Friday, May 29, 2009

Well, crap

I guess a person should never comment about "coming into some money." Because then something will happen to require spending of that money.

I use a NordicTrak cross-country ski simulator. It is the only exercise I'm able to keep up with - running destroys my knees, and besides, running here in town in the summer is death because it's close to 100* and sometimes as high as 60% humidity. I've tried other things but find them either boring or annoying. With the NordicTrak, I can hop on, put on some music or one of the radio talk shows, and I can usually make it through the hour without wanting to kill someone.

So I got home today and tried to use the thing. It had been acting up a bit, I thought it needed lubricating, and I tried that. That didn't help. So I gave it an inspection. One of the rollers is shot, it makes the ski "slip" at the back of the motion. Which is bad, because it's potentially stressing on the knee, and it's also very jarring and makes trying to work out unpleasant.

I called the company and talked to a not-very-knowledgable (or so it seemed to me) person who told me it would cost just over $150 to replace ONE of them (there are two). "Shouldn't I replace both at the same time?" I asked. She didn't know. (On the website, it claims that a "set" comes with 2 for $150, but it also claims they are out of stock).

I NEED this thing. I weigh enough as it is and I am unwilling to go into starvation mode to make up for the calories I am NOT burning by not exercising. And as I said, alternate forms of exercise are just not for me. Nor is joining a "Curves" or "Butterfly Fitness" (both of which exist in my town). For one thing, I'm just not a joiner. And for another - I like to work out early in the morning (like 5 am) when classes are in session, and neither place is open then.

So, crap. A Hobson's choice.

So I looked a bit further on the website. They had a "weekend special" - a new copy of what I had for just under $600, plus free shipping.

So, now I had a dilemma: spend the equivalent of half (or one-quarter, depending on whether the website or the person on the phone is right) the price of a new one for a single replacement part (there are other things on the machine that are worn but still usable; I've used this nearly daily for the past 10 years), or buy a new one.

As hard as it was for me to do (parting with that kind of a chunk of change - hell, parting with anything over $100 - is hard), I decided to order a new one. That will save me having to replace the rollers with a part that may or may not be out of stock, that will save me dealing with the worn waist-pad, that will save me from wondering when I need to replace the skis. I hate planned obsolescence but I'm telling myself 10 years is a good long run for a piece of exercise equipment.

I hope I made the right decision. I hate spending money. I'm telling myself that I didn't have my tax refund earmarked for anything AND I got paid today (and I've had a fairly cheap spring so far - nothing else has broken (and now I am crossing my fingers and spitting to ward off anything else breaking). But still, I hate spending money. The old Scrooge McDuck in my soul is groaning and saying, "Lassie, ye shoulda jes' bought the rrrrrollers."

She nails it

This article by by Diana Senechal: Solitude: a Flashlight under the Covers addresses one of the things that I am made uneasy by, but never quite could put into words, as concerns the brave new world of social networking.

People are never "alone." There is not the time to sit and steep in one's thoughts.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we are all wired into the matrix by force; those of us who want to avoid the whole mess still can. (Though for how long? I have heard rumblings of some college campuses "suggesting" their profs start Twitter accounts as a way of staying in touch with students).

But what concerns me is that like so many things, people will go into it thinking it is totally harmless, something fun, and then they find themselves trapped. Or it changes their life in ways they're not totally aware of.

In the article Senechal talks about students being "bombarded" with group work (and I will admit to one of my prejudices here: I HATED "group work" when I was a student. I hated it both because I seemed to always wind up in a group with at least one slacker who took the attitude of "Well, YOU care about a good grade, so I can not do any work and you'll pick up the slack because I know you still want an A" and also because I was often the one who was on the losing end of personal dynamics - there is an old saying, if you put three little girls in a group, two will become best friends forever so they can pick on the third? I was that third little girl.)

The other thing Senechal mentions is the sense that, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the modern classroom abhors silence. I refer to the trend dismissively as "dancing ducks and explosions" - the need to have more, better, and louder, to drag the kids' attention in, because it has (apparently) been so weakened, stunted, and shortened from television exposure - in other words, give 'em more of the same because they can't cope with anything else..

And it frustrates me - this even seeps in at the college level. I've had students ask me why I never show movies in my classes. (In Ecology? I can't think of any that would be appropriate and would actually teach something better than either going out into the field or discussing research that has been done). I regularly get complaints, especially from my non majors, that the class is "too hard" and "too boring" - mainly because I DON'T show movies, nor do I do the kind of touchy-feely, "Let's sit around and talk about how things make you FEEL" discussion.

Because it seems pointless to me to ask a student how they "feel" about stem cells when they can't really tell me what a stem cell IS.

But anyway. I know I rail too much about what I see as the rising tide of noise in modern life - the babel sounds of cell phones when you're in a grocery store or waiting in line somewhere, the need for the news to be BIGGER and LOUDER and MORE SHOCKING in order to draw eyes to the screen, the proliferation of televisions EVERYWHERE - in the grocery store, in the waiting room at the mechanic's, in the dentist's.

But solitude - periods of quiet - are necessary to getting useful work done. I have, myself, had to reconfigure my office so that when I am WORKING on something (as opposed to sitting in office hours desultorily grading quizzes) I am turned away from the computer to resist the temptation to surf. Because I know that kind of multitasking leads to bad work and having to redo things.

So I do feel a concern that maybe some folks have thrown themselves too headlong into the world of being "connected" at all times - I think it would be terribly hard to write a book, or solve a complex math problem, or compose music - if you were also sort of "on the alert," waiting for the next Twitter message to come in. (Maybe that's just me. I know I do my best work when I know I cannot be interrupted by the phone or by someone stopping by my office "just to talk." I've actually unplugged my phone and closed my office door when working on something really complicated to avoid those distractions. And I do need to be better about avoiding the temptation to surf the web when I should be working concentratedly; perhaps the reason I have four articles in various stages of not-being-ready-to-submit rather than four articles currently in press is that I spend too much time sitting in my office doing just that).

But near the end of her essay, Senechal brings up a happier note: that solitude and especially the hunger for it, does still exist. Describing the girls in a book club she leads:

"Many of the girls have special reading places: nooks and stairwells, forts made of blankets and chairs, and the great classic hideout, the place under the covers with a flashlight. Like Sara, they know how jarring it is to be interrupted when reading. They find the places where they may read without pause."

I used to sometimes, in the summer, take my book and climb up one of the trees near my house; it had an area where several branches fanned out, making a place where a person (well, a small person, like I was in those days) could sit and read. I also sometimes would sit under the (unused) dining room table in the afternoons to read.

Of course, I grew up in a household where someone reading was not likely to be disturbed, so I more commonly read stretched out on the sofa in the living room or sitting on the floor of my bedroom, but I do remember that kind of solitude, where you could read for an hour or more without having to be "in touch" with anyone else.

And I would hope that anyone who desires (or needs, but might not necessarily realize they desire) that kind of solitude - free from interruption, free from the trivial nibbles of information that daily life seems to want to throw at us - can get it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I have no idea

...why this cat is making these sounds. (I presume it's scared/upset about something, based on its posture, and the fact that this is kind of growling).

But all the sadness about poor kitty being scared aside, it's actually pretty funny.

I can't help but laugh at "oh Don Piiiaaannnnno"

I love Mythbusters

Tori, on last night's episode, after finding out the "build team's" job on a particular day was to fire semi-automatic rifles as prep for a myth:

"Today CAN'T suck!"

I love that enthusiasm. I wish I still had it. Sadly, I've always been too good at anticipating things going wrong - "borrowing trouble" as my dad says, that I don't think I've ever in my life walked into a day of work and thought "I get to do x y and z. Today CAN'T suck!"

(I also kind of love that Mythbusters has the stones - in today's culture - to have a host admit to the fact that he enjoys firing guns. On some other networks either they wouldn't even bring guns into it, or the hosts would have to squirm around and be all "guns are ICKY." Not that I own or even really want to own one, but it seems odd to me to pretend that a TOOL - something that can be used for good or bad purposes, depending on the person - has some kind of moral quality to it.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rollin' in it.

Well, this has been an interesting couple of weeks, money-wise:

1. My dad insisted on paying me the cost of my train tickets. (He and my mom have, upon occasion, helped out my brother and sister-in-law, who live in a more expensive area than I do but have more financially precarious jobs - my brother, in particular, works for Intervarsity and is dependent upon people's contributions to pay his salary). I hate to turn him down TOO vehemently (though I feel like I should pay for my own dang travel) because I know it makes him happy to be able to do it. (I deposited part of it and got a bunch as cash...either to spend on the "last weekend of freedom" shopping trip to Boutiqueville before summer classes start, or to put in my hidey-hole just in case a Bank Holiday or some other foolishness gets called and people start to panic. (And yes, I got it in small enough denominations that I could actually reasonably buy stuff with it if that second came to pass).

2. I got a letter from my insurance company telling me that they had miscalculated the cost of my coverage (I added the piano I inherited as a separate "fine instrument" carriage - it's over and above the homeowner's policy) and that they owed me $26 and were enclosing a check (which was enclosed)

3. I got a letter from the IRS. Now, I have to admit, I hesitated before opening it. Calculating my taxes this year were more complex because I had to do some calculation of depreciations because one of the investments my financial manager (aka my uncle the stockbroker) thought was a good idea involves a limited partnership in some forest products company or somesuch (I don't remember correctly what it's called). So I was afraid that either I was going to be audited or that I was getting whacked with a big bill because I calculated the taxes owed on that investment wrong, even though I followed the directions the corporation posted online.

Nope! It was a "Hey, you overestimated what your taxes were" letter (I guess I didn't apply the Capital Gains tax table right, or actually, I think what I did was use the regular tax table instead of putting in the lower number the Cap Gains table gives). My refund is $700 and some change greater than what I thought it would be. (And that money should be in my savings account now, or at least by the start of next month). Yeah, I know, $700 sounds like a lot to screw up but I looked over the taxes again and the change makes sense so I'm not going to question it. (I remember now dithering about it - because I was so discombobulated about the depreciation and Schedule E business and everything - and I think I just filled in the wrong number because it seemed to make sense at the time.)

4. At some point I should receive a check for $150 in return for evaluating and commenting on some proposed textbook chapters (which kind of sucked, and I told them that, but I also suggested how they could make them better, so I think I earned my money).

So I'm more flush with "unexpected" (and yeah, I know - I have to declare that $150 next tax-time and I will be doing that) income than I usually am.

So now I'm faced with an interesting dilemma: do I take some of this money and just go and blow it on something delicious and fun, like an mp3 player or a new digital camera or just a really GREAT day at Boutiqueville buying whatever grabs my fancy, or do I sock it all carefully away, figuring that things are going to get worse somehow? (Or do I figure inflation's going to go up, or a VAT - as Mr. Bingley points out, may be coming - and have one last "lost weekend" of spending money gleefully before the Titanic sinks [to mix metaphors]). Or do I slowly dribble it away buying stuff online (like I often do when I have some spare cash...I see a pattern I want here, an old book I want there...)

Or another option: do I go all responsible and use it to fix a few things around the house that kinda-sorta need fixing, but that I've been putting off? Like getting a new screen door because the metal on the old one's corroding? Or having the old clapboard stripped off my garage (it's a PITA to paint every couple years) and replaced with siding? And the ultimate thought: do I take some of the carefully-husbanded money (a few hundred dollars chunked over every month from my paycheck, at least in months where I don't have any other unexpected expenses like big car repair) out of my savings and have new windows put on the old place? It really needs it but the thought of having workmen tramping all over my house gives me the fantods, and also, workmen around here are known for doing things like starting a job and then mysteriously disappearing for three weeks - and that would most definitely not work if they had poked out two or three of the old windows but not yet got around to inserting the new ones. (I have heard of people replacing their own windows but the thought of that - and of trying to find a few other strong backs to help me do that - gives me the fantods even worse than thinking of workmen tramping through my house).

Actually, I don't know the first thing about window replacement, other than that there are some disreputable companies out there selling crap. (If I could at all afford it, I'd go with a well-known brand like Pella or Andersen. But I don't know how much those cost, even, or even if the old windows on my house are a "standard" size or if I'd need a custom job. And I REFUSE to do what many owners of old houses in my town have done - board up portions of their nice big old windows and have stingy little modern "energy efficient" windows inserted. Because I think the treatment I'd have to face for depression brought on by living in a cave-like environment would outstrip any money-saving on energy I'd see). So I really need to do some research first - but I'd love to have new windows in the house before winter, because the old ones leak heat something terrible. (Funny, they don't seem to affect the air conditioning in the summer...I don't feel hot air seeping in when I sit near a window in the way that I feel a chill in the winter).


Apparently my secretary did not complete the transcription of the student comments. But that's OK, I can wait to see them. I think I'll actually work better today for not obsessing over them.

(She's taking a break this week; she had built up a lot of vacation days she was going to lose if she didn't use them. We don't have that thing here, like many campuses do, where you can apply unused vacation towards your retirement at the end of your career - it just evaporates each year.)


I have a journal article I could be working on, but it's hard to get up the energy to go in to my office (I'm at home now). Because I have student evaluations almost certainly waiting for me.

I HATE student evaluations. Even when I get good comments (which I usually do), those are not the ones I's the bad comments, the ones that are written to vent rather than to be constructive criticism, that stick with me. They're the ones that keep me up at night, that make me wonder if I'm any good at all at what I'm doing. If maybe I should just hang it up and go do something else with my life because apparently I suck at this teaching thing.

I know that's not literally true, but it FEELS true when you are reading a comment from a student who says something like, "This class sucked. I don't know when I'm ever going to use any of the crap I learned."

One of the ongoing problems I have - and I really don't know how to overcome it, I've tried, is that I give other people's opinions far too much credence. I'm not good looking at what someone (anonymously) says about me and saying, "Well, that person obviously doesn't understand." Or "That person was probably unhappy because they weren't getting the grade they thought they were entitled to." Or "That person is an idiot." So evaluation time is ALWAYS uncomfortable for me, and I always have a hard time forcing myself to go in and read the comments.

I know someone who, after she made full professor, would just bung her comments in a drawer, unread, and leave them there. Her response being, "If they won't be made to sign their comments - to OWN what they said - I shouldn't be forced to read them." I kind of like the attitude in that although I understand the need for anonymous comments, in case you have a certain student in another class you teach.

But I do think the anonymity poses a problem, perhaps even more now in the days of the Internet: people have learned that the cloak of anonymity allows them to say things they might not otherwise say. And that's a double-edged sword. I can gently complain about what I think is a foolish decision on the part of the campus administration without fearing losing my job, but on the other hand, people can write horrible nasty things in comments on websites - stuff they'd never say to a person's face - and feel like no one can touch them. And I think evaluation comments are like that. From informal discussion with colleagues, it seems like the "mean" comments have gotten "meaner" in recent years - and that students feel no compunction against using profanity in their comments, which seems unprofessional to me. My secretary says she "rarely" edits when she types them up (though once she did not pass on a comment that was sexual in nature to one of the female profs. And seriously? What kind of a student would think it was acceptable to put that on an evaluation?)

So I really do need to go in and read those comments, though I kind of dread it. (I cried the first few times.) I really would like to get all positive comments although I realize that's not possible. The people-pleasing instinct is strong in me, but the high-standards instinct is fortunately a bit stronger. I just wish people could see my "toughness" or my "too much math" or my "too much information" as the fact that I have their best interests at heart, or my "needs to 'dumb down' the material more" as evidence that I think highly of their intellects and expect that they can rise to the requirements.

(I will admit at this point that I consider the "too much math" or "this class was hard" comments a bit of a badge of honor. OF COURSE it's supposed to be hard, it's a junior/senior level biology class! Of COURSE there's math in it, it's ECOLOGY for gosh sakes!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Here's a question

This is something that's bugged me since late last week.

What would it do to a person's credit rating were they to cancel all their credit cards? I don't mean because there's an outstanding balance, or because of bankruptcy, or something like that. But because the rules got changed and someone who WAS responsible winds up having to pay to use the card even if they pay it off in full each month.

Because I am one of those folks the credit card companies like to call a "deadbeat." (Nice bearded-Spock universe that one comes from: the term is used to refer to credit card customers who pay off their bills IN FULL and ON TIME each month. I am totally anal about that - I have never had a late bill, even if it meant calling the credit card company before I went on vacation to find out my balance and sending a check to them early, before the bill came).

But now, the lovely new legislation designed to save people who put that trip to Bermuda or those Jimmy Choos on plastic when they didn't, you know, actually have the money to pay for them - and when they'd never have the money to actually pay for them is coming down the pike.

And it looks ugly, folks.

Okay, an up-front disclaimer: I know people have emergencies. I know someone who actually put medical bills on a credit card because he knew there was no way his health insurance would cover the particular (experimental) treatment. And that it's going to take him a long time to pay it off. But he didn't have time to try to find alternative sources for paying, and that seemed the best thing to do at the time. And I don't think this guy would ever default; he'll just be under the heavy burden of high interest rates for a while. I don't get grumpy at the people who have real emergencies where the credit card may be the best, or the only solution.

But once again, it comes down to irresponsibility. I knew people in college who got credit cards (I was not allowed to have one [by my parents] until I was 21) and who bought all kinds of junk, new stereo systems, video games, all kinds of stuff they didn't remotely have the money for. Their justification? "I'll have the money someday, when I get a job." or "If worse comes to worse, I can declare bankruptcy."

No. NO NO NO NO NO. Bankruptcy is for real emergencies - like health emergencies, or loss of a job followed by inability to get another job while also trying to pay all your bills. It is not to be considered because you want stuff now.

So it's people like that - who've gone crying about how they're so mistreated - that now the government's reining in the credit card companies.

And while I admit some of the things are not such a bad idea (no credit cards for under-21s unless they can prove they can pay, for example), it looks like the credit card companies are going to whack those of us so-called "deadbeats" because they now have to be "nicer" to people who haven't used the cards responsibly.

Two possibilities seem to be an annual fee (which I could deal with provided it was not enormous; I think my first credit card, because it WAS my first, carried a $40 annual fee) and no grace period.

I really, really do not like that second possibility. What it means is, every purchase you make, you start being charged interest from the moment of purchase. The only way to avoid it (and you probably couldn't even then) would be to send in a check for the purchase amount the very day you made it - essentially removing one of the big conveniences of these cards.

It's not like interest is the only way cards can make money. I was talking this over with a small merchant (a quilt shop owner) in my parents' town and she said she sent off $600 in fees for TAKING credit cards to the companies (I don't remember if she said last month, or last year. She does a considerable business but $600 a month seems like a lot; it may have been last year). And every business owner who takes cards would be paying.

She agreed with me - that if the cards went to "interest from date of purchase," she was cancelling hers. (She is no fan of Obama, I learned from the conversation).

So this raises the questions:

1. What WOULD it do to a person's credit rating, if that person (say, me) was to pay off all her cards in full that last month, not charge anything else, write the issuers and say, "Your decision to charge interest from the moment of purchase is unacceptable to me; please close my account." Would having no credit cards make it harder for me to take out a loan if I really needed one? That's one thing that scares me a little.

2. How would a person travel? Deal with emergencies? I've run up against a lot of businesses that won't take checks any more - I guess they've been burned too many times by bad checks. How would I order train or plane tickets without going through a travel agency and paying them by check? What if my car breaks down when I'm 300 miles from home and the only repair shops won't take checks, and I have no cash?

3. Are debit cards really that unsafe? I mentioned to my dad, "Well, I'll just close out the credit cards and get a debit card then" and his response was that if you lost the card, or if it was stolen, you were screwed - someone could empty your account.

4. I really, really don't want to give up being able to use Amazon. Or Etsy. Or any of the many on-line craft-supply sellers I buy from. It makes me sad to think of losing what is really pretty much my only "fun" shopping (short of driving an hour's round trip) because of some IDIOT who claimed they couldn't understand the fine print and the credit card companies "screwed them over" when they were actually buying luxury items they could not afford.

5. Will other people give up their credit cards if the "interest from date of purchase" or if exorbitant annual fees come into place, or is it just a few cranks like me? Because if it's a lot of people, then online merchants could be hurt - and they could come back at the credit card companies - and maybe things would change. But if a lot of people just shrug and go, "meh, cost of doing business" or if they even go "Well, it's OK because that means the credit card companies are being controlled" then those of us who choose to opt out are kind of screwed.

6. I wonder if armed robberies in shopping areas will go up, if the crooks figure that people are carrying big amounts of cash to avoid using cards. The big reason I use credit cards is so I don't have to carry a couple hundred dollars of money in my purse if I'm going clothes-shopping and school-supply shopping and grocery-shopping and stuff all in the same trip (Which I usually HAVE to, because there's almost nothing in my little town aside from Wal-mart, so if I want to do "big" shopping I have to bunch my trips and drive the hour's round trip to the next largest town)

I realize I'm "borrowing trouble" (to use my dad's phrase) here, but I want to be able to plan. I want to be sure to order all the stuff I could want - to go on one last big buying spree - before paying off the cards and then cutting them up. (And then going, as I said some months back, "Laura Ingalls" - where I buy nothing but the necessities, where I opt out as much as possible from the consumer culture. Not because there's anything so wrong with IT, but because the government has made it undesirable to me to shop.)

mantra to self

I will not poke the crazy.
I will not poke the crazy.
I will not poke the crazy.

People who have stupid opinions will not change their minds based on what I have to say.

I will not poke the crazy.

(One of the discussion boards I frequent has someone who flounced in and kind of dropped a random snarky comment in the middle of a discussion. It's obviously someone who's agendized and who didn't pay attention to what we are actually saying. But it's so hard not to fire off a response pointing out how if they had ONLY READ OUR POSTS FIRST and if they had not LEAPT UPON THEIR HIGH HORSE without hearing what we were saying first, they would see that what they had said made no sense. But I also get the feeling that this is Crazy that doesn't need Poking).

I will not poke the crazy.

ETA: it pays not to Poke the Crazy. One of the board moderators went on and basically told the person who posted the Crazy comment, "You are misunderstanding what these folks are talking about and you posted a knee-jerk response. Please do not do that in the future." Hah.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Distractions and idiocies

I'm back. Break was good. More about that later. But I want to write about something that I had been thinking about, that an offhand comment of my dinner companion on the train kind of brought to a head.

Perhaps you are as sick as I am of the "new frugality" news stories. Or the "surviving the current recession" news stories.

I was frustrated by them when they first came out. Because so many of them were what I might term "Oy-doy*, Captain Obvious!" stories

(*I don't know what you said when you were growing up to indicate something that was really stupid. We either said "Uh-DUH!" or "Oy-DOY!" depending.)

Stories like, "Oh wow, you can, like, save SO much money if you take your lunch to work instead of eating out."

Um, duh. I've been doing that SINCE I WAS FIRST EMPLOYED. Part of it is frugality, true, but there are three other reasons I carry a lunch:

1. I can eat exactly what I want - I just have to pack it in the morning. So I can boil up a few eggs at the start of the week, or buy the berries I like, or even take a container of cereal and a little thing of milk if THAT'S what I want to eat. The restaurant choices here are not so broad - the choices are basically something fried, a hamburger, or some kind of salad. And I get sick of salad.

2. It's healthier. See the fried things above. I can take more fruit or vegetables if I want. I usually take plain yogurt because I like plain yogurt and it's easy, but it also means I get a bit more calcium in a day than I might otherwise. If I have some kind of good salad made up at home (I have a black bean/corn salad I like to make), I can throw a little jar of it in my lunch and have that. It helps me use up leftovers.

3. I can avoid the giant sucking sound on campus each noon - the exodus of cars to the local eating places, the giant traffic jam leaving and coming back. I can eat in the peace of my office and either check my e-mail or just listen to music or maybe even read over something I've written and think about it.

And really, those reasons more than the frugality one are why I carry a lunch.

So a lot of the early stories on "how to save money" made me roll my eyes because they seemed so dumb and obvious - stuff I did already, stuff that I would think a reasonable person would figure out on their own if they decided they needed to save money for some reason.

But now, the stories seem perhaps a bit more insidious to me.

And here's where the comment the guy I ate dinner with on the train last week makes sense.

We were talking about gardens. I remarked that my mom had a big garden every year; she's good at getting stuff to grow, and she lives in a good climate for growing stuff. And that I had less success; either bugs got my plants, or it got too hot and dry, or something. And he kind of laughed. "Yeah," he said, "my wife and I tried growing a garden one summer. I couldn't believe how much it cost for tools and sprays and all of that. In the end we probably wound up paying more for each tomato we got than what we'd pay at the grocery store."

And then he thought for a moment.

"You know," he said, "I wonder about all these stories on the news where they're talking about people planting gardens, where they're encouraging gardens as a way of saving money...I wonder if it's sort of, you know, a distraction."

And I think he's right, there. If you like gardening, if you enjoy the process and the product and all that, God bless you and go with it. But telling people who have never gardened before - or people who (like me) have gardened a little but not done much - that they "need" to have this neo-victory garden in order to save money or eat local or some other nebulous goal - well, maybe that is kind of a distraction.

The other thing with gardening - it takes time to be successful. For my mom, that's great - she's retired, and as I said, she enjoys gardening so it's like a hobby for her. But I work full time - in the summers, as well. I don't have the hours to pour into a garden to make it work to feed myself on a regular basis. (Even the Ingalls family didn't have a garden sufficient to feed themselves - in the Big Woods they hunted and foraged, and a lot of the time on the prairie they existed on cornmeal and beans from the store). Telling people who are already working long hours that they need to add this on as well seems...well, it does seem like they're being distracted from something else.

And then my dad showed me an article that he got from one of the online services he uses. "Four weeds you can eat!" it trumpeted. Yes, another "recession busting" article - this time telling people to go out and forage for wild greens as a way of reducing their food bills. (I hope they can find neighborhoods where the lawns aren't too heavily sprayed). Again - if a person enjoys this kind of thing, if they see it as an adventure, well and good. But telling ordinary Americans to go out and learn what purslane and lamb's quarters look like so they can go and pick them and cook them up and eat them....I have a bad reaction to that. (And not just because I've TRIED lamb's quarters).

Part of it may be the fact that I remember the story of one of the professors at one of the universities I attended: he had grown up Jewish in the 1930s in one of the countries (Poland? I don't remember for sure) that Hitler invaded. He, his family, and some friends fled into a large forested area and hid out there until they were able to escape to a country where they could get asylum and get to the US safely. They survived by eating wild mushrooms and the weeds they could find.

And part of me goes: as a country we are not yet reduced to that. We are not yet in such dire straits (and God willing, we never will be) that we have to hunt in the hedgerows and the by-ways for greens that we can eat.

Perhaps my reaction to the story is overblown, mainly because of my knowledge of what the man I mentioned above experienced, but I feel a certain revulsion about being told I need to go out and find dandelions and purslane and other wild plants and cook them up and eat them, because times are "so bad." I can find other ways to economize if I have to, thank you very much.

And again, it brings up a pet peeve that I have: the idea of the one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps for some people, going out and foraging for wild food is exciting, fun, and worthwhile. For me, with my sometimes-oogy stomach, and my weird food sensitivities, and my allergies, it could be a very dangerous exercise. Likewise the suggestion that we dry our clothes, sheets, and towels on an old-fashioned clothesline. That's GREAT for some people - it's cheap, it gives things a nice smell, maybe stuff wrinkles less. But for someone like me, with serious pollen allergies - well, hanging my sheets and pillowcases out to dry would make me very miserable. (In fact, many of the anti-allergy guidelines warn specifically against drying stuff outside on lines).

I do know that some people do have lots of difficulties going on. For a lot of people, it's necessary to economize. But somehow, I think these news stories - the sort of "oh noes" type commentary and the breathless pushing of how "wonderful" some new time-consuming thing (like growing a garden) is, without consideration of the costs or the consequences, I think it adds to the problem. Not just the problem of people feeling fearful and uncertain, but also adds to the problem of people beginning to say, "Something must be DONE!" and that "something" turns out to be governmentally-mandated, and it turns out to come with all kinds of unpleasant side-effects. (I am, for example, dreading this new credit-card business going into effect. As someone who pays off in full on time every month, I expect I will be one of the ones either assessed an annual fee or in line for the "interest starts from the moment you purchase something." Which means I will have to learn once again how to live without a credit card - which will probably make travel very difficult and will require me to do things like drop my beloved Amazon Prime service, because you can't mail off a check to Amazon to pay for your books.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

ice has melted

Thanks, Dave, that was good.

Well, I turned in (most of) my grades yesterday, am going to turn in the last few today. I have a short meeting (we are hiring a new instructor and have to choose one - choose between someone who nearly put FACULTY who KNOW THIS STUFF to sleep and could not answer a couple of not-so-complex questions on the topic, and someone who had us laughing (in a good way) during her lecture and was able to field even tough questions with grace and good humor. Should not be a long meeting, I anticipate.)

And for any of the special snowflakes who want to complain about their grade:

they can kiss my surprisingly-well-toned-for-a-fat-girl butt

Any special snowflakes who think I've "ruined their lives" by allowing their grade to be the B or C that they EARNED:

they can kiss my backside

Anyone who wants to beg for a D instead of the F they so richly deserve, because the F means they're off the team:

pucker up, bucko.

I'm done, I'm ready to go visit family for a week, I don't want to HEAR it. The time to express concern about your grade is mid-semester, when I can still help you, when there is still something that can be done. NOT at the end of the semester when I cannot offer any tutoring that would help, when there are no more points to be assigned, when I'm already too busy with other things.

Not one of the three people who've come crying to me in the past day or so about grades came in to see me during the regular semester or expressed anything but complacency about how their grades were going. So it's too late, baby, now, it's too late.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


There will probably be no new posts until the end of the month.

I am stuck in a blizzard of Special Snowflakes right now.

Send a shovel. Or some ice-melter.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Dolly Parton got an honorary doctorate from University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

I love Dolly Parton. I am not really a country music fan, but I think she's got a great voice, and I particularly love a lot of the "roots" stuff she does, like her bluegrass albums.

It makes me so happy to hear of her getting this honor.

I know, some people aren't big fans of honorary doctorates - I've actually heard people claim they "take away" from people who have earned doctorates. As someone who HAS an earned doctorate, that strikes me as kind of an odd stance to take. It's an honor. I doubt many people who receive honorary doctorates NEED them to promote themselves in their careers or get a job the way people with earned doctorates use them.

I'm not so much a fan of the "politicized" ones - where they take someone that may in some way be majorly offensive to a large chunk of the student body (like someone who agitated for Hamas or some such at a school with a large Jewish population) but I can totally get behind the idea of honoring someone who has done the stuff Dolly has done.

She's such a great American character. And yes, I do think she's pretty uniquely American, I'm not sure you could get someone just like her in another country.

She just strikes me as someone who is a good, decent person, who has done well with her talent and with hard work, and who gives back.

She's also quoted on one of the UT pages:

"Learning is all about taking chances, and rolling up your sleeves and working hard," Parton said. "To learn more means to work more. Nobody ever makes it without hard work."

You go, Dr. Dolly!

Friday, May 08, 2009

just because it's called an "appeal" doesn't mean it's appealing...

I had a "grade appeal notice" this morning.

From a student who has done BOO all semester. Who was rude when he came to class, who skipped most of the classes, who didn't turn in half the work he was supposed to.

And now - OH NOES! - he finds he won't graduate with the two Fs (one from a previous semester when he took my class and FAILED and one from this semester).

So he went and cried to an administrator. He's working three jobs, wah wah wah. He won't graduate wah, wah, wah.

Well, this little graphic pretty well sums things up. (Except $300 is waaaaaaaaay too cheap. In fact, technically, any price would be too cheap because my integrity is worth more to me than money. But whatever. The part about going back in time still stands.)

I e-mailed the person back and politely said, the guy sucked rocks in my class and he was rude to some of the other students; I don't think he deserves a mercy pass.

Blowback HO! I'm just bracing for someone to come to me with a Very Sad Face or for the thing to be changed without my approval.

But you know? I don't flippin' care any more. Dude is never going to get a kick-ass job with the attitude he has. I'm DONE with people who think they can slack their way through college and then get a better-paying job than the ones their profs have. I'm DONE with people who think it's funny and cute to be rude to the other students and the prof.

One week. One more week. This time next week I will be packing my bags to go visit my family.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

I know several people....

...who would call this a "useful educational tool," not a FAIL.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

a minor celebration

I decided I deserved one, both for my clever detective work at finding a way to check the plagiarized paper, and as a reward for a crappy week.

So after I got done with an afternoon meeting, I drove over to the local meat market. It's kind of out of the way for me, but they have the best meat in town. I don't eat meat a whole lot (because of some family health-history things, I try to keep my consumption of saturated fat low, and it's also cheaper for me to be semi-vegetarian) so when I do I like for it to be as tasty as possible. (And then I also don't feel qualms about spending $8 or so on a steak.) The other nice things about the meat market: the people there are really friendly and really knowledgeable. And they sell things by-the-piece - a lot of the groceries here have gone away from having meat counters, so if you want, say, a pork chop, you have to buy a "family pack" of 10 of them and freeze the rest (well, if you're someone who lives alone). So I like that I can walk into this place and buy ONE steak. Or three spare-ribs. Or a half-pound of hamburger. Or whatever. They seem to do a good business, which makes me happy. (They're on the road out to the lake; I bet they get lots of folks in the summer stopping off to get burgers or steaks to grill out).

I know there's some debate as to the "best" steak cut, and different people have different favorites, but for my money, my favorite cut this place sells is the KC Strip. So I got one of those. I don't do anything too elaborate with good steak - but a little Montreal steak seasoning on it, and cook it up in the grill pan. (And I like it RARE. Still practically mooing. I usually ask for medium-rare in restaurants because I'm less certain of the beef's origin and how it was handled, but I trust this place well enough to cook rare meat from them.)

I also cooked some corn, and fixed some fresh strawberries, and cut a couple pieces of bread to eat with olive oil and herbs.

And it was good. Most of the time I eat pretty quick-grab stuff (a lot of salads, stuff like hummus, yogurt), so it's a real treat to cook a "real" meal now and then.

(And I have half of the steak left to be eaten cold on a salad or in a sandwich.)

SRSLY, I cannot make this up

So I announce to my class this morning that they weren't getting their grades just yet because there had been a "plagiarism incident" that I was having to investigate. I told them that an individual in the class had plagiarized, I didn't specify how. I went on a bit with my spiel - about how I was disappointed in the person who did this, about how they were earning a 0 for the project, about how I did the project because I believed it benefited THEM to get some further writing and research experience, and that it was actually a lot of work for me to do this.

I laid it on a bit thick but then that's the prerogative of a professor in this situation.

I was very calm. I am not a yeller. I am not someone who finds it easy to get angry in front of other people. But I almost think it's more shocking - or at least, it is for me - when someone comes in and very quietly, very calmly says, "This thing happened and I am disappointed and a little bit angry." It's easier to write it off when the person comes in, guns blazing, flecks of spittle flying from the mouth.

The room got pretty quiet. (Incidentally, the plagiarizer was absent. She may know that she's caught, I'm not sure)

Then one of the mouthy guys in the back puts up his hand. "So, does this person know already?" he asked - I detected a note of nervousness in his voice.

"The person in question knows they did something wrong" I said. "I haven't confronted them yet, no."

"Are you going to tell them?" he continued.

"Oh, they'll find out."

(And all the while I'm thinking: you just earned a second going-over of your paper, dude.)

I did say that if the person came and confessed, while it wouldn't change their grade, it may make them feel better about themselves.

And I left it at that. We'll see if anyone else confesses. I'll be surprised if they do. (I think the guy in question was concerned that his citing was slipshod - he's been graded down for that - but to the best of my determination, his paper is NOT plagiarized. But we'll see. If he "cracks" and confesses he gets a 0).

I'm going to wait until Friday morning to post the grades. Just because I can.

I swear, if I ever get sick of teaching, I could probably do interrogation for the FBI.

And so it concludes...

I found something this morning that incontrovertibly proves the student plagiarized the paper. Something I can photocopy and send off to the Dean if it were to go that far. But I know it won't. Because I'm making a copy of that very thing and attaching it to the student's grade sheet, to show why she got the big fat smokin' ZERO that she did.

I have alternated this morning between doing the "smug dance" and feeling giant relief.

While I'm UNHAPPY the incident happened, I'm relieved that I can now prove it, and that my suspicions were spot-on. (And that my department chair will not have to stick her neck out for me). And that this student really can't reasonably do anything other than apologize for her actions. She can't pull the "No, I didn't copy" because the papers are IDENTICAL. She can't pull the "feel sorry for me" card, because I'm fresh out of sympathy.

(And this is all because I'm a slob who never gets rid of things when a normal person would. Score one for packrattery.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

sadder but wiser

...that should be my student, not me. But it is me.

Now what I need to do? Have the students turn in electronic copies as well as paper copies of EVERY paper. And then I get to file all of those on my computer hard drive, for ever, I guess.

And I KNOW - I KNOW IN MY BONES - that I will get Special Snowflakes going, "But if we have to e-mail you copies of our papers, why do we have to print them out? Can't we make YOU print them out for us?" Gah.

And I KNOW some people will send them in this stupid opensource program a lot of our students have, that claims it's "just like Word" except you cannot open documents written in it in Word (Or at least *I* can't).

Someone else in the department suggested scanning all the papers. Oh, great, I'll get my assistant RIGHT on that. (It rankles me that I have to do ANY extra work because of the cheaters, let alone spend three hours plus of my life scanning damn papers).

But this is the way it is. The honest people get screwed, the cheaters find a new way to cheat their way through. The honest people wind up paying for the cheaters; they wind up wasting their time because of the cheaters; perhaps their degrees wind up being worth less because of the cheaters.

It makes me mad. I know doing the right thing should be its own reward - but one should not be punished for wanting to do the right thing. (I could just turn a blind eye to this crap - which would mean of course I would have even more cheaters next semester - and save myself time and agony).

The student is getting a 0. My chairperson and I concur there's sufficient evidence, even without my having the old paper, to nail her for it. So she's getting back a grade sheet with a big fat zero, and a "See me" written on it. (The thought of that makes me want to vomit. I hate confrontation. I'm really tempted to wuss out and say, "See me if you disagree with this grade" meaning, "If you realize you're busted and that you have no way to claim you actually did this work, then you can leave me alone" but I don't know if I can say that)

I just want to make this go away.

One of my colleagues smugly told me, "Oh, we're all so glad you do this project" (Yeah, because then YOU don't have the heartache. I do an awful lot of crap other people don't want to do)

I'm telling myself next Friday is "screw you guys, I'm goin' home" day - the day I leave for a short visit with family - but next Friday is still a looooooooong way off.

I'm not a drinking woman or I'd be breaking out the tequila. Or something. I really wish I could make this whole mess go away.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Hulkette SMASH

I can't get rid of the anger and the sick feeling over the plagiarism, plus a couple of Entitled People I had to deal with today.

I think I need to go to the dollar store or the thrift store, buy some really cheap old china, and throw it at the tree in my backyard. (Except then I have to clean up all the smashed bits of china, which makes it less satisfying).

I still have many, many scholarship applications to review tonight. I was given these today and am told "we are meeting to discuss them Wednesday."

Yeah...administrators think profs just sit in their offices twiddling their thumbs, wishing they had something to do.


I'm grading student research papers this afternoon (I have to go back over to school shortly to pick up the "I just couldn't get to the printer on time" ones - which get a partial reduction for lateness.

I have 17 of 23 papers. No idea how many are going to come in this afternoon.

But I have a bigger problem.

One student, whose project failed, grabbed me on a day when I was busy and distracted and said, "I need to do an alternate project but I have an idea" and laid out some basic ideas for me. Because I was harried, I kind of waved my hand and said, "Yeah, yeah, go with that."

Well, now I get the paper.

And it is eerily like a paper I read last semester....over this same topic.


Because I am not organized enough - and frankly DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH FILE CABINET SPACE - I do not save copies of past students' papers. I feel I should not HAVE to.

But apparently, now I HAVE to. Or not hand the papers back and irritably say: you have to come look at your grade in my office (Cripes, what a nightmare. I will have 20 uptight pre-meds NEEDING to see their paper probably on the very day I don't have the time or energy to sit there and babysit them.)

I am F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

Furious at myself for not taking the time to photocopy at least the first page of previous papers (but again: I SHOULD NOT *H*A*V*E* TO) and hanging on to them. FURIOUS at the student for apparently trying to pull a fast one that I now cannot prove.

I can go to the faculty member in charge of the lab where she ostensibly did the work and ask her if she was in there, but a response in the negative doesn't necessarily mean that she copied the paper. (A response in the positive, on the other hand....maybe it's not a problem. But the paper is so damn similar, down to the same species of experimental organisms used (not necessarily common ones) in the previous paper that I am VERY suspicious).

I think all I CAN do, other than asking said faculty member, is to grade the paper as HARD as I possibly can. To be really really mean on it. And then if the student comes to whine, demand to see their lab book, evidence of ownership of the animals in question, grill her with questions on the project design.

But....this sort of SHIT (and yes, I'm using that word) is why one of my colleagues stopped doing research papers. At the time, I was scandalized - how can he do that? How can he let the jerks win? How can he reduce the effectiveness of the education for the students who give a damn?

(Simple: because he lets me continue to put up with it.)

Part of me wants to shrug and go, "Eh, it's HER soul. Karma will get her in the end for doing this, if she cheated."

But another part of me goes: "You do not want to get a reputation among the students as someone who will overlook cheating."

The thing is, I don't know 100%. I am afraid to be TOO accusatory.

I don't know what to do. And I have all other kinds of crap to do this week - exams to write, scholarship applications to evaluate (that last one dumped in my lap just today).

I am really FURIOUS at this person for putting me in this position and furious at myself for not exercising UNDUE diligence when it comes to cheating.

GAH. I think I'm NOT handing back the papers this year, I will say, "It's come to my attention that old papers may be being copied from, so sorry, you don't get yours back, I'm keeping them as a file to compare future papers against." What can they do? I'm the prof.

Doesn't solve my cheating issue, but at least it may nip it in the bud for the future.


Talked to my colleague. Student NEVER came to see her. She says Student has NEVER had the class that would teach her how to do this. She's going to call the student with whom the paper probably originated to see what's going on.

She seemed kind of unhappy that the student who may have been the originator may be complicit in this. I am furious too.

Seriously, if I am ever driven from the teaching field, it will be because of all the DAMN CHEATING. I bust my ass to do a good job, be honest, prepare the students well, and then some of these ASSHOLES think they can just cheat their way through and that they can fool me.

Well, no more. They are NO LONGER getting their papers back. In fact, hell, I may not even put very much in the way of comments on them. They don't deserve it! They don't deserve for me to take 8 hours of of my life, to spend more time grading a paper than some of them spent writing the damn thing.

I'd fail 'em all, but I'd get in trouble for that.

I feel sick to my stomach now.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Alainis Morissette, white courtesy phone, please

I heard this on the radio this morning.

Apparently Congress is taking up the issue of the BCS and how a "national champion" is decided in college football.*

(I guess they have nothing better to do?**)

One legislator - I think he was from Texas - excoriated the system, saying, "It's a failed system, just like Communism."

So of course the GOVERNMENT has to step in and tell the colleges how to run their show.


(*As a college professor who has taught "student athletes," I would argue that the LAST thing we need to do is to make college football more like pro football. Already the college football players tend to have overblown senses of their own importance - a giant sense of entitlement - and, in some cases, a tendency to criminal activity because they think they will be given a pass because they are SUPERSTARS!

NO. This is college. You are supposedly getting an education and I am sick of having people who probably should never have been admitted to school, who have poor study habits and a worse attitude, acting as if I should give them a passing grade because of who they are.)

(**That said, I'd much rather see them screw up college football than screw up the health care system in this country. Or screw up people being able to invest money for retirement. Or screw the tax system up worse than it already is)

Friday, May 01, 2009

Gotta laugh to keep down the rage

News item: Northeastern University says grads cannot shake hands with the dean, citing Swine Flu fears

So, I present to you, my Top Ten list of alternate "congratulations" the dean could share with the graduates:

10. Chest bump.

9. Interpretive dance moves

8. Do the Hustle

7. Air kiss

6. F-i-inger W-i-iggle

5. "Gang" hand symbols. (Alternatives: flipping the bird or "the shocker." And yes, I leave it to you to Google that. Don't do it at work.)

4. Ear tugs, a la Carol Burnett

3. "You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out..."

2. Pat them on the butt like a football coach and growl, "Go get 'em, tiger!" (Though that might go over better at Princeton)

And the number one alternate congratulation the dean could share with his graduates?

1. Turn the linings of their pockets out - the student to signify the years of crippling student loans; the dean to signify shrinking "slush funds" provided by generous donors.


Seriously. This is the first Friday in, like six weeks (well, not really, we got Good Friday off) where I haven't had to stick around in my office until 4 pm or later because of meetings.

So I'm done with my grading. I've completed the "final exam review sheets" (really just long lists of topics I want the students to study; I figure these things are mainly Dumbo's Feathers anyway). So, I have nothing more I HAVE to do today.

I think I'm going to run in for a bit tomorrow and work on a paper. And I've been hired to evaluate a chapter for a new textbook; I might start on that tonight.

But at home.
Where I can have a nice cup of tea while I work and the phone won't ring and I have a dehumidifier (it's been wicked humid here and it's upsetting my asthma).

And tonight, getting to sleep at a decent hour. Yes.

I really need to be grading

But it's too much fun to Demotivate...

I have but one thing to say:

We are receiving more-than-daily updates from Campus Health Services about this. With such helpful suggestions to the students as, "If you THINK you might be sick, call your professor and beg for extensions on crap." (OK, that's an exaggeration.)

But seriously folks: our exam week is coming up. I know you're not supposed to pray for selfish stuff but I am really praying that no one shows up on campus with swine flu, or even suspected swine flu, and they shut us all down and do something BRILLIANT like reschedule finals for the first week of the summer semester. Because I could just see that happening.

Oh, and don't travel in any containers.