For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

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Pie-in-the-Sky Proposals for College

Today, the buzz among the education folks that I follow on twitter is Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for student debt forgiveness. From the Daily Beast:

According to a Medium post detailing the policy, the debt cancellation would also apply for every person with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000, with the cancellation amount declining a dollar for every three dollars in income above $100,000, so that a person earning $130,000 would have $40,000 in cancellation. It would not cancel debts for people earning more than $250,000.

The immediate reply was from Phillip Klein at the Washington Examiner, who said that this plan was a cash handout to millennials and wouldn’t help Gen Xers who have already paid off that burden. His article then led to more angry tweets.

Whenever I interview a college student or a recent grad, the number one thing that always comes up is the cost of college and the noose of student loan debt. It is the rare family that has enough saved to choose the college of the choice for their kids without the concern about price.

I’ve talked with recent grads with over $100K in student loans. I’ve talked with others who worked three jobs to pay for school. I know people who will never, ever own a home, because they took out too many loans in grad school for a PhD program.

I talked with a student a few weeks ago (for an article that hasn’t been published yet), who had no clue that her family couldn’t afford a four-year college until she got her acceptance letter. Nobody is really sure how much money they’ll receive from a college until that final letter arrives.

This young woman’s family couldn’t contribute anything towards her college education, while colleges expected that she could find $50K per year. She could get about $7K in federal loans, but the rest would come from horrible private loans. But since her parents wouldn’t co-sign for the private loans, the point was moot. She went to a community college for two years before transferring to a local four-year school.

But she was exceptional kid. Most students like her wouldn’t have made it.

Making college affordable must be a big part of any 2020 Democratic platform. Student loan reforms are only one part of the problem and do nothing to stop that process that creates them. There has to be more money for lower-middle class families, easier transfer process between community colleges and four year schools, more social supports on the college campus, more inclusion for people with different learning styles, better pay for the majority of professors who don’t have tenure jobs, and great support for various career goals.

Workaholics

It’s Sunday.

I’ve already edited Essay #1 and gone to church. The Broadway play that I saw last week has me thinking about an essay that I want to write about journalism. Do here or do it elsewhere? Mmmmm. Thinking, thinking. I have to plan the chore chart for the week, but still must print out the weekly after school calendar for the fridge. Essay #2 is done and needs to shopped around to editors. I checked in on my mom who has a sinus infection. Ian needs to be walked around outside and needs his Kumon worksheets checked. Must call Jonah to see if he’s working or hungover. Weekend cleaning has to happen. I have a name of a housecleaner, but haven’t had enough time to interview and hire someone, so our bathrooms are seriously toxic.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s just life. Much of it shouldn’t really be categorized as work, like the kid and parent and house stuff. Even the writing stuff isn’t like a traditional job, because I love it and I’m not getting paid much.  I could quit and get a proper job that has regular on and off times and pays proper money, but I keep going because this lifestyle is working for me and my family at the moment.

I think about writing and ideas all day, every day. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about I could fix the eighth paragraph in a project.  If the document is on google docs, sometimes I will do the edits in the middle of the night on the iPad that is always on my night table. Once, when I logged into make edits during one of my bouts with insomnia and compulsive editing, I found my editor there looking at my document. Together, we edited an article at 2am. I was in bed the whole time.

Of course, I’m not working every single moment. Being a freelancer means that I can go to the gym for an hour and half whenever I like. I can take breaks from writing to play really dumb video games. I’m also doing laundry, driving Ian places, food shopping, making dinner, cleaning up after breakfast. Some days, I get so overwhelmed that I have to just read a romance novel for an afternoon. All that is work, but it’s not a job-work.

And then there’s social media. Pushing articles through twitter is just a part of the job of being a writer these days.

Ann Helen Peterson had a viral article in BuzzFeed a couple of weeks ago about how millennials became the burnout generation. Her article spawned a whole slew of copycat articles and more think pieces. Here’s one in the NYT.

Peterson writes,

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Read the whole article. It’s a fun read.

But I don’t think this is just a millennial thing. I don’t even think it’s a modern writer thing.  Overworking is a way of life in certain industries in certain parts of the country.

My husband is in the investment banking industry, and he’s probably border line burnt out. With his 90 minute commute, he’s gone from the house for about 12 hours a day. He’s dealing with work e-mails on the weekend. It’s always on his mind. My brother the journalist, my brother in law the architect, my sister in law the teacher, my cousin the lawyer — everyone is working much crazier hours than their parents and everyone is tired. Those with kids are putting in much longer hours parenting than their parents ever did.

Now, some of this is by choice. There are certainly jobs that pay very well that have much more normal hours. I could get a job as a medical technician with a two year college degree and make a bazillion times more than I do now.  College administrators never look like they’re plagued with editing insomnia. We choose the burnout jobs for a variety of reason — prestige, excitement, big money, whatever.

The problem is when there are no alternatives. If people choose a crazy way of life, then that’s fine. But if crazy jobs are the only meal on the menu, then that’s not cool. Not everybody can take my hypothetical sane jobs in college administration or in a hospital. Are there enough options out there for people who want a steady salary with regular hours? I’m not sure.

The real problem with workaholism isn’t just that we’re too tired to do the more mundane chores on our lists. Rather, it’s that we don’t have enough time to live. We don’t have enough time to spend with our loved ones and make huge meals and to hike around a forest crunching ice, because breaking ice is super fun (that’s what Steve and Ian are doing right now). We don’ t have time to experiment with genealogy websites like I did yesterday and found that I’m related to half of Iowa and Bari, Italy. We don’t have the brain space to make new friends at the gym or read silly books. We live in our heads too much and not enough with our bodies.

So, on that note, I’m walking away from the computer for a couple of hours.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Divorced

In the 80s, there was a show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Hosted by the toad-like Robin Leach, viewers got an inside look at movie stars and athletes. The rich people showed off their mansions and fancy cars, portraying lives filled with ease and buttery leather seat covers. He often ended the show dancing a yacht with a glass of bubbly and wishing viewers “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Today, we don’t need televisions shows to get a glimpse at extreme wealth. The rich post pictures of themselves on private jets and in Paris apartments on Instagram. And we have divorce proceedings to give us exact figures about how much money it takes to maintain those their frizz-free hair and to mind their children.

We’ll soon have the download on the Bezos who are getting divorced. And there are similarly rich couples, like Mugrabi’s, who aren’t necessarily household names, but are making headlines for their divorce proceedings.

$800 bottles of wine, multiple homes filled with Warhols and Koons’s, vacations to St. Bart’s was just an average day in the Mugrabi’s home.

Ms. Mugrabi’s expensive tastes have emerged as a central issue in the divorce. She scoffed at tabloid reports that she is scraping by on $25,000 a month in support payments. The actual amount, she said, is $200,000 a month, though that is less than the $3 million a year that she was accustomed to spending, on things like flowers ($400 a week) and household staff ($450,000 a year).

She went to the salon daily to have her hair perfectly molded and upgraded her wardrobe weekly with the latest haute couture.

The tricky part about this divorce is that much of the assets are on canvases and crafted with oil paints, so it’s hard to put a dollar amount on their actual wealth. Also, there is a question of how much she contributed to the wealth of their art business. And how much does a person, even a super rich person, need for basic maintenance.  All this is being hammered away in the courts right now.

Reading articles like this one in the New York Times, does not fill me with envy. The Mugrabi’s don’t seem to have the easy, happy lifestyle that Leach portrayed in the 1980s. I can’t imagine a worse hell than having to go to the hair salon every day to have my curly hair yanked straight. Managing a staff to keep multiple homes spotless and to mind entitled, neglected children sounds stressful. Surrounded by beautiful paintings that are simply assets, rather than objects of wonder, is shallow. And there’s apparently a danger of finding your husband passed out on top of a naked woman, after a blow-out party in one of your mansions. I have no interest in that world.

We currently have a president who was the king of the Stacy Leach world in the 1980s. Nobody wants a part of his gold covered world. His model wife looks unhappy and mean. Instead, people are rallying around a skinny girl representing a district in the Bronx, who knows how to use a pressure cooker and shops at TJ Maxx.

There’s two kinds of populism. There’s the kind that elected the rich guy, and there’s the kind that elected the poor girl. It will be interesting to see which one wins out.

Dreary January

January always sucks here in the Northeast. It’s grey and cold. We’ve all had the same virus for the past three weeks, trading germs back and forth. I need to give the entire house a Clorox bath to get rid of these lingering evil bugs. Faded Christmas trees lay sad and lonely waiting for pick up by the garbage truck.

A story that I did in December was just published. I posted it here. Happy to talk about it in the comment section. I’m working on something totally different right now. It’s an upbeat story about a school in the South Bronx for emotionally disturbed children. (Yes, it’s a happy story.) I’m also editing a document right now for a long term project. So, there’s a lot of work to do.

I was at that South Bronx school earlier this week and had a great time, except for the horrible drive through the Bronx. With streets full of pot holes, sudden turns, unmarked roads, and drivers who don’t obey normal traffic rules, I was having anxiety attacks as I navigated my way there. But I did it. Yay me.

Jonah’s home still, which is awesome. Sniffling like the rest of us, he’s been looking at the career development website for school and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after graduation. What a bucket of stress!

Other kids in town are using their winter break to do informational interviews with alumna from their schools at various companies around New York City. I’m just hearing about this from other parents. Neither Jonah nor myself got the memo that this is what kids do during winter break now, until it was too late. So, he’s surfing websites about careers, rather than sitting in an office with a suit. Sigh. Parent fail.

There is a RIDICULOUS level on stress on kids about jobs. Here’s an article in Vox describing it. And this stress isn’t totally crazy. Millennials are burning out in their jobs. College graduates aren’t finding work.

I’m moving my family to a bunker in Vermont where we’ll make artisanal goat cheese.

When College Isn’t Enough

college-campus-Harvard.jpgWith a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey’s flagship public college, 22-year-old Rachel Van Dyks expected to have a good job by now. A professional job with a proper salary and benefits would enable her to move out of her grandfather’s house, where she lives with her parents and her brother. Instead, the 2017 graduate works 46 hours per week at two jobs — scooping maple walnut ice cream at the local ice cream parlor and taking orders at a high-end steakhouse — while paying for an associate’s degree in cardiovascular sonography at a for-profit technical school.

Van Dyks is not alone, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. A majority of college graduates require additional education in order to qualify for a good-paying job, Carnevale said — though many might not find that out until after commencement exercises are over. While colleges are expanding their career development offices and providing students with opportunities for internships, few students take advantage of those resources. For those young graduates, the realities of the job market come as a surprise.

More here.

Ageism and Sins From the Past

Last month, I went to the dermatologist for the “Redhead Checkup.” Because redheads are so prone to skin cancer, we’re supposed to get a full body examination every year. All those years at Seaside Heights in the 1970s and 1980s, when I lay on the beach covered in baby oil trying to get a “base tan” are coming back to haunt me. One time, my sister’s friend from South Africa, Samantha, convinced me that the best way to tan was to cover myself in melted butter.

I used to get such bad sunburns that I would blister and get fevers. My mother would cover me in a paste made out of baking soda and Noxzema to relieve the heat. The tops of my ears and my feet would burn. The part in my hair. That sensitive spot behind the knees.

So, I go for my check-ups, and they’ve mostly been okay. After my teen years, I spent most of my time in a darkened library, so the damage wasn’t too bad, I think. My sister who liked to sunbathe, once got such a bad burn that she once had a two inch black spot in the middle of her back. It was probably a third degree burn. My dad, a fellow redhead, has had big chunks of the skin on his nose removed. My friend, Suze, another member of the redhead club, was a lifeguard in high school; she’s had a chunk of her forehead removed.

But last time, the doctor found a suspicious mark on that sensitive spot behind my left knee. So, I’ve got to get it removed at 9:00 am today.

Getting chunks of my skin removed is part of the indignity of getting older. There are others.

When I met up with writer-type friends at bars or restaurants this winter, the topic of conversation very quickly turned to plastic surgery. They’re all more highly placed than I am and feel under pressure to look good in front of a camera. Because writing isn’t just writing anymore. It’s also selling your word and your thoughts on cable television. I’ve been getting lots of advice on the benefits of fillers and botox.

Meeting up with my cousins at a brunch in New York City last month, my 40-year old cousin, who isn’t in the industry but lives in a Real Housewives of Florida sort of community, told me about all the work that she’s had done on her face. Her face is as smooth as a baby’s ass.

Many of my friends have kids who are nearly done with high school and are entering college, so they want to go back to work. Because we really can’t have it all at the same time, they did the mom-thing, and now they want to return to work.

Returning to work after years on the school drop off line is brutal. The worse-off ones are those whose prior work and education experience makes them overqualified for basic office or retail work. Also in trouble are those who used their free time to help out the schools and volunteer for parent groups, instead of working part-time. They have nothing to put on their resume. With part-time work, you can fudge your resume enough to make it look like you’ve been working full-time, and might even be able to scrounge together some references.

A former mom is death on the job search world.

And now we are looking at candidates for 2020. I have been sickened by the press’s reaction to the older women in power, like Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who was a darling in liberal circles for years, got a big “meh” from liberal pundits when she announced her candidacy. Sure, that Native American DNA video was dumb. But she has tons of experience and real knowledge about Wall Street and economics. She should be HOT, instead she’s a NOT.

Why? It’s because she has wrinkles, and her voice warbles. She’s old. And she’s a woman.

Old guys get a free pass. Biden and Sanders are old as dirt, but the public still loves them. Sanders’ fly-away white hair is just fine. Nobody suggest that he put poisons in his face to smooth out his wrinkles.

Ageism and sexism runs rampant throughout our society, and nobody gives a shit.

Meanwhile, I am growing older. I have to deal with humiliations like spots on the back of my leg and the inevitable questions that a 30-something interviewer is going to ask me about the gaps on my resume. “What exactly were you doing between 2008 and 2011?” I WAS TAKING CARE OF AN AUTISTIC KID AND TEACHING MYSELF HOW TO WRITE IN ORDER TO HAVE A SOME SORT OF A JOB WHEN I COULDN’T PUT MYSELF ON A NATION-WIDE JOB SEARCH FOR AN ACADEMIC JOB, OKAY? CAN I REPORT YOU TO HR FOR ASKING PERSONAL QUESTIONS? No, I won’t be able to say that.

Thirty years later, I’m paying for the sins of my youth.