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The Urban Man

Blood and Water

by Marc Porter Zasada

LIKE MANY OF YOU who read this newspaper, the Urban Man imagines that someday, blood will again prove thicker than water. Like you, I figure that somehow, as the Industrial Age comes to a close, the older laws of human nature will re-assert themselves. Like you, I envision unbreakable ties among my four children and my four children’s children. Like you, I picture family compounds and granny flats, cousins in family businesses, close work with sons and daughters. I have no distinct plan, but I picture the tight-knit ethic of homeschooling somehow surviving distant colleges and career paths – even the fragmentation of modern America itself.

Still, I know the odds against this dream are long – and worse, I know that over time, the dream itself may prove a dangerous illusion.

Just now it’s late on a Sunday afternoon, and I have bicycled to the massive Redondo Beach pier in Los Angeles with my serious and gentle daughter, recently 14. We lock our rusty steeds side by side, and make our way through an ugly concrete parking garage to the open air, where a large crowd strolls among the fast food restaurants and souvenir shops, or fishes in the vast waves rolling below. A sea breeze kicks up, and carries the scent of fried food. Gulls circle and cry. Skateboards crash. Boom boxes boom.

It’s a "family destination," and for a time, we watch couples with young children amble toward the sunset and I point out to my daughter how alike they appear: Chubby parents lead chubby kids. Fathers and sons sport the same gaudy cottons. Furtive illegal aliens in dark, unobtrusive clothing carry huge tackle boxes, and trail equally furtive offspring with plastic buckets. Nervous Westside types lead nervous Westside tykes.

For a time we laugh about this "peas-in-a-pod" picture of family life, and find it charming. Certainly we both take a moment to recall the close, intense nature of our homeschooled clan: not just dressing alike, but using the same words and attitudes, reading the same books, engaged in the same projects, able to complete one another’s thoughts.

And then, lo, a moment later, we spot a dark-eyed 19-year-old cutting through the crowd and out into the wind by herself: beautiful, unafraid, and loose-limbed in her short white camisole and satin pants. No longer a child, she carries a denim purse and wears rope sandals, and we both know she has recently seen one of a thousand Hollywood movies about breaking away -- about redefining oneself and going it alone.

Briefly, the sunlight seems to catch her out, like a spotlight. I need not mention that her parents and siblings are nowhere in sight, and how, if they were, they would not wear similar clothing. I need now mention how glad she is to be here without them. In fact, because I live in the modern world, the Urban Man knows this girl’s life in a single glance: The job at the record store, the night classes, the smoldering look of her boyfriend. At the very least, I know that later tonight she’ll be sitting on a threadbare couch in a West Hollywood apartment not calling her parents. And I know her parents will be awaiting her rare, hurried phone calls in their big empty nest, lost somewhere in the rambling grid of the city.

At once, I repeat to myself the ritual argument I have made a hundred times: "Not in my family. Not my daughter. Not like this. Surely, my children will not have to make it on their own, will not have to lose themselves to a bright and pitiless city – and surely I will not have to try to make it without them. Surely I have found some charm, some homeschooler’s secret to prevent such a future." And again, as I have done so many times, I speculate that even now, in Asia or Europe or the Deep South or the Far North or the backwoods of the Midwest or somewhere they still build those rambling compounds or collect in villages. Surely somewhere, even now, a few 22-year-olds still chat handsomely at family gatherings or enthusiastically take up a family enterprise. Surely, at this moment, a grandparent, somewhere, has spent a busy afternoon converting a den into a baby room.

And on this late Sunday afternoon, the Urban Man deliberately directs his daughter’s attention away from the beautiful, independent girl-woman in the rope sandals. Deliberately, I turn and walk away toward the end of the pier, where the sun is preparing to drop beneath a dark band of clouds.

"Won’t be much of a sunset tonight," I say. "And it’ll be getting cold soon."

"How much longer do we have, daddy?" she asks.

"As long as we want. No hurry."

And as we lean against the rail, I do not say aloud: "Stay close by me, oh my serious and gentle girl."

But strangely, the 19-year-old in the white camisole and rope sandals comes to lean just beside my daughter, not five feet away along the rail. Her long black hair blows wildly and her denim purse hangs precariously over the waves. And of course, she allows a smile – directed at no one but herself – to break across her face. And yes, although this L.A. girl-woman represents a threat to my life’s work, there’s a certain insouciant courage about her which I, too, find immediately appealing. I have to admit she walks like an inspiring icon of individual American life – like a poster you could sell in one of these souvenir shops with the headline: "Out on Her Own And Loving It."

After all, I too have seen those thousand Hollywood movies about breaking loose. After all, I too broke away. I too learned to "make it on my own." And suddenly, I remember a dozen recent conversations in which proud parents have told me about the moments when their children have shown "a proper love of independence." When eighteen or nineteen-year-olds have at last shown themselves men or women – eager for risk and adventure. These parents speak proudly of the moment their children suddenly grew irritated with close family life, grew impatient to sail off into the waters of their own brave new world, grew eager to rub off their rough edges on the rough edges of the city. I remember these parents saying things like, "And you know, I can’t wait to get her out of the house."

And for a time I wonder if they are right and I am wrong. For a time, my mind heads down a long-forgotten track about "the value of self-reliance." For a time, that cloying and hackneyed phrase, "there comes a time to cut the apron strings" clangs loudly in my ears. Suddenly, it’s louder than the waves or the gulls or the boom boxes. And following a brief but terrifying review of history, I remember how Americans once came to this continent to escape the restrictions of family and compound and village. I think, "My Lord, don’t people grow to hate each other, all crowded together like that? Aren’t mothers-in-law intolerable and don’t next-door brothers intrude? I’ve heard those talk shows and seen those situation comedies: How can I escape their great truths? How can I tie my children to some old-fashioned fantasy, no matter how beautiful and how sincere it may be?"

And yes, for the first time in a long time I begin to doubt the happy dream, and feel a little helpless against the great sea of modern life. In fact, I begin to sketch out a column for The Link which will start off with my vague hope that "someday, blood will again prove thicker than water," and will end with this observation:

"Homeschoolers are often among the most conservative Americans, and often consider themselves among the most patriotic. But surely, we are working against the strongest current of the American ethic – an ethic which pays lip service to ‘family’ and ‘community’ but has always been about leaving families behind to ‘make it on your own.’ It started with the Mayflower, and continued along the Oregon Trail and right through Ellis Island and runs deep and strong in the Megalopolis. Despite the nostalgia we feel for ‘American family life,’ it is an ethic which in many ways accounted for our phenomenal success. We were the perfect nation to capitalize on the industrial age and the ideal society to profit from the fragmentation of modern life. You see, that’s why those people who send their kids to school begin ‘cutting the apron strings’ at age five, and push them out into the dangerous world every day to fend for themselves. That’s why they call into talk shows to complain about their 23-year-olds hanging around the living room like Europeans, not driving the economy forward. And that’s why they love to see their children walking out alone and independent on afternoon piers to put their faces into the wind. Yes, maybe people like you and me will find some new compromise and some new American dream. Maybe our children will not have to do without us and us without our children – but this afternoon, the smile on an underdressed American 19-year-old seems to say otherwise."

Of course, I speak none of these words to my own beautiful daughter. No, I take her by the arm and I point out how much the milling crowd resembles the gulls – who cry and wheel and part suddenly in the chilly sea breeze. And my beautiful daughter, well, she gives me one of her serious and gentle looks. As I predicted, the sunset has proven disappointing, and she reminds me that it really is time to head out.

Together, we unlock our rusty steeds and pedal north into the city, rattling along in tight formation along the rapidly darkening beach. U.M.

__________________

 

© 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. You can read more from Marc at www.theurbanman.com, and if you live in Southern California, you can hear his radio commentaries each Monday evening at 6:44 pm on KCRW-FM. Write him at marc@theurbanman.com. ■