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From elections to senior photos, mail carriers stay busy
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The Postal Service appears to be enjoying a resurgence.

First campaign fliers and now the second wave of junk — class portrait promotions. A flurry of mailings started about three weeks ago, arriving at our home thanks to someone notifying the world that we have a high school senior. These fliers are glossy, multi-page, high-fiber content.

No one should confuse these with "class pictures." Those are taken in a school gym the first two weeks of school. With two seconds per student and no retouching allowed, they become instant classics and re-appear 40 years later in newspaper ads and yard signs declaring: "He’s 50!" Seniors now have "portraits" — elegant, classy, timeless. Except, not. At all. Call me the skunk at the garden party — but these senior boondoggles need a check no one has written them — reality.

The flier I noticed — en route to the recycle bin — showed an 18-year-old appearing to be every bit of 28; teeth, tan, hair, nails and more, all fake. What was real? The price tag. There are inside and outside poses, in various poses. One local website I found encourages seniors to "bring three or four outfits and anything that reflects your own interests like cars, motorcycles, sports uniforms, musical instruments or even pets." Another brochure welcomed "multiple outfits, props" with a platinum and gold session — all promising to "capture your true personality."

Some might say it’s harmless. Let kids celebrate being a senior and spend some money getting professional photographs. Big whoop. After all, no one is advocating anything like what happened in Mound Valley, Kan., four years ago, when a senior there died while having her senior picture taken with a Siberian tiger at an animal preserve.

Still, I’ve got issues. Reaching your senior year in high school — at least in Johnson County — is not big deal, I’m sorry. To be sure — that’s a credit to the top flight administrators, teachers and parents we have in our county. Nevertheless, many high school students have never held a real summer job, worked outside or know how to start a push lawnmower. That’s in Johnson County; in Barton County, admittedly, there are different rules.

And there is no tolerance for imperfection. Thirty years ago, a not uncommon look for my classmates at Great Bend High School was pop bottle eyeglasses, a modest acne problem and two chipped teeth. Those were the smart kids; long before anyone used the word "nerds," they were headed to med school. "Capturing your personality" was done delivering newspapers, drinking from a hose and going door to door selling raffle tickets for Troop 120. And yes I sold a bunch and won a candy bar.

Others would suggest that spending 400 bucks on dozens of senior portraits is part of a larger trend with much deeper cultural implications. David Brooks of The New York Times recently mentioned this book — "The Narcissism Epidemic," by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. I bought it. It’s an insightful and at times disturbing look at parenting, priorities and confusing self-promotion with self-esteem. The trend lines are not good. The authors note that in 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked whether they considered themselves an "important person." Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.

One takeaway that resonates with my own observation is that families and teachers "tell children they are ‘stars’ and ‘winners’ even as performance stays stagnant. Celebrity culture and the media tempt people with the idea of fame – often fame awarded for the amount of attention drawn to themselves rather than actual achievement."

The authors also dedicate a chapter to the need for uniqueness — everything from baby names to credit cards customized in a way that says "This is me!"

So my apologies if this column is a buzz kill for your four-hour photo shoot. This is one family that’s opting for the gym shots. Our son’s surprise 50th party will be a blast.

Matt Keenan’s book, Call Me Dad, Not Dude, is available at Borders and online at Write to Matt at his Web site,