Friday, April 25, 2014

Succeeding at the New American Summer

With summer rapidly approaching, the hum and flutter around the nation's capital has to do with a major challenge facing our culture.  Here we are, the most educated, most driven, most competent community in these United States (if we do say so ourselves), and we're wrestling with an existential question that faces every household in America:

What in the name of the Sweet Lord Jesus are we supposed to do with the kids?

Summertime is when our agricultural past comes smashing up against our dual-income present.  The schools let out, just like they always did in the early twentieth century, and the kids come home to help with the planting and the weeding and the harvest.  They'd help, and then they'd run feral, playing and hunting and mucking about.

Only now, that ain't us.  We've got multiple jobs, both spouses, because we've got those huge mortgages to pay on our overpriced houses.  Plus, there are our connectivity bills, and those payments on the cars we need to get to the jobs we have to pay for the cars we need to get to the jobs we have to...well, it goes on like that for a while.

Sort of like pi, only more anxiety-inducing.

And we can't let the pups just go play in the creek, because, well, we're afraid.  We're afraid of danger all around, as the stress-profit-media pours anecdotal woe into our minds.  We're afraid that they'll fail to keep up in a society that is unforgiving to the weak and the slow and the unfortunate.

So the summer must be filled with activities, camps and tutoring sessions.  We tell ourselves that this is for enrichment purposes, that we are creating opportunities, but really?  That's only a part of it.  We do it because God help us, we have work to do.

There are a couple of ways to win at this strange game.

One involves plans and structures, ones that are well into their pre-staging at this point in the year.  This is, of course, the route that most inside-the-Beltway parents take.  There are charts and spreadsheets.  There is color coding.  There's logistical sophistication that reaches planning-for-D-Day levels of complexity.

This is the New American Summer.

When it works, the New American Summer is like an elegant dance of moms and dads and minivans.  It can be a delightfully satisfying contraption, sort of like the wind-up-music-box-feel of a Wes Anderson film, only with camps and children.  Look what we're accomplishing!

Assuming that nothing unexpected happens.  No one gets a stomach flu, or has an unanticipated deadline at work, or has a vehicle break down.

Meaning, it sort of works, some of the time.  And the rest of the time, we bark panicked orders on the smoking, burning bridge of our family starship as the red alert klaxons wail, and wonder what we could possibly have done to avoid this outcome.

For those who manage to pull this off most of the time, I salute you for your ninja parenting skills.

I prefer another approach.

I'm convinced, because I see very little countervailing evidence, that trying to play the game the way our society asks us to play it doesn't work.  Oh, you can force it to work.  You can pour energies into making it work, like pouring fertilizer and insecticides into a Monsanto field.  But I don't have the sustained energy for that Sisyphian task.

So we haven't played the dual-income-with-kids schedule game, because to me it feels like a Kobayashi Maru simulation, one that cannot be won if you play it by the rules.

Our summers for the last decade or so of multi-childing it have involved a balanced level of activity.  There's been the occasional sleep away scout camp, and the everpresent neighborhood swim/tennis team commitment.

And underlying that is an existence that...while busy...makes room for transitions and the inescapable intrusions of entropy.  We're moving quickly, sure, quickly enough to get where we're going.  Warp factor three.  But we're not squeezing every last drop out of the engines at every moment.

My wife?  She works and goes to meetings and presses hard to build her career and her networks.  I don't quite so much, part-timing it, because "success" in this stage of life for me does not mean the striving to clamber up that ladder.  It means: are we together feeding/clothing/sheltering/enjoying this brief time when our offspring are children?

That's the goal.  No one starves.  We don't freeze to death.  And life is worth living, to the point where we wouldn't feel like we'd wasted our lives on scrabbling stress if it all went south. Because you never know when that mass-extinction-event asteroid will come flaming in through the mesosphere.  Maybe tomorrow afternoon, when we're stuck in traffic on our way from baseball practice to that tae kwon do belt ceremony.  Oh, man, we'd say, as our world gets bright.

So to make this possible we have a smaller house, and humble and efficient vehicles.  We have no cable, just a cheap big pipe for the net.  We have a job-and-a-half, and both of us have sacrificed career for stability and nearness to family.  There are tradeoffs, sure.  I do not travel to meetings, or make a point of developing connections.  This is by intent, by discipline.  If I fret that I've not made a name for myself, or worry that maybe I should be doing more, more, more?  I remind myself to step back.  We move a little more slowly.  A little bit.

What is success, after all?  It is reaching a goal.  My goal?  A life of living into my created purpose, instead of a life of striving driven by socially-inflicted anxieties and stresses.  My goal is being in balance enough that stress does not hide my love from my loved ones.  My goal is sanity.

Sometimes, I think that makes me a little crazy.