The Art of the Gift

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, December 12, 2007.

The strangest gift I ever received was a single slice of bread.

I was on my bike at a street corner in Japan, waiting for the light to change. An elderly woman pedaled up next to me and stopped to wait too. Noticing me, she got off her bike and rooted in the bags in her basket, muttering all the while. Then she came over, muttering still, and placed something in my basket. I stood puzzled as the light changed and she rode off. The item she gave me was a single, individually packaged slice of bread.

I think of this woman now that it’s, once again, the season of gifts.

With stores opening at 4 a.m. after Thanksgiving, holiday shopping is a frenzy, and the mounds of stuff under our trees are positively obscene. So it is in our capitalist country. Gotta keep that ol’ economy growing!

But I have some fond memories of gifts of Christmas past.

The weirdest present I received was as a child, when my mom gave my sisters and me matching plastic-molded wigs – one gold, one silver, one black.  In a photo that could be used for blackmail, there we stand, the three sisters (two of us missing front teeth), grinning foolishly in our plastic wigs.

The best Christmas present I received was my daughter, who decided to be born two weeks early, on her grandpa’s birthday, so I wouldn’t have to spend Christmas in the maternity ward. Her first Christmas gift was a trip to meet that grandfather whose day she shares.

My mother says she can’t give someone a gift she doesn’t like herself. (Maybe she wanted one of those wigs?) My son thinks the same way, but a problem arises when he wants to keep the gift himself.

Ideally, all gifts are free – of cost as well as emotional strings. Suppose your daughter asks for books, but you’d really like her to have, say, a canopy bed, just because you think she should have one or you never had one yourself.

Give the books. If nothing else, they’re cheaper and easier to wrap.

The rules for gifts grow more complex every year. So many things to consider. Too many expectations.  Gift cards.  Re-gifting. Perhaps it’s cliché to say, but the best presents aren’t usually things.

The most important point in giving is that the gift is not about you. (Yes guys, we all know who those Victoria’s Secrets items are really for.)  Choosing an appropriate gift means you must pay attention to the one who receives it. If you can’t find a thing, you can always give your time, affection or appreciation. But that’s so much harder to give.

In any gift exchange, the chances are good you’ll receive something you don’t really want. When that happens, it’s just good manners to recognize the sincere effort of the giver. As Mick Jagger sang it, you can’t always get what you want. And we all have to learn to live with disappointment.

I have no idea what motivated the woman in Japan that day, but I appreciate her gesture.

What do you do when someone gives you a slice of bread?

Make toast.

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What Good is a College Degree?

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, September 26, 2007.

Along with the crisp air comes another sign of fall – throngs of students going to college. Excitement for them, anxiety for their parents.

But as we pack our students off to college, we must ask an important question:

What good is a college degree?

First, there’s the question of what a college education ought to mean, and what it really is.  College used to be a privilege, but our egalitarian society now believes everyone deserves the opportunity to attend. Thus, our government argues about college loans, and wise parents have investigated ways to set aside the money.

In February 2005, USA Today reported that 64% of high school graduates go to college, but the number of Americans with bachelor degrees is only 29%. So what happens to that other 35% between the time they go and 4 years later?

Many students simply aren’t equipped to attend. They can’t foot the bill, or don’t have the academic skills. For many, their personal habits interfere with their success. Besides money, college demands maturity and self-discipline. If you don’t have those, college can chew you up.

Secondly, there’s the question of whether we need college degrees – as individuals or a society. America has the largest economy in the world, but less than a third of us have a degree. Yeah, we need educated folk running the country, but we rely just as much on those who ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

Finally, some choose to educate themselves in their pursuit of rewarding jobs and a comfortable life. In Washington State, the average salary for teaching, which requires at least a bachelor’s degree, is $45,722. The starting salary for a power lineman (those good guys who climb power poles to keep our electricity coming) is $55,000. No college degree necessary, though some training (and risk) is required. That salary increases to $72,000 for journeymen.

I recently met a man with a Ph.D. in physics. There’s an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say? A degree in upper level sciences — surely we need more like him! Actually, no, we don’t. After the linear accelerator program died in the 1980s, the market for his skills dried up, and he retrained as a brain surgeon. Because he needed a job.

Sadly, a college degree no longer guarantees a good job. It may not guarantee any job at all. If you plan to get a degree in the arts or humanities (music, foreign language, history, literature), good luck. We could stop issuing degrees in English for 20 years and still have more than enough English majors to go around. (But Newsweek recently reported that medical schools are now looking for those with liberal arts degrees. Maybe there’s hope for us English majors yet!)

So – what good IS a college degree? If you want to be a lawyer, teacher or businessman, it’s mandatory. Not just one degree, but many. There’s also evidence that college graduates have a better quality of life – they’re healthier, happier, more likely to volunteer and vote. But if you’re looking to live comfortably with work you find rewarding (be it butcher, baker, or candlestick maker), you might not need one.

More than ever, today’s students must do their homework.

The Death of an Immigration Bill

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 11, 2007.

Dead again.

That’s the status of Senate bill 1639, the 1,000-page rat’s nest that tackled the nightmare called immigration reform. Like Lazarus, this bill was resurrected, only to have a stake driven through its heart.

During debates about the bill, I found myself in a strange camp – with conservative Republicans, who fought it because it would give amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they jump through some hoops and pay some fines and fees. (Much of immigration is about money. He who pays, plays.)

When I lived in Laredo, Texas, in 1988, a student of mine led a group across the border to tour a maquilladora – a manufacturing plant American companies established in Mexico. This one was for Ford Motor, and this student’s father had relocated from Detroit to manage it. The most startling characteristic about this plant was not the 15-year-olds working there or the low wages but the surrounding neighborhood, a collection of houses the employees constructed of plywood from shipping crates sent to the factory. I understood instantly why people risk their lives to cross a border. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for people who just want a better life.

It is hard, though, for me to be sympathetic toward those who break laws, especially when legal immigrants work so hard to enter this country. I could only stand by, hands tied, while my spouse jumped 10 years of hurdles to earn a green card to work in a field that desperately needs his talent. And I can only commiserate with the man at the bus stop who, after 14 years here legally, has still not received his card.

According to an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, “Every year we take in more immigrants than the rest of the world put together.” We already have 43 different visas on the books – 44 if you include the diversity visa, which is given lottery-style each year to 55,000 people eligible to emigrate from countries that have been historically under-represented.

Forget the morality of the issue. Consider the logistics. The proposed Z and guest worker visas, which require short stays and several returns to the home country, couldn’t possibly succeed. Our government recently had to postpone its mandate for American travelers to Mexico and Canada to carry passports because it couldn’t meet the demand of its own ruling. Imagine the paperwork involved in tracking the guesstimated 12 million illegal residents already here, not to mention new migrants seeking these visas.

Now that S-1639 is dead, maybe we can get to the real work of reforming immigration.

First, we could enforce the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, passed when there were only 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Enforcing that law might uncover more companies like two in Texas, which supplied fake documents for aliens working at an oil-rig manufacturer that received a $73 million federal contract.

Second, we could work with Mexico to undo the damage of NAFTA, restore its economy, fight the flood of immigrants on their southern border, and reign in the drug lords. If you keep citizens happy – and safe – at home, they’ll likely stay there. Then the border-crossing theme park that opened in the state of Hidalgo could truly be for amusement rather than reinforcing a legacy.

Third, we could ensure that the expensive surveillance equipment already placed at the border by companies like Boeing actually works.

And most importantly, we could reduce the hurdles imposed on those trying to migrate here legally.

The US is indeed a nation of immigrants. Here’s to all of us immigrants who obeyed the laws to find our better life.

I Never Meant to Be a Pilot

Note: A version of this column first appeared in The Olympian, April 25, 2007.

Once upon a time, before I had children, I was home awaiting a visit from a friend, who brought along her 8-month-old son. I hadn’t seen this friend in months and was glad for the chance to visit. But my excitement quickly turned into annoyance, for as we were talking, my friend kept interrupting our conversation to turn to her child, who was happily playing on his own, to call out “Hey, Bud!” or “Whatcha doin’, baby?” The baby would then turn toward his mom looking slightly alarmed.

Now that I have children, I recognize that interruption is a constant of parenthood (though it’s usually the child interrupting the parent). Still, I remember my friend’s explanation for why she was interrupting our conversation and her child’s play. She wanted to stimulate his brain to form as many synapses as possible, giving him a jump on life.

Science has proven that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for brain development. But science has not yet recognized the creature arising from this research: the Helicopter Parent – one who hovers over a child directing every activity, well beyond those first 3 years. As a parent, I recognize the temptation to give a child every advantage. I’ve also started to notice the comic side of that tendency.

How do you know if you’re a Helicopter Parent? To borrow a page from Jeff Foxworthy (since he’s busy with 5th graders), you might be a helicopter if you…

  • Never put your infant down, even during nap time (yours or hers)
  • Marvel at the contents of your child’s diaper while changing it
  • Insist on walking your second-grader to the school crosswalk, which is just across your backyard
  • Videotape all your child’s activities, including visits to other children’s birthday parties
  • Never allow your 10-year-old to play at a friend’s house without being there to supervise
  • Constantly use that computer connection that lets you monitor your child’s activities at junior high
  • Fill out your child’s college applications
  • Distribute your child’s resume at job fairs
  • Consider it a privilege to do your adult child’s laundry

I’m not making these up. They are real-life examples from people I’ve met or heard about. Perhaps you recognize a dad or mom in this list. Perhaps you see me there. (Though my students stared at me wide-eyed when I described having my first-grader pack his own lunch for school.)

Most parents have the best intentions in guiding their children, and that’s what parenthood should be — guiding, not controlling. But some children of helicopters may end up thinking they’re the center of the world because that’s the position they’ve grown accustomed to. Others, given some free time, panic because freedom scares them. Some have told me they’re embarrassed by their parents’ actions. Others admit to rebelling against them. Perhaps the greatest danger is that these children might morph into helicopters themselves.

In those moments when I find myself preparing for take-off, I chant aloud the words of George Carlin: “Parents, leave your kids alone!”  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a chapter of Confessions of a Slacker Mom, by Muffy Mead-Ferro. It works for dads too.

Travels from the Comfort of the Couch

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, February 7, 2007.

Recently, I took a couple of trips while sitting in my living room. No chemicals involved. Just the help of some magazines.

I assure you there’s no Travel & Leisure at my house — I have young children — but these magazines took me places I don’t usually go.

My first stop was in the land of American Handgunner magazine. I’m one of those who thinks guns should be controlled, so I opened the cover of the magazine (passed along by a student) expecting tales and politics, written by and for men, promoting the ownership of guns regardless of their danger.

But as I looked through the magazine, I was surprised. The magazine has women on the editorial board and a Japanese photographer. Several letters to the editor were from women, one of whom fights her husband for the newest issue when it arrives in their mailbox. An enlightening letter from an American civilian described the conditions of working in Iraq. The articles included a quote from Shakespeare, ideas for writing a journal, and a curious tale of hunting hippos in Africa. (Why someone would try that with a handgun is beyond me.) But most of the articles, including one by a man who accidentally shot his bedroom mirror, stressed the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and using it safely.

My second trip was through the vistas of Men’s Health, published by Rodale Press, which publishes other mainstream magazines such as Prevention. In its pages I expected a wholesome view of men’s lives but again was surprised at what I found. Lots of slick photos of buff guys, of course, and diet, exercise and nutrition tips. Recipes. (Nice to see those in a guy’s magazine.) Sex tips, of course. There’s even an advice column. Change the sex of the bodies in the photos and it starts to look like Cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, I was left with that familiar view of women as objects, something to be had, like a car or a house. To its credit, the magazine had human interest stories – a doctor writing about everyday experiences with patients, a guy writing about marriage in terms male readers understand. (That’s the October 2006 issue, ladies.) But overall the magazine reinforces the same narcissism that many women’s magazines are guilty of. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

It’s not that I prefer handguns to buff guys. Frankly, I don’t need either one. It’s that reviewing these magazines from the comfort of my couch showed the value of “crossing over” – looking at how others live and think about the world. Imagine magnifying this investigation to a societal level, where everyone steps outside their comfort zone to see the world as others do. It might forever change how we see ourselves. Expand this plan to a global level – say, Americans living outside mainstream culture (easy to do within our borders) — and it might profoundly change how we think. It just might also change how citizens of other countries see us.

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There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.

— George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

In the Middle of the Night

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, November 22, 2006.

From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and all things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.

— Ancient Scottish prayer

So here it is, 2:30 in the morning and I’m still awake an hour after helping my 6-year-old stanch his bleeding nose, which left his sheets looking like they were used in someone’s murder. Meanwhile, Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” plays in my head. (At least my insomnia comes with music.) As happens all too often, everyone else in the house, including the dog, slumbers on — some of them, including the dog, snoring gently. Years of marriage and parenting wreak havoc on those recommended 8 hours and, to me, R.E.M. is just a rock band.

So what do we all contemplate in the wee small hours of such a morning?  Well, I’ve noticed that thoughts loom large and things rarely look better in the dark.

This night, I’m contemplating my recent birthday, which has firmly embedded me in the trenches of middle age, with perhaps more of my life behind me than ahead. I’m not at all where I thought I’d be back when I was the age my writing students are now.  Then, I could see only into the next week and had no clue how the real world works. As I tell my students now, adulthood is highly over-rated.

As we go through life, we take our fears with us, moving forward not out of choice but of necessity. (On the other hand, Janis Joplin never made it to middle age and people like Tom Cruise seem to stride fearlessly through midlife, wagging their crises behind them.) By this age, I’ve realized that fears have a way of compounding and are often aided and abetted by our own institutions. Many of these fears have led us to become a nation of neurotics, flinching at the statistics from the latest health and education reports.

My recent fear has been about returning to work outside my home. I am one of those women starting the next sequence of life, leaving my comfort zone where I have some control. Home — where I can pretend I’m queen of the castle and my children, when not dripping blood on the sheets in the night, are pretty loyal subjects.

To change your path in life is a courageous thing. In the years I’ve been away from classroom teaching, the path has changed considerably, mostly becoming overgrown with technology and educational theories, which are not always good things. Fortunately, the core skills I teach remain the same and I have enough enthusiasm to make up for what I’ve missed.

So, in this week of Thanksgiving, I want to say thanks to St. Martin’s University for bringing me back on the path, and to my students for easing that transition (and their input on this column). As we head on through to the end of the year, let’s all make a point of defying our fears and go happily into this holiday season.

The Land of Eternal Dog Days

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 26, 2006.

I’ve read that folks in the Pacific Northwest have more dogs than children. If this is true, I should probably update my first impressions of our new home here to include those of Copper, our 2-year-old Aussie.  This being dog country and the dog days approaching, his opinion of Olympia should count too.

Last fall, as Copper started investigating his new neighborhood, he discovered the fun of snitching gloves and shoes from neighbors, an activity we cut short with an invisible fence. Next, he learned to pick blackberries, nosing his snout in among the vines.

His first real adventures, however, began with the seal. One morning, descending with Copper and my son to the beach, I spotted a log lying above the tideline. Not unusual, except this log had flippers. Quickly, I hustled boy and dog back to the house and went looking for someone to help me with a dead seal. Eventually, I found someone at Cascadia Research, who took some blubber from the seal and anchored it at the water line for the tide to carry out.

The next morning, Copper disappeared from the yard, which was unusual since the electric fence went in. He reappeared shortly after I called, ecstasy in his eye, red streaks down his white chest — reeking. After hosing him down, I spent the rest of the morning, rake in hand, trying to shove that seal back out into the tide.

A month later, as I was walking with my children on the beach, Copper had his first-ever vision of his reason for being. We were collecting a caché of golf balls that had washed up, and a friendly dog came down to sniff Copper out. A moment later, I noticed three more dogs meandering down, and I stood trying to puzzle out why these dogs looked so angular. Then they began to bleat. Copper’s instinct went off, an instant before mine, and no more did he care about his doggie playmate. He was after the goats. There we were, me, my two children, two dogs, three goats, the owner of the goats and his wife, chasing Copper round and round, trying to nab him before he nabbed the goats.  (My thanks to the owner and his wife, who graciously understood a dog fulfilling his mission.)

But it wasn’t just goats. Besides herding seagulls, sandpipers, and an otter, one evening Copper flushed a deer from a thicket and was in hot pursuit.  I was no match for him in my yard shoes. Thankfully, he was no match for the deer. Still, he disappeared down the beach and, after searching and calling till twilight, I turned sadly homeward. Trudging up the steps to the yard, heart heavy, I wondered how to tell my children I had lost their dog. When I reached the top, there he stood in the yard — tongue lolling, eyes sparkling, looking at me as if to say, “Hey, where ya been?”

Oh, doggie.

If I have any skills at interpreting a dog’s mind, I’d say Copper loves this place. His home here sure beats the fenced-in postage stamp of yard he used to know.