Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's my job

This article is a fascinating look at two sisters from a working class background. One went to college, all the way through to a PhD. She now teaches at Yale, albeit off the tenure track with a mountain of debt. The other forewent college and is now making just over minimum wage, but with no debts.

It's an interesting piece I encourage you to read, but the point I want to bring up here is that the sister without a college degree did spend about one semester at community college, only to find out the courses her advisor told her to take didn't count toward her degree. The very first commenter said: "[She] should have read the catalog and challenged the advice of the adviser.  Or hired a lawyer to sue the institution for giving costly bad advice."

Someone responded:

I come from a blue collar neighborhood in a big city, from which very few young people move on to college--and there's definitely a huge difference in social and cultural capital between those who have parents who went to college and those who don't (no matter how "smart" the actual young person is). It's actually extremely difficult to know how to work within/challenge/stand up for yourself in a large bureaucracy like a university. I'm lucky that my dad actually works at a university and had implicitly taught us kids "the system" so that I am confident and capable enough to navigate it on my own.

As a faculty member, the most terrifying aspect of my job is advising. I have a few students who have memorized the catalog, and a few more who argue because they want to get out of things, but the large majority of them simply take my word as gospel. Many of them not only expect me to know what they need to graduate and what courses have prereqs, but to tell them exactly what classes they should take next semester. I could tell them they need to go to a local CC and take advanced calculus, and they would.

It's not that they're stupid or lazy. It's that I'm supposed to be the expert.

Which is funny, when you think of it. Since faculty don't advise first-year students, all of my advisees have been here longer than me. At first, nearly every question they asked me, I had to field to someone else. I still do, sometimes - we have several versions of the marketing and management curricula that haven't graduated out yet. I worry that I will tell a student the wrong thing, and they'll end up a class short, or missing a required course. Because if I tell them something, they'll believe it.

I'm getting tired of the discourse that says, "Potential college students should make themselves experts in financial aid, loan repayment, career opportunities for several majors, accreditation, and their chosen college's policies." Otherwise, you know, if they get screwed it's all their own fault.

Looking back to when I was their age, what did I know? Financial aid - get it. Loans - don't. My major - I was going to be an English professor, and they were predicting a faculty shortage. (Yeah, remember that one? Sigh.) Accreditation - huh? College policies - OK, I thumbed that thing ragged. But I had college-educated parents, including a mom who did vigorous research on colleges - in the pre-internet era, when that meant buying books rather than surfing the web, and I still didn't know half of what today's advocates of responsibility would have our students know.

I don't advocate for student ignorance, of course. But it's the job of colleges - and states and associations that watch over them - to make information available in a readily understood way. It's our job to watch over and inform these students. They shouldn't have to be Sherlock Holmes or naturally rebellious to make it through college with their wallets and prospects intact.

Friday, March 30, 2012

First-world money problems

I've been trying a horrible new plan lately called living within my means. It's quite barbarous; I only buy goods or services if I have the money in my checking account. Not if I'll get the money next week, or if it's in savings, or if I can put it on a credit card.*

It's all part of my master plan to pay off my credit cards, but it sucks. I need a haircut, but I don't have the money. (No way can I afford a new dye job, too.) I'm even feeling too broke to do real grocery shopping.

Now, I know this is only a tough moment. It's part of the incredible suckitude of being paid every two weeks. I hate being paid biweekly. Bills don't come that way; they arrive monthly, which is not the same as every two paychecks. You can only avoid temporary shortfalls by having a considerable cushion in checking. People like me, who tend to spend what we have, don't leave cushions.

So, for example, my most recent paycheck went to rent. Which meant the one before it had to go to my April bills. Oh, the money is technically still in checking, but it has a big old target painted on it. In two weeks I'll get another paycheck, and it will look like whee-it's-Christmas money, but it isn't.

It shouldn't be like this. With my income, no kids or dependents, and no insane bills**, I shouldn't be living paycheck to paycheck. But the only way to stop living like that is, ironically, to really commit to it for a time so I can get ahead. 

*Naturally, there are (thus far theoretical) exceptions for actual emergencies. I'm not going to die for a balanced budget.
**Yes, I have credit cards. But I don't have unbelievable amounts of student debt or heavy medical bills.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

1/4 of the way through the year of women

Some random thoughts:
  • It's always weird when a writer you really respect highly recommends a book you think is terribly written
  • I loved The Snow Queen, but 150 pages into The Summer Queen I was far too bored to plow through another 550
  • I guess I liked Shards of Honor, although I wasn't keen on the smart, intelligent female soldier finding her true life's work as the [SPOILER ALERT] helpmeet to a big guy in a super-patriarchal society
  • I can't get into Ursula K. LeGuin as much as I feel like I ought to
  • One of the better books I have read, surprisingly, was The Dollmaker. Plus, having spent time in the Big South Fork, it was fascinating to read a novel partially set there
  • Yes, at certain bookstores it can be hard to find something to read (if you aren't looking for romance or mysteries)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

So say we all

I dreamed the other night that I was in a new version of Battlestar Galactica. With the dream-state ability to hold two seemingly irreconcilable ideas in my head at once, I knew that it was another occurrence of the story told in the TV show, although this was reality. Humanity had actually been pursued to the point of genocide by the creatures of its own creation: All of this had happened before, and all of it would happen again.

This time, things turned out differently than in the recent series. We had colonized a small, undesirable planet to make a go of it, but the Cylons had found us. They reached no truce with us but again tried to exterminate us. Humankind now only numbered a few hundred souls. Our leaders had decided that our species was doomed; the only thing to decide was how we would make our exit. We would do it on our own terms, or at least on the terms of our leaders.

So we had loaded everyone into our last battlestar and set out into space to buy ourselves some distance. The plan was that, at a final signal, all of us would drink a poison and lay down our lives. I may have had misgivings, but no wherewithal for insurrection. The people around me were beginning to go; some could not wait for the final bell and had drunk their kool-aid early. There I was, the stars of space outside, and bodies dying quietly around me. An unusually coherent dream, and if all that is going to happen again, I'd prefer for Captain Adama to save us.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ground Zero

Reflection by TheTurducken
Reflection, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
My weekend guests wanted to visit Ground Zero, so I went there with them for the first time. What I had heard about the plans for the site had not much impressed me, and after seeing the under-construction towers, I still wasn't architectually overwhelmed. The museum itself looks finished on the outside but isn't open yet. (The photo shows two of the new towers reflected by the museum.)

The pools, however, were another story. Leaping fountains are a happy thing, so it's not uncommon for memorials to feature the still waters of a reflecting pool. The two pools at Ground Zero take another tack altogether. Picture a square hole in the ground - the size of an original towers, with water cascading down the sides. The water pools at the bottom and then in the middle it runs down another square hole. The entire effect is unnerving, not to mention impossible to capture with a still camera. The water looks like a pool of souls falling down into nothingness - not that I've ever seen such a thing to compare it to. It really does capture a feeling of loss.

I've been to a lot of monuments, many for events long past and other within the living memory of some people, although not my own. 9/11 is fresher than that, and when we were in the visitor center, a woman starting sobbing and had to leave. It was wrenching to see that kind of loss up-close. I remember 9/11, and it impacted my life, but I wasn't a New Yorker at the time, nor did I know anyone who died in the attacks. I can only imagine the impact the memorial site would have on those who lost someone.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring break

Falls by TheTurducken
Falls, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
I'm in Nashville for spring break, visiting my friends and revisiting my favorite haunts. I came just in time for a burst of unseasonably warm spring weather; the mercury is hitting 80 most days. It made for a beautiful hike to Walls of Jericho on Tuesday. This hike is down on the Alabama/Tennessee border; you start in Alabama and end up in Tennessee.

It was sunny and the first spring wildflowers were out - phlox and trout lilies, red trillium and may apples, and lots of other ones I can't name. I had never been to the Walls at high water before, and they were a beautiful site. It was worth coming down to Tennessee just to see it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Boy are my arms tired

There is this great Cracked article that everyone has been reading called "6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying." #6 is "Well, $500,000 a Year Might Sound Like a Lot, but I'm Hardly Rich."

I can promise you I'm making nowhere near half a mil. My income is five digits, unless you count the cents. Or the dollar sign. But even so, I felt guilty the other day when I complained that despite having a real, adult job with a real, adult paycheck, I still feel broke.

Before I get to the guilt, the complaint. A real job in a new state means I am paying state income tax and student loans, which I didn't before. I've also been hit by, for the first time, being paid biweekly instead of on a monthly basis. I calculated my budget based on a monthly basis, although in fact I get several hundred less a month that that, except the two months in which I get three paychecks. That's messing with me. Food and yoga cost a little more, but transportation and capoeira cost less.

The biggest difference, the one that takes half my income, is rent. And, yeah, I could pay less - I could live on my own somewhere in Queens, or get a roommate situation somewhere in Manhattan. Ironically, I can't easily afford to move, not having a broker's fee or first/last. And I adore my apartment.

The overall effect is that I'm consuming about the same amount of goods and services now that I did a year ago as a student.

However, and this is where the guilt comes in, I know I could live on less. I know people in New York who do. I might find moving out of my apartment unbearable, but it is still more feasible than saving money by becoming a breatharian. I'm making what is to a lot of people good money. To them, my complaints are going to fall on deaf ears.

The easiest thing I can do for my budget is get rid of my credit card debt. (I'm not going to tell you how much it is, but it's … a lot.) If I wasn't paying that every month, I could breathe more freely. Heck, I could bathe in gold doubloons every morning. (Kidding.) I've been trying to do that since I arrived. I've made some progress, but glacial. Still, progress. Better than regress.

I just bought a plane ticket yesterday for my grandma's memorial service this summer. I don't regret buying it, but as I was doing so, I realized I do travel a lot. This year's Brazil trip is off, so I was thinking of going to Denver instead. That would be several hundred dollars, though. And from NYC, I could instead take an $8 Megabus to DC or Philly.

So, I have a new resolution: I'm not buying any plane tickets until the smaller of my two credit cards is paid off. Which, my parents fervently hope, will be before Christmas. To do this, I'll need to focus on paying it off instead of trying to save, and I'll need to cut back on a few things - goodbye handstand class. But I hope it will be the incentive I need.

Then I can stop complaining about being broke, and start complaining about the shoddy quality of modern gold doubloons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rare political rant

Lately, I've seen a lot of the argument that "if the government is paying for your [x] with my tax dollars, it IS my business." At the moment I'm hearing this a lot from people who believe that the government has no business ever paying for abortions or birth control - but it's not an argument exclusive to the religious right. The targets vary, of course: "I don't want my tax dollars paying for bombs in Afghanistan." The sentiment is the same: My tax dollars should not be spent for things I don't believe in.

You know what, folks? Those aren't your tax dollars. Once you pay them, they stop being yours. (It's rather like giving a wedding present. You don't get to take it back, even if they hate it or get divorced.) Instead, they belong to this giant, awkward, inefficient committee comprised of most American adult citizens, some of us whom are more involved in our committee work than others. We call this "government." Yeah, it doesn't always work all that well.

The alternative to accepting this premise? Well, if it's still my money, I get to decide what to spend it on. I'm not sure why I need to go through the step of giving it to the government in the first place. I'm going to use mine to buy shoes.

"Get off the ledge, Turducken," you're saying. "You know perfectly well that it is only supposed to be spent for the public good. Clean air and police and national defense and that kind of thing. Stuff we can all agree on. Still, I should be able to channel my own money, into clean air instead of police, if I want."

The direct result of this belief - not a long strange journey down some slippery slope - is that our impact on our budget is exactly proportional to our income. Rich people get to run things. How do you like that?

Well, you know who would have love it? The founding fathers, that's who. Remember, under the original constitution, only landowners could vote. A great many of us (even among the white male set) can only vote thanks to later amendments. Maybe you're copacetic with this; I'm not. This is one of the many reasons I have no patience with the WWTFFD? line of reasoning: Said fathers were ahead of their time, maybe, but they're way behind ours.

But, hey, if you're into that - if you wish I couldn't vote and that my boyfriend was legally 3/5 of a person because papa Jefferson and friends said so - go ahead, argue that you personally should be able to control your tax dollars.

The alternative is to suck it up and admit that every one of us sends money off to DC to be spent on shit we don't want. That might be birth control for promiscuous ladies or bombs to kill starving Iraqi children. Maybe it's to print money not based on the gold standard or to support bizarre art projects. Maybe it's just to pay that annoying (not to mention incompetent) clerk in sub-basement 3 of some minor federal bureaucracy. Face it, anytime your democracy is bigger than two people, someone is going to regret the choices society makes.

So here's the thing: If you want to change government spending, you have to do one of several things. One, you can convince people it's a low priority. ("I'm not against birth control; I just think the government should pay for submarines first.") Two, you can convince people it violates or is key to a fundamental human right. Yeah, the Declaration of Independence declared certain rights "inalienable," but the Declaration is not actually part of our body of law, and we've never treated rights as inalienable. Human life is "inalienable" - except when the person has committed murder or is a fetus or is dying and in pain. Convince enough people birth control or alcohol or fracking is morally wrong, and we'll vote to stop spending money on it, or at least convince five Supremes to agree with you.

Can't do that? Well, keep fighting. But I don't give rat's patootie if in the meantime "your" money is being spent on things you think are wrong. ALL of us are in that situation, and if you are somehow more sensitive and delicate than the rest of us and can't handle it, that's still not our problem. The princess and the pea is not a policy-making guide.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ramapo Torne and Russian Bear

The next hill by TheTurducken
The next hill, a photo by TheTurducken on Flickr.
So, my first hike since September, an "advanced beginner/intermediate" hike in Harriman State Park, clocked in at 9.92 miles with 4,344 feet of elevation gain. And my boots were okay, but I'm not overwhelmed by them. At least they didn't give me blisters.

The terrain reminded me of Tennessee in places; hills that look gentle, with almost flat tops, and rocky soil. There was even some mountain laurel. Despite that superficially similar feel, the organization of the hills was different; it's not a plateau with valleys.

The park itself has oodles of trails and is close to the city, so there is a great deal more hiking one could do there. I just bought a book of NYC-area hikes, and I'd like to explore some of the other areas, though - besides the Highline and Central Park, which the book includes.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Once you go Five Fingers, you can't go back

For the last couple of years, I have been hiking almost exclusively in my Vibram Five Fingers. They worked for almost every hike, except the very cold and wet, and for trail maintenance - people in charge of safety like it if your toes are nicely covered. I wore them for 20-mile-plus day hikes as well as backpacking trips. In fact, in my move to New York, I threw out my old boots. I wasn't so fond of them, they were heavier than I liked, and they took up space.

Here's the problem: There's more cold and wet in New York than Tennessee. I'm going hiking today, with a high of 43, and the Vibrams wouldn't be warm enough. (I own snow boots, but it's not cold and wet enough for that, either.) So, what does a girl do but go to REI and buy a new pair of boots?

The Soho REI is similar in size to the Seattle flagship, although I was surprised at how small their footwear section was. For lightweight hikers, my choice was pretty much Keens or Merrells. I took a pair of Merrells home. The next day I walked around the apartment in them, and decided almost immediately to take them back.

I inherited my dad's feet; they're actually slightly narrow, but the widest part is rather wide. In the past, that had not been a big deal. Then I started wearing the Vibrams a lot. My feet have not only gotten stronger, they've shifted a bit; the widest part of my foot is now even wider. I had noticed while attempting to purchase ordinary shoes, but it didn't become painfully evident until trying on hiking shoes.

In a couple of cases, the instep was too far forward for me. But in every pair of shoes or lightweight boots I tried, the shoe was tight across the wide part. Lacing didn't help, as it was the molding of the footbed. Finally, I tried on the last shoes EMS had, a new brand named Salewas. These were OK, so I bought them.

They're too wide in the heel, alas, which could mean blisters. I'll see how they work after my first hike with them today. Five Fingers will be in the pack for backup.

Thursday, March 1, 2012