Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Crying? There's no crying in the news!"

Or at least, that's what I wish.

I was busy working on something last night. The local news ended and the network (CBS, I think) news came on.

And they were talking about how some California school districts were having to consolidate, and how Everyone Is Sad About That.

They interviewed a teacher who expressed fear that students would "fall through the cracks" in her class, now that she was 30 students.

They interviewed a little girl who was disappointed to be in such a crowded class. She said "Kids talk and I can't hear the teacher." (Okay, honey: here's a lesson in being a squeaky wheel. Bitch at the kids about being noisy. Bitch to the teacher that she's not shutting up the kids. Frankly, I'd like to see more cases of teachers being able to throw disruptive kids out of their class).

And they interviewed a little boy. Who started to cry. That's when I groaned and hunted down the clicker to change channels. Yup, he was crying. Why? Because he had to leave his old school, and apparently, all his friends went to different schools now and oh, how sad it was.

And this is what drives me NUTS about how these kinds of narratives are presented. Find the crying kid. Or the scared senior who thinks she's going to be eating cat food to survive. Or whatever.

And you know? We're just in a damn bad time now. I wouldn't be at all surprised if 40 years hence they refer to this as the Little Depression, or even the Second Great Depression. Cuts are gonna have to be made. People will be sad.

Hell, if the narrative went the other way, they could find a mom who was sad because she wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom with her kids, but because of the current tax-and-inflation situation, both she and her husband have to work full time to make ends me. Or someone like me, who is frankly kind of depressed because of how ugly the future looks: I don't anticipate having a comfortable retirement like my parents are, DESPITE having $700 of every paycheck put in a TIAA-CREF plan, DESPITE scraping together $4K a year to put in my Roth, DESPITE paying into my state teacher's retirement - I don't believe any of that is going to be there in 30 years, or if it is, it will be so diminished by inflation that I will probably spend my 'golden years' working as a greeter at whatever the 2040 version of Wal-mart is. And that makes me sad and frustrated and angry.

The thing that enrages me about putting a crying kid on the news is how exploitative it is - not just of the kid but of the feelings of everyone watching. I hate being told how to feel about something, and that's precisely what the news is doing. (Which is why, except for situations like this one - where the news came on while I was busy doing something else - I get all of my national/world news these days from reading it seems less pornographic that way.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sometimes you have to laugh

There's just so much news out there that makes me so tired. (Politics makes me want to throw up right now).

But sometimes I can still find some amusement.

You've doubtless seen the now famous photo of Obama, where he got tired of waiting or something (and on that, I can sympathize with him: I hate having my picture taken, especially group shots where the photographer is all, "Oh, let me take JUST THREE MORE SHOTS so I can be sure I have a good one) and waved.

They were discussing it on the news this morning.

And this popped into my head:

"All the single-term presidents (all the single-term presidents)
All the single-term presidents (all the single-term presidents)
Put your hands up, hands up!"

(And of course, later on, the chorus would have to me, "If you like me, you better pass my new jobs bill...")

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Failure isn't always epic. Or permanent.

This is an idea that's been discussed a lot, because of the article "What if the secret to success is failure" in the NYTimes.

Prof Mondo discusses it

The concept that there's a difference between failure and defeat is important. And I admit, it was something I struggled with as a kid - I was good at a lot of stuff, I earned good grades. Then I got to college and I had a few hard lessons: one semester, I had a very tough chem prof, who didn't follow the textbook (and didn't tell us where he was sourcing his material, until one day he let it slip that he was following Fermi's discussion on thermodynamics... I ran to the big bookstore (the big old flagship Borders, which I'm sure is dead now, and it makes me sad to think of that) and found a Dover reprint copy for $4 - and then I could pass the class after reading it). I earned D on an exam from him. My first D ever, I think. (Even in phys ed, I managed to pass, even though I couldn't climb up the rope and was a failure at field hockey).

One thing I learned was that that D could be recovered from - I studied my ass off for the final exam, earned an A- on it, and that brought my grade up to an acceptable B. (Of course, there was collateral damage: I didn't have as much time to study for Genetics, and so my A in that class dropped to a B+ after the final. But, oh well, at least I didn't have to repeat Chem II.)

I think "grit" is a very good shorthand for what kids need to learn. I see "grit" as a certain resilience, an ability to keep going even in the face of things not going well. Persistence is part of it. Part of it is what I described a long time ago as the tinkerer mentality - someone who is stubborn enough to say, "I will not let this beat me, I will keep trying things until something works."

I think this "grit" is probably best taught by parents. I know I learned my "grit," however much I may have, from my own parents. My mom came from what would today be called a working-class family. She was the first of her family to go to college (and she went on to earn a Ph.D) She has that "you do what it takes" mentality - she told me MANY times in my childhood about how she worked for "thirty-seven and a half cents an hour, plus tips" (I will NEVER forget that phrase) as a waitress in the summers in order to pay part of her way through school. She also sought out scholarships and even though, like me, she's someone who hates asking people for stuff, she went around and asked for departmental work to earn extra money during the school year. She lived in a co-op house that was mostly for lower-income women, they were expected to do all the cooking and housekeeping and such...but that was what it took. And my dad, while his family was better off, he worked in a foundry in the summers, and at places like the USPS (he had some interesting stories about them). Because he needed to.

While I had a considerably softer time of it in school (I worked, but only a few hours a week, and that was to have money to go to the movies and stuff), I still had that mentality of "I can't let this beat me."

Even more so, in grad school. I had times when the analysis software wouldn't work, or I got bad results, or something went wrong. And while I admit there were many instances where I did sit down and have a good cry for a few minutes (grad school can be stressful), at the end of that I'd get back up and go, Okay, what do I have to do now?

And I figured it out.

And I still do that. I may get momentarily overwhelmed by "stuff" (as I also said earlier, one of the keys to success is to know when you're about to lose your stuff and need to walk away from the situation for 20 minutes or something), but then I go, "This is stupid and I won't let it beat me." I think that's actually another summing-up of grit: recognizing that most of the problems we have in this life are not insurmountable, and in fact, a lot of them are really quite stupid.

But I see more than my share of people who just shut down in the face of problems...just have Complete System Failure and can't go on. And I don't know how you learn "grit" as an adult, or if you even can.

Again, I think this comes back to being a thing like morals and ethics and treating other people with respect: it's something you gotta learn at home, when you're young. And sadly, there seem to be parents out there who are abrogating their responsibility on any of those things, and when the people who don't learn persistence or treating others respectfully or not to damage other people's stuff grow up, they become holy terrors that are hard for all of the rest of us to deal with. (At least the no-grit people aren't as terrorizing as the others, and it's mainly themselves they hurt.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Thanks, Warren, thanks so much.

I'm sure you've all heard of Warren Buffett's comment about how it wasn't fair he was paying less of a percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary did.

While I don't necessarily dispute the unfairness of that situation, I'd solve it in a different way than what Obama has chosen to propose (apparently with Buffett's blessing).

From everything I've read, this new higher tax rate will affect Millionaires, not merely Billionaires.

There are a lot of farm owners who fall into that category. And a lot of ranchers (even with the awful drought in most of the country). And a lot of small-business owners. And a lot of people who do things like operate small factories, machine shops, that sort of thing.

In other words: the people who are the "evil rich" who "need" to be taxed more (so they can "pay their fair share," a phrase that makes me roll my eyes) are the very people who might just, I don't know, create some jobs in the future?

But weren't, because they were concerned about what was coming down the pike in terms of taxes and regulations?

Class warfare is ugly...and I think it's part of the "cold" civil war we are now in. There are enough people in the working and middle class who are easily convinced (if they don't already accept) that "the rich" are like Uncle Moneybags from Monopoly....or like Uncle Scrooge McDuck...who light cigars with $100 bills, and have a vault full of gold coins they swim in...and that they do it JUST TO BE UNFAIR TO THE WORKING STIFFS.

I have seen this. I have seen even fairly well-educated people talk about "the rich" as if they were the robber barons of the 1890s. And while I don't debate that there are some wealthy people who lead rather profligate and in-your-face conspicuous-consumption lives (I cannot, for example, watch an episode of "Real Housewives of Anywhere" without being very put off)...there are also an awful lot of people with money who use it for good. And even some of the people buying $5000 suits and $100,000 cars are using some of their money for good.

(And it's funny, you don't as often see that same hatred of "the rich" directed at sports stars and movie stars - at least, as far as politicians talk about "the rich." I wonder how baseball players and rappers and actresses will feel about seeing their tax rates raised...or do they already have sufficient shelters in place?)

And for that matter - a lot of the small and medium-sized businessmen and women make this country SO much better, regardless of what they do in their personal lives with their disposable income. And I'm not just talking about employment.

When I moved to the small city where I live about 10 years ago, the downtown here was dead. DEAD. There were lots of empty storefronts, there was a dying pharmacy, a couple of antiques shops (but that rarely had anything good; I think the people with the wherewithal to transport their stuff to sell to the bigger cities near us did so, because they knew they'd get a better price). We had a Winn-Dixie and a Wal-Mart and a few other things. And that was IT.

I remember driving to the next biggest city - an hour's round trip - for a stinking LUGGAGE LOCK when I was traveling, because the wal-mart didn't happen to have them, and no one else in town carried them. I could have bought a Master lock from the hardware store - but the hasp wouldn't fit through the holes in the zipper-pull on my suitcase. So I got in the car and drove, cursing the whole way.

Over time, downtown began to get renovated. (I will say that a key part of the change was a change in our alcohol laws - where restaurants can now serve wine or even mixed drinks - before, all they could serve was beer, and it may have even been 3.2 beer at that). A restaurant opened up. It was a GOOD restaurant and it did well. A couple other businesses tried opening and were successful. Now there are more restaurants, more businesses, better businesses. I actually go downtown to shop now instead of planning to drive an hour's round trip to the next largest town. (We still don't have a decent bookstore, but maybe someday...)

Anyway, I don't want to go back to where we were 10 years ago. I don't want to go back to having a grocery store and the wal-mart in town as my choices - or having to drive, or having to mail-order everything. (As much as I love Amazon and use my Amazon Prime membership...still, sometimes it's nice to be able to shop in person).

I don't want to see small businesses close their doors because they got crushed by the government. But I could see that happening.

It's funny. The Republicans always get dinged as "the party of Big Business" but it seems of late, the big businesses, big-box stores seem to be more favored over small businesses by the Democrats in power. (Or at least the big businesses that donate money...)

If I were in charge, what would I do?

First, I'd cut corporate tax rates. At the least, I'd roll them back to 25%, maybe more.

Second, I'd put together a panel with the goal of examining all the regulations out there and finding out which ones could be reduced or eliminated - cut the red tape for small business.

And finally, I'd work on reforming the tax code. I'd probably push for a flat tax with comparatively few deductions - and as a result, lower percentage rates for everybody.

Class warfare is ugly. Even though I'm not rich and will never be (at least not by U.S. standards - as I've said before, by global standards I'm incredibly wealthy, and that's largely because I have things like running water and enough food to eat and a house that I own), I don't like the idea of hating a class of people because they are successful. It smacks of simple, childish envy.

I will say pessimistically that I don't think we'll ever have true tax reform in the U.S. as long as politicians find it expedient to pit different social classes against each other.

(And how strange it least in the past, part of the American dream was that any shmoe who was willing to work hard and who had some good ideas could aspire to become if that dream still exists, that means there are a lot of people who, as part of their aspirations, are going to be hated by politicians. That's strange and sad: become successful and have people speak hatefully of you.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why, people, why?

Ugh. This semester is a lot more work than I thought it would be. That's why the infrequent postings here.

But here's something that annoys me: Why do some people feel the need to crap all over someone else's enjoyment of something? I mean, there are myriad television shows out there that I think are awful and dumb, but if someone talks about how they love the show and stuff, I just kind of smile and think, "I'm happy you like it." If they ask me about it I just shrug and say I've never watched it.

But I've also had the situation of expressing a liking of something - a show, an author, a food - and having the person I was talking to recoil in something not unlike horror, and respond, "HOW can YOU like THAT?" The implication being, "I thought you were a person of taste and sophistication. Now I am not sure I can remain friends with you."

And I'm not talking about a person doing that in jest, or doing it ironically - I'm talking about someone who is for-real-honest horrified that I like the cartoon "Regular Show," or that I read mystery novels for entertainment, or whatever.

This is, I think, one of the most tiresome things about our modern society - how some people need to set themselves up as arbiters of taste, and have to tell anyone who likes something that they don't how bad and wrong that person is.

And I think it's part of the general hyperbolic tone, and inability to draw distinctions in our society - if you disagree with someone on something that is a matter of taste, it's the same thing to some people as "hating" them, or as confessing that you are a very immoral person.

And I've had people like was as if they were trying to destroy my enjoyment of whatever it was, for whatever reason they had - a need to feel superior, maybe? Or just such a sense of outrage that something like "Regular Show" existed that they couldn't believe it and it was their mission to get rid of it by shaming its viewers one by one, or something. I don't know. I don't understand it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Apparently the USPS is in some financial trouble. (So what else is new?)

What's interesting to me is how two different news reports on it went.

First: a CBS national report (but funneled through the local TV affiliate's news): "Could the USPS be nearly at a shutdown? Would the U.S. be paralyzed by a mail stoppage?"

Second, this morning, on the (ABC, I think) affiliate radio station I listen to: "U.S. Postmaster General to meet with Congress in order to plan cuts."

Notice the first report's distinct ZOMG!!! tone. And the second one's more measured comment.

I admit, I tend to be a small-government sort of person, but I think it would be a problem if the USPS went away. No, I don't think a private option would work, at least not immediately - if you live in downtown New York, fine, probably it would be easy to get mail via the Private Post. But if you live in Valentine, Nebraska - or out in the middle of Nevada - or on a remote ranch - good luck at finding a company willing to bring you your mail for any kind of reasonable price. Even someone like me, in a smallish city that's not THAT far from a larger city (100 or so miles)....when FedEx delivers stuff, they tack on a "$5 Rural Surcharge." My town is right off a major interstate, it is, as I said, 100 miles from a very large city, and it's the county seat....

And I don't know that we could quite fare yet without a postal service, and frankly, at this point, I'm unwilling to try. Some of the utilities I use STILL charge a premium if you want to pay bills online (so I don't). And magazines - I love magazines, have to have them, would hate having to go down to a newsagent's every month to buy them - or drive to some "mail distribution center" that would probably be at least a half-hour away, just to pick them up. And I doubt that UPS or any of those companies would be willing to pick up that kind of delivery. (Well, maybe if all the magazines to which a person subscribed were put together into a monthly "packet" to be delivered all on one day - but that takes a lot of the fun out of getting magazines).

And I still like to send actual, paper, greeting cards for holidays and birthdays. And once in a while people write to me and I write to them....and with a privatized post office, I can see that being more difficult (either because some areas would not have service, or because there would be several companies, and the letter would have to 'transfer' between them, like doing a bus transfer).

And also, I have to admit: as a person who lives alone, being able to stop at the end of the day and look for mail - even if it's just a magazine or a catalog - there's something about that that I would miss if it stopped.

I admit I'm not wild about the idea of stopping Saturday delivery (My parents still remember twice-a-day delivery in some towns). But if it comes to that, fine.

And I'm not wild about cutting staff - well, maybe in some areas, there are superfluous staff, but one of the reasons I HATE to go to my local P.O. is usually there's one person at the front desk dealing with people, and a line of customers, sometimes out the door.

And I'm not wild about closing post offices - but then again, my town being the county seat, it would probably be the one town in the county to KEEP the P.O.

And with post offices, there might be some other option - combining the services with a business - like in Britain, where many of the postal offices (at least used to be) part of a small grocery shop or a newsagent's or something. (Already, you can buy stamps at most big pharmacies and grocery stores...)

I realize things are going to have to change to deal with the brokenness of our economy. But unless I see a good, workable replacement for the stuff that the post office delivers, I'm unwilling to say, "Stop the (government) mail now." Not that I think that will happen...though according to that CBS report, that was how they were trying to make it sound.

So, I don't know.

Next week is the big anniversary - the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. At times, it feels really long ago...but at others it seems amazing that it happened that long ago.

I don't know what to make of the day. On one hand, I think it's important to remember that in this world, there are people who would kill every one of us Westerners if they could. That there are people who hate us because of the freedom we have. And that we need to fight against it, we need to work constantly to guard our rights.

(And yet, at the same time...we wound up with "security theater" in the airports...and I choose no longer to fly when I travel, if I can at all avoid it, because of that. And yet, it's rumored that cell phone conversations are monitored for "keywords" - even those of citizens)

The one thing I won't be doing is watching much of the commemorative coverage. I realize everyone feels differently about this, and maybe for some people it's important to remember the exact feelings they had that day (though I can call those up without watching the news footage). And maybe for people who lost someone they were close to, it's important for them to remember that person.

But I don't really have a need to watch it. And some of the coverage, I think, of natural disasters or terrorist attacks, these days, almost borders on "disaster porn" - I know if I were, say, a witness to a campus shooting, I would NOT want some reporter sticking a microphone in my face and asking me how I "felt." (I would probably give them some words they couldn't play on the network, to describe how I felt - not about the tragedy, but about some dipwad sticking a mike in my face).

I hope all the people featured on the programs are featured willingly. And if they changed their minds about wanting to be a part of it after they were filmed, that they got their faces taken out of the program.

There's talk of making it a "national day of service" like MLK day is becoming. I don't know about that, either. On the one hand, I admit I like the idea of "doing good as a response to evil things being done in the past" - of showing that we are a good and generous people. But on the other hand...exhorting people to, I don't know, go out and pick up trash, seems kind of a banal response to the magnitude of what happened that day.

There's a PSA running locally - I think it's a national spot - asking "What will you do?" I admit feeling a bit of annoyance towards that...though I think my response is, "I will live my life normally that day, because what the terrorists did did not break us as a nation." I will go to church - like I always do (and remember that in some countries, Christians can't do that, at least not openly). I will perhaps go out to lunch with the after-church lunch bunch. I will go back in the evening and teach Youth Group...sharing the love of the loving God I believe in with others.

And really, I think that's enough. Being grateful for the fact that I have freedom (especially freedom-as-an-unmarried-woman: I often think of what it would be like had I been raised under strict Islam). Being grateful that I can worship as I see fit (or not, if I see fit to do that). Being grateful that I have enough food, enough shelter, enough clothing. Being grateful that I can be reasonably secure in my person and where I go - that suicide bombings do not, as a rule, happen in the U.S.

Other than that? I don't think I ever need to see the footage of the planes flying into the Twin Towers again.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Entitlement and helplessness

This is the kind of thing that frustrates me.

First example: I was announcing in class what lab the students were doing this week. One women pipes up: "I CAN'T find the LAB in the LAB BOOK. You DIDN'T put that lab in the LAB BOOK." Very snarky, very nasty. Now, granted, maybe she was having a bad day - I don't know her well, yet. But the tone of voice and the accusation that I had screwed up put me off.

So I sighed, I asked, "Does anyone have their lab book?" One of the guys raised his hand, I walked over to his desk.

He had the lab book open already to the "missing" lab. So I told everyone what page the lab was on.

But that's a behavior I see sometimes: if it's not immediately obvious, the person shuts down. They complain. Instead of asking for help, they accuse the person who might help them of making things "too hard."

And I have no patience for that any more. I think it's two-fold: first, my parents taught me from the time I was a little kid that if things don't work the first time, you try again. Or you try something different. Or you politely ask for help. You don't shut down and go, "I CAN'T DO THIS" and then accuse other people of making your life difficult.

And second: there have been a lot of times when I would have welcomed help...but either I didn't know where I could ask for it, or the help was not forthcoming, or the person who said they'd help me flaked I was stuck doing it all myself.

I don't know. I wonder at how people get through life without any sense of persistence. I see a few students every semester like that. I can only assume they manage to get people to do stuff for them, or they've expected stuff for so long.

Also, last week, I had a woman - not in my lab - burst into my late-afternoon lab, demanding the use of a cell phone. I pointed out the lab phone on the wall but apparently that was not good enough. She continued to demand a cell phone (maybe she only knows how to use that kind of phone?). One of my students surrendered his, she took it, and then CALLED HER "DADDY" AND TOLD HIM WHEN AND WHERE TO PICK HER UP.

I didn't throw her out of lab because I thought she might have some emergency. Nope. We got treated to her argument with "Daddy" about where she wanted to be picked up.

After she handed back the phone (this week, one of my students joked, when I brought the incident up, "I thought she was going to walk off with it" and I said, "Oh, I was prepared to tackle her if she did") and stormed out, I just stood there with my mouth hanging open - where and how does someone learn it's appropriate behavior to walk into another person's class, while class is going on, demand a cell phone, and then subject us all to her loud and demanding call? (And what's more? She stood between me and the students while she did it).

The final incident: we have a designated faculty lot. We pay extra for permits for that lot. I am happy to do that because it means I have a space, and if I have to leave campus midday and come back, I can get a space when I come back.

But now, the students are complaining: why should the faculty get the close spaces? (Because, um, some of us come in before it's light, leave after it's dark, carry multiple heavy textbooks and equipment, and are older than most of the students?)

My department chair is bringing the issue up...gently...but I fear that our faculty lot may become "open parking" thanks to the demands of the students. (In which case, I hope they will refund me the fee I paid for a reserved spot...)

She says that a student parked there the other day, got a ticket, and then, she caught the student throwing trash around the lot as "retaliation" for the ticket.

This is the kind of thing that makes me hate people. The person who gets stuck picking up the trash (likely it was my chair) did not give you the ticket. Throwing trash around will not solve your problem. You're only making other people's lives worse because you're pissed off. STOP IT.

I don't know. I hope the "entitlement behavior" people I have seen recently grow out of it FAST, because they just make the more mature people miserable. (I have had some of my non-trad students come and commiserate with me about the behavior of the "entitlement cases.")