Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reluctant Athlete

Anyone who has seen me in action knows that sports and I are not a safe combination. I am so uncoordinated, I make a bouncing football look like the Bolshoi. I once tried out for a softball team. After taking out half the outfield and three parents in the stands, the coach pulled me aside and suggested I try something a little less dangerous. Like competitive sleeping.

Turns out, the rules of dodge ball and softball are entirely different. 

With my history of deficient athletic prowess, voluntarily entering a sporting event is just about as appealing as a slab of bacon to a failed Atkins dieter. Unfortunately, every January I find myself in my own special Winter Triathlon.

Sidewalk Skating / Interpretive Dance Combo
I rarely salt, sweep or otherwise prepare my front steps or sidewalk for safe passage in winter. Of course the moment a perfect sheet of ice has formed outside, I remember something I absolutely must have. This means leaving the house. 

The top step launches me into a slipping, sliding, twisting convulsion down the sidewalk. My neighbors have posted scorecards in their front yards. Yesterday, I earned a perfect 10 for unsurpassed originality and the most successful flailing/flapping combo ever before seen. Good thing plowing into my car is considered a perfect landing.  

Gas Pump Jitterbug
If the temperature is below zero, it’s a safe bet you can find me at a gas pump without a coat, hat or gloves. Pumping gas is as fast and furious a winter sport as ice hockey, but not quite as fun as a puck upside the head. Points are earned for successfully inserting the nozzle into the gas tank with shaking hands, jumping up and down for warmth and keeping my frozen nose attached to my face until I am back in the car. I earn a Hat Trick for skating and interpretive dancing to the office window when my card doesn’t work at the pump. 

Grocery Store Slalom 
By far, the most competitive winter sport in my area is grocery shopping the night before a predicted snow. If it’s a flurry or a foot, the grocery store will be packed with people and buggies frantically stocking up and jockeying for position at the checkout. Two nights ago, a woman buying the entire produce section, 3 cows, 5 gallons of milk and three loaves of bread eyed me as I ducked past. I lunged into an opening at the speedy checkout, bought my frozen pizza and Pepsi and made it out of the store alive before her precision eye-darts hit me in the back. I earned extra points the next morning when the whole town woke to clear roads and sunshine.
So while softball is out of the question and I will never run a marathon, wintertime brings a triathlon of winter sports where even I can excel. As yet, emergency room visits have not been required, but the season is still young.


Reluctant Athlete was originally posted at An Army of Ermas on January 12, 2011. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

College Textbook Extortion

Like many of you, I paid dearly for a college education. Actually, I will be paying for many years to come. Yes, I received student loans. That just means the federal government fronted the bill. Repayment is my responsibility. The school has already been paid.

There are several things that bug me about college. One of them is the overwhelming attitude among faculty and administration that the student is the least important cog in the wheel. There is a sad lack of respect shown to the kids and adults trying to gain a higher education. Students are, after all, the only reason any of them have their job to begin with.

I can't state this enough. Students are the only reason why any college or university exists. To treat them like an annoyance is not only unfair, it's pathetically poor business. Make no mistake, students are, indeed, customers. High-paying customers. 

Textbooks are probably my biggest pet peeve. Students have no choice about securing the required course material. Often, that means buying a shiny, new copy of the latest edition. For those of you who haven't bought college textbooks recently, the cost is insane. I went to a small community college for my paralegal degree, but I still spent more than $500 every semester for books alone. Law books ain't cheap. 

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. Buy used books!  Used books are a better alternative than new, but they are becoming more scarce. At the end of every semester, I attempted to sell back some of my books. I usually sold one, if any. New editions come out nearly ever year. Suddenly the $200 textbook that was absolutely essential for Law 101 is worthless. The bookstore won't even buy it back, and the attendant at the counter acts as though it's asinine to think I could. 

On the rare occasion that I could sell back a book, the buy-back price was shocking. I have one business law book on my shelf right now that remains the newest edition. I paid $270. My best buy-back offer is $20. Ok, we all know that buy-back prices are ridiculous. But what are they making off these used books? This particular one sells used for $190. That's a hell of a profit! It's also a hell of a racket.

In my opinion, the college textbook scene is dangerously close to extortion. Students certainly can't attend a class without the required course material. And if they arrive at the bookstore 5 minutes after it opens on the first day of registration, good luck finding used books. 

New editions kill me. In my last semester, which was spring of 2010, I bought a shiny, new copy of the latest edition for my domestic law class. Thank God the professor, who is also a local judge, told us on the first day of class to take the books back to the bookstore and get the older edition. The reason why is that the new edition only contained four -- FOUR pages of new material. Four little pages changed the value of the older edition to zero on buyback for the previous semester's students. Luckily, Amazon was brimming with that "valueless" book for less than $20.

So I have established my issues with textbooks, but what could be the solution? There are a few. 

First, new editions. Why not offer the new book, but also offer the old one AND a supplemental packet instead of a completely new book? That could be a money saver. 

Also, ebooks. I was fortunate enough to get an ebook for one of my anthropology classes, and it was just as useful as a hard-bound copy. Unfortunately, most of my professors would not allow laptops in the classroom, so ebooks would not be acceptable across the board. I know that's not the rule everywhere, but it was at my college. Ebooks can't be a solution if they are not universally acceptable. 

Book rentals. Now, there's an idea!  Rentals are becoming more common, but they're still far behind new book sales. 

Book swaps. How awesome would it be to see the parking lot packed full when registration opens and students exchanging their books. 

Book publishers would probably cringe at these suggestions. After all, anything that saves students money also cuts into their profits. As a writer, it might seem like I am cutting off my nose to spite my face. But we all have to change with the times. Students have always been at the mercy of colleges and the required course material. By and large, they have few choices about saving money. 

I graduated with a nice, tidy debt that I will be paying off for many years to come. And mine doesn't compare to people who earn bachelors and graduate degrees. Students need some power. At one time, college was what a person did if he or she wanted to have a better education, get a leg up in the job market or train for a special field. Now, it's basically a requirement for survival in the real world. 

I've seen job listings for secretarial positions that required a bachelor's degree. Are you kidding me? I am not implying that secretaries don't have a tough job. I've been there; I know how hard a secretarial job can be. But why would a bachelor's degree be required to perform it? Sales people at cell phone stores -- bachelor's degree. Cosmetic sales clerks at department stores -- bachelor's degree. Fast food -- associate's degree. Sadly, the pay scale for these jobs hasn't changed along with the education requirements. If anything, it dips lower when inflation is factored in. 

It's a good thing, at least in a way, that the United States in general expects prospective employees to have an education. But if that education becomes mandatory, students will have even less power in their lives. Instead of Johnny and Susie deciding to go to college to have a better life, they'll go to college to hopefully (maybe) stay off welfare. 

College tuition is already painfully high no matter where you go. I paid $1,700 per semester, and that's much lower than at a traditional university. My son, who just graduated with a BS in biomedical science, will head off to medical school soon. By the time he graduates, he will have a tremendous amount of debt. He worked very hard and had two academic scholarships for his undergrad work, but he still took out loans to pay for his books. He won't have scholarships in med school. 

At the end of the day, student debt is sometimes debilitating. With the pathetic job market, some students will be behind on loan repayments within months of graduating.  Hardly anyone thinks about repayment when they are busy scheduling classes and buying outlandishly priced textbooks. But if even a small change can be implemented to help students, I think it should. 

Students need more choices. They need more respect in the college environment. They need someone to step up and call foul on the extortionist practices that encompass the mandatory, overpriced textbooks. 


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Slacker Sunday - Pinterest

Happy Sunday!

The sun is shining, and January is oddly warm this year. So, what am I doing today? I'm curled up under a fluffy goosedown comforter playing with my latest favorite thing, Pinterest.

Two weeks ago, I'd never even heard of Pinterest. I saw an occasional Tweet or Facebook post, but I didn't pay much attention. One day last week, and I'm not sure which, I decided to register. I was immediately put on a waiting list.

I knew I should have given them a reference and three forms of ID.

A waiting list?  Really? To see whether I even wanted to mess with it at all?  Ok, now they had my attention.

What were they doing during this waiting period? Checking my credit? Contacting the FBI? Looking in my closets?  EEP!  Instinctively, I sat up straight in my chair all day. At one point, I considered covering the camera in my Macbook with a piece of foil.

You just can't be too careful about these things.

It took only a few hours for Pinterest to welcome me into the pinning fold, and I was already excited.

I'm IN, I'm IN!
I needed a few minutes to figure out what all the hubbub was, Bub. My page was barren and sad. So I scrolled through the pages of other Pinterest users to see if I could getting a running go at it.

Soon, my Pinterest page went from empty…

to this!

I have no idea why I am so excited. I just am!
Look!  I have boards!  And things pinned to those boards!  People are following me, liking my pins and even repinning some of them!

See?  Fun!
If Pinterest still seems confusing, this is the short of it. Create an account. Set up boards. Think of boards as bulletin boards in a special room of inspiration that is uniquely yours. You can name the boards anything you like, although you will have a few basic ones when your account is activated. Change the names of the boards, if you like. I have boards for food and wine, favorite books, favorite movies, renovation inspiration, favorite products, favorite music, and one catchall for tidbits that catch my eye.

Once your boards are set up, start pinning. I have discovered three different ways to pin.

If you see something on a website or blog that you love, copy the web address, go to Pinterest, click the "add" button and paste the address into the bar on the little window that pops up. Being a smart little feller, Pinterest will show you the image on that web page.  Select it. If there are several images, it will show them all. Select the one you want, choose which board you want to pin it to from the little drop-down menu and save it.

An easier way to pin is to install the Pin button on your web browser's toolbar. If you happen to see something wonderful online, all you have to do is click the pin button. Stars align and angels sing and the Pinterest window magically pops up. Choose and save the image as if you are logged into Pinterest.

The last way I have discovered to pin items to your boards is also one of the best elements of Pinterest. It wouldn't be any fun if you pinned all those lovelies and didn't have anyone to share them with, right?  That's like buying the coolest shoes ever, and then keeping them in your closet! If you click on the Pinterest logo at the top of the screen, you will be taken to the main feed. Look through the countless things other Pinners have pinned. If you see something you like, hover over the image, click "repin" and then you can add it to one of your own boards!  How fun is that? You can also "like" (with a <3 , of course) and leave a comment.

At the end of the day, Pinterest is a massive time suck for the terminally bored and easily distracted. If you thought you could lose years of your life at Facebook and Twitter, you ain't seen nothin, honey.

But that isn't the sum of Pinterest. It's also a wealth of inspiration. It's eye candy. If you're considering redecorating your bedroom, chances are pretty good that fellow Pinners have pinned beautiful images of expertly decorated rooms that can inspire you. It's also a great way to discover new, interesting things. Music, poetry, art, lifstyle, travel, food, old typewriters (wait -- is that just me?) -- you name it. If there is an interest, somebody is pinning really awesome stuff about it. You can find loads of pins on the main feed, or you can search for them. If you follow pinners, their pins will show up in your feed more often.

Something I have noticed that's relatively uncommon in this day and age is that everyone at Pinterest seems so darned polite!  Think about it. If you posted something that interests you on Facebook, you're as likely to get some sour-face making a snide comment as you are to get a positive reaction. For some reason, people on Pinterest seem to really mind their manners. I've seen no claws. No fangs. No snark. I don't know the potential for stalker activity on Pinterest, and that's a concern. A few friends and I were mulling over the possibilities and wondering whether there is a "block" feature. As yet, I've not found one.

In all, Pinterest is just a little fun. There are pretty things to look at, funny comments, thought-provoking works of art and so many other things. It doesn't cost a thing, so there's no loss if it's not your cup of tea.

Pinterest is a great way to slack on Sunday!