Saturday, April 26, 2014

Median GDP

There is a rather depressing analysis of Americans' household income in a recent issue of the New York Times. I invite you to read it here. The article and the institutes it cites use data to arrive at conclusions that may or not be satisfactory. As a 37-year-old professional and married father of two, I can only offer anecdotes and experiences from my perch that are also unsatisfactory. But I do feel compelled to testify as to how I see the lifestyle and standard of living of people in my age and professional cohort evolving.

The good news is that I feel we have enough income to satisfy our needs and to afford most of the things we want. We're able to live in a nice home and take very nice trips and keep two cars on the road. There are many gadgets at our home. We eat good food.

It seems as if there are barriers preventing us from the next tier of those amenities. I don't see a third car in our future, nor do I see a luxury car for us. That doesn't seem to be any bother, though. I don't see us making a jump up to a more extravagant sort of vacation than what we've typically done. I don't easily see us making the jump to a bigger home any time soon. If our standard of living is improving, and I think it is, the improvement is quite incremental.

We work long hours for our jobs, jobs that pay reasonably well. There are patches through which our income growth stalls, however. But we're very fortunate in how our income and employment seem very secure.

Though I know the rate of inflation is really pretty low it feels like there are many expenses necessary to support the lifestyle of a two-income married-with-two family in the suburbs. Childcare is a persistent cost. Minivans are expensive. Communication is expensive. Activities for the kids are either nearly free or expensive, with little alternatives in between.

A significant squeeze, I think, comes from the demand that we save for the future. Prudence demands that we save for retirement and for the kids' college. We cannot be assured other income will be there for us in the case of the former; trends indicate that we'll need awesome (or aweful) sums to afford tuition for the latter. These very significant long-term savings goals complicate intermediate-term savings goals.

The tax code seems to work against us. As the mortgage gets paid down, as nominal income goes up, as the deductible expense that is childcare starts to go away, the tax bill goes up. I'm setting aside increasing increments of my income to pay the IRS every April.

If this post has read as a complaint, I don't mean it to be. Articles like the one I posted at the front risk losing readers in their nerdy, dry analysis. They can also lead one toward wondering how figures lie and liars figure. It seems to me like the perspective of a father, husband, and professional in the middle class they describe sees the picture.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Teaching a Pathway to Misery?

Via Twitter I stumbled upon this article from Education Week which muses over the dissatisfaction teachers feel over their career. Generally speaking, we're undervalued, underpaid, overworked, or so says the article. Also, according to the article, physicians and lawyers have it little better.


The article makes a good point at frustration over how we are held accountable for outcomes that are in large part determined by forces outside our control. It's true for teachers, physicians, and lawyers. Another good point: that the profession would probably be enhanced by some sort of rigorous board exam qualifying one for the classroom. 

Perhaps teachers, physicians, and lawyers are dissatisfied because we deal in worlds characterized by uncertainty. In other posts I've quoted an influential mentor who insisted that the mark of a profession like these is having the humility to understand that professionals cannot guarantee outcomes, we simply undertake steps to make desirable outcomes more likely. But the work world of 2014 is driven by the certainty data seems to offer, of increasing transparency into how businesses, political officials, and public institutions operate. It's driven by an insistence to cut costs. We are programmed against believing that certainty is something of an act of arrogance, and we are programmed to operate in an environment in which some inefficiency can actually serve some good. Perhaps we're not miserable because our jobs are harder or less rewarding than these jobs used to be, but because the communities we serve are looking for us to deliver outputs we're unaccustomed to delivering with the precision desired. 

World War Z

Just finished my most recent piece of fiction, Max Brooks' World War Z. It was the second recommendation by a friend, a friend who has drawn up the syllabus for a science fiction elective at his high school. (The other book was Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.) As I began reading World War Z I didn't really understand what the big deal was about zombie science fiction but thought I'd give it a try. Then I came to think "Hmmm, this Brooks guy has a pretty intriguing style" (a faux oral history). Then I found myself engrossed as situations that seemed like clear solutions to the zombie onslaught failed to stem the tide. I read the last fifty or sixty pages in one sitting.

Nearly everyone has took me the film version isn't worth watching.

After a few days' digestion, I'll figure out another piece of fiction to engross me.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Weird time to make a statement

In an attempt to preserve my sanity I resolved that, by gum, I wasn't going to take any work home with me this week. Hmmm. That's right. Every day it'd just be my lunch pail and new toy (the Chromebook) going back and forth.

I guess I should've re-thunk the plan in light of Caroline's dance practice. Here I am, at dance class, with no grading with me (but knowing that a pile awaits me back at school). Heck, even my son is done his homework. What do I do now? Write about random things. Here we go . . .

My son's math assignment struck me as somewhat obnoxious. One task called for him to find four different pencils, measure them, then report on the data. Doesn't the Common Core realize that kids sometimes do homework at dance studios where pencils are a bit hard to come by? I guess the true cost of relevant assignments is obnoxiousness. I guess I didn't have to wait to become a father on a rainy day in April to realize that; my students could have told me that long ago.

Talk about costs: we are finishing a grueling stretch of work and school, the cost of a winter filled with interruptions and storms. There is a three-day weekend coming up. A brief pause in operations before the final push for the school year. I've noticed my enthusiasm for lessons sag, that I've procrastinated in designing my one class's lessons, content to put it off until I have no choice but to come perilously close to winging it. I'm worn down by the one-offs: tests that are missing due to absences, work that is missing due to apathy, assignments and grades that are poor due to lack of focus. Ugh. I really can't tell if the work load is too high right now or if I'm too fatigued to keep up with a flow of work that isn't unusual. I'm fatigued.

I'm having trouble focusing on vacation planning for this summer. I've already reserved three nights at Mackinac Island for August. But now it's time to figure out what to do before and after. I thought we could hit the sights in Detroit on the way home easily, but there might be more to do there than I expected. Michigan itself seems to offer more than I expected and there are some really tough choices: Do we go to the UP or stay on the mitten? Do we keep the trip oriented outdoors or do we see more civilized locations? Do we plunk down in a rental property for a week or make it a road trip? Should we consider camping? I guess these are good choices to have.

I bought a new toy, a Chromebook. My experience with it is mixed but mostly positive. I guess the biggest issue with it is being reinforced right now: the keyboard is a bit too cramped and in a long typing job it's not the most comfortable. But in other respects it's quite excellent: ridiculously light, great battery life, more conversant with my applications for school and the network there than I expected. I love how quickly it boots, restarts, and shuts down. I'm surprised at how good it is for media: easily plays from Play and Netflix through reasonably loud speakers. It's a ridiculously good machine for when you need to quickly hop online and find something out or to do some online business. For $240 this is a pretty helpful tool to have for life as a teacher, for my short-order cooking duties as a father, and for satisfying my curiosity about random elements of life.

I must laugh at myself and my tendency to leap before I look. I was so excited about the arrival of spring I couldn't wait to reserve camp site #2 at Hickory Run for the weekend of April 25-27. Now it looks like I'll have to cancel my trip. Since reserving the site, I've become aware of conflicts involving dance, my son's triathlon, church, my daughter's school's church, and the imminent arrival of a niece. Reminds me of the old Tim Keller rule: if you want to do something with other adults you better plan it six weeks out. Any time in the next six weeks, there's stuff to do.

There has definitely been less school work to do this year what with the end of AP U.S. History as part of my schedule. I miss it terribly, though, and plan on returning next year. I'll probably leave the co-taught world behind, acknowledging that my skills don't lend themselves as well to that teaching as they do to motivating the AP student toward excellence in that arena. That's where I need to specialize.

On the bright side, today's dance lesson gave me a chance to relax and my son a chance to read a book which inspired us to find this video.

Thanks for reading.