Just $160 Gazillion Short

Dear Will:

My children have the misfortune of being raised by a guy who doesn’t have a clue how to become wealthy. The making money part I can do. It’s the accumulating of money that has always baffled me.

No one is more upset about this fact than my son Luke, who now finds himself just weeks away from high school graduation. Luke is scary-smart, and except for a pathological distaste for math homework, he does very well in school. He also has the good fortune of doing very well on standardized tests. Add to that the fact that he has spent six years at the Orange County High School of the Arts (where he receives 10 hours each week in after-school creative writing classes) and you get the idea that he shouldn’t have too much trouble getting into college.

To validate that theory, Luke applied for admission to Claremont McKenna College, the ultra-prestigious private university about a half hour north of here. How prestigious is it? It’s generally regarded as one of the top 15 liberal arts schools in the country. There are only 1,150 students there—TOTAL—meaning that it admits only around 260 students a year (maybe 10% or 11% of those who apply). Needless to say, if you can get admitted to Claremont McKenna, it’s a big deal.

Well, Luke got in. I don’t know if I have ever seen him more excited. And I couldn’t have been more pleased. That is, before I got the letter from the Financial Aid Office. It will cost roughly $50,000 for Luke to attend CMC, they say, including tuition, living expenses, and incidentals. But not to worry, they told me. They would throw in $9,300 to help us out.

Ninety-three hundred dollars. A generous offer, perhaps, but it still leaves me $40,000+ short. And that’s just in Year One.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $160,000 set aside to send my kid to the college of his choice. In fact, I don’t have $16,000. I tried pleading my case to the school, but they weren’t about to contribute enough to make it possible. Luke, of course, is devastated; and I feel as though I arrived at one of those critical dad-moments and was completely unprepared.

But not just unprepared. Inadequate. Helpless. Having fallen so far short of the mark, I found myself unable to conceive of a solution to help him out. I want so badly to send him to this great school, but I can’t pull it off. It is not within my power to do so.

In the many hours of soul-searching I have spent over the last few weeks, I have more than once reflected on the incomprehensible miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In this life, we cannot begin to approach our Heavenly Father’s divine nature. No matter how hard we try, we will be so unholy that we could not dwell in His presence. Christ, in his infinite love for us, makes reconciliation possible, enabling us to overcome that which we could never overcome on our own. It is as if he came along and paid the $160 gazillion for me. Not because I deserve it (perhaps, in fact, because I don’t). It is His free gift to me—to all of us—which he grants in exchange for our best effort to live the gospel and show our faith in him. No amount of hard work and effort will make us worthy of that gift—rather it is through grace that He makes His Atonement available to us.

Perhaps that analogy is a little strained, but it seems very real to me. This painful, disappointing experience has deepened my understanding of and gratitude for that Great Act of Love. And for that I am grateful. It doesn’t help Luke pay for college, but it does help.

PW

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Finding My Bearings

Dear Will:

Let’s say you and your buddies start a company, and before long you’re generating pretty good revenue. You hire some people, schmooze it up at trade shows, maybe even have a suck-up salesman buy you lunch from time to time. Then after three years, let’s say some European hotshots buy your company (woohoo!), give you all raises and stock options and cool new titles . . . only to fire you all and most of your staff eight months later.

What would you do? As you wobble out of your office with a box full of personal items, how would you regain your equilibrium? Where would you go to find your bearings? Well, here’s where you might start:

On the Field

You watch him struggle to drag everything out in one trip, but it’s all there: soccer goal and ball; basketball; baseball bat, glove, ball, and home plate; football and tee; tennis racquet and ball; and, of course, pommel horse (not really). He picks up the mitt and you see him transported to Angel Stadium, and immediately you know the Yankees are in trouble again today. As always, he plays every position for every team while also doing the play-by-play. You watch as once again he throws the pitch, hits the ball, fields the grounder, runs to first, and tags himself out (somehow)—all while describing it for the fans. He is alternately Chone Figgins, Bartolo Colon, the prodigiously talented “Watkins Guerrero,” and his best friend Cameron. It is a formidable line-up to say the least.

When his team wins each game (as assuredly they do), you see him move into another season and assume the MVP position for each team. He nails three-pointers for the Lakers, scores touchdowns for UCLA, and pounds tennis balls off of the stucco (and sometimes the family room window). As you watch the Olympics that continue to unfold before you, you consider how poorly the word “play” describes what is taking pace. When at last he comes inside for a glass of milk, he declares the score of each game and recounts the amazing sequence of plays that led to each victory. So of course when he wonders if you would like to see an instant replay of the winning touchdown, you can’t resist. Fortunately, the announcer will be in the backyard with you to provide analysis as the play unfolds.

The athlete’s name is Seth.

At the Studio

There are 15, maybe 16, girls standing at the barre, each in matching leotards, hair pulled back tightly in a bun. They range in age from 11 to 15, with little difference in their apparent abilities. The teacher calls out instructions, sounding increasingly like he’s doing a dramatic reading of a French menu: “chassé, piqué, sauté, flambé, pommes frittes.” The girls respond in unison, and you think to yourself: “Clearly they’ve eaten here before.”

Even if you don’t speak the language, when you marry a dancer eventually you will find yourself staring ignorantly at a stage full of ballerinas. And in a sometimes futile quest to stay awake, you’ll begin to notice that certain dancers just stand out. You’ll discover that your eye returns again and again to the same one even though it’s a regular tutu-palooza up there. Later you’ll be informed that the one you noticed is even famous, but you’ll get points anyway for having stayed alert long enough to figure out which one was the star.

It works the same way even in a class of divas-in-training. You try to survey the entire room, but you can’t help yourself: your eyes want to watch the youngest one, the 60-pounder with freckles, the one with the flexibility of a contortionist and the grace of a swan. There’s something about the way she tilts her chin or moves her hands or points her foot. You may not be sure what it is, but whatever it is she’s got it. Lots of it.

The dancer’s name is Bryn.

At the Black Box Theatre

There are chairs enough for perhaps 100 people, but they didn’t all show up. Most who are here are high-schoolers with quirky personalities and equally quirky taste in clothing. Someone has made sure that there are eccentricities sufficient to go around, and it occurs to you that by wearing standard issue Levi’s you’re perhaps the only one who doesn’t fit in. At the front of the room is a solitary microphone, encircled by a single light from overhead. You think to yourself that there should be roasting coffee and a blissed-out bongo drummer as well. How can you have a poetry reading without a bongo drummer?

The evening is charged with hormones and nervousness and . . . something else. It’s not clear how you know it, but you can tell that this is a safe place where it’s OK to try something that may or may not work. The sense of acceptance makes the air lighter somehow. One by one the students come forward to read one of their recent compositions, to get briefly intimate with a few friends and a whole bunch of strangers. A few pieces are pretentious, several are incomprehensible, but most are thought-provoking and well-crafted. It occurs to you that you could never do this in a million years.

The tall kid with wire-frames strides forward. He’s wearing one of his signature hats—an olive green fedora—and mismatched socks. You glance quickly around the room because you know something the others in the audience do not: They’re about to be blown away.

The writer’s name is Luke.

In the Classroom

All the first-graders are crammed into one classroom: 60-some kids mooshed into the aisles and along the walls. The energy in the room is so intense that you anticipate an unscheduled brown-out in Pacoima. The mom at the front has worked the kids into a frenzy, with half of them shouting “Reader Leaders rule!” and the others responding with “Books are cool!” And the kids apparently believe it, because in just five weeks they’ve read almost 2,000 books.

Later that night, as you wander the neighborhood on Halloween, one of the neighbor kids grows so excited when he spots the Reader Leader Lady you begin looking around for paparazzi. His smile reveals both missing front teeth and genuine affection. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” he says, “if instead of candy each house gave out books?” Cool indeed.

The Reader Leader Lady’s name is Dana.

You never have to go very far to remind yourself that you have been blessed far beyond what you deserve. At this time of year, I am above all most grateful for the ones I love.

PW

Lumberjacks, Cartwheels and Soccer Trophies

Dear Will:

In spite of our best efforts—or perhaps because of them—we are compelled to admit that we live in a fairly strange place. For instance, earlier today Seth was playing a matching game called Husker Du. He said he was winning, which seemed a little strange inasmuch as it appeared that he was playing alone. He soon clarified: “I have 4,” he said, “and my soccer trophy has 2.” (Immediately you think to yourself: “Ah, so the kid learned all of his social skills from his old man.” Perhaps so, but you’re missing the point.) Seth’s imagination is only limited by the number of hours in a day. It’s all fun, with or without a living, breathing friend to play with.

For instance, every day when he gets home from school Seth goes directly to the back yard to play whichever sport is in season. It’s more important than lunch, even if—and this should give you some idea of his fervor—lunch is at McDonald’s. He plays all positions on both teams (so far the trophy has not been invited to join in) and also serves as the announcer. Thus, rain or shine, you’ll hear backyard play-by-play delivered (who knows why?) in an impassioned falsetto: “Three-pointer by Seth! UCLA leads the Pistons 57-23! . . . Pistons have the ball. SETH STEALS IT! Slaaaaam dunk!”

Although he is only five, Seth has already revealed himself to be the most ardent sports nut in the household—which, though cute, is also irritating if you’re hoping to read the sports page before you go to work. Each morning he examines the box scores as if he were checking the status of his Wall Street investments, reading them out loud, one-by-one, under the apparent assumption that everyone cares deeply whether the Hornets beat the Warriors and by how much. “Dad, the Pirates lost to the Expos!” he’ll shriek, and then he’ll run into the other room to share with Mom the shocking news. His favorite teams include some obvious ones (Angels, Lakers, Bruins) and a few not-so-obvious ones (um, the Toronto Blue Jays?–don’t ask). Also, if there’s a game on—no matter what the sport—you can pretty much count on him rooting for whichever team is ahead and becoming distraught should they fall behind, even if he never heard of them before he turned on the TV.

Speaking of falling behind, we tried to send Bryn to bed an hour ago and she still hasn’t so much as brushed her teeth. We’re guessing (hoping) that’s fairly normal, but what we suspect is not normal is that it took her 7 ½ minutes to go 10 feet down the hallway to get her toothpaste. How is that even possible? you ask. (Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but we ask it all the time.) The simple yet maddening explanation is that there is nothing linear about Bryn. For instance, she cartwheels everywhere she goes. Down the hall, into the kitchen, across the crosswalk, even heading to the bathroom at a highway rest stop, Bryn twirls and spins and does one-handed round-offs as if it were the most practical mode of transport available. It may make it harder to finish your homework, but isn’t life about more than just homework?

Apparently so. Thus Bryn’s hyper-imaginative, ten-year-old mind has her alternately composing music, producing stage plays, writing poetry, devising recommended reading lists—all while (supposedly) doing her chores. She organizes, plots, devises. Plays the piano and (squeak, honk-honk, screech) the clarinet. Sings Broadway showtunes. And more than anything, she dances. Beautifully.

In fact, Bryn is at the ballet studio so much (about five days a week) that Luke insists that she is never around. (“It’s a good thing too,” he says in typical big brother fashion, “because she is so annoying.”) All that time at the barre is paying off (not literally—it’s costing us a fortune) as Bryn has begun dancing en pointe and was recently cast for the first time in her life as a soloist in her company’s winter concert.  No doubt Seth is hoping she’ll get a trophy out of the deal, and Luke is hoping he doesn’t have to attend. As for us, we’ll be satisfied if the discipline she is learning as a dancer at some point will help her brush and floss in less than 20 minutes.

Luke’s passions are no less obvious than Bryn’s, but they produce a wider range of emotions in his parents:
1—writing (thrilled, proud); 2—computer games (aggravated, intolerant); and 3—girls, or should we say, girl (panicked, hyperventilating, freaked out big time). Since he’s fourteen we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, of course; but at the same time, did we mention that he’s only fourteen!? (pant, pant, palpitate).

To better cope with his reactionary parents, Luke has enrolled in the Orange County High School of the Arts, a secondary school dedicated to the production of actors, dancers, and other future restaurant workers. To be fair, the kids there are fun and quirky and extremely talented, making OCHSA a very cool place indeed. Luke is enrolled in the Creative Writing Conservatory, through which he receives 12 hours a week of after-school writing instruction. This semester his coursework includes: Literature into Film, the Art of the Short Story, Screenwriting, and Hiding the Fact that You’re More Articulate than Your Parents. (OK, so we made that up, but we’re hoping they’ll offer it next semester.) It makes for very long days, but when you consider that’s three additional hours of parent-free existence, you might go for it as well.

Besides, attending school with a bunch of highly creative people has its perks. For instance, every Tuesday Luke attends the weekly meeting of the Lumberjack Club—which we’re guessing you haven’t signed up for yet. The purpose of the club is a little fuzzy, but it seems to involve a secret handshake, flannel shirts, eating flapjacks (“not pancakes,” we are reminded), and watching “lumberjack movies.” (Question: Lumberjack movies?) Like we said, these kids are quirky—and probably having a lot more fun than the rest of us. Kind of annoying, isn’t it?

Sort of like this letter. Rather than put you through any further misery, then, let me conclude by making it clear that the eccentricities of this threesome have almost nothing to do with genetics (although Dana can be a bit bizarre from time to time). Dana and I continue to try to set an even-keeled example for them, but it is for naught: they quit paying much attention to us several years ago.

Finally, on behalf of all of us—the parents, the kids, the dog, and the soccer trophy—may I wish for you more of what you need, less of what you don’t, and a generous smattering of what you want.

PW