The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:

PANTHER PRIDE

Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.

 

 

Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

College Buddies

So I knew these three guys back in college.  You know the ones:  The easygoing, happy-go-lucky types who never bothered to go to class and always knew how to get you hooked up.  For quite a few of us, they were our best friends.  And as I wax nostalgic today, I wonder what are the chances of catching up with them again, perhaps on Facebook or Craigslist.  My best buddies from a simpler time of life.

Jim Beam.  Jack Daniels.  José Cuervo.

Whoever said three is a crowd doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  We’d even (ill-advisedly) let a fourth tag along every once in a while, a charmer named Johnny Walker who was always broke, bummed drinks off the rest of us and stole our girls.

I wonder where these fellas are today.  My guess is that one went to law school, another is still playing rock ‘n roll in dive bars for tips, and the last one was buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere.  Maybe I’ll look for them under “Missed Connections:  100 Proof.”

I try not to live in the past, so it’s not that often that I think of college days.  When I do, I don’t bother to don the rose-colored glasses.  My college experience was not what one would characterize as halcyon, really more like a pain in the ass.  I did a few things right (such as ducking and dodging the constant flood of illegal drugs in which the campus soaked like a bloody rag), but I also made a lot of mistakes, some of which proved I was dumber than a doornail.

I will never forget a college roommate who justified his drinking and drugging by insisting that the time to do it is when you’re young.  If not now, when?  When I’m a sad old man who’s a drunk in the street?

I didn’t know those were the choices.  (And this was one of my better roommates!)

My three college buddies came to mind today in connection with my first experience at Kaiser.  That place is nothing if not efficient.  It is a veritable factory, where the goal appears to be to process as many patients as possible in the shortest time possible.  The brave new world of managed care.

I like my new doctor well enough, and I appreciate that I can email her and actually receive a response.  I like the convenience of “one stop shopping” with the lab and pharmacy being onsite.  It annoys me no end, however, that I explained that I needed a particular test, was told I don’t need it, went down the hall for my bloodwork, then was called a few hours after I got home because I’ve been scheduled for that test after all.

How does that song go?  “All doctors have beans in their ears, beans in their ears, beans in their ears…”

What tops that is that I received an email from my new doctor asking me to undergo a test that I clearly don’t need.  After using a few choice four-letter words, I emailed her back to explain the situation in detail.  She emailed back again asking that I consider doing it anyway.

Jim, Jack, José — I need you guys!

 

Still Life with Birthday, and Chocolate, and Angst

Birthday Cake

What a lovely domestic scene.  It’s Sunday afternoon at the parsonage.  In the living room, my wife is folding freshly-washed laundry, Pastor Mom is dozing in her easy chair, my little grandniece has toys strewn all over the floor even though she’s only been here five minutes, and I am sitting on the couch with the laptop and a pile of paperwork, trying to catch up and prepare for Monday morning.  My niece is at the kitchen table doing homework for her college classes.  “What’s a dislocated worker?” she asks me, and I yell into the kitchen that it’s someone who has been laid off.  We’ve left the front door open, and the breeze wafting into the living room reminds us that it’s nearly spring.

“Phone?  Phone?”  The little one begs my wife for her mobile.  My niece gives the okay and our two year old pride and joy begins playing her favorite videos of wildly colored “surprise eggs” being opened for the toys inside to be revealed.  This time it’s the one with one hundred Christmas eggs.  My grandniece has been mesmerized by this stuff for months.  Despite the Christmas eggs, I think she finally realizes that the holidays are over.  Halfway through January, she was still making the rounds of our home, wishing each of us “Me’y Kismiss!”

Today Little Miss brought her pink Frozen backpack with her.  Aside from the eggs, her other fascination is with Olaf, Elsa and all the rest.

When I step into the kitchen to make some PB&Js, I see that my niece is reading aloud from a textbook for her humanities class.  She is clearly struggling with some of the academic language and we begin chatting about perception, reality and context.  Somehow we flit from Descartes to Freud to Santa Claus.  She reads a paragraph about turning humans into objects and I volunteer that the ultimate example of this is murder.  She gives me a quizzical glance and I explain about turning a conscious being into a corpse, a mere object.

She asks me how I “remember all this stuff.”  Did I have some super method of studying when I was in college that allowed me to retain everything for years?  Do I have a photographic memory?  I assure her that nothing of the kind is true and that, in fact, I am a horrible studier and didn’t do all that well in school.  Certain things just stick with you, I volunteered.  My wife agrees and begins reciting snippets of Shakespeare that she still remembers from high school.  She mentions my father, who, at the age of 81, can recite from memory dozens of lengthy poems that he studied more than half a century ago.

I was delighted when my niece showed up with her daughter unexpectedly late this afternoon.  She needed us to perform babysitting duty long enough to allow her to finish her homework assignment.  Even with the attentions of my wife, my mother-in-law and myself, the little one kept wandering into the kitchen to be with her mom.  In her silliness, she began biting the tablecloth, making a hole in it.  For this transgression, she earned a tearful time-out and a detailed explanation that we eat food, not tablecloths.

I don’t generally see my niece very often, even though she lives just down the road.  With work and college and raising a two year old, she doesn’t have time to breathe, much less to visit family.  On Monday nights, she works the graveyard shift and we keep the little one all night.  She has her own bed here in the office, but partway through the night she always wakes up fussing and we take her into bed with us.  We lay three across in contented familial somnolence until I roust myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work.  I am gone to Sacramento by the time my niece comes to retrieve her daughter.

So it was a bit of a surprise that I got to visit with my niece two days in a row.  Last night, she was here along with her daughter, her mom and her two brothers in honor of my birthday.  Earlier in the week, my wife told her that she planned to shop for a vegan dessert for me.  “Can I make him a cake?” she asked.  The result was one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, with chocolate icing, no less.  My wife and I drove over to Little Caesar’s and brought back pizza for everyone.  My grandniece was in a happy mood, running amok and basking in the attentions of uncles and aunts of all ages.  My niece is taking some kind of exercise class for her phys ed requirement, aerobics or yoga or something, and she tried out some of her moves with her mom in the middle of the living room floor as the rest of us egged them on and indulged in lots of laughs as they bent, stretched and lunged.  My nephew picked up the little one, turned her upside down behind his back and walked around the house holding onto her feet, calling for her and pretending he couldn’t find her anywhere.  We could hear the giggles from one end of the parsonage to the other.

We couldn’t find any candles, but they all sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and I opened bars of vegan chocolate and gift cards for Starbucks and iTunes.  My best present was the one wrapped in lavender tissue paper that my grandniece eagerly tore apart for me.  It was a framed photo of her first drawing, one that will proudly grace my cubicle at least until she is old enough to find it thoroughly embarrassing.  We talked about maybe home schooling her, and with all of us assisting, did we think we could actually pull it off?  Yes!

I don’t actually try the cake until the guests have left and I have made myself a cup of hot tea with almond milk.  The cake tastes as incredible as it looks, and I text my niece that I would gladly pay to have her bake this any time at all.  “I hope I get to eat this every day in heaven,” I blurt out to my wife.  “You don’t even believe in heaven,” she replies, and I grin stupidly.  It is such a blessing to be so loved by family, to drown in it, to blow its bubbles out your nose and mouth and bathe in its pure wonderfulness.

My parents couldn’t make it because they don’t like to stay overnight, and it would be a long ride home in the thick Central Valley nighttime fog that is a hallmark of our California winters.  We will head south to visit them at their home next weekend.  My Bay Area nephew wishes me happy birthday via email, writes me all about his new job at a Silicon Valley startup and we begin conspiring about what we will do for Grandma’s 81st birthday next month.

But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

College Fund

My parents tried to teach my sisters and me the virtues of saving money while we were still quite young.  They would stuff bills and coins into a cookie jar on the shelf in the kitchen, or into an empty Maxwell House coffee can.  They started savings accounts for us when we were born, and as soon as we were old enough, they’d drive us over to the fortress that was the Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to deposit our birthday money.  They took us to see Mary Poppins at the Loew’s Paradise and would sing us the song about “when you put tuppence in a bank account,” over and over again.

And what were we saving money for?

College.

Even if we didn’t yet understand what college was, we understood the importance of going there.  After all, that’s what my parents were always doing.  Apparently it meant being away a lot, and when you’re home, being busy and having to be quiet so they could “concentrate.”  My father would be tip-tapping away at his master’s thesis on his manual Smith-Corona in the alcove behind the front door of our apartment.  He’d be taking classes during the day and driving a taxi at night.  Later on, after we moved to the suburbs, my parents were working as teachers and going to college one night a week and during the summer.

I learned that, to get anywhere in life, you had to have a college degree, and preferably several.  Eventually, my mother collected four.  I went on to earn two degrees myself, and I dearly hope to be able to work toward a third before too long.

Not only did college involve a lot of work — going to classes, studying, writing papers — but it also involved a lot of money.  And the only way to get enough money was to save your pennies, and to start early.

So when we learned that our 15 year old niece was pregnant, after the shock wore off one of the first things that I said was “she’s going to college!”  I informed my wife that we needed to start a college fund for her immediately.  She agreed, and we did.  We couldn’t add much to it during the year that I was unemployed, but even then we did our best to throw a few bucks into the fund whenever we could.

A couple of years have gone by, and now my niece is in her second year of college, setting a great example for her little one.  I am very proud of her efforts, which are made possible due to scholarships.  Her parents did not attend college; there was no planning for higher education while she was growing up.  She had no role models to show her the effects of college firsthand, nor did she have anyone to help her save money for college.

My goal is to make sure that things will be different for her daughter.  It is my hope that, by the time she graduates from high school, we will be able to pay for her college education.  She won’t have to work part-time while she is a student, nor will she be saddled with enormous student loans that continue to accrue interest for decades, with little hopes of ever getting out of debt.  One of the reasons we can do this, of course, is that we don’t have any children of our own to provide for.

Despite my good intentions, it recently came to my attention that I have gone woefully astray.  Establishing a college fund for my grandniece was a visceral reaction to her impending birth, something that came from my heart, not my head.  As it turns out, when I started this project two years ago, I set something in motion that has the potential to spiral out of control.  I knew not what I had wrought.

What never occurred to me was that my wife has other nieces and nephews in their twenties and thirties, and that they too will start having babies and might expect us to afford their offspring the same beneficence provided to our very first grandniece.  Uh-oh.

Well, it finally happened.  One of the nephews and his girlfriend recently celebrated the arrival of their first bundle of joy.  Initially, I thought nothing of it.  I am not at all close to this nephew; perhaps I see him once or twice per year, and he makes no effort to keep in touch with me.  But sure enough, I stuck my foot in my mouth by mentioning something about our first grandniece’s college fund in his presence, and now we have to establish similar savings for the second grandniece.

So what will happen if my wife’s other nieces and nephews start having children?  I suppose we will have to establish college funds for all of them as well.  With our limited ability to save, we may be doling out little bits to college funds for five or six (or more!) children.  A penny for you, a penny for you, a penny for you, and a penny for you.  I can’t imagine that any of these funds will add up to a hill of beans by the time the grandnieces and grandnephews are ready for college.

And this does not even begin to take into account the progeny of my sister-in-law’s blended family.  She has long since divorced her second husband, but we still keep in touch with his eight children and continue to act as their aunt and uncle.

What this shows, of course, is that I am a Class A Idiot.  I don’t think things through, talk about stuff that gets me in trouble, and have no hope of reaching any of my well-intentioned goals.

So, please, all you nieces and nephews, listen up!  Do not, I repeat, do not have any more children for a few years.  We want all of them to be able to attend college and, at this rate, I may never be able to retire.

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Popcorn and Hot Chocolate

Two of the kids whom I do not see very often came over the other night.  My niece is a junior in high school and my nephew is in middle school.  It was good to see them, but a certain sadness came over me just the same.

These two are the youngest children of my sister-in-law’s second husband (they divorced several years ago).  Most of his brood of eight (who joined my sister-in-law’s three kids from her first marriage) are now adults and scattered among several different states.  My wife tries to keep up with them on Facebook and we see them now and then.

I am sorry to report that my sister-in-law’s ex recently saw fit to divest himself of responsibility for his last two kids still at home by essentially dumping them on one of their sisters (and her husband).  It’s nice that the kids are now just 40 miles away instead of out of state.  But I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be pawned off by one’s dad in such a manner.

When I first met my niece, she was two years old.  While visiting at her house, I heard a squeak from down the hall that sounded like “Hep! Hep!”  One of the other kids had played a mean trick on her by placing her on top of the clothes dryer.  That little bit of a thing was stuck up there like a china doll with no way to climb down.

It had to be tough growing up with so many brothers and sisters.  My niece was known as a biter.  I suppose she had to have some way to defend herself in her rough and tumble world.  Her weapon of choice was her teeth.

My nephew, who has developmental disabilities, had just turned one when I met him, and was still in diapers.  With so many siblings in that blended household, we made a lot of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Yours, Mine and Ours” jokes (anyone still remember that movie?).  We had to save up all year long to have enough Christmas presents to go around.

My nephew had a very special bond with his great-grandmother (who has since passed on), but he loves his Nana (Pastor Mom) dearly and retains fond memories of being spoiled rotten by her when he was little.  When he was visiting the other night, he requested popcorn and hot chocolate, so it would feel just like the old days.  When I arrived home from work, the house stank of microwave popcorn and he and his sister were stretched out on the living room floor, enjoying their snack in front of the TV.

While I was in the kitchen making myself a sandwich, my niece wandered in and asked me how my new job is going.  It’s hard to believe that the tiny girl stuck up there on the dryer is nearly all grown up now.  When she was maybe nine or ten, and I was still a pescatarian, she called me out by demanding to know why I ate fish if I was a vegetarian.  This bothered me for years until, realizing that she was right, I changed my ways.  (Eventually, I went all the way and became vegan.)  Funny how kids tell it like it is.

In the kitchen, my niece discussed college plans, career options and the differences between living in Las Vegas and Sacramento.  I beamed when she explained that she is active in Student Council.  She expressed disappointment that she hadn’t yet figured out what to do with her life and I assured her that a lot people my age still haven’t found an answer to that quintessential dilemma.  I encouraged her to study a broad range of disciplines and to avoid committing to any one of them until necessary.  This is your opportunity to learn and grow, to become a well-rounded person, I told her.

It is gratifying to see that despite having survived a drug addict birth mother and a father with many problems, despite having been tossed from pillar to post all her young life, my niece seems to have turned out just fine.  I’m very proud of her.

And I’ll try not to remind her about the biting thing.

Although I might say something about how she used to remember how to spell “banana” by blurting out the lyrics to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

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On Student Loans and Dreams Deferred

Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education.  I am no exception.

The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap.  I was this close when I blew it.

You could say that I had it made.  My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.

As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts.  From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it.  We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans.  Not college dreams, mind you.  College plans.  We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces.  For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.

In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation.  From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it.  My parents were always going to school.  At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment.  When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class.  Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.

Then there were the summer classes.  By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration.  All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college.  My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class.  We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines.  I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned.  I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book.  No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us.  “There go the Smith kids.”

One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week.  My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book.  Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.

I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her.  Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system.  We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

College was in my blood.

All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!)  As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.

After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time.  Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into.  Sounds like a dream, right?

For a while, it was.  I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England.  There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car.  My mother paid for all of it.

When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart.  A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.

Here’s how it all went down:  Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York.  She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends.  By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there.  (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.)  She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business.  Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!

There were just a couple of small problems.  For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother.  And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.

Well, you can figure out how this ended up.  I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support.  But I still had one year of school left before graduation.  What to do?

The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on.  This, however, proved to be problematic.  Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me.  I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found.  I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself.  I had no luck whatsoever.  The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent.  And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school.  All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.

In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it.  But I’ve never operated that way.  I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.

There were other factors involved as well.  I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work.  I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree.  Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all.  It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever.  If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.

In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans.  In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway.  Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.

I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life.  My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.

Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation.  If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate.  After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.

One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor.  The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred.  Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower.  As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt.  It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.

Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.

But I have learned one thing in the process.  Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on.  Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years.  My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards.  With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy.  I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain.  They will never go away.

It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.”  One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans.  I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended.  And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.

After all, student loans eventually go away when you die.  And you only live once.

Friends of Yesteryear

Yesterday’s post about the value of a liberal arts education in a STEM world sent me tripping merrily down Memory Lane to my college days in upstate New York.  This set me to wondering what happened to the colorful cast of characters with whom I hung around back then.

Most of my partners in crime worked on the college newspaper with me.  We were a tight little club, or so I thought.  We did a lot of things together, but studying definitely was not one of them.  In fact, more than a few of us did as little studying as possible.  I’m not sure about the others, but I have no idea how I managed to graduate at all, much less on time.

Once we escaped, it wasn’t that easy to keep up with my widely scattered cohorts.  After all, we didn’t have the internet back then.  I did manage to gather some of the crowd for one last hurrah about a year after graduation.  On July 20, 1981, we had a big bash at my parents’ house, with college friends driving in from all over the tri-state area.  It seemed that anyone who I called or wrote to knew the whereabouts of someone else and thus the word got around.

After that, many of us did the usual things involving marriages, kids and careers, and I lost track of just about everyone.  Back when I was on Facebook, I’d occasionally see one or two.  One who I knew only slightly turned up at a Scrabble tournament that I attended several years ago.  Other than that, it’s pretty much a great big blank.

So I decided to do an online search to see if I could discover anything about where they are today.  Well, my first surprise was how easy it was to find them.  Many of them showed up in about two seconds because they have their own websites.  The following is a summary of my findings:

  • The one who lived in my hometown has her own business as an educational consultant.  After college, she joined the Peace Corps and spent time in Africa.  In her absence, I visited her mother on numerous occasions, particularly after her son (my friend’s brother) died of a drug overdose.
  • Two of them run their own companies, specializing in marketing businesses on the web and doing graphic design on websites.

  • At least one succeeded in our dream of being journalists; he is a bureau chief for a major newspaper.

  • One is a counselor in the mental health field.

  • One became a lawyer and now works as an assistant district attorney.

  • A couple of them who have their own companies hired several others of my acquaintance to work for/with them.

  • There were a few whom I was unable to immediately find, either because their names are common or because the sands of time have erased their names from my aging mind.

But the result of my research that shocked me most of all is that our work as budding journalists so long ago has not disappeared.  Thanks to the advantages of modern technology and the efforts of the university library, just about every issue of our twice weekly college newspaper has been scanned and is available to the public online.  And here I thought the fruits of our all-night labors so long ago had been lost to the ages.

I may not know what happened to all of my college buddies, but I do know that our nascent journalistic endeavors of nearly forty years ago live on.

 

Code is Poetry: Why a Liberal Arts Education is Still Relevant

I keep reading that a liberal arts education is a colossal waste of time and money, that all it’ll get you is unemployed.  This line of thinking holds that what the world of the 21st century needs is computer programmers and health care professionals.  STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is where it’s at, baby!  Shakespeare is out.  Coding is in!

Colleges and universities have been placed in the prickly position of defending their humanities and social sciences programs against the battering rams of the STEM people.  Don’t say you can’t do anything practical with sociology, literature or philosophy (they tell us).  In today’s market, every job requires excellent critical thinking and communication skills.  Why, you can do anything with these backgrounds!  As in the classical Greek tradition, a broad education steeps students in history and ideas, providing them with a frame of reference for taking on any challenge of modern society.  After all, our statesmen, lawyers, teachers and, yes, artists, have to start somewhere.

I’ve been laughing at a humorous-yet-serious video posted by the English Department of our local college, California State University Chico.  My favorite line is about halfway through the video, where an English student composes a tweet to #imgonnaliveinabox.  Wow, members of the younger generation are afraid that a liberal arts education will doom them to a lifetime of poverty!

Prestigious Stanford University, located in California’s Silicon Valley (and therefore about 150 miles from my home), is known for its computer science and technology programs.  Students come from all over the world to study to become engineers.  And yet, most of Stanford’s professors don’t teach science, math or engineering.  The New York Times reports that 45% of Stanford’s faculty is in the humanities, but only 15% of its students are.

While it must be wonderful for Stanford’s political science or comparative literature students to receive individual attention in small classes, many other colleges are financially unable to keep sparsely-attended liberal arts programs going.  So departments of Romance languages, music and art history fall by the wayside.

Some say good riddance to useless studies (what employer wants to hire an anthropology major?) while others bewail the loss of intellectualism in favor of job preparation.

I think about my own college experience, well over a quarter century ago.  As a freshman, my heart’s desire was to major in theater arts.  Following some wonderful high school experiences both as a thespian and as a student of several teachers who knew how to bring drama alive, I was willing to paint scenery, gather props or do whatever was needed just to soak in the atmosphere of the seniors who surely were headed for Broadway and Hollywood.  Let’s just say that my parents vetoed this misguided notion right off the bat.  They wanted me to major in political science in preparation for law school.  That was all well and good except for one little thing:  I had no desire to attend law school.  But since my parents were paying for my education, political science it was.

At the start of my sophomore year, I transferred to a larger state university, where I learned that it was possible to major in two disciplines rather than just one.  Although I had given up the theater dream, I quickly signed up to double major in English along with political science.  One for my parents, the other for me.

I hadn’t really strayed too far from theater arts; all I had done was move from one liberal arts major to others.

But what I never, ever considered was majoring in a STEM area.  I am grateful that my parents didn’t insist that I study science or math so that I could land a job upon graduation.  They knew that would have been a disaster.  And they never suggested that my choice of college major could affect my ability to support myself.  Why would they have?  Mom may have been a biology major, but Dad was an English major. Both of them earned advanced degrees, went into teaching and eventually became administrators.

Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the STEM disciplines.  Even those so inclined may have a tough time making it through introductory science courses if they attended high school in low income areas where science education may have been sparse.  I took one math class in my freshman year, failed, and graduated without taking another math or science class again.  In the Chico video cited above, one student says “math sucks.”  While I was a bit startled to hear that in this day and age, the sentiment is not far off from my own undergraduate attitude.

Then again, I hit college in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the tail end of the three Ps:  Petitions, protests and pot.  I wisely stayed away from all of those things.  This was partly out of fear, particularly since I knew that my college had nearly been torn apart during the Vietnam War, and particularly after Kent State.  But the shadow of the early ‘70s still hung over the campus like a pall of pot smoke in mid-decade.  Science and math just didn’t seem all that important.

The start-ups of Silicon Valley were just beginning to heat up during my college days, but this didn’t seem a blip on our radar on the east coast.  The hot major was business administration.  Accounting, marketing and economics textbooks were everywhere.  Arbitrage, anyone?  Wall Street, here we come! Everybody say moooooney!

I had nothing but disdain for that stuff.  It was like another world that had nothing to do with me whatsoever.  In my junior year, my sister joined me at the same institution of higher learning.  She was a STEM gal who breezed through calculus but had a hell of a time getting through freshman English.  She started out majoring in physics, then changed to biology.  Yep, my parents again.  Med school.

But my sister did not attend medical school.  And when I graduated, rather than attend law school I proceeded to spend six years working in a field in which none of my coworkers had more than a high school diploma.  Some took a few classes at the local community college, but most quit before long.

However, it was the early eighties and I saw where things were going.  Slowly but surely, manual processes were being computerized.  When I started my first job out of college, the clerks still used typewriters.  I hadn’t yet heard of Microsoft.  IBM and DEC computers were all the rage in the business world.  No one had a computer at home.  What on earth would you do with it?  And Apple?  That was a little toy computer that the kids used over at the high school.  But Hewlett-Packard peripherals began appearing in our office and I began hearing whispered stories of incredible things going on in places like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San José.

I saw that political science and English weren’t going to do it for me.  I needed a do-over.  I began taking night classes in computer science and business.  And yes, I retook that math class I had failed back in freshman year, and this time I earned an A.  Another thing that happened is my discovery that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  I was the one in our office who figured out how to use this stuff called “software” that the company kept purchasing.

Once my sisters married computer engineers and migrated out to Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how badly I had blundered in my education.  Or had I?  Maybe I didn’t know anything about math or science. But at night, I discovered that I could learn to write code.  And during the day, I was the one who wrote the documentation and the reports, the one who could proofread the technical manuscripts we kept receiving in French and Spanish.  I was the one who taught the grammar class.  I became a manager.  And eventually, I even went to law school after all.

I began to understand that STEM and liberal arts are not diametrically opposed, but in fact go hand in hand.  A well-rounded education requires significant exposure to both.  Engineering students go into management and end up giving speeches and writing white papers.  Liberal arts students end up as technical writers at software companies.  Every field needs readers and writers.  So yes, if liberal arts majors are to understand the way phenomena such as text messaging and the internet affect society, they do need to know a little about algorithms and graphical user interfaces.  By the same token, engineers need to know how to construct a proper sentence in the English language, and how to string together a series of such sentences into coherent paragraphs.

I’ll always be in awe of those who have a deep appreciation of things like Linux shell scripting.  But that doesn’t mean that a little bit of Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot ever hurt anyone.  After all, how will the computer and biomedical people create our future if they know nothing of our past?

Or, as the magicians at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) like to say, “code is poetry.”

 

Recommended

Gopnik, Adam, “Why Teach English?” The New Yorker, August 27, 2013.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html

Hamman, Kira, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Conversation, April 12, 2013).  http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/04/12/why-stem-should-care-about-the-humanities/