Monday, December 1, 2008

All the things that were down...

This summer I read a MySpace post by a teenager here who was struggling to find his own identity while his parents were losing theirs. As I recall, he described how his parents' shrinking income was leading to new household spending rules. At Christmas his father had said not to expect presents. He overheard his mother contemplating divorce. His father always looked grim. The kid got a part-time job at Mickey D's to help the family out. He was hoping he would be able to afford a new video game but thought maybe this wasn't a good time. He was laying these thoughts out to the world on a public space where anyone could comment, but sadly, no one had much to say.

The affluent life of the young in this town was most obvious when you drove past the high school parking lots. The teachers' lots were filled with 10-year old Accords, Dodge minivans, and VWs. Over in the student parking lots the leased BMWs, Lexi, and Escalades lined up one after another in neat rows, glistening under the Arizona sun. In many families the older teens were responsible for picking up their younger siblings after school, or doing the family grocery shopping. It made sense for the older kids to be the family chauffeurs.

The rushed lifestyle of the upwardly mobile created a sort of concierge class among their young. We first noticed this phenomenon in California, when our landlord sent his teenage son over to collect our rent check. The landlord had several ranch houses built in the 70s which had become his property ladder to a Simi Valley mansion. His young adult children all lived at home, providing that essential ingredient to an oversized dwelling, life. When a tenant or maintenance man stopped by the landlord's house, one of the children would always appear at the front door with a friendly greeting.

This became typical in many homes. While Moms and Dads put in long hours at the office their kids took charge at home. Thus it was the children who let in the Merry Maids who cleaned the two-story, 2500-square foot houses, it was the children who unlocked the gates for the gardener and the pool man, who signed for packages delivered by UPS, who filled the fridge with groceries from AJs and Whole Foods, and it was the children who drove the younger kids to soccer practice or the orthodontist. In this way the children acquired a sense of ownership, status, and responsibility from the wealth provided by their parents.

But in many, many of these homes we know now that Mom and Dad were living on borrowed money in order to keep maintaining the illusion of wealth. The middle class hoped that with the appearance of prosperity they and their children would never suffer from a lack of self-confidence, as this is the most highly desired American virtue. "Fake it until you make it" was the much repeated mantra of recent decades. Or as Virgil said long ago, "They are able because they think they are able."

During the years of funny money the middle-class children of Phoenix and Scottsdale were snuggled in their parents' safety nets. For those who have never known a life driven by necessity the nets were taken for granted, part of the fabric of life. This comfortable illusion was not seen as a handicap in a world where competition for basic necessities becomes ever more extreme but rather as an invisible cloak worn against poverty, like something donned by a superhero.

The primary selling point of the suburbs was the suggestion of an untroubled, harmonious world, a safe place to raise children who got out of school several hours before their parents left work. The 'burbs were always more of a dream than a reality. The suburban kids who watched their families' fortunes change because of divorce may be psychologically better prepared for the adjustment in identity that comes when family fortunes fall apart. Children of divorce already know that great sadness can emerge from behind the facade of carefully groomed houses and that chaos can spill out onto silent sunlit streets.

And some lucky kids are born anchored in reality with gifts of humor, empathy, and common sense that will help see them through tough times, no matter what. No less an authority than Dr. Seuss promised that the children can cope:

"Have no fear of this mess,"
Said the Cat in the Hat.
"I always pick up all my playthings
And so...
I will show you a another
Good trick that I know!"

Then we saw him pick up
All the things that were down.
He picked up the cake,
And the rake, and the gown,
And the milk, and the strings,
And the books, and the dish,
And the fan, and the cup,
And the ship, and the fish.
And he put them away.
Then he said, "That is that."
And then he was gone
With a tip of his hat...'

We are all Cat in the Hat now, picking up the things that are down.

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