Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on October 20, 2008


typewriter7          One of the most difficult aspects of working on a project like this is that, occasionally, in service to the larger point that I want to make to help America’s college students, I’m forced to include stories from my own past that I now find embarrassing.  This, I suppose, is one of those instances.  Today’s lesson is for all of the undergraduates out there who arrive on campus in the fall and quickly discover that they are less wealthy than most of their classmates.  Economic inequality, even among the relatively fortunate portion of the world that is privileged enough to attend college, can slap you in the face like Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Your job is not to let that slap throw you off your game.

          When I graduated from Mattoon High School in 1998, my parents gave me a copy of Michelle Anna Paige’s After the SATs: An Insider’s Guide to Freshman Year.  In all truth, I learned a lot from this book that was useful – in fact, if it wasn’t 17 years old and out of print, I might even recommend that you pick up a copy and check out her insights.  For instance, one of the things that the author recommended was the purchase of the biggest Foreign Language dictionary on the market – and on my bookshelf I’ve still got a French-English tome that would work as a door-stop at any bank vault in America.  Unfortunately, even with the purchase of this thirty-pound dictionary (it has come in handy when moving furniture in or out of my apartment), there were still some aspects of college life for which I was completely unprepared.  Chief among these aspects?  The fact that my 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva was no longer cool – and I did not handle the situation well.

          Now, in part, I brought this economic meltdown on myself when I joined a fraternity full of kids who had attended ritzy private high schools and had fathers that were powerful stockbrokers.  Wealth, in the United States, is a relative concept; and as an 18-year-old moron I quickly forgot that for the past two years I had felt quite lucky to even own a car.  My Achieva was clean, it was red, and it had an aftermarket CD player.  I was…to borrow one of my friend Jon’s favorite phrases…straight up “living the dream.”  In fact, it had never even occurred to me, coming from an economically depressed small town where no grown-ups even owned a BMW, that I might suddenly find peers who drove cars with sticker prices equal to four years tuition.  But upon entering a larger world with more (or, actually, probably less) economic diversity, my perspective underwent a paradigm shift.  All of the sudden, my formerly sweet ride was decidedly unhip – indeed, so unhip that the General Motors corporation would soon choose to completely eliminate the manufacture of Oldsmobiles altogether.  My reaction?  I spent five thousand dollars, a nest egg provided for me by excess scholarships meant to cover additional living expenses for four years of college, by Christmas break of my freshman year.  Needless to say, my parents were extremely disappointed, but just imagine what it would have been like if I had gone to a really expensive school.

          At some colleges, like Saint Louis University, where I teach now, or Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the parking lots look more like BMW dealerships than repositories for hand-me-down Fords, the situation can be even more daunting for students who arrive on scholarship.  Witness the ridiculous story of my friend Jerry, who attended SMU for undergrad.  During the fall semester of our freshman year, Jerry forwarded along to our group of friends an email from a girl whose shallowness makes the Pet Rock seem intellectually deep.  Here’s the scenario: after initially agreeing to go out with Jerry on a date (he’s intelligent and attractive), she reconsidered, writing that “after she thought about it she decided she just couldn’t go out with a guy who drove a Toyota and worked at Old Navy.”  Are you fucking kidding me?  I have no idea what this girl is doing now, probably breeding stuck-up children with Roman numerals at the end of their names, but I can tell you that Jerry went on to become a very successful financial planner who could probably purchase an actual Old Navy if he wanted to do so and such a thing were made available at Sotheby’s.  Last year he bought his wife a Range Rover, which can’t be cheap – but as for himself, Jerry still drives the same Toyota, because he likes it and he doesn’t care what other people think.

          That’s the bottom line of this lesson.  Kids who drive BMWs are neither intrinsically more cool than you nor intrinsically less – and you’ve got to remember that.  It’s not their fault that their parents have money, and it actually probably makes their lives easier.  But if you see people with nice things, and you’d like to have them someday, don’t respond by trying to keep up now with money you don’t have; don’t run up credit card debt or blow through your savings.  Rather, if you absolutely must, use your envy as a motivational tool to work harder in school – because it is a valid human desire to want to enjoy the fruits of rigorous labor.  Still, the point I’d rather stress is this: what Jerry knew all along, and what I eventually figured out, is that the secret to being hip is to be a decent person and to just not care what other people think.  From my perspective now, ten years down the line, I can promise you that at some point in the very near future your sub-generation’s paradigm will shift back to a better place, where the people who everybody else wants to emulate are the people who quietly go about their business, marching, to use a cliché, to the beat of their own drummer.  All of the sudden, it’s cool to be the guy who always wears the Army surplus jacket, or who drives the 1978 Ford Crown Victoria.  All of the sudden, it’s cool to be the girl who goes to the coffee shop on Thursday night to read Anna Kareninainstead of being the girl who goes to the bar to do body shots, yet again.  And so, I leave you with this picture of McLovin – probably not for the final time – because it serves my point, and because it makes me happy.

23 Responses

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  1. UVA Mike said, on October 20, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    I understand your reasoning Dr. Wizard that “kids who drive BMWs are neither intrinsically more cool than you nor less,” but is it cool if we hate “Douchebags with BMWs” – because Charlottesville is full of ’em?

  2. Ghost Dog said, on October 20, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Wiz, with 51 posts to go, how many more times do you think you can work in that picture of McLovin?

  3. Bruce McIntire said, on October 20, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Nice site. Theres some good information on here. Ill be checking back regularly.

  4. drwizard said, on October 20, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Mike: Yeah, in that case it’s totally appropriate. While being rich isn’t something for which a person can be blamed, being a dickhead is definitely still wrong.

    Ghost Dog: I don’t know if you’re a betting man (if you are, be careful – see Lesson #8), but if the over-under was set at 13, you could probably take the over to the bank.

    Bruce: Thanks!

  5. Carlin said, on October 20, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Mike- as a JMU grad, I grant you all due encouragement to make fun of spoiled, snotty Cavs in any capacity you see fit 🙂

  6. Greece Lightning said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:22 am

    Dude, is that your old car in the picture or a stock photo from somewhere else? because it sure looks exactly the same. If so, is that 1000 Hills State Park in the background? If so, why did you take a picture of your car at a State Park?

    And what in the hell do you think those 3 kids were thinking as they posed for that picture in front of the BMW sign?

  7. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 21, 2008 at 6:39 am

    While Greece’s post was not addressed to me, I’m going to guess those three gentlemen just saw the remake of The Italian Job and are at the dealership for the miniCoopers, not the Beamers.

    At least they knew to look for the real deal.

  8. MS said, on October 21, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Despite the oscillating tone and the revolving topics, the advice on this blog remains staggeringly regular: be yourself. Good advice, unless you’re Dan Quayle speaking to Sarah Palin. The problem is that we often think – in the immortal words of Gomez, regurgitating a tired cliché – ‘The grass is always greener on the other side.’ You see, one of the problems with class envy is that the guy driving a 1989 Chevy Beretta fails to recognize how much insurance costs on a 2008 BMW M6. So, Mike, when you write is it okay to hate ‘douchebags with BMWs,’ I first wonder if you mean ‘Deutschebags with BMWs’? And no, it’s not okay to hate douchebags because they have BMWs, but as Dr. Wizard points out, it is appropriate to hate douchebags because they are douchbags.

    Being fake just doesn’t make the grade, because (overwhelmingly) you suck at it. I should know. Back in my sophomore year of college, I actually showed up at a fraternity thing (I’m not even sure what you’d call it, but it was this type of event where you could visit representatives from each group and learn a bit about them. I mostly learned that these were the ass-clowns I did not want to spend my time with – though two years later I actually found out that one of the friends I made was actually a guy I talked to that day, Mr. Galifanukous, but that’s another story). So, as I left that fuck-awful meeting, I pondered why I ever went in the first place. Never arriving at a sufficient answer, I walked back to my dorm room, and started a band with my roommate (who happened to be my drummer for a band I was in during high school that broke up – our singer was a douchebag with a teal cavalier, replica Scott Stapp tattoos, and an unhealthy hankering for wanker guitar solos). That’s right ladies and gents, punk rock saved my soul (or at the very least my dignity). And thus, The Squirts were born.

    The Squirts are no longer a band, so you don’t have to worry about us sending you emails asking for gigs or read bulletins begging you to come to our shows. We’re over that shit.
    We played Cleveland from 2001 to 2003. Our first show was May 5th, 2001, and was so anticipated that people started calling it “Squirto De Mayo”. Following this show, we played the west side mostly, only venturing east three times – once to play a birthday party for some dude we didn’t know, once for a chick we did know, and once at the Beachland.
    In late 2001, we took a hiatus to record an album. We never got the album finished Mat with one T and Matt with one ear both wanted to read books instead. In August of 2002, we arranged a farewell show with some of our friends and Adam’s (the drummer) then new and now defunct band, the Interceptors. Jacknife Powerbombs (who Adam later drummed for in 2003) looked snazzy in their matching uniforms. There were a couple fights during the JP set. The band afterwards, The Dick Dastardlys borrowed Adam’s drums so we could save on setup time. Someone punched the singer, or something, and he blacked out. Then he came to, and they continued playing but there was a couple more fights during this time. Then the meathead drummer and singer threw Adam’s drums off the stage, the cops showed up to shut the place down, and the show was cancelled. We never got to play our last show.
    Fast forward to January 2003. The Squirts play their official farewell show at the Phantasy, bring lots of people (except perennial roadie Andy, who couldn’t brave the minor snowfall), and tear the place apart. Swan song complete, the band fades into obscurity, only to play on WJCU as part of the Music To Break Things By farewell in 2004 (that show is still on the air, interestingly enough). I offer this brief history of The Squirts for two reasons: First, it was enjoyable for me to relive those memories for the five minutes it took me to type them out; second, because this is the story of life. Something is born, you enjoy it for awhile, something else fucks it up, you try to revive it and fail, it fades into obscurity.

    Again, this is a long and convoluted way of saying don’t hate some guy because he drives a BMW (and reversely, ladies, don’t hate some guy because he drives a 1986 LeBaron). Clothes, Cars, and a bunch of other shit can’t really tell you about a person. Did the guy wash his clothes or spray them down with Axe? What’s in his trunk? Better yet, what’s in the CD player? Does his name have a perfectly acceptable shortened form but he insists you call him by his full name (ie. Tom/Thomas) (I don’t trust these people)? So what’s the litmus test of non-douchebaggery? Unfortunately, I don’t think it exists, so you’ll have to do your best to weed them out of your social group on a case-by-case basis, and do your best not to be one yourself. But it’s safe to say that if you find yourself compromising ‘being yourself,’ then you’re probably approaching ‘douchebag’ status rather quickly.

    My eighth-grade math teacher used to say, “Consistency, thou art a jewel.” Even if you think everyone around you is 20 times cooler that you could even hope to be, remember that their persona is going to change ten times in the next year to keep up with oscillating perceptions of coolness. And sooner or later people will begin to see you as the guy (or girl) who has always been ‘under the radar’ cool. And who knows, maybe you’ll get a nifty nickname like captain…or wizard.

  9. MS said, on October 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    I should add, since I was quite critical of fraternity participants in this comment, that 2 of my 4 very close friends are affiliated with a fraternity (and it turns out, despite they don’t really know each other, that they belong to the same fraternity). So, don’t blast me for being anti-fraternity. It just wasn’t for me, and the only judgment I’m passing is on those that I met 9 years ago at my undergrad institution.

  10. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Dr. Wizard,

    It seems our little run-in with The Quilts (aka, The Comforters) is nothing compared with the Squirts’ farewell show. Or if I had to guess, the average Squirts show.

  11. MS said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    As for the BMW/Mini guys:

    Right: Man, I look pretty tough. Kinda like Val Kilmer as Ice-Man in Top Gun. I can’t wait to show this pic to the girls at our lunch table.

    Center: No, no, no. You need to lean further in and kinda turn left (just slightly). That way you can pull off the ultra-tough ‘magnum’ pose. Then you’ll really look like a bad-ass. Plus, you really need at least a small tuft of hair to blow in the breeze if you really want to look menacing. Who’s making fun of my faux-racing jacket now, assholes?

    Left: You guys are douchebags, but I’m totally getting a sweet commission off this sale. (note: shit-eating grin betrays his cool ‘I’m not taking advantage of you’ exterior).

  12. the marquette 6 (minus Jake) said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    meghan: I have a similar 25-pound Italian dictionary that is still wrapped in cellophane. It’s not nearly as handy as the pocket dictionary I’ve used since high school!

    Pruett: only 13 more repeats of that McLovin picture. that seems a little weak to me, Dr. Wizard

    Gina Palazzo: FA, are you just being a “heightest” because those 3 guys all look so little?

    Corey: “deutschebags with BMWS” = hilarious

    sarah m.: as a 3-year sorority member, I think you’re being a little hard on the Greek system, MS. Maybe it wasn’t for you, but it’s unfair to generalize. There are great people both in and out of Greek life, and statistically we go on to be quite successful. what’s your agenda?

  13. J. Harris, Ph. D. said, on October 21, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Dr. Wizard,

    On my campus the socioeconomic gap can usually be seen between students with really nice trucks and students with older trucks, but the principle remains the same.

    J. Harris
    Univ. of Montana

  14. MS said, on October 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Sarah m. You’ll notice by my follow-up post that I am not generalizing. In fact, the very phrase “It’s not for ME” is quite specific to, um, ME! Though, if I were one to generalize, I would universally claim that most people don’t thoroughly read something before they comment on it. And I would be correct (at least in this specific case), now wouldn’t I?

    As a 3-year sorority member – systematically brainwashed to conform, and trained to spew defensive rhetoric at the slightest hint that someone may not agree with the tenants of the Greek system for his own Weltanschauung – what’s your fucking agenda?

  15. I like my blogs with sugar, gratuitous violence, and Mattoon references said, on October 22, 2008 at 12:54 am

    First, is non Dr. Wizard commenting allowed for college graduates…you know those people that are categorically lame and muddling through life?(Besides me, of course)

    Second, is the goal to figure out how to be truly hip or to learn how to live with some level of un-hipness?

  16. drwizard said, on October 22, 2008 at 4:04 am

    Greece Lightning: It’s a stock photo – although just seeing it makes me nostalgic.

    Funk: Dude, I completely forgot about that show with the Quilts. But check this, no joke, there’s a Vestals song playing on my iTunes right now.

    J. Harris: I’m glad you decided to come back. I was afraid I’d scared you away with my Viking Quest intensity in Lesson 22.

    Reid: Anybody is welcome in the comments section – I’m all about making it a free for all. Just look at some of the craziness that goes on. In one of these comments sections (20 maybe?) there’s an extended discussion for some reason of the Gilmore Girls. WTF? As for the goal – the secret is to realize that they’re one and the same.

  17. I like my blogs with sugar, gratuitous violence, and Mattoon references said, on October 22, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Yeah, in retrospect question (1) was somewhat stupid…honestly I was drawing a blank when I was writing my comment (which was probably caused by me expending way too much effort creating a username that damn near turned into a paragraph). But this is my first go at actually “commenting”…so I am sure by I will producing insightful coherent comments by the time the list is finished. Is Iracane available for private tutoring?

    But, anyways, I look forward to hanging out around these parts regularly.

  18. UVA Mike said, on October 22, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Sarah, even though I pretty much agree with you, I’d be careful about provoking MS. Have you read all of his posts? It’s gonna be like challenging Chuck Liddell to a slap boxing fight. Be careful!

  19. sarah m. said, on October 22, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    look…i don’t know who Chuck Liddell is…all I’m saying is that it bothers me when people throw this huge stereotype at the Greek system. Maybe my “what’s your agenda?” question was a little harsh, but everybody’s got one. and a quote like “these were ass-clowns I did not want to spend my time with” is a blanket generalization. were they all “ass-clowns”? did you really take the time to see if there was a group who you would have fit in with? I’m sorry I was a little “provoking”, and I’m glad you joined a band, it sounds like fun, but you don’t hear me saying that all punk-rock bands are apathetic and just attract a crowd of crazy, angry, disaffected stoners.

  20. Barry H said, on October 22, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Can I jump into the middle of this fracas to say that Funktiftied’s comment and MS’s response about the kids in the dealership picture should get some kind of Emmy or Grammy (or even better – a Wizzy) for being fucking outstanding? And “I Like My User Name to Be 42 words Long” – welcome to the Wiz.

  21. MS said, on October 22, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Sarah m: I think you fail to notice that ‘these were ass-clowns I did not want to spend my time with’ is not a generalization. It is specific to a group of hyper-masculine, overly obnoxious guys at a particular institution, one in which the Greek system was so small that there were maybe 25 fraternity brothers on campus. If it were a generalization, it would read “these, ass-clowns, like all fraternity members, were a waste of my time, and I knew from that moment forward I would never have a relationship with anyone claiming a Greek lifestyle.” See the difference? And note that I admitted in the post that one of them became a good friend of mine at a later date when he was not acting like a dick, and I have since made other friends who boast a fraternity background. This is my problem with your post. Honestly, I would react in similar fashion to such a blanket generalization, but make one of those I did not.
    And punk bands do “just attract a crowd of crazy, angry, dissaffected [youths, probably even drunks, and junkies. But stoners, rarely]” that was the point. At least back then. I mean, bands like Sum 41, Fallout Boy, and even Greenday anymore, are having way to much fun and making way to much money to be considered ‘punks,’ but that doesn’t mean their music isn’t a blasty-blast.

  22. I like my blogs with sugar, gratuitous violence, and Mattoon references said, on October 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Barry H,
    +1 on “Wizzy”…I think a Dr. Wizard version of the “Dundies” is quite necessary at some point

  23. Marx said, on November 14, 2008 at 8:24 am

    It is totally justified to be mad at the rich punks who drive around in expensive imports. They are the very image of injustice. They are bastards who flaunt inequality. They drive the cars which caused hard working Americans to loose their jobs, cars that have excessive fuel economy that pollute the environment and raise gas prices by increasing demand.

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