Get a job, slob

50 statistics about the US economy present quite the picture when viewed in combination.

Some might say that the bad situation is limited to Michigan, or that it’s a recent development, but this Washington Post article shows that there was actually very little job growth at all in the past decade.

What I don’t understand is that so many people still say that if people need help, they should “just get a job.” There is a relatively recent trend to defend the corporations no matter what they do, even as they take away all the jobs. Employers have no loyalty to their employees anymore, the gap between rich and poor is wider than at any point since the Great Depression, and yet people still defend the rights of the employers and the rich above those of the workers. Somehow it feels like everyone has been swindled into participating in and defending the forces that are making it harder to succeed.

If people don’t even agree that there’s a problem, how can the problem be fixed?

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Escaping into technology


I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the role of technology in our lives and my dependence on it in particular, and now the New York Times has published a piece about people who are addicted to technology.

I think I’ve written before that I’ve been online every day since 1995, and it would be fair to call me an internet addict, although according to the Net Addiction quiz my habit is only moderate, I’m guessing because I don’t choose to be online when I have the opportunity to go out and do something or spend time talking to my husband or friends. For me I would say it’s probably more like a very big hobby, similar to that of a person whose hobby is watching and playing sports. It takes up a lot of my day and gives me a lot of enjoyment, but I don’t get twitchy when I can’t have it.

It got much worse when I got a BlackBerry and I could check the internet from everywhere. I know that I will need to get rid of my BlackBerry this fall when I can change phones without it impacting my cell phone contract and as much as I dread losing the instant internet access, I believe it will ultimately give my life a little more balance.

For me, a lot of it is that I am intensely, constantly curious about everything, and the internet allows me to satisfy that curiosity. (When I was a kid, my mom used to say that I never wanted to go to bed because I was afraid I would miss something, which was pretty accurate and still affects me today.) I do not think this is a bad thing because I am always learning.

But there are troubling signs about my internet use as well. As is true with most aspects of parenting, you often notice your bad habits and traits the most when you see them replicated in your child. We got my 12 year old son a laptop for Christmas and saw a sharp decline in his grades within weeks, which meant we had to place more restrictions on his computer usage. My younger children love their Nintendo DS game systems and can rarely take a car trip without them. We don’t watch TV but we are all engrossed in electronics for a good part of the day. We are far less disconnected from one another than the family described in the NYT article, but I can see that it impacts us nonetheless.

The other disconcerting thing about our dependence on electronics is that we are unintentionally participating in an ongoing anthropological and sociological experiment. If a researcher from the 1800s were to jump into a time machine and watch us now, what would they think of the way we all escape into electronic worlds (whether in the form of TV shows or internet)? They didn’t have as many escapes available, but I wonder if they would they have used them too if they had. Or is that we have more from which to escape now? My pet subject that I constantly research (online and in print books) is about the decline of our civilization, and I have files upon files of news stories and facts about how much worse our economy, jobs and society have gotten in the past 20 years. Are those unpleasant truths about life in the present day the reason we need to escape, even if many people probably don’t realize they’re escaping from anything?

Most interesting to me is the thought of how this will affect us in the future. Already I can barely remember my life when there was no such thing as the internet, even though I lived that way for the first 21 years of my life. What impact will it have for the people like my children who have never known a world without it?

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The Penguin and the Clam

This was too awesome not to share. I am reposting it with the permission of the author, who happens to be my 9-year-old son Adam. I think the social justice teachings in our house are sinking in, what do you think?

The Penguin and the Clam
One day in a coral reef by the island country of Japalania, the absolute richest was Penguin. He had $500,000. One day two poor animals, Goldfish and Clam, were in town. Penguin came up to them and said: “If you can beat me in a race you get all my money but if you lose, you lose all your money.”
“Ok,” they said.
They planned the map. Cleverly Clam made the route by a school of fish. On race day, it started bad for Goldfish and Clam, but when the school of fish came by, Penguin feasted.
By the time he was done, Goldfish and Clam crossed the finish line.
They donated all to charity.
Moral: Greed loses all your goods.

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Life under the magnifying glass

I’ve been blogging since late 2001, save for one brief foray at Diaryland in 1999 – I’m an old school internet nerd, baby! (Language disclaimer on the link if you read it, and also I don’t share all the same views anymore…) In the early days I wrote about my kids a lot, but I’ve since become wary of telling their stories in blog format. When they were small I could write about them and not feeling like I was violating their privacy: telling the world that my son was creating a time machine in the basement out of his Little Tykes shopping cart, an iced tea maker and some scavenged extension cords for the purpose of “vanquishing Cheney to the underworld” (yes, he really said that at age five!) is not the same as talking about those painfully awkward middle school years we all experienced.

Here’s the thing about blogging, which is also true about writing personal essays for publication (which many of my pro-writer friends do): you forget what you’re putting out there, but other people don’t. Even if you understand that people will be reading, when you write about your personal life, you are putting your life out there for judgment. And that judgment always comes as a surprise, because you’re expecting people to be focusing on your dazzling writing instead of the fact that you’re writing about a fight with your spouse over spending too much money on a purse. (What, you didn’t expect strangers to criticize your spending habits next time you complain about being broke?) I got my first reality check that the few hundred daily visitors to my blog back in its prime weren’t all my friends when I started getting anonymous nasty emails from someone who remembered my every decision over the past few years and chose to use them against me. Life is hard enough as it is without people dredging up your bone-headed mistakes and occasionally inconsistent viewpoints to use against you. Continuing to write about your life when you know the haters are out there is an act of courage.

In truth, there’s not much different about any of us, but we like to read about other people’s lives for entertainment. And just as we sometimes forget when we’re writing that our readers are not always kind and some are reading out of a spirit of schadenfreude, when we are the readers I think we sometimes lose the awareness that the lives we’re reading about are actually real as opposed to fictional characters in a book.

Part of why moms who blog are so widely read is because we don’t have real in-person communities of moms in our daily lives anymore and we’re looking for some kind of reassurance that our experiences are normal. And most mom bloggers taper off as the kids get older as mine have because the issues become more sensitive (not to mention, our older kids are often now online and capable of finding what we write about them.) But there’s also the element of nastiness that comes with blogging, which has definitely increased in the past ten years, and it’s understandable that many of us want to protect our kids from being on the receiving end of it. It’s one thing when I’m the one being criticized, but criticize my kid and the claws come out.

I’ve been deeply involved with online mothering communities since I was pregnant with my first child in 1997, and it’s been a bigger part of my life than people who don’t have similar connections can understand. Though I’ve only met a small proportion of these women face to face, we’ve seen each other through infant loss, marital infidelities, transitions from staying home to working, etc. and we often know each other more intimately than we know many of our face-to-face friends. The mom blogging world is very closely linked to the online parenting communities. We have created these connections online as an adaptation to the fact that it’s so much harder to connect with people in our real communities now. But we stop talking about our kids right at the age when we feel the most helpless about what to do with our kids and the worries get scarier than potty training. At a time when we most need the voices talking about their parenting experiences, there’s a silence instead.

When the online discourse is so nasty, though, and to write about your family life opens you up to pain, it’s no wonder that nobody wants to do it. I don’t. It’s hard to open up about your choices when you’re less sure of them, and few people are strong enough to be told by a dozen strangers exactly what they’re doing wrong with raising their kids. As much as I think secrets can be toxic and we should all be talking more about our experiences, there’s also a place where you need to draw the line. Ultimately when we write about our lives, no matter how much someone needs to read other experiences to feel less alone, it’s too big a risk; we’re too much like ants under that magnifying glass. And you know what happens to the ants.

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This time, I’m the bad influence

I have sometimes been the uptight parent who didn’t want her kid to eat the food at a friend’s house or, more seriously, to play violent adult-rated video games like “Call of Duty 4”. I have never been so restrictive that I would make a big deal out of it, but I have nonetheless sometimes thought of other parents as “bad” parents for allowing their 10-year-olds to play “Halo” or watch rated-R movies and tried to casually steer my kids in other directions.

The shoe was on the other foot recently and I was that parent receiving the disapproval of another parent. My son’s friend came over and he was surprised by our most risque video game, Shadow the Hedgehog, which I gathered he wasn’t allowed to play at home. This game is considered more mature, not because your character is hacking off the heads of other characters with blood spurting everywhere (as in God of War) but because Shadow says “hell” and “damn.” To further display the wild unchained hedonism in our house, my son and his friend were allowed to drink copious amounts of Mountain Dew Voltage and whack each other with sticks in the backyard in an epic battle they referred to as a sword fight.

Mind you, I was shocked when my 12-year-old told me one of his friend’s dads introduced the son to porn. I was shocked when I heard that it was commonplace for 9 year olds to seek out nude pictures on the internet in the library system where I work. But other people are shocked by Mountain Dew and a cartoon hedgehog saying “hell.” It’s all relative.

In the online world of moms practicing attachment parenting among whom I count myself, there was recently a story in which a high-profile figure admitted that her 18-year-old had a drug problem. This has caused ripples of discussion among the moms I know, some of whom had older children with drug problems as well, about what they would do differently now to prevent such addiction. They would crack down harder. Have a zero-tolerance policy. Insist on putting the kids in rehab immediately when the kid voluntarily tells the parent they’ve experimented with smoking pot. It all centers around a belief that “if only…” they had done the right thing, they could have prevented the problems.

I’m not so sure that’s how it works, though. Obviously any parent is terrified by the thought of their child becoming a drug addict and most conscientious parents actively try to prevent that. But part of parenting is coming to terms with the fact that your child is ultimately not within your control. I’ve known people whose parents flipped out upon discovering that their teen smoked pot and cracked down hard, and the kids ended up addicted to harder drugs anyway. After all, the kid had their own reasons for being drawn to the drugs that had little to do with the parents. Then there are people like me and my husband who experimented a little, mostly behind our parents’ backs, and we ended up fine. Neither of us has any substance abuse issues today. Something else must be at play to explain why so many people like us turned out okay but some people we know didn’t.

When my kids were smaller I thought I could absolutely control what happened to them. I didn’t allow them to eat blue food or McDonald’s hamburgers and I never left them in daycare because I didn’t trust anyone. But once they went to school they were exposed to a lot of things we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen and I have gradually eased up. I still deliberately avoid exposing them to those things but they have had them before.

I fully accept that they have a secret life when they’re away from me, as all kids do, and within reason I think this is a healthy thing. We haven’t gotten through the teen years yet, but so far I feel that I’ve given them a good foundation and hope that will be enough. They’re still well-attached to us and we get compliments pretty much everywhere we go about how well-behaved and intelligent they are. I’d like to take credit for that but in truth I don’t think it has that much to do with me. The only thing I can say that I feel I’m doing really well is talking to my kids about everything. I try to keep things age-appropriate but they know they can ask me anything…which they often do, as uncomfortable as that sometimes is.

I can still look at other parents and think well, I certainly wouldn’t do that and I’m silently judgmental more than I’d like, but the more time goes on, the more convinced I am that a lot of it is about trying to strike the right balance between giving them enough intervention but not too much. Beyond that I think a lot of it is out of our hands.

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What Compuserve and a milkman have in common

Once upon a time, in the dark ages of the internet, I got online using Compuserve to connect to my Usenet groups. By 1997, I’d branched out to a better ISP (Mindspring) and was very loyal to Netscape Navigator as my browser.

What is the most notable thing about the above paragraph? All those companies were once major players in the Internet industry and all are either completely or virtually gone today.

Like the Internet companies of the past, many individuals today are also finding themselves with years of experience or a college degree in a career field that for all intents and purposes no longer exists. As a writer, I am particularly affected by this, as we’ve watched newspapers all but disappear and magazines decline in response to declining advertising revenues. Globalization has meant that writing jobs can be posted on international boards like oDesk and because writers in Bangalore are willing to write 10 articles for $1 total, American writers have to fight harder over the remaining markets that pay a livable rate worthy of their professional skill.

My other career field is working in libraries, and that too is diminishing. Faced with the double whammy of dramatic budget cuts and the answer to most reference questions easily found on the internet from a home computer, libraries have been seriously hurt and may not recover.

Other jobs that no longer exist in the same numbers they once had, if at all: TV repair person, travel agent, PBX switchboard operator. (Hey! I’ve had experience in THREE obsolete or dying fields – I was also a switchboard operator in the early 90s.) If we go even further back in the past there are even more jobs that are now obsolete: milk man, ice delivery, street sweeper, lamp lighter, etc. And similarly, many of the jobs today never existed 10 years ago, like social media manager, cell phone service and anything in nanotechnology.

Change is normal and society always adapts to whatever comes next. But the new path we are on makes me nervous. One reason for the disappearance of certain jobs is that technology has eliminated the need for them and a comparable number of new jobs is not replacing those lost. Manufacturing jobs are virtually all gone, shipped to other countries overseas where workers will toil for less money. Schools aren’t adequately preparing people for the types of jobs that are available, but even if they did, the population is growing faster than new jobs can be created. Most of the service jobs that are left don’t pay enough to live on, let alone support a family. And even many professional jobs like mine at the library, which would have been full-time even a decade ago, are now only part-time. I think workers will increasingly have to get creative to come up with enough money from multiple income streams, drastically reduce their standard of living and spending or both.

For at least the last 100 years, we have tended to define ourselves by the jobs we do. Now I have seen friends go to college for careers that offered gainful employment 10 years ago and they now find themselves the victims of layoffs as schools, social welfare agencies, and even bacnks decide they don’t need as many workers anymore. There is no such thing as a “recession-proof job” anymore; even fast food companies have outsourced the order-taking process. How will our sense of identity shift when we can no longer count on making a solid living in one career with one employer until retirement?

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Shallow and the City

That supposed celebration of all things female, Sex and the City, is going to return with a new movie in a couple of weeks. You may say I take things too seriously, but I resent any implication that these fictional women (jokingly described on Family Guy as “three hookers and their mom”) represent all of womankind, or even that they present any kind of positive role models to which we women should aspire.

I have a number of friends who like the show and have urged me to watch it, which I have tried on numerous occasions. I cannot find anything likable about the characters, all of whom seem to be shallow and selfish. The show promotes promiscuity and bitchiness as “empowerment,” but to me it’s still just promiscuity and bitchiness. Nobody could live up to the impossibly high standards these women set for the men they date, and most real women could not spend the kind of money that they do.

I can sum up most of what I think is wrong with the show with the following: in one episode, Carrie realizes that she cannot pay for a downpayment on a house because she has spent a total of over $40,000 dollars on shoes. I admit, I lack the “shoe gene” that supposedly makes all women drawn to having hundreds of pairs of cute shoes, but even despite that, the idea of spending so much money on shoes that a woman is unable to buy a house is anti-feminist, shallow and ignorant. How any woman could view Carrie as a positive model in light of that kind of spending addiction is beyond me, and it makes me sad.

These ugly shoes cost more than the computer on which I'm typing this.

If women really want to be able to take care of themselves, spending that kind of money on fashion makes them ultimately less able to do so. I once read a theory that the fashion industry was created to keep women in their place by spending money on ultimately unnecessary and simple-minded pursuits instead of using that money to create security for themselves and their children. That’s not to say that we can’t enjoy taking care of our appearance and trying to look cute, but if our minds are preoccupied by something so trivial, it’s no wonder that women aren’t taken seriously.

Ultimately the women of Sex and the City are looking for their perfect relationships, but in the absence of it they console themselves with one-night-stands, lots of high-dollar shopping and their friendships with one another – never realizing that the one night stands and shopping might be the reason for their inability to find a good relationship. All the shoes may be cute, but having a lot of them doesn’t make for better relationships with men or give us more financial security. As my husband said, it’s no wonder the women on SATC are single: real-life men wouldn’t want to marry women who spent money like that because they’d be afraid of ending up in the poorhouse.

Some women may believe they’re celebrating their femininity by going to see this movie. I will opt out and hope that a more positive portrayal of intelligent womanhood will someday be seen on the big screen instead.

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