Monthly Archives: July 2011

Dear Mr. President

Headline I read the other day: “Obama: ‘We Have To Pay Our Bills'”


It’s a good thing we have him to bring that to our attention; after all, most Americans have no concept of what it means to have bills hanging over their heads, right?

In return for this electrifying and eye-opening revelation, may I submit–out of the depths of our nation’s grateful heart–the average working-class guideline for budgeting, entitled

An Illustrated Budget Primer for The President and Congress:

1. If it looks like you’re about to run out of money: STOP SPENDING. This might mean that certain areas of your communal life, heretofore the repository of many good and  comforting things might end up looking like this:

2. Determine the difference between wants and needs and stick with the needs. Note the milk and eggs? Those are needs. (Well, at least if you are running a daycare out of your home and the USDA says you have to feed the kids a certain amount of fluid milk and protein, it is.) The Worchester and lime are optional.

3. Get creative. If it’s July and your kid wants sandals, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out that his sneakers are already fully air conditioned:

Come on. Where does he have to go in the next month and a half that he’s going to need shoes, really? You don’t have any money, remember? You aren’t going to the store, the movies, or the swimming pool. Send him out to the garden to play in the mud. It’s (mostly) free. Depending on your view of property tax and where you get your water from.

4. Just because the experts say that you qualify for that loan, doesn’t mean taking it out is a good idea. Ask yourself: is this a matter of life or death? Is there anyway I could trade in my pride, comfort, or convenience in order to avoid that debt? Seriously. Maybe you’ll lose face and even weight because you have to bicycle to work, but you won’t lose your home to the bank, either. If you don’t go to the grocery store this week, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You use up those cans and boxes of bizarre food you keep pushing to the back of your pantry? You know you have some. And trust me, it will be good for your teens to realize just how good they had it when they had the option of pushing that food aside.

5. Get used to the whining that will surely erupt from the socialists. It actually doesn’t last that long–the people who take for granted that somehow you owe it to them to fill their every need only whine until they are certain that whining will no longer result in another handout. They might surprise you with their own resourcefulness if you give them a chance. Turns out my thirteen year old will even make a batch of bread if he gets hungry enough.

6. Along those same lines: I know you want to give them every good thing, but there’s nothing wrong with letting them drive Hank.

7. Waste not, want not. That means that if the toddler does something like, say… This:

you don’t take the easy way out. I know, I know, you’ve been taught all your life that time is money. But it isn’t money unless someone is willing to pay you for it. Wind the t.p. back onto the roll; it won’t kill you.

6. Hopefully, back when the budget wasn’t quite so tight, you acquired tangible property of some sort. Sell as much of it as you possibly can. You might miss your television, but feel free to refer back to #2.

7. Differentiate your skill set. Learn how to transform what you already have into something you need, instead of buying new. I think this pan of whole wheat bagels cost me about six cents:

I’m not saying it’s ideal, or that you should settle for painful scrimping as a permanent way of life: I’m just pointing out reality. You can’t solve debt problems by increasing your available line of credit indefinitely. At some point you’ve gotta settle for eating oatmeal even when you really want a breakfast burrito.





Meet Hank

In keeping with the precedent set when we bought my daughter a car last year (a 1988 Honda Accord with lots of character) we have procured another winning vehicle for my son, who will be sixteen this year, and has passed his drivers education course.

Meet Hank:

Hank is more than eleven years older than his soon to be owner; this fact brings with it some benefits:

  1. Chances are, he’s not going to be getting any speeding tickets. Hank’s top speed is legal almost everywhere. I hope the insurance company takes that into consideration when quoting us a premium here in few months.
  2. He won’t have to worry about getting the upholstery dirty: there isn’t any.
  3. Ditto concerns over damaging things like the interior door handles. Hank doesn’t have those, either; you exit the vehicle by rolling down the window and using the outside ones. Which should work out at least the muscles in the upper left half of his body.  At least as long as the window regulator holds out–and the one on the passenger side seems to be in great shape.
  4. He will never lock his keys in the truck. (What would posses you to lock this thing?)
  5. For some reason… Hank has two trailer hitches. Surely that will come in handy for something.
  6. He’s going to learn hand signals really, really well.
  7. Surely connected with the electrical malfunction addressed in #6: Without lights he can’t drive after dark! Hahahahahahaah.
  8. Hank gets really good gas mileage. Something to do with almost anything not integral to the functioning of the vehicle having already fallen off. No, that’s not just a shadow, there is no front grill.  Or rearview mirror. 
  9. Nobody will ever steal the stereo system. Unless cassette decks come back into vogue:
  10. The odometer is already tantalizingly close to flipping over the 100,000 mile mark again, and that’s always a good excuse to celebrate.
  11. And last but not least, if the horn works, I’ll bet it has character. Haven’t tried it yet–it was all I could do to park the darn thing: I couldn’t quite reach the clutch.
  12. Which brings up another advantage that Hank has, over even his more modern sibling, the Accord: Mom can’t adjust the seat so you probably won’t ever get in your vehicle only to realize that your knees are up under your chin.
No need to thank me.
Drive safe.

What Research Project?

Come on… you have to admit it needed re-staining at least as much as that paper needed writing…




The $3346.24 Marriage License

Editor’s note: Yes, since originally publishing this, I have edited it for my math errors. Or logic errors rather. Notice that I’m not majoring in either field…

Over the past six months or so I accepted the challenge to donate some of my time each day to a good cause–the creation of an digital index for old census, immigration, military, marriage, birth and death records from our country’s past. You find all sorts of interesting information. And not just things like the fact that somewhere in Alabama in 1933 a 25 year old woman married a 57 year old man, or that people really did bestow on their little girls names like Henry.

I’m talking about the fact that it cost the couple in Alabama $200 to purchase their marriage license. Two hundred dollars in 1933 had the same buying power as $3,346.24 today! These people were poor black laborers, hardly educated enough to sign their own names: his was barely legible and hers was a shaky X.  He worked as a factory sweeper and she worked as a domestic, and yet somehow they saved up enough money to get married. Unbelievable.

How much do you think a domestic made in 1933?

I found online that there was an attempt made at establishing a national minimum wage of $0.25/hour in 1933. The law was defeated, of course, because industry balked at such a steep price tag. But let’s say that these two people were hired by goodhearted people who wanted to pay out that minimum amount to colored domestic labor. In small town Alabama. In 1933.

How long would it take to earn that much money? For one person: 800 hours. That’s 20 forty hour weeks. To buy a marriage license!  That’s assuming that the purchaser never took a day off and had no other expenses over those twenty weeks and put every penny toward the license. I don’t know about you, but strictly survival related expenses at my house account for most of my income already.


I’ve indexed hundreds of these marriage records over the past week or so, and they are all similar in content. Poor, poor people–factory workers and waitresses and farm laborers who made an incredible sacrifice in ensuring their relationships were lawful in the eyes of God and man.

It’s a fascinating project if you’ve got some time on your hands. Come on… how much time have you spent surfing useless websites this week? What? Only an hour or so? Well, with a little practice, you could index a hundred names in that amount of time. And in return you could find out that your great-great grandfather maybe was a slave on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation or something. Seriously. These records are made into searchable databases–searchable by anyone, for no cost.

You can choose what sort of records you want to index, and there are no requirements besides an internet connection and your willingness to follow directions. It’s very simple–you download images of old records from the server and then type the information from the records into the computer and upload them. Somebody somewhere else has done the same thing for that record, and if you both didn’t type the exactly same information, the records are sent to a third person–an arbitrator–who makes the final call. If you’re interested, go ahead and check it out.

Launching the Laptop

We had a lesson on “Enmity” this week in Sunday School.

As in: that thing we ought to root out of our lives if we don’t want to be thrust down to hell, or at the very least live a miserable, lonely life.

The teacher pointed out that enmity covers everything from all-out road rage, to the rolling of your eyes when your spouse is speaking. (Not that I would ever do that…) It is anything which puts a distance between you and your brother. Any barrier of any size or composition.

Here’s my question: what if loving your brother as yourself seems about as possible to you as loving… I don’t know, the smell of a dishrag left in the sink one too many days? What if there are things about your brother that actually induce your gag-reflex every time you encounter them? Is that enmity, too?

Or what if, for example, let’s say there is an individual in your life–and let’s go with a brother, because all  of mine all live far away and safely fall outside the realm of possible suspects–who not only engages in behavior that makes you squeamish, but just all around drives you up the wall. Let’s say they have a tic–one of those compulsive, relentless bodily tics that they seem to have absolutely no control over: clearing their throat repeatedly, or drumming their feet, or compulsive picking and eating of the contents of their nose. In public. Clear into adulthood.

And what if whenever you spend time with your brother you successfully pretend to ignore his behavior, and you treat him just like everyone else? Maybe even nicer–to make up for the fact that every time he clears his throat your irritation mounts until after about the twentieth clearing in five minutes you fantasize about bashing him in the side of the head? And so you pray for the ability to love this person and you are really, really nice to them.

But inside… you still want to bash them in the head. Or run from the room screaming incoherently until the insidious sound of their tic is wiped from your brain?

That’s totally enmity, right? And if you don’t want to feel guilty and stressed and homicidal for the rest of your life, you should probably find a way to overcome your reaction to this person’s behavior, which is never going to change. 

And let me assure you this person is never going to change because for a time, for medical reasons, the not-so hypothetical individual in my own life could no longer engage in his tic–the proverbial clearing of the throat, shall we say–so he replaced it with an even louder, more irritating one until he could go back to clearing his throat. Yeah. I was almost (almost mind you) relieved  when the “throat clearing” resumed.

Why can’t I just choose to ignore these things?

Maybe that’s like asking why I can’t just wake up one day and decide I like mosquito bites, I don’t know. But the thing is–I’m pretty good at avoiding mosquitoes. Family, you’re kind of stuck with. Because you love them in spite of their tics–even when every nerve in your body is strained to the breaking point and you’re screaming with your lips closed and your head buried in a sofa cushion trying to drown them out.

Is that enough to keep me out of hell?

To love them enough not to complain about those things I know they can never change? Because that’s who they are? Come to think  it, maybe this is who I am… maybe I cannot change my emotional response to repeated auditory aggravation. Or the sight of you eating your snot. But it feels wrong. I don’t want to despise you for your weaknesses. Honest, I don’t. I have enough of my own.

But there you have it. I do. Not you necessarily. I don’t despise you.  But the tic? God forgive me: I just took twenty-five long, deep breaths and listed everything I love about you and then I even tried to just recite the pledge of allegiance and all the conjugations of all 14 tenses of Spanish -ar verbs in an attempt to distract myself.

But, yeaaaah…  I still pretty much want to throw this laptop at your head.

echo, tu echas, ella echa…

Squinting Into the Wind

Imagine you are perched on a granite outcropping high in the Rocky Mountains sometime early in the summer. There are patches of snow on the ground and when the wind gusts really strong, the cold scrapes your knuckles and anything else you can’t… quite…. stretch the sleeves or the collar of your jacket far enough to cover. Your task is to occupy this position for a certain amount of time–preferably without plummeting to your death or retreating off into the woods somewhere and getting lost.

It isn’t terribly difficult–no more so than the climb that has brought you to this place–but it does require all of your concentration: the ledge is narrow, the wind tears at your clothes and eyes and sometimes blows so fiercely you find it hard to breathe in a natural rhythm.

But there is also sunshine. And if you angle yourself just right against the wind and lean in to the rock at your back, you can feel its warmth seeping into your limbs and that space between your shoulder blades. And looking down the mountain, seeing how far you come, it feels good to be there–to be entrusted to the task at hand–and to know that it is just that: a finite task, that will have its end.

I feel a little like that buffeted climber, this past semester.

There are those moments when I sit back and just feel the sun seeping into my center. But at the same time–there is that precipice, and the relentless wind, and the task not completed. It isn’t that difficult, no, to stand my ground. But I’m not going to hold dinner parties up here, either.

So don’t mind me as you pass by.  I’m not ignoring you, or scowling at you or your path or anything else you’ve chosen–though I may appear to be, from where you are. I’m just squinting into the wind, I promise.