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Like many of these weekend columns, it seems we are provided a moment to stop and stand in the drift of cultural attention. Lots of times, especially if our collective attention is focused on something of particular interest to Mockingbird, we find we must write about it on its own, right now, sans weekender. This is what Dave did this week in his compilation piece about teenage optimism. Whether it is due to the atrocities in Europe, or the continued civil unrest here at home, it seems Americans (humans?) have had to come to grips with our own belief in a fair-weather future. DZ mentions the U-curve of our supposed happiness in life and its direct correlation with expectations.

It is not the first time we’ve talked about the corrosive consequences of an inflated anthropology. Not. At. All. And what DZ notes about the flattening of this U-bend (un-happiness finding itself setting in earlier and later than ever before), it seems the same causal link can be attributed to the “suicide clusters” making the cover of the Atlantic this month. For the second time in less than half a decade, a string of suicides have ruptured in Palo Alto, California, the breeding ground of innovative technology and chic West Coast “simplicity.” The suicide rates of high schoolers there is between four and five times the national average. “Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.”

840Hanna Rosin covers the story and relates that suicide clusters such as this have strong correlations with social media. Not just that the bad news and hysteria and even suicide romanticism spreads at hyperspeed (which it does), but also that kids’ expectations are shaped from and informed by their social media lives. It certainly validates the impulse for a Technology Issue.

The singular problem, though, continues to be success and the pressure compounded upon an optimistic future. With that, Rosin discusses the studies of Suniya Luthar, how there is a different U-curve at work in American schools—one based on socioeconomic factors on dysfunction/pathology. We often (as we should) talk about at-risk youth in poor, underserved schools. But Luthar’s studies find that the risks are just as great, if not higher, for students growing up in elite environments:

Luthar had been invited to give a presentation on affluent youth as a largely unrecognized at-risk group. Convincing people that rich kids are at high risk isn’t easy, she said. But she has amassed the most thorough data set we have on that group, from schools scattered across the country. Luthar’s data come from school districts where families have median incomes of more than $200,000, and private schools where tuition is close to $30,000 a year. Her research suggests a U‑shaped curve in pathologies among children, by class. At each extreme—poor and rich—kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction. On the surface, the rich kids seem to be thriving. They have cars, nice clothes, good grades, easy access to health care, and, on paper, excellent prospects. But many of them are not navigating adolescence successfully.

The rich middle- and high-school kids Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.

…The kids were also asked how much they identified with sentences such as “The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me” and “If someone does a task at work/school better than I, then I feel like I failed the whole task.” From their answers, Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success. Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as “I can, therefore I must.” Middle-class kids, she told me, generally do not live with the expectation that they should go to Stanford or earn $200,000 a year. “If I’ve never been to the moon,” she said of middle-class families, “why would I expect my kids to go there?” The yardstick for the children of the meritocratic elite is different, and it can intimidate as much as it can empower.

I am reminded of a similar cluster of suicides from another Tech-town. The Downtown Vegas suicides were young professionals, not high schoolers, but the metrics of performance and the overbearing optimism were the same. There, as here, it is not just about creating a healthier sense of work-life balance. In this hyper-successful bubble, every aspect of one’s life is work, every moment is under the scrutiny of upper-echelon criteria. To silence the need to perform, one would have to silence oneself. Within this sphere, identity is production.

Of course, Rosin gets into parenting. What’s interesting is that she doesn’t point the finger solely at Tiger Mothers. What can be just as poisonous, according to her article, are parent-child relationships based on constant affirmation. Good parenting lies in the difficult work of “distentangling” love from praise.

2) Sheesh. Okay, this is really funny, and appropo, post-Charlotte Getz’s piece this week. From McSweeney’s, “Adele Dials the Wrong Number”.

– Did you ever make it out of that town where nothing ever happened?

– Oh, great. That’s just great. For your information, I LIKE it here! I have a very lucrative Mailboxes, Etc. franchise, the kids are in little league …

– It’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time.

– [To wife] Honey, take the kids, lock yourselves in the bathroom and call the police!

And then, Mallory Ortberg, doing Conan the Barbarian.

-mar3) And yet another spark of life from Ms. Heather Havrilesky. Last week’s “Ask Polly” column where a woman is in love with the life she’s so well branded. That is, until she gets laid off. Take it away, Polly:

You say that after being laid off, you don’t have a life people are jealous of anymore. Listen to me: No one was jealous of your life before, either. They could see you, frantically peeling fava beans. They could see you, talking too fast and drinking too much just to impress a crusty old dude who isn’t even nice to you. They could see you, looking for your next fix of glamour and success, aiming to work at one of the most prestigious companies in the world, aiming for more, more, more and never ever just “some” or “a little” or “enough.” They could see that you weren’t that happy, and they felt sorry for you, and they still do.

Now that you’re down in the dumps, though, pay attention to who is nicer to you than ever and who’s not…And I’ll bet some of your oldest friends are showing a renewed interest in you. I’ll bet they’re asking about how you are, and listening when you stumble on your words, and growing less interested when you assure them that everything will be back on track in no time.

Speaking of curation and selfhood, this article in the New Republic probably deserves its own post, but we’re teched out here at Mockingbird. The thesis is great, though: in a world increasingly interested in and cautious about privacy and online safety, a crosscurrent presents itself in the world of social media, where for-profit companies broadcast our information for a price. Knowing this, though, isn’t enough for us to resist the affirming pings of an online interaction.

4) Oh, and this is fantastic. George Saunders, one of the greats, talks to Jennifer Egan about the crafting of futuristic stories. In talking about the future, Saunders says, the real skill is in seeing what never changes…

I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and — “being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s 80 percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering — Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

51oaSj4HfJL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_5) Patton Oswalt, in being asked what book he’d recommend to the President of the United States, had this to say:

Garret Keizer’s “The Enigma of Anger.” A meditation and history on rage, both righteous and unrighteous, which seems to be infecting so much of world events these days, both the high (politics, statesmanship) and the low (pop culture, social media). We haven’t seen the first truly great leader of the 21st century, but he or she is going to have to address, remedy and control rage. It’s the hidden poison of our tight-wire planet.

6) And a final note: As the holidays approach, we’ve taken 10% off all our books on Amazon! If you’ve been waiting to stock up, now’s the time!


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