Ending the Year Talking About the Best Kind of 20-Year Olds

Nearly perfect pecan pie
Nearly perfect pecan pie

The world is rightly preoccupied with the details, perspectives, and aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I have said my piece here. One day just before Christmas, as I blogged and read the news and generally wallowed in the injustices of the world late into the evening, my cell phone rang. It was a 20-year old young man I have known since he was a tot, and he was calling to say he was on our front porch because he did not want to startle us by ringing the doorbell. He and his friend came by to deliver…pecan pie. Pecan pie that they made from scratch (crust and all) that they wanted me to taste and critique so they could make a second pie even later that night. Home from college, they were following up on a pie tutorial they had from our neighbor over Thanksgiving break. The pie they brought me was nearly perfect – better than I’ve ever made, for sure – and they asked me to pull out all of my many pie plates and tins to see if they should try a different sized dish for the next version. I’m not sure if you can justifiably say that deconstructing a pecan pie recipe is a life affirming experience, but I will happily go out on that limb. Watching the meticulous, bright-eyed enthusiasm these guys showed as we discussed how to improve their recipe (it came out eventually that the perfected pie would be proffered to a girl the next day) was the closest I came to pure joy in those days following the tragedy.

As the holidays have progressed, it is this newest emerging generation that gives me the most smiles, the most hope, and the most confidence that we will emerge from this era of dysfunction and despair with our souls intact. I love you guys.

College: They pay for laundry nowadays but are we still being taken to the cleaners?

A friend called me to consult about a high school graduation gift for my daughter and said one her ideas was to give my girl rolls of quarters to use in the laundry machines in the dorm. We often joked about how we never did break the habit of hoarding quarters for laundry and still cashing them in at the supermarket every couple of years. Being a thorough person, she called my daughter’s college to find out if the machines still take quarters and discovered that students no longer have to pay to do laundry at school – it’s covered under the exorbitant tuition (they do offer to send it out for a fee – I wonder who does that?). My theory is that as soon as the college went from women only to co-ed in the late 80s they figured that if the machines were free the guys would be more likely to do laundry. But even as late as 2005 students were paying, so I have to wonder if it became a selling point with parents – “Look! If you go into debt up to your eyeballs your kid will still have clean clothes.” Or something like that.

But with the recent flap at the University of Virginia and others like it (they basically fired their President for not being prescient about the economic downturn and a patsy for big donors), I am beginning to wonder if the education we are about to pay for will become obsolete. College is important, yes, but has the one we have chosen to give our daughter the kind of education she needs? Any number of families we know have seen their freshmen turn on their heels and return home, saying the schools are not providing the kind of teaching they expected or want. Kids have always come back home, of course, for any number of good reasons – I took a year off myself to regroup emotionally and financially – but part of it seems to be that students are not satisfied to learn in a lecture hall what they can easily look up on the Internet. Somebody, somewhere is probably designing a degree program based entirely on TED talks. MIT and Harvard have seriously upped the ante on online learning – for free, for now – and now all universities are scrambling to figure out what that means, whether they should copy the Edex, as it is called, model and whether they can afford to. But I don’t want my child to learn online or at home. She learned how to use the internet for research in high school, and lucky for us her the actual teaching environment at her high school is low tech – it’s an essential school, which means it values dialogue and critical thinking more than anything else. If she finds herself in a lecture hall she may roll her eyes but she’ll stick around and listen.

What’s even more worrisome is the message that all the college and high school graduates are hearing this year: that it doesn’t matter how educated they are, come graduation day they will not be able to find a job. Just this evening I heard my girl tell her younger brother that when he ventures off to college in several years she will probably be back living at home – not a terrible fate but not the one most young adults (or their parents) have in mind. These days it seems easier to instill values than it is to instill optimism. I keep trying to think of my parents, growing up during the Depression and then World War II and how they never could have foreseen the prosperity that came after those times. They said that during the 1950s, it was like the sun coming out for the first time after a long winter. While we have not endured the same kinds of darkness they did, we are nonetheless steeped in a fog of misinformation and cynicism that gives us no clear path back into the light. Even the foundations of faith and democracy feel less solid than they once did – why should academia be immune?

Hope springs eternal, though – and I cling to the cliché. I recall the moment last fall when our girl was perched on the edge of her seat in one of those lecture halls at the school she will attend, listening to a professor reveal the threads of evolution in a Victorian poem. I see the books pile up in her room that are summer reading for fun (Nabokov? Seriously?), I hear her name the movies she wants to see this summer and note not a single zombie or vampire walks among them. And I remind myself – again – that the way we acquire knowledge is less important that the way we prioritize, sift and synthesize it, and the way we apply it is most important of all. Whether colleges and universities are funding that process – and putting salaries and teaching fellowships ahead of laundry services and coffee bars – is what we are about to find out.

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

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