Thursday, July 28, 2011

Empathy and apathy

One last post before vacation.

I got to thinking about this based on two blogposts. First, at Joanne Jacobs: Teaching Empathy to the 'me' generation (Huh. I thought the Baby Boomers where the "me" generation. Apparently the Millennials or whatever we're calling them are the New Me generation, or maybe the Me-Me generation.)

Then, over at Prof. Mondo's: Whited Sepulchres on a Sunday.

I think these are really discussing the same problem, but from different angle.

Point one: Empathy is good. People that lack empathy, I would call them sociopaths.

However, empathy takes on different forms.

Point two: The poor are always, and will be always, with us.

The sticking point is, what do you do with those poor? In my worldview, you help out with their immediate needs while trying to help them find a way to pull themselves up. (It's good to teach a man to fish rather than merely giving him fish, though if he's so weak with hunger he can't hold the pole...well, you may need to feed him fish for a little while.)

I don't like the idea of people being dependent on the government (especially) long-term. I don't like it when people seem to be taught that they are helpless and hopeless and they need someone to send them a check every month or else they'll starve.

Like the good Professor, I have a problem with people believing we should simply turn over whatever responsibility we have to the poor (the widows and orphans, to use Biblical language) to the government, that by writing that check every April 15 we wash our hands of that responsibility. And that further, we should take an increasingly-large chunk of the income of those who earn a lot, so that we can funnel still more to "the poor."

(I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a high-wage-earner. By global standards, I'm incredibly wealthy: I have a roof over my head, I have clean water to drink - and as much as I need, I have so much food that I have to be careful what I eat lest I gain too much weight, I can control the climate of my house to a comfortable temperature, I have lights I can read by at night, I have a job that gives my life structure and gives me a sense of value to the community... but when you look at dollars and cents, in a U.S. perspective, well, I make about $60K a year. 25% tax bracket. But I don't feel any need to tax the "millionaires and billionaires" any more than what they are paying.... in fact, I'd like to see a lower-percentage, flatter tax, but that's another rant for another time. What I'm saying is, class warfare is ugly and it gets old fast and I wonder if on some level it's some people to justify crimes, as in, "Hey, it's OK to go break into that person's house and take their stuff, because they have more than I do and that's UNFAIR.")

I give money through my church. I have a couple of carefully-chosen charities that I give money on a monthly plan to. When there's a natural disaster, I call up the Salvation Army and make a donation. And it irks me that there are some people who think that that's somehow less effective than the government's redistribution of my earnings, that that shouldn't "count" somehow, that the government is the only way that people get helped.

One of the reasons I give money is for myself. It has a dual purpose. First, I see it as sort of a tangible prayer of thanksgiving, a "Thank You for all the blessings I have, that I can share these blessings with others." But it also reminds me that it's not all about me. Yes, I could spend some of the money that I give away on myself - I could buy more electronic gadgets or more craft supplies or more books. But it's important to remind myself that there are other people out there, I forget that sometimes (we all do), and writing those checks helps me do that.

But the other thing is, I give my time. I teach Sunday school and Youth Group. I've helped out at the local food bank and served meals at the local soup kitchen.

And to be honest: I find that more challenging than I find writing a check.

There are two reasons for this.

First, I'm a busy person. I work full time (sometimes it seems like MORE than full time, especially with AAUW/church duties/CWF/other groups that have evening meetings). I admit sometimes I get resentful when someone makes too many demands on my time. (And when I find myself getting too resentful over too many demands - that tells me I need to take a little time to myself). Giving my time is actually in some ways a bigger sacrifice than giving money is.

Second, I sometimes have a hard time relating to people I don't know well. Especially people in very different walks of life - teenagers, especially teenagers from difficult home situations. People who have been out of work for a long time. (And I admit that it's hard to admit this but:) People who have less education. People who are developmentally disabled (two groups we tend to serve at the soup kitchen). Part of it is just a discomfort with people I don't know well, but part of it is "Oh Lord, what do I say? I don't want to say something that sounds patronizing or that the person doesn't understand or that they can't relate to." But by doing these things, I force myself out of my bubble of comfort, I force myself to confront some parts of my personality I might not like much.

One of the things the minister at my church usually says right before the offering is that God can use our time, talents, and treasures. Meaning that it's not just money that makes the church or the various charity groups run. Time is also needed: people being willing to staff the various Sunday-school classes. People willing to show up and sit at the food bank (sometimes for long periods of time without a customer). People willing to run the dishwasher at the soup kitchen. And it also takes talent: there are certain skills in dealing with children (I am okay with dealing with teenagers; I don't know that I'd be very good working with a class of three and four year olds). Talent in organization. Talent in things like cooking.

Part of it is to remind people that even if they don't have much money to drop in the offering plate, they have something they can share. But also, I think it IS a plea for people to do more than open their checkbooks. (Because, as I said, for some of us, writing a check really IS easier than giving our time, or putting our talents out on display- and maybe being a little vulnerable there - I know there were times that I went into Youth Group feeling like the Talented Teacher and walked out feeling kind of beaten).

And I think maybe the roots of empathy are something more than the little song "Empathy, empathy, put yourself in the place of me" - which is what the piece linked by Joanne Jacobs seems to be trying to do. Make the kids "act" like they are a poor person for a while, the argument goes, and they'll understand them more.

I'm not so sure about that. For one thing, I can see all kinds of problems - make the kids stay a night at a homeless shelter? What if that means "real" homeless get turned away because the place is full? What about some of the emotionally-fragile kids going through this - I suspect I would have wound up curled up in a little crying ball if I had to go through the social-services routine alone, even as just a simulation. And it seems like a waste of money and effort to me, having the kids play-act at being homeless. (As I suggested on there: why not encourage the kids to do volunteer efforts where they are part of the solution, rather than forcing them to deal with the same problems?). And I do think, as Michael Lopez noted, some people may come away from this "experiment" with more contempt for "the poor" than before.

Also, I'd argue, eighteen is kind of late to "begin" teaching empathy - this is something parents need to work with at home. This is something that religious groups (of whatever stripe) can help with. But if a kid comes into college without empathy developed....well, I don't want that kid in my class.

But I think there's a link between having empathy and wanting to help out on a grassroots level - and perhaps, letting the government take over too much of the "widow-visiting and orphan-tending" as Prof. Mondo notes - could reduce the amount of empathy in individuals. I don't know. (I also have to observe: Good point on the Scrooge comment. I get tired of people using that in support of increased taxes and increased governmental "care," when Scrooge's comment (Or rather, the Spirit's retort to it) suggests that workhouses and prisons were an awful, last resort. And they were, of course, governmentally-administered. I'm not saying our government's anti-poverty programs are anywhere near as bad, it's just - they aren't necessarily better than private, NGO, faith-based, whatever, help programs that are out there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A new trend?

I was half-listening to radio news this morning and they mentioned something about some businesses choosing to have "child-free" times, or to be entirely "child-free."

I know there's a restaurant in Pennsylvania that was much in the news because the owner decided he didn't want people bringing children younger than 6 to his restaurant. But on this radio report, they also said that some Whole Foods stores were considering having special "child free" shopping hours (Though I think, maybe, "Adults only" might be a better phrasing?)

Two things I can see about this:

1. If it's a private business, and is not something like the only hospital in town, then they are totally within their rights to decide whether small children are welcome or not. (I feel the same way about smoking in bars and restaurants: the business owner can decide. And then I can decide whether I patronize a place or not based on their policy. In my case, the places that didn't allow smoking - or that had a separate smokers' area with separate ventilation - would get my business).

Would I shop at a grocery store that had special "child free" hours? Yeah, I would. And if I were at all free during the posted hours, I'd go then. (Though frankly, shopping at 7 am on Saturdays like I usually do pretty much guarantees a child-free - and in fact, childish-temperament-in-adult-body-free shopping experience).

Though to be honest - as I commented above - I've had far, far bigger problems with childish adults in the grocery store than I've had with children. Usually the worst thing that happens is a kid melts down because he or she is tired, hungry, spent a whole day at school or daycare, and just wants to be home. And while it's a little unsettling to listen to a fussy child in the can get away from it.

What bugs me more are the adults who do stuff like meet a friend in the aisle and then they both park their carts and block the entire aisle while they talk, oblivious of the fact that other people are trying to get around them. Or the guy on the cell phone, slowly walking down the aisle of spaghetti sauce, reading off each brand name and subvariety within brands to his wife, until he hits on the one she wants, because he was too lazy to write it down when she told him. Or the person who gets in the 20-items-or-less lane with 45 items. And has a handful of coupons. And wants to write a check. And oh, is writing that check for $40 over the purchase price because they want cash back. Or the person who picks a fight with the cashier because they want to use a coupon that's expired or invalid, and the cashier tells them "no."

As for restaurants and stuff - well, I think the problem there is not so much children as it is poor parenting. Yes, babies can be difficult at restaurants, and sometimes parents just have to accept that either (a) they will be getting carry out until the baby is old enough to be left with a sitter or to behave in the restaurant or (b) they go to 'family' places where it's more tolerated if a baby starts to cry.

And even at that - a screaming, crying baby does present a problem in a restaurant. I know friends of mine who had a baby, just planned and traded off - if they were at a restaurant and the baby started to cry, whoever's "turn" it was picked the baby up and walked with them - even if it meant walking out of the restaurant for a few minutes - to try to calm the baby down. And yeah, your food gets cold and you don't get to talk to your spouse and it kind of sucks - but I tend to also think there are some things you sort of "sign up" for when you have a child - and being able to get up and try to comfort that child when they're upset is one of those things. (And yes, I know, sometimes babies just CRY. And that's a problem. But I think of a recent lunch out I had with my department, we were interviewing someone for a new position. We went to one of the better restaurants in town. Shortly after we arrived a couple showed up with a small baby. The baby was ok for a while, but then he started to cry and scream - so loudly that I couldn't hear the conversation at my table. The parents of the baby were oblivious - they kept eating while he screamed and cried. I had a headache by the time I walked out of the place.

And yeah, maybe some of the parents will say it's unfair of me to expect a parent to do something about a crying child in a restaurant. But if the child is crying so loudly that you are across the room and can't hear a conversation, and the child keeps crying for fifteen minutes? I kept hoping one of the waiters would say something to the parents but they did not.)

I've also seen, on rare occasions, kids who run amok in stores or restaurants. Often the parents aren't really watching them - they're talking with their friends or on their cell phone or something. And, I don't know, I was raised in an era when there were several very scary high-profile stranger-kidnappings of small children, but it makes me twitch to see children not being carefully looked after.

In some cases, I've even heard of parents going off on some other individual (store clerk, waiter) who tries to get the kid to settle down - "Don't you stifle his creativity!" Parents who do that - who don't give the child any discipline - are not really doing them any favors. Also, the parents who offer empty threats - "If you don't quiet down, we're leaving" said 20 times with nothing happening loses its power. And the kids learn that there may not be consequences to their actions. (Which is REALLY a disservice to the kids, and is also a disservice to their future employers, co-workers, teachers, etc. I wonder if some of my students who get huffy when I won't accept late papers got so used, as kids, to their parents telling them something would happen, and then it never did.)

When I was a kid, if my mom said to me, "Quiet down or we're leaving." I knew that if I DIDN'T quiet down, we would leave. Even if that meant she didn't finish her shopping and there was no milk to drink with dinner. Or if it meant we didn't see the rest of the movie. Or whatever. Or, else, my brother or I were told, "Behave, or you'll be in trouble at home." And while our parents weren't big spankers - I do remember being sent to my room a few times immediately after getting home. Or being made to stand in the corner. Both of which were actually pretty serious punishments to me, because of the "shunning" aspect. And also, standing in the corner was BORING.

But it does seem now that there are a critical mass (though maybe there always was a critical mass) of parents who are either more interested in their own lives to the point where disciplining their children, teaching them manners, seems like too much effort, and anyway, isn't that the school's job? Or other parents who believe that their children are free spirits who should not be crushed under a load of rules and expectations, and if that child wants to run up and down the aisles of a restaurant, he or she should be able to do that.

I remember growing up, "restaurant manners" were a big deal. My parents would practice them with my brother and me at home. Then we'd go to a "family restaurant" (A common one was one known as the L and K. I don't think they exist any more) where infractions would be a little less of an imposition on other diners. And then, finally, when we'd proven we could behave, we went to "better" restaurants. Maybe not the fanciest ones ever - certainly not the Tangier in Akron - but fancier restaurants.

Another thing my parents did was that they paid attention to us at the restaurant. They talked with us while we were waiting for our food. I remember playing many, many games of "I Spy" or "Twenty Questions" while waiting for food at restaurants. Or, when my brother was learning his alphabet (and I don't remember it, but maybe while I was learning my alphabet), "Can you find something that starts with the letter....?"

And I think it's little tricks like that that help kids behave. Oh, I know: my brother and I were basically good kids and without anything in the way of physical or developmental problems. But even absent any problems, I've seen some kids who just acted up in places like stores and restaurants - and in some cases, I think that maybe kids act up BECAUSE they don't have their parents' attention and they want it. My brother and I, because we knew we had our parents' attention, we tended to behave a little better.

So I don't know. I hate that the no-child policies could be seen as punishing parents who do make an effort to teach their children manners and have them behave. But from the other side of things, I can see how having Special Snowflake parents who want to diddle on their smartphones while their baby screams loud enough to upset the other diners can lead a business owner to want to ban all parents of small children.

However, my second thought on this:

This is just going to divide our society further. It seems that there are people just looking to take umbrage, to be insulted, by everything. I'm sure there are parents who are aghast that their perfect little angels might not be welcome in a particular restaurant, and where does that restaurant owner get off? And we should call our Representative and have a law made! And how would the crabby old people feel if some businesses decided to ban them! And how is this different from the segregated South, anyway? And on, and on.

And that's why, I admit, I'm not crazy about the idea of "child free" things. What I would like to see is the parents who don't raise their children responsibly step up and instill a little discipline. And do things like, if your child is on a loud, extended crying jag, pick them up and carry them away from the other diners in the restaurant. As I said, yeah, yeah, it sucks. Yeah, your food gets cold. Yeah, you don't get to talk with whoever your dining companions are. But the rest of us will thank you for it.

Oh, one last thing: A few times, when I've seen particularly well-behaved kids out in public - I remember one time, taking a long distance trip on the train, there was a dad with his daughter and son, both of whom were under 10, and they were just the best-behaved kids I'd seen in a long time - I say something. I congratulate the parent on having well-behaved kids, or say something that hints of, "I know parenting is hard work, but it looks like you're putting in that work, good job."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

soooooo unmotivated

I go tomorrow to spend some time traveling around and visiting family.

I'm in today trying to wrap stuff up (including grading a paper that fulfills an incomplete...the person handed it in with ONE DAY TO GO before the incomplete became an F. They had a whole year to complete the paper.)

But wow, am I ever unmotivated. I want to be on vacation so badly, I want to be away from this hot, sweaty, stinky town.

One more night, and part of a day.

But first, I have to get this dang thing graded.

Monday, July 25, 2011

One thing I won't look forward to.

Fall classes start in a couple of weeks. By and large, I'll be happy to be back teaching again - I miss the interaction with students, I miss the feeling of having a daily purpose (rather than the nebulous long-term goal of "get research done").

But one thing I won't miss will be dealing with student problems.

I was talking with a colleague about this the other day. Students tend to fall into three groups.

The first group are people who either don't have personal problems, or if they do, they sort them out on their own and you don't really hear about them. In a lot of cases these are students who have fairly stable lives - either they're single and not-really-looking until they're done with school, or they're happily and stably coupled, or something like that. They generally don't have major family drama. They don't abuse drugs or alcohol. This is (fortunately) the largest group of students.

The second group are students who have some single large problem, or a related group of problems. But these are the people I like to work with, because they come to me, keep me apprised of the issues, ask early on for appropriate help - and they try to work their way through the problem. I have had several students over the years that I think of as "success stories" in this area. One was a young man who had had a drug addiction that he fought back from (after dropping out of school for a year to do rehab and work on life-stuff) and who came back stronger than before. Another was a student in one of my tougher classes who was diagnosed with OCD mid-semester, had some difficulty getting the right dosage of medications, but he explained the problem to me and I said that if he ever had difficulties with class material (he said he was having a hard time concentrating first thing in the morning after he took his meds), that he could come to my office hours and I'd help him. And I did. And he wound up earning a solid B in what was a tough class. And another student going through a really ugly divorce came to me early on to let me know when her ex took her notebooks and burned them (!). But with some help from me (and some extensions on some projects), she was able to complete the semester (and she got a restraining order against her ex). And finally, a guy who started out failing my class, who came to me about 1/3 through the semester, desperate, saying, "What I'm doing isn't working." I talked with him a while, helped him out, invited him to come back for more tutoring. Eventually he said that he had had ADD in high school but hadn't brought the diagnosis along, because he thought he was past that - but that he guessed he wasn't. I told him that if Disability Services was OK with him using one of their quiet rooms to take the exams in (instead of taking them with all the other students in the classroom) without a formal diagnosis, I was OK with it. He said: "You'd do that for me?" and I said, "If you think it might help." He tried it - and wound up with a solid C for the semester. Not a high grade but certainly a respectable one. (And he told me he was going to go get a formal diagnosis so he could avail himself of the necessary accommodations).

These students, as I said, I'm happy to work with - and I always feel good to see someone who struggled pull themselves up and succeed. (Even if the success is maybe smaller than what they'd like - the guy who earned a C really wanted a B, but those early failing test grades pulled him down too far).

But the third group of students, while small - this is the group that tries my patience. This is the group I was talking to my colleague about. These are people who seem to get hit with MULTIPLE problems. They are in unstable relationships. They lose or quit their jobs, or they're working jobs where the hours (apparently) get shifted. They have family problems to deal with. They don't have good time-management...and on, and on. And you begin to wonder if some people just are unlucky. (Though in some cases - like people choosing to date people who are "bad" for them, or people who abuse alcohol regularly - it may be partly the person bringing the problems on themselves). The people in this group are the ones who come and unload their whole litany of issues on me, who expect me to fix it, and who leave me sitting in my office with the door closed and the lights out, with my head in my hands, wondering what to do.

And my colleague and I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was about the people in this group that makes them hard to help. But I think I figured it out this afternoon.

It's helplessness. As I said, the second group of people - the ones who have problems, sometimes quite large problems, often turn out as what I called "success stories." But the thing is, that's not JUST because I sat down and helped them. It's because they had some kind of drive to get things worked out - they were willing to put in a lot of effort on their part to make their own success. I was just facilitating it by doing things like allowing extensions on work or explaining the class material again during office hours. They really did all the work at getting back on track.

But people in the third group, they come in with an attitude of "You NEED to..." That I NEED to fix whatever it is for them. That I NEED to give them extensions/copies of my notes/easier exams/who knows what. Because they've suffered. Because that means they're entitled to an easier path. And in some cases, if I try to suggest the sort of self-help things that people in the second group jump to do, the people in this group look at me - and react to me - as if I'm mean, as if I'm not helping them. Because I'm not doing it FOR them.

And that's what frustrates me and leaves me sitting in my office with the door closed and my head in my hands. I don't have the energy to do it FOR them - heck, I'm doing FOR myself. I'm working full-time, doing volunteer work, teaching Sunday school and Youth Group and doing my own laundry and cleaning my own house and trying to cook healthful meals and and and...and here comes a person that seems to expect I shoulder the full responsibility for their education.

The other problem I've found with members of this group, is that they put off trying to get help. These are the folks that come in during the last two weeks of classes upset that they're earning a D and wondering why. Or who are aghast that their grade is that low, even though I hand back all the work they did and tell people they can come and look at their grade in the gradebook at any time. These are the people who come in during exam week and hem and haw about their grade, and then look at me and say: "Is there any extra credit I can do to bring up my grade?"

(The reason I don't give extra credit? The people who ask for it are usually people who skipped at least one of the "real" assignments. Why should I make more work for myself when people are unwilling to do the actual planned work of the class - work that is planned, hopefully, to help teach the concepts and skills being learned?)

It's a combination of thinking they can hit me up at the last minute, and not wanting to take responsibility for their education, that frustrates me.

Someone I know talked about going to college as being like joining a gym: you can pay the membership fee all you want, but unless you go and work out, you're not going to get into shape. I think that metaphor needs to be more widely popularized, because I see students who think going to college is like buying a ticket for a movie: they expect to be entertained for what they've paid, and if they aren't, they're going to walk out and then complain to their friends.

Like most things in life, if you want to get something valuable out of an education, you have to put your own investment of time and effort into it. And sadly, I think there are students - maybe an increasing number of students - who have come to believe that the time and effort is 100% on the professor, and if the student doesn't learn, it's entirely the prof's fault.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It's a good thing I'm not God

Because at this point, humans would be extinct. And I'd be starting over with the owls or the skinks or something else as being the next "intelligent life" on Earth.

So, so, so, so fed up with my species right now.

Disgusting, absolutely freaking disgusting

Allow me to be among the first Christians to decry and distance from the actions of the Oslo bomber. Apparently he was a "fundamentalist Christian."

Great. I'm spitting nails here. Whatever he espouses, that is NOT Christianity. Christianity does NOT believe in killing innocent people... in fact, many branches of it won't even send their young men to be soldiers, because they believe all killing is wrong. Many Christians have issues with the death penalty (and I admit, at times, I have serious qualms about it.)

While I don't consider myself in any way a "fundamentalist," I am still disgusted and saddened and angered by what he did, allegedly in the name of his faith. We were supposed to have grown past this...past the Crusades and the torturing people of other faiths and the bad treatment of others.

I admit I'm also angry because I KNOW, I KNOW there will be those who hate all religion to use this as an increased call for limiting religious expression.

My heart breaks for everyone in Oslo who lost someone or who was injured. And I'm infuriated at the man who did it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

holy crap

Explosions in Oslo.

Very, very likely linked to terrorism. Possibly retaliation for terror charges being filed against a Muslim cleric.

This is ugly. I hope there is minimal loss of life and injury.

There were explosions in India a few days ago but I think they thing those are Maoist terrorists doing those.

There is evil in the world. I hope they catch the people who did these bombings (or that they blew themselves up in this process). I hope the injured recover. And I hope we don't see any more of this.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Still freaking tired of it all.

It's been brutally hot here. Oh, I know, a lot of the rest of y'all are getting it now, and it's worse on you Northerners because many of you don't have air conditioning. But we've been putting up with heat indexes greater than 100 F since, I don't know, June 10 or something. I'm ready for it to be DONE.

I'm also continually dismayed by what I hear in the news:

- We probably won't get any kind of a budget deal or any kind of real debt reform. I bet what will happen is the debt ceiling will be raised at the last minute and we'll go on our merry way down the road to Greece.

- I despair for politics. It seems like it's the goal of many in the media to paint anyone that their commentators/newsreaders disagree with as dangerously unhinged. Even within a political party, there doesn't seem to be such a thing as honest competition any more; there has to be innuendo and subtle smear tactics.

- I really think a flat tax would solve a lot of problems (and a flat tax where the vast majority paid at least a little in to it, so we don't see something like 60% of the populace paying taxes and 40% not), but I doubt there's any sort of political will for that. Flat tax, very few if any deductions, everyone (or very nearly everyone) pays in.

- Alternatively, less attractively to me, would be replacing income tax with a national sales tax. I will say there are two big benefits to this I could see: (a) people who choose to save are not penalized, and in fact, are rewarded and (b) people in the "underground economy" (e.g., drug dealers who get paid in cash) wind up paying tax when they spend their money (whether it's honestly gotten or not). I admit, I'm not sure that taxing purchases is a smart thing in a slow economy, though. And I don't like the idea that my Roth IRA - which I've already paid taxes on - would be taxed again when I spent it down in retirement.

- Copper thefts and the general Vandalization (and yes, I capitalized that on purpose) of our country continue. People have begun to take what they want, what they think they deserve, even if it means a church or a senior center has to go without air conditioning in a heat wave. I try not to see this kind of thing as early signs of a total civic breakdown but it's hard for me not to. Selfishness seems to be winning.

- It frustrates me when some people claim that taxing people for redistributing money to the poor is purely Biblical and right under Jesus' teachings, because it seems to me that they all too often forget about the possibility that people might choose to give voluntarily to organizations that help the poor, or even directly to the poor themselves. It's like they can't see any way of helping the downtrodden other than by funneling the money through the government first. And from what I've seen, it seems to me that giving money to a church group or the Salvation Army or any of numerous other relief agencies seems to get (a) MORE of it to the people in need and (b) gets it FASTER to people in need. I give to a number of different groups, a small amount on a monthly basis (and bigger donations to places like the Salvation Army when there's an especial need, like after a natural disaster) and it irritates me that there are some people who think that it doesn't "count" as help unless it's money that's come in as taxes.

- I need to read some history to figure out how social safety-nets worked in the era before the New Deal and the Great Society. My gut feeling is that families looked after their own more (even if it meant the rest of the family did with less, because they had to care for Grandma and Grandpa or whatever). And perhaps religious groups did more. And I guess there were benevolent organizations like the Elks and Woodmen of the World who might have taken on the role of supporting people that could no longer work. And I suppose, perhaps, there was more begging on the street and such, and that's unfortunate. (But I still see the "STRANDED NEED MONEY FOR GAS" guys, or the "CAN'T WORK NEED MONEY FOR FOOD GOD BLESS" guys. I feel terribly conflicted - on the one hand, I want to help, but on the other, I've heard of enough stories of people who scammed that - who could work, but found they could rake in more by playing on people's compassion. So, though I kind of hate myself for it, I don't give money to the individuals on street corners, and just hope that if they're truly in need, the Salvation Army or some other group I support can go to them and help them.)

- Maybe we need to get back to a more decentralized model of helping people? In my experience it seems that big bureaucracies cause a lot of red tape and tend to slow things down and waste money, but smaller, more localized groups seem more efficient. And yeah, I know, maybe it's "unfair" that some parts of the country might have more people donating to their local groups than others, but...I don't know. It seems to me that bigger and bigger government agencies aren't going to solve things, and there may be unintended consequences - like with the TSA. The problem they were set up to solve: terrorists getting on flights and hijacking them. But now, the TSA winds up humiliating senior citizens and scaring children and being rude to random fliers and just making the process of travel more miserable...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More on school costs.

I realize that parents can and probably will disagree with me on this. And I admit I can see some of the arguments against it. But, sometimes I wonder if maybe having some "use fees" in public schools might not solve some of the budgetary problems.

There was a woman talking on the radio news I was listening to this morning (she was not from my district, she was from another district in a different state). I was kind of half-listening because I was getting dressed and writing out my grocery list (I went to the store at 7 am because the thought of going at noon, having to walk across the baking blacktop of the parking lot and deal with crowds of grumpy hot people made me too depressed). Anyway, she was talking about how her district was threatening to levy "bus fees" on families whose children rode the bus.

I admit I kind of tuned her out because she kept harping on "they put up a bond issue but the TEA PARTY killed it" and I got a little tired of her apparent assumption of "The TEA PARTY hates families and children because they don't want all taxpayers to cough up yet more money."

Anyway, the host asked her: how much is this bus fee.

"Two dollars and ten cents PER MONTH!" (I didn't hear if that was per kid or not...she had earlier given a calculation of how much it would cost her in gas to drive her multiple children to school).

And then the host asked her: how long is the school year?

"Eight months."

Okay, let me do the math on that...the school is asking for about $17 for bus fare for the school year? Even if that's per kid, I don't think that's terribly excessive. That's one family pizza night from Domino's or somewhere. That's not quite two full-price movie tickets.

I know, I know: some families will cry "poor." But I don't know. I've seen people who claimed poverty who had nicer cell phones than I did. Or who spent money on stuff I wouldn't spend on.

And, granted, if there were a bond issue to pay for bus transportation, and it were for that only, each taxpayer's bill would certainly go up less than $17. But I'm guessing that it wasn't JUST new bus fees they wanted. (The woman did say the school had cut to the bone - that teachers were let go, and a lot of administrators either retired or left. Now, I'm not sure that reducing the administrators in a school system is such a bad thing - but yes, I know, schools are having to cut a lot).

And I'm sure there could be something in place for people who really and truly could not afford that $17 per year. Or families with large numbers of children, if that fee was per child.

And I know the old argument: we all benefit from an educated populace, so we should all pay into the public schools.

But here's the thing: there's a point at which the taxpayers are stretched to the limit. Where some of them have already cut things out like pizza nights and movies. Here, we've seen our sales taxes go up and up - they first voted in a raise for a new sports center (which turned out to be less than promised) and then for a new high school. We're paying close to 10% sales tax on everything. I think I WOULD resent having more tacked on to my tax bill at this point.

And again: yes, the price of everything is going up. Yes, the price of things like public education and supporting the old people and providing health care for those who can't afford it is going up. The problem is, there's a point where the taxpayers can't bear any more of those raises. Where we've already cut back on our budgets, and maybe we look at Washington - or our own state - or even the local school district, and go "There should be some cutting there as well."

I don't know. I admit I have considerable fear for the future. Sometimes I wonder if there will be a new civil war, this time between those who see larger government and more taxes (and more entitlements) as the solution, and those who see it as the problem. I don't know. I wish it DID cost less to run a public school well. I wouldn't begrudge kids the best education we could provide! But if someone came to me and said, "We can provide a super-deluxe education for children, it will only cost you 20% more in taxes" I'd say no.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why college is becoming so expensive (IMHO)

I don't know if I've addressed this before on here...I kind of think I wrote a post about it some months ago. But anyway, there's a new book out on what I think might be part of the problem.

I see several issues affecting college costs:

1. Simple inflation
2. Administrative expansion; similarly, expansion in "non-teaching" faculty on some campuses.
3. Parents and students demanding all the "bells and whistles."
4. Increased insurance/liability costs. Increased cost of dealing with mandates.

So, looking at each one of these:

Simple inflation. The price of everything is going up. Granted, college costs are going up faster than inflation (because of the other issues I mentioned above), but it's also important to remember that the cost of electricity is going up (even without the "...will necessarily skyrocket" that may be coming if certain legislation gets passed). The cost of supplies goes up: cost of paper, cost of petri dishes, cost of computer toner. There's really no such thing as a "paperless campus," and if there were, I'm not sure I'd trust it - I would never give an exam online, for example, not even in a room with proctors watching over the students. So we still have to buy STUFF to teach with. And in the sciences, certain chemicals, certain equipment, things like crickets (and now I hear there's a national cricket shortage: great. Which probably means the one crappy pet store in my town won't have them now, and I'll either have to punt on the labs requiring them, or drive the hour's round-trip - on my own dime - to a store that does).

Administrative bloat. This is the issue the book I referred to takes on. Some administration is necessary. Administration that lifts burdens of things like budget-making off faculty shoulders is important. People like Deans who can provide recourse for students who have a problem within departments that the department can't satisfactorily fix are very important. (And likewise: having things like an Academic Affairs Committee where cases of grade challenges, student complaints, and plagiarism that's worthy of expulsion can be heard and dealt with). But, it seems that on a lot of campuses, they've gone into the dean-creating business. It used to be there was a Dean of each school, a Dean of students (or, on some schools in the old days, a Dean of Men and a Dean of Women), and maybe someone in charge of things like budgets and someone in charge of academic affairs.

But now, we have lots and lots of Deans. And lots and lots of vice-presidents. It's rumored here that a certain individual (who is no longer here) was given a vice-presidentship of something to get him out of the classroom, due to student complaints. (Really, even with tenure, there should be ways of dealing with that kind of thing that are better than that). We lost one of our tenured people when he was made a vice-president. (And we haven't gotten that position back: we're down two tenure lines.)

The problem with a bureaucracy is that it may start out with the goal of serving the population it was designed to serve, it often becomes an engine for self-perpetuation. People like their jobs. They like their nice offices. They like the feeling of power. And they want to keep that. And, in many cases, administrators these days don't start out as faculty - so they may not be crystal-clear on what faculty to or where their time goes.

One thing I've seen in the past several years is an increase in tasks that devolve onto the faculty. We're expected to write reports on our volunteer work done in the community, and submit them to the person in charge of civic involvement. We were expected to write a report on how we incorporate "diversity" into our classes (it was not clear if that was a one-time thing, or if we'll have to do it annually). And more and more we're asked to write more reports, to attend more workshops and meetings... and it makes some of us crazy. Some of us are in the classroom up to 18 hours a week, plus 10 hours of mandatory office hours, plus the hours and hours of grading, supervising grad students, advising undergrads, doing that volunteer work...and in a lot of cases the requests-for-information-or-reports come with a very short turnaround time - in some cases, 24 hours. Some of us can't do that!

And of course the administrators all need salaries. And they all need nice offices. And on some campuses - not here, I don't think - a new administrator gets to pick out new office furniture. And that all costs money. And meanwhile, many departments are being told, "Okay, you say your faculty are overloaded. Go hire an adjunct." The problem with adjuncts is...well, you get what you pay for. On a lot of campuses an adjunct makes from $8,000 - $15,000 a year. We're having to hire an adjunct for the fall - we're down two tenure positions from our past high, and we lost an instructor this spring. We tried to get an adjunct - had a good person in mind - but they couldn't do it, not for what we could offer. So we're re-hiring someone we had in the past who was not that great a teacher, who had some problems dealing with the students - but it's a desperation move. The only other option is having a faculty member teach 20 hours of credit hours or something, which is frankly untenable, considering that we're now not allowed to hire student workers to grade (because of FERPA concerns).

3. Bells and whistles. Back in the Dark Ages when I was in college, the dorm I lived in (which was a nice old dorm), the walls were painted cinder block, the bathroom was a large shared room down the hall, we weren't allowed to have hot plates in our rooms, the laundry facilities were three ancient washers and a couple of asthmatic dryers in a room off of the entry to the hall.

The new dorms colleges build? Nicer than any apartment I've lived in. Four-person "suites" where everyone gets a private room. Usually they have private bathrooms (I would have appreciated that: when I lived in the dorm one of my hallmates "discovered" sex that fall. It was disconcerting to have to shower knowing that she and her boyfriend were whooping it up in the shower a couple stalls over). Often there are private kitchens and laundry facilities en-suite.

The problem is, these things cost money.

As do fancy new workout facilities, new student unions, fancy new dining areas, computing centers with the latest-and-most-up-to-date stuff, and fancy landscaping. All the stuff that is proudly shown off in campus tours costs money...which raises tuition...which makes people complain.

I understand Rick Perry is promoting the idea of some Texas community/small colleges offering a "$10,000 Bachelor's degree." The thing with that is - the fancy perks, the nice facilities, probably couldn't be an option with that. (And if a school did a two-tiered degree: like "generic" beans and "name-brand" beans in the store - where the "generic" degree students couldn't use the fancy workout facilities or the new computer centers...I can see that leading to problems, resentment, "can't you bend the rules just for meeeeee" and so on, and so forth.)

The problem is, a school that DIDN'T indulge in the bells and whistles might lose students...or would have parents not wanting their kids to go there. It's a hard sell to say things like, "Yeah, we have old cinder-block dorms and the dining hall is kind of a dump...but our tuition is a lot lower." Or at least, from what I've seen of college-seekers, it seems like it would be.

4. Insurance and mandates. The more we are told to do, the more we have to do in these areas, that can potentially drive costs up. Already campuses have to insure against stuff they did not have to worry about in the past. I know we've been pressured to reduce the amount of field-time because of concerns about "what if someone got hurt?" We were also, at one point, told we needed to list ALL possible hazards a student could encounter in field or lab. (Not just the "reasonable" ones that you'd expect someone with half a grain of common sense to recognize as a hazard). When this came up at a faculty meeting - the chair being all "Dont' shoot the messenger, I'm just telling you what was said at the meeting" we came up with things like "asteroid strikes" and "bigfoot abductions" as POSSIBLE hazards in the field...really, if we had to warn against everything, and then (supposedly, this was the idea) if the student decided they could not safely go in the field, we would have to offer an alternate lab. (Yeah, great. I can see half my class opting for the non-field lab, and then where am I?)

And I know the cost of health insurance has gone up. So far, knock on wood, those of us who are single and don't need a lot of coverage, we get covered by the university for no extra cost to us, but I see that changing. I wouldn't be surprised this fall if we were asked to pony up part of our insurance premiums. (I wouldn't be happy about that, but I'd understand).

And there are other compliance costs. Making old buildings ADA compatible. (And I know on some campuses, some older buildings are just being torn down and replaced - because the cost of bringing them up to code is so great). This kind of compatibility is important, don't get me wrong, but a lot of times it seems to be presented as such an URGENT thing - something must be done NOW and so it gets done in a less cost-effective way than it might if different solutions were contemplated. Providing things like specialized listening devices for students with certain disabilities. (I had a situation of this: student was doing poorly in my class, then he came to me and said he had a disability and I HAD to go get training THAT WEEK to be able to deal with it. So I hauled my butt over to Disability Concerns, got the training. The guy never came back to class. So in some cases they may be buying devices that go unused, and doing things like mandating faculty training that goes unused). Mandates for diversity training, for both faculty and students. Things like mandated anti-harassment education for faculty. (This came up in my department- everyone was made to go through it - and to a person, my colleagues had the same response: puzzlement. "I've never felt disrespected or harassed, and I'd hope if I said something that sounded bad, the other person would call me on it so we could straighten it out right away.") But a lot of these things are required by law, and again, it seems they have a terrible urgency - which sometimes means more is spent on them.

Couple the four things I discussed with decreasing state appropriations (if it's a public university), and tuition and fees must needs go up. It's bad, and it hurts the students, and it may keep some people who would benefit from earning a degree away - but I don't see any easy solutions.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lessons inadvertently taught

So, a couple little girls in Georgia decided they wanted to go to a water park. Rather than going to their parents and whining until the parents caved in, they decided (either on their own, or from mom's suggestion...I don't know which), to run a lemonade stand to raise the money.

Except, apparently, unlicensed lemonade stands are dangerous.

So the cops shut them down - unless they coughed up $50 a day or $180 a year for a permit. (I wonder what the water-park tickets cost...)

So they shut down the stand. As one girl said: "We have to listen to the police."

So they turned to yardwork to earn the money.

Okay, the intended lesson from their parents was: Work hard, and you can earn the things you want.

The lesson they got from the cops: The government runs the show; under zero-tolerance we will harass kids with an innocent lemonade stand just as much as the burger joint that doesn't keep clean. They don't care that you're little girls.

Another lesson, I think: Don't bother becoming an entrepreneur; it's easier and you'll get less harassment and rules heaped on your head to just be a laborer. (Don't try to be a landowner; just be a serf?)

And then, at least according to what I heard on the radio, the water park came through and gave them free tickets. Which is partly a win: the private sector being generous when the public sector has overreached. But I think it's also partly a fail, as the girls didn't really get a chance to earn those tickets. (And I think too many unearned rewards is bad for a person).

And yes, I know: without permitting and health inspections and what-not of EVERYONE we'd all be eating roach-burgers down at the local diner. Or at least that's what proponents of this kind of zero-tolerance thing say. But there's a difference between three girls selling lemonade for a couple of days, and someone running a business where they are selling all kinds of food.

(I think in some districts school bake sales are banned for similar reasons. Or they're only allowed to sell pre-made, "commercial" food, like those already-made-Rice-Krispies treat squares. Which are nowhere as good as the homemade kind, and which probably have all kinds of preservatives and artificial flavors in them).

I don't know. With things like lemonade stands or bake sales or hot dog carts or things, I kind of think it can be "buyer beware." I would probably buy a cup of lemonade from a group of little girls wanting to earn water park money; I might not buy a hot-dog from a guy in a dirty-looking trailer.

The government can't legislate that we're all 100% safe, as much as they might like to. Sure, the little girls might be pint-sized Borgias who are trying out their new poison on random people, and the guy in the dirty van might have the best and safest hot dogs in the world. But those are so unlikely that most people are smart enough to trust their experience and intuition.

While I appreciate the Pure Food and Drug act, so I know that bag of flour I'm buying isn't mostly plaster dust, I think police going shutting down a lemonade stand is an over-reach.

I know I tend to see patterns in things that I maybe should not, but I can kind of see a connection between the police coming to the lemonade stand and saying, "Unless you pay for the permit, you are breaking the law and will be in trouble" and a TSA agent looking at a little old woman and deciding she needs a more thorough pat-down.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

comfort spending

I suspect most of us do this from time to time. Even when we're trying to be frugal, even when we're all "the economy is going to keep tanking, inflation is going to keep going up, I may regret not having held onto this money when dry beans are $8 a bag"

But there comes a point where you also go: "Yeah, and I could get hit by a bus tomorrow."

My comfort spending is never all THAT ruinous; I don't think I've ever dropped more than $50 on something because I was feeling bad, thought it would make me feel better, and wanted it.

I did a little bit today. I had to drive to the next city over (it's an hour's round trip; I really do feel like I live in BFE sometimes). Someone at one of the agencies had loaned me CD-ROMs of a map coverage I needed for a project, and since they were good enough to give me the originals (saying: "Last time I tried making a CD to CD copy for someone, it came out badly, so I'll just let you take these and upload them directly), I figured they deserved to have them re-delivered by hand, rather than trusted to the U.S. Mail.

So since I had to run down there, I decided to go to the such-as-it-is bookstore. (We have a small paperback-exchange bookstore in town, which is fine, except I rarely find what I want if I'm looking for something specific. And we have the campus bookstore but they are SMALL and have precious few non-text-book books). Even the bookstore in the next city over isn't GREAT; I've been in larger versions of this chain (it's a Books-a-Million) that had way better selection, and for most "older" books (things that were first published >5 years ago), unless they're "classics" and on some reading list somewhere, good luck at finding them. And a lot of the store is given over to gifty type stuff, which is fine, except, when their "mystery" section is as small as it is there, it's not so fine with me...

I looked at Asimov's "Foundation Novels" after someone recommended them to me, but after reading the blurbs, meh, I don't know. I'm not really a fan of sci-fi and even though I know Asimov is good, I don't know that I'd be enticed to sit down and read them.

Then I looked at the mysteries. They had some nice, fancy, new Harper paperback editions of Agatha Christie. While she's not my favey-ever mystery writer (I do not think, actually, she is as good a writer/plotter as some of the other "Golden Age" writers), still, I enjoy a good Poirot story and they had several I had not read. And these are nice paperbacks - larger than a pocket book, with those kind of matte covers, and a simple, almost vintage-feeling graphic on them. (And one that relates to the plot of the book. So many mystery novels, it seems they throw some random titillating thing up there to attract attention).

(The ones I bought: Dumb Witness, The ABC Murders (I have seen the Suchet production of this, but never read the book), and Third Girl (same thing - saw the Mystery! production of it but never have read it and want to - often for the productions they change quite a bit).

(Another nifty feature: they have a list on the back, IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER, of the stories. It bugs me that sometimes it's hard to find out - without resorting to an internet search- the order in which a series was published. And while with something like Poirot, it really doesn't matter the order you read them in - the later stories (which I now see Third Girl is) aren't as satisfying to me because they're more modernized. And also, I read somewhere that in the later books, psychologists can see the beginnings of the dementia Christie ultimately suffered from - the language is less complex, for example. I tried reading one of the later Miss Marple books and found I could definitely tell a difference between it and the earlier stories.)

At any rate - while yes, I probably already own more books than I will ever read in what remains of my life (barring some kind of bizarre plague outbreak situation where all unaffected people are told to shelter in their homes for an indefinite period of time), it's still nice to have new ones. And these are books that please me - nice typeface, attractive covers, pleasant size. (I admit it, I'm a bit of a book-snob. I don't always enjoy the pocket-book size paperbacks, though part of it is that sometimes the font is a bit smaller and also sometimes the way they're bound, the inner margins are very small.)

Also, while I'm not averse to e-readers, I think my love of books is such that I'd never be able to REPLACE my books with an e-reader (I know people who have tried to do that), though I can definitely see the value of an e-reader for things like traveling, where you could load six or eight (or more) novels onto something that occupies the space (and has the weight) of one.

(Also: I like to read in the tub - which, actually, is one time I'm not averse to the really cheap paperbacks, though I've never actually dropped one in, I suppose there's a first time for everything - and an e-reader would probably be dangerous for that.)

But anyway. New books (well, new old books, I guess you could say). Something aesthetically pleasing to me. A fun and not too taxing escape with a character I enjoy.

The debt-limit debate can suck it. I'm going to go read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

it's all broken

I'm trying not to really watch/listen to news very much these days. Because I get increasingly convinced of the brokenness of our society and the current brokenness of the government. (Thomas Jefferson, were he resurrected from the dead, would vomit. That is, if resurrected-from-the-dead guys can vomit).

First off: the whole budget/debt limit mess. The thing that frustrated me today was hearing that Obama said, "Oh, by the way, if we don't fix this, those of you dependent on social security, veterans' checks, and disability - you won't see your check on time in August."

I have NO IDEA if this is likely to happen or not, given the lack of a budget deal. I'm almost of the opinion now - given the level of hysteria I've seen on both sides of this - that it's actually not that likely to happen, but it's more a last-ditch, "Let me get people who have the time to call and write their Congressperson to do so, since they're afraid the money won't come."

(And I think here's some evidence for it being hype)

There may not be "money in the coffers" to pay Social Security?

Okay, here's a suggestion: Stop Congress' checks. Stop the President's paycheck. Don't fund things like the NEA and stuff. Again - it's like a family. If Dad loses his job, what a reasonable family does is cancel the cable, stop going out to dinner once a week, suspend the planning for the trip to Disneyland. You cover the essentials. You let the non-essentials slide - or you let the things slide that are already paid up for a while. (I doubt there is a single Representative who would be turned out on the street were he or she to miss getting a paycheck on time).

But, as I said: I smell hyperbole. I smell an attempt to cause desperation and rage in the people, and get them to call their Representative and say "I don't care how badly you think it will hurt the rich, tax the hell out of them and let me keep my goodies!"

Honestly, what I think? We're going to have to cut big on spending. Even WITH new taxes or raised taxes. It's going to suck but we're going to have to do it. Look, it's a "Dad lost his job" situation right now.

But I'm going to be frustrated if every program is "off the table" because it might hurt someone.

I don't want to see us become like Greece but I have a huge fear of that happening in the next 20 years. (My dad and I were talking about this. His response to my concern: "Do you think you could get a job in St. Kitt's or Dominica?" Apparently these are the hot new places for people to "escape" to?

(My response: I don't speak Spanish (or Dutch, or whatever the primary language on St. Kitt's is) and I doubt there are many universities there.)

I dunno. I'm actually thinking if there's a sort-of-a SHTF situation, the smartest thing for me to do would be to buy a big plot of land somewhere where there could be a small lake I could keep stocked with fish, and maybe woods with deer, and a more favorable climate than here for trying to grow food, and try to become as self-sufficient as possible. (And put up razor wire and crap on the perimeter. And have a big notice saying HOMEOWNER HAS GUNS AND KNOWS HOW TO SHOOT)

But beyond all that, there's so much more brokenness in the news:

- a TSA agent was caught stealing stuff out of people's bags. We trust these people because why?

- Lots of reports of "breaches" in airport security, including some potentially scary stuff. And yet, if you show up wearing Depends, you will be asked to remove them. And if I were to show up having forgotten my inch-and-a-half long embroidery scissors in my purse, I'd probably wind up being sent to prison.

- Michelle Obama ordering a high calorie meal somewhere. I'm very conflicted about this. On the one hand, as a chunky woman, I resent people judging me on the basis of what I choose to eat. (That fat woman you ridicule for getting an ice cream cone? It may be the ONLY CONE SHE ALLOWS HERSELF TO EAT IN A YEAR. Or it may be her birthday. Or something). On the other hand...I really, really hate the scolding tone our society has taken on, where it seems like everything enjoyable is bad for you and should be avoided. And apparent hypocrisy frustrates me, where someone says, "This is good for YOU PEOPLE, but I'm allowed to do differently" - like the people who say that everyone in the U.S., even people with serious pollen allergies, should be forced to dry all of their laundry on clotheslines in order to "reduce the carbon footprint," but then they fly around in a jet.

- Someone is starting an online petition to make not reporting your child missing shortly after they go missing a Federal crime. This being a "SOMETHING MUST BE DONE" in the aftermath of the Casey Anthony trial. Okay, here's my question: is there an epidemic of children going missing that are not reported? Or is this an unlikely case that probably will never happen quite this way again? I get leery of promoting more and more laws for situations that are unlikely to re-occur. Sadly, you can't legislate away evil, no matter how you try. And I worry about unintended consequences of more laws being heaped up. (And also: sometimes laws already on the books are very spottily enforced.) Look, I think she killed her kid. And I think she and her family lied until they were fairly sure there'd be reasonable doubt as to what happened. If it happened as I think it happened, they're awful people. But 99.9999999999999999999% of parents in the U.S. are NOT awful people, and making a new this case, it's like closing the barn door after the horse and cows have gone. It's not really going to solve a lot, IMHO.

- Also a thought: I know people who got more concerned over one of their outdoor, barn cats going missing than this mother apparently was over her child. Again: you can't legislate people's feelings, you can't legislate away evil.

I don't know. I almost feel as if we're at a tipping point as a nation, where we're balanced on the edge between falling over into an increasingly restrictive, government-centered life, where it gets closer and closer to Socialism every year, and freedoms slowly erode away, or, on the other hand, we as a country go, "Hell no" and start trying to fix things, start trying to get back to more freedom, less reliance on the government for EVERYTHING, and more going out and chasing real dreams, instead of counting on someone else to supply them.

I really hope we tip the right way, but I'm kind of pessimistic right now.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Take that, cancer!

Some months back I wrote about two family friends, both of them doctors (one a retired surgeon) who had developed fairly advanced cancer.

Well, I saw D. (the retired surgeon) over my last visit with my parents. He LOOKED a lot better than he had, and he told my dad that he felt a great deal better, that he could eat normally again, and that he was gaining back the weight he lost during the first stages of treatment. (D. was not a large man to begin with, so weight loss in him was alarming). He said he felt like himself again.

This was the guy who was undergoing a somewhat-experimental blood-cell-based treatment that he had to go through several rounds with his insurance company to get them to help pay for. (My dad was not sanguine about the likelihood of the treatment working, but at this point, it seems to be.)

I heard about the second person last night - this was a woman who was facing a bone-marrow transplant to treat leukemia. She's had the transplant, is doing much better, and is actually back in the office (but not seeing patients, and I think that's wise - I don't know how long it takes for one's immune system to come back full strength after such a thing). This was also someone for whom the future looked kind of grim...but she's back home again, and back working at least part time.

Stories like that make me happy. I feel like every time a treatment works, it's like kicking cancer in the groin.

And I really needed some good news right now - I already knew the news about D. but had not heard anything about A. (the woman).

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Independence Day

To the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To never again being so under the thumb of a monarchy (or a would-be monarchy) that we lose our voices.

To always being able to speak our minds, worship as we see fit (or not worship at all, if that is what we see fit), to be free to assemble. To be free to bear arms. To be free from unreasonable searches, from having to quarter soldiers in our own homes without our consent, to be free to have a speedy trial by a jury of our peers - all of those things that were promises secured some thirteen years after the events we celebrate today, in the Bill of Rights.

To knowing that we have the responsibility to exercise our rights, but also not to abuse them or take them for granted.

And to be grateful for the men who discussed all of the wrongs of an overbearing monarchy, some 235 years ago, and ultimately "signed their lives away" by taking the step of signing a Declaration of Independence.

So that we today have the freedom to grill hamburgers, go to the lake, play ball with our kids, shoot off fireworks, and generally enjoy the good things in life.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Just tired out.

You know, I think eventually there's going to be a mass "shrug" in the American public. Maybe not the kind Ayn Rand wrote of, so much, but a "shrug" on the part of the people who are responsible, who do what they say they will, who are "always there" and wind up picking up the slack for everyone else.

I'm tired. I spent most of the weekend involved with various volunteer projects. I baked cookies (three batches!) for a reception. I stood and ladled out punch at the same reception.

(An aside: people are nuts, you know that? This was a free patriotic concert with free reception afterward. Donations were not asked for nor collected. And people got all shirty and rude when we ran low on punch. I was standing there waiting for the kitchen ladies to get back out with the fresh batch and I had people complaining at me about them being out of punch. And I had one lady - when I was trying very hard to get caught up on providing punch, ESPECIALLY for the choir members who were parched after singing for an hour - this lady, who was not in the choir, came 'round the other side of the table and kind of snapped at me, "Well, can we GET punch from THIS side or is THIS side for people drinking WATER only?" (We also had ice water out for people who didn't want punch.) And I just looked at her like, lady, don't start with me. Don't goad me into saying something I should not say in a church. I gave her her punch and she didn't thank me. People are crazy and it's hard for me to love them the way Jesus said I should.)

Anyway, this morning, I was looking forward (after teaching Sunday school) to just sitting in church and being a worshipper. And not having other responsibilities.


As some of you know, I'm an elder. I've been one since, I don't know, 2006 or something. I was off the official board for a while, but I still did elder stuff.

So the usher comes up to me and says, "Joe Mama was supposed to elder today but I don't see him here. Can you fill in?"

Okay, I know where Joe Mama was. Because he was going out there yesterday and his wife said he was going again today. He was out fishing.

I said yes. I didn't have much choice; the only other elder I saw in the congregation at that moment was the other person on duty that day. So I said yes.

It's not that I mind filling in, so much...I've had people call me up on a Friday or a Saturday and say, "I know I was supposed to serve at the table this week, but I came down with a stomach virus and probably shouldn't be up there." or "My mom is sick again, I'd really like to go and help her."

In cases like that, I'm happy to fill in. Once in a while, if I'm scheduled while I'm traveling, I can get payback from those people. (In fact, one of the guys caught me last night at the reception and asked me if I could do it for him in a couple weeks. I said yes, and then said, "Will you be in town on the 31st?" and he said yes, that he'd take my time then.)

But I'm getting a little fed up with people just NOT showing, and me getting tapped. It seems like I do this at least once, and sometimes twice, a month, at times when I'm not otherwise on duty. I've only said "no" once, and that was when I was having throat problems and had a badly pulled shoulder (the trays of the communion cups are HEAVY).

I'd raise the issue at the next elder's meeting about "Hey, if you can't be on duty on a day when you're scheduled, could you please CALL someone and find a replacement beforehand?" but (a) the head of the elders is someone who might take that as a personal attack, even though I've known him to call when he couldn't be there...there's some sensitive stuff going on and (b) the people who really need to hear it probably won't be at the meeting.

But it frustrates me. Oh, I'm okay at coming up spontaneously with a prayer (it's a lot easier on days like today, when we have some kind of a "theme" to hang on to). But you know? I get TIRED of it. Really, really tired. And I feel taken advantage of, especially today, especially by this person. (I suspect he actually didn't check the schedule to see that he was on, but still: is it too much to ask that people check the schedule?)

And I know. I know, that's the wrong attitude and it's unChristian and selfish and all. But I think it's also kind of selfish for people to just skip their turn and expect that someone else will cover for them. We're a community, and people are supposed to pull their weight in a community, not sit back and let a few people take care of stuff.

I don't know. I like helping out, I like feeling like I can contribute, but there comes a point where I'd like to see other people step up and do something. It seems unfair to me to always be the "fill in person" simply because I make it a habit of being in church every single Sunday.

I think the woman who was in charge of the reception - incidentally, the woman who expressed earlier frustration at "volunteers not coming through" - is aware of my frustration at always being tapped, because she came up and thanked me personally for helping out at the reception. And I was happy to do that, because I know it was hard for her to find people who were free at that time - several of the other women who could have done it have crazy ugly work schedules (one is, I think, a dispatcher for the fire department, and another works retail, and another works at a local Indian casino, and they get called in at bad times, like Saturday evenings). But I also admit I get tired of being the "George" who is always expected to do whatever.

I don't mind being asked to help at the reception - in fact, I actually volunteered, because I knew I had the time to do it and I know that other people couldn't. What I do mind is the expectation that people seem to have that I will jump up and do other people's duty when they slack off. And sometimes I wonder if my willingness to volunteer to do certain things plants the idea in people's minds that I'm just there, waiting to be told what to do.

I mean, I guess I should be happy that I can contribute to having things be a success...but I wish I didn't feel like I had to so much. I don't know whether to bring it up to the minister (though I suspect his reaction might be leavened with a healthy dose of "suck it up") or whether to simply say I don't want to elder any more the next time my term ends.

Perhaps I need to say "no" more to things so people don't automatically expect I will say "yes." That makes me sad, because I really DON'T want to turn down doing things I could do that I want to do...but sometimes I think people maybe take a little advantage of my good nature.

Friday, July 01, 2011

This also makes me furious.

Remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn? The guy who was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid?

It now seems entirely possible the maid lied.

This kind of thing makes me furious. For one thing, a person (granted, a person I may not like very much, but a person all the same) has had his reputation tarnished.

I live in a small town. There are some people here, I do not know why, who seem to live to spread rumors about others. It's disgusting and it can be very damaging to people. I had friends - they have since moved away since the husband got a better position at a larger university, but also they may wanted to have left the idiot rumormongers - well, anyway, the first rumor was that the husband was having an affair with another woman on campus. His wife knew this was utterly ludicrous because (a) she knew she could trust her husband to be faithful and (b) some of the times he was reported to have been seen with "her," he was actually at his kid's soccer game. With his wife. Or he was out jogging. With his wife.

So that rumor could largely be laughed off, but it still annoyed my friend, because some people actually swallowed the rumor and would treat her with pity when they met her in the grocery store.

The second rumor that got started was worse. It was that the man was abusing his son. This one, because it was uglier, and because the alleged abuse allegedly happened when they were allegedly at home, it was harder for the family to clearly disprove, even though EVERYONE who knew the family knew it was false, and there was no actual evidence (like bruises or injuries on the boy). But it was ugly, I can't remember now if DFCS called them up for a visit or not - but at any rate, it was ugly.

So I think doing something that wounds a person's reputation, whether you're doing it for your own gain, because you dislike that person, or to get a horrible thing to do. And I don't care if DSK was a "dog" who treated women badly in the past...he still does not deserve to be lied about.

Second, if this maid did indeed make up that she was raped by this man...well, it makes it all the much harder for other women, women who actually suffered assault, to prove their case sometimes. It makes the defenses in those cases dig deeper and maybe get uglier, trying to trip the victim up or make her look bad. I've heard of cases where a woman's "past behavior" was called up in a rape trial...sort of like the bad old, "She was dressed like she wanted it" argument. (And how dangerously close that attitude is to some of the conservative Muslim attitudes, that a woman out in public must be covered head to toe, and preferably chaperoned by a husband, father, or brother, lest she lead some man on the street astray).

It's also bad in cases of alleged date rape when a woman consents at first, and then later on says she did not. It's a complete he-said she-said situation (very rarely are there witnesses). Date rape DOES occur, don't get me wrong - but it's dishonorable for a woman to claim rape (for whatever reason) after an act she consented to.

(You know, situations like these make celibacy look not-so-bad after all.)

Yes, yes, I know: as a woman you have to be careful. I wouldn't walk alone after dark in a city, especially not provacatively dressed. But...yes, you have to be careful, but no, being not-careful does not give people license to assault. Stealing a guy's wallet because he's drunk doesn't make it any less of a theft.

I suppose it's still possible that the maid's case is true, but it doesn't look good.