Saturday, April 30, 2016

I don't want to own a home

It's an extremely American desire to own a home, and often we think the bigger, the better. Americans love large, sprawling pieces of real estate that we can stuff full of physical possessions (and our children's physical possessions) and the ultimate American dream is to hire someone like this Chicago luxury home builder and build your dream house from scratch. One reason we tell ourselves it's important to own a home is that it's a good investment: whatever you spend on a house or condominium, it's guaranteed to increase in value. At least that's true most of the time, if you ignore the 2000s.

I've never wanted to own anything and have often thought I was out of step with basic human values, but actually the world is full of cultures that don't idealize the owning of stuff. It's American culture, with our endless land and shorelines, that is infused with the desire to dominate and possess. I actually like living in an apartment. You can ask anyone for the reasons it's good to own a home and they'll tell you about stability, investment and investment. Plus homeowners can hold band practice in their living rooms without anyone coming downstairs (or upstairs) to complain about the noise.

Here are the reasons I prefer having an apartment (in a well-managed building):

1. Someone else fixes things. (I said "well-managed." You have to make sure your building has excellent and responsive management.)

2. Someone else takes care of landscaping, snow removal and maintenance.

3. Flexibility and not being tied down. If I want to move -- or need to because of a job or divorce -- there's no hassle in extricating myself from a property.

4. No property taxes.

5. No need for an emergency fund for major home repairs or appliance replacement (washer, refrigerator, etc.).

6. No never-ending list of chores, fixes and home improvements to suck up my attention and energy.

7. No condo association membership!

8. If someone moves in who I don't want to live near, there's a chance the management will take care of them, especially if the unwanted neighbors are involved in illegal activities or stop paying their rent. Or I can move. If you own your condominium or house, it's harder to get away from people who move in next to you.

9. Many apartment buildings have low turnover, so you can make friendships that can last for decades.

10. Many apartment buildings have high turnover, so there are always new people to meet and a chance that your new best friend will appear in your building any month now.

Many people say that a mortgage is a financial investment in a piece of property and paying rent is throwing your money away. I think that's a very thing-oriented way to look at it. Sometimes I want to spend money on a thing that I will then own, but other times I'm happy to spend money on the use of a thing that I don't have to own. 

I'm much happier paying $910 a month for the use of my apartment, plus ALL the labor and maintenance that my landlord does, season after season, decade after decade. I'd be much unhappier paying twice that, per month, to own a piece of property that I'd have to maintain, repair, landscape, equip with major appliances, improve and hope it all holds together long enough for me to pay off the mortgage. And, of course, the housing market disaster of the late 2000s only confirmed for me that my strategy of non-ownership was the superior one. 

I got married in 2008. If my then-husband and I had giddily taken on a 30-year mortgage, we would not only have been stuck with a rapidly depreciating property, but we would have had a nightmare of a time unloading it and dealing with all the red tape when we divorced in 2014. We dodged a bullet there (you have to take your successes where you find them).

Chicago is crawling with realtors, but I rarely have much to say to them. I'm an almost-50-year-old professional who lives by her own rules and can spend my money however I want, but I do not want to own a home. I know it's un-American, but it works for my lifestyle and personality.
My apartment in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois USA

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince is dead

According to Vox's Why we grieve artists we've never met, people can mourn and weep over people they never personally knew for this reason, "We don't cry because we knew them. We cry because they helped us know ourselves." Writer Caroline Framke reproduces this tweet which was posted by Juliette@ElusiveJ, and Framke goes on to say that artists help us access our emotions and get to know ourselves better. It's that raw connection that makes us feel a loss when they die.

Except for those of us that don't. When David Bowie died, I felt like a callous person because it didn't have any emotional effect on me. Now Prince has died and I feel nothing once again. I'm 49 years and three quarters old. Prince was my contemporary. I was buying music, going to dances and driving my first car when his first hits influenced pop music. I even liked a lot of them. But I'm just not feeling his absence.

Framke's theory is that when a musician dies, our emotional connection to their music makes us mourn them. She writes that artists "give voice to both the huge emotions that threaten to consume you and the fuzzy ones lying in wait in your periphery, indistinct but just as urgent. Great artists reach into their own hearts, brains, and guts to wrench out what's most vital and hold it out for you to grasp."

That's a powerful idea and beautifully written, but I've never felt that kind of emotional connection to any artist. I've certainly felt moved by music. I've had songs touch my heart and make me cry. But that was a response to the music, not the person who made it. When I think of the songs that affect me the most, the people who made that music feel removed from me. I don't know them. My very favorite recording artists could all drop dead (and several of them have), but because the music that touched me is still here, it doesn't really matter to me what happens to the physical body that made that music.

I feel like a heartless bitch because I don't feel the least emotional twinge at Prince's death. A friend said that it's always sad when someone dies, but I don't even agree with that. Because I maintain that life is suffering, and death can't possibly be worse, someone's life ending doesn't always make me sad. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn't. Prince is dead. Good for him. One day I'll be dead. Good for me.

So I wrestle with the question: why does the death of famous people they never knew make some people feel devastated? I suspect some of it is displaced emotions. Many people have grief they've never expressed or fully released, so even the death of someone they didn't know can cause those emotions to come flooding out. I also suspect part of it is fear of their own mortality. Prince was just a few years older than me. If he can suddenly die, how far away can my own death be? Maybe that idea terrifies some people into tears.

And yes, there's the idea that any death is sad, but I think that attitude must be connected to someone's previous experience with death. If, in the past, you learned that death is sad, you're programmed to feel sad in response to it. Those kinds of connections can be very powerful.

I struggle with all the mourning over Prince because I lack the emotional connections most people seem to have: a famous person's death doesn't trigger my grief, I don't believe dying is any sadder than continuing to live, my connection to music doesn't extend to the person who recorded it, and I'm not afraid of getting closer to the day I'll die. So I say this to those who are crying about Prince: I'm sorry you're in pain and I wish you the best kind of healing. That's all I can offer.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nostalgia is a lie

My sister recently saw a production of the musical Oliver and emailed me that it reminded her of when I was in our high school production of the same musical.

"Oh yeah," I mused. "Oliver. That was so much fun! My god, that was a hundred years ago. I was 17 and so pretty then. And thin and smart and I had my whole life ahead of me." As I began to sink into good old nostalgia -- wishing I could experience the past again -- it hit me: do I really wish I could relive my high school years? And the answer was no.

Sure, as a high school senior I had freedom from adult problems and I had a boyfriend, the radiance of youth and the glamor of the Las Lomas High School auditorium stage, but I also had math analysis class, insecurity and a mother who regularly terrified me. At the age of 17, I had years of depression, self-loathing and painful family dynamics ahead of me. It would be three decades before I'd get enough of a handle on my self-esteem problems that I'd be strong enough to start living the life I really wanted. When I was 17, I still had graduate school in my future (shudder).

Sophomore year 1982
Having your whole life ahead of you sounds good if it means more good than bad, but I don't think that's what I got. Think about when you were in high school. Sure, most people immediately think of friends, football games, parties, having a high sex drive and all the fun times. But weren't there also stomach-churning exams, talks with teachers, parents fighting and/or getting a divorce, times you got in trouble, insecurity among your peers, days you dreaded getting out of bed, heartbreak and mistakes you would have given anything to take back? Would you really want to re-do all that, plus the last decade or three that would get you back to the age you are now?

Don't fall for it. Nostalgia is a lie. It seduces us by recalling the emotions we constantly crave, when in reality, those emotions were interspersed with pain. No, the past isn't always better, even if we think re-doing it will get us to a better present day. Being in high school musicals are some of my best memories, but even though I'm 49 and three quarters years old, with a puffy face, a pudgy body and that invisibility that comes with being a middle aged woman, my youth was not better than my present. I wouldn't really want to go back to being 17 for anything in the world. Would you?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Two emails/texts is one too many

Today's post is a straight rant. Feel free to stop reading if you're one of those "look on the bright side" people.

I'm currently feeling exasperated with the way too many of my American friends and colleagues often receive a text or email and don't respond to it until I send a second one saying "Did you get my text?" or "Did you get my email?"

It's possible that this is a personal problem and no one else ever has to chase anyone down for a response, but I suspect this is a common problem. Why don't some people at least respond with, "Got your message. I'll get back to you." That's how people do it in other countries. They acknowledge that they received your email even if they're not ready to give you a solid answer.

Maybe Americans dislike responding unless they can send a full, well-considered message. If my question is, "Will there be PowerPoint capability at the meeting?" maybe the person wants to find out the answer before they get back to me, and then finding out the answer takes longer than they expected and then a day or two has gone by and I'm wondering if they even got my text/email in the first place. It's frustrating.

Or maybe someone reads the email, thinks, "No, we can't do PowerPoints, but I need to give her a full explanation for why and I don't have time right now, so I'll respond when I'm out of this meeting." And then they just never get back to it.

Or maybe the person imagines responding, visualizing exactly what the text should say and seeing themselves keying it in, and then they think they responded even though they actually never did.

Another part is probably the way Americans equate busy-ness with living an important, meaningful life. I believe this has a lot to do with the American ego and our need to feel needed. This need keeps us over-scheduled and overwhelmed, but that's okay because this level of busyness means we're necessary to the functioning of family, work, society and the planet in general. We believe those who are most important are also the busiest. This often blocks us from having time to communicate with even a lousy text.

But what's striking is how often the same person who has ignored my email for a week, writes back immediately when I forward my email to them and ask, "Did you get this email?" It also happens when I sent a text 24 hours ago, got no response and follow up with "Did you get my text?" The second request for connection often gets a quick response. Why is that? Is guilt at work? Maybe the person finally spits out an answer (however incomplete) because they realize they've been sloppily incommunicative and have failed to keep up their end of the exchange. Guilt finally gets them to say, "Sorry, no we can't do PowerPoints." And then they stutter out the rest of it as they can, which is maybe, "We've got the room w/o tech because Terri didn't reserve soon enough."

Why is communication so hard for us, people??? Or am I imagining this problem? Does this happen only to me?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Scary phone calls from the IRS

I originally posted this on April 20, 2015. I'm reposting it because the problem is even more widespread this year.

This morning I received a call on my cell phone. The incoming call had a 347 area code. A young-sounding woman asked for Regina Martin and told me she was calling from the Internal Revenue Service. For a few seconds I started to sweat, but then I remembered that the IRS never calls people at home as a first contact. They reach you by postal mail, so this was probably a scam. The woman asked if I was aware that there was a warrant out for my arrest (no). She asked if I wanted more information about that. I said yes. She explained that I had broken three federal laws by filing income tax forms that were incorrect. She asked if I wanted more information on the laws I had broken. I said yes. She said it was about incorrect calculations on my tax returns and failing to report income. She said I owed money. Apparently she was following up on information the IRS had mailed to me weeks earlier.

Hearing that she was following up on a letter made me nervous again because sometimes I don't open my mail immediately, but I kept in mind that the chances of this being a real call were low. She asked a lot of questions for someone who was calling to give me information. She asked if I had received the IRS's letter. She asked if I was sure I hadn't received the letter. She asked if I filed my taxes myself or if I had used a tax preparer (I didn't answer this). She then told me that because of the warrant out for my arrest, I could expect the police to arrive soon. She said that as soon as we hung up she would forward my file to the local police in my area who would come to my door, arrest me and place me in a holding cell where I'd have to await trial.

It was when she asked if I did my taxes or used a preparer that I decided this was definitely a scam phone call. If she were really calling from the IRS to tell me I was in trouble, why would she need to ask how I filed my taxes? The other suspicious thing was the background noise: I could hear many more conversations going on, as if this woman were sitting with many other people making phone calls, all at the same time. Her little description of what being arrested would be like also seemed unprofessional. Finally, I found it odd the way she only gave me bits of information and then asked if I wanted to know more. That's how advertising works, not enforcers of the law.

When I wouldn't answer any questions about my taxes or finances, she reminded me that as soon as we hung up, she'd forward my file to my local police who would come and arrest me within 40 minutes. She asked if I had anything to say. In an attempt to find out exactly what the scam was, I said, "What do I have to do to make the police not come and arrest me?" She said she could only help me if I'd answer her questions about how I'd filed my taxes. I still wouldn't do that, so she reminded me about the police and asked again, "Do you have anything to say?" I said, "I didn't do it." She said, "Didn't do what?" I said, "I didn't commit tax fraud." She told me again that she could only help me if I talked to her.

Then I asked for her name and exactly where she was calling from. She said her name was Lucy Roland and she was calling from the investigation office in Brooklyn, New York. I asked for her exact title and she said she investigated cases for the IRS. When I pressed for a job title, she said she was an investigation officer. I asked her for a phone number I could call to talk about my case. She said that once we hung up, it would be too late, she'd forward my file. I insisted on a phone number in case I changed my mind a few minutes after we hung up and wanted to talk more. Finally she gave me a number: 347-732-5357. At some point earlier in the call, she had asked me if I wanted my case number. I said yes and she gave it to me.

At this point I laughed and said, "I earn about $40,000 a year and I find it very unlikely that the IRS would go after me for tax fraud. And to actually send the police to arrest me!" She said she was just informing me of what was going to happen. I said, "So the police will be here 40 minutes after we hang up?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Okay, well then I'll go shower now, and get ready for them." We hung up, and I called the number she had given me. I got a busy signal.

My message to you today: The IRS doesn't make phone calls. They send letters. These scammers are assholes who play on one of our worst American fears: doing time and/or paying penalties for tax evasion. The woman kept saying the words "warrant" and "arrest." It was scary and cruel.

Our phone call ended at 10:50 a.m. It's now 12:42 as I finish this post, and I'm still waiting for the police. Just in case, I've eaten a hearty meal and put on some nice makeup.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The United States of Excess

Last night at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs talk I heard one of the most engaging, yet disturbing, speakers I've ever seen. Robert Paarlberg, author of The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism, talked about what he discovered when he tried to answer the question "Why does the U.S. consume so much more food and fuel than European countries?" Americans produce twice the amount of CO2 emissions as European countries, and everyone knows how much fatter we are.

Professor Paarlberg announced that it comes down to three major differences between us and them: our resources, our culture and our political system. He explained that our fossil fuel industries are twice as big and twice as politically influential as those of any European country. We simply have lots and lots of natural coal, oil and gas in our land, which led us to create a society that guzzles fuel as if it's limitless. He pointed out that European countries built their roads and transportation infrastructure with the expectation that fuel costs would be high. We built our transportation infrastructure, including sprawling populated areas and gleaming highways, with the expectation that fuel costs would be low. And so they have been. 

The main cultural difference between the U.S. and Europe is that we hate government influence (I'm speaking broadly here. I don't hate it). Given a choice between complete personal freedom and making sure no one is living in a state of need, the majority of us pick the former. Most Europeans polled with such a question pick the latter. Because of the American concept that allowing the government to actually take care of its citizens is a "nanny state," we resist any attempt to regulate our fuel consumption, food consumption or any of the ways we're killing ourselves and each other. Professor Paarlberg mentioned briefly the effect of religion on obesity rates: while some religions have restrictions on dancing, drinking, sex, etc. no religion has ever banned eating. I remember him mentioning that some of the lowest American obesity rates are among Mormons. Some of the highest are among Protestants.

But the part that disturbed me most was what he said about the American political system. He started by pointing out the seven major characteristics of our system, which include things like checks and balances, the strong focus on the first amendment, having two major political parties, etc. He said the political system of Germany shares four of these characteristics, the UK shares one (having two parties) and all the rest of Europe shares none. None. If our political system, which our founding fathers planned and created from scratch, is so great, then why has no one else on the planet copied it? Even before our Congress became as polarized as it's gotten in the new millennium, bills would get so easily bogged down in committee that it's been said that "the Senate is where popular ideas go to die." As disgusted as Americans have become with our do-nothing congress, our culture prefers a government that can't get anything done to a government that can act with expediency. The president can veto, Congress can veto and even if they manage to pass a law, anyone can challenge it legally, which can end up in another decision for the Supreme Court. No wonder our courts are so log-jammed and the Supreme Court so busy. We've created a mess.

Mr. Paarlberg went on to say that our political system gives veto power not only to the Congress and president, but to any group with enough influence, such as fossil fuel groups. Those groups not only influence elections and legislation, but how the U.S. Department of Energy spends its research dollars. So basically early Americans inadvertently created a system that allows big money to control the political process and our lives, all because they wanted to make sure we'd never again be exploited by a tyrant like King George III. 

Now I knew all this, but I'd never had it so clearly spelled out for me. I had naively been thinking that through gradual change, we could eventually enjoy things like universal health care, a true safety net for the poor, a truly living minimum wage, support for the retired so old people would never have to resort to eating pet food, etc. But Professor Paarlberg compared us to Denmark, a place that has those kinds of benefits for its citizens, and showed how the U.S. will never, ever even vaguely approach such a state. Denmark has four times the population density as the U.S. They pay 20% higher fuel taxes and 70% more for food. The cost of a Big Mac in Denmark is 61% higher than in the U.S. (today a Big Mac costs a little under US$6, so I guess in Denmark it would cost a little over US$9, without the fries). The higher cost of food is mostly because of the increased cost of fuel and labor in Denmark: people can actually live on the minimum wage there and don't have to work more than one job.

Americans would never tolerate 20% higher fuel taxes. Our whole infrastructure depends on fuel prices staying low forever. We think it's our right to consume so much. Likewise, we rebel against any government attempt to limit our habits that cause obesity. And the idea of the poor being taken care of actually clashes with our core American belief that you work for what you deserve, and if you don't have it, that means you didn't work hard enough for it. We despise the idea of people getting something for nothing, which dovetails with our historic exploitation of the poor and our conflation of race with class. We think poor people (by which we often mean people of color) shouldn't get "handouts" and we've created a system where the poorest people will never be able to work their way out of poverty.

(Please see this article for an excellent explanation of how slavery formed the basis for today's American racism and poverty. The history is in the first several paragraphs.)

Professor Paarlberg went on to say that because the U.S. can't change its relationship to fossil fuels or food, we'll do the next best thing, although it's a far distant next best thing: we'll adapt to the conditions that have resulted. We'll have bigger caskets, revolving doors and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Our standard office chairs used to be designed to support up to 300 pounds (136 kg); now they're rated up to 600 pounds. We'll develop more drugs and surgical procedures to help the obese and sick live longer. We'll restructure our coastal areas so they won't be destroyed by rising sea levels and invest in geo-engineering so we can handle the increase in climate temperatures. But what we won't do is save the environment or improve our health. Those strategies would be cheaper and easier, but we won't do them because we're Americans.

By the way, he also mentioned that while we thought American obesity rates were flatlining, they aren't. The percentage of Americans who were obese in 2004 was 34%. Today it's 38%. Just another fun fact.

Early Americans created a government that would never be able to govern any better than its citizens would allow, and now its citizens are dominated by big business and institutionalized racism. We've empowered a whole other taskmaster and are just as powerless against it as the pilgrims felt against their homeland. Those pilgrims came to North America because they wanted freedom from what they saw as England's oppression of their way of life. But we have nowhere to go. We built this beast and now we're imprisoned in it and not even Bernie Sanders can get us where those of us who aren't rich need to go. So why bother? Why agitate? Why vote? Why get up in the morning?

Friday, April 01, 2016

Depression is not productive

On this April Fool's Day, I feel like stating the obvious: depression is not productive. At the age of 49 and three quarters, I'm still learning how to manage my chronic depression, which sometimes gets triggered by a specific circumstance, but often shows up with no cause at all. I just wake up with it, like a bad back or arthritis.

But one piece of the puzzle might have finally fallen into place: sugar as a trigger for depression. After the holidays (I was good leading up to them, but not after), I slid into the habit of indulging in sweet snacks, desserts and sugary hot drinks. January and February were also difficult months for me in terms of my depression. I thought my sweet tooth kicked up as a response to feeling down. You know: depressives often use sugar or alcohol as a way to (pretend to) manage our mood. I was on the sugar roller coaster from New Year's Day til Valentine's Day and felt like crap the whole time.

On Valentine's Day I kicked myself in the butt and made myself stop all the indulging. That decision led to a very tough 24-hour period of white-knuckling through the sugar cravings, but I made it, and after a week of eating/drinking much better -- guess what? The depression lifted.

Thus does it come clear that sugar not only causes me joint inflammation, digestive pain and awful energy swings, but it exacerbates my mood disorder. I know I've read this connection in countless articles by health professionals, but I clearly needed to live it before it sank in. Well, now it has sunk in! 

So now when I face a cookie or a squadron of yogurt-covered raisins, I not only consider how it might ruin my energy for the afternoon or cause a stomach ache, but I consider that it might lead me back into cravings/indulging and that will land me back into a depressive state. Ugh.

(The over-marketing of sugar has to be one of the most physiologically destructive things ever done by the American food industry. I believe we are all hooked and we are all suffering for it.)

Depression is truly the last thing I need right now. As I continue to build networking relationships and visibility for Welcome Dialogue, it's critical that I attend weekly events, meet daily with colleagues, keep active online and fill my head with lesson plan ideas, marketing techniques and hope. Establishing a new business is an uphill climb, which makes despondency deadlier than ever.

It's particularly important for me to keep my spirits up because my business is within an industry that's so new, it doesn't even have an easily recognizable name. When you're pioneering a new concept, the difficulties of establishing recognition and clients are doubled. We could call what I'm doing immigrant integration or diversity management or American acculturation for the foreign-born or American language and culture consulting. The old words like "foreigners" and "assimilation"and "melting pot" do not work anymore, but not everyone knows that, so part of what I do is educate people on these terms and concepts. 

So getting Welcome Dialogue started is like climbing a steep hill while collecting rocks. When I network with American-born professionals (and I'm one, too), I have to regularly explain what I do and why it's even important. Many Americans have no idea what it's like to be the outsider who must learn a new language or risk unemployment, poverty, social isolation and daily humiliation. I help people not only with the mechanics of American English, but with the culture and social skills you need to connect with Americans, plus the emotional challenges of adjusting to a culture you didn't grow up with. Only people who have lived this or know people who have, immediately understand what Welcome Dialogue is about. Others require varying amounts of explaining.

Once a middle-aged, Midwestern-born, white man asked me to tell him what was so hard about moving to the U.S. from another country. He honestly couldn't imagine why that adjustment would be anything but smooth and comfortable. I took the time to explain it to him, but it exemplified the extra work it takes to found a company in such a new field.

This means I have no time for depression, no time for energy drags and, therefore, no time for sugar. Maybe I can take up smoking...