Welcome to the middle path

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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Race To Educated Debt

Heard on the radio tonight that US college student's school loan debt has reached one TRILLION dollars.  That's a one followed by 12 zeros.   Mind you, my math's not so good.  I had trouble adding my Scrabble score last night (old school, with a real board and a pencil, not online).  I can't grasp the concept of a trillion, so I looked it up.  Guess what:?  If you had a stack of a thousand dollar bills it would be over 67 miles high.   A senator complaining about national debt said if a person was born at the time Jesus lived s/he'd need to spend a million dollars a day the last two thousand years to spend that much.  He was a little off-- that's only 2/3s of the trillion.  A trillion is a ridiculous number.  One trillion seconds is 31,688 YEARS. 

Average tuition rates at college climbed 15% between 2008 and 2010-- and we all know they are higher still every year.  It's no longer possible to put yourself through school working a part time job like I and many of my cohorts did. 

What have our students gotten for all this unfathomable debt?  Classrooms are larger.  Real professors who are really teaching--not directing you to the on-line powerpoint, not handing you off to a grad student with no experience or interest in teaching-- are rarities. Mentoring is even rare, especially in public and (slightly) less costly universities.  And jobs?  Well, in a few select fields, say engineering, graduates can usually find jobs with actual benefits and enough pay to to find housing and raise families. But many well educated graduates would love to just be able to work full-time.  Anywhere.

A good liberal arts education used to be a ticket to opportunity.  With an emphasis on critical thinking, the ability to reason, write and learn, a graduate might end up working in most any field.  Now companies want a Master's degree to do jobs that for years were done perfectly well with a few month's training.  I know a brilliant young woman with a BA in science who can't find a job washing beakers.  She recently applied at a local food chain and was asked to submit a writing sample.  In the time she took to supply it, seven other people came in to turn in applications.  A writing sample?  For a minimum wage, part time, un-benefited position?  Ridiculous.

There's a big push at high schools to raise graduation rates, now hovering around 60% nationally, close to 100% with a goal of 80% of graduates going on to complete a four year degree.  For what?  So we have a whole generation of incredibly educated indentured servants selling our Big Macs? We are headed entirely down the wrong path.  At a presentation on learning disabilities, local psychologist Kim Golletz discussed some interesting realities.  The average college graduate has an IQ of about 115.  Let the whole IQ debate slide for now and just look at the numbers.  On a bell-shaped curve of general population IQ scores, an IQ of 115 is in the upper 25 percentile.  How, exactly, are we going to attain an 80% or higher BA education rate for that 100% of youth graduating high school?  And why exactly do we need it?

There are all kinds of brains.  Some of the smartest people I know never went to college at all.  A mechanic I met in the early 90s in SE Texas dropped out of school in 6th grade.  He most likely had dyslexia and never learned to read, which made school a big fail for him.  But he could take apart and reassemble an engine in an afternoon.  And he made good money doing it-- enough to raise a family and buy a home.  A pipefitter, a farmer, a landscaper back then could start their training in high school, or by apprenticing with an expert.  In my Midwest youth there was a little shame in being sent on "the vocational track" if you were from the sort of family that expected college.  But it was hard to argue it with your peers who were making great salaries and buying houses at 21 when you were still eating Top Ramen for dinner and hoping to pass a final.

The options seem to be gone for today's high schoolers, who are drilled from middle school to be anxious about choosing the right college.  And for those who can't make it or don't want to, a high school diploma or equivalent is required just to get into the training programs, which take twice as long and require boatloads of minimum competencies in reading and math that may or may not be useful to the skill.

OK, grownups.  We are the ones that need to make a fuss about this.  Write your school board and political representatives, and encourage them to support vocational training for teens in the schools, and to get off "everybody graduate/everybody get a bachelors degree" bandwagon.  We need to stop equating long educations with skill sets for working every job.  We need practical education for all kinds of minds, at costs that are within means.

Related post:  The Kids Aren't Alright:  The Pressure for Excellence

Monday, June 18, 2012

You Ate The Apple

Coming up:  July 15th I will be preaching it at the Universalist Unitarian Church.  This year's topic is all about original sin.  OK, not.  I did my sin sermon a couple years ago, and would be happy to glaze your eyes over with a repeat performance in another venue.  This one is about the burdens blessings and responsibility of critical thinking and choice. Yep, ignorance might be bliss, but it is also the closest thing to unconsciousness:  a desire to retreat back into the womb where decisions are made for us.

If you're in Corvallis, come join us that day. The nice thing about the UU is everyone is welcome-- Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Agnostic, whatever.  Just bring an open mind and heart.

My usual accompanist, fiddler/songwriter Willeke F., is making music at Shasta that week-- sad for me, good for her-- but I'll do my best to make it worth your while.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The (Lost) Smell of Pleasure

evening sky, 6/1/12
I'm at the first year anniversary of losing my sense of smell.  It'll be good to be past some of the difficult firsts:  Thanksgiving, spring scents, summer harvest, winter without enjoying the olfactory pleasures of a woodfire or baking bread.  My weight has stabilized.  I learned one can eat food whether or not one likes the taste.  But I miss enjoying it, and I imagine I always will

When you have a peculiar experience, it's common to notice evidence and reminders everywhere.  I've become acutely aware of how much we talk about smell and taste in daily life, even in our slang: "sweet!" and "that stinks".  And I always loved smell and the memories it instantly evoked.  One of the hardest parts of this year was losing my father, and not being able to recall him through the scent of his belongings.  After my mother died, even years later, I could bring her back in the most vivid way just by going into her closet and inhaling the scent of her bathrobe.  I have my father's cedar chest, and it saddens me that it is now just a visual piece. 

There is no describing the paths scent carries us on.  It's hard enough to describe a smell.  Try it.  Often scents are articulated by the memories associated with them--fireworks smell like summer, the 4th of July; pine like Christmas and the forest we walked.

smells like:  nothing.
Luca Turin, a perfumer and the controversial subject of Chandler Burr's book "The Emperor of Scent", is an exception.  In his classic "Perfumes:  A-Z" (with coauthor Tania Sanchez) he is able to evoke complex imagery with his descriptions; still, they generally refer to a mood, or another smell.  Both books are currently buried in the stacks at my library, but a rough Turin paraphrase might be his description of a perfume as "reminiscent of an apple in the sun cut with a steel blade."  When I first lost my ability to smell, I devoured both of these books greedily.  As a supersmeller prior to anosmia,  I never liked perfume-- my nose plowed right past whatever they were supposed to offer and was overwhelmed with chemicals.  But after scent was gone, books like these were olfactory porn.  I was a torch-carrying separated lover reading old letters and staring at photographs.

With the passage of time, there is the robbery of memory.  Now it's harder to recall the scent of an apple or of a blade, and what's left is a ghost of impression, drifting.  There is a very real sense of loss of pleasure.  If you're familiar with learning theory, you may have heard of primary reinforcers.  There aren't many.  Food, sex, sleep, satiation of thirst.  Always first food is mentioned.  Without smell, food becomes more of a secondary reinforcer.  It staves off discomfort, but it doesn't give pleasure.

how did that guy know about the nose? (A+gallery's photo)
In my life, I have been through harder immediate struggles.  In my work, I see larger tragedies every day.  But this has been a loss for me, and it helps to acknowledge it, especially at Big Times like the anniversary date.  "Get the wound out of the body and onto the page", says author Marjorie Sandor; and she's right. It helps.  Three things that have also really helped:  talking to other persons with smell loss/distortion on web support sites, having friends and family that have tried to hear and understand what it means, and artist Wolf Nkole Helzle's wonderful community of world photo diarists.  The latter has helped me learn to appreciate the visual world, never previously my strong suit.  Thanks to Wolf and his project, I now carry a camera with me everyday and look to find something in the visual world that leaves the sort of mark scent use to leave on me.  Since olfaction serves as a mental marker for events and emotions, it helps to have visual cues to tie my these to places and dates.

Thanks for bearing witness.  Suffering decreases when we are heard and seen; that's what my work is all about.

Today's video:  it just made me smile.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Pep Talk With Resistance

 Machete, anyone?

Though the last few days' temperatures have been no guide, summer is approaching and the garden shows it.
Plums and cherries are gaining bulk and, with luck, some sweetness and color in the next weeks.  There are a few red strawberries nestled among the hard green ones.   We are wishing we had several yard bins to cope with the massive influx of dandelions, sticky willy, knotweed and all those other reminders about the truth of "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger".  I'm also paying for my sins of planting vinca, forget-me-nots, shasta daisys and tall verbena-- these a reminder that sometimes a little is still too much and best enjoyed in someone else's biome.

Gardening is a form of spring cleaning. It's not until we can clear out the old debris that we can truly appreciate what we have and see more clearly our intentions.  I've been taking the metaphor to the extreme by allowing the detrius of the past years to gather in ever higher and more intimidating piles.  "Just Do It" plays a drumbeat in my brain, drowned out by "...later".  There are so many juicy distractions in the world, all with more compelling siren calls than cleaning the closet. But I hear the call of a clearer day, and I hope to answer it. 

Like many professional procrastinators, I have all sorts of tricks of my sleeve to avoid tasks that are complex, or more problematic to me, just boring.  I need a certain amount of anxious juice to plow through the inertia and get her done.  This week I'll be taking some of my own medicine to bust these habits, rather than waiting for the crisis of the moment to propel me.

Intervention One:  The Dreaded Things To Do List. Plan:  Make it before lunch, review it at lunch, knock off a couple of things before dinner.  To increase the odds, I'm keeping it short.  Here's the template:

! One Thing I've procrastinated on too long is:  ____________________
! One Step in the Right Direction will be accomplished today by : ___________________________.

That's it.  I want to tackle a little of something Ominous/Annoying/Shaming each day.  Tomorrow's goal is seemingly small-- I let my last dental check up slide by around the time my dad died, then never rescheduled. Scary Bully In My Head had lots to say about that-- dentist will be mad, hygienist will lecture, there will be Hell to Pay in one form or another.  So I put off and off and off rescheduling.  I'm calling tomorrow.

My other intervention this week is to create a little intentions bowl and fill it with slips of paper with words on it representing areas of my life that could use some attention-- not any of them necessarily pressing at a particular moment, but all pressing over time.  Each day I'll pick a word out in the morning and think about how I might show intention in a small or big way toward that concept.  Here are some of the words in my bowl and how I might use their encouragement (just examples).

Relationships:  Are their relationships in my life that need more breath or care?  Write a letter, make a date, do a kindness.

Health:  If I choose this slip tomorrow, it may encourage me to talk a walk during lunch, or a date at the gym, or skip the junk foods offered that day.

Career:  Oh, the endless possibilities.  I can work on learning the new billing system, set up new policies for no-shows, order that nifty device that allows me to take credit and debit cards.

Responsibility:  I can get that book back to the library.  Empty the cat box before someone who can smell lets me know it needs it,  Return that borrowed dress.

Happiness:  I can schedule or make flyers for the Scotch and Poetry night I've been wanting to host.  I can call someone I love and tell them that.  I can dance to a favorite tune in the kitchen, or just practice letting my crabby thoughts rise and sink instead of inviting them in for a pity party.

The point isn't to create lots more To Do lists, but to be aware and look for opportunities to live the intentions you carry around everyday anyway.  To make manifest!

If you try these and don't mind sharing, I'd love to hear if it was helpful for you.