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The overworked American

This is old, but still true, and Labor Day is a great day to explore the topic of The Overworked American. The trend has not reversed since it was written.

Basically, what Juliet B. Schor says is that productivity has soared since the 1940s, and when productivity soars, you can choose to do one of two things: work more, or work less. Europe by and large has chosen to work less. The United States hasn’t.I know ever since I saw a John Cummuta seminar back in November 2004, I’ve been harping on living cheap and paying off debt as quickly as possible. The goal isn’t so much to pile up tons and tons of money. That’s just a side-effect. That’s not the goal. There’s a different goal, and it’s actually a lot shorter-term: The goal is to buy freedom.

When I was growing up, Dad almost always carried a beeper. And invariably, when we would go out (on those rare occasions when we did get to go out), that beeper would go off, and Dad would have to find a phone, and more often than not, then Dad had to go away.

Then I grew up and I got a beeper of my own. Back in the ’70s, you had to be something really important like a doctor to have a beeper. Today all you have to know is what ctrl-alt-delete means. I guess it was the first time my pager went off in the middle of a date that I knew something was horribly wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

It took seven years, but I finally got the answer.

Cummuta’s tapes are pretty expensive, but you can go to the library and get a book by Dave Ramsey or David Bach and get the same benefit because all of those guys pretty much say the same thing.

What those guys can’t give you is motivation. My wife and I have amassed a library of financial books. In a lot of cases my wife had a conversation with the original owners of the books. They all said the books had good ideas, but it was so hard to do.

Which brings me back to The Overworked American. What Schor doesn’t say in that excerpt is that you do have a choice. When your boss comes to you and says you’re going to work Labor Day, and not only that, you’re also going to work on Saturday and Sunday of that weekend too, and, oh yeah, you’ll probably have to stay late on Friday, you’d better believe you have a choice.

Well, assuming you don’t have to write a check to the bank for $1,000 every month for that roof over your head, and another check for $400 or $500 every month for those four wheels that get you to work, and another one for the four wheels that get your spouse to work.

When $24,000 of your annual income goes strictly towards transportation and shelter, you will return the call when the beeper goes off. You’ll answer the cellular phone (which you pay for) on the first ring if that’s what your boss wants. You’ll work Labor Day weekend and you’ll like it because your boss has you exactly where he wants you.

That’s why I’ve been harping so hard on living within your means. I don’t drive a Honda Civic because it’s what all the cool kids want to drive. I drive a Honda Civic because it’s a reliable car that rarely has to go into the shop, because it gets really good gas mileage, and because I was able to pay it off in two years.

Perhaps more importantly though, I plan to still be driving that Honda Civic on the day I write that final check that pays off the mortgage.

Unless something were to happen to that Honda Civic in the meantime, that is. If that happened, I’d probably go buy a 2000 or a 2001 model and put whatever money was left over towards the house.

You don’t have to get a new car every three years, or even every five years. We’ve been conditioned to trade in our cars every few years, but if we do that, then someone else gets to control our lives. We’re slaves to consumerism! Slaves!

And when you can’t spend any quality time with your spouse because you’re always at work (or working from home), and you don’t have the time or energy to pull your own weight at home, and there’s all the stress that puts on your marriage, could that have anything to do with why divorce rates are as high as they are?

But if you can drive home every night in your car that you own outright to your house that you own outright and can sit down on your couch that you own outright, guess what? When your boss tells you that you have to work Labor Day, you can say no. Why? Because if your only monthly expenses are medicine and food, if your boss says the f-word (the five-letter one), all that matters is whether the White Castle down the street is hiring because that job will more than cover your expenses while you try to find another regular full-time job.

And that, my friends, is why I’m typing these words on an old 700 MHz computer, why I didn’t go out for lunch this afternoon, and why I haven’t traded in my four-year-old Honda Civic. The math tells me I can have this house paid off in two and a half years. I don’t know if that means I’ll find a way to do it in a year and a half, or if it means it’ll take closer to four. But I look at it like high school–something with a beginning and a very definite end. In the meantime, there’ll be some good things that happen and some bad things. But there will come a day when it will be over.

And on that day, I’ll get a taste of the real world.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really looking forward to that.

Accessibility: God, the computer field, and me

I got a comment on the site here today that I was going to repeat verbatim here, but I realized it was basically asking three questions, so why not just ask and answer the three questions?
They were, in no particular order, how do I hear from God, how do I get into the computer field, and can I hear back from you?

Last first.

Can I hear back from you? Well, that’s what this is. My question is what’s so special about me? OK, so I’m a book author and I’ve got this Web site that gets tons of comments from lots of different people and has lots of content, some of which might be readable and helpful. There’s nothing more special about me than there is about your next-door neighbors.

I’ve done the same thing, even recently. I met a girl who seemed larger than life. Her field is in an area I admire and have no particular skill in. It seemed like you could take every woman I’ve ever admired, whether I knew her or not, combine them, and you had her.

Eventually she turned out to be a human being with hopes and dreams like me and fears and doubts like me. Still incredibly talented and incredibly likeable, just not superhuman.

Really, if there is anything that makes she or I seem more special than the average person, it’s that God has given us gifts and has helped us to identify them, refine them, and use them to something approaching their potential. Sadly a lot of people never recognize and utilize their gifts. But our passions are a clue. Chances are if you love something, you have some kind of gift in that area and you should explore it.

That’s the reason why I write. It makes me very little money but hopefully it helps somebody, and I know if I don’t use that gift, it will fade away. Which leads us to:

How does someone with little formal training get into the computer field? I don’t have much training in computers. I took a couple of programming classes in college. In an emergency I can program a little in C. I started fixing computers because I couldn’t find a reputable place to take a computer to be fixed when I was a teenager. When I’d take it to the local shop, they’d charge as much to fix it as it would have cost to buy a new one. So I figured I might as well try fixing them myself. At best, I’d save money. At worst, I’d have to buy a new one. Either way, I came out ahead. So I’m self-taught. I’ve been using computers since I was 7 years old, so I’ve been using them nearly 22 years. I’ve been fixing them since I was 15, so in two years I’ll be able to say I’ve been fixing computers for more than half my life.

I know there are lots of promises out there about making huge salaries working from home and being your own boss. I’m not the fulfillment of that. I don’t telecommute and neither does anyone else I work with.

This web site doesn’t make back the money I sink into it–it’s strictly a hobby–and my book made me less money than a part-time job at the White Castle down the street would have.

Occasionally people looking for second careers ask me for advice, but I can’t provide a fast track into the field. My recipe works if you can afford to spend years messing around and learning how to do stuff. That doesn’t describe most people.

So I always end up asking another question: Why computers? Finding IT jobs isn’t really any easier than finding any other kind of job right now, at least in St. Louis. If it’s easy where you live, my suggestion is to enroll in the local technical school, figure out what area of specialty interests you, get the closest certification that matches it.

One of my coworkers went through a career change about 15 years ago. After teaching music for almost 20 years, he left that profession and took an entry-level computer job. He actually took a pay cut to do it. He recommends a book titled What Color Is Your Parachute? I’ve never seen it or read it, but he says it’s in most libraries. It’s designed to help people find and get started in a new career, and, most importantly, to find the right one for them. The right career for every person is a little bit different.

So let’s talk about something more absolute.

How do I hear from God? Let me draw on another recent experience. Two people were trying to solve a problem. Both of them realized it wasn’t possible without God’s help. One of those people was me. I knew what the end goal was but didn’t know what it looked like. I prayed, asking God to show me. The next morning, I woke up with a specific Bible passage on my mind.

That was nearly two months ago. I still haven’t found exactly what I was looking for then, but I have found a lot of things that more closely resemble it. God is showing me the way.

The other person prayed, told God about the intended course of action, and and basically told God if He wanted a different course of action, to give a sign or something. The next morning? Dead silence.

I remember when I told this story to my friend Wayne, from my Bible study group. He chuckled and said, “That’s normal!”

This perfectly normal silence was interpreted as affirmation, which it may or may not have been. God sets His own deadlines and isn’t terribly pleased when we try to set them for Him. Or, as my friend and coworker Charlie often quotes: A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign. God’s been trying for 2,000+ years to wean us off of signs and wonders.

God communicates to us primarily through His Word. While I do believe there are prophets today, I also believe they are very rare, and I know I don’t want the responsibility of that gift and I can’t imagine any sensible person wanting it either. God tells us that a prophet will never contradict His Word. So we can look for prophets for answers or seek to become one ourselves and we can search God’s Word for affirmation, or we can be lazy and just look to God’s Word.

Charlie told me about a conversation he had a few weeks ago. He spent half an hour beforehand reading some relevant passages from the Bible. At some point in the conversation, she asked if he’d heard anything from God about her specific problem. At that point I interrupted. “As a matter of fact, you did. You heard from Him for half an hour straight just before she called you!”

I recommend reading the Bible every day, although I have to admit I often miss a day. Bible.crosswalk.com is a Web site that divides the Bible up into three daily readings that will get you through the entire Bible in a year’s time. Frankly it takes me longer to read my morning work-related e-mail most days than it does to read a day’s worth of scripture.

There are other ways to immerse yourself in God’s Word. Find a church. Visit lots of them. Hopefully you’ll eventually find one where you’re comfortable and become a member and attend every Sunday and get involved. Even if you never find a church where you’re totally comfortable, try to go somewhere every Sunday that you are able. I’m constantly amazed at how God uses other believers to speak to us.

If there’s a Christian radio station where you are, listen to it occasionally. Find a Christian author or three to read. (A lot of people find Max Lucado very understandable and helpful.)

The idea is to open as many channels to God as you can. The more we do that, the easier it is to “hear” Him. But often we don’t hear Him so much as we see His guiding hand in our circumstances.

These are the things I wanted to tell this other person but never got the chance to. Hopefully they’ll help you or someone else.

The giant homo sapien conspiracy against me

I’m confused, I’ve finished my book (reading one, not writing one–that’ll be the day), and I’ve found I’m in no mood for P.J. O’Rourke. Meanwhile, my readers are egging me on.
It’s part of a plot. I can tell. It’s part of that huge homo sapien plot to take over the world. You gotta watch them homo sapiens.

I learned yesterday than I’m no good at plotting. I’m no good at conspiring. This surprised me. You see, at the age of 23, my next-door neighbors decided the whole world was a huge conspiracy–though they weren’t quite smart enough to figure out that it was the homo sapiens behind it, but you’ll find that out soon enough–and somehow, even at my very young age, I’d managed to rise to the very top of that conspiracy.

They didn’t get out very much. They also happened to believe that the X-Files was really a documentary. You see, constitutionally, the government is required to disseminate that information. So they dress it up like fiction. That way, they’ve fulfilled their constitutional duty in an underhanded way. But really smart people (like them) could see through the whole thing.

Well, I’m not sure if they actually ever said that, but I sure did get sick of listening to UFO conspiracy stories. I can’t remember if they ever went so far as to try to tell me the X-Files was real.

I came out of that experience feeling like I had connections and conniving ability, like I could conspire if I really wanted to.

So as a friend and I started to weave this vast conspiracy, this person asked me a question that let all the air out of my balloon: What if [the person we were conspiring against] already has plans?

Dang it. I didn’t bother finding that out. I just assumed this person had nothing better to do than to fall into my carefully laid trap, which I’d been carefully laying out… because… I… No, not because I didn’t have anything better to do. I had lots of better things to do. I just didn’t want to do them.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me?

You’re in on that homo sapien plot too, aren’t you? You gotta watch them homo sapiens. They’ll take over the world if we’re not careful.

But I just went off on one of my really long digressions. Or maybe it was two of them. So, Steve DeLassus takes offense at me using the word “litter” and implying the trademark “White Castle” in the same sentence. Obviously, Steve’s forgotten one important thing. I’m a transplant to St. Louis. I’m not a native. I’m native to Kansas City. And let me tell you something about Kansas City. White Castle went to Kansas City… and flopped. No grace about it. We’re talking a big, messy belly-flop right onto dry, hot pavement.

Evidently, in Kansas City people wondered the same thing I did the couple of times I’ve had occasion to eat a White Castle. I wondered whether the little cardboard box the thing came in would taste better than the smelly, greasy thing they tried to pass off to me as a hamburger. I know it would be easier on your digestive tract and on your arteries.

White Castles are obviously a creation of the homo sapiens. But not even their most carefully laid plot could save them from the discriminating palates of Kansas City. Good on them. The Kansas Citians, that is.

The St. Louisans aren’t doing such a good job of staving off the plot. White Castle isn’t even a St. Louis creation.

Which leads me, somehow, to Bruce Edwards’ question. Evidently, where he used to live there was a chain of White Castle clones. We had one of those, in Columbia, where I went to college. It opened up the first semester of my freshman year. They bought a tiny drive-thru, painted it pink, and hung out a big pink-and-green sign that read in neon-style letters: Grill ‘n Chill. Their specialties: cheap belly bombers and thick milkshakes. The student newspaper I was writing for at the time reviewed it. “Completely unoriginal,” the reviewer said. I never bothered to check it out. To me, it seemed like cloning a Yugo. Why bother? Not that I had much of a chance to check it out. Within a couple of months, the venture went belly-up, and the atrociously colored pink building stood there vacant for years, a painful reminder of the failed venture. Well, I guess it wasn’t so painful if you remembered your sunglasses. I used to have a neat pair of black wraparounds. I think one of my ex-girlfriends took them. She never did like them. I think she was a closet homo sapien. That would explain a lot about her. Like how she walked upright, breathed oxygen, communicated using spoken words… I never did try to sneak out with any of her genetic material–you know, a bit of hair, or some nail clippings–to test, but I’ll bet she was carbon-based too.

And there I’ve gone, and taken the question and made it all about me. What, do I look like the guy on a date?

I blame the homo sapiens. They keep distracting me. They’re all around me. They’re everywhere, you know.

Anyway, back to the question, which I hadn’t even finished writing out when I got so rudely sidetracked: Some of his coworkers offered him $100 plus the price of the (ahem) food if he could eat 100 belly bombers in a 24-hour period. Bruce asked how I’d respond to an offer like that.

Well, I’m thinking that in exchange for three meals at Smokestack BBQ in Kansas City and $100, I might be willing to think about the sight and smell and taste of 100 belly bombers. But one would have to seriously raise the stakes for me to eat 100 of the wretched things over the course of a day. I get sick to my stomach if I take my vitamins too early in the day.

And that has absolutely nothing to do with homo sapiens. Which surprises you, I’m sure. I know it surprises me.

So, no, I’d tell my friends they could spend all weekend getting acquainted with their toilets if they wanted, but I sure wouldn’t be joining them.

Steve then made the smooth (as a gravel road) transition to the subject of Pepsi and toilets. About a year ago, Steve got one of those annoying forwards that clog up everyone’s inbox (if that’s not a homo sapien plot, I don’t know what is) that was something like 25 things you didn’t want to know about cola. It talked about how you could dissolve a nail in a can of Coca-Cola inside of a week, and other weird stuff. Well, I had a two-liter of Pepsi in my fridge. I’d had company over, and whoever it was only drank one or two glasses, leaving me with most of a two-liter that I had no intention of drinking, because when I want caffeine, I generally want coffee. One of the claims of the message was that a can of cola would do a very nice job of cleaning your toilet.

Now, knowing that if I read it on the Internet it must be true, I took the advice to heart. My toilet was badly discolored because I’m a bachelor and out to impress no one–or I figure if I’m going to impress someone, it won’t be with my toilet. Now, it’s never been as bad as that “worst toilet in Scotland” scene in Trainspotting, but I thought I had a pretty formidible test for that quantity of Pepsi. So I poured it in one morning before I left for work.

I came home about nine hours later. I stirred the contents of the bowl around with my toilet brush, but couldn’t get a good look at the interior. I guess it was a little cleaner. But I decided to let it sit a while longer.

Finally, around 8 p.m., I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had two choices: abandon the experiment, or use the sink. I’m not that much of a bachelor. (I’ve managed to fight off some of that homo sapien influence that so pervades our society these days.) So I flushed the toilet. And you know how they talk sometimes about “ring around the toilet?” I definitely had one of those. But the dirty part was the top of the bowl.

So forget about those fancy-dancy, high-fallutin’ blue things you hang in your toilet. Once every couple of months, buy yourself one of those 59-cent two-liter bottles of generic cola. Take it home, dump it in the bowl before you go to work, and let it sit. It’s cheaper than those blue things and it’s a whole lot easier than scrubbing. Does a better job too. And it’s better for the environment too, since there’s no poisonous bleach involved. Moby would be so proud of me.

I’m sure those homo sapiens don’t want you to know that.

The beginning of an end (but I don’t know of what)

I took the Wolfe Battery Programming Aptitude Assessment yesterday. It’s a grueling, obnoxious test, simulating data structures like linked lists without saying the words and without giving any hint about what they’re useful for. (Good thing I already know that, courtesy of Computer Science 203.) It’s a five-problem test that most people, according to the testing company, complete within four hours. It took me between four and a half and five, but I had nearly an hour’s worth of breaks and interruptions.
It’s been my experience that tests tell you something (but not everything) about some people (but definitely not all people) some of the time (but definitely not all of the time). After administering a standardized test, you may or may not know anything more than you knew before the test, and you have no way of knowing whether you know any more, but if you believe in the things, at least you feel better.

My sister’s never done well on standardized tests. From looking at her test scores, you’d never guess she graduated high school in three and a half years and got her bachelor’s degree in another three and a half. I do well on standardized tests about half the time. Two IQ tests rated me average intelligence; a third rated me a genius. My SAT score was uninspiring; my ACT score got me automatic admission to the University of Missouri, plus a very nice scholarship. The first time I took Wolfe’s programming test, the results stated that I’m incapable of deep, detailed analysis. As far as I know, that’s the only time that’s ever been said of me.

I’ve had coworkers with outstanding test scores who were capable of superhuman feats with a computer. I’ve had coworkers with outstanding test scores who, when trying to fix something, would break it worse than I’d be able to break it if I’d been trying. I’ve had coworkers with test scores worse than mine who were more capable than me.

Personally, I’m a whole lot less interested in someone’s raw ability than I am in what that person does with it. If someone’s got 91 points of ability and isn’t using half of it, and I’m standing over here with 50 points and using almost all of it, which of us is more valuable? Now, supposedly there are tests that try to measure that too. I have no idea how those could work.

I don’t know how I did on the test. The last two questions are a series of simple problems, with each answer dependent on the previous, before you finally get a final answer. Each one took me about 20 minutes to finish. Then I went back and double-checked the problems, and found I made a mistake early in the sequence in each of them. So I ran through the problems a second and a third time, getting the same results the last two times, and they differed from the first. But I’m still not entirely confident I got them right.

My career pretty much hinges on those two problems. If I got them right, I’m promotable where I am. If I didn’t get them right, my chances of ever being promoted appear to approach zero.

Either way, a change is going to have to happen, and soon. I’m tired and beat up. I haven’t felt like writing. I got my hair cut earlier this week, and there was more grey hair on my apron than brown. I wasn’t that grey a year ago. I’m working the kind of hours that sent my dad to the grave at 51. I’ve been extraordinarily irate, to the point that I wonder if anyone likes being around me, because I sure don’t like being around me when I’m that way.

I’ve been here before. First time, I dealt with it by losing myself in a girl. That wasn’t fair to her; the fling lasted about two months, and it scarred us both. What she did in the end wasn’t fair to me, so I guess we’re even. Second time, I dealt with it by losing myself in writing. Now that all’s pretty much said and done with those books (one will be obsolete in a couple of weeks, while the half never made it into print), I made about $4 an hour writing one and a half books, then I acquired a repetitive stress injury. That wasn’t fair to me–I’d have made twice as much flipping burgers on the evening shift at White Castle, and I’d have had nearly as much prestige.

I know I sound like a broken record; every twentysomething I know is asking what he or she should do with life. And I don’t have an answer either.

And when I look at history, it tells me it doesn’t really matter. Even when whole generations set out to do something, what they do rarely makes a difference. That ought to be liberating–I can do what I want because it doesn’t make any difference in the long run.

But somehow it’s not.