Declare Those Pennies on Your Eyes

IRSWriting about taxes on tax day seems so intellectually lazy. Complaining about our complex, confusing, largely unequal, and definitely incomprehensible tax system simply doubles down on the cliche. After all, American’s don’t agree on much, but I think it’s pretty universal that the systems by which we collect money at the local, state, and federal level have become so bloated and outrageous that the only people satisfied are politicians sucking at the public teat and tax accountants who try to guide the rest of us lost souls through the process. Apologies to tax accountants for tethering you to politicians.

Yet, here I sit the morning after our college-age son had to pay 10% of his pretty meager “income” to Uncle Sam after filing his taxes last night. Both our boys worked hard and earned generous academic scholarships. Instead of forking over tuition dollars, I’ve been able to buy a big screen t.v.  (Who says reading to your kids doesn’t pay off!) Last night, though, as my younger son completed his taxes, we found out that scholarship money above and beyond tuition, fees, and required books counts as taxable income.

Really? Somehow, some hair-brained numbskull in our nation’s capital decided that we really need to go after all that extra money full-time college students are pulling down in their spare time between classes. Can’t let those crazy kids live too high on the hog, after all. Better declare those pennies on your eyes, as George Harrison says.

I’m not trying to express some sort of Unabomber outrage. I’ll willingly admit that I do think people need to pay their fair share in taxes. For my money, our taxes give us access to goods and services that make America great, and we need to share those costs. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s much less expense if we share the cost of military protection among the all 300 million of us than if we all form our own isolated feudal compounds and hire our own protection. Public schools, public roads, consumer protections, and thousands of other “goods” work much better when centralized and when costs are shared. Having healthy debates about what those shared costs should be is worthwhile (and, in theory, something we do every election cycle when we vote for candidates based on their debates about the issues–ha, ha, ha!).

As such, I don’t mind taxes on goods and services, property taxes, or other taxes associated with my choice to consume various goods and services. I think it’s worth reminding everyone that rich and poor, citizen and alien, old and young all pay taxes into the system simply by living and consuming in America. Likewise, I have no issues with federal taxes on income, capital gains, inheritance income, and I fully support requiring that all workers pay into the federal system, even if that amount is as small as 1% of earned income. There’s nothing wrong with ensuring everyone has a little skin in the game. I’ll even admit that I’m a fan of a progressive flat tax system with limited deductions to avoid letting the government pick winners and losers based on who hires the best lobbyists.

Full-time students should have access to that limited set of deductions. My son pays taxes when he buys his books, pays for food, and pays rent. He, like any full-time student moving toward graduation, has limited earning possibilities, though, if he’s going to take enough classes each semester to graduate in four years. Those students who work, like my older son who covered his living expenses as a student, pay taxes every paycheck, but they (usually) get a refund at the end of the year because they don’t earn much.

For students who earn scholarship money above and beyond the cost of tuition, though, the tax bill hits even if the amount above and beyond is the same as their colleagues who work. My son last night paid 10% of his scholarship to Uncle Sam. I’m sure if there’s a CPA reading this blog you can tell me there was IRS Form 666 or something we could have filed, but my son shouldn’t have to do do. Likewise, my older son, once he marks full-time student on his W-2 should be exempt from having money withdrawn. He shouldn’t have to wait for a refund. Let’s put money in the pockets of those citizens who need it the most, especially those who are working to improve their futures (and future earnings).

Like so many other things, we can’t trumpet the value of an education and then actively work to make earning that degree difficult. Students who earn scholarships are being paid to do well in school. That money isn’t income; it’s a long-term investment. After, Uncle Sam’s going to get his eventually, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Art of the Industrial

A few weeks ago, my wife asked our sons if they wanted to move to Denver for the summer. Jobs, she said, are plentiful if you’re willing to swing a hammer, climb on a roof, or lay some bricks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing a shortage of construction workers across America. Tradesman International points out that nearly 80% of construction businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Most major cities are experiencing construction slowdowns simply because there aren’t enough skilled (or even unskilled) workers willing to take the jobs available. Home buyers and business feel the impact as construction costs rise, buildings take longer to frame and finish out, and builders can’t maximize profits because they are forced to take on fewer jobs.

And heaven help home owners searching for a contractor to perform relatively small remodel jobs. While I’m sure Home Depot and Lowes appreciate a skilled worker shortage that forces home owners to attempt various DIY projects (and then re-do the DIY project after the tile is crooked, the door falls off its hinges, or the sink sprays water to the ceiling), it seems to me we’re reaching a critical point where we don’t quite appreciate the art of the industrial.

Understand that I don’t think the emphasis on a college-degree or college-ready high school programs and skilled trades are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason we can’t have philosophers who can weld (or welders who are philosophers for that matter).

I realize that the shortage of workers is caused by some complex factors. We know, for instance, that many potential construction workers will choose oil field work over framing houses. I suspect, and this is a subject for another day, that the demise and demonization of unions has had a negative impact on skilled workers’ earning potential. It’s also fair to recognize the cultural shift that’s taken place over time. Many parents who did hard, grueling blue-collar construction jobs did so hoping to create more white-collar opportunities for their children. For an entire generation, sending your kids to school was a way to show you and yours were as good as anyone else. Those issues and ideas are no small things. The lure of indoor work and air conditioning aren’t to be dismissed lightly.

Stand by Me

Click and go to 1:17: “We’ll be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards making ash trays and bird houses.”

But I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve done a pretty fair job of hiding the value of the industrial arts. There’s no doubt that 30 years ago, “shop” classes were often viewed by school administrators as a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t “college material,” a kind of code filled with racial, economic, gender, and other covert biases. You didn’t often find the bank president’s son or daughter learning how to be a mechanic.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in education, we decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and phase out industrial arts classes, shop classes, and other trade specific programs.

And here we sit. Builders can’t find bricklayers and the rest of us have to wait a three months for a contractor to bid on a kitchen remodel (and six months for her to finish the job).

At the risk of sounding naive or offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem, I wonder why we don’t reinvest in industrial arts classes and make those classes a mandatory part of the curriculum in junior high and high school. Doing so would show our students that we value the skills learned and, most importantly, expose entire generations, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, to basic skills that complement reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students who want to work with their hands would have a viable path toward a career choice just like those students who want to study finance, education,  medicine, or the liberal arts. As importantly, students who might never consider the craft of drafting, the importance of wood grain, or the dangers of acetylene would have a chance to understand the complexity of skill required to build something. Algebra is complicated and hard, but so is framing windows for a house.

Plus, every parent, grandparent, or guardian in America would have at least one homemade footstool to display proudly.

These two educational paths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason a student who excels in industrial arts shouldn’t take calculus, college-level writing classes, or physics. In fact, I’d love for my plumber to be a math whiz who can communicate well because he’ll be more likely to understand the slope required for the refuse to get from the toilet to the sewer line. At the same time, how nice would it be if my loan officer also had at least a passing understanding about how much skill was required to put that sewer line in the ground correctly?

Too often, though, we devalue one of those skills in favor of the other, arguing that everyone needs a college education to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. As a dean at a public, four-year university, I love having students choose college, but I also know that we have a sizable chunk of students whose skill levels and talents lie in other directions. I applaud those universities and community colleges who are finding ways to provide skilled trade programs while also teaching the traditional core curriculum. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college, though. Instead, maybe it’s time we open those paths sooner. Or, at the least, stop pretending like it’s not worthwhile path to follow.

 

 

I Need Help With My Commas

commasAnyone who has put pen to paper (or fingers to plastic in this day and age) will admit that writing isn’t always a joyful experience, and those of us who read student writing for a living will happily tell you that reading ain’t no walk in the park either.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, writing’s difficulty stems from the tension between the author’s intent and the reader’s expectations. Typing a blog entry to an unnamed, faceless audience is different than emailing words of wisdom to my son later today. While both may go unread (especially the email), we know that familiarity changes our expectations. My son has been hearing and reading me for 22 years. We have a shared linguistic system that allows for short cuts, unconventional phrases, and allusions that are largely incomprehensible to people outside our family. When I write to him, I can anticipate exactly when he’ll roll his eyes or sigh loudly enough for his co-workers to wonder if that spreadsheet he’s reviewing is really that boring. When we blog, however, that shared history disappears, creating a far different experience. The “wisdom” I pass along to my son might be annoying advice to him but to strangers those same words might be pedantic simplicity.

Student writers experience this same issue. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, I think, to say that kids today don’t read and write. In fact, one might argue that they read and write far more than past generations. Between texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, and whatever cool, groovy social media app went viral this week, these darn kids are reading and writing more than ever. Like every generation, they’ve also adapted language to the medium and the audience, creating new rules and discarding old ones in favor of communicating an idea quickly and efficiently. (Of course, if you’re over 45 you might argue with my use of the word “idea” to describe what’s being communicated.) They’ve taken slang, something us old folks like to complain about all the time, into the written word as opposed to speaking on the street corners or into the telephone. The problem, perhaps, isn’t that they don’t read or write, but that they don’t read and write the “right” things or the “right” way.

Unfortunately for students, I’m starting to think the tension between audience and author grows increasingly difficult to maneuver, precisely because they are writing more and reading more. When a student shows up to my office and asks for help with his commas, he’s worried he can’t fit his ideas into this archaic system we call standard written English. As professors, we know our students need access to the language of power and that they wd b wel srvd learning how to wrt using all the letters, commas, & capital lttrs some stodgy, old manager expects. We also know that grammar helps organize thoughts but we are loathe to admit that sometimes those commas and other punctuation marks arent as important to meaning as we might think. Can we really make the case anymore that understanding how commas works is always essential to meaning?

Our students have been communicating via the written word since their thumbs were coordinated enough to text, retweet, or chat. Don’t get me wrong. As the little cartoon above shows, sometimes we need commas to avoid sounding like cannibals, but perhaps we should also admit that all commas aren’t created equal and maybe our students need less help with commas and more help with context.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Like You Mean It

Reblogged from Angelo State University’s Navigating Higher Ed blog:

Back when I was young and still played sports, a baseball coach told us our goal each day was to “practice like we mean it.” The idea, and it’s a cliché we’ve all heard before, is that championships might be won on the playing field but winning foundations are built in the weight room and at practice every day.

I’ve often thought we would be well-served to apply some athletic principles to academic activities.

Of course, it’s possible I just want to blow a whistle really loud during class and wear shorts to work.

The reality, though, is that hard work and intentionality transcend the activity in which you are engaged. There aren’t many jobs or hobbies where being lazy and haphazard helps you gain mastery. You might be the best athlete on the field or the smartest student in the class but if you aren’t putting forth your best efforts, you probably won’t achieve the success you want.

Hustle beats talent, every coach you’ve ever met will tell you, if talent doesn’t hustle.

We can apply the same principle to the classroom. Learning requires that we actively engage with the materials. Good grades might be earned on your exams or your essays, but the foundation for those scores is built in the daily classroom activities and at the library each night.

Learning, of course, is a complex mix of skills that often differ by discipline, but every academic subject requires that we read well. Certainly, first-year students (and anyone who has read this far into the blog) can read, but reading and reading well are two very different things. In fact, reading like a college student involves more than simply flipping the pages and getting to the end of the chapter.

Be Intentional

Reading can be fun, adventurous, wild, exciting, passionate and enlightening. We’ve all had that moment when a book, a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase captured our attention and our imagination. Reading can also be tedious, dull and (when you have eight chapters covering material you find about as exciting as clipping your toenails) disheartening.

Let’s face it. Sometimes reading can be about like shooting 100 free throws a day. The first 10 are exciting. Number 99? Not so much.

Practice, though, makes perfect and as readers we have to remember the reason we’re reading. Before you read, I tell my students, ask what you are trying to gain. Be intentional. Read your syllabus. Review your class notes. Why are you being asked to read this chapter? How is this information important and why do you need to know it? We might not be in control of what we have to read, but we can be in control of what we want to learn from the text.

Location, Location, Location

Where you read often matters just as much as how you read. Reading well requires that you focus your attention on the goals you set forth. If I had a dollar for every student who told me he concentrated better while listening to music, I would be sitting on a beach feeling sorry for everyone still sitting at their desks putting in a full day’s work.

If, I like to ask those students, I told you to learn the material by tomorrow or I will take your cell phone, smash it into tiny little bits, and send you back to junior high gym class, would you listen to music with the TV on while your roommates sit around playing poker and telling jokes?

One of the more important lessons incoming college students have to learn is that reading at this level is a high-stakes event. We have a compressed time frame and your professors expect you to read and retain information in a relatively short period of time. Since that’s the case, reading well necessitates that we find that location that allows us to focus all our energies on the words on the page.

No One Runs a Marathon on the First Day

I had a friend who, at 38, decided he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40. When he started training, he didn’t focus on distance. Instead, he ran for certain periods of time each day. The goal was to slowly but surely increase the length of time he could run. Doing so allowed him to also increase the distance.

Reading works the same way (and sometimes feels like a marathon). See how long you can read before you start thinking about food, your boyfriend, your roommate’s nasty habit of clipping his nose hairs each night, or what happened on “The Walking Dead” last night. When you get distracted, stop reading but try, each day, to extend the amount of time you can read while focused on the material. You’ll be amazed when the 10 minutes turn into an hour.

Look It Up

Since we haven’t smashed your cell phone yet, let that tiny little electronic brain serve you instead of enslaving you. Words have meaning and the people writing books choose words carefully. There’s no shame in not having a Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but there’s no reason to be lazy about it. Your library probably has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but Merriam Webster and Dictionary.com usually work pretty well, too.

Listen to Your Eyes

Reading should be an activity. Involve other senses in the process. If you read a particularly thorny paragraph, read it out loud. Find a friend to read it to you. Hear the words as often as possible.

Don’t stop there, though. When we read, we can often find meaning by visualizing the text. In my literature classes, I tell students to cast the roles and film the story in their heads. My colleague has students draw their thoughts. There is no doubt that words can confuse us, and we can get lost in the language within the chapters. When that happens, switch gears. Doodle your ideas, map out your confusion, and draw or listen your way to understanding.

Learning Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The other day in class, a student raised his hand and said, “I hate to be rude, but I don’t understand . . .” While I can’t speak for all professors everywhere, asking for clarification isn’t rude. Never be afraid to walk into class or stop by your professor’s office confused. If you are practicing hard and hustling, we want to help. Remember that your professors love this stuff. Being confused isn’t rude, but not working hard, then asking for help might be.

Read, Rest and Repeat

I’ve never met a good hitter who takes one swing during batting practice. Reading well, like hitting a fast-pitched softball, jumping hurdles, or setting a quick ball in the middle, takes practice, repetition and time. Make sure, I tell my students each semester, you have time to read, rest and repeat.

Most of all, though, I tell my students, you have to commit yourself to read like you mean it. After all, that textbook probably cost you (or your parents) a pretty penny. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of it.

The Petting Zoo–Story the Last

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We’ll soon return to our regularly scheduled blogging. First, though, we get to see the first couple of paragraphs of the closing story in “Love is Not a Dirty Word.”

I’ve been writing all week about how and why I’ve written certain stories. I wish I could point to some magical moment as inspiration for “The Petting Zoo.” I could wax philosophically about some long ago memory of reaching through the fence and touching the soft, downy fur of a baby chicken or mention the tight curls of a sheep’s wool.

Yeah.

Or I could admit that I watch way too much television and I’ve seen one too many commercials in my life. I’m pretty sure it’s Verizon (or maybe T-Mobile) but a few years ago around Christmas a mother walks into the mall with her son on one side and her daughter on the other. She looks at the son and tells him “you’re my rock” I know you’ll behave. She turns to the little girl and says, “we can’t have a repeat of the petting zoo” can we? The little girl looks up at her with as much seriousness as a 6 year old can muster and says, “I’ll try mommy, but I can’t make any promises.”

Fortunately for the mother, she sees the (insert cell phone company here) store and she’s saved from the unpredictability of shopping with her daughter.

Who cares what kind of cell phone dad is getting, I thought. I wanted to know what the hell happened at the petting zoo?

If you saw that commercial and asked the same question, here’s what I think happened.

The Petting Zoo

Christie leaned back, trying to melt into the couch cushions, wishing she could wake up when her kids where 18 and in college. She smelled strawberry and felt the sticky residue of a half finished Jolly Rancher on her neck as she cradled the phone against her ear and tried to concentrate. The ceiling fan was filthy, there were spiderwebs in three corners, and she had at least one couch cushion poking her in the thigh, but she wasn’t all that sure what her husband had just said. Her ability to have an adult conversation was in direct proportion to how well her children behaved on
any given day.

“What? Sorry. I just spaced out for a minute. How can there be spiderwebs but no spiders?” Christie leaned to the side. If she couldn’t feel the spring, maybe she could pretend it wasn’t broken. “Anyway. You weren’t there. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She listened to Simon talk, wondering why her glass of wine was so far away. And how it got empty.

“I think we’ve been banned from the petting zoo. For life. Our grandkids won’t be able to go either.” Christie forced herself to stand. She needed a drink more than she needed rest. Or, more likely, she needed the drink in order to rest. The Jolly Rancher smell followed her to the kitchen and she wondered if there were any good snacks left.

“I’m fine. Just trying to get off the couch. Alexas told me at breakfast she wanted to grow up to be a kangaroo so she and David used the couch as their own personal trampoline this morning. I was outside watering plants for less than five minutes. When I came in, they had grocery bags tied around their waists with a small stuffed animal in each bag. They were yelling ‘Boing, boing’ as they hopped from cushion to cushion. Our couch looks like that hideous, plaid sofa you had in college. I don’t know what’s sagging worse—me or it.”

(If you want to find out why Alexas got banned from the petting zoo, click on the link above.)

Hands on the Wheel–Story # 10

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I mentioned at the outset of these blogs about the story collection that I almost titled them “Trailer Park Stories.” Interestingly enough, there are only two stories in the collection set in trailer parks. “Hands on the Wheel” is the second one.

As you can see (if you’ve been reading these blogs the last few weeks), I’m not always sure how a story will end. Often, I have to move in with a character for a while. I might have some specific scenes in mind and I generally have a sense of how I want to start a story. All those things may change before all is said and done but once I start writing I have the basic story arc in mind. Of course, characters sometimes hijack those initial plans, but we all have to start somewhere.

When I started “Hands on the Wheel,” I knew the story would end with the narrator outside a bar in his dad’s old truck looking at his hands on the steering wheel. I knew his dad would already be dead and that the narrator was in the process of making a decision about his life after encountering an old friend from the trailer park of his youth. This is only one of two stories that ended exactly as I thought they might when I started the story.

I told someone the other day that each story has little bits and pieces that I like. In “Love is Not a Dirty Word,” there’s a scene where the narrator stops in front of an antique store that I think is pretty slick. In “Coitus,” I think there’s a funny moment involving a mobile Bill’s crazy ex-girlfriend leaves on his door knob, and as big a jerk as Nathan Dumbrowski might be (he should have died–sorry bastard that he is) there’s a quote in there from Nietzsche that I think works pretty well.

“Hands” also has one of my favorite sentences. There’s nothing special about the wording, but each time I read the sentence within the context of the story, there’s something about the sadness that pervades the story at that particular moment.

I’ll willingly admit that you (should you read the book) might not have that same reaction. Words and sentences work like that, though. Each of us brings our own historical and contextual baggage into our confrontation with language that our reactions vary. That moment speaks to me for some reason.

Hopefully, if you read the book, you might find one or two of those sentences, also.

Hands on the Wheel

I first met Jolly when I was 15. My dad wasn’t real happy when we started running together, but he never said anything—not directly anyway. Jolly is one of the many things I’ve realized over the years my dad got right.

I was sitting in a bar outside of Abilene, watching the Dallas news when the story broke. Police had found three black men, two shot and one stabbed, at a southside carwash/laundrymat. Early speculation was a drug deal gone bad, and the lead suspect was Jolly Henderson. The news showed a grainy surveillance photo on one side of the screen with a black and white mug shot on the other. I was working as a framer for one of those build them quick home companies, and my hands were cut and calloused in ways that would disappoint my father but afforded me some measure of respect in a place like this. It was 9:30 and I was hot, tired, and normally able to ignore the bad news that invariably signaled the end of another day.

“I been knowing Jolly for about five years now.” The guy on t.v. was a large, toothy man with a scraggly looking beard. He looked like that actor who always plays the fat biker—he’s mean and tough but too ugly to have any lines. There were good reasons to keep him silent.

“His name was sort of ironical, if you know what I mean. I’ve not ever seen the man smile.” The guy was enjoying his five minutes of fame. “Hell, he was just flat out a mean as a snake, if you ask me.” He looked behind him toward the run-down shotgun house. “Still, I never figured him for nothing like this.”

(If you want to know a little more about Jolly, or try to guess the sentence I like so much, click on the link above to buy the book.)

 

Dear Search Committee–Story #7

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“Dear Search Committee” started out as a comedic look at a cynical, burned out professor who had grown tired of teaching. In my mind’s eye, this story was going to be this comic attack on the absurdity of college administration.

That’s such low hanging fruit, though.

I wrote the opening paragraph of the job search letter and then drew a complete blank. So I did what most writers do. I hid the paper in a manila folder and waited until the idea wanted to be written.

When I started the collection, I pulled the piece out and wrote the sentence after the letter paragraph.

And things took off.

I’m not sure why that happens, but all of a sudden Nathan took on a life of his own.

And it’s a sordid life. Like “Coitus,” I suspect some readers might have renewed doubts about letting me teach their children after they read this story.

Nathan, quite frankly, is not a nice guy. In fact, in the original version he dies by the end of the story. Terry Dalrymple, a fine writer and someone who read these stories in their early versions, told me he didn’t buy it. The death didn’t fit with the story itself. He was right, but, I really want this character to be dead.

Either way, better story telling won out over my desires and Nathan makes it to the end of the story.

Dear Search Committee

It should have been an easy letter to write. Nathan Dumbrowski had been teaching for about 10 years, and he was a leader in his department and a confidante of various administrators.

Dear Search Committee:
I write with great interest in your recently advertised Head, Department of English position, fully recognizing that my interest in your job will probably exceed your interest in me. My years of
experience teaching and my record of working with colleagues to improve programs and recruit and retain students should qualify me for such a position, but I suspect my reward is in heaven instead of a bigger office with a larger paycheck and less work. But, what the hell, right? It’s Friday afternoon, and I can either grade functionally illiterate essays written by students perpetually on probation, surf the internet for free porn, or apply to be a Department Head.

Nathan considered his opening gambit. He also decided surfing the web for porn sounded like a good idea.

(If you want to see why Nathan needed to die, click on the link above.)

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)