Reading with the Kids – When Do I Stop?

Experts say that you should start reading with the kids when they’re very young, but when are we supposed to stop?

The benefits to children of reading with them are manifold.  From the earliest age – and my wife and I read to ours from the earliest days – the child learns much.  At first, the child learns to listen to the cadence, tone and inflection to assist them as they themselves learn to speak, even from learning the most basic sounds.  As they grow and begin to master the various sounds, their brains can start to follow basic concepts that might be found in very simple books, such as shapes, colors, animals, textures and trucks.  Hold a child in your lap with a cardboard book with easy-to-manipulate pages and the child can even start to get in some manual dexterity practice as she improves at grasping and turning the pages.  By the time that they’re in preschool, you’re off to the races with stories that not only feed their imagination, but help them with practical skills such as learning how to sit and listen for a short period of time; as they age, the skill increases and enhances their ability to concentrate for longer periods also.

With the first two children, it was simple as they were only about two years apart and by the time that they were in early elementary school, they’d heard stories such as Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit  and A Christmas Carol.  Each has since moved on to their own preferred genres and are now fully into adult fiction; Eldest loves chick lit and Middle prefers F Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack. 

But it’s been far more sporadic and intermittent with Youngest, who’s still in Elementary School and whose reading times have been greatly affected by the general uproar that comes with active older siblings.  He’s an advanced reader and unlike his elder siblings, prefers non-fiction and science to the fiction realm, which makes it difficult to stay awake in the evening hours while reading with him.  Frankly, alligators and gecko lizards put me to sleep.  His technical skills haven’t suffered in the least and the verbal acuity has only been brought even further along by trying to keep up with precocious siblings; I was appalled to discover last week that he’s even been introduced to Urban Dictionary, although I’m unclear if that’s courtesy of Middle or someone from elementary school.  Youngest however, still wants to read with me and while it does crimp into the evening hours and activities, it’s something to which I look forward.  It’s not even about story anymore, although it certainly makes a difference.  Instead, it’s about spending some quiet moments alone with one another and enjoying something together.  I’ve had to learn to decide in advance what I’d like to introduce and do so in enough time to make it timely.  Consequently, we began Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree in the latter part of September and finished it a week before Halloween itself.  While Youngest has pulled out Joshua Mowll’s Operation Red Jericho and we’ve begun that, my intent is to finish it as quickly as possible so that we can introduce him to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The time is coming when he’ll outstrip the desire and choice of literature as did his siblings and reading with Dad will go the route of toy soldiers and teddy bears, and as my own father said that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  But he’s still got the desire and amidst all of the general hoopla, I’ve realized that these are moments that I’ve got to grab onto with both hands because the days are dwindling fast.  So after Halloween tonight, we’ll come back and split out the candy and after he’s ready for bed, we’ll curl up with the Guild Specialists of Operation Red Jericho.

And while I’m thinking about it, perhaps I’ll yank out my old tape recording of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and we’ll curl up to the Martians landing at Red Hook, New Jersey.

Student Lending Modifications:  Hey, It’s a Start…

…but only that.

The word is out that the President will be announcing executive orders to assist college students and graduates who are mired in debt.  The changes, which accelerate congressional actions, are threefold:

  • The maximum repayment is to be capped at 10% of income instead of the present 15%;
  • Any debt remaining will be forgiven after 20 years instead of the present 25 year period;
  • Loans from two existing programs will be consolidated at a rate approximately .5% lower than it currently is.

The expectation is that the changes will apply to approximately 7.5 million people with individual savings of about "several hundred dollars" monthly.  Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope exercise to ascertain the effect here.  Assume that there are 7.5 million affected with an average monthly savings of $300, or $3600 annually.  The total annual savings are in the vicinity of $27 billion (7.5M @ $3600), which is less than 3% of the approximately $1 T owed for higher education.

It’s a start, but it amounts to tinkering with the machinery.  It doesn’t go to the root issues that face our youngsters.  First, that the rate of inflation for tuition continues to rise at a clip disproportionate to the overall CPI and is now far more outsized to the average family income than it was several decades ago.  Second, it doesn’t address the fact that there are simply very few sustainable, living wage jobs for graduates.  Until these core issues are addressed, either by the market or the government via some workable, commonsense policy, then the kids are going to continue to face difficulties that force them to postpone their true adult lives, out of the nest and on their own.

College:  The Degree or the Experience?

When you go places overnight with the kids, you often have the opportunity to kibbitz and share perspectives with other parents in similar situations and such was the case the other night.  Specifically, the question batted around was whether the actual degree, that almost-magical parchment for which millions of students and parents impoverish themselves, was more or less important than the college experience itself. 

The conversation was with a woman for whom I have considerable respect.  Her eldest child is enrolled at a prestigious national liberal arts university and has a significant merit scholarship; that said, the scholarship doesn’t cover even half of the annual tuition/room and board and it’s up to the folks to carry the load on this.  She’s a person who – along with her husband – has done a terrific job of raising the kids and assuring that they have opportunities to broaden their horizons.  The two kids clearly have been raised with expectations, rules and accountability and they are, in simple terms, truly a good couple of kids.  As we talked, her clear sense was that while the degree matters, what truly matters is that kids take full advantage of the college experience.  Travel abroad, unique courses, top quality faculty and students of the same caliber and apprecation of education are crucial and worthy of the cost involved if the student takes full advantage of them.  This is the message from parent to student and God love ’em, the folks are moving heaven and earth to make it happen.  To her credit, the student in question is likewise taking advantage of the opportunities provided to her by her folks’ sacrifice.

My comments could be categorized as respectful disagreement.  I was fortunate to grow up in a time when, while a private university was still expensive compared to public institutions, it had not become wholly disproportionate to the typical income of the time and I acknowledge that.  My comments ran along the lines that the times and the model have changed in the intervening thirty years.  The costs are disproportionately higher as the tuition/room and board inflation rate have risen at a rate higher than the standard CPI – assuming that you don’t believe that that number is gamed anyways – and the average family income is now down several percentage points from four years ago.  Likewise, higher education is no longer the realm of ivy-covered non-profits with memorable fight songs and old buildings.  It’s a big business – which one blog commenter refers to as Big Ed – in which almost two dozen college presidents receive wage packages in excess of $1 million; the primary funding institution, Sallie Mae, by all appearances is a fiefdom unto itself with it’s own collection agency and a lobbying budget that has surpassed a million dollars annually.  If a nobleman has men-at-arms to collect the peons’ taxes and ingratiates himself with the king to maintain good relations and access, then the nobleman by definition has a fiefdom. 

Perhaps the greatest damage to the argument has been the issue of the non-dischargeable college debt, which figures in Occupy Wall Street’s 99 Percent Declaration.  While we’ve outsourced our living-wage jobs and manufacturing base, we’re made it damned near impossible for the new crop of students coming out as they’ve bought into the dream and mortgaged themselves to do it, only to be told by the way, that degree gets you a barista position with no benefits.  In the conversation noted above, the young woman will probably come out with no debt courtesy of her parents, who in turn will be most likely laden to the hilt.  The student debt issue won’t apply since they’ll have the debt, but it begs the question of what precisely we, as parents, owe our children.  Do we owe them our own future in order for them to have the experience?  The conversation in my own home recently contained the comment that we owe you an education, but that doesn’t mean that we have to bankrupt ourselves (and for the record, the child isn’t asking us to do so).  We have to take the adult long view and consider who’s coming up later in the family pipeline, as well as our own old age needs.  Both my wife and I are grateful that at the same time that college is on the plate, we’re not also forced to throw additional financial resources at helping our own parents on the other slice of the sandwich bread.  While I hope that things improve, I’m confident that this is all part and parcel of a permanent ratcheting downwards in the national economy and if that’s the case, then Eldest and her younger siblings will have their hands full caring for their own future broods.  When I’m in my dotage is likely to be the worst time for them to have to assist financially in terms of their own economic and financial lives.

Some might view my friend’s beliefs as too idealistic and lacking in common sense.  Others might see me as a raging ass who’s so selfish that he’ll take experiences from his kids’ mouths for sake of a dime.  What’s important in this is what you consider.  What do you owe your children and how far does that extend?  If you won’t pay for "the experience", what will you do to offset that?  Will you make a similar investment in your time and talent that these other parents have done?  Look down the road a distance and even consider what you think is on the horizon.

These are valid questions and ones that should be considered and debated when the kids are younger and before you’re forced into a values decision that you might come to regret.

The Explosion of Student Debt

With Eldest in the midst of the college search, we’re exquisitely aware of the college costs and how her choices impact the issue of debt – and vice versa.  So it was eye-opening to see how student debt doubled in little over a decade and actually rose by $100 Billion in one year alone.  As many Americans with jobs cut back on their spending and credit card debt, our youngsters are being forced to take on increasing amounts of debt to earn what is the 21st century’s equivalent of the high school diploma.

Our goal is to have our daughter come out of college with no debt and we’ve saved enough over the years to make that happen under certain circumstances and we’ve shared those circumstances with her for the past several years; God love her, she’s taken the conversations to heart and studied to academically achieve what I never could have.  The difficulty is that there are plenty of other academically capable seniors also out there, competing against one another for the grants and scholarships that are probably stagnant in their own growth because of the lack of any real returns on the funds in their endowments.  It’s hard to restock the larder when you’re bound by fiduciary requirements and the only real returns today seem to come from a big win in the Powerball.

So what are the various options to help the kids, apart from saving on your own?

  • Find out what the graduation requirements are for high school as soon as they’re freshmen and lay out in advance what the various routes and alternative paths are.  Don’t assume that the high school counselors are going to magically assure that everything’s done and set for your kid.  Late this summer, we found out that while Eldest needed another course in English to graduate, the school enrolled her in yet another History course instead; if we hadn’t kept up with it, she’d been in the position of having to jury rig some weird second-semester combination just to graduate from high school with greater than a 4.0 average.
  • Investigate if any neighboring community colleges or state universities allow capable high school students to take coursework there.  If so, then talk to the high school counselors and administration about what high school courses can be replaced by the college courses instead.  Some high schools permit this – as ours does – and the students get a three-fer on the deal.  The high school provides credit towards graduation, most colleges and universities will accept the credits on the lower level courses after the student graduates from high school, and the college courses bolster the high school grade point average.  For instance, a high school might weight a college prep course with three credits, an honors class with four credits and a college course with five credits; this is how there high school graduates coming out with GPAs of 4.1 and above.  The other advantage to this is that there’s greater up front cost, but it can be handled in much smaller bites over a longer period of time as the courses are gradually completed over two years and you aren’t left with some whopping large bill later on.  In Eldest’s case, she’ll graduate high school with a full semester of college credits already under her belt.
  • Assure that the kids have a real sense of what the greater wide world is like.  Come Junior and Senior year of high school, they’ll be pelted with glossy brochures extolling the virtues of Dear Ol’ Wassamatta U, ripe with pictures of smiling young adults, none of whom seem to be half-naked or hungover.  While the large majority of them want independence and to be away from the soul-crushing atmosphere of the parents, they also don’t want to pay attention to the world around them so that they come into the real world as startled and screaming as the day that they were born.  In a sense, the youngsters protesting at OWS are being brought kicking and screaming into a world in which they’ve been not only dropped on their heads at birth, but used as financial hackisacks by the staff on cigarette breaks.  What does this mean on a practical level?  From high school freshman year, when the grades really do start to count for the college experience, show them what’s been saved so far – if any has been saved.  Explain to them where it’s at and while $5000 might seem like a lot to a 14 year old with no sense of proportion, then take them to the website for the nearest state university and contrast that with the cost of a semester there.  Over the years, continue talking to them about the necessity of a degree and as they age, bring in the concept of wages so that they can start to understand the idea of debtload.  In Eldest’s case, she discovered what a 529 plan was during the spring of her Freshman year and is now fully aware of what’s been saved for her versus what the various alternatives cost.  Middle has already had this same conversation even earlier than his older sibling and even Youngest – in elementary school – is aware of the generalities if not the specifics.
  • Take the time – years in advance, if necessary – to find out what the various mechanisms and opportunities are out there.  Explore college scholarship websites, follow up with the guidance counselors and keep tab on what the kids are thinking so that you’re not unduly scrambling in the few months between the end of junior year and the start of the application deadlines.  Even then, it’s a daunting process.
  • Talk to the kids, persistently and consistently on message.  There will come a point when they roll their eyes and try to defer and avoid hearing it, but the truth is that they do listen to what’s being said. 

Eldest is winnowing down the field of alternatives as she mosies through the process.  There have been moments when I’ve hated having to point things out to her because I don’t want to intrude on what should be fun years, but those moments of discomfort are offset by the knowledge that there is at least some semblance of an informed decision.  While I have no idea where she’ll wind up or even if there’s going to be some debt afterwards, it’s become clear that she’s taken the conversations of the past several years to heart.

Keep talking, they’re listening.



Occupy Wall Street’s Declaration

For those who are interested, here is a link to the declaration issued several days ago by the Occupy Wall Street Working Group.

For all that the Main Street Media is doing to paint them as wackos, screwups, babes-in-the-woods and malcontents, the declaration provides substantive and eye-opening reading.  The goals are ambitious and direct, even if messy in the sausage-making aspect of politics when and if they come about.  Boiled down to the bare-bones essentials, the gist is this:

  • Our nation is squandering its resources on foreign adventurism and non-renewable energy, replacing active measures of research and application with a steady stream of military spending;
  • Our nation is failing to look to the future by saddling its young people with non-dischargeable debt, yet failing to promote policies and industries that provide them with the wherewithal to retire the debt and make a reasonable wage;
  • Our nation is committing political and social suicide by permitting a very small minority of people to control a wildly disproportionate measure of the national wealth;
  • Our nation’s government is actively abetting this since it has been financially coopted by that very small minority who have prospered.

While the term fascist been lobbed about like a verbal hand-grenade over the past five decades, the Working Group is absolutely correct in their opening quote by Benito Mussolini – Who?  Oh yeah, the Italian dude who was buddies with Hitler during the Second World War, you know, the one right after the Civil War – that fascism is a combination of big government and big business.

I suggest that you read it, even if you prefer the Tea Party over the young punks screaming, chanting and beating drums on Wall Street.  You might be surprised to find yourself nodding your head.

PracticalDad:  What’s My Line?

One of my peeves is that our kids have such a lousy handle on history – hell, most of us have a lousy handle on it – and we don’t recognize that history "doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme" because human nature doesn’t change.  In its own way, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are simply two sides of the same nickel that’s been reminted from it’s original design 200 years ago.  It’s apparent from reading multiple sources – and hearing others, like Hannity, LImbaugh, etc – that the work is on to paint these protestors as wackos, malcontents and screwups who can’t get or hold a job, conspiracy theorists who blame others for their own predicament, or professional political activists who’ve now latched onto a new cause that sucks in all of the unwitting dupes just mentioned above.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

That said, feel free to see if you can correctly identify who stated each of the quotes or passages that follow.

1.  "There are never wanting some persons of violent and undertaking natures, who, so they may have power and business, will take it at any cost."

(a)  Friedrich Engel

(b)  Sir Francis Bacon

(c)  Franklin Delano Roosevelt

(d)  Theodore Roosevelt

2.  "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.  To destroy the invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship of the day."

(a)  Theodore Roosevelt

(b)  Karl Marx

(c)  Michael Moore, director/activist

(d)  Gov. Jerry Brown

3.  "A great industrial nation is controlled by it’s system of credit.  Our system of credit is concentrated in the hands of a few men.  We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the world – no longer a government of free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of small groups of dominant men."

(a)  Rep. Ron Paul (TX)

(b)  Matt Taibbi, journalist

(c)  Arianna Huffington

(d)  Woodrow Wilson

4.  "Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all commerce and industry."

(a)  Robert Reich

(b)  Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson

(c)  Financier George Soros

(d)  James Garfield, US President (1880 – 1882)

5.  "History records that the money changers have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over governments by controlling money and it’s issuance."

(a)  James Madison

(b)  Senator Bernie Sanders (VT)

(c)  Vladimir Ilych Lenin

(d)  Bill Maher, comedian

And the answers are…

1.  (b)  Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)

2.  (a)  Theodore Roosevelt, US President who was the first to actively wield the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to gain control over the industrial combines of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

3.  (d)  Woodrow Wilson, US President who promoted the adoption of the legislation establishing the Federal Reserve System in 1913.  He later rued his actions for this legislation.

4.  (d)  James Garfield, US President (1881), who was heavily involved in the debates over the nature of the American currency after the Civil War.

5.  (a)  James Madison, US President and writer of the Constitution, who was engaged in the debate over the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. 

Think twice – even three times – when you read, watch or listen to the media.  Both OWS and the Tea Party are two sides of the same coin, one minted in dissatisfaction, disaffection and distrust of the corporate and political establishment; an establishment that is really now joined at the hip like a pair of freakishly bloated Siamese twins grabbing food from the plates of others and cramming it into one another’s mouths.  The fear and concern is genuine and is a natural occurrence to what’s clearly seen as the usurpation and corruption of the system for the benefit of a very, very select few. 

This has happened before and my hope is that it’s corrected so that it can happen again in another hundred or so years.  When you see members of Generation Y yelling in the streets and middle class oldsters sitting with tea bags dangling from fishing caps, ask yourself what Madison, Garfield, Roosevelt and Wilson would say and do and while you’re at it, throw in FDR, Jefferson and Jackson as well.



First Hand Look at the Tiger Mother

There are stereotypes borne of reality and one of these is of the chinese mother, as popularly memorialized by Amy Chua in her 2011 bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  It’s one thing to read it but another thing entirely to get a first-hand insight into the thinking of the Tiger Mother; it was something that I received the other week when I gave a lift to the Tiger Mother’s daughter and she, my daughter and I had an illuminating conversation.

In Chua’s book, she decides to raise her two Chinese-American/Jewish daughters in the Chinese manner.  The child is given real opportunities but the quid pro quo is that the child is expected to perform and do so in exemplary fashion.  Practicing for violin lessons during vacation?  Check.  Repeated drilling of lessons?  Check.  While I consider my wife and I to be fairly hardnosed about expectations of children, I couldn’t conceive of demanding such from my own kids.  My own general guidelines of the kids are to do your best, respect your teachers and coaches, and don’t ever waste my time.  Don’t want to practice for the music lessons that you requested?  Fine, learn to play the damned thing on your own.  In an earlier article, my thought was that this general attitude arose from living in an unstable society where there few opportunities and those only went to those who were the absolute best.  China has had longer periods of economic and political instability longer than this country has been a republic and if parents want the best for their children, they’ll provide it by pushing the kids to be able to survive in that society.

In this particular conversation, Tiger Mother’s Daughter – hereafter referred to as TMD – was asking about health insurance and pension plans; bear in mind that this is a 17 year-old.  When she mentioned pension plans, my mental response was akin to bwahahahahahahahahahaha*snort* but I answered her in a matter-of-fact way.  Honestly, very few companies still offer pension plans anymore.  If people want to retire, then they’ll have to save it for themselves in some plan such as an IRA or 401k and I wouldn’t hold your breath trying to find that kind of company anymore.  Ironically, I thought, those few who do still have pension plans can probably offer them to the administrative staff since they’ve outsourced all of the labor to China.  Her plans involved some form of engineering, perhaps for the military, since her SAT math scores were higher than I can count and I confirmed that yes, the military did offer a pension for years of service.  The flip side is that our spending is so out of whack that the military is probably going to take some real budget hits, so you have to be aware of that.  To her credit, her own thinking was that she could go the business school route and there’s where I responded with a Ding*Ding*Ding inflection in my voice.  With your abilities, grades and language skills, yeah, you’d be snapped up.

It was in this conversation that I could hear the mother’s fears and motivations come through.  They were immigrants and while that’s tough for everyone, she was shielding her daughter from the true unpleasantries that come with parenting and adulthood in such a situation.  I could discern her thinking please, I don’t want her to hate the surroundings in which she might have to raise her own child; I don’t want her to wonder about where the food’s going to come from; I want my grandchild to have better than I could give you, my love.

In terms of family structure and child-rearing, the Chinese are almost in a completely different dimension from the typical American family.  We view them as comical absurdities in their demands of their kids and the responses when the kids do stupid things – and boy, kids will do stupid things.  But getting even a tiny glimpse into that world is eye-opening and that’s even for someone who’s already considered by the kids to be pretty hardnosed.  Given what this country has already been through economically and I expect will go through in the near future, I’m appreciating the demands placed a bit more than I did before.

Emotions and Reason in the College Search

It’s one thing to be aware of a problem like the issue of student debt, and even to write about it rationally.  But when the kids actually begin the college search process and are engaged in it, that rationality can really become endangered and that’s not just on the part of the kid.  The emotions – and guilt – swirl about and cloud the decision-making better than a lawyer sniffing a settlement.

Eldest is in the heart of the process now and as I write this, is on the road returning from an overnight visit to a private college.  This is the third overnight experience that she’s had along with two standard visits and interviews and there’s still another to come in about three weeks before she winnows her choices down the select few.  At each visit, the effort is made to pair the prospective students with the most engaging "ambassadors" who put the best face on the institution and sell it to the max.  Throw enough students at this particular marketing wall and a few are going to stick and opt for that college.

This is a highly emotional, well-spun process and it can cause almost anybody to lose sight of the salient facts.  Students talk about the experience and look for the best "fit", gauging whether the physical reality seems to mesh with the glossy, crisp photos of smiling students amidst plush facilities and noshing at yogurt bars.  As I write this, a brochure from Wisconsin Lutheran College is at my right and there are various photos of students in a diverse series of activities below a large photo of color-clad trees, apparently in that one week period between summer and the onset of northern mid-west blizzards.  The interior is filled with quotes and captioned photos of the faculty and students and is solely intended to sell the emotions; in this regard, Higher Ed is no different from the "Home"builders, who always mention that they’re selling homes instead of houses.  Likewise, there’s also been correspondence to the us, the parents, reassuring us that they also only want what’s in our child’s best interest and oh yes, by the way, this is an investment in their future.

And the eighteen years that we’ve spent so far is…what?

Reason meets emotion amidst our conversations.  Eldest is deeply aware of the debt situation and doesn’t want to mortgage her future.  We want her to enjoy the college "experience" and naturally want what’s best for her.  But certain phrases crop up, such as best fit and experience – which is naturally the one that’s displayed in the brochures and online.  The guilt is there – did we save enough and could we have saved more?  Yes, there might have to be some debt, but are we betting against our child when we seriously consider some of the more highly priced options?  After all, there’s always a crying need for a good lawyer, dentist, fireman, photographer and isn’t she the one that could get through it?  Our talks work through this process as best fit is paired off against debtload and the point is reiterated that the final decision among decent options will most likely come down to the financial package as I try to shove aside the emotional baggage that I carry.  To her credit, Eldest – a rocket scientist who will have finished 15 credits of college coursework by her high school graduation – has culled out the majority of the highly priced private colleges except for one with a screamingly good program in which her interests lie.

As I struggle with cynicism, I then get a cold dose of reality from this infographic explanation about the student lending system.  The reality is that student loans were ruled as non-dischargeable in the first place as graduates in the 1970s scammed the system by declaring bankruptcy upon graduation and dodging repayment.  With loss rates rising, the systemic response was understandable.  Yet some very smart – and not terribly moral – people understood their advantage and built a system around it to secure their particular little empire.  When an agency like Sallie Mae owns its own collection agency and spends millions in lobbying, they’ve got themselves an empire.  Bang!  I’m all the way back to my hardnosed stance. 

Blow away all of the smoke and the salient facts are these.

  • A college degree does matter.  It is the 21st century equivalent of the high school diploma and it does make an economic difference.
  • If it makes a hard economic difference, then the final decision has to be based principally upon the hard economics of the decision.  What’s the cost and what’s the aid package?  Whether Dear Ol’ Wassamatta U has a primo yogurt bar or Mongolian Grill is irrelevant and that must be pointed out to the kid.
  • While debt is a personal bugaboo, reasonable debt is a tool provided that the job prospects for the career support the ability to repay the debt. 
  • In today’s economy – depressed, recessed, generally suckish, whatever you wish to call it – the jobs available to manage that debt are simply not available.  If you have any doubt, just consider all the adults doing jobs previously held by our teenagers.
  • College is only three or four years of an actuarially long lifespan.  Does it make sense to mortgage the next ten to fifteen years for those few?
  • What you get out of something is wholly dependent upon what is put into it.

The college search will continue and I truly have no clue where she’ll go.  My great wish however, is that whatever college is finally chosen has the best program for the money that’s available.  And then we’ll start going to work on child number two as we take up the bean diet.


Food, Family, Shift Dining, Vegetarians and Budgets

With college on the horizon for Eldest, followed in intervals by Middle and Youngest, the question is how to cut down on one of our biggest expenditures – food.  It’s a puzzle since it’s one thing to say oh yeah, I’ll cook for the family but it’s another thing completely when the other factors are the chaotic scheduling due to three different kids with activities and the presence of a vegetarian in the household.  It’s now a reality that the traditional family meal is the exception to the rule and it would be easy to just pop a precooked meal, a la Stouffer’s in the oven.  But time truly is money and the cost is truly lessened if it’s cooked.

This will be an ongoing project to cut down on the food spending while still meeting my primary constraints:

  • Creating a decently cooked meal that can be easily heated/reheated for the various kids and spouse who are constrained by schedules;
  • Creating a meal that, while requiring some investment in the initial preparation, won’t take significant reheat times since I’m the one providing much of the transportation;
  • Creating a meal that tries to honor Eldest’s dietary choice of being a vegetarian (actually an ovopescavegetarian since she will eat eggs and fish;
  • Creating a meal that uses fresher and easily obtainable ingredients to cut down on the costs.

And yes, I’m going to walk through the scheduling and thinking as I outline what I’ll be doing regularly.

Today’s situation was work for Eldest, theatre practice for Middle and an undetermined return for Better Half.  The kicker however, is that the following night consists of either work or activities for everybody and on top of that, I’m gone as well so whatever is prepared today has to be easily reheated by various folks at different times before they exit.  Since soup is something that almost always improves in taste with time, the choice was soup.  On the island was a butternut squash and there were plenty of Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji apples in the garage so a quick review of the internet led to this 12 serving recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Apples and Bacon.  Yeah, there’s a vegetarian in the house but there are occasions when I’m asking for a little flexibility; our own menu has largely shifted out of chicken and red meat since the dietary change occurred so a little bacon is alright on the rare instance.  Since I was also already cutting up an apple for the soup, I went ahead and sliced extra and threw them into the crockpot to cook on high for several hours.  The complement to the meal would be simply bread with butter.

Given that I already had all of the ingredients in the house, it was an exceptionally inexpensive meal for what’s turning out to be two nights of food. 



Keep Talking, They’re Listening.  But What Do the Youngest Understand?

We all know the phrases:  …like talkin’ to a brick wall; they see me movin’ my lips and nod just to humor me;  does anybody even understand a word that I say?  Talking to teens can be an immensely frustrating exercise as their egos and hormone-addled brains seemingly overwhelm the message of what you’re trying to get across.  Ask them several minutes later what you were saying and you’re liable to get a cocked-head impersonation of Laddie, the wonder Spaniel.  But there are moments when you realize that someone really is listening and it’s not always the teens, but the younger ones who hear what’s being said and then process it in interesting and occasionally sad manners.

This was the case with Youngest, who’s still in elementary school and hears the conversations with Eldest, who’s progressing on the college search.  In the course of conversations, he’s learned about 529 plans, scholarships and such a thing as a SAGE account.  He understands and God love him, has taken the academic discipline to heart as he faithfully keeps up with the homework without prodding and little complaint.  But I was surprised by a recent conversation with him about this distant, post-high school event on the horizon.  Youngest knows that a young neighbor recently left for the Air Force and was suddenly talking about plans to enlist when he turned 18; many boys talk about joining the army or marines as though it’s a grand continuation of their childhood soldier games, but Youngest spoke with a considerably different bent.  This was laying out a plan to spend several years in uniform and then a return to civilian life to pursue studies under the college benefits plans.  While this is certainly a possibility, it’s generally bandied about by much older teens and when I reminded him that we were saving for him as well, he responded to the effect that we also had his older siblings to cover and besides, we would then be approaching the years when people are starting to actively consider retirement.  What would be available to him would likely be minimal as the well would be dry (my words, not his).

I would have been less surprised to hear him uttering obscenities that he might have picked up on the Howard Stern Show. 

It could be considered an isolated situation save for another conversation with a very close friend, who related that her youngest son had spent considerable time and thought on the same issue.  The folks are talking with my sister about how to handle college and how she’s really going to have to work to help with scholarships and grants since there isn’t enough saved.  Geez, Dad’s getting old and when I get there, he and Mom are gonna be way more tired.  The education is really necessary and how am I gonna handle this?  It then sank in that someone really was listening to what was being said to his older siblings.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the base of knowledge or experience to be able to process it properly and was quietly going about his way to handle it as best as he might be able.  In that moment, my eyes teared and I almost wept.

The upshot is this.  Keep talking, even when you think that you’re absolutely beating your bloody head to a pulp and the kids are making jokes about it.  The politicians call it staying on message and while they all are skewered by Leno, Letterman and Stewart, the truly successful politicians do exactly that.  The message gets across and the lessons are – in most cases – driven home to the listeners.  But as you repeat the message again and again, take a moment to consider what I didn’t, that there are younger ears listening and taking what’s being said to heart.  When you have the opportunity, pull that youngster aside and ask what he thinks that he’s heard and if there’s a discrepancy, take that moment to reassure him that he’s neither alone nor left as the leftover child forced to fend for himself after the older kids have sucked the nest dry and moved onwards.

And even when the teens give you the Spaniel treatment, understand that they are listening, too.  Keep talking.