Saturday, January 24, 2009

Twenty Things I Know

In the tradition of truisms, and inspired by another blogger who listed 25 interesting facts about herself (though I don't believe I could even think of that many things to say about myself, and they probably wouldn't be very interesting), here is a list of Twenty Things I Know.

Of course, I may know many more things than this. Still, the more I learn, the more I realize what I don't know, but goes (it is probably obvious that I couldn't think of anything else to post this week):

1. A teacher's work is never done. Never, not ever. Summers "off" are really not that at all--they are just extended visits to the study carrels at the university library, with lots of panic and weeklong workshops in hot stuffy rooms thrown in for good measure. Plus, you generally don't get paid for all this extra work and time, so it's heavy-duty volunteerism (though yes, without a drive to the office and you can wear sandals).

2. Every living creature needs to run around in the fresh air every day, if possible...

3. The biggest source of humor in life is reflecting on how stupid we are...

4. Eating active yogurt and using vitamin C (topically and taking supplements) make you look younger.

5. The best things in life are free.

6. The closed adoption system is inhumane for everyone except the adoptive parents...

7. Anything is possible. It might take years of work, but whatever it is you think you probably can't do, you actually can, if you are just persistent.

8. It is highly unlikely that you can leave Target without spending at least $100.

9. What you don't like about someone else is really what you don't like about yourself.

10. Everyone needs an editor.

11. You must stand up for yourself whenever necessary.

12. If you tell an incredibly obnoxious person how obnoxious he is, he will completely freak out on you. The truer the statement, the bigger the freakout--it's practically mathematical. Conversely, if you use certain words to describe the obnoxious behavior of a generally non-obnoxious person, he will take it in stride. The point is: those who most often dish it out are not, in my experience, able to also take it.
13. Succeeding too early just means you have to work much harder later on to impress people.

14. The Law of Karma works.

15. Writing down what you want means you will eventually get it...although I've noticed it sometimes takes a year or two to materialize.

16. Some psychics are absolutely for real, and some astrology is frighteningly spot-on.

17. We tend to hold on to whatever it was we learned when we were little and then completely forget some of these ideals as we grow older.

18. If you can work for yourself, do (but expect to work all the time).

19. You must live what you preach; you just have to be it.

20. You learn more every day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Age of Ignorance is Over

It may be colder than Alaska in the eastern and midwestern U.S. right now, but does that prove, incontrovertibly, that global warming is just a liberal myth? No, and if I hear another person happily snorting about this in the physical therapy center (as I’ve heard for the past few days), I am likely to tell him off.

            I would personally love to learn that scientists are wrong, wrong, wrong, that the earth isn’t getting warmer; the ozone isn’t actually depleted, and we’re all not going to burn up and die (or live in some horrifying Mad Max world in the all-too-near future). Unfortunately, my eyes are open to the evidence all around me—to the brutally hot summers, the worldwide droughts and the epidemic of skin cancer, to the ponds that never freeze, to the snow that rarely falls, to the dead fish that wash up on the banks of the rivers and creeks, to the disturbing increase in lymphoma and other cancers.

            It’s hard to live with this environmental guilt or this frightening reality, and I completely understand why we might want to brush it under our Chem-Lawn treated bluegrass.

True, nearly all of us recycle, at least some of time (except if you live in a town like mine where the mayor only recently, and grudgingly, agreed that plastic and glass could finally be recycled—though I have reason to believe it’s a sham program and this trash is actually being burned just west of here).

We’re trying to get better about bringing reusable bags to the markets, and kudos to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods for encouraging this practice and making it simple by selling bags for a dollar (and, in the case of WF, eliminating plastic bags altogether).

We’ve been replacing our old lightbulbs with those strangely-shaped CFLs, and we’ve gotten used to driving less and to turning out the lights or unplugging our appliances.

But there’s still so much we don’t do, or that we do wrong.

In my neighborhood, for example, there are  people who are obsessed with washing their cars. They do this in the street, every Sunday, letting the suds run down the road into the sewer (which drains to the creek; the sewer has cute little fish stickers all over it to prove this point and to discourage dumping). 

Washing one’s car seems basically harmless, seems like a wholesome activity that could keep you out of trouble. Who would ever think that a meticulous weekly carwasher is an environmental felon? I would.

This is why we have commercial car washes, people. Because that dirty, oily, detergent-laced water needs treating, needs responsible disposal. Otherwise, we’ll be drinking it later or we’ll see its filthy traces in our waterways. We’ll be killing ourselves and our water life. And for what? For an Audi you can see your reflection in? Yeah, that’s definitely worth it.

Some of us just don’t know about these problems, and of course some of us might not care. But the fact is that even if we do care, it’s hard to live green. Our entire system doesn’t make it easy. Think about it: organic food tends to cost much more than non-organic (Why? Wouldn’t it be cheaper NOT to use chemical sprays such as pesticides and herbicides?).  Local produce might be more expensive than berries shipped from Chile. It really makes no sense.

Nearly everything we buy in the stores comes in a box or a thick plastic shell, unless we are pure bulk-item shoppers (and beyond oats, lentils and nuts, there’s isn’t much in that section of the stores). The places where we live are now so spread out that we have to drive; many towns don’t seem to have downtowns we can easily get to (and if they do, there aren’t any free parking spaces, and if we bike or take the bus, we can’t carry our hauls back).

It’s not easy. I know that. Modern life and environmental consciousness seem to be a difficult match. It is only the truly new places that can be built in a green manner; the retrofitting seems to, for financial reasons, never get done.

 If we are all more conscious of the problems, more willing to work to fix them, however, I think we can make progress. First of all, I want to see people cease the piggish gloating when another problem temporarily replaces the bad news we’ve been hearing. A 2009 cold snap doesn't let Exxon off the hook.

So--pipes freezing? Fingers frostbitten? Yeah, that sucks. But just because the weather is cold right now doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems; it doesn’t make global warming untrue.

The cold, like many other things, is just a short-term distraction. We still have this problem of pollution and a decades-long pattern of environmental destruction; we need to try to fix it before it’s too late. Even if we don’t really want to think about how long we've already been ignoring the problem.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Will Majoring in Business End Up Costing Kids Jobs?

When I was a teenager, I never imagined going into business.  I realized, of course, that in order to survive I would have to sell something, or sell my abilities, but other than that I never really thought about the B word. 

Business, I believed, was boring, and it was not at all my dream for what I wanted to do with my life. I have always been slightly off-beat, and to me, business represented the ultimate in pedestrian bleakness. I saw business as not much more than gray plastic cubicles, whining fax machines and the nauseating smell of burnt hazelnut coffee.

While I was in college, I worked at my dad’s office during the summer and holidays. I always found it tedious, exhausting, and itchy (the wearing of stockings), not to mention stomach-ache inducing (I am thinking of the greasy corporate cafeteria food). Business. Ugh.

Maybe people made money in business, but as far as I was concerned, it might be equivalent to selling your soul.  Was it worth it, I wondered, to have every day blend into the next, to never see daylight during daylight hours?

I had to compromise my principles eventually, and I worked in publishing (perhaps the most palatable but also the least well-paying business) for several years.  I still found it somewhat tiresome, though—I’m talking about the day-to-day part: being chained to a desk, mostly.

I see business as perhaps a necessary evil, although I believe most businesses can be conducted in more ethical (and environmentally-friendly) ways. But I digress.

Many of my students now (17-year-olds, for the most part) tell me that they plan to major in Business. When they say this, I always find my head spinning. Do you really know what that means? I ask them. What kind of business? Strangely enough, they never seem to know.  

Then they equivocate, or elaborate. They add, “Maybe international business.” Why? I ask them—does the “international” part make it sound better, more glamorous? And what is that, exactly--international business? None of the kids I teach ever have any idea. 

Somewhere along the way, teenagers have been told, or urged, to go into business. Yet what people, both young and old, don’t seem to realize is that business has changed, is changing more every day, and may not even exist as we know it ten years from now.

You used to be able to major in accounting and you would be virtually guaranteed a job.  Now, all those jobs are going to East India. Will today's American accounting major have the same opportunities that her father or mother did? No way. One look at any business magazine will show you this, so I wonder: why are we still steering our children towards generic business degrees?

It's all well and good to become an entrepreneur or an inventor (whether by design or happy accident), but I think we might be doing kids a disservice if we keep urging them to study business with the expectation that taking such courses, and only such courses, will guarantee them good money. 

We have to remember that if the kids in question are in high school now, they won’t be entirely finished with school for seven or eight more years. Who knows what the economic landscape, the global environment, will look like by then?

Students all over the US are still getting their MBAs, but I am starting to believe there must be other, better options that will help to guarantee future employability. 

The MFA (which I have) is supposedly now the “new” MBA, according to the groundbreaking book, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.  What we should be telling our children now, Pink argues, is to develop a special skill, and to follow their passions. 

Kids of the future will need to be exceptionally creative in order to survive in a world where the "regular" jobs we used to depend upon as stable, respectable careers are being sourced out to cheaper labor pools overseas.  

It's a daunting thought, but students now will need to create their own jobs and promote themselves as vital cogs in the global market in order to stay employable in the 21st century.

Some people don't want to, or refuse to, realize how drastically things in the world are changing.  When I was just about to start grad school, one man (who had his MBA) scoffed to me, “You’re getting an MFA? What is that—like getting a lobotomy?” Same to you, buddy, I think now—I may not be rich, but at least I have a fulfilling and meaningful career, not simply a boring job.  And I haven’t been made redundant. 

I feel for all the business majors who are now out of work in this painfully contracting economy. What will they possibly do next? Can they readjust? They may have to.

Being a teacher feels like a good career choice, now. And people bow down to my MFA, which I actually think is sort of ridiculous, especially when I remember all the bizarre writing workshops I attended, and my thesis defense meeting, which was more akin to a challenging psychotherapy session than anything else, but hey—I’ll take it.  Having my MFA, at this point in time, has made me nearly bulletproof.

I remember, though, applying to grad school. It took a couple of tries for me to get in. I remember a relative asking me, in a disgusted tone of voice, “So what’s going on? You’re not going to grad school?” I had to explain that I wanted to go, but I just needed an MFA program to want to accept me.

Applying for arts is much different than applying for business.  I went to a program with maybe 15 openings, not 500, as you see in business schools. The competition was far more intense, and artistic talent is far more subjective. 

That’s why I don’t gloat about my degree. I know, in a way, that I just got lucky. My stories resonated with a reader, or a few readers.

Years later, when I won a major writing award, people from my academic program said to me, “You won for that? I hated it.”  It just goes to show that you can’t please everyone, and don’t bother to try.

So when I question my students’ plans to study business, it is not because I personally find business unexciting, but mostly because--and this may seem counter-intuitive, at first--I want them to have the most opportunities available to them. I want them to open their minds to all the choices they have--for living and for earning money. I want my students to enjoy the most satisfying and productive (in terms of the greater good--even if that only applies to happiness) existences that they can. 

My advice to my students is always to become bi or tri-lingual (that will certainly be more important than ever in our shrinking world), and to figure out how they can make a difference to other people. What else is there? 

Certainly, we don't need anyone trying to sell us more disposable plastic junk, or more people trying to trick us into burying ourselves deeper in debt. The last thing we need now is more people who make themselves rich by making other people poor, or sick.

Obviously, our kids will need to make money, but I know there are many ways to earn a living while not denying healthy, happy lives to other people, other creatures. If we think outside the box, we can find ways to earn a salary while also improving our own and others' lives. Meaningful work could be, for example, designing safer, cleaner forms of transportation, or growing organic produce. It could be making art that captures the truth about life.

No one can predict the future, and some people are understandably hesitant to accept the fact that the old reliable jobs are possibly becoming extinct. We can only guess what tomorrow may bring in terms of job demands and opportunities. But my guess is that we shouldn’t tell kids to go into business if that decision will, in the end, lead them to face difficulty, not ease, in their lives.