American Dreaming

So it’s taken me this long to realize the ways that economic issues are generational. It started last fall, when I was talking to my mom about Occupy Wall Street. I loved how different versions of the Occupy movement dealt with different economic issues, issues that varied according to region as well as the political drives of the members. I felt for the kids in New York and college towns across the country, the kids with BAs (or MAs or PhDs), tens of thousands of dollars in school loans, and no job prospects.With a different role of the dice (or without my willingness to move to Alabama), I could have been in the same boat.

When I saw Shopgirl, the most appealing part of Steve Martin’s whole affair with Claire Danes was the scene where he paid off her student loans.

My mom understood the older protestors in Florida and Nevada, people who bought into the American dream in the form of real estate. She really is in the same boat, not underwater but paying two mortgages. She and my stepdad retired to Florida, but their house in Illinois has been on the market for longer than either of them could imagine.

I thought of them in March when Paul and I saw the revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Willy Loman and his wife Linda constantly talk about the house. When will we pay it off? Why did they hem us in with these apartment buildings? Willy can’t bear to kill himself until after they make the last house payment. “We’re free and clear.”

I’m moving into my first non-parental house ever at the end of June. We’re redoing the floors, painting the walls Silver Screen and Aqua Whisper, buying a new refrigerator. As a long-time dorm- and apartment-dweller, this all seems shockingly permanent. Are we becoming Willy and Linda? Am I taking on that long-suffering-wife mantle, preparing for that time 30 years down the road when I remind my ungrateful kids that “attention must be paid”? It’s a weird feeling, moving consciously from one phase of life to the next.

But I’d thought about that part of “The American Dream” already. What struck me this time around was how Willy’s kids were getting shafted. We see these grown men sleeping at home. One of them, Hap, is a successful businessman who can’t quite move up the corporate ladder because he keeps sleeping with his bosses’ fiancees and wives. The other, Biff, is one of those guys for whom high school was the best time of his life. (I always feel sorry for those guys.) He failed a math class, bailed on summer school, and drifted for the next sixteen years. I know Philip Seymour Hoffman’s a great actor, but Andrew Garfield really killed me as Biff. He had the James Dean/Marlon Brando tear in his voice. He bought his dad’s BS about charm and being well-liked and being a perfect physical specimen as the sine qua non of American culture. Now he’s an insecure kleptomaniac and his nerdy next-door neighbor is arguing a case before the Supreme Court.

It’s hard for me to imagine how parents would feel with a son like that in 1949. But now, 40 percent of young adults move back in with their parents. I’ve been trying to figure out what difference this will make in terms of development, family structures, and the individuation of the self. Will these kids all end up like the one on the Time magazine cover, suckling at their mothers’ teats until everyone looks away in disgust.

Or maybe that’s just my (personal? generational?) reaction. I’ve tried to think about attachment parenting as existing on a continuum with the Badinter/Mad Men-style detachment parenting on the other end. I have no idea where I’ll land until I try it. But it does seem like the attention to children can be read both as an anxiety about economic opportunities later in life and as a swing of the generational pendulum, as Lee Skallerup points out.

I must admit I’ve read less about attachment parenting than I have about the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, especially as it interferes with college-level teaching. Terry Castle wrote an article decrying the closeness between parents and children that she sees in her students, arguing The Case for Breaking Up with Your Parents. We need to separate ourselves from our families, she says, in order to understand ourselves as individuals. Huck Finn did it, Dorothy did it, and by gum so should her Stanford undergrads.

Of course, that separation is more difficult to come by when Americans under 25 have an 18% unemployment rate. Quoting Charles Zigmund in the comments:

The constriction of economic opportunity caused by the Great Recession may necessitate children remaining closer to their parents today than in the past. After all, many are returning to live with their parents after college, as they can’t find work and yet still have to begin to pay back their enormous loans. This may promote a closeness that earlier recent generations, with their better economic prospects, could afford to avoid.

Does class mobility help us avoid inter-generational closeness? Is individuation only for the wealthy? Did I only get to break up with my parents because I was a college student in the peaceful and prosperous Clinton era? I love my mother, but thinking about talking to her 5 and 6 times a day (as Castle’s students do with their parents) makes me shudder.

So this is the first Mother’s Day I’ve spent as a woman who wants to be a mother. Not abstractly, not someday, but soon. I think about what it means to put down roots. I feel grateful for my husband who hyphenated his last name, for the ability to afford electrical work and Silver Screen paint. And so the American Dream gets handed down from mother to daughter.


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May 13, 2012 · 4:57 pm

I’m playing around in the electronic sandbox because I’d like to assign blogging as part of my summer class. I’m more of a Twitter girl myself. I like the rapid-fire sharing of ideas as well as the minimal time commitment. Blogging seems to take more focus. But I’ve heard good things from friends who’ve taught classes with blogging components, and I’m super interested in figuring out how to make English class writing relevant in a sphere other than English classes. So I’ve been asking around, researching, and thinking about how and why this City Cultures class blog will come to pass. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found so far:

Pedagogy and the Class Blog: Mark Sample’s take on how class blogging should be rationalized, hosted, and graded

A couple of Prohacker posts that focus on management and evaluation

Lessons from a first-Time Course Blogger


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May 1, 2012 · 5:11 pm

Alternate titles

Dead-wall reveries (There’s already a blog with this name, though it’s in German.)

Unsweet Tea (Too bitter, too Southern)

Stirring Occasionally (I thought I’d set a higher bar for myself.)


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