Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.
By this author
If you bridle at the many advice columns written by and for overinvolved parents, you might want to skip this and stick to dotCommonweal’s usual roster of world events and philosophical inquiries. I want to say a few things—partly confessional—about helicopter parenting, and you might not find them interesting, except perhaps as self-incrimination (mine, that is).
There are plenty of self-diagnostic tests parents can take to “find out” if they are helicopter parents. But the two prominent symptoms are 1) omnipresence, and 2) interference: you want to be there all the time in your child’s life, and you want to fix everything. These are the errors that serve parents up as objects of well-deserved mockery. For instance... University of Georgia administrator Richard Mullendore reported some years back on a student who woke up one morning to discover that her dorm lacked hot water. She called her father, a Georgia bank president, and by 8 AM he had already called Mullendore. (Such excesses are facilitated, Mullendore observed, by what he called “the world’s longest umbilical cord”—the cell phone.) Closer to home, a friend of mine who’s an executive with a large company tells me that it is now far from uncommon for a young college grad to show up in his office for a job interview, accompanied by... guess who?
Nine years ago, when our mother was dying of lung cancer, my sisters and I considered moving her to a hospice. Like many who are dying, my mother viewed hospice with ambivalence and dread, and by the time she agreed, she was too fragile to move. Which was too bad, since the facility I toured—the nation’s first residential hospice, in Branford, CT—was a remarkable place, with an aura of sunlit serenity and a view of the Connecticut coastline that looked strangely Californian.
Like many Americans, I do some “guilty pleasure” reading each summer. Do you make this distinction? For me, guilty pleasure means a novel I enjoy reading, even can’t put down, but don’t particularly admire. During a recent vacation I read four novels: Eight Black Horses, by Ed McBain; The Girl on the Train, the bestseller by Paula Hawkins; Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity; and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by the Anglo-Australian novelist, Evie Wyld. Two guilty pleasures; two un-guilty.
Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.
What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,” faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed? But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:
1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.
2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.
3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.
Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.
Every summer for two weeks we rent a cabin in the woods of Vermont while our nine-year-old daughter goes to a Quaker-run farm and wilderness day camp nearby. Our getaway seats us in the very lap of nature. Birds of all kinds sing outside our windows; giant variegated moths drowse on the screens; the staccato tree work of woodpeckers forms a background percussion. Some unidentifiable creature howls in the woods at 2 a.m. That’s enough to make me rethink sleeping outside in my tent.
But what truly scares some potential renters of the cabin, its owner tells me, is not the presence of wild animals, but rather the absence of something else: internet. The cabin, christened “Off the Grid,” offers no TV, no WiFi, no computers, no cellphone reception. To make a call, we drive a mile down the road to a little spot between the hills where you can get a signal. To triage my email, I drive over to Woodstock twice a week and spend half an hour on the computers at the library.
The prospect of an unplugged vacation turns out to be highly polarizing. “It pretty much instantly rules out two-thirds of the people who inquire,” the cabin’s owner says. “The other third wouldn’t have it any other way.”
We are—and very happily—in that other, neo-Luddite third.
My jeremiads on the topic of handheld-addiction and digital distraction are well known to my friends. Among those friends are many who, in theory anyway, share my belief that digital devices have become a kind of mass addiction, yet still find it really hard to unplug for any substantial period. That’s a widespread reality these days. Every few months, it seems, I read an essay breathlessly touting some device-free getaway camp whose adult attendees rhapsodize proudly about unplugging—for a weekend!
Being away from screens for two weeks poses some logistical challenges, especially in trying to clear work and correspondence away beforehand—and catch up afterward. But the benefits, for my wife and me anyway, outweigh them. Time and space to read more. To exercise and be outdoors more. To prepare a real meal, instead of throwing something together in haste, as is (alas) too often the rule at home.
And, most of all, de-screening spurs conversation.
David Brooks wrote recently in the Times about what he calls “The Robert E. Lee Problem.” The column assesses the implications of scrubbing symbols of the Confederacy from the South and elsewhere. By now the Confederate battle flag has come down from the South Carolina statehouse and elsewhere (I’m fascinated by the tipping-point dynamics of this move -- once Walmart gets on board, you know the thing is irreversible). But what about other symbols and figures that may bear a similarly odious taint?
Among the historical figures dear to the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee is paramount – and the map of the South is dotted with sites bearing his name. Brooks notes that Lee was, in his private life, a man of rectitude, intelligence and charm. Yet he joined the slave-owning insurgency, betrayed his oath of duty as an officer, owned nearly 200 slaves himself, and led the forces of a rebellion that triggered the deaths of 750,000 Americans. Should he come down, along with the Stars and Bars?
Brooks says yes. “Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture,” he writes. “We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain.” He goes on to recommend removing Lee’s name from “most schools, roads and other institutions.”
I lived for years in Germany, among places and institutions dedicated to opponents and victims of the Nazis – all those Bonhoeffer Platzes and Sophie-Schollstrassen, streets and schools named for the rejected and reviled, the murdered and the martyred. There were no Himmler Parks to be found anywhere. Nor would anyone expect there to be. When a country is vanquished, or a despised ruling power toppled, the transitions of memorialization are simple: the statues come down. In a civil war, the challenge can be more complicated – especially one, like ours, in which a high premium was placed on national political reconciliation, and certain core conflicts and resentments were never worked out.
I found myself wincing at a recent article in the Times, titled “The Slow Extinction of Keys in a Digital World,” reporting on the dwindling use of traditional car keys and their replacement by various digital devices. The article describes the efforts of Tesla, BMW and other upscale car manufacturers to develop iPhone apps that let you unlock the car, start the engine, turn up the AC, and so on.
And I think, no, not keys!
I’ve often noted this instinct in myself, and a corresponding paradox: liberal in my political views, I’m temperamentally conservative in my approach to daily life. (Turns out it’s a fairly common paradox, and vice versa as well.) Put bluntly, I can’t stand change. All too often, my secret plea to the world boils down to a high-school yearbook banality: Don’t change! Stay as you are!
And change, of course, is life.
At least regarding technology, this aversion to change is clearly tied to aging. Anxiety about functioning in a world ever full of new gadgetry is a hallmark of middle age, especially in a youth-glorifying and technologically dynamic culture like ours. I recall my astonishment, twenty-five years ago, when my father – who was sixty at the time -- mentioned that he didn’t use ATMs. I asked why not.
“I don’t know how they work,” he said, sheepishly.
I was incredulous. “Dad, you’re a brain surgeon!” And took him to the nearest ATM and showed him how to use it.
But there’s also your sense of yourself in your world, in your life, and how you engage it, not so much functionally as existentially. The temperamental conservative wants the world to stay as it is – even, or perhaps especially, in the trivial, physical furnishings and realities that make up the dailiness of one’s life. Brand names and packaging, who’s on the ten dollar bill, state license plates, the musical theme introducing the nightly news, and on and on. Stay as you are!
Transgender issues have loomed large these past months. In May a series of editorials in The New York Times, titled “The Quest for Transgender Equality,” presented stories of transgender Americans as narratives of personal struggle and liberation, ringingly evoking the civil-rights struggles that are centerpieces of contemporary liberalism. Then came the rollout of Bruce Jenner’s new identity as Caitlyn, with all the attendant hoopla.
I move in liberal-progressive circles where these breakthroughs for trans people are hailed with unanimous approval. Yes, there may be a dissenting note here and there (e.g., Eleanor Burkitt’s dyspeptic op-ed, “What Makes a Woman?”), but only over peripheral issues, like whether the particular image Jenner chose for her Vanity Fair cover, evoking a Playboy bunny from the 1960s, insulted feminists. The underlying notion – that changing one’s gender identification is a liberation to be celebrated – is never challenged. Indeed, if you do challenge it, you risk being labeled a hater.
I doubt there’s a single issue that makes me feel a wearier sense of confusion, and in some ways ideological exclusion, than that of transgender life. Being so far apart from other liberal/progressives makes me wince. In late April, listening to a segment of NPR’s On Point about Jenner, I found myself uncomfortably bristling at the self-congratulatory tone of the commentary. Host Tom Ashbrook and his guests (one of them a psychiatrist and co-author of “a resource guide written for and by transgendered people”) treated it as self-evident that all Americans should greet Jenner’s revelations as a triumphant cultural and political moment. Their enthusiasm exuded the implicit sense that there simply isn’t any ground to stand on for anyone who might have qualms about transgenderism.
Yet I do.
A first-time Commonweal blog entry for me, and while in future entries I’ll take up books, politics, movies (I’ve been one of your reviewers for fifteen years now) or whatever, today I’ll be more personal. Right now it’s 5:30 AM, I’ve got a cup of coffee, and I want to convey that moment when you feel your family’s life gathering its breath for the summer to come. We’re an early-rising bunch (and early to bed -- alas!); my wife Molly is out walking the dogs, and our daughter Larkin, who recently finished third grade, is asleep in her room with her friend Fiona in the top bunk bed. A sleepover!
I’m turning fifty-six, and for most of my friends the kid sleepover era is long gone. But Molly and I got started late at all this; she was almost forty, and I almost fifty, when Larkin was born. Thus we’re wildly out of synch with most people our age -- as I was reminded at my recent thirty-fifth college reunion, where many of my classmates were fresh from their kids’ college graduations. Anyway, do you remember what it was like when you were up early and your child was still asleep, with a sleepover pal? The silence is blissful! You have that satisfying sense of being a temporary custodian of precious lives, which really is the essence of being a parent.
I spent a few minutes on the front porch, drinking coffee and waiting for the newspaper guy to deliver the Times. We have a family of rabbits living somewhere in our yard (in Hartford, Conn.), and they’ve gotten sufficiently inured to people that they barely look up when you appear. So I watched Brer Rabbit munch for a while. Our newspaper delivery guy is a thirtyish-year-old man who delivers the paper by hurling it from his moving car, without slowing down. This is mortal peril for my tiger lilies, and I keep meaning to ask him to aim for the lawn, not the front walk. But by the time I amble down into the yard, he has roared on. And I hesitate to mar his business plan, anyway.
My mother died nine years ago, when Larkin was just six months old, and after that I took up gardening. My mom was a skilled and joyous gardener, and I’d always intended to spend some time with her in her garden and learn the tools and tricks of the thing. And then she was gone, and I regretted not having done it.
I am mesmerized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the ex-professional wrestler cum action-film hero. Did you know he is 6’ 5” and 262 pounds, wears size 14 shoes—and has a 34-inch waist? Watching his mammoth, sculpted body and boulder-like bald head dominate the screen feels like standing below Rushmore; there’s something distinctly geological about him.