Real world is unnatural

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

The geese are overhead, flying south in V-formation as crisp as a sharpened pencil. We watched them from the porch in a Maine light transformed by September clarity. Now we follow their lead, proceeding on our own annual migration.

The path we take also heads south, along parallel highway lines. We pass the exit to Kennebunkport where Geroge Bush spent his vacation in the presidential triathalon: fishing at 10, tennis at 11, horseshoes at noon. Within an hour of home, the roads become clogged with our own species: back-to-school, back-to-work creatures.

With jars of wild blackberry jam wrapped carefully in T-shirts and towels, we are returning to the real world, although why we call it “real” I cannot tell you.

Is reality hard-edged and harried while fantasy is soft and leisurely? Is the real world one of obligations and the fantasy world one of pleasure?

Our migration takes only a few hours, but as we reach the city a familiar feeling comes out of its August hibernation. The rush that comes from being rushed. A lack of anxiety accompanies us through the traffic to the airport where, in some adult variation of the old car pool, I leave my once-child on her way back to college.

And as I watch her, books, bags, guitar and all, the familiar watchword of the real world comes back into my mind: Hurry. The new year has begun. Hurry.

This is what I associate with September as much as clean notebooks and new shoes. We learn all over again to trade our own rhythms for those of school and work and, in turn, we teach that to our children.

In millions of homes there is the same sudden nagging jump-start to the year. It is the sound of our own voices commanding ourselves and our kids: Stop dawdling.

On the streets today, there are kids with straight parts in their hair and lunch in their Batman boxes. Behind these kids there is a private tutor, at least one parent whose alarm bell precedes the school bell, whose workday begins with the urgent morning job of getting everyone out of the house. Someone who wages a small battle against the sleepy summer tug of leisure, or its evil twin, sloth.

This is what morning is like in America. Not the image of ripe Reaganesque fields and flags, but of pressed parents who might regret the sound of their own impatience sprinkling the breakfast cereal.

It is the image of kids collected in buses and cars, delivered to buildings and redistributed to teachers and classrooms. Americans on schedule, on line, productive.

There is no mystery to why we trade our inner pace for a workday lockstep. There is no living to be made on the sand. Nor is there any mystery to why we become our children’s trainers in this pattern. We are driven for the most part by what Barbara Ehrenreich calls succinctly in her new book title, “The Fear of Falling.”

Even the middle class in America, or especially the middle class in America, is insecure about its economic future and its children’s future. That’s more true now in an era when the middle is shrinking and many are slipping down or scrambling up.

The fear of falling attaches itself to another anxiety—”a fear of inner weakness,” as Ehrenreich observes, “of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will.”

We fight these anxieties in ourselves by making a virtue out of necessity: hard work. We fight it in our children by driving out daydreams with discipline. Our own days speed up and we teach, even compel, our children to keep up.

If we are very lucky, we find work we like and schools where our children are happy. But it’s only when we step aside for a time, a week or a summer, that the pace becomes daunting, unnatural.

Pretty soon, I know, long before we have emptied the last jar of blackberry jam, it will seem routine again. To the children on my street, the school year that crackles with a fresh start will grow as worn and familiar as a chalkboard eraser. Workaday life will seem as normal as wearing a necktie instead of a T-shirt, heels instead of sneakers.

But today, having just left the ocean for the city, I am most aware of the deliberate, even dutiful, way we prepare our children to lead the exact life that we find so rushed. The pressure is on. Hurry, kids.