The last hold-outs on hand-outs

I’m used to being asked for things on the streets of Philadelphia.  In the central part of town, you can’t walk two blocks without being petitioned by someone — tourists asking for directions, canvassers asking for signatures, or bums asking for cash.

The latter are especially ubiquitous when the weather is nice and the out-of-town crowd is abundant, as has been the case of late.  Most of the people with their hands out for cash are exactly the types you would expect — drunk old men and strung-out twenty-somethings.  Demographically speaking, it is not a diverse population – mostly blacks but plenty of whites, mostly male but plenty of females, mostly middle-aged but plenty of youths.

I can tell you that until today, without exception, I have never in my life seen an Asian asking for money from strangers on the street in this city. And that’s not because we don’t have a significant Asian population; it’s because the Asians in this city are stereotypically Asian — the immigrants are running small businesses and forcing their children to excel; the established are successfully ensconced professionals who are forcing their children to excel.

The Tiger Mother would eat her own young before tolerating the thought that they would give up on self-made survival and beg in the streets. And Asian culture, uncorrupted by Western antipathy toward old age, does not allow for feeble-minded aging family to fight for their own survival.  And Eastern pride, unlike Western ego, isn’t content to embrace hand-outs in hard times.

Two days ago I idly made a joke that while Mexicans snubbing the US was a bad sign, we’d know things were getting really bad in this country if we saw Asians start asking for spare change on the street.  So today when I walked by the middle-aged Chinese man hitting up down-town passers-by for their cash, I stopped in my tracks and inadvertently gave him hope that I would contribute.  But it was the shock of being confronted with the all-wrong juxtaposition of an Asian begging in a US city that gave me pause, and also panic.

If the hard-working but upwardly mobile immigrant underclass is beginning to feel that here there is no point in working hard, and no hope of being upwardly mobile, then it’s the death rattle of the American Dream we’re hearing.  I’d like to say that inspires me to stand up and fight, but some days I just want to turn tail with the Mexicans and run, or give up like that Asian man — sit down by the wayside, hold out my hand, and wait for some mercy to fall.


College tuition is money down the drain you can’t afford to fix

Just read through yet another news item about what we’re starting to call the Student Loan Debt Crisis.  I suppose we’re calling it this because it sounds more sinister than the Higher Education Bubble.  Besides, debt is bad and education is good — it’s just unfortunate that we have to have so much of one to get the other, right?  It is unfortunate, but only because it wasn’t necessary.  There are things of value that should require sacrifice to obtain, and then there is way overpriced shit.  Higher education has become the latter, and nobody wants to call it out.

Many of my generation have student loan debt that exceeds the dollar amount of our parent’s first mortgage.  Still, no one questioned the Absolute Good of the college degree.   There are students who are starting college functionally illiterate, and a startling number of them are even graduating that way.  And still, no one questioned the product or its price tag.  Students who can’t calculate their loan payments, but who can pontificate ad nauseum on gender identities in post-colonial literature, are streaming out of universities in droves – and we consider this a situation to perpetuate with increased funding.

America’s youth are being taught that “utilitarianism” is a dirty word by their tenured professors, only to realize as soon as they are cut off from the student loan spigot that their concerns in life are very utilitarian indeed.  I’m getting a little fatigued by all the portrait pieces of students who have six-figure debt and a humanities degree; I am no more able to feel sympathy for these people than I was for the mortgage delinquents who financed 800k condos on their 30k salaries.  But I guess this is what happens eventually when you teach children self-esteem instead of math.

Education is crap in this country because we turned classrooms into group therapy sessions, when they should have been Darwinian struggles for survival.  Your whole class may have gotten an “A” on a test, but in the adult world, when there is a job opening, one person gets the job and everyone else doesn’t. There are no ties and an equal effort doesn’t guarantee an equal outcome.  We go to great lengths to hide these realities from kids while they’re in school, and then we tsk tsk about what a shame it is when they can’t hack it after graduation.

Also, there is something perverse about paying an obscene amount of money to support a culture that demonizes the practical skill sets of manual labor.  Universities, particularly those with stratospheric tuition, don’t teach anything as useful as plumbing –but they do teach political science majors how to look down their noses at plumbers.  And the lesson those students eventually learn is the irony of having an expensive poli sci degree and not enough money to hire a plumber or enough know-how to fix their busted pipes themselves.  The wake-up call may come too late for my generation, but it will come.  There’s nothing like standing ankle-deep in toilet water to bring on an epiphany.

Chin up

I read a tidbit in the news today about how the fastest-growing cosmetic procedure in the U.S. right now is the chin implant; in the past year alone, the number of such procedures increased by 70%.  Botox and breast augmentation are holding steady at the top, of course — amble bosoms and unfurrowed brows are still the standard-bearers of youth and beauty.  But chin implants outpacing nose jobs and liposuction?

The speculation around the sudden popularity of the chin implant centered on a couple of theories.  One, that in this digital age people are seeing themselves, especially their faces, on film more and more, and of course not liking what they see; and two, that a more prominent chin is  perceived as an indicator of assertiveness and strength, and in an increasingly competitive economy people want to gain whatever advantages they can.

Whatever the motivation, I’m actually not all that surprised.  We are a nation of double and triple chins, certainly; so of course we fetishize the chiseled appearance of a well-defined mandible.  As more and more of our faces are becoming round indistinct palettes of flesh instead of sculpted monuments of expression, the trends in plastic surgery, I suspect, will continue to complement the country’s spiral into widespread obesity.

When we first started to let ourselves go, we longed to recover trim waists.  Now we’re so far gone we’ll settle for the suggestion of cheekbones.  Looking at the before and after photos of patients selecting chin augmentation, I couldn’t help thinking that they’d opted to shell out fifteen grand when they could have simply lost fifteen pounds and had almost the exact same result.  With the added bonus of being fifteen pounds slimmer.

But that’s the new American way, isn’t it?  Why work so hard to recover what should already be yours when you can take the expensive short cut?   It may be a stretch to say that chin implants are symptomatic of the same attitude that gave this country an exploding deficit, but maybe it’s time to recognize the lengths we are willing to go to, individually and collectively, to avoid the obvious if difficult solutions to our unfortunate decline.

Well, that may be the new American way, but I’m going to stick with the old American way.  While they’re pulling their chins out, I’ll be putting my chin up.