Monday, December 29, 2014

Life on the Edge

The poker game was at our house last night. Six young men and one woman who have been gathering to make trebuchets, perform in and attend plays, design robots and play trash-talking Texas Hold Em for at least ten years. One of them said last night, referring to a wimpy bet by another: "We're not sophomores in high school anymore."

Indeed they are not. They are studying for graduate degrees, acting in England, re-inventing internet marketing, programming for startups. When they are all in town, as for the holidays, they get together for poker, and to me it's just like old times. As Meg and I sit reading in another room, we overhear their happy banter, which ranges from just what is covered by the fourth amendment to the fallacy of sunk cost (as applied to betting, in this case) to the Simpsons. 

I remember the parties my grandfather used to have during the holidays. He would make a beef tenderloin and cheese grits and pound cake and after he made sure everyone was served he would stand by the sideboard and watch as his large family chatted happily. I asked him once why he wasn't joining in, and he said it gave him more joy just to stand back and watch his family enjoy one another so completely.

I didn't understand then, but I do now. When those first poker games started, we were, as parents, still striving to make sure everything went well for our children. We took them places, we worried about whether they were happy, and when their friends came over for poker or to go to one of their plays, or just for anything, we were so happy for them. They were making their own friends, pursuing their own interests, but somehow I still felt responsible for their happiness. I understand that I wasn't, but really, when you're driving to another event or suggesting yet another activity, you begin to think you are making a difference in how well they are adapting to life. You are and you aren't, I suppose.

But now, it's all them. All I have to do, all I can do, is sit back and watch. It's nice, really. Just as my grandfather said. Liberating in a way. They are happy. They are doing it on their own. I don't have to worry. I can go back to just thinking about myself (and Meg) if I want to. I can worry about my novel instead of my children. In fact, given their successes, maybe I should turn my novel over to them.

When the poker games first started and it seemed there would always be children in the house, I would ask them to hold down the volume when I went to bed while they were still playing. I couldn't sleep in those days unless the house was dead quiet. Maybe that was some kind of alert system working within me: only quiet meant everyone was safe. But last night, the laughter and chatter that filtered up to the bedroom felt like my mother's lullabies singing me to sleep, reassuring me with that soft melody that all is well with those I love.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tear Down the Baby Ivies

One of my sons is looking at private schools for his ten-year-old son. The elementary school the boy has been attending has been fine, but in the city, where they live, the quality of public education begins to slip in middle school. They can move to the more affluent suburbs for a good public school, or they can go private. For $25,000 per year. Gulp.

If you can afford private school tuition, or the the price of a house in a rich public school district, you and your children are in luck. In not...well, your kid’s not out of the game, but she can't be average, in motivation or intelligence, if she hopes to compete for college spots with the rich kids. They might not be brighter, but they've got money, and all that money brings: a stable and supportive environment, parents and teachers who have high hopes and expectations for their students.

There was another op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday about how segregated public schools have become, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, and how tough it is for the black kids there who are offered a substandard education compared the their richer neighbors. (“How School Segregation Divides Ferguson—and the United States.”) Here in Palo Alto, California, the public schools are first rate, but right across the freeway, not a mile away, the largely Hispanic East Palo Alto schools struggle for resources and achievement.

Vignettes like those make it sound like racial discrimination is afoot, but if it is it is only indirectly. The problem is not fundamentally one of race, but of economics. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white families today is thirteen times that of black households, and ten times that of Hispanic’s. There are plenty of poor white families too. And most of the children in those poor families—black, white and brown—aren’t getting the education they deserve. Not because of the bigotry that oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow South. Because of money. 

Have money: get a good education, breed, repeat. Have no money: go directly to the daily struggle for existence from which you and your children have a hard time looking up.

There have always been classes, likely always will be. But lately we’re making class differences worse, not better. It’s not right. And it’s not smart. A large, undereducated population is not going to help us innovate and thrive. If only out of self-interest, we desperately need to offer everyone good public education.

The problem is, the people who can fix the problem have only that abstract long-term incentive to do so. We’re not good at abstract long-term incentives (see, e.g., global warming). We get to work when we feel the pressure, when we’ve got skin in the game. So how to give the ruling class skin in the game. Get rid of private schools. At least up through high school.

The notion is positively un-American. I know that. But what’s happening is un-American too. The rich are packing up and leaving the rest behind. For the workers who build our houses, who used to build our cars, who came here from all over the world seeking opportunity, the ladder is bing pulled up. That’s not us. At least I hope it’s not.

Skin in the game means the well-off have to send their kids to public schools. And not just good ones. Somehow, perhaps with a lottery system, we need the movers and shakers to think their kid could end up in any of one of several schools in their area. So it wouldn't do to fix up one school and leave the others in disrepair. Your son might end up at any of them; better make them all good.

As for getting private schools in the first instance, well, that’s a tall order. High taxes on them might be a good starting point. The rationale would be like any tax meant to deal with a negative externality (e.g. a carbon tax), with the negative externality in this case being the education safe havens for scions of the elite, safe havens that leave their influential parents with little incentive to improve public education.

We can do anything. We know that. We do it all the time. But we have to care. And the lesser education opportunity of others just doesn’t seem to be stirring enough of us. We need to bring it home. We need to make it about our kids. Then we’ll get to work on the problem. Our kid will get a good education, and so will everyone else’s. That’s opportunity. That’s why we all came to America. That’s what will keep it the place everyone wants to be, a shining example to the world of what we can do when we pitch in together. Even when we’re only doing it because we have to.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Think I'll Go For a Ride

I heard a nice song on the radio (remember the radio?): "The Ride," by Luka Bloom, an Irish singer. "When the head spins and there is no joy, put me up in the saddle, I'm just a little boy." My son Cord gets the same exhilaration from biking, so I sent him the song. Most excellent, he said. Nice that someone tried to capture the feeling.

Cord lives in Philadelphia, right in the middle of the city. On long rides he breaks free, but he has to get in and out of town. He says it's a bit dodgy on city streets for a biker. It's not that anyone wants to hurt anyone, it's just close quarters with two-ton cars and even bigger trucks and busses. Not to mention the rail track slots that his front wheel slipped into one time. One moment he was gliding, the next he was sitting on the pavement, shaking his head, wondering what happened.

I love to ride too. If I don't get out enough--a few miles to a coffee shop, nothing too serious--I get a little wiggy. Like Cord, I took a tumble off my bike once and got a free ride to the emergency room. More drama than damage, but it makes you cautious.

So I was exercising that caution as I biked home the other day. A long stretch of the street had no bike lane and there were cars parked on both sides. It was comfortable to pass another bike going the other way, or even a small car. But with one coming at me and another coming from behind...gulp. I was glad when the road neared an elementary school and a wide bike lane began. I'd just gotten comfortable in my own safe zone when I had to go around a pickup truck parked in the bike lane. Most people are pretty good about not doing that, but there was a guy in the truck eating his lunch, and as I went by I said, mildly, I thought, "You're parked in a bike lane." I didn't get ten feet before he shouted back, "It's a truck lane too!"

Well, actually it's not. It's only three or four feet wide and it's clearly marked as a bike lane. It's not like he didn't know all this; he was parked right under a sign that said "no parking anytime." I went back and, pretty calmly when you consider that he looked like he was about to have a coronary, I asked him why he was so angry. "I hate bicyclists," he said. "Why?" I asked. "We don't pollute, we aren't noisy. We don't take up much room."

"Because you're all assholes," he said. 

My first experience with lifestyle profiling.

I said, "Look, you're huge (meaning his truck), and I'm little. I just want the buffer zone that a bike lane is meant to provide."

He was seriously red-faced by this time. He said he didn't like being talked down to. Then he repeated that bikers are all assholes, threw his boxed lunch on the seat beside him, and drove off swearing.

When I was a boy, just learning to drive in Tennessee, people used to talk about games involving driving close to groups they disliked--blacks, gays, Jews--and knocking them over by opening the car door as they passed. Bicyclists were sometimes on the list of candidates for roadside mayhem. Having just graduated from a bike, I didn't understand the enmity. I haven't thought about it in years, but apparently it's not just a Southern redneck thing of days gone by. Here was a guy in Palo Alto, not some KKK member, spouting vitriol that would have made those of the white robes and hoods proud.

This story doesn't have a moral. Well, perhaps it does, but I'm not courageous enough to speculate about what it is. Draw your own conclusions. And be careful who you assume doesn't want to hurt you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Some Assembly Required

I'm putting together the bed again. For Chris and Nick. They're coming home to visit for the holidays. It's one of a pair of simple pine beds they slept in all their childhoods. It's a devilish contraption.

We bought the beds when they were toddlers. They were their first beds after cribs. Lovely polished pine planks that were part of a bedroom playground, part of our fantasy for our sons' boyhoods. Chris started out in a room with a mural of a castle with a prince looking out the window at rabbits and squirrels gamboling among tulips. That's what we wanted for him, for both of them. The beds joined together with a platform that had a wooden ladder and a slide. Over the years, we left the castle mural and the ladder and slide behind as we moved here and there, but we kept the beds, carefully disassembling and reassembling them with each move.

What's the big deal about taking them apart and putting them back together, you might ask. Let me tell you. When the bed is made, the design is elegantly simple: long knotty pine side rails with curved edges and matching rails for the head and foot boards; it looks like it was designed in Sweden or Norway. But, when you take off the mattress, you expose the infernal inner workings. They are as beautiful as the exterior, until you take them apart and try to put them back together. Fifteen perfectly bowed, slightly springy struts to hold up the mattress, laced together with lovely red nylon straps. The struts fit into red end caps (thirty of them) that nestle in the side rails. It's that nestling that's the problem. You can't put the bed together and then insert the struts. They won't flex that much. You have to put them into their little red end caps on one side, where they arch to the floor like half a rib cage of a very symmetrical beast. Then you have to slip them into the other side rail as you hook it to the head and foot boards via wooden dowels and beautifully fitting recessed bolts. 

Well, it can't be done. Not by me, at least. I never get more than a couple of struts hooked up to both sides without end caps beginning to rain down onto the floor like red tulip petals (maybe that was the true castle mural metaphor) and me throwing up my hands and, after a few failures, I confess, uttering language I still don't like the boys to hear from their sainted father.

Meg to the rescue. Every time. She's the one of us with the engineering genes. She has a nifty way of sliding the struts on one side partially into the end caps and then fitting them into unattached side rail and carefully lifting and attaching the rail as the struts slip entirely into the caps. It's magic. I never remember it. I never even remember that she can do it. She always just comes to my rescue, as if it were the first time. She's good at helping the males in her life without our realizing how much she is doing. The best kind of love.

We got the bed together last night. Just one. In their old bedroom (which is, in the way of childhood bedrooms, morphing into a guest room) we now have a double bed where one of the boys can sleep. We set up the old boyhood bed in Meg's office. I used the headboard from Chris's bed and the footboard from Nick's. I know which is which because they have plaques on them ("World's Greatest Chess Player," "Star of Stage," etc.) that one of Meg's cousins who is in the trophy business gave them many years ago. That was after castle and slides, in the days of school newspapers and robotics tournaments.

Maybe I should call cousin trophy czar and get updated plaques for the boys. "Start-up Programmer" and "Economics PhD Student." Just thinking about that, about how far they've come (and gone), makes me wonder how they feel about returning to sleep in their old bed. Do they fear some spirit of Christmas Past will possess them when they lie on the mattress on those carefully interlaced struts? Do they look forward to it the way they used to? How does it feel to come home?

I remember going home as a young adult. I think I was like many of us: I looked forward to it in the abstract, loved it for a short time and then pretty quickly got restless to get back to my life as myself, not my parents' child. Do they feel those things? Most likely. For my part, now on the other side of the bargain, when I lace those struts together with those sturdy red nylon straps, struts that are still as taught and polished and lovely as ever, I am lacing together our lives.