campus looks beautiful when visited by sex expert Dan Savage for the MTV show Savage U. There is a great liberal arts program at Rhodes so it wasn't just the sex show.

Spuds is wait-listed at four schools and gets the cyber version of the thin envelope from six others. He applies to half a dozen schools that are ranked as being among the most selective. The cachĂ© of selectivity generates more and more applications so the ante's up each year as naturally the percentage of admitted applicants decreases. Ultimately, Spuds is accepted at six schools and three of these he feels would be good fits. Spuds, however is stung by the rejections even though he knows that his chances are slim when he applies.  In his radio interview he acknowledges that people mainly apply to schools considered the very most selective with “feel good about self “objectives. He didn't mention that rejection by these “reach” schools, or any other school, foments a heavy duty “feel bad about self.”

I hate the thought of him feeling rejected. I blather on about the excellence of the schools that did choose him. One is a U.C. I point out that neither of his math challenged but not unintelligent parents would have been able to even consider applying to any of the Universities of California. But he hurts. All I can really do is remind him of how beloved he is, which probably makes the humiliation more bearable than if I treated him like shit. Still, I know that for the rest of his life the mention of one of the colleges that passed him over will produce a sting. I hope the tiny stab is followed a rush of glee at how well it all turned out.

I never thought when the kids were born that we'd be so reliant on financial aid. To tell my kid we can't afford to send him to any college he selects is not what I would have predicted. As I try to buoy Spuds' spirits I cannot help feel that to a large extent we are in this position due to choices I've made, some asinine, some selfish. It's just like the thin letter from an uber-selective college. If someone I know confessed to feeling this way I would shriek at the ridiculousness of equating financial success to self worth. Yet, after months of wrangling with financial aid forms and tax returns I feel small and pathetic.

Even if all of the 16 colleges he applied to accepted Spuds, Himself and I have our hearts set on Bard. Although Spuds suggests that our obsession with it is becoming a turn-off, it is his first choice too. We are invited to an admitted student meeting for L.A. kids with Bard president and cultural luminary Leon Botstein at a home in Beverly Hills. Spuds ignores my suggestion he wear a bow tie in homage to Botstein's trademark neckwear. My prospective student's only concession to the occasion is wearing clean shoes and pants without holes. The gathering is in the flats but there is no doubt about the prosperity of our hosts, whose son attends Bard. I note the cars in front, hoping for high end vehicles to connote no need for financial aid. There are some shiny status symbols but also a number of Volvos as battered as mine and a few Prius's so old they bear carpool lane stickers. I predict that perhaps a dozen kids will be there, considering the school enrollment is about 2000 but there are well more more than fifty. One boy wears a bow tie. Hor d'oeuvres are passed by uniformed servers. Several good wine choices are offered at the bar. It's been a long time since I was in a crowded social setting where I don't know a soul. Spuds and I whisper to each other about how awkward we feel. I remedy this by chugging a glass of good Cabernet and am emboldened to strike up a conversation with another mom. Spuds hovers in fear that tipsy mom will embarrass him. For some reason when I drink my volume tends to increase at the same rate as my inhibitions decrease. I hope the crowded room is noisy enough so this isn't too conspicuous. I can tell Spuds is pleased that his financial aid award won't be encroached upon when it's revealed that daughter of my acquaintance attends a hoity toity private school.

I down another big glass of wine before the question and answer session is called to order although, given the prospect of standing through the whole presentation, Two-Buck Chuck and a couple of dozen folding chairs would have been OK too. Botstein is introduced. I've seen him several times on Colbert but extemporaneously fielding miscellaneous questions he is absolutely mind blowing. Hours of careful composition could not have yielded me responses as eloquent and honest as Botstein's off the cuff remarks. Botstein has been president of Bard for over thirty five years and also has an illustrious career as a composer and conductor. He is asked why he's stayed at Bard for so long. He posits that he gets more done by staying in the same place, liberated from distracting change. He adds, careful to point out that he is not eliciting pity but merely because he is asked and it pertains to his longevity at the school, that his young daughter died when struck by a car. She is buried on the Bard campus.

From the parent session we attended on the campus I remember the provost noting that Bard is a private institution committed to the public good. I ask Botstein how this vision is carried across the disciplines at a school where few of the students set out to be social workers. “We're not Quakers,” he responds. “If you want to be a do-gooder, go to Haverford.” Bard, he explains is more focused on the salubrious effects of finely honed critical thinking than on selflessness for selflessness' sake. Botstein's Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture summarizes the school's vision, “The university can be a center for and a model of cultural creation, debate, service, and political exchange among citizens of the future, one that is dominated not by commerce and a narrow definition of utility, but by a love of learning.”

Spuds other two college possibilities are outstanding too but we have a special affinity for Bard and all that it will nurture. The sound of the mailman closing the box induces palpitations. Spuds has received good financial aid offers from the other two possible schools but has yet to hear from Bard. The final decision about where Spuds will spend the next four years, a decision that will certainly resonate through his entire life, rests on Bard's offer. Spuds says the not knowing is hard. I cannot help but think that if I'd been a better financial manager he wouldn't be in this position.

I edit a year's worth of blog entries into a full length memoir. I spend a year editing it. It is the best thing I have ever done. Hearing again and again how impossible it is to get representation for anything other than young adult fiction and about the woes of the publishing industry I know it will be a slog. I'm not too disheartened by the first few rejections. Then, the complete lack of response and a couple form rejection letters correlate with a long writing dry spell except for monthly blog entries. Suddenly, a couple months in, there are two requests in the same week to look at the full manuscript. I go through it chapter by chapter, not having read it for a while. I still think it's good. Both agents respond favorably to the writing but don't think it's a good time to pitch a memoir. I continue to send it out and have made only a small dent in the list of possible agents but I send it out on automatic pilot and keep my feelings neutral. There is a steady stream of rejections and for each one I query yet another agent. Perhaps I'll run out of prospective agents and publishers and there will be no further interest in the work of which I am so proud. Sometimes I feel like a jerk for having spent so much time on it. Just like the list of selective colleges, the odds are against me. So much “feel bad about self” and so very little “feel good.”

I will remember my stack of rejection letters. Spuds will remember the schools that didn't want him. Spud's list is far shorter and his number of years to get over the slights are likely greater than mine. I remind him that the schools who turned him down knew him only from an application whereas after his personal interview at Bard he was notified of his acceptance just a few days later. I try to model resilience and perseverance although while Spud's life's work is far ahead of him, mine feels to be precariously on the line. But, I devalue the people who read what I write here regularly when I am made morose by the rejections of agents whose interest in my work is purely monetary. Even if it is more nature than nurture I discredit the people my children are becoming when I surrender to the “feel bad about self” inclinations. Ultimately my kids will be a better force in the world than any words I can string together. The prescription I think is to go back to writing here every week. I feel better for having written this. Perhaps this pep talk to myself will make someone else feel better too or my problems will be as boring to others as they often are to myself.

Shabbat Shalom.


Mike Maginot said...

I am glad you have chosen to go weekly again.

My own Damn Blog said...

As one of your biggest fans, please delight me by returning to the weekly composition. Thanks!

FionnchĂș said...

I didn't get to post this 'til after Mike + Cari, but I concur with the return to weekly blogging. You can see it caught me off guard as I saw the post announced first on FB. For the record, literally, not much to add to a typically fine piece but this link to the NPR Marketplace: Forget Tuition, Just Applying to College Can Cost Thousands. xxx me