unexpected intrusions of beauty
Which is somewhat irrational, I know, not to mention completely unfair. The other day I spent far too many hours reading a seemingly endless sequence of scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) articles about this generation’s “millennials” and how screwed we all are; destined to spend far too much money in pursuit of bullshit advanced degrees that will then go to complete waste as we send endless resumes to a series of positions as desk clerks and receptionists and the like. Positions that, might I add, we likely will not receive, as the competition for such jobs is apparently absolutely insane in today’s market.
This concerns me. A lot. For as long as I can remember (literally since I was a toddler), my parents have instilled the belief that practicality should trump all those pesky notions of “passion”; that education was crucial because it paved the road to a future made of Victorian houses in neighborhoods with a negative crime rate and being able to eat out every weekend with my similarly wealthy, sophisticated friends and then affording my children the opportunity to spend 250 thousand dollars on the same privilege (actually, by the time I have children, the cost of a private education will probably be on par with that of a soul, so…). From a young age, I was provided with a list of “acceptable” occupations — ones that would allow me to achieve these goals — and ones that were less “acceptable.” Unfortunately, as a sophomore soon declaring an English major, I seem to have fallen on the wrong end of the (suburban, white picket) fence here.
This scares me. I have always been held to the expectation that I will at least duplicate my parents’ standard of living. And, while I’ve never been anything close to poor, going to a university where it often seems like 80 percent of the student body has a) a trust fund or b) an empire to inherit or c) both, plus a yacht often makes it feel like I should be able to do far better. Pursuing my “passion,” my parents tell me, is a one-way trip to making 30,000 dollars a year for the rest of my life until I drown in student loans or shame or both. I always brush them off when they say this, quoting lines that could probably be found in bad self-help novels like “money isn’t important” and “if my friends don’t want to spend time with me anymore because I’m poor, they probably aren’t very good friends anyway,” but reading a litany of horror stories from recent graduates has shaken my belief in these mantras quite a bit.
When my parents throw scary numbers in my face about the average salary compared to one year of my college education, or when they tell me how I’ll never be able to afford to have the same things I have now as an adult if I don’t pick something smart to study, I can’t help but think: What’s so bad about being poor? Poor people do all the things I do, just with less money in their bank accounts and maybe a few fewer unnecessary pairs of heels. They eat (too much), they sleep (too little), they work (never enough). Poor people hang out with their friends at the mall and cry while marathoning Katherine Heigl romcoms and enjoy reading Dan Brown novels way more than they know they should; poor people fail miserably and repeatedly at cooking and allow themselves the occasional splurge and play stupid, emotionally turbulent games with boys with pretty eyes. They make love on overcast Saturday nights and make war on hungover Sunday mornings and make peace somewhere in between to do it all over again the next weekend. Poor people do all the things I write about on overcast Saturday nights with the breathy enchantment of someone who is still in the process of discovering what it means for me to be alive. They are just as alive as I am, and my parents’ obvious terror of something so common and so human is irrational.
But the truth of the matter is that I, quite frankly, don’t know what it’s like to be stretched financially. My parents, who grew up in large families, unable to feed everyone on most days, probably do. I have friends who are undoubtedly wealthier than me and can probably make a list of whiny, self-indulgent first world problems like “I can’t go to the movies as often as I’d like” or “I’ve never had a manicure in my life, look at my cuticles, ugh.” But I’ve never had to question whether or not I would be able to eat dinner, or buy a new pair of sneakers if my old one fell apart, or get a train ticket to Boston if I wanted to go home for a weekend. (Also, I didn’t even know what a cuticle was until like two years ago, so I personally can’t say I feel like I’m missing out on too much there.) It’s easy to say things like “money doesn’t matter” when my parents are there as a safety net when I get one too many Chipotle burritos instead of cooking my own dinner, but significantly harder to do so when I imagine graduating and not being able to afford the same peace of mind. It’s easy to declare an English major with relatively little guilt when I can sit in a coffeeshop and write for four hours without wondering whether or not this month’s paycheck will be enough to cover rent, but significantly harder to do so when I imagine actually graduating with an English degree and … what? Writing in coffeeshops usually does not manage to cover rent. It’s also significantly harder to do so when I imagine the disappointment — and honestly, fear — of my parents if they see me struggling to live the life they’ve always envisioned for me — if they see me living the way they did before they pulled themselves into the arms of the American middle class.
I find myself rambling kind of aimlessly, now, because I honestly can’t think of a resolution to this problem or this essay. I suppose the problem reduces to this: my parents and I are investing a lot of money into education with the hope that there is some return on it (hopefully enough to fund their retirement). But this return is hardly guaranteed, and the prospect that it’s not — that expensive private undergraduate education is basically just flushing money down the toilet so you can spend more money on expensive private graduate education — is a little terrifying.