Thursday, June 28, 2007

No, I didn't spellcheck this. No, I don't plan to. No, I don't care.

I’ve been two weeks without putting up a full column (check the dates if you don’t believe me) and this would be the third, so I’m forcing myself to write at least 500 words, even if it comes out dreck. Which it probably will, because I’m in a bit of a rut right now (bit of a rut? That’s and understatement) and I don’t have anything of any significance to say right now.

At least, that’s how I feel. I’ve been working at my temp job for close to two months now, and during the day, on a given day, I spend at least five hours aimlessly surfing the Internet (or teh Interwebs, or the Interblargs, or whatever it is we young folks call them. Me? I prefer “blagoblarg.” But that’s not my point.) and working on my writing projects, several of which are on the cusp of formal submission to publications and one of which is a fairly complete outline of a novel I want to work on at some point in the near future. The problem is, the project I really want to work on is at home, sitting in a binder, all nice and hole-punched and sticky-noted and annotated with big scrawling inscriptions like “More description here” and “Remove” and “Add scene here.” That’s right, it’s my National Novel Writing Month novel, all 50,000+ words of it, and I can’t do squat with it because I would feel awkward bringing the binder to work.

I don’t really know why I feel so awkward about it, except that perhaps the fact that the physical act of bringing it in would be awkward: It’s a standard two-inch three-ring binder, full of about 180 pages worth of paper, and I have to walk a total of about seven blocks to get from where I park to where I ride the elevator and drool behind a desk all day. I could park beneath the building – they would pay for it as part of my job, so that’s all right – but my mom works a few blocks away for the state and she gets free parking anyway, so we just take my car in and park it in her spot. And so that was all right, oh Best Beloved. Do you see?

But I would feel a little weird letting it (the binder, not the car) sit on my desk all day, especially when I wasn’t using it. It’s a ridiculous fear, of course – no one’s going to bother it – but I’m a) paranoid about its safety and b) unreasonably insecure about my work, although I’m c) rapidly overcoming that. There’s something about having several short stories very, very nearly in the can and almost ready to be sent out that does a good deal for a writer’s morale, especially if that writer is stressing out about getting college finished (all I need is an internship! Honest! I am a hard worker, well worth the money!) and finding a real job and actually starting to pay of some of those god-awful loans she keeps hearing about.

Plus I sprained my ankle this week. This makes it harder to put up with life in general. Waah waah waah. At least I don’t have homework.

Friday, June 08, 2007

No, you can't have personal achievment. Not yours. - part 3 of an ongoing series

At the end of last week’s column, I discussed the fact that most rich people got that way through hard work and good decisions, not through any luck-of-the-draw-type process. Yes, Bill Gates has a lot of money. Yes, most people don’t have a lot of money. But that doesn’t mean Bill Gates is obligated to hand out his money to people who haven’t earned it. By and large, first-world wages are commensurate with the work performed to earn said wages. In other words, if you want more money, you’re going to have to go out, make an effort and get it yourself. Socialist-Marxist types hate this sort of thinking because it isn’t fair to the working class – on a related note, Karl Marx was a member of the upper class and likely never did a day of real labor for wages in his life (he was poor, but he mostly mooched off friends).

In fact, most of those who claim to speak for the poor and oppressed have never truly been either. When people with wealth and privilege see that others do not have wealth and privilege, there are two things that can happen, and which one largely depends on how the person got his or her wealth and privilege in the first place. People who worked their way up tend to say things like, “There are fewer black kids than white kids in college? Gee, that’s too bad – I wonder what I can do to help them get a leg up. Perhaps I can start a tutoring and guidance program for gifted kids in poor urban neighborhoods so more of them can get admitted. A scholarship fund wouldn’t hurt, either.” This viewpoint acknowledges that hard work is necessary for true success and tries to find a way to make resources and opportunities available to people who don’t have them. It places responsibility for success on the individual.

On the other side of the coin, people who take their wealth and privilege for granted tend to say things like, “There are fewer black kids than white kids in college? Gee, that’s too bad – I wonder what I can do to help them get a leg up. Perhaps I can set up quotas that require colleges to admit a certain number of black students.” This viewpoint works from the assumption that certain opportunities are rights, not privileges, and that excluded groups are somehow being blocked by others. It removes responsibility for success from the individual, thereby negating people’s power to make decisions about their own lives and treating them like children.

The second reaction is faulty because it looks no further than the immediate set of data: namely, that there are fewer black students in college than there are white students. It ignores the possibility of mitigating factors: failing schools, a culture that values short-term gain over long-term rewards and the high incidence of single mothers in poor urban areas, for example. People who take this view think equality and freedom mean not equality of opportunity – that is, that everyone can make something of himself if he tries hard enough – but equality of outcome. And if those outcomes aren’t equal, then by God, they’ll have to make them equal – not by lifting the individual, but by lowering the system. Instead of fixing problems from the ground up, they lower the standards to meet them.

When President Bush was promoting his No Child Left Behind legislation, he spoke of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Instead of fixing the problems that lead to underachievement, the affirmative-action types lower the bar so underachievement becomes the norm. But no society ever improved because it lowered its standards – after all, what’s the point of climbing a mountain if it gets shortened a hundred feet every year? Without being challenged to excel and improve, students, schools and civilizations alike fall into a sense of resentful entitlement that demands others provide results instead of seeking those results themselves. It keeps the individual in a perpetual (and frustrating) state of child-like dependence and ultimately pits groups against each other – race vs. race, the poor vs. the rich, etc.

Marx was poor and dependent on others, but instead of doing serious work to earn a living, he wrote one of the most destructive finger-pointing screeds the world has ever seen. One man’s resentment and misunderstanding of the basic principles of cause and effect was responsible for more than 100 million deaths in the last century alone. Today in the West, it doesn’t lead directly to bloodshed; instead, it corrals people like sheep and strips them of their drive, their ambition and their self-determination – the very attributes that built this country.

And when the foundation goes, it won’t be long before the house goes, too.

For more about this subject, a quick search on La Shawn Barber’s Corner will give you all the information you ever wanted, and then some, about the problems with affirmative action.

Friday, June 01, 2007

You're special, just like everybody else - part 2 of an ongoing series

I won’t say that I don’t understand the namby-pamby “everybody’s special” mindset, because to some extent, I do. I understand where it’s coming from, and I can understand how nice, well-meaning people can get sucked in by it.

It just makes me vomit internally, is all. (Which is a neat trick, incidentally. Bribe me enough and I’ll do it at parties.)

I’m sure you know the attitude I’m talking about: The one that says that everyone is just as valuable as everyone else, and that no one should hold himself above his peers. Which is fine, as far as it goes, because when stated as above it’s based on the precept that we are all beings created in the image of and loved by an omnipotent God. But what happens when that particular cinderblock gets knocked out of a society’s foundation?

I’ll tell you what happens. If you don’t already have the “everybody’s special” mantra ingrained in the cultural subconscious, you end up with slavery, racism, elitism and the caste system. If it’s already firmly ensconced (or in the process of being so), you end up with a method born of madness when the best and brightest, the natural high achievers, are cut down for the sake of the feelings of others.

This sort of thing leads to schools outlawing the honor roll because it makes the D students feel bad. It leads to the “self-esteem” movement. It leads to “wealth reassignment”: high taxes are levied on high earners to pay for handouts to the poor. It leads to programs which discriminate against students or job candidates based on race or gender. It leads to cultural relativism, where the worst vices of the worst cultures are left to continue to fester and rot because it wouldn’t be right to impose our values on them – or, worse, because we should help to preserve their “way of life.”

Again with the internal vomiting. Once again, logic and reason are tossed right out the window to splatter on the sidewalk of inanity and moral ineptitude spawned in the “feel-good” era of the 1960s and grown to fruition in the following decades.

I made the honor roll three times in eight semesters in high school. In college, I racked up similar statistics. There have been times in my life when I felt like an underachiever, when I felt that my school performance was not what it could have been. But I didn’t sit around thinking, “I feel bad about my bad grades. The school should eliminate all rewards systems based on grades.” Instead, I fought against those feelings and tried hard to improve both myself and my academic standing. The honor roll can make underperforming students feel bad – but it’s not the school’s job to make them feel better about themselves.

Born in 1983, I am at the very forefront of my generation, known to sociologists as the Millennials. Nearly everyone in this generation has had it pounded into his head that maintaining a high self-esteem is the most important thing he can do for himself. Notice that I said “high,” not “healthy.” Much to my sorrow, the self-esteem movement does not teach children that their opinion of themselves should be based on any concrete evidence or results. Unlike self-respect, which is based on a person’s behavior, character and relationships with others, self-esteem is based only on the notion that no one should ever feel bad about himself for any reason. As my peers begin to reach the age commonly known as adulthood, the results of this are becoming depressingly clear: We are a generation of narcissists. We’re too good for entry-level jobs and menial work. We want high wages and corner offices not because we earned them, but because we deserve them.

This ignorance of the concept of just rewards also spills over into the economic sector, where do-gooder politicians and lobbyists constantly play on one of the people’s most tender nerves: that someone, somewhere owes them something. Does Bill Gates have more money than you? Then that’s not fair. Someone should take all that money and redistribute it more equally.

But wait a minute? Bill Gates didn’t just sit back and let his money roll in. He didn’t have some benefactor holding his hand through the whole process. No one just gave him all that money. He created one of the most successful technology companies the world has ever seen, and he did it through hard work. He didn’t have some kind of insider information or suspicious leg up, unless you count being wicked smart and having good business sense. So why should his hard-earned money be taken away from him? How many companies have you taken global?

With a few exceptions, money follows talent and hard work in this country. People who inherit their money have parents or grandparents who became rich through their own efforts, and those heirs who don’t work to maintain their money end up broke. Those who start out with nothing and end with nothing largely do so through their own efforts, as well. “Rob from the rich and give to the poor,” then, doesn’t apply in a capitalistic society. Robin Hood’s tactics were appropriate because the economic system had very little room for upward mobility and significant inertia against trying to move the status quo. In the modern world, his strategy is a recipe for failure.

Let’s say there’s a man with $1 million. The argument for redistribution says that he should take his money and give 1 million people 1 dollar each. Now everyone’s even. Everyone can buy a candy bar. Whoopee. BUT. If we let him keep his money, he won’t keep it stuffed in his mattress. He’ll spend it. He’ll use it to buy things for himself and for his family, which enriches the merchants, manufacturers and service providers. He’ll use it to further his business interests, perhaps by hiring new employees, opening a new office or increasing the distribution of his product. In other words, if he keeps his money and things stay “unfair,” everybody wins.

In addition, the fact that he has money is a reward for his hard work. The old adage goes that if you wiped the slate clean tomorrow and gave everyone $1,000, by the end of the day some people would be broke and some people would be millionaires. Does that make the millionaires evil? No. They just saw an opportunity and took it.

Next week: Meet the new racism, same as the old racism.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Framing the debate - part 1 of however many I can churn out before I give up in disgust

I’m here to talk about the new immigration bill that’s come up before Congress, but I’m not going to bother addressing its problems as a piece of legislation. Others have already done that far better than I ever could. Instead, I’m going to look at a different angle of the issue, one that I don’t see much talked about on TV and in the newspapers. This is one of my more roundabout columns, so stick with me. I promise I’ll get to the point eventually.

It amazes me how, when it comes to highly controversial ethical/moral debates, the most rational solutions tend to be left out in the cold. Take, for example, the Terry Schiavo case a while back. She was brain-damaged but otherwise healthy; all her organs functioned and she was not on life support. Her parents were more than willing to take her in and care for her, more than willing to take her off her husband’s hands so he could get on with his life. He could have easily abdicated all responsibility for her health and well-being by signing custody over to her parents.

Yet, the debate turned into a right-to-die case, something that should only have come up if machines were breathing and pumping her blood for her. Instead of “starve her to death” vs. “give her to her parents,” the courts and, subsequently, the media framed the choices as “let her die” vs. “keep her alive as a vegetable.” A third, perfectly humane option existed, but it was ignored. As a result, the woman died.

Likewise, the abortion controversy is usually presented so that women have to choose between having an abortion of keeping an unwanted baby. Meanwhile, thousands of couples willing to adopt pay thousands of dollars in fees and travel because they feel they have to go abroad in order to find a child. Again, a humane third alternative is ignored at the expense of human life.

These examples are, I believe, symptoms of a larger problem. C.S. Lewis once mentioned in The Screwtape Letters that (I’m paraphrasing a bit here) men once knew when a thing was proved, and they lived their lives accordingly. Now, though (“now” being the early 1940s), people had in general lost the skill of rational thought, the idea that there are such things as absolute truths and the ability to see such truths and make decisions about them.

Screwtape, of course, was ready to make hay of this. He advises Wormwood to involve his subject in the mushy modern sciences, such as sociology and watered-down economics, and to keep him away from subjects about which he must think in a logical pattern: physics, mathematics and the like. Above all, Wormwood must avoid argument and debate as a method of persuasion, instead relying on emotional appeals and non-logic-based statements. Although never explicitly outlined, it is easy to imagine the sort of appeals Screwtape might have had in mind: “I don’t want to.” “That’s too hard.” “It’s not fair.”

Translated into our 21st century dialect, these can be read as “Of course he committed a crime. He’s downtrodden and oppressed.” “If we hadn’t made them angry, they wouldn’t be attacking us.” “They just want what we have. Why shouldn’t we let them stay?” Instead of the reasonable, thought-through solutions to these problems, we are presented with irrational choices: either sympathize with the person in the wrong or be branded as heartless.

Which leads me to my topic du jour: the immigration (amnesty) bill. The current bill is ultimately founded on the oatmeal-brained idea that the government is responsible for fixing people’s problems for them, especially if they're from a third-world country or an impoverished urban area. Instead of empowering people by demanding they stand up and take control of their own lives and their own situations, the current trend is to behave like the woman who desperately wants to be the “cool mom.” Instead of setting boundaries and enforcing them, she tries to be her kid’s best friend, resulting in a lack of both discipline and respect in the household. No matter what he asks for, she gives it to him: expensive clothes, a TV in his bedroom, a fancy cell phone. The kid could earn money and get these things himself, but instead he manipulates his mother into giving it to him. He feeds off his mother’s insecurities and takes advantage of her until she is unable to say no to him about anything, and he is unable to get what he wants without demanding it from someone else.

America didn’t become a superpower by asking for handouts from Europe. America became a superpower because it was willing to make its own way in the world and fix its own problems. If we had gone whining to Great Britain every time we had a problem – and if Britain had bent over backwards trying to accommodate what would have been increasingly unreasonable demands – we’d be an insignificant little backwater ex-colony, still huddled up against the east coast and scared to cross the Mississippi.

One great problem in the third world, one of the main things that holds them back, is the pervasive “get what you can for yourself” attitude that permeates their societies from their governments to their gutters. In some countries, you can’t send a letter without bribing someone, let alone start a business. In Mexico, which has notoriously strict laws regarding immigrants and foreigners inside its own borders, the government actively aids and encourages people to cross the Rio Grande, make money and send it back home. Then, when the U.S. complains, they say we owe it to them.

The debate, then, has largely turned into “let illegal immigrants do whatever they want” vs. “you’re a racist xenophobe.” The third option, the reasonable option, is to tell Mexico and Central American, “Look, we’ll help you fix your problems if you want, but we’re not going to do it for you, and we’re not going to let your people just jump the line at the expense of others. You wanna come here, you gotta follow the rules. Sorry.” But that’s not nice, so no one says it. Instead, we get a lot of hand wringing and “cool mom” behavior, which only weakens us and emboldens them to make bigger demands next time.

I could go on about this for pages. I could show how this kind of behavior infects our foreign policy. I could show how it affects our schools. I could show how it has spawned the grievance theatre antics of people like Al Sharpton and groups like CAIR (Council for American-Islamic Relations). I could, quite literally, go on for days. I probably will, someday, but not today. Today I’m going to leave it with the immigration bill. Hopefully, I’ve given you something to think about.

Besides, I’ve got to have something more to write about later.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I'm back, and I'm gainfully employed! Woo hoo!

Well, I took a week off from this writing columns, and frankly, I’m glad I did. I needed the break from deadlines. I was also busy cleaning house and looking for work – which I found. I’m writing this from the receptionist desk of a downtown Indy office, and I’m quite enjoying myself. I’m filling in for four weeks as a temp while their regular receptionist works on a large, once-a-year city contract. Most of what I do here is trained-monkey work: I answer the phone, sign for packages and pick up the mail. They gave me one or two odd jobs related to the city contract, but other than that, I mostly surf the Web and write. In the simplest terms, I’m getting paid $10 an hour to sit behind a desk and smile at people.

I don’t mind the lack of work, though, because being here is anything but dull. In fact, there’s one very important factor that makes it all worthwhile, one thing that makes me raise my voice to the heavens in thanks. Namely, I don’t feel like I have to dumb down my vocabulary when I’m here.

This is huge.

Last summer, I had a temp job typing numbers into a computer for eight hours a day. In addition to giving me flaming tendonitis in both wrists, the work was mind-numbing at best and screamingly boring at worst. The people I worked with were, for the most part, minimally educated, and no one really talked while they worked. There was some conversation in the morning while we waited to be let in and a little chatter as we left for lunch, but it was mostly silent. There were only one or two other women (they were all women, all but one) I could talk to at my normal rate and level of conversation.

I don’t have that problem here.

I get intellectually bored very quickly; it’s part of the reason I never did very well in school (2.8 cumulative GPA in college, lower middle of my class in high school). Busy-work assignments and dull lectures sent my mind wandering at the slightest distraction, and I would put off doing the tedious preparation needed for major projects by finding more stimulating amusements on the Internet. Only a nascent self-discipline saved me from skidding to a halt this past year, especially since one of my professors ran out of lecture materials halfway through my capstone classes. I probably would have stopped going if I thought I could get away with it. (I wouldn’t have, by the way – I hardly ever get away with anything. Comes of being the oldest growing up.)

The flip side of this sensitivity to tedium is that I have a hard time finding environments that keep me adequately stimulated. It’s best summed up with a line from an after-school cartoon I saw years ago: A group of kids staggers out of school after a math test, complaining and moaning about how hard it was and how their brains have been put through the wringer. The stereotypically smart one of the bunch says, “I, for one, feel listless and unchallenged.” I left work every day last summer with that same feeling. This job, on the other hand, leaves me tired, but perky and mentally alert, which is something I prize. Most of the people here have college educations, and even those who don’t are sharp and easy to talk to. It’s a wonderful change.

Of course, I’ve still got three weeks to go. But as quickly as this week has gone by, I have high hopes for the rest of my time here. Even when I’m not actually working on something, I have permission to use the computer for personal projects, such as short stories and, obviously, blogging. Ultimately, I believe this will prove to be a fulfilling experience. And how many people can say that about their summer temp jobs?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A transitory feeling

By 4 p.m. this afternoon, I will officially be done with my college classes. I won’t be done with college itself; that has to wait for at least another few months until I can find an internship (and I WILL find an internship), but my classes, as far as they go, will be over.


I don’t know that I want to give up being a student; I’m looking forward to no more homework and no more late nights up studying and finishing projects, but the closer I get to being a productive member of the workforce, the more trepidation I feel. What if I get a job I’m not qualified for? What if I’m qualified, but I drop the ball? What if I can’t find an apartment? What if I fall and break my ankle (again)? What if I screw up and get myself fired? What if I never get anything published?

What if I can’t hack it?

In school, there’s a set of parameters that everyone operates under: You go to class, you get your assignments, you do your homework, you turn it in. I have never felt that my performance directly influenced my well-being or standard of living (as evidenced by my grade point average), and I sometimes wonder how long it will take me to adjust to living under a new set of rules.

The bottom of my heart and the back of my mind tell me I’ll be fine. I have faith in Christ that He will take me where I need to go. My mother, who sits on my shoulder like one of those little conscience angels, tells me she loves me and that she’s proud of me no matter what. My father sits on my other shoulder and tells me to watch out for potholes, they’re bad for the suspension, but I know that’s his way of telling me he’s proud, too.

The question is, will I be proud of me?

It’s taken me almost 24 years to learn how to handle myself. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t come with instructions, so most of my life I’ve just been pushing buttons and turning knobs at random, hoping to stumble across the combination that will make me normal. A while ago, I realized there isn’t one, so now I look for the next best thing: successful adulthood.

Fortunately, I’ve begun to remember which buttons did what and when and how to push them – and the more buttons I push correctly, the quieter those doubts and quarrelsome thoughts get. They still flare up from time to time, but all I have to do is remember the things I’ve done right and they die right down again.

One of my greatest fears is that I will be hired somewhere and plopped down in front of a task with no clue how to start it. I know that’s a ridiculous fear because people will tell me if I ask, but the fear is still there. I’ve never been good at figuring out how to begin things if they aren’t mapped out right in front of me – that’s why I always start writing before I build an outline.

The irony of finishing school – for me, anyway – is that foremost, I am a writer, even if I have another job that pays the bills. This means I will work on my own time almost every day, sometimes staying up late to finish a chapter or run with a particular bit of inspiration. In other words, I’ll still have homework and late-night projects, but they will be self-inflicted. Writing is tedious and exhausting, with only momentary thrills to make it all worthwhile. There’s a surprising amount of work involved, even in fiction, but I am learning to hold myself to it to see it through.

And if I do all that work and it doesn’t come together? Then I'll pick it up and I'll start again. That’s what I tell myself when those doubts start raise up and bother me: If I can write 50,000 words in 30 days while carrying four classes, I can stick to anything.

But the most comforting thing is that Almighty God has a plan for my life – and it’s a good one.

So today, I’m going to take my last exam with gusto. In the next few weeks, I’m going to get a temp job and I’m going to find an internship. I’m going to write the second draft of my novel. “He leadeth me,” says the old hymn, so I’m just going to strap on my shoes and follow. And if I fall down occasionally, so what? Lots of people fall down, and they make it. I just have to keep walking and I'll make it, too, even if I get there the long way ‘round.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The end of an era (and the beginning of 1,000 cliches) . . .

This, my second senior year, has been an eventful one for me. I took my capstone classes, I drafted an entire novel in a month, I published a Web site and I received my first hate mail. I'm sorry to see it end, but at the same time I'm looking forward to the summer.

And yet, when I think about it, I pause.

I don't know what the next year is going to bring for me. I'm finishing my classes this semester, but I still have to find an internship to graduate. I'm already starting to feel alienated from the campus, although that might have more to do with the fact that I've been up until 4 a.m. every night this week (and always without caffeine - ha!). My finals are going to be easy, and the only real stress in my life right now is wondering how I'm going to fit all the stuff in my apartment back into my old bedroom. That's right - I'm moving back in with my parents.

I hoped to have an internship for the summer, but those plans fell through. I had planned to get my own apartment and set up housekeeping somewhere, but because those plans hinged on the internship, they fell through, too. So now I'm stuck living at home for one more summer, and I have absolutely no idea where I'm going to fit all my books and furniture and things like that.

I do know, however, that this will be the summer I finally grow up. I am the oldest of three sisters, and as such there has never yet been a time when I lived at home and at least one of my sisters did not. This summer, however, they're both moved out. My youngest sister is staying at Purdue University for the interim, which means I have the bunk bed all to myself. My mother doesn't mind, of course; she's more than willing to postpone empty-nesthood for a few more months. But the trick for me will be to avoid falling back into old childhood habits and patterns.

Even when I moved out of the dorms and into an off-campus apartment two years ago, I still felt like a child who left home for the school year and then returned. I've always been a slow mover and a late bloomer, so this didn't surprise me - I expected this transition to take a while. My forays into independence always ended back at the nest, but luckily my mom and dad always pushed me out a little further the next time.

So this summer, despite the many tropes and stereotypes that surround moving back in with one's parents, I believe I will find more independence than I would have otherwise.

Had I moved directly from college to my own apartment, I would doubtless have gotten myself dug in far over my head within a fairly short period of time. This isn't a statement of self-doubt, but a statement of self-knowledge: The simple fact is that I need more time than most people to make this sort of adjustment. Part of it's my ADHD, part of it is other factors. But because I am aware of this shortcoming, I can take measures to compensate for it.

I'll be able earn and save money this summer instead of spending it on rent. I'll have time to write the second draft of my novel and apply for internships instead of stressing out about bills. Who knows, I may even pay off some student loans. The point is that when I do move out, I'll be prepared. But most of all, I'm going to take this time to get to know my parents better, to learn to know them as friends and not just authority figures. I'll be able to help them finish some home-improvement projects, and I can enjoy just one more summer of mother's cooking. All in all, I believe that moving back home will be a positive thing - not just for me, but for all three of us.

Besides, I'd have to be crazy to pass up free room and board for a few more months. Tootle-oo, Ball State University. I'm going home.

This column was published in the April 27, 2007 edition of The Ball State Daily News.