Proud to Be an Authoritative Parent

Motherhood, like everything else, has its ups and downs.  There are days when my kids make me happier than I ever thought I could be, and there are days when I have to fight the temptation to just leave them at the first Safe Haven I can find.

But there is one downside to motherhood that caught me by surprise, and it’s probably the aspect of being a mother that I despise more than any other: having to deal with other mothers.

Mothers are the most judgmental, arrogant, and vicious people I’ve ever met (and that’s saying something when you remember I’m a former pastor!).  Not all of them are like that, but enough of them are that I’m dreading the day my kids start to make friends, and I’m going to have to start dealing with those friends’ mothers.

Most mothers (myself included) are convinced that their method of parenting is the best.  That’s obvious; why would anyone choose a parenting method they felt was substandard to another method they were aware of?  The trouble comes when they encounter a mother who shares that level of conviction, but subscribes to a different method than the first mother.  Rather than recognize that different people have different philosophies, mothers tend to view any difference in parenting approach as a judgement on their own method, and, by extension, on their own abilities as a mother.  Therefore anyone with a different approach must be exposed as a bad mother before she can expose you as one.

From what I’ve seen and read, the parenting philosophy most in vogue right now is “attachment parenting.”  I find not only the philosophy problematic, but the terminology as well.  Since I’m not an attachment parent, does that make me a detachment parent?  Someone who is actively trying to separate from my very small children, rather than enjoy a close relationship with them?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think attachment parenting is necessarily bad; I just don’t think it would work for my family, and I don’t believe that it’s the only way to raise “secure, joyful, empathic children.”  I don’t believe that not following the attachment parenting strategies will harm the connection and trust between me and my children, the way attachment parents claim it will.  Can attachment parenting work?  I’m sure it can, and I’m not going to condemn anyone for subscribing to that particular philosophy, especially since the social pressures to do so right now are huge.  But I don’t.

Especially with how I’ve observed it being used in practice.  Attachment parenting is very child-centered, but according to Attachment Parenting International’s website, it’s not ‘permissive’ parenting.  However, from what I’ve seen from other moms who appear to subscribe to the attachment parenting philosophy, they very much engage in permissive parenting, and it’s become just as much a social norm as attachment parenting.  (The fact that Attachment Parenting International felt the need to draw the distinction on their website indicates to me how much the two have become conflated.)

Generally speaking, there are three primary parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative.  Permissive parents show lots of love and affection, accept their children as they are, and make very few demands on them.  Children of permissive parents are often spoiled with little or no self control, expect to be spoon-fed physically and emotionally throughout their lives, and are less likely to grow into independent, socially successful adults.  Authoritarian parents set rules and standards without any flexibility, emphasize obedience, rarely (if ever) show warmth or affection, and feel it’s important to exert power over their children.  Children of authoritarian parents usually either rebel and escape their homes at a relatively early age (whether they’re ready or not), or else remain dependent on their parents throughout their adulthood.  Authoritative parents set rules and guidelines that they expect their children to follow, but can be flexible when such flexibility is appropriate.  They exercise control over their children without being controlling, and often show love and affection to their children without fear that such expressions will diminish their ability to discipline.  Children of authoritative parents usually grow up to be independent, socially successful, and respectful of authority.

I strive to be an authoritative parent.

Attachment parenting, when done exactly as Attachment Parenting International lays it out, is also authoritative.  However, as I mentioned before, I’ve usually seen adherents to the attachment parenting model unable to exercise appropriate discipline and/or set boundaries.  Because attachment parenting places such an emphasis on not doing anything to damage the trust and connection between child and parent, many parents fear doing exactly that if they tell a child ‘no’ and refuse to accept inappropriate behavior.  This makes permissive parenting the social norm and expected default.

And woe to anyone who deviates from the norm.

From the perspective of a permissive parent, someone who is using authoritative methods appears to be authoritarian or even abusive.  Authoritative parents set clear boundaries and high – but reachable – expectations for their children.  Violating those boundaries or not meeting those expectations has consequences.  Most of the time it’s pretty non-dramatic.  For example, my husband and I are very polite in our conversations with each other and with our children.  “Please” and “thank you” are regularly spoken by us.  My three and a half year old son (and my almost-two year old daughter, for that matter) has been hearing this his whole life.  When we ask him to do something we include the ‘please’ and follow it up with ‘thank you.’  He knows what’s expected.  When he wants something and he demands it (“Push me in!”), we ignore him.  Most of the time he’ll adjust his tone and his words on his own (“Excuse me, Mama?” “Yes?” “Will you push me in, please?”  “Of course.”)  If he doesn’t do this on his own, after ignoring a second demand or sitting too long in silence, we’ll prompt him (“How do you ask?”  “Please.”  “Please what?”  “Will you push me in, please?”  “That’s better.”)  It’s very simple, and it’s pretty non-confrontational.  If he wants something, he needs to ask politely, or he doesn’t get it.  We don’t expect as much from our daughter, who is just beginning to use one or two word sentences, but we’re still setting high but reachable expectations.  (“More!”  “How do you ask?”  “Please!”)  More often than not her initial request is “More please!”  We started this at different times with our kids, depending on where they were developmentally; we don’t expect more from them than they can do, but compared to so many children of the same age whose parents expect nothing from them, we seem harsh and demanding.

Often the expectations and consequences are negotiated between me and my son (my daughter needs to get a little more verbal before she can enjoy this experience).  If he puts all his toys away after lunch, I’ll read him his favorite story.  “But I want to go to the mall playground.”  “You would rather go to the mall playground than hear your favorite story?”  “Yes.”  “We can do that, but you have to eat your lunch quickly.  If you take too long, we won’t have time to go.  So if you eat your lunch quickly, and put all your toys away quickly, then we can go to the mall playground.”  “OK!”  He’s never not eaten and put his toys away quickly enough for me to not take him.

Such interactions require both of us to be calm and rational.  While very small children are more capable of this than many parents believe, they are also prone to temper tantrums, which is a clear violation of the established boundaries and expectations of this authoritative parent.  Simply put, I don’t negotiate with terrorists, especially pint-sized ones who call me ‘Mama.’  When my kids throw a temper tantrum, not only do they absolutely not get what they want, they are given to the count of five to shut down the tantrum or they go in time-out.  Both my son and my daughter do standing time-outs facing the corner (for different lengths of time, accounting for the differences in their ages and temperaments), and have been for quite a while.  Once the time-out is over, I tell them why they went in time-out, and how to avoid that in the future.  By this time they’re more calm and rational, and they understand that the punishment is over now, and they’re more willing to interact in an appropriate manner.  They still don’t get whatever it was they were demanding; that ship sailed once the temper tantrum started.  My son rarely has to do a time-out in public anymore, because he’s already learned from experience that Mama can find a time-out corner anywhere.  He’s also pretty philosophical about his time-outs.  Once he’s in there, the only way out is to be quiet, because he knows the clock doesn’t start ticking until the screaming and crying end.  My daughter is still learning both these truths, so I’m still faced with the miserable experience of giving her time-outs in public.

My daughter is almost two.  I realize that many parents don’t even try to discipline children this young, so the fact that I do is shocking and horrifying to them.  She is also extremely stubborn (she gets it from both her parents) and has a pretty vile temper.  So when she throws a temper tantrum in public, permissive parents who would probably deal with her by hugging her, kissing her, and giving her a sippy of juice and a cookie to calm her down see me instead tell her to “shut it down” and then count to five in my sternest ‘Mommy-voice.’  If she doesn’t shut it down (she has been more often lately, but she still usually doesn’t), I then pick her up under the arms, carry her without holding her close (partly because I don’t want her to think she’s being cuddled and partly because I’m trying to stay out of range of her wildly kicking feet) and plop her down in the nearest boring corner I can find, facing the wall.  Permissive parents who can’t stand to hear a baby cry see me forcing her to stand in time-out while she’s screaming bloody murder.  Since their default is to assume every cry or scream is a sign of genuine distress and must be stopped by hugs, kisses, and affirmation, they don’t see discipline; they see child abuse.

The way I see it, there are only three possible ways to deal with temper tantrums: appease them, ignore them, or punish them.  I will not reward such behavior, even if appeasement usually is the most expedient way of getting them to stop, because it also guarantees many more of the same once the child figures out that throwing a tantrum will get her what she wants.  For a while I tried ignoring them, but that’s not really an option in public, and at home they can last a very long time if merely ignored.  I also want to be consistent, and have the same response at home as I do in public.  Punishing them sends the message much more effectively that this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  I use time-outs because I don’t believe in hitting, I don’t see much point in a screaming contest, and making her tell it to an empty corner is the best way I can think of to get her to understand that no one wants to hear it.  If my kids have a complaint they can tell me about it, using words.  My three and a half year old son is not shy about telling me “I don’t like that” or “I don’t want to.”  I don’t put him in time-out for that.  If it’s reasonable to change whatever it is to something he does like or is more willing to do, then I change it.  If such a change is not reasonable, I tell him something along the lines of “I’m sorry, you don’t have to like it, but you do have to do it” and I tell him why.  And he accepts that and does it and moves on.  He doesn’t usually throw temper tantrums to protest something anymore because he knows it’s only going to get him put in time-out, and he has a much better chance of changing something if he talks to me about it instead.  My daughter is still learning this.

I’m not looking for the approval of other moms.  But I don’t think it’s appropriate to let toddlers call the shots.  Personally, I think giving children too many choices or too much control is abusive, because life is stressful, and that’s too much responsibility for a two or three year old (or four, or eight, or twelve–you get my point).  Some choice and control is appropriate–my son chooses his breakfast every morning: Cheerios or Kashi.  He picks out his shirt after I tell him whether he has to pick from the long-sleeve or the short-sleeve side of the drawer, and then he picks from two or three pairs of pants or shorts I’ve selected that more or less match the shirt he’s chosen.  My kids have choices that are appropriate to their age, and they’re learning that they have some say in the world in which they live, but they don’t have total control.  Vegetables are a part of supper whether they like them or not, ice cream is a nice surprise every once in a while but never an earned reward, and temper tantrums get you put in time-out.  As they get older, they’ll learn more of life’s lessons, but this is a good start for now.

So if you’re a permissive parent who doesn’t believe that toddlers are capable of self-control, understand that while that may be true of your toddler, it’s not true of mine (though if you’ve never expected it of your toddler, how would you even know?).  Please learn the difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting (and abusive parenting).  Also consider what you’re teaching your child about how the world works, and whether or not they’re in for a really rude awakening at some point.

And know that when you threaten to call Child Protective Services on a mother who’s enforcing a time-out for her almost-two year old in a corner of the mall playground, you’re coming across as a judgmental, arrogant, vicious ignoramus who doesn’t know how to handle her own children.  (Yes, that really happened to me last week, which is why this rant is so long.  My apologies to everyone who does recognize that different parents have different philosophies, and thank you for your tolerance.)

All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

When I first heard about the protesters on Wall Street a few weeks ago, I didn’t have much optimism for their success.  Based on the YouTube videos that were circulating, I saw a crowd of mostly twenty-somethings protesting corporate greed with some recording every minor police altercation in an attempt to claim police brutality.  I agreed with their general ideas–there are few in this country who aren’t angry about corporate greed–but I didn’t believe they could accomplish anything (and I didn’t see any real police brutality in those early videos, either).  I wasn’t sure what they were trying to accomplish.  I wasn’t sure they knew what they were trying to accomplish.  My husband believed (and I agreed) that nothing would change because too many people are too comfortable with the status quo.  In order for revolution to happen, there needs to be a critical mass of people who are willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the change they wish to see.  Most ‘revolutionaries’ today seem to be willing to ‘like’ a Facebook page dedicated to their cause, and maybe copy and paste a status update that they agree with, and that’s it.

But now I’m not so sure.  The protests are growing, spreading, and appear to have broken the media blackout.  (I regularly read the Wall Street Journal Online, plus use the news and weather app on my phone which draws from a variety of outlets, and I didn’t know anything about the protests until another blog I follow posted one of those YouTube videos three or four days after the protests began.  Now the WSJ Online is providing regular updates on its homepage.)  Additionally, the protesters have begun to focus their message.  The First Official Release From Occupy Wall Street articulates some of their specific grievances, and they are working on a List of Demands.

Now they’re getting more organized, focused, and specific.  Their grievances basically amount to calling out the government for allowing large corporations to dictate US economic policy in such a way that it benefits 1% of the population at the expense of the other 99% (this is my interpretation and summary, not a statement from their document; I encourage you to follow the links above and read their statements for yourself).  And it’s not just that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; it’s that the poor are getting poorer because the rich are usurping power from our supposedly democratic government, drowning out the voices of the majority of the population with the money our elected representatives need for reelection, and changing the rules to benefit themselves while causing harm and injustice to everyone else.  I don’t necessarily agree with all their grievances, but there is definitely enough common ground there for me to hope for their success.

But what about the concern that too many people are too comfortable with the status quo to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?  I’m beginning to understand that people are more uncomfortable than I’d realized.  I knew things were rough; my own family is struggling to make ends meet after a prolonged period of unemployment and underemployment, and I have no idea how we’re going to pay down the debt we accumulated during that time.  But I hadn’t realized just how many people have already lost not only their fortunes, but their hope of ever rebuilding them.  Honor isn’t what it once was, however there is enough anger against large corporations and the super-wealthy that aiding in the effort to stop filling their coffers with the hard work and sacrifices borne by the rest of us will gain honor, not lose it.  And if you’ve already lost everything and have no hope of ever getting it back under the current system, why not pledge your life to trying to make things better?  If the current system doesn’t care about your life or well being (and it doesn’t), what have you really got to lose?

Americans are sold a bill of goods.  We’re taught that if you study hard, work hard, maybe even serve your country in the military, you can make something of yourself.  You can live the American Dream.  Instead we’re seeing college graduates who did what they were supposed to do saddled with impossible debt loads and unable to find the jobs that were supposed to be worth that investment.  We’re seeing people who have worked hard at their jobs all their lives taking pay cut after pay cut, until finally ending up unemployed and unemployable because their entire industry is virtually gone, losing their houses, their health insurance, and, eventually, their health.  We’re seeing veterans ignored and forgotten once they take off their uniform (and sometimes before they’ve taken it off).  There are a lot of people represented in that 99% who are being screwed over by the 1%.  Rather than try to tell you their stories, I’m going to let some of them speak for themselves.

The following is only a small sampling from ‘We Are the 99 Percent.’  Please go to that website and see why people are protesting on Wall Street (and elsewhere in the US), especially if you tend to believe that things aren’t all that bad, and people who are complaining should just suck it up, stop slacking off, and work harder.

* I’d never been unemployed, until the company I worked for tanked a month ago. Up until then, I was living paycheck to paycheck, sharing a small apartment with my elderly, unemployed mother, making just enough to pay rent, grocery bills and medical insurance. Now we have no jobs, no savings, no health care and no furniture in our apartment; we sold almost everything we had to pay for food and rent. We both have extensive medical problems and are wondering how we’re going to pay for the medications we need to keep functioning. I don’t want sympathy, or handouts. I want a job, affordable rent and the restoration of the “American Dream.”  I AM THE 99%!!!

* I have a master’s degree from a top university and $75,000 in student loan debt. I have applied to jobs all over the country but I can’t even get an interview. My mom lost her job in 2010 and hasn’t been able to find anything since. I don’t know what we will do when her unemployment runs out. I’ve given up all hope in having a future. I am the 99%!

* I am educated, hard working and responsible. I am employed full time and have been for all of adult life. And yet I struggle each month to pay my bills, to feed my dog, to keep gas in my car. I dream of grad school, of a job in social services or ministry to make this world better than I found it. And yet, I am trapped. I am chained to my mortgage, to my unsellable home, to my mediocre job, to my city. Sometimes I feel a failure to be part of the first generation that will not exceed the accomplishments of the last and yet everyone I know works so hard. Just to get by. Our priorities have gone so astray in this country. We have lost sight of the importance of community and equality. Of justice and forgiveness. Of generosity and faith. Of democracy and hope. We got lazy and distracted and entitled and we didn’t realize that a few people have been making greedy decisions that would and do negatively affect the lives of the many. It’s time to wake up. To pay attention. To stop worshiping the dollar and start worshiping each other again. All of us. Together, being the change. My name is Emily Wheeland and I am one paycheck away from homelessness. I am the 99 percent.

* Single mother. Living with my parents, who own a small business and are barely scraping by themselves. Neither has health insurance or savings. My grandparents have spent their savings on medications. My daughter’s father joined the military to get a degree in a field he doesn’t want to study in, because it offers job security. He is stationed overseas for 2 years and is missing his daughter growing up…she asks for him almost every day, if she will see him soon. She won’t, not because he can’t get leave from work, but because we can’t afford tickets. We stay married for health insurance and assistance with my college. I have $15k in medical debt (collections) and terrible credit. He owns my car and we live off of his child support while I am in school. My parents provide free childcare so I can go to school. EVERYTHING I have—roof over my head, financial aid for my classes, my car and financial security, are all due to someone else’s generosity. I am grateful and scared. When will I be able to support myself so I can feel safe? Will this degree be worth it? I can’t tell my daughter she can be anything she wants to be. I can’t even guarantee she will have clean air to breathe or a school that isn’t underfunded and understaffed. WE ARE THE 99%!!!

* I’m 50 years old. I am one of the lucky ones! I’ve worked since I was 16, I’m a decorated US Military Vet. I’m well educated and work in the IT field and haven’t had a raise in five years. My wife is a school teacher who has lost $5000.00 of her salary due to budget cuts. Wells Fargo started foreclosure proceedings after we missed a payment, they would not talk to us until they successfully foreclosed on our home, then socked us with legal fees and refinanced making us upside down on our mortgage. To make ends meet, I’ve had to take a better paying job out of state, leaving my wife and child (a foster care adoption) in our home we cannot sell and cannot rent. I’ve been tuned down for insurance even though I’m healthy. I’m looking for a 2nd job so I can move off of my friend’s couch because with my wife and my combined salary I can’t afford a cheap efficiency apartment. WE ARE DOING WELL! WE ARE THE 99%

In a land where everyone is equal, the stories of the people above should not be true.  But they are.  The needs of the 99% are not equal to the wants of the 1%, and rather than majority rule, the 1% is calling the shots.  Why does my husband pay more in personal income taxes than the multinational corporation he works for pays in corporate income tax?  Why do banks make risky investments and get bailed out with public money when those investments fail, but individuals with pension funds that believed the banks about the safety of those investments have to accept their losses and start over from scratch?  Why was the man in line in front of me at the pharmacy last week told that they couldn’t fill his valid prescription from his physician because it wasn’t on the ‘approved’ list from his insurance company, and it would take three days for them to get authorization?  When he told the pharmacist that he couldn’t wait three days for this medication, he was told to call his doctor and see if he could be prescribed something else.

According to the Supreme Court, corporations are ‘persons’ just like anyone else.  All persons are equal, but apparently some persons are more equal than others.

What Do You Do All Day?

Back when I was single and working a full-time job, I used to dream of getting married and ‘just’ being a full-time mom.  Aside from the obvious desire to share my life with someone and raise children, I really liked the idea of just staying home all day.  All the things I’d be able to do then!  All the books I’d read, the crafts I’d make, and the fun things I could do with my kids–if only I could stay home all day.

Well, now I’m married and home with my kids all day, and I can’t figure out where the time goes.  I feel like I’m super-busy, but I can’t really point to anything I’ve accomplished at the end of each day.  My house isn’t as clean as it used to be, I have less time for reading, almost no time for crafts, and TV is something the kids watch when I really need to get something else done.

I really wanted to know where my time was going, so I ran a little experiment.  Starting in late June and going throughout July, I kept a log of everything I did each day for five weeks, divided into fifteen minute increments (yes, I really am that anal).  Unfortunately it was a handwritten log, and I didn’t try to do anything with the data until I had it all.  It’s taken me nearly two months to find the time to do my data entry and analysis.

But anyway, here we are, and the first thing I have to say is: thank goodness for multitasking!  I kept track of when I was doing something with all my attention, as well as when I was doing multiple things at once.  When I added up how much time I spent doing things, I came up with a total of 1,066.75 hours of activities.  There are only 840 hours in a five-week period.  That means I actually did six weeks, two days, ten hours, and forty-eight minutes worth of activities in five weeks.  That averages out to needing 30 hours and 28 minutes to do what I need to do each day.  No wonder I’m tired all the time!

At first glance, it looks like I spend 637 hours, or 59.7% of my time, doing one thing at a time, and 429.75 hours, or 40.3% of my time multitasking.  But that’s misleading, because by definition one can’t sleep while multitasking, and I spent 264.5 hours (or 24.8% of my time) sleeping or trying to sleep.  (I’m a chronic insomniac, so much of that time was spent trying to sleep, but it’s impossible to break out how much time was spent trying, and how much time was spent actually sleeping.  If I had to guess, I’d say at least a quarter of that time was trying to sleep.)  If you just look at my waking hours, I spent only 372.5 hours (or 34.9% of my time) doing one thing at a time.  Without multitasking, I’d be lost.

So what did I spend all my time doing?  Well, we already know that sleeping or trying to sleep accounted for 24.8%.  That wasn’t what I spent the most time doing, however.  Taking care of my kids took up 24.9% of my time, and spending time with my husband came in third at 19.3%.  But it’s interesting how those numbers broke out.  Of the 265.25 hours I spent with my kids, 174 of them (or 65.6%) were spent multitasking, while the other 91.25 hours (or 34.4%) were spent doing nothing else but taking care of them.  On the other hand, of the 206.25 hours I spent with my husband, for 126 of them (or 61%) my attention was entirely on him, and I only multitasked for 80.25 hours (or 38.9%) with him.  So while my kids get more time with me overall, my husband gets more focused time with me than they do.

Taking care of my family and trying to sleep accounts for 69% of my time.  Self care (the combination of personal hygiene, reading for pleasure, personal ‘alone’ time, attending worship, spending time with friends, and exercising) accounts for 6.9% of my time.  Professional development (research and writing) accounts for 6.2% of my time, and I waste (watching TV or mindlessly surfing the web) 5.3% of my time.  Some of that is a little misleading, because I’m sure some of the time I called ‘research’ really should have been categorized under ‘mindless web surfing.’  Also, nearly half the time I logged as ‘exercising’ (9.25 hours) was actually spent driving to and from the gym.  That leaves me with 12.6% of my time to cook, clean, eat, run errands, manage the household finances, manage my husband’s company’s finances, and do crafts, plus write sermons and lead worship if I’m called to fill in for a vacationing pastor (which I did four of the five Sundays included in my log).  That’s three hours and fifty minutes per day of my 30 hour, 28 minute long days.

It’s been interesting to see if how I spend my time matches up with my stated priorities.  Overall, the answer is yes, because my family is my top priority, and I spend 44.2% of my total time (or 58.8% of my waking hours) engaging with them.  On the other hand, I see some areas I need to fix.  I don’t have enough hours in the day to waste 5.3% of my time on mindless web surfing or TV.  And I’d like to be able to spend more time writing.  While 6.2% might be the best I can do right now, that was two-thirds research to one-third writing.  I think much of my ‘research’ is just an excuse, and I need to reverse that ratio.  I also need to spend more time on self-care.  You can’t see it in the averages, but a lot of my personal time was grouped together in large blocks every few weeks, because I just burned out and shut down, and had to hole up while my husband took care of the kids.  I need to be more intentional about taking time for me and doing something that I find enjoyable (like reading for pleasure) rather than mindlessly wasting time.  I’ve already begun to exercise a lot more.

I think I’m going to run this experiment again.  In addition to the changes I want to make or have already made, some things are different now than they were in June.  For one thing, now that the fall programming has begun, I’m no longer being called for pulpit supply nearly every week, so I actually get to worship again.  However, this does cut down on my personal time, because I was taking some time for myself after church rather than going straight home.  Now I’ve got the kids with me at church.  Also in July, my husband and I attended Readercon 22, which resulted in two solid days where I didn’t interact with my kids at all, and my husband got a lot of one-on-one time with me (my ‘research’ category got a bump, too).  That kind of weekend is extremely rare.  Another change is that my son no longer naps in the afternoon, and I’m experimenting with bringing my daughter down to one nap.  Additionally I’ve begun homeschooling my son, so he’s getting more one-on-one time than he was over the summer.  All of this conspires to take away more of my self-care time, which I really can’t let happen.

I’ll keep a log for four or five weeks again, and see how it compares.  I think the only real change I’ll make is that ‘driving’ will become it’s own separate category, since that adds anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half to whatever I’m doing outside the house, and inflates the amount of time I log exercising or worshiping.

It is a bit tedious keeping the log (and even more so analyzing it) but I highly recommend doing this if you feel like you’re not getting anything done, or if you’re not sure if your actions agree with your stated priorities.  And as for getting all that time to read, make crafts, and do fun things?  I guess now I’m looking forward to being an empty-nester.

Open Letter to the Extroverts, Morning People, and Other Obnoxiously Cheerful People at my Gym

I don’t mean to be rude, but back off and leave me alone.

I realize you’re trying to be friendly and encouraging, but your bright and cheerful, “Good morning, are you ready for another workout?” the second I walk in the door is like nails on a blackboard for me.

I am not a morning person.  Yes, it’s 10:30 AM, but if it were up to me, I’d still be in bed right now.  I’m also a chronic insomniac, so chances are I’m going on five hours or less of sleep right now.  I know you don’t have insight into my life before I walk through the gym’s front door, but you should be able to see by my half-open eyes, my dirty pony-tailed hair, and my total lack of effervescence that no,  I’m not particularly ready for another workout.  I’ve only had–at most–two thirds of my morning coffee (sometimes less than that), and I’m dragging along two toddlers, one of whom also is not a morning person and with whom I’ve probably already had at least one battle this morning.  Between the battle, the lack of sleep, and the reduced caffeine intake, I probably have a pounding headache, but I haven’t taken any ibuprofen because I need to be aware of how my muscles feel during my workout so I don’t accidentally hurt myself.

Add to that the depression I’ve been fighting, and the fact that I’m here at all is a major accomplishment.  So forgive me if I have nothing left to generate phony enthusiasm for another workout.

So why am I here if this is my attitude about the whole thing?  Look at me.  I’m some not-to-be-published number of pounds overweight, and clearly I’m not here because I’ve embraced the fitness lifestyle that you have.  Simply and starkly put, I’m trying to not die.  Workouts don’t energize me; they exhaust me.  Both the cardio and the strength training are very difficult for me–not challenging in the YOU-GO-GIRL-LOOK-AT-ALL-THE-PROGRESS-YOU’RE-MAKING kind of way; difficult like the oh-please-somebody-kill-me-now-am-i-done-yet kind of way.

So I’m not trying to be rude or a killjoy or anything when I answer your gleeful “Are you ready for another workout?” with a monotonous “Sure, why not.”  Nor am I looking to dump all my problems on you when I answer your exuberant “Feeling good?” on my way out with an exhausted “I’m hanging in there.”  I simply don’t have the energy left to lie to you or match the excitement you have and that you clearly think I should have as well.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t be friendly; just understand that I’m not in the place you are.  Don’t ask me questions in such a way that also conveys the answer you expect to hear.  If you aren’t really willing to hear the truth, then don’t ask me questions at all.  A polite “Good morning, have a good workout” would help establish a welcoming presence without my having to lie, feign joy, or otherwise expend precious resources on answering beyond “Good morning, thank you.”  I’m good with that!

I often tell my kids, “You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it.”  Well I’m here, I’m doing what I need to do, and I’m putting everything I’ve got into it.  But I don’t have to like it, and I’m not going to pretend that I do for your sake.

Michael Moore and American Values

Last week the Guardian published an excerpt of Michael Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble.

Full disclosure: I have not read this book.  I have not seen any of Michael Moore’s movies.  I’m not boycotting them or purposely avoiding them; I simply haven’t gotten around to it, and they’re not high enough on my to-do list to put much effort into seeking them out.  If any of them happen to cross my path at a time that’s convenient for me, I’ll be happy to watch them.

I do know who Michael Moore is, I’m familiar with most of his projects of the last ten years, and I know he has a reputation for being somewhat one-sided.  Good for him.

All that said, I was absolutely appalled and sickened when I read the excerpt of his book in the Guardian, in which he detailed the threats and attempts on his life after his 2003 Oscar speech, and later the release of his movie Fahrenheit 9/11.

In case you didn’t click on the link and read the account for yourself, here are some highlights:

  • Upon returning home from the Oscars, he found a waist-high pile of manure (about three truckloads worth) in his driveway blocking access to his house, as well as signs nailed to the trees on his property threatening his safety and well-being if he didn’t move.
  • Not only did he receive mountains of hate-mail expressing people’s desire for his death and/or poor health, he also had people leaving threatening messages on his answering machine.
  • So many people came to his house to threaten him that he had to hire a private security company, because the local police were overwhelmed.
  • An assassination attempt with a knife was made when he was an invited speaker at an event (thwarted by his private security).
  • A cup of scalding coffee was thrown in his face by a random man walking past him on the street (thwarted by his private security–his private security agent took it in the face instead).
  • Another random person passing by lunged at him with a sharpened pencil, stabbing the hand of the private security agent.

I know a lot of people were angered by Moore’s Oscar speech and disagreed with the opinions expressed in Fahrenheit 9/11, but I don’t want to believe that my fellow Americans feel that the appropriate response to a citizen exercising his right to free speech is harassment, vandalism, threats, and murder.  Sadly, I have no reason to doubt Moore’s story.

Is this who we are as a country?  Let’s put aside for the moment that the charges he made against then-President George W. Bush in his Oscar speech were dead-on correct.  We did invade Iraq for fictitious reasons.  But that’s not the point.  Let’s pretend for a moment that Moore was wrong about everything.  Let’s pretend there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bush’s presidency was achieved legitimately.  Let’s pretend that Saddam Hussein masterminded the events of September 11, 2001 and had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction hiding in Iraq.  Let’s pretend all that is true, and Moore still said what he said at the Oscars, and still made Fahrenheit 9/11.  As an American, he has that right.

I’m disgusted that people who claim to support our troops “fighting for freedom and democracy” in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan will so violently reject freedom and democracy when it’s practiced in their own country.  Americans have the right to have their own opinions and express them publicly, even when those opinions question the motives, methods, and abilities of their leaders.  Americans do not have the right to vandalize someone else’s private property, trespass on someone else’s private property, or threaten the life, health or safety of another person.  If these are the democratic values we’re trying to spread around the world, then the world is right to mock and reject us.  This is not how civilized people treat each other.

I like the ideals that my country is based on, but I don’t like the reality we live in.  I don’t like the tyranny of the majority, the groupthink ignorance of our history, or the increasing class wars between the “educated elite” and “real Americans” (as if education and a nuanced understanding of the shades of grey that make up the world are somehow antithetical to America).  I don’t like that our government follows the version of the Golden Rule that reads, “He who has the gold makes the rules.”  And I don’t like that, in practice, we consider discipline and self-restraint as weaknesses, and emotionally-charged recklessness and instant gratification evidence of strength and commitment.

And based on reputation alone, I don’t particularly like Michael Moore.  But I respect his right to his opinion, I respect his right to express it publicly, and I appreciate his attempts to make people think critically about what’s going on.  If you don’t want to hear what he has to say, don’t watch his movies (you can suck it up and deal with it if he takes 30 seconds of a 3 hour and 30 minute awards show to spring his opinion on you).  And as an American citizen, I wish to apologize to him.  I can’t speak on behalf of all Americans, but on my own behalf, I apologize.  I never sent you hate mail, I never threatened you in person or over the telephone, I never accosted you, and I certainly never threatened your life or safety, but I’m sorry you had to experience all those things.  You should never have had to go through that for the sin of expressing your opinion.  I’m sure if I ever get around to watching your movies, I’ll find plenty I disagree with you about, but the most I would ever do would be to publish a blog post highlighting what I disagreed with and why.  I’m sure you won’t begrudge me my right to publicly express my opinion, just as I don’t begrudge you your right to publicly express yours.

As for the rest of America, please try to understand that freedom and democracy means accepting that people have a right to question their government’s leaders and actions without risk of harm or retribution, and that doing so is not un-American, as many of you claim, but rather is a very important aspect of being an American.

Let’s Blame the Immigrants!

The US economy is in the crapper, everyone’s feeling the squeeze, so of course it’s time for the next round of “Let’s Blame Immigrants for All Our Problems!”

The following post has been making the rounds on Facebook (again):  SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT … If you cross the North Korean border illegally, you get 12 yrs. hard labor. If you cross the Afghanistan border illegally, you get shot. Two Americans just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border. If you cross the U. S. border illegally you get a job, a drivers license, food stamps, a place to live, health care, housing & child benefits, education, & a tax free business for 7 yrs …No wonder we are a country in debt. Re-post if you agree.

Let’s look at this piece by piece.

As far as I can tell, the claim that you get 12 years of hard labor for crossing illegally into North Korea is based on two American journalists who received that sentence in 2009 for “illegal entry and ‘hostile acts.'”  What were the ‘hostile acts’ they committed against North Korea?  That government never specified, but convicted them anyway.  (I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that the two journalists were reporting on the trafficking of women.)  In any case the two journalists were pardoned and deported two months later when former President Bill Clinton visited that country and requested their release.  In the last couple of years, four Americans have been arrested and convicted of illegal entry, and all four have been pardoned and released.  Most recently, in April of last year, an American was accused of illegal entry and ‘an unspecified hostile act’ (he was a Christian missionary).  He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but also received a pardon and deportation.

It’s difficult finding news about Afghan shootings that don’t involve US soldiers and/or the Taliban, but I did find something claiming that the penalty for resisting arrest in Afghanistan is being shot.  The only story I could find about the shooting of migrant workers illegally crossing the Afghan border involved Afghan migrant workers sneaking across the border out of Afghanistan into Iran, where they were shot.

The two Americans who just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border actually got three years for crossing the border, and five years for ‘spying for the United States.’  They are also political tools for the Iranians to highlight the alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US prisons, and most likely will be released as bargaining chips for something else the Iranians want.

Those are the facts regarding those three countries.  Now the obvious question: DO WE REALLY WANT TO PATTERN LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFTER NORTH KOREA, AFGHANISTAN, AND IRAN???!!!  Are these countries we wish to emulate?  If so, then why are two of them part of the so-called (by us) Axis of Evil?  And Afghanistan?  Talk to any American vet who’s been over there, and ask him if he was there fighting so that we could be more like them.  I dare you to.  And if you’ve posted this quote on Facebook, or supported someone who did, don’t try to claim now that no one is saying those countries are better.  That’s exactly what you’re saying when you state or support such comparisons.

As for the welcome wagon that is supposedly waiting just this side of the border handing out free housing, health care, jobs, education, et al to the sneaking illegal immigrants–um, really?  What jobs?  Below-minimum wage under-the-table jobs where they’re little more than slaves, constantly living under the threat of deportation if they complain?  Or maybe you’re referring to those who tried the indentured servant route, and are now working in sweatshops or brothels?  Or maybe you’re talking about the migrant workers who do back-breaking work at the fruit farms of Georgia for minimum wage plus performance bonuses, which sometimes earn them upwards of $20 per hour.  Yeah, them.  When Georgia recently passed a new law designed to drive out the illegals, farmers were unable to hire enough local legal workers to do the work, even though Georgia’s unemployment rate is over 10%.  More Americans would rather collect unemployment that work at Federally-approved pay levels with the potential of earning nearly three times that rate, if their performance warrants it.  When crops were rotting in the fields because there weren’t enough workers to harvest them, the farmers hired probationers, a group of people who usually have a very difficult time finding work.  Most of the probationers quit, and the very few who stayed weren’t nearly as productive as the illegal immigrants who had done that work before them.  Crops are still rotting in the fields.  There is no special employment plan for illegal immigrants at the expense of American citizens.

Who’s just handing out drivers’ licenses?  I’ve been licensed in four states, and all four times I had to provide a birth certificate and/or a Social Security card and/or a US passport (plus several other documents to prove residency).  It’s true that some illegal immigrants may be forging or buying stolen identification papers in order to get their licenses, but that’s not the same as just being handed the licenses.  Oh yes, and those licenses obtained with forged or stolen documents?  Those allow the illegal immigrants to work at legitimate jobs where they pay taxes that benefit all Americans, including Social Security and Medicare, which, because of their phony SSNs, illegal immigrants will never benefit from.

Qualifying for food stamps varies from state to state, but I believe income verification and proof of identity are universally required.  And I also wonder–whether a person’s here illegally or not, do we really want people starving to death within our borders?  What does that say about our national values?

The only free housing I’m aware of in the United States are homeless shelters, and the only ones envious of people living in homeless shelters are the people living on the streets because there’s no room available in those shelters.  And those people aren’t likely to be reposting anti-immigration rhetoric on Facebook while they wait for a bed to become available.

There is definitely no free health care here.  Most people without health care, whether they’re illegal immigrants or American citizens, don’t go to the doctor until it’s such an emergency that they have to go to the emergency room, where they have to be treated regardless of ability to pay.  Doctors and hospitals charge a much higher rate to the uninsured than their ‘negotiated’ rates with the health care providers, and that virtually guarantees that individuals without insurance won’t be able to pay for the emergency services they received.  This isn’t an immigration problem; it’s a health care problem.

I’ve already addressed housing, and I’m not sure what child care benefits the post is referring to.  Exemptions for children in the tax code?  They’re paying taxes, and they have children.  I don’t think that children here illegally are any cheaper to care for than those with American citizenship, and the important point to remember here, again, is that they’re paying taxes.

The belief that illegal immigrants receive free education can be attributed to two things.  One is the K-12 public school system, in which case the assertion is true.  It’s also true that each of those illegal students is responsible for money going to their school system, thanks to the prevalence of attendance-based funding formulas.  If you want to see a school system tank, yank out all the undocumented students, and see what’s left for the citizens in that district.   The other possible source for this belief is the controversy over allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition for state-run colleges and universities.  I know of one person in Massachusetts who has repeatedly lamented the fact that she has to pay for her kids to go to college, while the illegals get in for free.  In truth, the program (at least in Massachusetts) is that all Massachusetts students who attend a Massachusetts community college and graduate with a 3.0 or higher GPA can enroll at UMass Amherst and have the in-state tuition waived (though they’d still be on the hook for the $10K in additional fees per year).  The controversy stems from the fact that most of the community colleges aren’t very diligent at determining the residency of their students, so out-of-state students and illegal immigrants might slip in, too.  (Granite Staters and Mexicans together at UMass–oh the horror of it all!!!)  The people who are complaining about having to pay aren’t sending their kids through community college and expecting them to make the grade; that’s why they have to pay, not because illegal immigrants (and New Hampshire residents) are hogging all the free tuition.  There is no free tuition.

I have to claim complete ignorance on the tax-free business for seven years.  My husband and I have set up our own company, and I don’t remember seeing any exemption in the corporate rules that said if we could prove illegal status, we wouldn’t have to pay corporate income tax.

Some of these claims that I don’t know about may be because they’re holdovers from the Canadian, UK, Australian, or even Indian versions of this electronic rant.  It’s been circulated in all those countries.  Sorry folks, you’re not that original.

And as a final note, I’ve noticed that there are a quite a few Christians getting behind this post, usually the same ones who use the bible as justification for denying marriage to gay couples.  Please take out your bibles and read Leviticus 19:33-34 (it’s just a little bit past that verse you love so much that proclaims that a man lying with another man is an abomination): “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”  If you’re going to demand biblical authority for the laws of this land, then start with this one.  The treatment of the alien is mentioned far more often than homosexuality, and much less ambiguously.

There are real problems facing this nation, but blaming illegal immigrants for them won’t solve anything.  I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but a number I’ve seen invoked is $113 billion being spent on illegal immigrants.  $113 billion seems like a big scary number.  But our total national debt is over $14 trillion (and rising), and that $113 billion is less than one percent of that.  Now, I’m a big fan of ‘every little bit helps,’ but I’d be willing to bet that illegal immigrants contribute much more than $113 billion to the US economy.  So let’s stop with the hate and the blame, and take a hard look at the systemic failures that got us here.  And then let’s figure out what we can do about it, rather than just point to people we don’t like and make them our scapegoat.

And if you want to repost something because you agree, please check the facts first, rather than continuing to spread misinformation that detracts from finding real solutions.

Faith Vs. Reason

Last week I wondered what Christians do that give others the opinion that we’re angry, judgmental, unhappy, or stupid.  This week I have yet another example as to why.

GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann said to a group in Florida, “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.  We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane.  He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?  Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now.  They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to reign in the spending.'”*  Really?  God is mad at American politicians who value spending money to try to help the poor and bring peace to the world over keeping a balanced budget?  I realize that how government spends taxpayer money is certainly a matter for debate, as are the intentions behind such spending, the effectiveness of the efforts, and the appropriateness of such priorities in a democracy.  But claiming natural disasters, one of which took forty lives (and counting!), are God’s way of championing the rights of Americans who don’t like the way their government is being run is heartless, arrogant, ignorant, and cruel.  I’m one who thinks the government needs to reign in spending, but I don’t want God to throw a tree at an 11 year old boy’s home and killing him to make my point.  Furthermore I refuse to worship a God who does so.  Fortunately I don’t have to repudiate my faith or my God, because Bachmann’s interpretation of recent events is wrong.  She does not have the monopoly on understanding God’s will.  (Neither do I, before you start pointing fingers.)  Unfortunately she’s got a microphone to help her spread her interpretation, and media focusing attention on it.  No one is going to repeat with such fervor that the earthquake was due to perfectly natural friction caused by the constantly moving tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust, or that the hurricane was caused by typical weather patterns for this time of year.

Not all Christians believe as Bachmann does, but she’s got the louder voice and the sexier story, so her beliefs are understood as representative of all believing Christians.

And we (those of us who subscribe to faith and reason) let her do it, by keeping silent.

It’s understandable why we keep silent.  When we speak and offer an alternative interpretation, those who believe as Bachmann does shout us down with their accusations that we’re not really Christians, that our faith is tainted, or misguided, and not true Christianity.  And those who aren’t Christian (by their own profession, not my designation) won’t listen to us, because we’re Christian and therefore obviously ignorant and reactionary, because they know how Christians are (they’ve heard what Michele Bachmann said, after all!).

I don’t know how to counter this.  With the increasing polarization in politics, society, and the world, ‘faith seeking understanding’ is no longer seen as a viable approach.  It’s now either/or.  The most vocal Christians proclaim that faith gives all the answers, and anything that challenges those answers challenges the faith.  Because of that insistence, faith has been pushed out of all other conversations, and those of us who have faith are assumed to have nothing of value to contribute.  That more than anything else, I believe, is what may succeed in relegating the church to irrelevancy.  In many ways, we’re almost there already.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between faith and reason.  The two are not diametrically opposed.  There are thinking Christians out there, trying to contribute to the important conversations.  And they are out there, doing good work in spreading the good news.  They just never make the news.  At best they’re seen as the exception, and at worst, they’re not seen at all.

*As reported by the L.A. Times.

Identifying with the Church-Harmed

I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply since I returned to Massachusetts, mostly at the church where I’m a sort-of member.  I’ve actually preached there five Sundays out of the last seven, which is good, because I never could have preached the sermon I preached on Sunday if I weren’t known to and had established trust with the congregation.  In order to preach the sermon I was led to preach, I had to get personal, and I don’t do that with congregations I don’t know.

The gospel lesson I was preaching on was from Matthew, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and then, “But who do you say that I am?”  (The full passage was Matthew 16:13-20, if you’re interested.)  When preparing to write the sermon, I found a note written next to this passage in my bible, probably from a text study I attended years ago: Outsiders’ opinion of Jesus.  Why does the Church today need to hear what non-church people say about the Church?  What do we do with that information?  And with that old notation, the direction for my sermon was set.  I needed to explore what Christians do that give non-Christians the impression that we’re angry, unhappy, judgmental hypocrites, or else simplistic and too stupid to really understand what’s going on around us (because let’s face it: when you see Christians depicted in movies and on television, that’s usually how we’re portrayed).  Sure, there are the obvious culprits like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but we can’t lay all the blame at their feet.  There are a lot of ordinary, non-famous and non-controversial Christians out there who do a lot of harm to others, and give both Christianity and God a bad name while doing so.

And that’s where my sermon had to get personal.  I am one of the Church-harmed, and my own story demonstrates the point I was trying to make better than an over-the-top Falwell or Robertson foot-in-mouth moment that most people can simply dismiss as idiocy.

I was first harmed by the Church (my capitalization here is intentional) when I was thirteen years old.  I’d been attending CCD at the same Catholic Church since kindergarten, at the same church I’d been baptized in, and where my parents had been married.  At the beginning of 8th grade they signed me up for CCD automatically, but no one bothered to tell me where and when to report.  So I missed the first class.  The next day in Social Studies several schoolmates, who were also in that CCD class, told me that the teacher (CCD wasn’t taught by the priest) had told everyone there that I was the spawn of the devil because I obviously didn’t care about learning about God, and that their eternal souls would be at risk if they associated with me.  Fortunately for me, they weren’t too worried about their eternal souls, so I didn’t lose any friends over this.  That church did lose a member (me only–my parents had already stopped going because the Church didn’t recognize their divorce), and once I got confirmed later that year (at another Catholic Church in the center of town–my mother made me), I left the Catholic Church and never looked back.

The second time was four years later, when I was attending an evangelical church with a friend.  We were going on a ski trip to Vermont, but the bus that had been chartered to take us there never showed up.  The youth pastor organized us into cars driven by adult volunteers, without informing our parents of the change.  The volunteer driving the car I was in drove recklessly and caused a serious accident.  No one was killed, but I missed nearly two months of school recovering from my injuries, and then spent several more months unable to walk without the assistance of crutches or a cane.  My mother sued the church, and I was then informed by some of the leadership that I was an unrepentant sinner beyond all hope of salvation.

Fast forward through my years of atheism, militant church-hating, and then eventual return and even (shock, horror, and awe) ordination, to a first call with a workaholic senior pastor who was unable to share leadership and allow me the autonomy to minister according to my own gifts, to a second call at a level three conflict congregation (a fact that was known to the synod, but was hidden from me).  Because I wasn’t aware of the dynamics going in, I didn’t provide the correct leadership for that level of conflict, and it quickly became level four.  That last experience caused serious spiritual harm to me and to my family, and has me questioning whether or not I ever want to have anything to do with congregational ministry again.

And the reason I put all of this into my sermon is because all this harm was caused by other Christians, and we as Christians need to know that our words and our actions matter.  I called myself one of the Church-harmed earlier, because I’ve discovered that there’s a disturbingly large number of people who have been harmed by the Church in similar ways.  We are pastors who have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by abusive congregations.  We are church members who have been exploited and condemned by abusive pastors.  We are seekers who have been judged and convicted by well-meaning believers who are convinced that their understanding alone is sufficient to determine who is worthy of God’s love, and who is not.  We are still on the fringes, trying to find our place in the Church.  We are seeking acceptance and belonging in secular circles, wanting nothing to do with the Church.  We’re okay with God, but don’t want anything to do with the people of God.  We’re not okay with God, because who wants to be okay with a God who lets his* people treat others like that?  Or it doesn’t matter if we’re okay with God or not, because our experiences with Christians have convinced us that there is no God.

I now identify with this group.  And who knows–maybe my calling as a pastor is to reach out to others like me, and to make sure a part of the Church is safe for those who have been harmed by it before.

Assuming the Church doesn’t totally beat me down first.

*I disagree with the current efforts to use only gender-neutral language for God, but I’ll save that for another post at a later time.

Whose Fault Is the Next Recession?

The government is tapped out.  The big banks are teetering.  Large corporations are watching their stock prices plummet, then skyrocket, then plummet again, with no idea where they’ll settle.  We are on the brink of recession.  And if we go over that edge, it will be the fault of American consumers and small businesses.

At least that’s what an article* in the Wall Street Journal suggested last week.

According to an economist interviewed in the article, consumers and businesses who worry about a recession and make spending decisions based on that worry will then, by their cautious actions, trigger that recession.  He called it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

His words make sense, but they–and the article–leave out some very important details.

The United States government has been passing a deficit budget nearly every year since around 1970.  That means that for about forty years, the government has been borrowing money to meet its expenses.  Of course, they eventually had to pay that money back, and they did that by borrowing more money, on top of what they were already borrowing.  And then, when those bills came due along with all the others, they paid those off by borrowing yet more.  It’s like someone paying all their bills with a credit card, and when their credit card bill comes due, they get a new credit card to pay it off, and on and on it goes.  The recent fiasco in congress about raising the debt ceiling came about because someone finally questioned whether it was a good idea for the government to continually get a new credit card every time they maxed out the old one.

So now the government is trying to cut spending.  And some of the things they are cutting are the safety nets.  Now I for one see a distinction between a safety net and an entitlement program, but that’s an entirely different rant for an entirely different post.  At any rate, I believe that some of those entitlements do indeed need to be trimmed.  But the entitlements benefit so many people that they have powerful lobbies, and it’s hard to touch them at all.  So the small safety nets that are still left and make the difference between life and death for a few people (comparatively speaking) are being cut or eliminated, and the backlash against the entitlements when it comes (and it will come) will cut too deeply, and then they will barely function as safety nets, either.  So watch out, citizens!  Don’t count on Uncle Sam helping you out if you get in trouble; you’re on your own.

Big banks were lending large sums of money to people with small incomes.  Mortgages were great for the banks.  The more money people could borrow, the more they could spend on a house.  As more money was available to spend on housing, the more expensive houses got.  So people had to borrow more money for less house, and with the availability of that money, houses got yet more expensive, and people had to borrow more.  Anyone not buying a house was cautioned that they’d better do it before they got priced out of the market completely, because home prices were only going to go up.  So more people felt pressured to buy, and took on interest-only mortgages with low monthly payments that would balloon later, expecting that by the time their payments went up, their house would be worth so much more than they’d paid for it that they could just tap their equity and make the house pay for itself.  Free money, free house.  Banks encouraged this by lowering their lending standards to practically nothing.

Then the banks began betting that their borrowers would default with the investment known as Credit Default Swaps (CDS).  These little beauties made it so the banks won either way: if the mortgage was paid back along with the interest due, the bank got a payoff from its investment; if the mortgage defaulted and wasn’t paid back, the CDS would pay the bank a lump sum, and the bank got a payoff from its investment.  The losers were the ones who had to pay out the CDS.  And since you don’t have to actually be the creditor (i.e. hold the mortgage) to buy a CDS, anyone can get one.  So those made their way into pension funds, mutual funds, etc., as safe investments with high payoffs, which was accurate (provided the mortgages never defaulted).  Of course, once things reached a breaking point and people couldn’t pay their mortgages, there was widespread failure across the system.  The banks, who held both mortgages and CDS, found themselves overexposed and ready to fail.  Of course if that happened, people and businesses couldn’t borrow money, and the entire economy would seize up (because we’ve already established that no one can pay for anything unless it’s with borrowed money).  So the government bailed them out and covered their investment losses (but did nothing to help the individuals who suffered losses–except make it easier for them to borrow more money to make ends meet) and took more money out of taxpayers’ pockets and gave it to the banks.  So watch out, bank customers!  Don’t count on the banks working with you if you get into trouble; you’re on your own.

Businesses have focused so much on quarterly earnings that they cost-cut their way to short-term profits while sacrificing their long-term strategies and even viability.  They lay off employees (i.e. people who are trying to work for a living and take care of themselves) and expect unreasonable levels of productivity from those who are left.  They shift more of the costs of health insurance to their employees.  They make management decisions that cause the workplace environment to become unpleasant or even unhealthy (I’m aware of one company that has removed every third fluorescent tube from their overhead lighting to save money, making the office just dim enough to cause eyestrain).  They use cheaper quality components in their products while charging their customers higher prices on account of the company’s ‘increased costs.’  And finally they take advantage of perfectly legal tax loopholes that allow them to post record profits while keeping their federal income tax liability at zero. So watch out, employees!  Don’t count on your company to value your job over their shareholders’ gains; if they need to lay you off to save a few pennies, that’s your problem; you’re on your own.  And customers, don’t count on prices going down, either.

Individuals aren’t innocent here, either.  No one was forced to take on an oversized mortgage.  If you took out anything other than a conventional mortgage with a fixed interest rate, then you contributed to the problem.  If you took out a home equity loan for anything other than major home repairs or improvements, you contributed to the problem.  If you ever used your credit card and didn’t pay off the balance in full at the end of the month, you contributed to the problem.  (I’m not talking about the occasional large purchase that took two or three months to pay off; I’m talking about if you can’t remember the last time you didn’t carry a balance on your credit cards.)  Of course, this was also in an environment when costs were going up, salaries were remaining stagnant or going down, and we were being told that it was our patriotic duty to stimulate the economy by spending money.

No one (that I’m aware of) is spouting off that ‘patriotic duty’ crap this time around, but putting the responsibility of another recession on the backs of consumers amounts to the same thing.  (It’s also notable that the American public is usually referred to as consumers, and not citizens or people–I guess it’s clear what our primary purpose is in this country.)  We’ve learned that prices are going up, jobs can’t be counted on to last, banks will gamble with people’s money and expect the government to cover their losses, our own individual taxes will have to pay for those bailouts as well as make up for the taxes the large corporations aren’t paying, and the government isn’t going to help us out if we get in trouble.  But if we practice fiscal responsibility by living within our means, saving for a rainy day, and spending cautiously, the next recession is our fault.

Give me a break.

*The article was “Penny-Pinching Puts Recovery on Thin Ice” by Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty, in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition on Wednesday, August 11, 2011.  I have provided a link, but I believe the article is locked unless you have a subscription.

The Seductive Simplicity of a Studio Apartment

Don’t get me wrong– I love my husband and my kids.  I love them more than life itself, and I wouldn’t want to contemplate living without them.  But the thing is, I have this daydream.  In my daydream, life is simple.  I live in a small, uncluttered studio apartment in the city (sometimes it’s Boston, sometimes it’s Manhattan, depending on my mood).  It’s a snap to clean, and it’s quiet.  I keep my own quirky schedule, because I live alone and I don’t have to worry about carving out time for a 9-to-5-job-holding husband or messing up the routines of two small children.  I go out frequently to shop for the necessities or run errands one or two at a time, because I don’t have a car and I’m limited by how much I can carry.  But it’s the city, so everything’s either walking distance or a short ride on the bus or subway.  My life is simple, and quiet, and flexible.

In my daydream I’m not rich, but I live so simply that I don’t need a lot of money, and I’m able to support myself with my writing.  It’s not like it was in my late teens and early twenties when I was working 60 hours a week at two crappy jobs I hated just to pay the rent on my should-have-been-condemned-by-the-Department-of-Health studio apartment.  In my daydream, my studio is very nice, and I can pay for it just from writing.

Except I suffer from chronic insomnia, and if I’m writing out of the house full-time, I’ll be spending all my time in my sleep area, making it very un-restful.  That won’t work.  I’ll need at least a one-bedroom apartment, so I can keep my sleeping area separate from my living and working area.

Wait a minute.  Living and working area?  Boundaries are important, and I’m going to need a way to unwind and relax when I’m not writing.  Just moving to the couch and turning on the TV or opening a good book won’t work if my computer is mocking me from three feet away.  Since the sleep hygiene necessary for my insomnia prohibits my moving the computer or TV into my bedroom, clearly I need dedicated office space.  So a two-bedroom apartment it is, with the second bedroom being used as office space and the living room as my living/recreation area.

Hmmm.  A nice, two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city.  Manhattan is out–no way can I afford that!  Boston’s still possible, but a stretch.  I don’t think I could do it on writing alone, not right now anyway (hopefully someday my writing will really take off and it would be possible, but right now it’s just not realistic).  So I’ll need to work an outside job.  Part-time would be preferable, but a nice two-bedroom in a nice area of Boston?  That’ll require full-time work.

A full-time job while writing part-time from my not-so-small two-bedroom apartment.  I’ll need a cleaning lady to come every other week to dust and do the floors, kitchen, and bathroom.  I hate cleaning, and that time would be better spent writing, anyway.  Oh yes, and I’ll need a car so I can do all my grocery shopping and whatnot in one quick trip.  I might need to work some overtime.

You know, my daydream is beginning to sound pretty hectic and complicated.  And lonely.  Wouldn’t it be nice to find someone to share the load, to enjoy each other’s company over the mundane things like morning coffee and supper together after work, a simple, healthy supper at home that I would cook and he would do the dishes after.

And it would be nice to have a couple of kids.  But the city’s no place to raise them–we’d have to move to the suburbs.  And daycare’s so expensive, it would make more sense for me to stay home with them.

I’m sure I could fit writing in somehow…