Monday, September 27, 2010

Requiems and Rubicons

On the morning after my father died, I rose early from the pile of blankets where I had passed a sleepless night—I was a starving graduate student then and couldn’t afford a mattress—and rode the five hilly miles in the dark from my apartment to the university. I let myself into the slide library and pulled my professor’s list for his Intro to Rome lecture that week. With scrupulous care, I located each slide and slid it into the carousel. I placed the tray in his box, along with a note on lined paper, written in my fifth grade looping cursive: “Professor X, My father passed away. I will be gone this week for the funeral. If you have any questions, call me at the number below.”

Then I rode home, threw some clothes into a carry-on bag —including a black calico print dress that still hangs in my closet—and flew to California for one of the hardest weeks of my life.  

At that time, I didn’t know that life could—and would—be worse.

This weekend, I was looking forward to celebrating my second son’s eleventh birthday. For me, 11 is a magical year—if I could be any age forever, that’s the age I would want to be, poised in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, with all of an adult’s ability to read and think and reason, coupled with a child’s sense of awe and wonder and innocence. It’s no accident that Harry Potter started Hogwarts or that Will Stanton got his call to join the Old Ones at the age of 11.

Instead, on Thursday night, I got a call from a police officer, informing me that he had transported my son to the children’s psychiatric hospital because the boy had threatened to kill himself.

I have never fully recovered from my father’s death. His absence still hurts my heart with all the pain I felt when the phone rang that night so long ago, when I was in graduate school. In many ways, that innocent betrayal—leaving me like he did, even though he couldn’t help it—has made it impossible for me to trust another man. I can bake cookies and edit papers and sew buttons on shirts and discuss current events with flair and skill. But I do not dare to love anyone again because I am afraid that I will lose him, like I lost my father.

So imagine how I feel at the thought of losing my child!

I get the suicide thing. I really do. As I was driving home from the hospital after my first visit with my son (we played chess; he beat me), I saw one of those emo-kids dressed all in black lying on the grass, eyes closed, face twisted in a grimace of existential agony that only a 16 year old upper middle class kid can know, and I wanted to pull over and say, “Yeah, the unbearable lightness of being really sucks a&$, doesn’t it?”

I’ll freely admit that I’ve wanted to end my own life more than a time or two. But suicide is two things that I am not. It’s lazy, and it’s selfish.

Think about Hamlet, the prototypical emo-kid. His shallow mom knows that “all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” But Hamlet wastes all this time wallowing in existential misery (the equivalent of mental masturbation), while his father’s kingdom falls apart around him. He’s a selfish, lazy jerk, and innocent people pay the price for his indecision.

Then think about Julius Caesar. How would the world be different if he had fallen on his sword, instead of looking at the Rubicon and deciding to cross it? That decision, one could argue, affected the entire fate of the West. Regardless of what you think of the man’s politics and aspirations, you have to admire his chutzpah.

And that’s life, folks. When you come to a river that must be crossed, you cross it. There’s no way to the other side but through the middle, no matter how slippery the rocks, or how swift the current.

My father loved life. True to his nature, he did not go into that good night without a long and agonizing struggle. When I think of my young son, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the grandfather he has never met—at an age when he should still be casting pseudo Latin spells and saving Olympus—thinking about cutting his own existence short, I am literally struck dumb with pity and fear.

I have never recovered from the loss of my father. I do not even want to contemplate how the loss of my child would affect me. But I realize that I have no control over his choices, that I can only hope to help him comprehend the potential devastating consequences to me, to his father and step-mother, to his brothers and sister, to his grandparents, to all the friends and teachers who admire his quicksilver mind, his impish wit, his skill on the piano or the chess board.

My son is not lazy and selfish. I hope he’ll roll the dice and cross the river—to a life of unimagined vistas and unexplored countries. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

All Apologies

True confession: I have said some really hurtful things to people in my life. For instance, I still don’t remember exactly what I said to Sharna Kruse at the ninth grade lunch table that made her dump a 32-ounce Coke on my head and never speak to me again, but a) I’m sure I got what was coming to me, and b) to this day, I am still really sorry I destroyed a meaningful friendship for the sake of what was undoubtedly a very clever and very vicious quip.

Unfortunately, I have a knack for the well-timed, perfectly poisoned phrase (which is why I generally try to avoid arguments with people I care about). Take what I said in a fit of anger to my ex-husband, before he was my ex (he filed for divorce the next day)—I’ll let you use your imagination here, but rest assured, it was something so horrible that all the men who know about it turn pale and say, “He totally had to divorce you. No man could stay married to a woman who said THAT.” Fair enough.

So when people I care about do something that hurts me, I figure it’s probably a pay-it-forward kind of thing, that I should take my licking—deserved or not—with as much grace as I can muster. But it still hurts. I usually manage to sail through my days fairly unscathed by the slings and arrows of others, largely, I’m afraid, because I’m fairly oblivious to them. I love my life—I have four brilliant (albeit slightly crazy), beautiful children, a fun and demanding job, amazing, talented friends, and enough hobbies to last six or seven lifetimes. I suppose that’s made me thick-skinned, and unfortunately, also thick-skulled. I like to tell people that my most redeeming quality is that I don’t take things personally—and that my least redeeming quality is my tendency to say exactly what is on my mind.

Here’s the thing: I have no problem apologizing when I’m wrong. But what really gets me is when I apologize and the person I’ve wronged REFUSES TO ACCEPT my apology! Or even worse, when someone holds a grudge and I have NO IDEA why! I mean, can you believe it? The unmitigated gall…okay, before the keyboard blows up beneath my fingers, I’ll admit that I have had this most unpleasant of experiences not once, not twice, but three times in the past 24 hours. And even though one of my favorite anarchist soccer mom superpowers is the ability to spin virtually any bad news into something positive, the last blow—let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that it was an email “disinviting” me to my son’s birthday party—drew blood.

Worst of all, as soon as I got the coldly formal email, my suspicions that I have done something wrong were confirmed. But I really have no idea what it was. I’m quite sure, whatever it was, it was horrific—far worse than splitting an infinitive or messing up pronoun/antecedent agreement. I’m quite sure I should have noticed my grave and inexcusable offense when I did it. But the fact of the matter is, I’m completely ignorant, which makes the retaliation all the more painful. Because how can you make something right when the other person won’t even tell you what you’ve done?

The situation reminds me of one of my favorite poems about communication (or the lack thereof), Bill Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The final stanza implores us to try harder when we talk to each other: “The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” I still remember reading Derrida and realizing, in one of those delightful “Eureka” world-stopping moments that define the college experience, that there is ALWAYS a gap between what I say and what you hear. As a writer, it’s my job to narrow that gap—to communicate these thoughts (the hurt, like overhearing a friend in sixth grade talk about a party you weren’t invited to; the shame, like being the only person dressed in navy blue at a Depeche Mode concert; the remorse, like wishing you had bought that ceramic pig in Tijuana when you were 19) in a way that you can appreciate or understand or relate to.

When I got that email, all of those feelings, both the times I have hurt others, and the times they have hurt me, poured over me like a torrential Texas thunderstorm. I thought of all the wrongs that I can never right—and as I always do, when I feel like this, I resolved once again to do my very best to communicate clearly, to be more sensitive to others’ feelings, and above all, when I am wrong, to apologize. But once I’ve apologized, the matter is out of my hands. If people refuse to accept a sincere apology, that is entirely their problem. In my own life, I’ve found that focusing on the apologies I owe other people, rather than on the ones they owe me, generally makes me a happier person all around.

In case you’re wondering, I will not let this emotional equivalent of a skinned knee ruin my weekend, no matter how much it smarts at the moment! A door closes; a window opens. I guess the sudden block of freedom in a schedule that is usually jam-packed with activities can mean only one thing: it’s really time—no excuses!—to revise my novel. It’s an apology, of sorts, in the ecclesiastical sense of the word—an attempt to explain my reasoning, or perhaps even my raison d’etre. The first words might as well be “I’m sorry.”

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Just an Ordinary Day

Like any good anarchist soccer mom, I spent September 11, 2010 at the soccer fields, watching my three sons, in their brightly colored polyester jerseys and shiny black shorts, score goals. This ninth anniversary of that innocence-shattering event passed almost unnoticed, on purpose. By enjoying a simple September Saturday, I smugly told myself that I was living proof the terrorists did not win.

But I’m not too sure that we won either. Nine years later, America is in a world of trouble. Scandals—from Wall Street to Main Street—have plagued the financial engines that drive our economy. Our elected leaders engage in seemingly endless polemics that solve exactly nothing. We have extricated ourselves from one foreign engagement only to find our troops fighting the same war that we declared won in Afghanistan.

And people can’t even be nice to each other.

I can’t solve the housing crisis. I can’t fix the economy. You don’t even WANT to talk to me about healthcare (I am the woman who politely declined an epidural during childbirth because it was “too expensive”). But I can offer five simple suggestions to win the war at home.

1)      Buy local, especially when it comes to food. It’s simple, it’s inexpensive, and it’s good for you! will deliver fresh organic produce right to your door.
2)      Get involved in your community. I know you don’t have time for it. Neither do I. But if it weren’t for volunteers in our kids’ classrooms, or people who visit homebound seniors and run food banks, or any number of cheerful, enthusiastic volunteers, our world would be a much more miserable and lonely place. Life is about community.
3)      Quit cutting people off in traffic. I mean, really. Just knock it off! Even better, try riding your bike or carpooling to work. We all can use a dose of exercise endorphins once in a while!
4)      Save, save, save. Don’t have enough money for something you want? Then save up for it. We are so used to instant gratification that we have forgotten how much more things mean when we work for them. Need a retail therapy fix? You’ll be amazed at how far $10 can go at a thrift store.
5)      Be mindful, all the time, of how much you have to be grateful for. Start with the little things, if you have to—a breath of fresh air, a ray of autumn sunshine, a shiny penny in the parking lot. When you fall on your face and skin your knee, be grateful you didn’t break your nose. And always thank the people in your life who make a difference.
When things are especially rough for me, I like to think of life as a Monopoly game. I take my good and bad Chance cards as they come, always keeping the larger game in mind. And when I land on Free Parking, I treat myself to an ice-cream cone. Let’s face it, folks: the power of positive thinking is real. 
No, it’s not going to put checks in your mailbox (okay, I admit that making fun of The Secret is a secret hobby of mine). 
But “laughing wild amidst severest woe” is our real secret weapon against people who think they can change the world through death and destruction. The difference between America’s potential and the terrorists’ vision for us can be summed up in a single phrase from the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Die Welt des Gl├╝cklichen ist eine andere als die des Ungl├╝cklichen.” (The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy). I don't know about you, but given the choice, I prefer to live in the world of the happy.
P.S.   September 11, 2001
Some say that Christ returned to earth that day,
Caught a commuter flight in Portland, Maine,
Passed through the gate unrecognized in Boston
And boarded the doomed plane.

As strangers sought to maim and harm and kill
In Allah’s name, Christ turned to them and said,
“Father, forgive; they know not what they do.”
Then turned to calm the dead.

He will not raise the son whose father weeps,
The wife whose husband’s empty arms will ache
He will not save the child, but holds her still
As the world around her breaks.

Not trailing clouds of glory, as we thought
But bringing quiet peace with just a touch
When justice can’t be served, when god is dead
At least we have this much.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bag that Mountain!

When pride goes before fall

I like to climb mountains. And at the base of all my alpine hikes is a single goal: to stand on the summit, muscles singing, lungs burning, head spinning with lack of oxygen, and survey the landscape from the highest point like a god assaying her creation. If I carried a flag with me, I would plant one at the top and make a little speech in my own honor. So when I work really hard to bag a mountain and find myself thwarted just 50 feet from my goal, I am, to say the least, nonplussed.

But there are all kinds of summits.

A few weeks ago, I climbed Timpanogos, a popular scenic day hike in the Wasatch range, with my 13-year old son. He was fine on the way up, but as we began to descend, the unfortunate effects of attitude sickness began to plague him. “I can’t go any further, Mom,” he gasped at Emerald Lake, more than 3,000 feet above the parking lot we had to reach before sundown.

I stared at him, puzzled. “Can’t go any further” wasn’t actually one of the choices on the menu. We had climbed the mountain—ascended past the tree line, hiked through verdant alpine meadows, traversed rock fields strewn with granite boulders, inched along the narrow switchbacks carved into the nearly sheer rock face to reach the summit. No one was coming to save us. We had to get down—altitude sickness or not. I let him rest, urged him to drink water…and we hiked.

He survived, just like I did when I had to hike down from the top of Mount Whitney with a torn calf muscle. Of course, I hiked up Mount Whitney with a torn calf muscle as well—which tells you everything you need to know about my relationship with my mother. I tore the muscle on the very first step of the hike. Admittedly, I was showing off when I injured myself—testing my new hiking shoes’ Vibram rubber soles without warming up first. As I sprinted up a nearly vertical granite boulder, I felt the pop, then the agonizing flood of pain, and I knew.

“I can’t hike, Mom,” I told my 64-year old mother when I made it down.

“But we have permits,” my mother replied. That settled the matter. I hiked 22 miles on a calf muscle roughly the size and color of a county fair-prize winning eggplant—then didn’t walk again for four months. (In case you are wondering, I credit the liberal topical application of cayenne pepper mixed with mudwort, coupled with the fact that climbing typically relies on the quadriceps—for my physical ability to make the hike. And yes, it hurt worse than natural childbirth).

On my first backpacking trip to the Sawtooth National Wilderness in Idaho, I found myself in a similar predicament. And when faced with the opportunity to make a decision that could adversely affect my life and the lives of my four children, this time, I made the right choice. I chose not to climb the last 50 feet of a mountain. It was a whole new kind of hurt—and it opened up vistas of possibility hinting at a new kind of freedom.

At 10,190 feet, Mount Regan is not the highest mountain in Idaho—or even in the Sawtooths—but it presents a challenge worthy of the most experienced climbers. My hiking buddy Nate and I braved seemingly sheer metamorphic cliffs to reach the point of no return—a rope anchored into the side of the mountain at the edge of a 25-30 foot deep crevasse that separated us from our summit goal. We had unwisely chosen the North Ridge route; at a 5.3 rating, we would need ropes and other equipment to access those last 50 feet(according the Yosemite Decimal System for rating hikes, a 5 or higher is described as “technical free climbing involving rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death”). And you don’t even want to know what the previous 50 feet were like. Let’s just say that death was definitely an option on the menu.

Nate was all ready to make the jump (We had left one more sensible member of our party behind on safer ground). I am not going to even pretend I wasn’t tempted—a sudden picture of Jesus standing on a mountain top with Satan, surveying the world, flashed through my mind. But my confidence factor was a mere 25%--in other words, I was only 25% sure that I could cross the space beneath me and cling to the other side. Nate started playing with his rope, putting a few “Man vs. Wild” moves into practice as he swung the teal nylon cord across the abyss, catching it on the opposite side. I had already made my decision when I said to him, with utter calmness, “Crossing that crevasse is a selfish act. If you want to do it, I will stand here and take your picture when or if you reach the summit. But it’s selfish. And I will not follow you.”

I was speaking to myself. But Nate heard me. For several minutes. he thought about what I said, and in the end, he too decided not to cross. I knew exactly how courageous that decision was.

“Why do we do this to ourselves, Mom?” my son had asked a few weeks before, as he moved with aching slowness down the back face of Timpanogos.

Why do we climb mountains? I think there are two reasons. We climb because we want to push ourselves to the limits of our physical endurance; we want to see just how far these sacks of skin and bone can take us. And we climb because there simply isn’t any other way to experience what we feel when we stand on the summit, feeling for a brief moment what the gods feel. No photograph, no mere description, can do it justice—that sense of absolute awe and wonder and pure freedom that assaults your every sense when you are quite literally on top of your world.

Why then do we choose not to summit a mountain? That question is more difficult for me. We choose because when we reach the moment of decision, we find ourselves insufficiently aware, informed, prepared. We choose not to succeed at some things because the risks outweigh the benefits. To give up something that you value greatly for those you love is to know the meaning of sacrifice in the Biblical sense. As I turned back from Mr. Regan’s taunting summit, as I wedged my body between sheer rock faces with vertical drops of more than 30 feet, as I scavenged for handholds in flaking granite, I thought of Abraham, knife poised above the body of his innocent son. Why does God give us these urges, then tell us not to act on them?

Every major religion on earth eschews desire, in all its forms. If I can free myself of the desire to conquer this mountain, if I can surrender my will to God’s, only then can I discover what it means to be truly free. I will not attain the summit that I seek in this life, constrained as I am by the limits of human desire, by the fallibility that pits my hubris against God’s will. But I can try. Faith can move mountains. It can also move climbers to abandon unworthy summits and seek new heights. And as I learned on Mt. Regan, to give up your pride might be the greatest sacrifice of all.

Next time I go up there, I’ll have rope, rappelling equipment, and a flag.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

College for Everyone

Why For-Profit Schools Don’t Deserve President Obama’s Proposed Disparate Treatment

In a recent speech on education, President Obama set some lofty goals for American colleges and universities: "It's essential that we put a college degree that's in reach of everyone (who) wants it," he said. Yet just six days before he gave that stirring speech, his administration released a proposed set of rules that could potentially take college dreams away from an already underserved population—and put thousands of people out of work. The so-called “Gainful Employment” rule would require for-profit schools to limit the debt-to-income ratio of their graduates to just 8%. In other words, you can buy a car on credit, you can buy a house on credit, but you can’t buy an education at a for-profit career college on credit.

Granted, there’s a legitimate cause for government concern. For-profit schools take taxpayer money in the form of federal student loans (and after the administration’s quiet assumption of all student lending in March, federal student loans are the only game in town). If their default rates are higher than not-for-profits, then limiting the federal dollars that go to these schools by setting stricter requirements is a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. As always, the details are in the numbers. When you examine the statistics on their face, they look grim: a recent Education Department study, for example, found that only 36% of for-profit school graduates paid back their loans, compared to 54% at not-for-profit schools. But are we really comparing apples to apples here? And are the “predatory lending” and other shady ethical practices we hear so much about in the news these days really typical of the for-profit industry as a whole?

I looked at government default rate data for four different types of schools in two similar communities—Boise, Idaho, and Bakersfield, California—to see whether I could spot any trends. What I found suggests that the Obama Administration is using proprietary education as a scapegoat for problems that plague higher education as a whole. In both communities, for-profit career colleges mirrored national averages with default rates that were higher than the local four year universities (see Table 1). But when compared to local public community colleges, proprietary schools’ default rate differences were negligible, which also maps the national data. Interestingly enough, next to private universities in both communities, four-year universities don’t look so good, again mirroring higher education as a whole.

1) 4 Year Proprietary: ITT Technical Institute; San Joaquin Valley College
2) 4 Year Public: Boise State University; California State University, Bakersfield
3) 4 Year Private: College of Idaho; Occidental College
4) 2 Year Public: College of Southern Idaho; Bakersfield College

You can spot the trend pretty quickly: public community colleges and private proprietary schools serve the same student population, one that is largely made up of the very students to whom President Obama promised a college education in his recent speech—the single mothers, the first-time college students, minorities, those with learning disabilities, desperate, deserving people stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs. And yes, when it comes to loan default rates, that population is by definition riskier—much riskier than the students who attend private colleges, for example.

But these nontraditional students also have the most to benefit, with potential sweeping changes for them, their families, and for society as a whole. Education really can be the key to changing people’s lives, and while this industry, like any industry, should be regulated against unscrupulous or deceptive practices, we should also honor the basic premises on which this country was founded: we should let people choose their own “pursuit of happiness.” With no appreciable difference in default rates between two-year public school graduates and two-year proprietary school graduates, why make rules that unfairly target an already underserved segment of the population?

If the federal government is really concerned about loan default rates, perhaps they should start examining programs like the one I majored in—the Humanities, a field where 23% of graduates owe more than $30,000 and 14% more than $50,000 upon graduation, all while competing for increasingly scarce jobs that don’t pay well. I earned a masters degree from one of the most reputable Classics graduate programs in the nation, the University of California, Los Angeles. When asked what one does with an M.A. in Classics, I typically quip, “Well, I can ask ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in five languages, two of them dead.” I am lucky to be employed as the Chair of General Education at a proprietary college, where my passion for liberal arts education and lifelong learning means that I am committed to providing my students with the very best instructors and curriculum I can give them.

While my for-profit college might not have the wide variety of course options I experienced in my own university training, I believe that proprietary education delivers. Unlike public and private not-for-profit universities, we have a powerful incentive to take the most intransigent students and transform them into polished professionals: our very existence already depends on our ability to place these graduates in jobs. As a March 2010 study from the Parthenon Group noted, “Even with this more challenging student population, the private sector generates superior education outcomes as evidenced by a 65% graduation rate (compared to only a 44% graduation rate at community colleges).” NOW we are comparing apples to apples.

As for “gainful employment,” according to ACICS, the national organization which accredits my school and 700 others nationwide, in 2008, nearly 60% of its 117,000 colleges’ graduates found jobs in their field of study, with an additional 10,000 finding jobs in a related field. Indeed, while the Obama Administration seems to have proprietary education fixed firmly in their sites, the real crisis in education could very likely occur in the not-for-profit sector, where plummeting endowments coupled with a rapidly rising demand for services may simply be unable to meet the nation’s educational needs.

So what can be done to prevent for-profit education from becoming the next sub-prime mortgage meltdown, as some have suggested? It’s simple: if you’re going to set standards, then set them across the board. If you’re going to raise the bar, then raise the bar for everyone. Don’t unfairly target an industry that uses the proven nimble and efficient mechanisms of capitalism to provide a superior product—in this case, a potentially life-changing education to the nation’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Call to action: Please think about what you’ve read, here. If you feel like I do, then visit and write your congressperson today.

1. “Obama Says Education Plan Includes Charter Schools, Teacher Salaries,” CNN Politics, July 29, 2010., retrieved August 31, 2010.
2. For all 94 pages of the proposed rule, see
3. Peter Baker and David M. Herszenhorn, “Obama Signs Overhaul of Student Loan Program,” New York Times, March 30, 2010., retrieved August 31, 2010.
4. “Scapegoating For-Profit Colleges: Obama tees up another private industry for punishment.” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2010., accessed August 31, 2010.
5., retrieved August 31, 2010.
6. Thomas Benton, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2009.
7. Robert Lytle, “Private Sector Post-Secondary Schools: Do They Deliver Value to Students and Society?” Parthenon Perspectives, March 2010. Retrieved August 31, 2010.
8. Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, Educating America’s Workforce, Summary of Key Operating Statistics, Data Collected from 2007 and 2008, 2008 Placement Data, p. 11., retrieved August 31, 2010

9. Mark C. Taylor, “What Is a Master’s Degree Worth?” New York Times Online Edition, June 30, 2009., retrieved August 31, 2010.