The kids are approaching life decisions, and economics and social strata have been on my mind.

My mom’s folks were German-American and Irish-American, working hard to melting pot out anything ethnic about them, and willing themselves into the middle class. My dad’s folks had more generations in this country, with a possible distant great-cousin on the Mayflower. Both parents assumed their kids would go to college, and my parents went, I suspect without a word of discussion. They met at Alleghany College in the 50s. With their degrees, dad took the risky route, refusing to join his dad’s insurance business, instead hitching his star to a typewriter company. IBM took them to Kentucky and then Texas where I was raised. It turned out pretty well.

It was likewise assumed that I’d go to college, and as a people pleaser, I was happy to do it, giving my folks, my professors, and anyone else what they wanted. (Mostly. I did come out and start a Gay Lesbian Support Group, which was a surprise to all of us, but which turned out not to be such a radical thing before too long.)

Education let me put off the scary real world, and I don’t think it ever crossed my mind not to go. I took for granted that I would find a place in the middle class, maybe without thinking about it. I felt entitled. At one point, feeling low or insecure about the future, my dad said to me “Whatever you do, you’ll be a classy guy. If you are a bum, you’ll be a classy bum.” As always in this country, economic and social values get mixed up here. I think he was speaking of kindness, decency, and self worth. He would have considered these “middle-class” values. He pictured my manners and upbringing, and it went without saying my whiteness, protecting me even if I otherwise didn’t make enough money to qualify.

This wasn’t forced on me, I was all in. In high school drama, we learned to bend our Texanisms towards American Standard pronunciation. “Get” and “Been” were not pronounced git and bin, but geeeet, and beeeeen. Big wide vowels like Audrey Hepburn. Classy.

In college, I met people who were into fancy food. Newly bred bell peppers that were red and yellow, not just green, had been introduced! This was the height of gastronomy. I tried to serve my dad pesto sauce that I’d made — fresh! — and he responded with a horrified “But it’s green!” I met people who went to museums to look at the art, and decided I should be a person who appreciates art, dance, and architecture.


For probably shallow reasons related to social status, I did learn about these things. And grew to enjoy them. My taste in movies broadened; my favorites were films that baffled my dad. (My mom died before the era of Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, so it’s impossible to know what she would have thought, though I’m sure she would have at least pretended to like something about them.)

When I got my first job, I become a member of SFMoMA, and over time joined lots of museums, until parenting kind of paused my fine arts time.

This was a long time ago. While I leave open the door for surprises and new directions, I suspect I’m substantially the person I will be.

But the kids! I now get to see the decisions they’re making, consciously or not, about who they want to be.

I probably don’t have to tell you that despite their wonderful uncles and aunts with sophisticated cultural tastes, the kids are not big fans of museums. To be fair, I didn’t know about museums beyond the science museum either at their age.

College has taken a hit in the popular imagination, with dropouts making silicon valley riches, and schools priced out of all reason. Plenty of their peers are not planning on college. For years the kids delighted in telling us “College is Stupid” or “I’m not going!” I believe it was mostly just an easy button to push, fun to watch us turn purple. Yet I suspect a not insubstantial part of this next generation wonders if it’s worth it. While their schools have plenty of kids with overeducated parents on the college track, their heads are sometimes turned by peers for whom school doesn’t mean much in their family. Where I see the effects of our gross inequality, and low expectations, the kids seem to sense freedom from the treadmill.

Today I feel calm about this, but some days it strikes terror in my heart. My inner control freak has to let my kids have their own stories and struggles. They have to decide who they’ll be and what they’ll like. Their grammar can be atrocious. My fears of “wrong choices” or disaster is probably more about my own upbringing than about them. What’s a wrong choice? And why would I get to say what it is? As their parents we are responsible for showing them our values and how we see the world, but they have to live in it, and make their own way.

As the time gets closer both kids are leaning toward college, for better future pay in one case, and for a path to the NFL in another. I can’t say either reason is better than mine, which was “everyone’s doing it.” But they’re not taking for granted that it’s the only path. Maybe that’s a good thing.