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Friday, December 30, 2011

Housing Prices Still Not Making Sense

My husband and I are looking to buy a decent house in a decent neighborhood for a reasonable price, but we're having trouble finding such a thing.  There are decent houses in decent neighborhoods, but their prices are not reasonable.  For all that housing prices have fallen over the past few years, I believe that they still have further to go.

How can I say this when houses have already lost anywhere from 20 to 60% of their values?  Because they were inflated to more than that during the bubble, and incomes haven't risen significantly over the last decade.

Here's the thing.  According to the Wall Street Journal, a household shouldn't plan to spend more than 28% of its gross monthly income on mortgage/property taxes/maintenance/PMI.  (This is a fairly common rule of thumb.)  In 2000, the median household income in Nashua, NH (where we're looking) was $51,969.  Let's assume that household also had a monthly debt load of $500 (between car payments, student loans, and credit card minimum payments), and savings sufficient to put down 20% of the purchase price.  Using the Wall Street Journal's mortgage calculator, that household income would qualify to purchase a home that cost up to $141,365*.  In 2000, the median house in Nashua only cost $132,200, so the average household could purchase the average house, and then some.  In 2009 (the most recent year covered by city-data), the median household income in Nashua had risen to $58,789.  Using those same assumptions, that household could purchase a home that cost up to $181,942*.  That's a problem, since the average house in Nashua in 2009 cost $248,500.  In order for the average household to purchase the average house at that price, the median household income would need to be closer to $69,000.  Even assuming our household is completely debt free, the maximum house they could afford would be $205,997, still well below the median.  Neither housing prices nor incomes have changed much since 2009.

As much as sellers and realtors don't want to admit it, a house (or anything else, for that matter) is only worth what a purchaser will pay for it.  As long as the average house is out of reach for the average purchaser, it's overpriced.  Unless incomes go up significantly in the very near future, housing prices still have a ways to fall.  In Nashua, it's looking like another 27%.

Maybe my husband and I are better off continuing to rent for now.


* I assumed a 30 year fixed mortgage at 8% in 2000 and 5.5% in 2009, both of which are historically accurate.  The tax rate was roughly 2.1% in both years.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Shortly after Thanksgiving, everyone in my house came down sick and stayed that way for several weeks.  Needless to say, that delayed our Christmas preparations.

Christmas shopping wasn't a problem; we don't go overboard with presents for our kids so we already had most of them purchased, with a few clicks online finishing up the job.  But we haven't been able to decorate until now.

Add to that the fact that we've moved so often over the past few years, and we haven't really decorated for Christmas since 2008.  We had a Christmas tree for our son's first Christmas (which, since he was only eight months old, he obviously doesn't remember), but our daughter's never seen one in her own house.  This year we decided to put one up, but we discovered over the weekend that our Christmas tree stand got left behind in one of the four moves we've had since we last used it.

Have you ever tried to find a Christmas tree stand the week before Christmas?  My husband went to several stores to discover that they were sold out, and called even more only to be told the same thing.  When I went out looking, I found more of the same, plus in some cases I had to walk around store employees removing Christmas decorations from the shelves to make room for their next wave of inventory (thankfully they're not yet putting out pink and red heart-shaped objects for Valentine's Day--that'll probably come in about two weeks).

Removing Christmas inventory the week before Christmas?  You know the classic song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas?"  Those twelve days start on December 25 and continue through January 5, the night before Epiphany.  That's the traditional celebration of Christmas, with Advent being the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  I realize that the stores have been selling Christmas since before Halloween, but some of us actually try to celebrate Advent, and keep Christmas for Christmas.  Even if we hadn't been sick, our decorating would have happened only a few days sooner than it did.  So while the stores may be tired of it, some of us are just getting started.

Fortunately the evening was saved by Home Depot.  They had a few tree stands left, so I was able to save my husband from having to try to 'build' something to hold up the tree that was dejectedly sitting on our porch.  Furthermore, the cashier at Home Depot actually wished me a "Merry Christmas."  Not "Happy Holidays," but a real "Merry Christmas."  It was so refreshing to hear!  And then I also got a "Merry Christmas" from the clerk at the store in the mall that sold me a lighted star tree topper (another item that's hard to come by a week before Christmas).

It's common and even expected for Christians and quasi-Christians to lament about the consumerism of Christmas, how early the stores start selling it, and the decline of the religious meaning of the holiday.  We hear so much about how people who aren't religious Christians get offended when wished a "Merry Christmas," insisting instead on "Happy Holidays," which supposedly honors Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Conspicuous Consumption Day, and whatever else people choose to celebrate around the end of December.  Now I agree that it's a bit foolish and insensitive for a sales clerk to wish a Merry Christmas to a customer purchasing a menorah, but in the absence of something so obvious, what's wrong with wishing a Merry Christmas to someone who is purchasing Christmas paraphernalia?

Chanukah has always been its own holiday, and should certainly be respected.  Kwanzaa was originally created "as an alternative to Christmas," and Conspicuous Consumption Day is clearly a secular hijacking of the religious holiday.  As such, I think it's perfectly appropriate to wish a "Merry Christmas" to anyone engaging in celebrating Christmas in any way, even if they've appropriated various aspects of the Christmas celebration for a holiday of their own creation.  Does this mean that every purchase between Thanksgiving and Christmas should automatically be met with a "Merry Christmas?"  Not necessarily.  But anyone buying Christmas decorations (trees, ornaments, yard lights, etc.), Christmas cards (any card that doesn't specifically call out Chanukah or Kwanzaa), a ton of toys, or anything featuring snowmen, Santa Claus, Thomas Kinkade artwork, or old-fashioned people skating or riding in horse-drawn sleighs is fair game.

So to the clerks who wished me a "Merry Christmas" last night--thank you!  Please keep up the good work!  You might slightly offend someone who wants to celebrate Christmas without acknowledging its origins as a religious holiday, but you also might bring some joy and hope to a Christian who is trying to remember that Christmas is the celebration of God's breaking into human history by sending his Son to achieve salvation for us all.  It's amazing how just calling the holiday by its right name can go such a long way towards helping with that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Education, Standardized Tests, and Idiocy

In principle, I'm no fan of standardized tests as the be-all and end-all of measuring academic achievement and predicting future success.  I think they have their place, but at best they can only be one tool among many to gauge whether a student is progressing acceptably in school.  I believe that the current trend of schools 'teaching to the test' in order to 'prove' that they're good schools and thus receive necessary funding is a horrible disservice to students, teachers, and the future of this nation.

But I have to admit that that opinion is largely uninformed.

You see, I went through a Massachusetts public school system before the MCAS was introduced.  I vaguely recall taking something called the California Achievement Test (yes, in Massachusetts) every few years, but those scores were for informational purposes only.  Along with most of my peers I took the SAT as part of my college entrance efforts, and I'm embarrassed to admit that my combined score didn't even break 1000.  But that didn't matter because I was unmotivated, and ended up on the eight-year, work-my-way-through-night-school plan (see previous post), choosing schools more on affordability, geography, and convenience of schedule than prestige or quality.

So standardized tests have not been a significant part of my educational career.

But I read something yesterday that simply appalled me.

Earlier this week the Washington Post had a piece about a school board member in a major district who took the standardized tests for 10th grade math and reading.  It was later revealed that the district was in Florida, and the test in question was the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).  This board member self-describes as having a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credits toward a doctorate.  He helps "oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities."  He admits that of the 60 questions in the math section, he didn't know the answer to a single one of them, and was only able to guess correctly on 10 of them.  On the reading section, he scored a mere 62%.  He dismissed the argument that the information would have been fresher in his mind had he currently been in high school, pointing out instead that "A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life.  I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took."

This seems to be a pretty compelling statement against the usefulness of the FCAT.  But as much as I'm predisposed against standardized testing, I had trouble believing that the test could be that disconnected from reality.  So I took it myself.

I can't say with certainty that I took exactly the same test this highly educated and highly successful school board member did.  But I went to the Florida Department of Education website where I was able to download the test booklets for the 10th grade math and reading tests from 2006.  The math section had 58 questions, and the reading had 45.  I answered (or tried to answer) all 58 of the math, but I disregarded the essay questions on the reading section because I had no way to objectively score them.  The test booklet failed to provide a couple of necessary readings (due to copyright permissions not being available for an electronic format), so I also disregarded the questions based on those.  (I later discovered that the necessary readings were reproduced in the answer booklet--I left them out anyway because I didn't want to risk seeing the correct answers in the course of my reading.)  So in the end I answered the 35 remaining multiple choice questions I could reasonably be expected to answer.

I have no idea how this school board member manages to enjoy the level of success he claims, because I think he must be an idiot.

I hated math in school.  I barely passed Algebra I and II, and only passed Geometry after I had to revisit it in summer school.  I took two accounting classes and one statistics class in college, back about 15 years ago.  Yes, I did deal with numbers in my first career in finance, but that was mostly arithmetic, and I left that field over 12 years ago.  Of the 58 questions in the test, I answered 43 of them correctly.  Very few were wild-ass guesses.  Most of them, if I didn't know the answer immediately, I was able to figure it out with the information provided.

Of the 35 reading questions, I answered 35 of them correctly.

With the exception of some of the geometry, most of the math problems could be solved through simple arithmetic and/or common sense.  Basic observation and problem-solving skills.  Someone like me, who doesn't remember a single formula from high school math and doesn't do unusual amounts of math in work life (I'm a stay-at-home mom of toddlers--we're still working on counting to 20!), was able to score 74%.  The school board member with his $3 billion budget scored 17%.  The skill I employed most frequently in solving these problems was determining what of the information provided was important to figuring out the solution, and what could be disregarded.  I don't care what line of work you're in, that is a necessary skill for functioning as an adult in today's world.

As far as the multiple-choice questions on the reading test are concerned, all you have to do is read the short piece and answer the questions.  There is no assumption that you are intimately familiar with obscure pieces of literature, or even that you know the technical jargon necessary to grammatically deconstruct a sentence.  All you have to do is demonstrate that you understand what you just read, both the content and the intent.  Why does intent matter?  It matters if you want to be able to tell the difference between an opinion piece and an instruction manual.  It matters if you expect to be able to understand the difference between the story of one person's success in entrepreneurship and a boiler-plate business plan.

Granted, I didn't answer the essay questions.  Let's assume I did, and let's assume I missed all four.  That would have dropped my 100% down to 89%.  The school board member, with all his advanced degrees, scored 62%.  He reasons that the test is unfair because “On the FCAT, [the students] are reading material they didn’t choose.  They are given four possible answers and three out of the four are pretty good.  One is the best answer but kids don’t get points for only a pretty good answer.  They get zero points, the same for the absolute wrong answer.  And then they are given an arbitrary time limit.  Those are a number of reasons that I think the test has to be suspect.”

First of all, I challenge his claim that three of the four answers are "pretty good," but let's put that aside for now.  In real life, can we expect that we'll only ever have to read and understand things that we choose to read?  (No, I don't feel like reading the Instruction Booklet for my 1040, so I just won't bother filing my taxes this year.)  In real life, can we expect that 'partial credit' will be given for an answer that's 'pretty good' but not necessarily the 'best'?  (Well, you've read the detailed job description and I've really enjoyed interviewing you.  You missed the mark a little bit on what skills we're looking for, but you were pretty close, so we'll give you this other job, instead.)  In real life, can we expect that we'll be given unlimited time to comprehend a set of instructions or absorb some basic information necessary for what we're doing?  (You need three months to understand the policies laid out in our employee handbook before you start work?  No problem; we'll keep you on full salary while you figure it out!)

I still don't think standardized tests should be given the level of importance they currently enjoy, but if the FCAT is indicative of what's being expected of 10th graders across the country, I think it's doing a pretty good job of measuring how well kids are learning how to learn.  Based on the two tests I took, students aren't being expected to memorize a bunch of trivia that they'll never use in adulthood; they're being expected to filter information, determine its value, and be able to understand written communication.  In adulthood you don't have to know everything, but you do need to know how to find whatever information you need.  And you can't do that if you can't determine what is relevant and what isn't, discern the difference between opinion, bias, and fact, or understand what a paragraph is even saying.

I'm not worried about students taking the FCAT.  I'm worried that we live in a world in which an adult who is unable to pass the FCAT is on the school board, and is able to function as a leader at a company with 22,000 employees and a capital and operating budget of $3 billion.  Are the expectations of functioning--even successful--adulthood really so low?

No wonder this country's in trouble.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Do College Students Have Justification for Joining the 'Occupy' Movement?

I've seen a lot of comments about the 'spoiled trust fund kids' who 'expect to be handed everything on a silver platter' and 'don't want to work for the things they have.'  And other such statements.  These are usually posted by people who proudly brag about the fact that they worked their way through college and now have a good job and a nice house that they earned through their own hard work with no handouts from anyone.

Good for you.

Times have changed.

I too worked my way through college.  I vividly remember the days of working 60 to 70 hours per week between two jobs (one full-time dead-end job and one nights-and-weekends retail job), supporting myself in a should-have-been-condemned apartment in a pretty scary neighborhood, taking one night course at a time because it's all I could afford and all I had time for.  I was destroying my health by eating nothing but Ramen noodles and instant oatmeal, because it's all I could afford.  I handwashed my laundry in the bathtub because I couldn't afford to go to the laundrymat.  I even counted the squares of toilet paper I used, in an effort to reduce how often I had to buy more.  Eventually things got better when I was hired at a job with a future, one that would help me achieve that future by paying for the rest of my bachelor's degree.  Of course, I was hired with an education waiver, so they could fire me if I didn't actively pursue my degree, and they emphasized that 'slow and steady' would not win the race.  I had to finish that degree as soon as possible.  So yes it was paid for, but I finished it by working full-time during the day and going to school full-time at night.  It took me eight years of working my ass off to finally get my four-year bachelor's degree.

I know that luck was just as big a part of it as my own hard work was.  And college students today aren't as lucky.

I've been appalled by some of the reactions to the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis last week.  In many cases, the protesters were characterized as I listed in my introductory paragraph, and also lumped in with all the Occupy protesters everywhere, particularly those few bad apples who are causing trouble in some of the larger gatherings.  (Apparently since there are a small handful of true trouble-makers giving the protesters a bad name in New York, the police were justified in pepper-spraying a group of students peacefully sitting on a pedestrian-only walkway on a college campus in California.  Or so the argument goes.)  The UC Davis crowd were trying to be clear that while they shared much in common with the other Occupy movements, some of their grievances were particular to them, specifically the issue of more tuition increases.

To those of you who proudly talk about how you worked your way through college, please consider the following numbers from the UC Davis website for an in-state undergraduate student who began her studies as a freshman in 2008.

Tuition and fees (excluding books, room, board, and other incidentals) per academic year:

2008/2009  -  $9,496.60
2009/2010 - $10,989.95
2010/2011 - $13,079.91
2011/2012 - $15,123.36

You who so proudly worked your way through school, did you have to deal with a 59% increase in tuition between your freshman and senior years?  I can tell you, no, you didn't.  UC Davis was kind enough to provide historical information on their website going back as far as 1994.  So let's assume that's when you started working your way through college.

1994/1995 - $4,099.00
1995/1996 - $4,554.00
1996/1997 - $4,262.00
1997/1998 - $4,331.50

If you started working your way through college before 1994, then your costs were even lower.

Now let's assume that you worked at California's minimum wage forty hours per week for twelve weeks during the summer, and twenty hours per week for thirty-six weeks during the school year, leaving four weeks of unpaid sick and vacation time each year (because let's face it, if you're working for minimum wage, you don't get paid time off).  You would have earned (before taxes):

1994/1995 - $5,100 ($1,001 more than your tuition)
1995/1996 - $5,700 ($1,146 more than your tuition)
1996/1997 - $6,180 ($1,918 more than your tuition)
1997/1998 - $6,900 ($2,568.50 more than your tuition)

Today's senior who's worked the same number of hours at today's minimum wage in California (which has remained steady at $8.00 per hour since 2008) has earned (before taxes) $9,600 per year.  That is:

2008/2009 - $103.40 more than her tuition
2009/2010 - $1,389.95 less than her tuition
2010/2011 - $3,479.91 less than her tuition
2011/2012 - $5,523.36 less than her tuition

So where you would have had $6,633.50 in the bank upon graduation, today's senior will be $10,289.82 in debt for doing exactly what you did.

And let's not even talk about what it cost you to buy your house in 1998 compared to today.

Starting school in 2008, that student probably figured that she could mostly work her way through school.  It would be tight, and she might have to take on a little debt, but nothing too difficult to pay off with the increase in wages she's sure to see upon graduation.  But each year her costs went up astronomically, forcing her to either take on more and more debt, or else cut her losses with nothing to show for it, and no hope of getting the higher-paying job that would enable her to pay off the debt she'd already incurred.  What exactly is she supposed to do?  What did you do when you were faced with that situation?  Oh wait, that's right.  You were never faced with that situation.

So before you start waxing eloquent about how hard you worked for the things you have, and how these lazy kids should do the same, consider that the world they live in is very different from the one you did.  Let go of your self-righteousness, and consider that they might actually have something legitimate to protest.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Announcing Quiet Devotions!

Through this blog I've been writing about a variety of issues, and it's been a fun experience for me.  But when I think about what kind of writing I'm likely to make a career out of, I keep coming back to religion.  So while I'll keep this blog as a sort of catch-all (and definitely an outlet for my political rants!), I'm going to be putting more of my effort into establishing myself as a religious writer.

To that end, I'm please to announce Quiet Devotions.  According to the daily lectionary in the back of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, tomorrow begins daily readings for Year B.  So beginning tomorrow, Quiet Devotions will feature a brief reflection and prayer based on one of the daily readings.  If you're looking for something to help focus your personal prayer life, I encourage you to subscribe to that page.

In the future I'll publish other religious resources as well, but for now I'm just going to keep up with the devotionals.  I hope you'll find them helpful and thought-provoking!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Modern Psalm of Lament From a Former Pastor

I spent this past weekend at a women's retreat at Camp Calumet in West Ossipee, NH.  I signed up through my church, and it was a good opportunity to get to know some of the other women I see every Sunday, but don't get to talk to or interact with very much.  I was a little nervous, because I don't do large groups very well, and I don't make friends very easily.

But I'm really glad I went.

If you've been reading my posts for a while, then you know that I'm struggling to recover from a toxic and unhealthy congregation where I served as solo pastor.  I've known intellectually that I was emotionally and spiritually harmed by that experience, but I don't think I realized the depth of that pain until this weekend.

The theme of the weekend was "Psalms: Prayers of the Heart."  The chaplain, Rev. Elaine Hewes, led us in an exercise where we wrote our own psalm, either of lament or of thanksgiving/praise (or some mixture of both).  Not surprisingly, I had a lament in me.  Quite surprisingly, however, the act of writing this psalm touched a raw, painful place deep within me, and I started crying.  Bawling.  Big, choking sobs.  In the middle of a crowded room full of strangers.  I got up and ran to the bathroom, where I tried to pull myself together.  When I thought I had, I went back into the hallway, where I found two women from my church waiting for me, wanting to make sure I was OK.  Just seeing the look of concern on their faces made me lose it all over again, and the next thing I knew I was being embraced and comforted by women whose names I didn't even know (their scarves were blocking their name tags), but such knowledge was completely unnecessary right then.

I was in a much better place after that, and I think it might have been the first real step in my healing, nearly two years after the damage was done.  Not only did it help me realize some things about the nature and the depths of my own woundedness, but it also served to show me that the church is not exclusively the domain of the selfish, vicious, treacherous, and abusive personalities that caused such harm at my last call.

So for what it's worth, here is my modern psalm of lament, written by a former pastor.  It's in the basic form of an acrostic, though you'll see I took a few liberties (poetic license) when necessary.

Accept me, O Lord,
because your people have not.  A
congregation of your followers sought to
destroy my marriage and my faith.
Every day I live with the pain,
feeling their rejection, and my failure to
guide them back to your ways.
Have mercy on me, Abba.
Ignite my faith where it has dimmed, and show me your
justice.
Keep my family together.
Let those who have strayed from you but call themselves by your name
make right their wrongs, and
know that what they say and what they do matters.
Open my heart, O Lord, and heal the
pain that lives there.
Quiet my demons, and
restore my faith.
Show me your faithful, your forgiven people who remain
true to your path,
unable to be perfect, but
very loving, very giving.
Where are you, Lord?
Explain how this can happen in
your Church.
Zeal is yours, Lord.  I'm waiting for you to show it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Do the Occupy Wall Street Protesters Want?

There have been a lot of snarky articles written about the Occupy Wall Street protesters (and their clones in cities across the United States), characterizing them as freeloaders, lazy college drop-outs, bored trust fund kids, unemployed people who would rather complain than work, etc.  Most of my research is done online, so I can read the readers' comments on most of the articles about the Occupiers.  Most of those comments are even snarkier than the articles.  A popular way to discredit the protesters is to point out that they don't have a unified message, a platform, or specific goals that can be addressed.

Full disclosure: I am not one of the protesters.  I do not speak for them.  I've not discussed with any of them what their goals or objectives are.  I do support them, and I'm doing so by publicizing what I can about them and, occasionally, dropping off a load of blankets, sleeping bags, and other needed supplies to the Occupy Boston crowd in Dewey Square.

I do not have a profile on the We Are the 99% webpage, but I am the 99%.  And this is why I'm supporting the protesters.

Earlier this week the Congressional Budget Office released a report about income disparity between 1979 and 2007.  The New York Times sums up the report's findings this way:  Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of earners saw an increase of 275% in their after-tax incomes.  The next 19% (or the remainder of the top 20%) saw an increase of 65% of after-tax income.  The next 60% saw an increase of just under 40%, and the bottom 20% saw an increase of just 18%.

Remember, we're not talking about overall wealth growth, so the argument that wealth begets wealth doesn't apply here.  This is a strict after-tax income-to-income comparison.  Yes, things like capital gains are included, but that only applies if an asset is sold.  The value of assets that one continues to own such as a house or investment portfolios is not included.  Things like Social Security payments are included in these numbers.

Looking at Table A-1 from the CBO Report, the real dollar increases are as follows (earnings include wages, capital gains, and 'Transfers' such as Social Security, and after federal taxes are deducted):

Someone earning $15,411 in 1979 was earning $18,979 in 2007, an increase of $3,568.
Someone earning $22,851 in 1979 was earning $29,769 in 2007, an increase of $6,918.
Someone earning $30,341 in 1979 was earning $42,202 in 2007, an increase of $11,861.
Someone earning $51,613 in 1979 was earning $81,135 in 2007, an increase of $29,522.
And someone in the top 1%, earning $115,965 in 1979 was earning $252,607 in 2007, an increase of $136,642.

One might argue that the higher-paying jobs increased in complexity more than the lower-paying jobs, thus justifying a greater increase in salary over the years.  That is a valid point.  But consider the following information as well:

  • Cost of a new house
    • 1979 - $58,100
    • 2007 - $308,775
      • 431% increase
  • Average rent for a two-bedroom apartment
    • 1979 - $280
    • 2007 - $1,368
      • 389% increase
  • Cost of a loaf of bread
        • 1979 - $.35
        • 2007 - $1.25
          • 257% increase
  • Cost of a gallon of gasoline
    • 1979 - $.86
    • 2007 - $2.80
      • 226% increase
  • Cost of a dozen eggs
    • 1979 - $.85
    • 2007 - $1.75
      • 106% increase
  • Cost of a gallon of milk
    • 1979 - $1.62
    • 2007 - $3.27
      • 102% increase
Let's take home ownership out of the equation for the moment.  Let's assume someone is paying the average rent, buying 15 gallons of gasoline each week, and is buying one loaf of bread, one dozen eggs, and one gallon of milk each week.  In 1979, that person would be paying $4,112 each year for those necessities, leaving the lowest earners $11,299 for utilities, car payments, other food, etc.  Not luxurious, or even particularly comfortable, but reasonable.  In 2007 those same necessities cost $18,926, leaving the lowest earners only $53 per year for all their other needs.  That's just not right.

While some of the protesters may want perfect income equality, most of us are only trying to have a chance.  We can't do that if incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living.  The Declaration of Independence lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the three unalienable rights of [hu]man[ity].  Americans are not guaranteed a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, and I believe in hard work and personal responsibility.  Safety nets should be in place to prevent starvation and depravity, but not ensure comfort.  But in the last thirty years, hard work and personal responsibility are no longer enough to achieve 'happiness' (or, as I define the term in this context, the 'American Dream').  To list 'pursuit of happiness' as an unalienable right must mean that the achievement of said happiness is possible for ordinary people willing to put in the effort, and right now it's not.

I realize that the world is changing, and we are now in a 'knowledge economy.'  Presumably that means knowledge is the key to success.  The logical course then seems to be to prioritize higher education: i.e. if you want to succeed, go to college and get a degree.  In 1979 the average in-state tuition (including room and board) for a state school was $2,327 for the academic year.  In 2007 that same year's worth of tuition, room, and board cost $13,589, an increase of 484%.  Families in the bottom 99% can't save the money to pay for their kids' college education, and the kids who borrow the money won't earn enough at their non-top-1% jobs to be able to pay those loans back.  The American Dream has become a pipe dream.

What do the Occupy Wall Street protesters want?  They want people to realize what is going on.  They want people to realize that many of us are following the same rules as the much-vaunted 'Greatest Generation' followed, but the game has changed, and following those rules will no longer earn you the comfortable, middle-class lives our grandparents lived.  Following those rules now earns you a house with an underwater mortgage, a job that demands annual pay-cuts while the company is declaring record profits, the risk of having that job taken away from you at any moment, fewer (if any) health and retirement benefits, and ever-growing credit card debt just to keep food on your table.

The protesters are not politicians.  They don't have a platform.  They don't have a neat three-point plan.  They don't have the answers.  And they're not supposed to.  No one elected them to get or keep the country on the right track.  They are protesting the fact that the people who were elected to do so by and large owe their political power to the corporate and special interests who funded their campaigns, and it's those corporate and special interests that they're representing.  The protesters are not trying to 'hurt' banks or corporations or politicians.  They are trying to get banks and corporations and politicians to be accountable for their actions, and if that accountability is interpreted as 'hurt,' then I'd say there's definitely something wrong that needs to be fixed.

There's something wrong when those who are elected to represent the people can only make it to election day with the help of the rich and powerful.

There's something wrong when banks give oversized mortgages to underqualified borrowers, and sell securities backed by those mortgages as good investments, and also sell - as good investments - credit default swaps betting that those mortgages will fail.

There's something wrong when CEOs make decisions that cost thousands of people their jobs, cause millions of people to lose money on investments, and get paid multimillions of dollars as a severance package for a job poorly done.

There's something wrong when banks and corporations make mistakes and receive taxpayer-funded bailouts, but when individuals make mistakes they're told to suck it up, and are accused of being greedy, lazy, and irresponsible.

There's something wrong when interest rates punish those who behave responsibly and live within their means, but reward those who finance their spending and risky investments with other people's money.

And there's something terribly wrong when Americans look at other Americans who are exercising their rights and, more importantly, fulfilling their civic duty to question the actions of their leaders, and call them lazy, stupid, spoiled, freeloaders, etc.

It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job.  It's a depression when you lose yours.  If you're not part of that top 1%, just wait: your depression will come.  The numbers have proven that it's just a matter of time.

You are the 99%, whether you like it or not.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Priorities

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my daily schedule, and where all my time goes.  In that post I expressed my desire to better manage my time, make some positive changes, etc.  While I haven't yet begun keeping a new timesheet to monitor my progress, I do know one thing: it's not working.

There simply aren't enough hours in the day, and I'm trying to do too much.  I want to be a good wife, a good mother, a writer, take time to exercise regularly, and still give myself some free time to just relax and recharge.  We're planning on moving again, once we can get out of this lease, so I have to start organizing things in the house to make that a little easier when the time comes.  Much of what I'm doing I can't let go of.  My marriage--like everyone's--need's work.  My kids are very young, and need a lot of attention.  Exercise is very important for my continued existence on this earth, and I'll suck at everything if I reduce what little down time I have now.  Which leaves writing.

I've always wanted to be a writer.  I wrote my first poem and my first short story when I was six years old.  I wrote my first novel in high school.  (None of it's ever been published, and that atrocious novel never will be.)  I have a number of nonfiction books I'd like to write, and a new novel is living fully formed in my imagination.  But I don't have time to sit down and write any of it.  I've found that what little writing time I do have is going towards this blog.

I started this blog on a whim, and it's been fun.  But it's taking more time than I believe it's worth.  I'm not completely giving up on it, but I'm going to switch to posting on it only when I feel inspired, rather than every Tuesday morning (or, lately, afternoon) as I originally intended.  If you've been following me regularly, thank you, and please continue to do so, but also please be patient if it's a while between posts.

Until we meet again!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Proud to be an Authoritative Parent

Motherhood, like everything else, has its ups and downs.  There are days when my kids make me happier than I ever thought I could be, and there are days when I have to fight the temptation to just leave them at the first Safe Haven I can find.

But there is one downside to motherhood that caught me by surprise, and it's probably the aspect of being a mother that I despise more than any other: having to deal with other mothers.

Mothers are the most judgmental, arrogant, and vicious people I've ever met (and that's saying something when you remember I'm a former pastor!).  Not all of them are like that, but enough of them are that I'm dreading the day my kids start to make friends, and I'm going to have to start dealing with those friends' mothers.

Most mothers (myself included) are convinced that their method of parenting is the best.  That's obvious; why would anyone choose a parenting method they felt was substandard to another method they were aware of?  The trouble comes when they encounter a mother who shares that level of conviction, but subscribes to a different method than the first mother.  Rather than recognize that different people have different philosophies, mothers tend to view any difference in parenting approach as a judgement on their own method, and, by extension, on their own abilities as a mother.  Therefore anyone with a different approach must be exposed as a bad mother before she can expose you as one.

From what I've seen and read, the parenting philosophy most in vogue right now is "attachment parenting."  I find not only the philosophy problematic, but the terminology as well.  Since I'm not an attachment parent, does that make me a detachment parent?  Someone who is actively trying to separate from my very small children, rather than enjoy a close relationship with them?  I don't think so.  I don't think attachment parenting is necessarily bad; I just don't think it would work for my family, and I don't believe that it's the only way to raise "secure, joyful, empathic children."  I don't believe that not following the attachment parenting strategies will harm the connection and trust between me and my children, the way attachment parents claim it will.  Can attachment parenting work?  I'm sure it can, and I'm not going to condemn anyone for subscribing to that particular philosophy, especially since the social pressures to do so right now are huge.  But I don't.

Especially with how I've observed it being used in practice.  Attachment parenting is very child-centered, but according to Attachment Parenting International's website, it's not 'permissive' parenting.  However, from what I've seen from other moms who appear to subscribe to the attachment parenting philosophy, they very much engage in permissive parenting, and it's become just as much a social norm as attachment parenting.  (The fact that Attachment Parenting International felt the need to draw the distinction on their website indicates to me how much the two have become conflated.)

Generally speaking, there are three primary parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative.  Permissive parents show lots of love and affection, accept their children as they are, and make very few demands on them.  Children of permissive parents are often spoiled with little or no self control, expect to be spoon-fed physically and emotionally throughout their lives, and are less likely to grow into independent, socially successful adults.  Authoritarian parents set rules and standards without any flexibility, emphasize obedience, rarely (if ever) show warmth or affection, and feel it's important to exert power over their children.  Children of authoritarian parents usually either rebel and escape their homes at a relatively early age (whether they're ready or not), or else remain dependent on their parents throughout their adulthood.  Authoritative parents set rules and guidelines that they expect their children to follow, but can be flexible when such flexibility is appropriate.  They exercise control over their children without being controlling, and often show love and affection to their children without fear that such expressions will diminish their ability to discipline.  Children of authoritative parents usually grow up to be independent, socially successful, and respectful of authority.

I strive to be an authoritative parent.

Attachment parenting, when done exactly as Attachment Parenting International lays it out, is also authoritative.  However, as I mentioned before, I've usually seen adherents to the attachment parenting model unable to exercise appropriate discipline and/or set boundaries.  Because attachment parenting places such an emphasis on not doing anything to damage the trust and connection between child and parent, many parents fear doing exactly that if they tell a child 'no' and refuse to accept inappropriate behavior.  This makes permissive parenting the social norm and expected default.

And woe to anyone who deviates from the norm.

From the perspective of a permissive parent, someone who is using authoritative methods appears to be authoritarian or even abusive.  Authoritative parents set clear boundaries and high - but reachable - expectations for their children.  Violating those boundaries or not meeting those expectations has consequences.  Most of the time it's pretty non-dramatic.  For example, my husband and I are very polite in our conversations with each other and with our children.  "Please" and "thank you" are regularly spoken by us.  My three and a half year old son (and my almost-two year old daughter, for that matter) has been hearing this his whole life.  When we ask him to do something we include the 'please' and follow it up with 'thank you.'  He knows what's expected.  When he wants something and he demands it ("Push me in!"), we ignore him.  Most of the time he'll adjust his tone and his words on his own ("Excuse me, Mama?" "Yes?" "Will you push me in, please?"  "Of course.")  If he doesn't do this on his own, after ignoring a second demand or sitting too long in silence, we'll prompt him ("How do you ask?"  "Please."  "Please what?"  "Will you push me in, please?"  "That's better.")  It's very simple, and it's pretty non-confrontational.  If he wants something, he needs to ask politely, or he doesn't get it.  We don't expect as much from our daughter, who is just beginning to use one or two word sentences, but we're still setting high but reachable expectations.  ("More!"  "How do you ask?"  "Please!")  More often than not her initial request is "More please!"  We started this at different times with our kids, depending on where they were developmentally; we don't expect more from them than they can do, but compared to so many children of the same age whose parents expect nothing from them, we seem harsh and demanding.

Often the expectations and consequences are negotiated between me and my son (my daughter needs to get a little more verbal before she can enjoy this experience).  If he puts all his toys away after lunch, I'll read him his favorite story.  "But I want to go to the mall playground."  "You would rather go to the mall playground than hear your favorite story?"  "Yes."  "We can do that, but you have to eat your lunch quickly.  If you take too long, we won't have time to go.  So if you eat your lunch quickly, and put all your toys away quickly, then we can go to the mall playground."  "OK!"  He's never not eaten and put his toys away quickly enough for me to not take him.

Such interactions require both of us to be calm and rational.  While very small children are more capable of this than many parents believe, they are also prone to temper tantrums, which is a clear violation of the established boundaries and expectations of this authoritative parent.  Simply put, I don't negotiate with terrorists, especially pint-sized ones who call me 'Mama.'  When my kids throw a temper tantrum, not only do they absolutely not get what they want, they are given to the count of five to shut down the tantrum or they go in time-out.  Both my son and my daughter do standing time-outs facing the corner (for different lengths of time, accounting for the differences in their ages and temperaments), and have been for quite a while.  Once the time-out is over, I tell them why they went in time-out, and how to avoid that in the future.  By this time they're more calm and rational, and they understand that the punishment is over now, and they're more willing to interact in an appropriate manner.  They still don't get whatever it was they were demanding; that ship sailed once the temper tantrum started.  My son rarely has to do a time-out in public anymore, because he's already learned from experience that Mama can find a time-out corner anywhere.  He's also pretty philosophical about his time-outs.  Once he's in there, the only way out is to be quiet, because he knows the clock doesn't start ticking until the screaming and crying end.  My daughter is still learning both these truths, so I'm still faced with the miserable experience of giving her time-outs in public.

My daughter is almost two.  I realize that many parents don't even try to discipline children this young, so the fact that I do is shocking and horrifying to them.  She is also extremely stubborn (she gets it from both her parents) and has a pretty vile temper.  So when she throws a temper tantrum in public, permissive parents who would probably deal with her by hugging her, kissing her, and giving her a sippy of juice and a cookie to calm her down see me instead tell her to "shut it down" and then count to five in my sternest 'Mommy-voice.'  If she doesn't shut it down (she has been more often lately, but she still usually doesn't), I then pick her up under the arms, carry her without holding her close (partly because I don't want her to think she's being cuddled and partly because I'm trying to stay out of range of her wildly kicking feet) and plop her down in the nearest boring corner I can find, facing the wall.  Permissive parents who can't stand to hear a baby cry see me forcing her to stand in time-out while she's screaming bloody murder.  Since their default is to assume every cry or scream is a sign of genuine distress and must be stopped by hugs, kisses, and affirmation, they don't see discipline; they see child abuse.

The way I see it, there are only three possible ways to deal with temper tantrums: appease them, ignore them, or punish them.  I will not reward such behavior, even if appeasement usually is the most expedient way of getting them to stop, because it also guarantees many more of the same once the child figures out that throwing a tantrum will get her what she wants.  For a while I tried ignoring them, but that's not really an option in public, and at home they can last a very long time if merely ignored.  I also want to be consistent, and have the same response at home as I do in public.  Punishing them sends the message much more effectively that this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  I use time-outs because I don't believe in hitting, I don't see much point in a screaming contest, and making her tell it to an empty corner is the best way I can think of to get her to understand that no one wants to hear it.  If my kids have a complaint they can tell me about it, using words.  My three and a half year old son is not shy about telling me "I don't like that" or "I don't want to."  I don't put him in time-out for that.  If it's reasonable to change whatever it is to something he does like or is more willing to do, then I change it.  If such a change is not reasonable, I tell him something along the lines of "I'm sorry, you don't have to like it, but you do have to do it" and I tell him why.  And he accepts that and does it and moves on.  He doesn't usually throw temper tantrums to protest something anymore because he knows it's only going to get him put in time-out, and he has a much better chance of changing something if he talks to me about it instead.  My daughter is still learning this.

I'm not looking for the approval of other moms.  But I don't think it's appropriate to let toddlers call the shots.  Personally, I think giving children too many choices or too much control is abusive, because life is stressful, and that's too much responsibility for a two or three year old (or four, or eight, or twelve--you get my point).  Some choice and control is appropriate--my son chooses his breakfast every morning: Cheerios or Kashi.  He picks out his shirt after I tell him whether he has to pick from the long-sleeve or the short-sleeve side of the drawer, and then he picks from two or three pairs of pants or shorts I've selected that more or less match the shirt he's chosen.  My kids have choices that are appropriate to their age, and they're learning that they have some say in the world in which they live, but they don't have total control.  Vegetables are a part of supper whether they like them or not, ice cream is a nice surprise every once in a while but never an earned reward, and temper tantrums get you put in time-out.  As they get older, they'll learn more of life's lessons, but this is a good start for now.

So if you're a permissive parent who doesn't believe that toddlers are capable of self-control, understand that while that may be true of your toddler, it's not true of mine (though if you've never expected it of your toddler, how would you even know?).  Please learn the difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting (and abusive parenting).  Also consider what you're teaching your child about how the world works, and whether or not they're in for a really rude awakening at some point.

And know that when you threaten to call Child Protective Services on a mother who's enforcing a time-out for her almost-two year old in a corner of the mall playground, you're coming across as a judgmental, arrogant, vicious ignoramus who doesn't know how to handle her own children.  (Yes, that really happened to me last week, which is why this rant is so long.  My apologies to everyone who does recognize that different parents have different philosophies, and thank you for your tolerance.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

When I first heard about the protesters on Wall Street a few weeks ago, I didn't have much optimism for their success.  Based on the YouTube videos that were circulating, I saw a crowd of mostly twenty-somethings protesting corporate greed with some recording every minor police altercation in an attempt to claim police brutality.  I agreed with their general ideas--there are few in this country who aren't angry about corporate greed--but I didn't believe they could accomplish anything (and I didn't see any real police brutality in those early videos, either).  I wasn't sure what they were trying to accomplish.  I wasn't sure they knew what they were trying to accomplish.  My husband believed (and I agreed) that nothing would change because too many people are too comfortable with the status quo.  In order for revolution to happen, there needs to be a critical mass of people who are willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the change they wish to see.  Most 'revolutionaries' today seem to be willing to 'like' a Facebook page dedicated to their cause, and maybe copy and paste a status update that they agree with, and that's it.

But now I'm not so sure.  The protests are growing, spreading, and appear to have broken the media blackout.  (I regularly read the Wall Street Journal Online, plus use the news and weather app on my phone which draws from a variety of outlets, and I didn't know anything about the protests until another blog I follow posted one of those YouTube videos three or four days after the protests began.  Now the WSJ Online is providing regular updates on its homepage.)  Additionally, the protesters have begun to focus their message.  The First Official Release From Occupy Wall Street articulates some of their specific grievances, and they are working on a List of Demands.

Now they're getting more organized, focused, and specific.  Their grievances basically amount to calling out the government for allowing large corporations to dictate US economic policy in such a way that it benefits 1% of the population at the expense of the other 99% (this is my interpretation and summary, not a statement from their document; I encourage you to follow the links above and read their statements for yourself).  And it's not just that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; it's that the poor are getting poorer because the rich are usurping power from our supposedly democratic government, drowning out the voices of the majority of the population with the money our elected representatives need for reelection, and changing the rules to benefit themselves while causing harm and injustice to everyone else.  I don't necessarily agree with all their grievances, but there is definitely enough common ground there for me to hope for their success.

But what about the concern that too many people are too comfortable with the status quo to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?  I'm beginning to realize that people are more uncomfortable than I'd realized.  I knew things were rough; my own family is struggling to make ends meet after a prolonged period of unemployment and underemployment, and I have no idea how we're going to pay down the debt we accumulated during that time.  But I hadn't realized just how many people have already lost not only their fortunes, but their hope of ever rebuilding them.  Honor isn't what it once was, however there is enough anger against large corporations and the super-wealthy that aiding in the effort to stop filling their coffers with the hard work and sacrifices borne by the rest of us will gain honor, not lose it.  And if you've already lost everything and have no hope of ever getting it back under the current system, why not pledge your life to trying to make things better?  If the current system doesn't care about your life or well being (and it doesn't), what have you really got to lose?

Americans are sold a bill of goods.  We're taught that if you study hard, work hard, maybe even serve your country in the military, you can make something of yourself.  You can live the American Dream.  Instead we're seeing college graduates who did what they were supposed to do saddled with impossible debt loads and unable to find the jobs that were supposed to be worth that investment.  We're seeing people who have worked hard at their jobs all their lives taking pay cut after pay cut, until finally ending up unemployed and unemployable because their entire industry is virtually gone, losing their houses, their health insurance, and, eventually, their health.  We're seeing veterans ignored and forgotten once they take off their uniform (and sometimes before they've taken it off).  There are a lot of people represented in that 99% who are being screwed over by the 1%.  Rather than try to tell you their stories, I'm going to let some of them speak for themselves.

The following is only a small sampling from 'We Are the 99 Percent.'  Please go to that website and see why people are protesting on Wall Street (and elsewhere in the US), especially if you tend to believe that things aren't all that bad, and people who are complaining should just suck it up, stop slacking off, and work harder.

* I’d never been unemployed, until the company I worked for tanked a month ago. Up until then, I was living paycheck to paycheck, sharing a small apartment with my elderly, unemployed mother, making just enough to pay rent, grocery bills and medical insurance. Now we have no jobs, no savings, no health care and no furniture in our apartment; we sold almost everything we had to pay for food and rent. We both have extensive medical problems and are wondering how we’re going to pay for the medications we need to keep functioning. I don’t want sympathy, or handouts. I want a job, affordable rent and the restoration of the “American Dream.”  I AM THE 99%!!!

* I have a master’s degree from a top university and $75,000 in student loan debt. I have applied to jobs all over the country but I can’t even get an interview. My mom lost her job in 2010 and hasn’t been able to find anything since. I don’t know what we will do when her unemployment runs out. I’ve given up all hope in having a future. I am the 99%!

* I am educated, hard working and responsible. I am employed full time and have been for all of adult life. And yet I struggle each month to pay my bills, to feed my dog, to keep gas in my car. I dream of grad school, of a job in social services or ministry to make this world better than I found it. And yet, I am trapped. I am chained to my mortgage, to my unsellable home, to my mediocre job, to my city. Sometimes I feel a failure to be part of the first generation that will not exceed the accomplishments of the last and yet everyone I know works so hard. Just to get by. Our priorities have gone so astray in this country. We have lost sight of the importance of community and equality. Of justice and forgiveness. Of generosity and faith. Of democracy and hope. We got lazy and distracted and entitled and we didn’t realize that a few people have been making greedy decisions that would and do negatively affect the lives of the many. It’s time to wake up. To pay attention. To stop worshiping the dollar and start worshiping each other again. All of us. Together, being the change. My name is Emily Wheeland and I am one paycheck away from homelessness. I am the 99 percent.

* Single mother. Living with my parents, who own a small business and are barely scraping by themselves. Neither has health insurance or savings. My grandparents have spent their savings on medications. My daughter’s father joined the military to get a degree in a field he doesn’t want to study in, because it offers job security. He is stationed overseas for 2 years and is missing his daughter growing up…she asks for him almost every day, if she will see him soon. She won’t, not because he can’t get leave from work, but because we can’t afford tickets. We stay married for health insurance and assistance with my college. I have $15k in medical debt (collections) and terrible credit. He owns my car and we live off of his child support while I am in school. My parents provide free childcare so I can go to school. EVERYTHING I have—roof over my head, financial aid for my classes, my car and financial security, are all due to someone else’s generosity. I am grateful and scared. When will I be able to support myself so I can feel safe? Will this degree be worth it? I can’t tell my daughter she can be anything she wants to be. I can’t even guarantee she will have clean air to breathe or a school that isn’t underfunded and understaffed. WE ARE THE 99%!!!

* I’m 50 years old. I am one of the lucky ones! I’ve worked since I was 16, I’m a decorated US Military Vet. I’m well educated and work in the IT field and haven’t had a raise in five years. My wife is a school teacher who has lost $5000.00 of her salary due to budget cuts. Wells Fargo started foreclosure proceedings after we missed a payment, they would not talk to us until they successfully foreclosed on our home, then socked us with legal fees and refinanced making us upside down on our mortgage. To make ends meet, I’ve had to take a better paying job out of state, leaving my wife and child (a foster care adoption) in our home we cannot sell and cannot rent. I’ve been tuned down for insurance even though I’m healthy. I’m looking for a 2nd job so I can move off of my friend’s couch because with my wife and my combined salary I can’t afford a cheap efficiency apartment. WE ARE DOING WELL! WE ARE THE 99%

In a land where everyone is equal, the stories of the people above should not be true.  But they are.  The needs of the 99% are not equal to the wants of the 1%, and rather than majority rule, the 1% is calling the shots.  Why does my husband pay more in personal income taxes than the multinational corporation he works for pays in corporate income tax?  Why do banks make risky investments and get bailed out with public money when those investments fail, but individuals with pension funds that believed the banks about the safety of those investments have to accept their losses and start over from scratch?  Why was the man in line in front of me at the pharmacy last week told that they couldn't fill his valid prescription from his physician because it wasn't on the 'approved' list from his insurance company, and it would take three days for them to get authorization?  When he told the pharmacist that he couldn't wait three days for this medication, he was told to call his doctor and see if he could be prescribed something else.

According to the Supreme Court, corporations are 'persons' just like anyone else.  All persons are equal, but apparently some persons are more equal than others.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Do You Do All Day?

Back when I was single and working a full-time job, I used to dream of getting married and 'just' being a full-time mom.  Aside from the obvious desire to share my life with someone and raise children, I really liked the idea of just staying home all day.  All the things I'd be able to do then!  All the books I'd read, the crafts I'd make, and the fun things I could do with my kids--if only I could stay home all day.

Well, now I'm married and home with my kids all day, and I can't figure out where the time goes.  I feel like I'm super-busy, but I can't really point to anything I've accomplished at the end of each day.  My house isn't as clean as it used to be, I have less time for reading, almost no time for crafts, and TV is something the kids watch when I really need to get something else done.

I really wanted to know where my time was going, so I ran a little experiment.  Starting in late June and going throughout July, I kept a log of everything I did each day for five weeks, divided into fifteen minute increments (yes, I really am that anal).  Unfortunately it was a handwritten log, and I didn't try to do anything with the data until I had it all.  It's taken me nearly two months to find the time to do my data entry and analysis.

But anyway, here we are, and the first thing I have to say is: thank goodness for multitasking!  I kept track of when I was doing something with all my attention, as well as when I was doing multiple things at once.  When I added up how much time I spent doing things, I came up with a total of 1,066.75 hours of activities.  There are only 840 hours in a five-week period.  That means I actually did six weeks, two days, ten hours, and forty-eight minutes worth of activities in five weeks.  That averages out to needing 30 hours and 28 minutes to do what I need to do each day.  No wonder I'm tired all the time!

At first glance, it looks like I spend 637 hours, or 59.7% of my time, doing one thing at a time, and 429.75 hours, or 40.3% of my time multitasking.  But that's misleading, because by definition one can't sleep while multitasking, and I spent 264.5 hours (or 24.8% of my time) sleeping or trying to sleep.  (I'm a chronic insomniac, so much of that time was spent trying to sleep, but it's impossible to break out how much time was spent trying, and how much time was spent actually sleeping.  If I had to guess, I'd say at least a quarter of that time was trying to sleep.)  If you just look at my waking hours, I spent only 372.5 hours (or 34.9% of my time) doing one thing at a time.  Without multitasking, I'd be lost.

So what did I spend all my time doing?  Well, we already know that sleeping or trying to sleep accounted for 24.8%.  That wasn't what I spent the most time doing, however.  Taking care of my kids took up 24.9% of my time, and spending time with my husband came in third at 19.3%.  But it's interesting how those numbers broke out.  Of the 265.25 hours I spent with my kids, 174 of them (or 65.6%) were spent multitasking, while the other 91.25 hours (or 34.4%) were spent doing nothing else but taking care of them.  On the other hand, of the 206.25 hours I spent with my husband, for 126 of them (or 61%) my attention was entirely on him, and I only multitasked for 80.25 hours (or 38.9%) with him.  So while my kids get more time with me overall, my husband gets more focused time with me than they do.

Taking care of my family and trying to sleep accounts for 69% of my time.  Self care (the combination of personal hygiene, reading for pleasure, personal 'alone' time, attending worship, spending time with friends, and exercising) accounts for 6.9% of my time.  Professional development (research and writing) accounts for 6.2% of my time, and I waste (watching TV or mindlessly surfing the web) 5.3% of my time.  Some of that is a little misleading, because I'm sure some of the time I called 'research' really should have been categorized under 'mindless web surfing.'  Also, nearly half the time I logged as 'exercising' (9.25 hours) was actually spent driving to and from the gym.  That leaves me with 12.6% of my time to cook, clean, eat, run errands, manage the household finances, manage my husband's company's finances, and do crafts, plus write sermons and lead worship if I'm called to fill in for a vacationing pastor (which I did four of the five Sundays included in my log).  That's three hours and fifty minutes per day of my 30 hour, 28 minute long days.

It's been interesting to see if how I spend my time matches up with my stated priorities.  Overall, the answer is yes, because my family is my top priority, and I spend 44.2% of my total time (or 58.8% of my waking hours) engaging with them.  On the other hand, I see some areas I need to fix.  I don't have enough hours in the day to waste 5.3% of my time on mindless web surfing or TV.  And I'd like to be able to spend more time writing.  While 6.2% might be the best I can do right now, that was two-thirds research to one-third writing.  I think much of my 'research' is just an excuse, and I need to reverse that ratio.  I also need to spend more time on self-care.  You can't see it in the averages, but a lot of my personal time was grouped together in large blocks every few weeks, because I just burned out and shut down, and had to hole up while my husband took care of the kids.  I need to be more intentional about taking time for me and doing something that I find enjoyable (like reading for pleasure) rather than mindlessly wasting time.  I've already begun to exercise a lot more.

I think I'm going to run this experiment again.  In addition to the changes I want to make or have already made, some things are different now than they were in June.  For one thing, now that the fall programming has begun, I'm no longer being called for pulpit supply nearly every week, so I actually get to worship again.  However, this does cut down on my personal time, because I was taking some time for myself after church rather than going straight home.  Now I've got the kids with me at church.  Also in July, my husband and I attended Readercon 22, which resulted in two solid days where I didn't interact with my kids at all, and my husband got a lot of one-on-one time with me (my 'research' category got a bump, too).  That kind of weekend is extremely rare.  Another change is that my son no longer naps in the afternoon, and I'm experimenting with bringing my daughter down to one nap.  Additionally I've begun homeschooling my son, so he's getting more one-on-one time than he was over the summer.  All of this conspires to take away more of my self-care time, which I really can't let happen.

I'll keep a log for four or five weeks again, and see how it compares.  I think the only real change I'll make is that 'driving' will become it's own separate category, since that adds anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half to whatever I'm doing outside the house, and inflates the amount of time I log exercising or worshiping.

It is a bit tedious keeping the log (and even more so analyzing it) but I highly recommend doing this if you feel like you're not getting anything done, or if you're not sure if your actions agree with your stated priorities.  And as for getting all that time to read, make crafts, and do fun things?  I guess now I'm looking forward to being an empty-nester.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Open Letter to the Extroverts, Morning People, and Other Obnoxiously Cheerful People at my Gym

I don't mean to be rude, but back off and leave me alone.

I realize you're trying to be friendly and encouraging, but your bright and cheerful, "Good morning, are you ready for another workout?" the second I walk in the door is like nails on a blackboard for me.

I am not a morning person.  Yes, it's 10:30 AM, but if it were up to me, I'd still be in bed right now.  I'm also a chronic insomniac, so chances are I'm going on five hours or less of sleep right now.  I know you don't have insight into my life before I walk through the gym's front door, but you should be able to see by my half-open eyes, my dirty pony-tailed hair, and my total lack of effervescence that no,  I'm not particularly ready for another workout.  I've only had--at most--two thirds of my morning coffee (sometimes less than that), and I'm dragging along two toddlers, one of whom also is not a morning person and with whom I've probably already had at least one battle this morning.  Between the battle, the lack of sleep, and the reduced caffeine intake, I probably have a pounding headache, but I haven't taken any ibuprofen because I need to be aware of how my muscles feel during my workout so I don't accidentally hurt myself.

Add to that the depression I've been fighting, and the fact that I'm here at all is a major accomplishment.  So forgive me if I have nothing left to generate phony enthusiasm for another workout.

So why am I here if this is my attitude about the whole thing?  Look at me.  I'm some not-to-be-published number of pounds overweight, and clearly I'm not here because I've embraced the fitness lifestyle that you have.  Simply and starkly put, I'm trying to not die.  Workouts don't energize me; they exhaust me.  Both the cardio and the strength training are very difficult for me--not challenging in the YOU-GO-GIRL-LOOK-AT-ALL-THE-PROGRESS-YOU'RE-MAKING kind of way; difficult like the oh-please-somebody-kill-me-now-am-i-done-yet kind of way.

So I'm not trying to be rude or a killjoy or anything when I answer your gleeful "Are you ready for another workout?" with a monotonous "Sure, why not."  Nor am I looking to dump all my problems on you when I answer your exuberant "Feeling good?" on my way out with an exhausted "I'm hanging in there."  I simply don't have the energy left to lie to you or match the excitement you have and that you clearly think I should have as well.

This doesn't mean that you can't be friendly; just understand that I'm not in the place you are.  Don't ask me questions in such a way that also conveys the answer you expect to hear.  If you aren't really willing to hear the truth, then don't ask me questions at all.  A polite "Good morning, have a good workout" would help establish a welcoming presence without my having to lie, feign joy, or otherwise expend precious resources on answering beyond "Good morning, thank you."  I'm good with that!

I often tell my kids, "You don't have to like it; you just have to do it."  Well I'm here, I'm doing what I need to do, and I'm putting everything I've got into it.  But I don't have to like it, and I'm not going to pretend that I do for your sake.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Michael Moore and American Values

Last week the Guardian published an excerpt of Michael Moore's new book, Here Comes Trouble.

Full disclosure: I have not read this book.  I have not seen any of Michael Moore's movies.  I'm not boycotting them or purposely avoiding them; I simply haven't gotten around to it, and they're not high enough on my to-do list to put much effort into seeking them out.  If any of them happen to cross my path at a time that's convenient for me, I'll be happy to watch them.

I do know who Michael Moore is, I'm familiar with most of his projects of the last ten years, and I know he has a reputation for being somewhat one-sided.  Good for him.

All that said, I was absolutely appalled and sickened when I read the excerpt of his book in the Guardian, in which he detailed the threats and attempts on his life after his 2003 Oscar speech, and later the release of his movie Fahrenheit 9/11.

In case you didn't click on the link and read the account for yourself, here are some highlights:

  • Upon returning home from the Oscars, he found a waist-high pile of manure (about three truckloads worth) in his driveway blocking access to his house, as well as signs nailed to the trees on his property threatening his safety and well-being if he didn't move.
  • Not only did he receive mountains of hate-mail expressing people's desire for his death and/or poor health, but he also had people leaving threatening messages on his answering machine.
  • So many people came to his house to threaten him that he had to hire a private security company, because the local police were overwhelmed.
  • An assassination attempt with a knife was made when he was an invited speaker at an event (thwarted by his private security).
  • A cup of scalding coffee was thrown in his face by a random man walking past him on the street (thwarted by his private security--his private security agent took it in the face instead).
  • Another random person passing by lunged at him with a sharpened pencil, stabbing the hand of the private security agent.
I know a lot of people were angered by Moore's Oscar speech and disagreed with the opinions expressed in Fahrenheit 9/11, but I don't want to believe that my fellow Americans feel that the appropriate response to a citizen exercising his right to free speech is harassment, vandalism, threats, and murder.  Sadly, I have no reason to doubt Moore's story.

Is this who we are as a country?  Let's put aside for the moment that the charges he made against then-President George W. Bush in his Oscar speech were dead-on correct.  We did invade Iraq for fictitious reasons.  But that's not the point.  Let's pretend for a moment that Moore was wrong about everything.  Let's pretend there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Bush's presidency was achieved legitimately.  Let's pretend that Saddam Hussein masterminded the events of September 11, 2001 and had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction hiding in Iraq.  Let's pretend all that is true, and Moore still said what he said at the Oscars, and still made Fahrenheit 9/11.  As an American, he has that right.

I'm disgusted that people who claim to support our troops "fighting for freedom and democracy" in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan will so violently reject freedom and democracy when it's practiced in their own country.  Americans have the right to have their own opinions and express them publicly, even when those opinions question the motives, methods, and abilities of their leaders.  Americans do not have the right to vandalize someone else's private property, trespass on someone else's private property, or threaten the life, health or safety of another person.  If these are the democratic values we're trying to spread around the world, then the world is right to mock and reject us.  This is not how civilized people treat each other.

I like the ideals that my country is based on, but I don't like the reality we live in.  I don't like the tyranny of the majority, the groupthink ignorance of our history, or the increasing class wars between the "educated elite" and "real Americans" (as if education and a nuanced understanding of the shades of grey that make up the world are somehow antithetical to America).  I don't like that our government follows the version of the Golden Rule that reads, "He who has the gold makes the rules."  And I don't like that, in practice, we consider discipline and self-restraint as weaknesses, and emotionally-charged recklessness and instant gratification evidence of strength and commitment.

And based on reputation alone, I don't particularly like Michael Moore.  But I respect his right to his opinion, I respect his right to express it publicly, and I appreciate his attempts to make people think critically about what's going on.  If you don't want to hear what he has to say, don't watch his movies (you can suck it up and deal with it if he takes 30 seconds of a 3 hour and 30 minute awards show to spring his opinion on you).  And as an American citizen, I wish to apologize to him.  I can't speak on behalf of all Americans, but on my own behalf, I apologize.  I never sent you hate mail, I never threatened you in person or over the telephone, I never accosted you, and I certainly never threatened your life or safety, but I'm sorry you had to experience all those things.  You should never have had to go through that for the sin of expressing your opinion.  I'm sure if I ever get around to watching your movies, I'll find plenty I disagree with you about, but the most I would ever do would be to publish a blog post highlighting what I disagreed with and why.  I'm sure you won't begrudge me my right to publicly express my opinion, just as I don't begrudge you your right to publicly express yours.

As for the rest of America, please try to understand that freedom and democracy means accepting that people have a right to question their government's leaders and actions without risk of harm or retribution, and that doing so is not un-American, as many of you claim, but rather is a very important aspect of being an American.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's Blame the Immigrants!

The US economy is in the crapper, everyone's feeling the squeeze, so of course it's time for the next round of "Let's Blame Immigrants for All Our Problems!"

The following post has been making the rounds on Facebook (again):  SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT ... If you cross the North Korean border illegally, you get 12 yrs. hard labor. If you cross the Afghanistan border illegally, you get shot. Two Americans just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border. If you cross the U. S. border illegally you get a job, a drivers license, food stamps, a place to live, health care, housing & child benefits, education, & a tax free business for 7 yrs ...No wonder we are a country in debt. Re-post if you agree. 

Let's look at this piece by piece.

As far as I can tell, the claim that you get 12 years of hard labor for crossing illegally into North Korea is based on two American journalists who received that sentence in 2009 for "illegal entry and 'hostile acts.'"  What were the 'hostile acts' they committed against North Korea?  That government never specified, but convicted them anyway.  (I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that the two journalists were reporting on the trafficking of women.)  In any case the two journalists were pardoned and deported two months later when former President Bill Clinton visited that country and requested their release.  In the last couple of years, four Americans have been arrested and convicted of illegal entry, and all four have been pardoned and released.  Most recently, in April of last year, an American was accused of illegal entry and 'an unspecified hostile act' (he was a Christian missionary).  He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but also received a pardon and deportation.

 It's difficult finding news about Afghan shootings that don't involve US soldiers and/or the Taliban, but I did find something claiming that the penalty for resisting arrest in Afghanistan is being shot.  The only story I could find about the shooting of migrant workers illegally crossing the Afghan border involved Afghan migrant workers sneaking across the border out of Afghanistan into Iran, where they were shot.

The two Americans who just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border actually got three years for crossing the border, and five years for 'spying for the United States.'  They are also political tools for the Iranians to highlight the alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US prisons, and most likely will be released as bargaining chips for something else the Iranians want.

Those are the facts regarding those three countries.  Now the obvious question: DO WE REALLY WANT TO PATTERN LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFTER NORTH KOREA, AFGHANISTAN, AND IRAN???!!!  Are these countries we wish to emulate?  If so, then why are two of them part of the so-called (by us) Axis of Evil?  And Afghanistan?  Talk to any American vet who's been over there, and ask him if he was there fighting so that we could be more like them.  I dare you to.  And if you've posted this quote on Facebook, or supported someone who did, don't try to claim now that no one is saying those countries are better.  That's exactly what you're saying when you state or support such comparisons.

As for the welcome wagon that is supposedly waiting just this side of the border handing out free housing, health care, jobs, education, et al to the sneaking illegal immigrants--um, really?  What jobs?  Below-minimum wage under-the-table jobs where they're little more than slaves, constantly living under the threat of deportation if they complain?  Or maybe you're referring to those who tried the indentured servant route, and are now working in sweatshops or brothels?  Or maybe you're talking about the migrant workers who do back-breaking work at the fruit farms of Georgia for minimum wage plus performance bonuses, which sometimes earn them upwards of $20 per hour.  Yeah, them.  When Georgia recently passed a new law designed to drive out the illegals, farmers were unable to hire enough local legal workers to do the work, even though Georgia's unemployment rate is over 10%.  More Americans would rather collect unemployment that work at Federally-approved pay levels with the potential of earning nearly three times that rate, if their performance warrants it.  When crops were rotting in the fields because there weren't enough workers to harvest them, the farmers hired probationers, a group of people who usually have a very difficult time finding work.  Most of the probationers quit, and the very few who stayed weren't nearly as productive as the illegal immigrants who had done that work before them.  Crops are still rotting in the fields.  There is no special employment plan for illegal immigrants at the expense of American citizens.


Who's just handing out drivers' licenses?  I've been licensed in four states, and all four times I had to provide a birth certificate and/or a Social Security card and/or a US passport (plus several other documents to prove residency).  It's true that some illegal immigrants may be forging or buying stolen identification papers in order to get their licenses, but that's not the same as just being handed the licenses.  Oh yes, and those licenses obtained with forged or stolen documents?  Those allow the illegal immigrants to work at legitimate jobs where they pay taxes that benefit all Americans, including Social Security and Medicare, which, because of their phony SSNs, illegal immigrants will never benefit from.


Qualifying for food stamps varies from state to state, but I believe income verification and proof of identity are universally required.  And I also wonder--whether a person's here illegally or not, do we really want people starving to death within our borders?  What does that say about our national values?


The only free housing I'm aware of in the United States are homeless shelters, and the only ones envious of people living in homeless shelters are the people living on the streets because there's no room available in those shelters.  And those people aren't likely to be reposting anti-immigration rhetoric on Facebook while they wait for a bed to become available.


There is definitely no free health care here.  Most people without health care, whether they're illegal immigrants or American citizens, don't go to the doctor until it's such an emergency that they have to go to the emergency room, where they have to be treated regardless of ability to pay.  Doctors and hospitals charge a much higher rate to the uninsured than their 'negotiated' rates with the health care providers, and that virtually guarantees that individuals without insurance won't be able to pay for the emergency services they received.  This isn't an immigration problem; it's a health care problem.


I've already addressed housing, and I'm not sure what child care benefits the post is referring to.  Exemptions for children in the tax code?  They're paying taxes, and they have children.  I don't think that children here illegally are any cheaper to care for than those with American citizenship, and the important point to remember here, again, is that they're paying taxes.

The belief that illegal immigrants receive free education can be attributed to two things.  One is the K-12 public school system, in which case the assertion is true.  It's also true that each of those illegal students is responsible for money going to their school system, thanks to the prevalence of attendance-based funding formulas.  If you want to see a school system tank, yank out all the undocumented students, and see what's left for the citizens in that district.   The other possible source for this belief is the controversy over allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition for state-run colleges and universities.  I know of one person in Massachusetts who has repeatedly lamented the fact that she has to pay for her kids to go to college, while the illegals get in for free.  In truth, the program (at least in Massachusetts) is that all Massachusetts students who attend a Massachusetts community college and graduate with a 3.0 or higher GPA can enroll at UMass Amherst and have the in-state tuition waived (though they'd still be on the hook for the $10K in additional fees per year).  The controversy stems from the fact that most of the community colleges aren't very diligent at determining the residency of their students, so out-of-state students and illegal immigrants might slip in, too.  (Granite Staters and Mexicans together at UMass--oh the horror of it all!!!)  The people who are complaining about having to pay aren't sending their kids through community college and expecting them to make the grade; that's why they have to pay, not because illegal immigrants (and New Hampshire residents) are hogging all the free tuition.  There is no free tuition.

I have to claim complete ignorance on the tax-free business for seven years.  My husband and I have set up our own company, and I don't remember seeing any exemption in the corporate rules that said if we could prove illegal status, we wouldn't have to pay corporate income tax.

Some of these claims that I don't know about may be because they're holdovers from the Canadian, UK, Australian, or even Indian versions of this electronic rant.  It's been circulated in all those countries.  Sorry folks, you're not that original.

And as a final note, I've noticed that there are a quite a few Christians getting behind this post, usually the same ones who use the bible as justification for denying marriage to gay couples.  Please take out your bibles and read Leviticus 19:33-34 (it's just a little bit past that verse you love so much that proclaims that a man lying with another man is an abomination): "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."  If you're going to demand biblical authority for the laws of this land, then start with this one.  The treatment of the alien is mentioned far more often than homosexuality, and much less ambiguously.


There are real problems facing this nation, but blaming illegal immigrants for them won't solve anything.  I don't know if it's accurate or not, but a number I've seen invoked is $113 billion being spent on illegal immigrants.  $113 billion seems like a big scary number.  But our total national debt is over $14 trillion (and rising), and that $113 billion is less than one percent of that.  Now, I'm a big fan of 'every little bit helps,' but I'd be willing to bet that illegal immigrants contribute much more than $113 billion to the US economy.  So let's stop with the hate and the blame, and take a hard look at they systemic failures that got us here.  And then let's figure out what we can do about it, rather than just point to people we don't like and make them our scapegoat.


And if you want to repost something because you agree, please check the facts first, rather than continuing to spread misinformation that detracts from finding real solutions.