Trying to Money Like An Adult

I’m not good with money.

True: I own a house and lease a car, and I’ve got a savings account for my daughter’s education, so I’m not as bad with our money as millions of other people around the globe.

But still, like most Americans, we basically live paycheck to paycheck, and my family is a single unexpected disaster away from not being able to make ends meet (luckily, my wife and I both have very supportive parents, so if we needed the help, I’m confident they would offer it — but still, that’s not what you want as an adult, right?).

It’s kind of silly because my wife and I are both employed full-time as experienced teachers, and I have a second job working as a relatively well-paid adjunct at a local college.  According to the Pew Research Center, we are firmly in the middle income-tier in Vermont.

Most of our income goes to paying down our debt in the form of student loans (20%) and credit cards (19%). The mortgage eats up another 13% each month. The rest goes to a car payment, plus regular obligations like heat, electricity, water, groceries, subscriptions, etc. (and way too much of it goes to dining out).

I’m trying to get a handle on all of this. The main driver is the need to make repairs on the house. We got water damage in our bedroom ceilings a couple of years back; the slate steps on our front porch are falling in on themselves; and the slate roof needs some repair. The kitchen needs work too, but that’s a major overhaul that is years down the road.

The secondary reason is because I want to make sure the family can weather whatever unexpected disaster ends up happening to us (where “disaster” is defined by the need to drop more than $400 on an unexpected service or item).

To help us accomplish our goals, I’ve started using two different tools.

The first is YNAB, which stands for You Need A Budget. Prior to YNAB, I used Mint, but the budgeting tools on Mint didn’t help as much. Mint’s budgeting tools revealed where we spent our money, but it didn’t provide any tools to help us change our spending habits.

YNAB, on the other hand, requires us to be more active with our budgeting. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the process, but I’m definitely more engaged with it, which is a start. The rules powering YNAB are simple:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Embrace your true expenses.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Age your money.

I’m still trying to figure out the best way to comply with Rule #1, but the important part is that I’m actively working on it.

The second tool I’m using is called Qapital. Qapital is basically a savings account, but it uses customizable rules to trigger my bank to transfer money into our Qapital account.

One of the rules we use rounds up every transaction we make using our debit cards to the nearest $2 and transfers the difference into our savings account. Another rule transfers $1 for every article I read using the Pocket app (i.e., I pay myself to finish reading long articles). Yet another one transfers $25 for every post I write here on my blog (i.e., I’m paying myself to blog).

But we don’t just save money every time we do something. I can also save money when we don’t do something. For example, I usually spend around $30 a week on my lunches. I absolutely DO NOT want to be doing this, and yet, come lunch time, I still find myself slipping next door to the school to get a slice of pizza. So, to help motivate me not to do this, I set up a rule so that if I spend less than $15 a week at the pizza place, the difference gets transferred into my savings.

I’m still not killing it when it comes to managing our money, but with YNAB and Qapital, I feel like we’re making a lot more progress than we ever have before.

The real test will come this summer. Will we have enough money to do repairs on the house? Will a successful use of Rule #4 on YNAB mean that the money we spend each day was actually generated more than 30 days prior? I don’t know for sure, but I’m working to make it so.

My New Learning Plan

Yesterday, I spent about an hour working on something called a Learning Plan. At the school where I work, we use Learning Plans to record where each student stands in relation to their education.

A good education doesn’t just happen to a person. Education and learning are activities to be worked on. A student has to want an education, and they have to be willing to put some effort into it (incidental learning is all well and good, but incidental learning should not be a goal; active and engaged learning should be the goal).

To accomplish this, my school puts the student in charge of their own education. The school is there to provide resources — the time and the space to work on projects; the support of caring and curious adults who actively want to see them succeed; access to a network of community partners eager to collaborate with them on a mutually beneficial internship; material support in the way of computers, books, paper, and pencils; and, not the least, the opportunity to receive financial backing for well-researched investments in their future — but (and this is important) the school itself is not there to provide an education.

Only the students, themselves, can do that.

The Learning Plan is one resource we use to help them. The product of several conversations between the student and their advisor, the Learning Plan records the student’s long-term goals and short-term objectives.

It starts by asking them to identify their passion. This is a tough-ass task to accomplish. We use all kinds of tools to get at possible answers, but unless the student wants to seek their passion, coming up with the right answer is all but impossible.

So next we ask the student to consider their interests. They may not know their passion,  but they can almost always come up with something that fascinates them: sharks, battle-axes, tornadoes, etc. If they can’t come up with a detailed answer, they can come up with a broader genre: video games, science, blowing stuff up.

Between their passions and their interests, we can come up with a project or a class that has some real teeth to it in either an academic and/or skill-building sense, something that the student can enthusiastically say “Yes!” to (the best ideas come out of the student’s mouth, of course).

But that’s not the whole Learning Plan. Because a student can’t just come to my school, do whatever they want to do, and then graduate with a high school diploma. It’s not that easy.

As a school, we decided that it means something to earn our high school diploma, and it’s not the same thing as earning a diploma from one of the state-based high schools (and when I say “we decided as a school,” I mean “we” in the broadest sense because my school is completely democratic: staff and students have equal say in the way the school runs, provided they show up to make their voices heard). As a school, we decided that our diploma means the student has accomplished not only the development of basic or college-ready academic skills (which is what most diplomas signify), but that the student has also developed their social and emotional skills.

Every student who graduates from my school must accomplish a suite of over 100 different goals, spaced out over the lifetime of their career. These goals range from the development of their reading skills to the development of their ability to cope with adversity. They not only have to know how to write and do  algebra, they have to know how to build and maintain healthy relationships and understand and manage their moods.

The Learning Plan is where this progress gets recorded. It’s completed on a quarterly basis and attempts to stand true for a period of nine weeks. The students use the Learning Plan to record which specific goals they’re going to pursue and how that pursuit fits into the long-term development of their passion and/or interests.

(Sometimes, because of a failure of either time or imagination, the student and the advisor fail to succeed, and nine weeks pass with very little progress. That’s okay. We don’t penalize either the student or the advisor for that. Students do not “fail” or “stay back” at my school — we refuse to place a label on their progress — instead, students give and receive honest assessments of their work. Education isn’t a race with winners and losers; it’s a craft, requiring patience and discipline from both the apprentice and the master, and its method of assessment should respect and reflect the time and effort put into it.)

But the Learning Plan attempts to capture all of that, and to do so in a single document. That was my job yesterday afternoon. To imagine a bureaucratic form that could best entomb such a living and dynamic process.

We kid ourselves when we tell the students that the Learning Plan is a living document. It’s not. It both captures and kills a whole lot of effort on everybody’s part.

There’s a superstition among creative writers that says it’s bad luck to talk about your works in progress because telling someone your story tricks you into thinking you’ve written it.

The Learning Plan has that danger as well. It sometimes takes so much effort to create a Learning Plan that it saps all of the student’s inspiration and energy, and the rest of the nine weeks may pass with little to no movement. This sets them up to feel like a failure as they neglect to get any real work done.

But here’s the thing: When a person has a Learning Plan, they know what they’re supposed to do, which means they also know when they’re not doing it. This can be a lot for the teenage mind to handle, and it can lead to feelings of depression and guilt, which then can manifest in behavior that looks like anger or aggression. Make no mistake: It’s dangerous goddamn work putting effort into the education of an American teenager, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Of course, one of the goals of the student and the advisor is to either avoid or learn to cope with such feelings and/or behaviors by making steady progress on an academic and/or social-emotional level.

But how can a bureaucratic form do that utterly humane and naturally chaotic process any real justice? It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you want to know exactly what direction a thing is moving, you can’t also know exactly where it is in space. A Learning Plan can show us where a student is right now, but it can’t show us how quickly they are moving.

That’s why my form needed to strike a balance between long-term goals and short-term objectives.  It can’t tell you how they got here or when they’ll get there, but it can tell you where they are right now.

What’s hilarious to me is that when all of this thinking is going on in my head, my students just see me with my feet up on a chair focused on my computer screen. If they actually come around to look at my screen (as they often do), they see some new form on Google Docs with spaces for things like “Name” and “Today’s Date,” and bulleted lists with placeholder text that reads “Select here and start typing.” It must look so friggin’ boring to them.

Little do they know that the Learning Plan I pursued in my twenties and thirties led me to a job where every day I get to utilize my passion for systems-thinking, further my drive to constantly extend my knowledge and comprehension, and act on my desire to make a difference in my community.

It may look boring to my students. But when it comes to my career, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Did I finish the form? I did. And then I assigned it to my students. The due date is Friday.

Seriously, doesn’t the completion of a form like that seem like a full time job, yet at the same time, so rewarding? As if it would take a lot of hard work and serious thinking to provide honest answers to its questions, but also and at the same, be totally worth it in the end?

But no, my students won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as homework. And homework is something you do at the last minute, if you do it at all.

Goddamn, it’s frustrating to work with teenagers 🙂

Reading Christ Without Faith

I am an atheist, but I read a lot about Christianity. I don’t read a lot of books about Islam (though I have read some), nor do I read about Judaism (though, again, I have read some); nor about Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Shinto (though again, I have read some).

Christianity. That’s mostly what I read about.

The reason seems simple: I was raised as a Catholic in the suburbs of Boston. How Catholic? Well, not only was I baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, but I volunteered as an altar boy, and on Saturdays, I worked as a receptionist for my parish’s monsignor. I also played basketball for and went on overnight field trips with my local Catholic Youth Organization. Parish priests came to my house for dinner on more than one occasion, and I considered them (and still consider them) my friends.

A Hindu pandit, on the other hand, has never passed me the green beans, nor has a Buddhist monk. I wasn’t raised on the banks of the Ganges or at the base of Mt. Fuji. Yes, I did grow up in a town that felt at least half Jewish, and yes, I attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and yes, I broke bread at least half a dozen times with a rabbi, and yes, I would argue that one can’t really read about Christianity without also taking in a fair share of Judaism, but even when I read about Judaism, I usually do so as one who is there to find Catholicism.

(Just as a side note: Maybe the best book I’ve ever read on religion and spirituality explores Judaism through a conversation with the Dalai Lama; it’s called The Jew in the Lotus, and I can’t recommend it enough.)

I guess what I’m wondering is, why? Why my fascination with Catholicism? Is it really as simple as, “Because that’s how I was raised?”

I hope not.

I mean, of course it is — it absolutely is — but I also want it to be more than that.

First, I’m fascinated by the politics of it all. Back in high school, I was introduced to the fact that after Jesus died, his brother James the Just became the leader of the apostles, sharing power with Peter and John (“James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars [of the Jerusalem church]” {Galatians, 2:9}). Then along comes Paul, a former hunter of Christians who never met the living Jesus, proclaiming that he knows Christ’s message better than those men who walked beside Him during His ministry and witnessed Him in His resurrection (“And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me” {Galatians, 2:6}).

The difference between what Paul preached and what the Jerusalem church preached was wide. Paul preached what we now consider the Christian message: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians, 13:13). But the Jerusalem church must have preached something entirely different.

Remember, the Jerusalem church was a recognized band of fundamentalist revolutionaries whose politically assassinated leader called for a new definition of all that was held holy. James, himself, was enough of a nuisance to be stoned to death by Jerusalem’s high priest, an act that came not only from the early church’s ministry but also from the newly appointed high priest’s desire to make a big splash early in his career (he failed; his rash decision to murder a man whose epithet was “the Just” didn’t play well with the crowd, and the priest was quickly removed from office).

While we don’t know exactly what the Jerusalem church called for, the epistle of James differs from the epistles of Paul in that a) James does not refer to Jesus as the Son of God (he barely refers to Jesus at all), while most of what Paul writes ultimately finds its reasoning in the divine nature of Jesus Christ; and b) Paul writes that a person can be saved by faith alone, while James argues forcefully that “faith without works is…dead” (James 2:26).

These are two major differences. For Paul, Christianity’s validity comes from its revelation via the divine Lord, and its saving grace comes from the believer’s faith in that divinity. For James, however, Christianity is not a faith, per se, but a way of life, revealed by the prophets and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ is the law. For James, Jesus demonstrated the law.

The history of that argument is fascinating to me, especially since Paul’s argument was victorious and yet James’ argument feels more sound. Add on history’s iconoclastic takedown of all that the layman believes about Yeshua ben Yosef, and it’s easy to understand my fascination with the politics and the history.

Second, I’m fascinated by the theology. Christianity is the only major religion that declares God’s descension to the mortal realm (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John 1:14). Judaism and Islam both declare their truths through the Word of God, as revealed by the prophet(s), but God remains fundamentally separated from the human, an abstract notion when He’s not communicating through a burning bush or an angel.

Hinduism’s concepts of the Atman and Brahman might allow an interpretation that comes close to Christianity’s God in the flesh, but Hinduism (like Shinto) is fundamentally polytheistic, so even if we stretched the metaphor in friendship, it would ultimately have to collapse in foolishness.

Both Taoism and Buddhism are godless religions (in the best sense of that phrase), so while the wisdom of the universe may be obtained there, that wisdom itself is never embodied the way John and Paul tell us that Jesus embodied God’s Word.

So that’s pretty ballsy, from a theological perspective.

Third, I’m fascinated by the message of it. I don’t know what Yeshua ben Yosef actually preached in the backwaters of Galilee in the first century CE, but I know over the next two thousand years, his disciples developed a rich and wise account of how a human ought to live: with faith in the future, hope for those among us, and love in our heart. I can get on board with that.

Fourth, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of its most avid devotees. I’m not talking about right-wing Christians who proclaim that Jesus wanted us all to get wealthy and to hate fags and communists and to arm ourselves against Islamic jihad. I’m talking about actual saints and Popes, the individuals who seem to believe with all of their heart and yet who also seem to stray from the path their Lord revealed to them  (I’m a fiction writer and reader, and thus a sucker for complex characters).

So yes, the reason I read so much about Christianity is because — without a doubt — I was born and raised a Catholic; but it’s also more than that. It’s a fascination with history, theology, morality, and humanity.

And those are topics in which my lack of faith still feels justified.

Testing a Coup

From “Trial Ballon for a Coup?

[T]he administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Why Am I Not Angrier?

I want to understand why I don’t feel as angry as I think I ought to about the actions of the Trump Administration. We all know by now how controversial their first week was, with millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest (not to mention the millions of citizens of the planet who joined them), but if you’re still a little fuzzy on the details, here are some links where you can read about…

That’s a lot of shit I should feel angry about, and to be clear, there can be no doubt that I do feel that anger, but something is telling me — or maybe a better way to phrase it is someone is telling me — that I don’t feel angry enough.

Angry enough to do what, though?

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier last weekend. I went knowing that I am a white heterosexual American male with a rewarding career and a wife who is intelligent, funny, kind, and supportive. We brought along our physically, mentally, and intellectually healthy four-year old daughter, who carried a sign that she helped my wife write before we left our house. Her sign read, “Women are Powerful.”

We were among the tens of thousands of Vermonters who joined together on the steps of our capitol building to stand proud and stand defiant in the face of the Trump Administration’s bigotry and aggression. We heard our famous Senator, a genuine political hero to tens of millions of Americans, speak in person about the need for courage and conviction. We heard Muslim and Latino teenagers rage in our predominantly white middle-class faces about the system that supports our lifestyles, and we applauded their righteous cry for justice. We heard the announcement that a young child had come to the front because she had lost her mother, and our hearts sank at the thought of our own daughter feeling so lost in such a big crowd.

Angry enough to do that? To drive two hours only to brave a traffic jam?

Yes, the Women’s March accomplished something. If it hadn’t been so successful last weekend, we wouldn’t have seen the protests at the airports this weekend. If it hadn’t been so successful, we wouldn’t have seen rogue employees of the National Parks Service demonstrate real courage by opening a Twitter account and refusing to remain silent. If the Women’s March hadn’t been so successful, we wouldn’t be reading about plans for the scientists of America to conduct their own march on Washington this spring, or hearing about the environmentalists planning a coordinated show of force on Earth Day. We wouldn’t have seen American lawyers descend on terminals throughout the country to defend (pro bono) the rights of foreign-born individuals. We may not have even seen something as private as a sign in a bookstore mocking the words of the President’s most senior advisors (“This way to the Alternative Facts section…we use to call it ‘Fiction'”).

If the Women’s March accomplished anything, it showed that there are millions of us who oppose President Trump’s words, actions, and policies, and we’re willing to stand up and be counted.

But is that all my anger is good for? Am I only willing to be counted?

There are a couple of memes going around that speak to what I’m talking about. The first one says something like, “If you’ve ever said to yourself, ‘I wonder what I would’ve done…,’ Now is the time. What you are doing now is the answer to what you would’ve done.” The other reads, “First they came for the Muslims. And we said, ‘Not today, motherfucker.'”

Those two memes capture the way I feel right now, but the fact that I only know them as memes better captures my reality. Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m reading things on the Internet, and then either sharing them or writing about them.

And yes, I’m also a teacher, so along with trying to influence my friends, family, and peers on Facebook, I’m also actively working to influence the next generation of leaders to take positive steps in the development of our humanity.

But again, is that enough?

Right now, on the streets of America, there are tens of thousands of people (including many members of our own government) who are either actively working to disrupt the president’s ability to effect change or actively working to reduce the harm of whatever change he succeeds in making.

The list includes college students who use the passion of their youth to set fire to the conversations of their elders, parents who leave their young children to enact real reforms through their local community-action boards,  politicians who use the microphones provided to them by their constituents to propose legislative changes and protest or block executive orders, mothers of murdered children who congregate in shared spaces to provide real sanctity to citizen protests, and so many more doing so much more. Thousands of them, making daily sacrifices, not just of their time (as I have done), but also of their blood.

Is that what I expect from myself? What should I expect from myself? If now really is the time and this is what I would’ve done, what, indeed, should I do?

Two different friends of mine have used this moment to engage deeper with politics. One of them is running for a seat on our local school board; the other contacted his state’s Democratic Party to see how his Ph.D in Natural Resources & Environmental Studies (with a focus on climate change policies) could best serve his state. Both of their decisions inspire me, but with two jobs, a working wife, a young daughter, and a part-time hobby at home, seeking to do more on a political level is a path that (currently) feels closed to me.

I’m also not about to get involved on the physical level. Teaching is exhausting, and I’m lucky when I have enough energy left to give to my own child at the end of the day. When the sun goes down, the dinner is made, and the daughter is washed, read to, and in bed, I’ve only got enough in me to watch TV for a couple of hours, play a 45-minute game of Madden, and then read for about 30 minutes until I fall asleep in bed.

When I’m feeling particularly energetic, I open up my laptop and do a little writing.

But that’s about all I’ve got in me. Physically speaking.

And I know the response: “That’s how they get you.” First, they get you to go into debt by creating an economy that basically forces you to go to college and a culture that basically forces you to buy a house before you can feel settled. That debt makes you work for someone else so you can have the security of a steady paycheck, and that work exhausts your body of all its active energies, leaving you depleted at nightfall. The creative forces that do exist concentrate on your attention span, distracting you with their bullshit or pleasuring you with their dramatic plots and/or pulsating lights. And then another day is done, and the status quo remains, and four to five years slip away.

But that’s the reality, isn’t it?

Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately), no. That’s just the privilege of my reality. For others, reality looks like an immigration officer telling them they’re not allowed to get off the plane. Or a dead neighbor gunned down by a too poorly trained police officer or a too undereducated teenager. Or it looks like a cancerous father whose insurance won’t cover it. Or an out-of-work mother whose husband has been captured and deported.

And what’s my problem? Well, I’m a middle-aged white heterosexual American male. My problem is debt. And debt just isn’t something it seems I can get angry about.

Was Sec. Clinton going to fix my debt? Perhaps. The success of Senator Sanders pushed her closer to policies that would have addressed the indebtedness of the average American citizen, but I doubt she would have pursued them had she been elected. When it comes to Sec. Clinton’s relationship to America’s worst financiers, we only have to look at her wallet.

Will President Trump fix my debt? Not bloody likely. His tax policies will probably end up having zero effect on my middle-class tax bracket, and if my family stays healthy, our insurance should stay relatively reasonable (thanks to the indefatigable work of the  teacher’s union). We can feel pretty assured that he’s also not going to do anything to address student loan debt, despite the incredible weight it puts on our country’s economic growth; nor will he reduce rates for current (and probably future) homeowners.

But he’s also not going to come for my wife or daughter, not in any tangible sense, the way he’s coming for the families of Latino Americans and Muslim Americans. And the actions and policies of his justice department won’t rip my family apart by either shooting my child dead or sending her to jail. Unless he starts to come after the Atheists (which, let’s face it, won’t happen), I probably don’t have anything to fear from Trump or his platoons.

So, because of that, it seems I’m angry enough to write, “Not today motherfucker,” but I’m not angry enough to do much else.

I can only hope that that is enough.