Cutting the apron strings

She took her final exam today, the very last exam for her very last class in a journey that consumed five years (two in community college) and three at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She” would be my daughter, age 23, who now merely needs to wait for the mail to get her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English. Despite some prodding, she doesn’t want to attend her own graduation.

Which means she is mostly home now and we will continue to pay the rent on what will likely be her empty room in Richmond through the end of July. She needs to find a job but if her experience is like mine it may be a year or two before she finds a “real” job, assuming there are real jobs for people with English degrees. There are a few of them out there, and I am not talking about “do you want fries with that” jobs at the local Burger King. A real job for a while though might be working at a Costco or Wegmans, where they pay a living wage, which would be great because I don’t want her to get too attached to her old bedroom. Rather, it’s time for her to move out once and for all.

It’s hard to say how long that will take but I’ll lay odds somehow a year from now she will still be inhabiting her bedroom. Young adults today are painfully aware of the true cost of living, which is much higher than it was when I was a youth. This may be because so many things are assumed: the car, the smartphone, health insurance, high speed Internet and they are used to mom and dad paying for them. I don’t care if $12 an hour really is a living wage these days; that probably won’t buy you all of the above, even with a roommate or two.

What she wants to do is goof off, sleep late, stay up all night and when not distracted by things on the Internet write the great novel that probably won’t get sold, at least not without a whole lot more pain and suffering. Fortunately she is a bit more realistic now and is sending out random resumes, which suggests intent to find a job but not necessarily serious commitment. She could live a lot cheaper, assuming she lived alone, by settling in Richmond where she just finished her degree. But the jobs would pay a lot less and she seems happy to be home on a more or less full time basis. She actually cleaned her room and removed heaps of trash off her desk the other day. Either she is trying to get her life in order or she is planning to start a new burrow. Time will tell.

We’ve suggested some employers that might hire English majors. A friend at my church works for Motley Fool, and they hire English majors. Except she knows nothing about personal finance other than living on our money and making her allowance stretch until the end of the month. She wants to learn less, although I have provided a couple books on personal finance as a “gift”. The headquarters of Learning Tree in nearby Reston is near us. They teach mostly leading edge technology courses to people whose employers have deep pockets. They need people to write content for their web pages and course curriculum. And I have another friend whose office is always willing to hire college graduates, providing they want to learn the business of making specialized contact lenses. She worked there briefly out of high school and found it didn’t agree with her. I doubt she would want to give it another try.

Still, it is an accomplishment having a degree of any kind, and getting a degree in English is more interesting than it seems. She wrote a thesis on arguably the world’s worst English poet, William McGonagall. She learned a lot about Old English, and obscure Scottish literature. She interned at a Richmond publishing house and worked with female prisoners at a local jail teaching creative writing. Mainly she had the university experience, such as it is today, minus the fun stuff like sororities. She is not social enough for that stuff. She had the usual mixture of brilliant and mediocre professors, ate in the dining halls, learned that parking tickets cost real money, and that you can have really crappy roommates.

We learned that college education today is very expensive. Once we entertained the idea that, as parents with one child, we could send her to a private university. What a crazy idea! Her bachelor’s degree took a year longer than we budgeted. We paid for two cars, only because she wrecked the first one driving home with a homeless kitten. The expenses added up quickly. The nearly final total according to Quicken:  $116,238.05, or $36,238.05 more than the $80,000 I thought we were going to spend. And these are just the direct costs. It’s amazing anyone can afford to get any kind of degree these days. At least she graduates debt free. We were her scholarship fund.

Parenting is not over. Now comes the coaching phase, followed by the nagging and heaping on the guilt phase if necessary. The job hunting is still poor, and bad in particular for English majors with lackluster GPAs. At least here in Northern Virginia the unemployment rate is relatively low, but the mere hassle of commuting around here will probably ensure that she calls someplace far away from here home eventually.

A new adventure called real life awaits her. “What’s it like, dad?” she asked me some weeks ago. “Well, it’s not a lot of fun. But you get used to it.” And really, that’s about the most honest thing you can say about adulthood. I wish you the best, kid, but it’s time for you to cut the apron strings and fully direct your own life. Hopefully, we gave you enough of the tools to make your life meaningful but for the most part the rest will be up to you.

Republicans: Let’s talk real national security

There is a little irony that a day after the Supreme Court narrowly decided the Affordable Care Act was constitutional after all, that I would undergo surgery. The surgery to correct a deviated septum (known as septoplasty) was actually scheduled six weeks earlier. My mother in law’s untimely death and my plastic surgeon’s busy schedule meant I had to wait until today for the outpatient surgery. It went well, but my time in the recovery room took longer than usual, perhaps due to aging. While waiting for the surgery, the TV playing in the waiting rooms was all about the Affordable Care Act decision.

My surgery was theoretically elective, but that did not seem to be the case for others in the waiting room. They included a ninety plus woman, virtually deaf due to plugged inner ears, who needed to get some tubes put into her ear so she could hear again. She looked miserable and her son acting for her largely could not communicate with her. Yet she was lucky. She was covered by Medicare. I was lucky too as I am covered by Blue Cross, and they approved my surgery. Even so I know there will be a whole slew of bills waiting me. It was nearly $900 just for the hospital to admit me. Doubtless the anesthesiologist and surgeon will bill as well, and there will be substantial copays for their services too. I’ll be lucky to escape this surgery for less than $2000, and that’s just for the copays. Blue Cross pays 85%.

I was back home by noon, my septum duly aligned and with various sinus polyps removed. Maybe this surgery will mean that I won’t need to spend my sleeping life tethered to a BiPAP machine for my sleep apnea. It’s a big maybe. Most likely I will continue to need the machine, but with the improved airflow, perhaps I can adjust the pressure settings downward, which would likely make sleep far more restful. Meanwhile I am downing Keflex and extra strength Tylenol every six hours and wearing a guard over my nose that is attached to little diapers to capture the bloody discharge from the surgery. Recovery from this sort of surgery is generally straightforward, and involves lots of use of QTips and hydrogen peroxide.

Mostly I am lucky because I am insured. My employer cares enough about me to provide it as a benefit, with me providing about a third of the cost of premiums. I am even luckier because even before the ACA I was already in a plan that required insurers to accept all comers. You see we federal employees have been been enjoying “Obamacare” for decades, and those employees I might add include members of Congress eager to repeal the ACA. And I must say, I like it. For decades I have been covered by health insurance, as has my wife and daughter. Insurers in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan have to accept people into their plans regardless of age and preexisting conditions. There are dozens of plans to choose from. On rare occasion, a health insurer will drop out of FEHBP, but it is a very rare occurrence. Mostly, health insurers are glad to cater to our market.

As I age, unsurprisingly, I have been using more health care services. I am quite certain that in spite of premium and my voluminous copays, we consume more in services than we pay in direct costs. It’s likely to be this way for the rest of my life. I don’t feel guilty about this. I feel grateful. I also feel like I’ve paid my dues. For the first twenty years or so that was likely not the case. I was paying for those older and sicker in the system. I did not resent this. It comes with the insurance territory. Health insurance only works if we are all in this together.

Essentially, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday. While Chief Justice Roberts surprisingly voted with the majority to uphold the law, and while he was silent about whether he personally thinks the ACA is a smart decision, he decided it is constitutional. This is good for our nation because by upholding the law at least for the moment he has likely fended off our devolution to a second world country.

Republicans are always anxious to vote more dollars for national security. I find it sad but curious that they don’t understand that national health insurance is also vital to national security. Most other first world countries figured this out decades ago, but we dithered. It is not surprising to me that since then we moved from greatest creditor country to greatest debtor country, and that our standard of living has devolved. National security is measured in many ways and it’s not just in the strength of our armed forces and intelligence. It is also measured by our willingness to invest in the human capital of its citizens so we can stay a prosperous country. In this we have been getting failing grades for some time.

We seem unwilling to pay the freight when it comes to education. We cheapen our public schools by increasing class sizes and shortening school years. We shortchange our public universities and expect students to mortgage more of their future by increasing tuition rates so they need to take out larger and larger student loans. This is keeping many from even attempting college, although many also have the talent. We also dumb down our curriculums. Courses like art, music and civics are considered expendable. Instead, we push highly structured and dumbed down standardized tests. Colleges are not immune from the phenomenon. As The Washington Post reported recently, college educations are becoming dumbed downed, or at least less time consuming. The Internet certainly makes research faster and more efficient. For most majors, the need for a full time college student to spend twelve hours a day on education, including often on weekends, as I did, is a thing of the past. I suspect this is to our detriment.

Education is vital to our national capital, but so also is our national health. It baffles me why this is not completely obvious. A healthy workforce is going to be more productive than a non-healthy one. If you are suffering from a health condition, your productivity is going to be compromised. If you suffer from a chronic condition, you may not be able to work at all. Where’s the good in that? Aside from inflicting needless misery on our citizens, why throw away the talent of so many of our citizens because they have a chronic condition? It’s such a tragic and needless waste and speaks poorly about what we really think about our fellow Americas. By throwing away our most precious asset, the skills of our own citizens, we guarantee our devolution as a nation. This is equally as dangerous to our national security, if not more dangerous, than securing our borders from illegal immigrants.

Mostly though while I waited for my surgery today I felt a mixture of relief and anger, not nervousness. The ACA, if we can keep it the law of the land, will do enormous amounts to make us a healthier and more productive nation, not just those like me still lucky enough to have health insurance. It will also relieve incredible amounts of unnecessary misery. Mostly though I felt anger that so many of my citizens are so ideological that they can no longer see our common humanity, who appear to think sadism is a virtue. These people, in the name of ideology would, like that heckler at a GOP debate last year, be enthusiastically rooting for people to be miserable and die.

The ACA gives us the opportunity once again to show our better nature. Let’s hope we find it again.

Separation anxiety

Our dining room is stacked with purchases and things encased in plastic. Our truck rental reservation is made, although it’s unclear to me whether an actual truck will be available on Monday. With so many college students moving into dorms and apartments, rental trucks are in short supply. We have purchased most of the items needed for our daughter to move to Richmond, Virginia and emptied our bank account in the process. The university’s checklist still has some unchecked spots. The whole application process at Virginia Commonwealth University is confusing and convoluted, meaning that only yesterday was our daughter able to sign up for classes. Because of the incessant delays, most of the classes that she wanted were already filled. She has no appointed adviser yet to guide her, and all the orientation slots are now full. She could call the undergraduate advisor for her department, but this involves her waking up before the sun goes down, something she is loathe to do. In short, procrastination on both her part and on her university’s part is costing time, money and opportunity. It is making this nervous father fret.

Procrastination drives me nuts, which is why I feel like I live my life in constant turmoil. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter are both chronic procrastinators. My wife can quite easily enter into a mindless mode where time, space and pressing deadlines disappear for hours at a time. When she emerges, I often get a predictable, “My goodness! I lost track of time again! I meant to do X, Y and Z.” I cannot complain since she was this way when I married her, but I was sort of hoping my daughter would not pick up her habit. Alas, she has, although I was pleased that she took initiative on a few things in her life recently, like arranging with her doctor for the shots she needed to be admitted.  (Naturally, it happened at the very last moment.)

None of this should be a big deal since she will be twenty-one next month. Yet despite two years of community college, she still is challenged by logistics and life’s complexity in general. Perhaps I contributed to it through a process of learned dependence. Perhaps she needed to fail at things a few more times than she did. Instead, her left brained dad did a lot of her organizational thinking (and nagging) for her, with my wife adding her nervous worries periodically as well.

This all should change on Monday when we pack most of our daughter’s stuff along with a new bed, desk, printer, sheets and much of her other random detritus and move them (along, hopefully, with her) to a townhouse a couple blocks from VCU. She will wall off and inhabit much of the living room, while two young men will inhabit the upstairs bedrooms. All are quiet types. One of the young men is essentially a hermit, emerging only to go to classes. I suspect that she will fit in well with them, once she gets accustomed to her new urban abode. While lately her focus has been more on World of Warcraft than university, an event in her life this seismic is finally achieving a grudging priority. For the first time since she was about three years old she will sleep regularly somewhere else. Like it or not, life is changing for her.

It will be changing for my wife and me as well. The truth is that emptying the nest is both liberating and scary for all involved. I have been doing the parenting thing for two decades and it is now second nature to me. Come Tuesday morning, only silence will come from her bedroom. Our cat Arthur is likely to be puzzled and eventually pissed. When we are out, our daughter provides him with reliable amusement, at least when she is awake. In time, Arthur will likely half forget Rosie, and he will be more in our faces.

Some part of me will be glad for one less occupant in the house and the additional privacy. Some eighty percent of the reason things get disorderly in my house will suddenly disappear. Some other part of me will be concerned that something dreadful could be happening to our daughter. She has a cell phone but she is sporadic about carrying it around or keeping it charged. In addition, she will be two hours away. She could disappear and we might not be able to find her. It will be challenging not to call or text her just to see if she is okay. Since she is not mindful of things like cell phones, unanswered calls or text, contacting her may just cause unnecessary anxiety. Perhaps I need to adopt a policy of not trying. Even if I can resist temptation to call her up, I doubt that my wife can. It’s going to take a couple weeks before we relax.

Our daughter will likely go through similar feelings. Except for her new housemate, whom she met only once and the undergraduate advisor I introduced her to, she doesn’t know a soul in Richmond. As she is introverted by nature, it will probably prove challenging to make new friends. At first, she will probably feel lonely. I know I felt that way when I started at college. Fortunately, I got a very compatible roommate so it did not last long.

I am betting that her loneliness phase won’t last too long. Instead, it will soon be, Living here is a heck of a lot better than at home! There is no need to drive five miles or more to be anywhere of interest. Instead, walk a few blocks or less and community surrounds you: age twenty something people, most of them reasonably intelligent, with all the temptations and richness of a university around her.

I expect we will see her on some weekends, perhaps every weekend. Once I had a car, I tended to come home every other weekend. It worked out great. One weekend to enjoy the city as a single man, then one weekend home with family where my laundry was mysteriously was cleaned and all this wonderful and tasty food was plentiful and freely available. I found that institutional food (and later my own cooking) could only be ingested for so long before my body rebelled. My guess is that once our daughter finds a small group of friends she will be away more than at home on the weekends. Once our anxiety is lessened, we may think about her absence less and less too. At some point, it will seem normal.

On Monday, we have to get sweaty, pack her up, haul her stuff 120 miles south and then leave her in a strange city. Our bodies will course with a mixture of feelings. She will be back home for extended semester breaks and following graduation she will probably want to move back in full time. Nevertheless, she will also have had the experience of living apart from parents. Except for paying for that part of her life, I suspect she is going to like it, even if it means she has to wash her own dishes and bus her own table.

In the end, so likely will we.

Transitions, Part Two

There are many good aspects about having only one child. There are also certain aspects that are not ideal. For one, as an only child, your child has no older siblings to emulate. I was the fifth child so when my turn came for college I knew what to expect. I was both happy and scared at the thought of semi-independent living. As is often the case, I found college transformational, both academically and personally. College forced me to step outside my comfort zone. By the time I got my degree, although I had no job prospects, I knew I could hack this independent living thing.

Most of us baby boomers could not wait to leave Mom and Dad. If my daughter is a typical example, the situation is wholly reversed now. I went straight to a four-year college. She went to community college. Her choice kept her educational expenses low. There was no off campus housing that could compete with the comforts of home. Here the Internet and phones are free, and she can eat what she wants even at 4 a.m. If she leaves a mess in the sink, while her parents will complain she will blithely tune us out. She is largely tone deaf to our pleas, a habit acquired from twenty years of living with us, seventeen of which have been spent in her bedroom overlooking our front lawn.

Eventually though the community college experience has to end and if you want a bachelor’s degree, you have to go to a real college. This means a big life transition. She sporadically worked with counselors and got lots of conflicting advice on what courses she needed for her goal of being a high school English teacher. Over time, she narrowed her choices of college to one: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. It helped that they were not too picky. If you had an associate’s degree from a Virginia community college, you were pretty much guaranteed admission.

Deciding to go to VCU and actually engaging our daughter in checking out the campus were two different things entirely. Like many of her generation, she seemed content to drag her feet. She also likes to sleep days and stay up nights. I am frankly amazed that she has almost earned an associate’s degree at all, as most of her time seems to be spent playing World of Warcraft in the wee hours rather than studying. With minimal nagging, she did manage to apply to VCU online. Some weeks later, this caused her to receive an invitation to Transfer Student Day at VCU. She seemed to realize she had no more reason to drag her feet. So on Monday, we drove two hours south to Richmond.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by VCU, but the campus pleasantly surprised me. It sits on the edge of Richmond’s modest downtown. VCU is actually split into two campuses. Unless you are a medical student, you spend most of your time on the Monroe Park campus on the western side. The campus immediately made me wistful. It was the sort of university I wanted to go to but didn’t quite make it to. I went to the University of Central Florida, which at the time was primarily for older adults struggling to get a degree while working a full time job. It was a commuter’s university. VCU was in my mind a proper college campus where most students were full time, lived nearby, and either walked or biked to class.

It took a while to find a parking garage and we had to ask a few strangers to point us to the Student Commons. Traffic cops assisted the voluminous students (many of whom were bicyclists) across streets. Bikes were everywhere and seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation. The VCU students looked normal. This is in marked contrast to the many community college students I have taught over the last ten years, who often looked like zombies. The Student Commons was clearly the center of academic life on the campus. We acquired a map at an information booth and started scouting the neighborhood, which pulsed with an invigorating academic beat.

When your daughter is twenty, you cannot really tell her what to do, but you can nudge her a bit. Since she wanted to be an English teacher, I knew she would spend most of her time in the English Department. The idea of actually visiting to the English Department had never entered her brain. However, I took the time to study the VCU web site to find the one person on campus that would probably be the most use to her: the undergraduate advisor for the English Department. We actually found her at her desk across the street in the Hibbs buildings. She looked busy, but not too busy to spend fifteen minutes or so advising a new student. I wisely decided to leave the two of them alone, but I did hear snippets of their conversations out in the hall. I listened as my daughter somewhat unwittingly found herself increasingly engaged. She learned things no one else had told her, like she needed to transfer her advanced placement courses, and that she could get her master’s degree at VCU in just three years. I smiled to myself. Score! This is why God invented fathers.

Back at the Student Commons, we also found an off campus housing office. On campus housing is quite limited, so most students live off campus. But where to live? Neither of us had a clue. While I had passed Richmond many times on I-95, I had never really been in Richmond before. Where are the good neighborhoods? Which neighborhoods should be avoided? A young man with a large map of downtown Richmond patiently lead us through the various neighborhoods and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each neighborhood. How to find a roommate? My experience of using bulletin boards had morphed into online bulletin boards. He showed us the site, and gave us tips on registration.

The actual Transfer Day event was somewhat anticlimactic, as we had already gotten most of the information we needed. Nevertheless, we did speak to two other students working on getting their teaching credentials and learned from them a lot about academic life. Student life includes a lot of theater, which I knew would engage my daughter. Before leaving back for home though, we toured the various neighborhoods where students found housing to see if any spoke to her.

Richmond is a prettier city than I expected, full of old townhouses and Victorian houses, most of them very well maintained in spite of being mostly shared by transient VCU students. If it wasn’t for all the obnoxious statues to dead Civil War generals, most of whom were slaveholders, I might consider living in Richmond myself.

Since returning home my daughter has resumed staying up nights and playing World of Warcraft, but I also know she is thinking harder about her future. Before Monday, VCU and higher education was something of an abstraction. Now it is something she has experienced first hand. She now has to sift through a number of choices and deal with some difficult logistical issues, just like the rest of us adults. Slowly, and very reluctantly, she seems to be growing up at last.