Real Life 101, Lesson 17: In conclusion, it takes a strategy

This is the last of a series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s time to sum up this series, since it has spanned sporadic entries over nearly five years. In fifty-four years on the planet I have made plenty of stumbles and encountered many setbacks. I have also had a fair number of successes. To the extent I have succeeded, it was part self-reliance and part because I was reasonably fortunate. I was fortunate to be born middle class in America. This gave me some opportunities to succeed but did not guarantee success. Regardless of whether you came into life as a child of poverty, a child of wealth or somewhere in between, what you have to work with is simply what you possess.

I attribute most of my successes to following strategies and my willingness to change them when needed. Success is not generally achieved by following a formula. You won’t find it in church, from the biases of a political party or from a self help book. The truth is one size does not fit all. It never has and never will. You are guaranteed to be unique on this planet, so any strategy that you follow has to work with you and your predispositions. Essentially, it is up to you to quantify your success and mostly up to you to achieve it.

However, I do believe strategies are critical to achieving success, “success” being something only you can assess. Thus it helps to first have a vision of what a successful life would look or feel like for you. When I graduated college, I was pretty much clueless on how I would spend my life. I knew I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and my life. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place through the skills and creativity that I possessed. Just as companies need a vision, so should you invest some time and thought in creating a personal vision of your future. How do you see your life at age 30, 40, 50 and 60? You may find that what you wanted at age 30 does not fit your feelings when you arrive at age 30. However, by working toward that vision strategically, you will at least come to that understanding, and probably sooner rather than later. My suggestion is to keep the vision achievable. It’s okay to aspire to be a Broadway actress or an NFL quarterback, but keep a backup plan in case that does not pan out. If you realize the vision that you created no longer holds the allure it used to, create a new vision that does. Your vision should be hopeful. It should be feel inspirational and welcome.

The strategies you use to get there will of course vary. Lacking any other resources, a self-help book may have a well-defined path that you can try. At least it will give you something to mull over. Based on my experience, simply having a strategy is critical. You don’t need to always follow the strategy to the letter, but you do need to move in its direction and be reasonably consistent following it. Aimlessness is not a strategy, but an admission that you will allow the universe to direct you rather than yourself.

If following a particular strategy does not work for you, either adapt it to better fit you or find a new strategy. A good example is dieting, or more specifically finding a strategy to have and maintain a healthy weight. Most of us Americans will be overweight or obese in our life and thus probably want to take off extra weight. There are lots of diets (tactics) to take off weight, but most of them do not succeed in the long run because they do not work with a person’s natural tendencies. If following a particular diet does not work for you, consider those aspects that aren’t working for you and find one that better addresses those aspects. A strategy is a means to an end, not an end of itself. It helps you realize your vision for yourself. It must work with your natural proclivities to help you achieve your personal vision. If it does not, it’s not a strategy for you. Once you have a strategy that aligns with your vision and seems to be helping you get there, follow it with as much dogged tenacity as you can.

I do feel it is very important to follow a sound financial strategy. For tactics on this, there are a few other lessons you can real in my Real Life 101 archive. In general, a sound financial strategy will minimize personal debt unless it helps you acquire wealth. There are two general components to a successful financial strategy: living beneath your means and saving the difference. Some corollaries quickly emerge: avoid as much debt as possible and get rid of debt as quickly as is prudent. My own experience indicates that doggedly following these principles works. It is not particularly fun or glamorous. To the extent that you will enjoy your wealth, it will happen later in life. If you do not you may enjoy marginally greater wealth now, but comparatively much worse wealth when you are older. Wealth builds on itself, which is why it is critical to get in the habit of saving and do it regularly. Doing it automatically is preferred. Have an allotment go directly from your paycheck into savings and/or retirement accounts. Always save the same percent of your income and adjust the percentage upward if your income allows. When you do this, you will find that you will naturally live on what’s left.

For myself, I have found that regular charitable giving comes back at you. It has happened so often in my life that it is almost spooky. I would not be surprised if you found this to be true as well. It’s like in doing so you clear a psychic space in front of your future that opens up new opportunities. Perhaps this should not be so strange because in truth we are all connected to one another. It is the law of karma working in your favor.

Okay young adult, you are on your own now. Expect to step on some mines going through life. This happens to all of us but if you follow my strategies you should encounter fewer of them. However, with sound strategies in place, you will find that these setbacks, no matter how horrible they first appear, can fade, often quite quickly. Good luck.

Real Life 101, Lesson 16: Some random suggestions

This is the sixteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s been a while since I wrote a “Real Life” lesson for young adults. Mostly I believe I have mined the topic, so I suspect there are few posts left in this series. Yet there is still some vein left. Moreover, the series still gets regular hits. Not every post in the series is read every day. At best only a handful are read on a particular day, but it adds up over time. Presumably the series is of use to some people, which I find gratifying.

Most of adult life is learned through living it. Yet I do have a few more suggestions for you to consider as you transition into adulthood that should prove useful.

Read religiously. Reading keeps your mind spry, stimulates new thoughts, reduces boredom and often facilitates rational engagement with the world. It can also be tremendously enjoyable and insightful. Try to always keep a book close to you. Whatever I am reading is usually sitting next to the toilet, because this is a perfect opportunity to engage the mind. You can certainly read online, but most online content is ephemeral. It’s great to get news, weather and sports online, but it is likely that nothing on or similar sites really means anything, because you will purge it within a few days at best. So read mostly books, either paper or electronic, but also quality old fashioned newspaper and magazines. What is so special about a book? It is (generally) structured, edited, thoughtful, focused and comprehensive, as well as well written. This is hard to find online except, maybe, on sites like this one. Get recommendations from friends and don’t be afraid to read outside your comfort zone. You will often get the most insight and personal growth from books you would not normally read.

Listen religiously as well. Listening is a lost art and I will not claim to be an expert in it. Like reading a book, if you have the opportunity to listen, try to make it worth your time, and when someone is sharing something heartfelt, listen compassionately. See if you can paraphrase it either aloud (people like to know they have been listened to) or paraphrase it silently to yourself, so it will carry some weight. If you find yourself driving, skip the pop rock station and tune in NPR or a local news station instead. Keep a stack of audiobooks in your car. You can borrow them for free at your local public library.

Give your mind time to wander. Your mind needs time to wander. This is done by turning off distractions like NPR, not all the time, but periodically while you are driving, or leaving the radio off while you do the dishes. Your brain needs to digest and make inferences about what it has learned. I find that I am most creative and get the best ideas when I deliberately tune out life’s distractions for a spell. Often your brain will find solutions to some of your toughest challenges during such times. Driving is a good time not just to listen to an audiobook, but also to let your mind wander to nothing but the background hum of road noise.

If it sounds ridiculous, it is. We live in modern times where arguably insane and crazy people are getting much of the airtime. Instead, choose to be reality-based, not because it is fun, but because you are much more likely to survive if you choose reality. Here are just some of the bat-shit crazy ideas going around at the moment.

  • Claim: Climate change is not happening.
  • Answer: On average, every year is hotter than the year before it. Are you saying all our thermometers are in error or that all meteorologists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to falsify temperature data?
  • Claim: Businesses create jobs.
  • Answer: When people have more money and use it to buy more things, this stimulates demand. Businesses hire people to keep up with economic demand.
  • Claim: Smaller government and lower taxes creates economic growth.
  • Answer: California has tried this approach for decades yet has gone from a state that had one of the best economies to one of the worst economies. They are letting people out of prison early because they can’t afford to keep them there, for crying out loud! Maybe it happens sometime, but it’s not a silver bullet.
  • Claim: Students don’t learn because of bad teachers.
  • Answer: While there are some bad teachers out there, students choose to learn or not to learn. It is up to them to engage, which can be hard to do when there are problems at home, your neighborhood is rife with gang violence, you come from a single parent household and you can barely afford to eat, let alone afford nutritious food. Maybe serving students breakfast, lunch and a snack while at school, plus making sure they get more exercise while at school will do more to help children learn is the best way to help them learn. Safe neighborhoods would help too.

Be brave and when someone speaks nonsense, speak the truth instead. We only wallow in ignorance because we allow it to go unchallenged.

Do your professional reading. Don’t let your skills atrophy! Stay engaged in your career. Take continuing education courses. (You may be required to do so anyhow.) Consider a certificate from a local college. Subscribe to a couple of trade magazines. In many cases, they are free. As life is about change, the same is true with your profession. I bet that even garbage haulers have journals on the latest in waste management techniques. Doing so helps distinguish you from others in the field and makes you less likely to suffer career misfortunes and, if you do, enhances the likelihood of a quick recovery. In my case, I read IEEE Computer every month, as well as belong to the IEEE itself. I also read some of the most useful information technology websites, and subscribes to RSS feeds for the sources I most respect. It is time well spent, and it keeps me engaged in my career. It’s not coincidence that it’s been 23 years since I had a bout of unemployment. Hint: trade journals make excellent bathroom reading material.

Real Life 101, Lesson 15: Dieting, Fitness and Nutrition – do you know the difference?

This is the fifteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

(Note: If you like this, you might also like Lesson 7 and Lesson 11.)

Young adults, you cannot get online without see articles on dieting, fitness and nutrition. Do you know the difference?

I confess I find it confusing at times. I know people think dieting must make them healthier. It can, but it can also make you sick. In some cases, if done without medical supervision, it can even kill you. So dieting is not necessarily healthy. I also know people who eat very nutritiously and yet it hasn’t made them any healthier. In addition, I know people who get plenty of exercise yet who are unhealthy. All these practices contribute to good health, but none of them guarantee health. Each has their pitfalls and misconceptions. Voluminous media reports on the latest scientific studies only muddles answers. I may be able to help you see through the mist a bit.

Let’s start with dieting. My bet is that any one time, most Americans are either on a diet or wish they had the willpower to go on a diet. They want to lose weight because the media drums it into them that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. They figure: if I can get to a normal weight, I’ll be healthy!

This is not necessarily true. I see many skinny things that are not healthy at all. Maybe it is because they smoke, take narcotics, are anorexic or never exercise. Having normal or below normal weight does not mean you are healthy and dieting to achieve a normal weight may or may not leave you healthier. You can be morbidly obese and still be healthy, with low cholesterol and blood pressure. However, a normal weight combined with good nutrition and regular exercise dramatically raises the probability that you will enjoy a healthy and a long life. Yet, there are never any guarantees. Even the healthiest person can contract a cancer or pick up a virulent infectious disease. Dieting alone is not a solution to your health. It is one of many means that may allow you to be healthy.

A legitimate diet followed rigorously will lower your weight. Nothing else is guaranteed. Losing weight is simple, but not necessarily easy. You must burn more calories than you take in. Diet plans merely offer different approaches for losing weight, but they can only succeed if you burn more calories than you ingest. Losing weight is often associated with reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among other welcome changes, but there is no guarantee that these healthy goals will be achieved by losing weight.

Dieters often make the mistake of thinking they can lose weight by exercising more while they diet, reasoning they will burn more calories and thus take off weight more quickly. The research is now compelling: exercising has a number of healthful benefits but it may defeat your attempts to lose weight, at least if done to excess. If you do a lot of heavy work, like chopping wood, your blood sugar is lowered. This may cause your body to taunt you to eat more food to make up for the extra calories you burned. You may end up healthier from the exercise but your diet may fail. Over the years, I have experienced this, and I have seen it happen to too many of my friends as well. If you really want to lose weight, I would avoid the heavy cardiovascular exercises until after I was at my desired weight. Especially if I were obese, I would check with my doctor first about doing any heavy cardiovascular exercises.

Exercise, while a healthy practice, is actually a very inefficient way to burn calories. The vast majority of your calories are engaged in a much more Herculean task: maintaining your body. How inefficient is exercise? Men’s Health Magazine recently estimated that to consume a popular six hundred calorie entree, you would have to walk the stairs from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the observation deck twice. So counting calories to lose weight is much more effective than vigorously exercising and dieting, as it is more likely to succeed. Choosing mild, moderate or even no exercise is probably more effective at succeeding at dieting than heavy exercising. The most effective way to lose weight is actually simple: consume many measured, small mini-meals during the day so you never get hungry.

Is there a point to fitness given that it may not help you lose weight? Yes! Assuming you are exercising correctly, not overdoing things and not overly stressing joints and such, you are likely to have fewer aches and pains, you will feel a lot better and will have more energy to engage in life. If it’s been a long time since you have felt that way, you will be amazed how wonderful you will feel after a couple weeks of moderate exercising. In fact, the value of exercise arguably increases with age. What is the key factor for living to ninety and still being in good health? Good genetics certainly helps, but falling is what often kills or disables old people who haven’t succumbed to other disease. What causes most falls? It is a lack of exercise, both walking religiously and strengthening the muscles that maintain your balance, such as your thigh and hip muscles. My father, age 84, remains an avid and religious walker. He may be 84, but he goes to the gym regularly. That he walks without a stoop is proof of the value of regular exercise late in life.

While exercise is in general good, exercise is vastly improved by marrying it with good nutrition. Eating healthy while not exercising and being obese may help a little, but if you suffer from problems like high blood pressure, it is likely not a cure. As I mentioned in Lesson 7, nutrition is about giving your body the right stuff so that it can work optimally. If you are overweight or don’t exercise, it may make symptoms like adult diabetes less chronic, but it will probably not solve the problem. Proper nutrition does help you think clearer, feel better about yourself and aids all parts of the body.

Putting this all together: diet to lose weight but as a part of a plan to keep yourself at a healthy weight for life. Yo-yo dieting is not healthy, and may be worse than not dieting at all. Exercise to feel better and so that you can live a long life with minimal health issues. Eat nutritiously so that your body is primed to work optimally.

While these are foundations to health, there are also many other factors that contribute to health. Washing your hands regularly, flu shots, dental checkups, physicals, getting eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding many of the preventable stresses in life, like toxic bosses also contribute enormously to your good health. Your goal should be optimal mental and physical health. All these strategies help achieve it but none of them by themselves guarantees it.

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

Real Life 101, Lesson 13: Great sex is not pornography come to life

This is the thirteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Surfing YouTube last night, I spent most of my time enjoying the excellent TED channel. There I stumbled across this video by Cindy Gallop, a “lady of a certain age” as they like to be called who is fortunate enough to bed many men half her age or more. One thing she has noted is that young adults today confuse pornographic sex with real sex. The sad truth that many young adults cannot discern is that pornographic sex has about as much in common with real sex as a Formula One racer has in common with the Honda Civic that you drive. To help you out, Gallop created this site. Gallop, however, just scratches the surface of this topic.

The confusion is understandable. Like it or not young adults have probably been exposed to hundreds of hours of pornography on the Internet, often before they have sex with someone other than their own right hand. Lord knows that in most cases their parents cannot be bothered to clue them in on how real adults have sex. They are more likely to completely hide their sexuality from their children and make sure they are asleep or being very quiet while having sex.

It may surprise you to learn that your parents probably are still having sex. They are probably not coupling every night anymore as middle age takes a toll on many things, including their sex drives. There is no one size fits all when it comes to sexuality. There are couples in their middle years still going at it like bunnies. Others can go months without having sex and it is fine with both of them. Most likely, when they do get around to making love it bears no resemblance to a pornographic movie. Most likely, neither will your sex life.

This is because pornography is about fantasy, not real life. Moreover, the vast majority of videotaped pornography is for the male, not the female. Since women these days watch a lot of pornography too, you may be under the impression that they are being trained to enjoy the male-oriented version of pornography. Perhaps some of it is rubbing off (no pun intended) but likely not very much. However, pornography might carry with it the implication that modern women should enjoy or at least accommodate men by engaging in sexual acts rife in modern pornography.

Ask any porn actress how much they enjoy being in porn. A certain amount will lie for the trade presses, but when interviewed most will candidly admit (gasp!) they are in it for the money and get little or no pleasure from participating in sexual acts in front of the camera. Any great sex they have likely happens off camera. For one thing, they are being tightly directed. Second, they are expected to act so of course for the most part they will be faking lust they do not genuinely feel. They are following a script for a few quick bucks so you (generally a guy) can get off. Their directors know what you want because they analyze their sales and follow trends. So if you see a lot of videos about something like anal sex, they are there to meet your market demand. Satisfying your lust is simply a business. Pornography attempts to render idealized sexual fantasy, nothing more. It is particularly unhelpful in educating you on how ordinary people make love.

So while you may think a sex act like anal sex might be very arousing, chances are any female you have a real life sexual encounter will not. Now, as in most things in life, there are some women who are into anal sex, and if that is also your passion, you two will have a lot of fun in bed together. Most likely though she will be into anal sex about as much as you would be if she were doing it to you. Most men don’t want to go down that road because it kills the fantasy and has homosexual implications. In any event, rest assured that those couples that do have anal sex are doing it slowly with lots of artificial lubrication and probably using a condom, something you are unlikely to see in a pornographic video.

The same can be said about almost any sexual act portrayed in pornography. If you are a male and can find a woman who is genuinely into your kinks, you are likely going to be a happy man in the bedroom. Most but certainly not all women may be into a couple of your kinks. Oral sex, for example, is now fairly out of the closet mainly because the tongue is much more expressive than a penis or a vagina. It is not too hard to find a woman who is willing to satisfy you orally, particularly if you are willing to return the favor. However, most women see oral sex as foreplay (although for many it is the only way they can get off with a man, providing he knows how to do it to them right). Relatively few women see mutual oral sex as the primary way to have orgasms. Do not expect your partner to be Linda Lovelace for she is no more likely to have mastered the gag reflex than you.

The majority of women cannot have an orgasm from intercourse alone. In fact, you may not be able to even give them an orgasm. Some women never achieve orgasm, but those that do often need a lot of foreplay and need you to exercise a lot of patience. You may need to slow down when nature says go faster because they may need to also use their fingers or a vibrator to get off.

The truth is that having a great sex life with your partner takes a lot of time and energy. Your first experience with someone new is likely to be memorable, but only so-so as far as actual sex is concerned. That is because we are all different and no matter how much experience you have between the sheets, the first time two people couple they are really just getting to know each other sexually. If you are a guy and your pattern is to move from woman to woman, aside from the dangerous aspects unless you practice very safe sex, you are likely to be disappointed.

In most cases, the best sex between two people happens months or years later after they really know each other, both as sexual creatures and as people. In short, sex becomes better the more trust and understanding there is between two people. Most likely, you will find that sex is best not when you are engaging in the latest bizarre position you saw in some pornographic Internet video but when in the sex act you become one passionate creature with your partner, each feeding off the signals from each other. When you do X to your lover in a certain way that creates a passionate response tailored to their sexual buttons and she responds similarly, that’s when sex really becomes great and transcendent. You feed off her signals and she feeds off yours and, if you are both lucky, for a few special moments you will experience transcendent pleasure, although the time before and afterward will be great fun too. You should feel connected sexually, emotionally and spiritually to your partner when this happens. Your orgasm, when it happens, will be so much more than an orgasm. Rather than be kinky as you see in pornography, it should feel wholesome, god-like and spiritually uplifting. What positions you are in do not really matter, nor does it matter how kinky or pedestrian the act is when it happens. What is important is the overwhelming sense of pleasure and intimacy between two people.

Trust me, it is way better than anything you are going to see in a pornographic video. No video can capture these feelings that happen inside you during these short but exquisite moments. The high comes from the feeling of mutual connection, not because you also had an orgasm. The orgasm is the frosting on the cake. The mutual connection is the cake itself. This is the difference between making love and having sex.

My suggestion is to go into sex in a spirit of mutual playfulness. Sex can have many meanings, both for good and ill. At its best, it is warm and playful intimate adventure between two people who are just really into each other, not just as sexual creatures, but also as people and with all the dimensions that this encompasses. That is way better than anything you are going to find in some pornographic video.

Real Life 101, Lesson 12: The Basics of Investing

This is the twelfth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Way back in Lesson 2, I covered the fundamentals of personal finance. I hope you used the intervening two and a half years to make yourself financially solvent. Good news: if you are not carrying a credit card debt, you are doing better than many Americans. Your net worth may hardly be in the positive numbers but at least it is positive. Even if you have student loans, providing it has helped you get a decent paying job, this is good debt.

You may be young but you might also have the feeling that old age is going to visit you someday. When it arrives, you know you would not prefer living in a cardboard box under a freeway. You know that to avoid this fate you need to start investing money now, although you might not have a whole lot to invest except for the spare change inside your sofa. Most likely you kind of resent having to save anything at all, but you know that like taking vitamins its one of these things that prudent people do. Where to start? Buy a share of Wal-Mart stock? Open a money market account? Buy gold on the assumption that its value will stay steady during inflationary times? There are an infinite number of choices and it’s so darn confusing!

I can make it easy for you: start with your employer’s 401-K plan. Why? Start there because if your employer offers a 401-K plan they will often match your contributions up to a certain percent of your salary. In other words, it’s free money. It’s true that except in cases of dire emergencies you cannot take out the money before retirement, but you still get to invest more money than you can contribute. In short, you should contribute as much money as you possibly can into your 401-K or similar plan, particularly if you get matching contributions.

Start contributing today and never, ever stop until you are fully retired. This is the golden rule of investing: start early and contribute regularly. Do not contribute a fixed dollar amount. Contribute a percentage of your income automatically with every paycheck. Your income should naturally rise as you age so at the very least you want your contributions to rise proportionately. It is never to late to start investing but the multiplicative factor for starting early is mind-boggling. Starting early means that you have more time to invest and your money has more time to grow. Give until it hurts. Give until the financial pain is just short of excruciating. As your income goes up, try your best to put a greater percentage of your income into retirement funds as well. There is an additional piece of good news: the IRS pretends your salary is your actual salary less your 401-K contributions. In other words, you end up paying less in taxes because you “earn” less. The net effect is you have a little more money available to put into your 401-K than if the money was taxed up front.

If your employer does not offer a 401-K, or even if they do, you can still open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). In 2009, you can contribute up to $4000 and write it off your taxes, at least if you place your money into a “traditional” IRA. You can also choose a Roth IRA. The difference with a Roth IRA is your contribution is not subtracted from your income for tax purposes: you pay the tax upfront but can withdraw it later tax-free. With a traditional IRA, you pay the taxes on the income much later when you retire for the privilege of paying fewer taxes now. If you can swing it, because younger people tend to earn a lot less than older workers, the Roth IRA is the better deal. As you age you might want to open a Traditional IRA because then you are likely to be taxed at a higher rate than you will as a retiree.

The general guidance for investing is tried and true and fairly well known. In the very long term, invest in stocks or stock funds as history shows that overall they will provide higher returns. In the medium term, buy bonds. In the short term, stick with savings, checking and money market accounts for their liquidity and safety.

What else should you save for? Many smart young people find plenty of incentive to save for their own digs. They would prefer being tied down by a mortgage instead of renting a U-Haul every few years and moving all their possessions. They also have expectations that if they own property, it will appreciate, and their net worth will grow. (The mortgage interest deduction is also a nice tax break, although you may find the cost of maintaining your home can eat up the tax break.) Obviously, you don’t invest this sort of money into retirement accounts. Where to put it depends on how long you think it will take you to buy some property. Most likely, you don’t want to put it into some sort of stock-oriented mutual fund because there is likely to be too much volatility in the stock by the time you need the money. The safest bets are savings and money market accounts, but they produce almost no interest. A good choice looking several years out would be a well-rated corporate bond fund. Also consider a fund that buys Ginnie Mae bonds. Ginnie Mae bonds actually help homebuyers like you buy houses. There is risk of losing money, but it is very small, along with decent potential of above average market returns.

Okay, you are thinking. Where do I buy these sorts of funds? In addition, which ones are good and which are bad? Unfortunately, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors among investment firms and brokerage houses, which they gleefully help create. Real return is hard to figure out, given that returns are rarely guaranteed and many funds charge fees to buy and sell funds. Many funds come with certain minimums and contribution requirements. Billions are spent to shape your perception that firms like Vanguard and T. Rowe Price are smart places to put your money. You would be right to be skeptical.

If you want, you can be your own broker. You can in theory send a check to places like Ginnie Mae or the U.S. Treasury and they will send you bond certificates back. This is too much hassle for most people. When in doubt I go to the most trusted and unbiased source I know: Consumer Reports. I think any smart consumer should subscribe to the magazine, but you can also spend a little money to get access to their online web site. Periodically they rate various categories of mutual funds. Their ratings are not necessarily sure things, but they are good, unbiased bets.

Ultimately what you need is a personal financial advisor. Most likely, that will have to wait until you have enough income to also afford a financial advisor. Banks and brokerage firms will want to sell you their financial advice. Be wary because most likely they put their bottom line ahead of yours. When I finally had enough money to get a personal financial advisor and I chose someone local who was listed on the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors web site. My personal financial advisor makes recommendations to me. I do the actual paperwork to make them happen. He never gets a cut of my earnings, only a flat fee for sound and unbiased advice.

Until that time comes, it is probably a sound strategy to be your own financial advisor. You can supplement your knowledge not just by reading my advice but also by reading some of the many popular books on investing available at your local bookstore. By following the established investing rules I outlined, you are likely to do nearly as well as the financially sophisticated anyhow. The truth is there is always risk in investment, as well as rewards, and no financial guru is always right, not even Warren Buffett. Some approaches will prove to be luckier than others in the short term, but time seems to even out the playing field. Sticking to traditional rules should serve you well until you have the time and money to get your own personal financial advisor.

Real Life 101, Lesson 11: The skinny on nutrition

This is the eleventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

An indigent and obese friend of my wife tonight sits critically ill in a hospital in Lanchester County, Pennsylvania, her abdomen a mass of bloated polyps and at least one large tumor. She has had one surgery already that removed many of them and is scheduled for another shortly, however her prognosis for a full recovery is almost nonexistent. She is in her fifties. What is unstated, but is quite possible, is that she is dying. With so many masses in her abdomen, the chance that one of them is malignant is very high.

I have met her only twice. While a nice person, she appears to have spent a lifetime treating her body with contempt. Between her regular smoking (which she only recently she gave up) and the voluminous crap she has been eating over the years, she passively chose the miserable experience that she is now enduring. (Yes, I am aware obesity is a disease like alcoholism. It required treatment that it appears she either could not afford or refused.) She also chose the substandard life she has lived these many years because the result was she became officially disabled and is hobbled by her obesity. Her joints often hurt. She is rarely mobile enough to even take a shower, and she is able to move only with great effort. She is morbidly obese.

When she visited us recently, she asked her partner to make a run through the local Burger King drive thru. I do not know whether her partner indulged her or not, but it is clear that to her junk food has the lure of a narcotic. Like too many of us overweight and obese Americans, she is addicted to stuff that seems destined to kill her prematurely.

I hope all that food and nicotine that she enjoyed earlier in her life is worth the pain, misery, inconvenience and heartache that she is now experiencing and has been experiencing for probably at least a decade. What is clear is that she allowed these forces to control her, rather than the other way around. Had she embraced other choices earlier in her life she might have a couple more quality decades of a life ahead of her. She might have the time to watch her young granddaughter, who she dotes on, graduate college. She may also have enjoyed much more the last few decades instead of being hobbled by the consequences of these addictions.

Particularly in your younger years, the consequences of eating pizza, drinking sugar-rich beers and sodas, and smoking are fully reversible. As you age, the effect of these choices takes an increasingly larger toll on your body. The probability of gaining control over these demons lessens too with age.

Many young adults reach maturity with little to no training on nutrition. Maybe they studied the USDA food pyramid in class, but it is unlikely they received the coaching to use it effectively. The more I learn about nutrition in my middle years, the more I understand how complex it is. What is clear is that temptations abound, and the unhealthy food is artificially cheap. Paradoxically, the healthy food is increasingly more expensive.

How do young adults in particular navigate the complex issue of basic nutrition, particularly when their forebrain tells them they should eat healthy but their emotional side has them craving a processed food diet? Perhaps it starts with some understanding of what nutrition is. Based on younger adults in my own family who shall remain nameless, I don’t think most teenagers and young adults really understand. On one level, they may understand there are “bad foods” and that they tend to be the ones they want. They may also infer that “good foods” are boring and not very tasty.

The essence of nutrition is readily understandable. It is about giving your body the food it needs to operate optimally. It is also about giving your body the right amount of food so that you can maintain a healthy weight. The good thing about eating nutritious food is that it tends to naturally correct the desire to overeat. Conversely, one of the many bad things about unhealthy food is that it tends to make you want to eat more of it. You can enjoy an apple. Will a tasty apple make you reach for a second? Perhaps. Will one slice of pizza be enough? Probably not.

What is the difference? Aside from the ingredients in an apple, which are either benign or healthy, and a pizza, which is overloaded with saturated fats and quickly absorbed carbohydrates, an apple has two important attributes. First, it is not calorie dense, which means there are fewer calories for the same volume of food compared with a pizza. An apple also is rich in something called dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is simply benign non-food, or bulk if you will. It has zero calories because it is not absorbed; it just passes through you. While it does not go to your waist, dietary fiber is also good because roughage helps keep you regular and reduces your chances of colon cancer.

If an apple were a candle, it would burn slow and steady. A pizza is more like a fuse. It burns brightly and quickly. Because a pizza’s carbohydrates and fat are readily absorbed (they are rather simple), the excess is not needed by the body, so it tends to get stored instead. In addition, since the carbohydrates are quickly absorbed, your blood sugar will spike and then drop like a rock, and you will feel hungrier. You get a double whammy and unsurprisingly your waistline is likely to expand.

Nutritious food is also often loaded with natural vitamins and minerals. Many fast or processed foods are enriched with vitamins. Does this make them healthy? No, these foods are no healthier than eating a wheat donut is healthy. In other words, these processed foods still have virtually all the bad stuff, and the manufacturers are hoping to convince you that by adding vitamins and minerals it has morphed itself into something healthy. It’s still junk.

If you are overweight or obese, you might think that exercise will take off the pounds even if you keep eating the same fast and processed foods you are used to eating. Yet, most people who try this strategy fail. Why? Because exercise also depletes the body’s immediate stores of energy, i.e. your blood sugar. Your body will try to make up the difference by burning fat, but it will also send a strong signal to your brain: feed me. Exercise is still good, but you need to do it smartly. Eat a small snack with slow burning carbohydrates before and after exercise instead, this way you will not feel so hungry. While exercise has many healthy aspects to it, it is not a silver bullet for losing weight. In particular, if you are trying to lose weight, exercise in moderation, as too much exercise will simply drive you to eat more calories. Eating the same processed food you always ate while regularly exercising will not help your body be healthy either. Nor does exercise add any nutrition to your diet, unless you exercise outside in the sunlight and catch a little free Vitamin D. Fifteen minutes a week of sunshine (skip the sunscreen) is all you need to get your Vitamin D.

And speaking of Vitamin D, there is likelihood that you are Vitamin D deficient. Many Americans are these days. Why? Because we have become indoor denizens. Our jobs put us in cubicles. Moreover, we prefer to be tethered to our televisions and computers. Vitamin D deficiency is bad because it puts you at even greater risk of health complications, and markedly increases the chance of acquiring heart disease in particular. At any age, you should never take your health for granted. Make sure you are getting regular physicals so you can detect and correct these problems early.

Do not feel proud of yourself if you do not smoke but you do overeat. The evidence is clear: overeating and eating the wrong foods is at least as unhealthy for you as smoking. Overeating can trigger cancers, just like smoking. You are unlikely to die from heart disease because of smoking, however you can die of either cancer or heart disease because of poor eating habits and overeating. If I had to choose between the two habits, I would take up smoking, as disagreeable as the idea is to me.

How do you learn new habits that will last a lifetime? There are plenty of programs out there but if I had to pick one, I would choose Weight Watchers, for reasons I document here. Need more help? Try this site and buy a couple of their books, which are widely available. I think you will find them quite insightful.

Please, think carefully about what you put into your mouth, why you really do it and the long-term consequences of sticking with your habit. It may be too late for my wife’s friend, but your life is just unfolding. Do not eat yourself into an early grave.

Real Life 101, Lesson 10: How to study

This is the tenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

As regular readers may know, I am back in the classroom. It has been about four years since I taught in a community college. I had hoped that certain things would have changed. A few things have changed. Four years ago, my classes were roughly half fellow white Anglo Saxons. Today the ratio is more like 40:60. This is indicative of the area where I live, which is multicultural and is getting more so. In particular, I am seeing a lot more people of who appear predominantly from the Middle East or South Asia. One thing that has not changed is that many of my students are still woefully unprepared for the reality of college.

This is reflected in their grades. About a third of the class will mysteriously melt away through the course of the semester. Sometimes it appears that they just cannot summon the will to attend class. (My class starts at 9 AM.) Others when they get back the first couple quizzes see the handwriting on the wall. You would think that they would withdraw academically and get a tuition refund. Most of them do not, they just sort of fade away and eventually earn an F.

Sometimes I think I am a poor teacher, but those who survive the class have the opportunity to assess me near the end of the course. My teaching style normally gets a B, but it varies from class to class. So I figure I must be an okay teacher although those who dropped my course probably would tell me otherwise. Other times I think that maybe the courses I teach are too hard. This semester I am teaching Computer Fundamentals. About half of it is learning the Microsoft Office suite and the other half conveys basic knowledge about computers and information technology. Many students have picked up significant parts of the Microsoft Office suite already. Granted, many of them have not experimented much with formulas and graphs in Microsoft Excel, but presumably, these things should not be completely new. Nor was the Web Page Design course I taught for many years that difficult. You learn some tags and syntax, you mark it up with an editor and you display it on a web server. In short, neither of my courses were the equivalents of organic chemistry or calculus.

The Computer Fundamentals class is required for most students, so it brings in everyone from math wizards to art majors. I can understand why an art student might be a bit intimidated by numbers, but surely somewhere in their education they got enough courses to have learned things like the order of precedence with mathematical operators and what a function does. Maybe they got it once upon a time. It appears they quickly purged it from their brains.

For most of those failing or flailing, I am left to infer that they just did not learn how to study. If this describes you, young adult, let this part time teacher provide you with the basics.

Rule Number 1: Study takes time. You must set aside the time required to read the material, do the homework and participate in group projects. Most students who actually want to graduate quickly learn they must budget their time. They plan their week in accordance with their homework, upcoming quizzes and examinations. Study does not mean just flipping through your notes at a Starbucks before the class.

Rule Number 2: Read the textbook. If your instructor provides Powerpoint and lecture notes, that is helpful. These things though do not substitute for a textbook; they supplement the textbook. So when your professor says read pages 100-150 before class next week, if you want to get a good grade in the course this is not optional. The professor’s job is to help you join the material you read in the textbook with the information he is providing. In any course, there is far more to learn than the time allocated to teach it to you in class.

Rule Number 3: Take copious notes in class. Most of my students do not even have their notebooks open. Why? When the professor is talking, you should be taking notes as fast as you can scribble them. If you do not understand something, you are supposed to raise your hand and ask questions. That is how you learn.

Rule Number 4: Restate what you have learned after class. Whether it comes from the textbook, lecture notes, slides or your class notes, if you really want to learn, you will take the time to restate what you have learned outside of the class, ideally shortly after the class. Typing it up or jotting it down in a notebook helps to cement knowledge in your brain. When you read a textbook, take the time to mark it up. Get out that yellow highlighter. Read that paragraph with care. If you don’t understand it, read it again. There is often one key sentence or a phrase in a paragraph that conveys the key idea. Highlight that and restate it in your notes.

Rule Number 5: Study in solitude. Many of my students have MP3 players jammed into their ears while they appear to be studying or sometimes instead of listening to me. For studying, listening to music is a bad idea unless the music is classical, or wholly instrumental. The key is it must be subliminal and facilitate studying, not distract you from it. When you study, you need to concentrate on the material, not on the lyrics to a song. Unless you have group study sessions with other students, you need a quiet place and a closed door to study. If you live on campus or even if you do not, a library is a great place to study, in part because when you are there you feel like you must study. Not only do you have most of the resources you need handy if you have to do some research, but it is relatively quiet and there are usually plenty of tables and alcoves available where you can study.

Rule Number 6: Prepare adequately for tests. Review all the relevant material the day before the test. Give focus on your notes where you restated what you learned. Ideally, try to make time an hour or so before the test to review again what you reviewed the night before. If time is of the essence, review the key points that are hard to remember or understand. These things typically make the difference between one grade letter and the next.

Rule Number 7: Practice, practice, practice. Many courses, like the one I am teaching, include labs. Don’t just do the labs in class. Do them again as practice. Most textbooks will have other examples at the end of the textbook you can try. I saw many of my students flounder with a Microsoft Excel quiz I gave recently. While they went through the labs in class, they did not cement the key pieces of learning by redoing their work outside of the course. Naturally, they were quite challenged trying to complete the hands on portion of the quiz because they had not cemented in their brains the fundamental skills.

Rule Number 8: Commit to your education. This probably should be Rule Number 1. An education is obviously not free but even if your tuition is paid for by your parents or a scholarship, you must make the personal commitment to give your study the time and attention it deserves. This means you will probably sleep less, party less, socialize less and goof off less. This is what you have to do if you intend to graduate. When I was a full time student and did not have a job, I typically put in ten to fourteen hour days six or seven days a week. The payoff will be the degree, which will hopefully offer you the chance for a more enriching, interesting and hopefully well paid life. No one said life would be easy. If you want a degree, you must earn it. Put down the beer bottle and pick up the textbook, your notebook and a yellow highlighter instead. Your future you will be very glad you did.

Real Life 101, Lesson 9: So you want to be a parent

This is the ninth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young adult, you may think that it would be fun and inspiring to have a little baby of your very own bouncing on your knee. There is no question that little babies can be awfully darn cute and that parenting can be a very fulfilling role. Arguably, there is no calling nobler or more daunting than being a parent. The survival of our species literally depends on the willingness of people like you to procreate.

Parenting though is far more than procreating. You should be willing to hang in there for eighteen years, but the reality is that eighteen years is just a start. You need to be able to make a lifelong commitment to your child. You may ditch your spouse at some point but you must never ditch your child. Your child will always need you on some level, even when they are middle aged like me and carry a paunch around their waist.

Being a father or mother is not that hard. It can take as little time as thirty seconds to start the process. Being a parent on the other hand is the ultimate roller coaster ride, and to succeed in parenting you have to hold on until you are dead. My father is age 81 and he is still teaching me lessons. Granted when your child is age thirty or so the work tends to go down quite a bit, but do not assume that at some point you will be all done. Parenting is a lifelong commitment based on a unique and unselfish bond of love.

It is understood that these days parenting is optional. This means you do not have to be a parent, but if you choose to have sex then you better use protection or be sterilized. Do not depend on the rhythm method. Many of those parents who did try it found out, like mine, that it did not work all that great. I am the fifth of eight Catholic children. No form of contraception is foolproof. Even vasectomies have been known to reverse themselves all on their own. Here are the only ways known to guarantee you will not be a parent:

  • Women can have their ovaries and uterus removed
  • Men can have their testes removed
  • Celibacy

A prerequisite for parenting should be to first have your own cat or dog. It does not matter which, but if you cannot make a ten or fifteen year commitment to an animal that only needs you part time, you should not be a parent. If after a couple months or years you find yourself taking Fido or Mittens to the animal shelter, it is time to be sterilized. You should not be a parent.

Assuming you pass the first test, there are two things to think about before getting into the parenting business. The first you will hear at your local Planned Parenthood and is absolutely true: every child should be a wanted child. If you do not really really want to be a parent, you just should just say no. The second is a corollary of the first: you must have a realistic capability to raise your child to at least the same standard of living as you now enjoy. The consequence of the latter point means that your life and job needs to be reasonably settled and you have the means to care for the child. This also means you must have a job that has health insurance.

Here is how the parenting experience will be for you: I haven’t a clue. Parenting is life’s ultimate crapshoot and it can explode all over your face. If you think about it logically, no one would ever be a parent because the odds that you will screw up your child are too large. Moreover, you will screw up your child. The only question is the degree that you will screw them up. You will screw them up for two reasons: you are not perfect and your child will not be perfect either. Actually there is a third reason: you have never been a parent before. You can and should get parenting education before you have a child, but each parenting experience is unique. Just as you can improve the odds that you can drive a car by reading the instruction manual first, parenting education will tell you what you need to do. It will not do much to help you deal with the stresses and feelings that come with being a parent. Some things cannot be taught but can only be experienced.

Parenting can be simulated. I applaud those schools that simulate parenting by giving you a simulated baby to carry around for a few days. They are programmed to wake you up at inconvenient times around the clock and you have to do certain things to make it happy. A few days of this makes most teenagers want to defer parenthood for years. Of course, this kind of inconvenience is the easy part, because you also have to attend to the costs of having a child. If I were dictator, as a requirement for a high school diploma I would require the successful completion of a parenting course. It would include a week spent in a day care center changing poopie diapers and dealing with children going through their terrible twos.

I am probably making parenting sound like a real bummer. It can be. As I said, parenting is a roller coaster ride, full of many extremes. There are awful bone-crushing lows. There are also exhilarating highs. Strangely enough, there are also placid periods. Things rarely stay the same for long though. Children grow too quickly. Most parents have zero time for reflection because they are too busy dealing with the reality of life with children. That is why I am helping you out by giving you time to reflect now.

I am almost nineteen years into my parenting experience. In two days, my daughter sits down for her first college course. My parenting journey is not over yet by any means, but I have come to some tentative conclusions. It has been said many times before but it is true: parenting can be (but is not necessarily) the most rewarding and selfless thing you can do in life. I can guarantee one thing: it will be the biggest learning experience of your life. After experiencing it first hand, you should feel something like awe at your own parents. Maybe they screwed you up a bit but as you will experience just hanging in there at all borders on the miraculous.

You will never know for sure if you are cut out at the parenting business, but once you have started there is no going back. A child will pull you in more directions than you can possibly imagine. Most parents though adapt with time. You may find it easier to go with the flow. Be pragmatic and just accept that your universe is being fundamentally reordered. A relaxed attitude with your children, if you can manage it with all the inevitable chaos, is probably healthy for you and the child. Children know when they are loved, and if so they will respect you and accommodate you.

When the bulk of parenting is behind you, if you are lucky, the experience becomes somewhat nostalgic. I love my nearly nineteen-year-old daughter very much, but I cherish my memories of her at certain ages more than others. In my opinion, age four was my best year of parenting. There are times when I wish children could be like pets that stay at the ideal age forever. For better or for worse, they keep maturing. Therefore, I cherish those memories of our 4 AM feedings alone in the library while I watched the fog roll in out the window. I cherish reading Dr. Seuss to her as a child and feeling her snuggle close in my arms and her eyes light up with the story. I cherish seeing her perform in her first school play. As a parent, you have a unique privilege: to witness first hand the development of a child from birth to adulthood. They will not remember most of it, particularly the early years, but you will. With luck near the end of the experience, you will say with satisfaction, “I wasn’t a perfect parent, but I did a good job, and I consistently loved my child.” It should be that and “Whew! What a ride!”

Real Life 101, Lesson 8: Avoiding the Credit Trap

This is the eighth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It has been a while since I wrote an entry in this series. Yesterday’s huge jump in oil prices, combined with a .4% increase in the unemployment rate in one month, along with a stock market which dropped precipitously (the DJIA dropped nearly 400 points) made me think about one of the major reasons the economy is tanking. It can be summed up in one word: debt.

In Lesson 2 of this series, I did discuss debt in general. Today I would like to focus on one kind of debt in particular: credit card debt. The Federal Reserve keeps a handy report on consumer debt, all neatly categorized. As of June 2008, total credit card debt is just shy of one trillion dollars: 956.9 billion dollars, or roughly $3200 for every man, woman and child in the country. In 2003, unsecured “revolving” (i.e. credit card) debt was 770.5 billion dollars. Perhaps more ominous is the rate of increase in unsecured credit card debt: 2.9 percent in 2003 and 7.4 percent in 2007. Americans are living way beyond their means and they are funding their lifestyle in the worst possible way: by charging it.

Why is “charging it” worse than other forms of debt? It is because credit card debt is unsecured, which means that you do not have to pledge collateral like your car or house to buy things today. This makes credit card debt riskier for lenders. They compensate by charging interest on your credit card debt that is often two or three times as much for an equivalent amount of money in a conventional loan. This also makes credit card debt potentially more profitable than other forms of debt. Hence, you are likely solicited with many credit card offers a week, many seducing you with frequent flier miles or low introductory interest rates.

Young people in particular are easy prey for this kind of debt. Just starting out, you do not tend to have much if anything in the way of assets. A credit card allows you to buy stuff today and pay it off later when you have more income. All you have to do is meet that “minimum monthly payment”. The problem of course is that young people tend to see money as abstract rather than real. What matters becomes not your credit card balance, but whether you can meet your monthly payment.

Charge card companies love providing you credit because of the interest and fees they get to charge you on the balance. Those teaser rates look great but credit card agreements are fungible and can be changed with minimal notice. Typically, interest rates go up after six months or so, along with all sorts of bogus fees. Often the time between when you receive your credit card statement and when you must pay your bill is squeezed, making it more likely that you will pay other fees for “late” payments. Providing you can keep making those monthly payments, credit card companies are likely to keep increasing your charge card limits, thus encouraging you to exacerbate your indebtedness to them. In short, as you probably have read, unsecured credit for many can eventually become something of an albatross. Like a Ponzi scheme, at some point the burden of your debt will crush you and your future. Instead of paying for life’s necessities like food, you are primarily paying the interest on your outstanding balance. This means life’s other necessities get short shrift. You may think a bankruptcy can bail you out. However, some years back Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws. No bankruptcy is good and bankruptcies, if you can secure one, cost money too. It stains your credit, making it harder to borrow money in the future for life’s major purchases, like houses. It is also bad for creditors, who lose money.

Like you, I probably get three or four credit card solicitations a week. How many credit cards do I have? I have exactly two. In reality, I have one. Recently I got a Sears credit card, specifically because I saved $100 off the cost of a dishwasher by enrolling. I do not intend to use it again. I did not pay a dime in interest when my bill arrived because I had set money aside to pay for it in full.

In reality, I have only one credit card: a humble Visa card issued by my credit union. My credit union offers no rewards program. I get no frequent flier miles for charging expenses on it. It does have one major advantage. Because I am a member of my credit union, as opposed to a customer, I am unlikely to get screwed by my credit union. My interest rates are likely to be better than most credit cards. The terms of service will not change very often. Moreover, my grace period will stay relatively static. In short, I get predictability and credit card value.

What balance do I carry on my credit card? Every month I get a statement that says I have a balance of a few hundred dollars. What is my real balance? Zero. How much have I paid in fees and interest rate charges in the years I have had my credit card? Zero. How is this magic possible? It is possible because while I have credit I pay off my balance every month. As soon as I make an expenditure on my credit card, I debit it from the checkbook I will use to pay off the charge. This way there is never any ambiguity about whether I can afford to buy something. I simply look at my checking account. Is there enough money in there to pay all my other expenses? If not, this is my signal that I cannot afford this purchase. Is it fun to deny myself stuff today? Not particularly. Does my strategy have any advantages? Of course. Rather than paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest and fees a year, I get to pocket the money and use it for something that actually gives me something tangible in return. Nor do I wake up in sweats in the middle of the night worrying about my debt load.

I make a credit card work for me, instead of against me. A credit card can work for you when it can give you advantages that check cards and cash cannot. When I use a credit card, I get a certain amount of financial protection. Should the seller be bogus, I can get a refund, or I am out no more than $50. I always use a charge card for purchases like airline tickets. Who knows whether an airline will be around in 90 days? If you have the fortitude to pay off your balance every month, you also essentially get free access to money for a period.

Have I paid interest on my charge cards? Yes, but only tiny amounts over the years when I messed something up or when I was just establishing credit. I started with a humble Montgomery Ward charge card and I paid less than my balance for a few months. This encouraged Wards to up my credit limit and established my credit worthiness. Then I stopped this tactic. As a result, when I do need to borrow money, I tend to get the lowest rates. Lenders know based on my track record that I will not miss a payment.

I encourage you to not be owned by your credit card, but to have it work for you too. I suggest you try my strategies. If you are one of these types who will be compelled to spend if you have a credit card, it is better to avoid them altogether and use check cards instead. Granted, it is not always fun to live within your means. Nevertheless, you should feel in control of your financial life, and that is a wonderful feeling. If you must make larger purchases, do not use a credit card. Take out a personal loan, preferably with a financial institution where you already have a history. If you have equity in your house consider taking out a home equity loan. Be cautious taking out any loan. You might want to review Lesson 2 of this series if you are trying to distinguish whether a particular loan helps or hurts you.

America is drowning in debt. It is not just young adults, but millions of Americans are living beyond their means. It is also our government, which is exacerbating the problem by using foreign credit to get us to spend more money now to spend our way out of a recession. This is like a drunk drinking their way to sobriety. It makes little sense until we all start to use debt responsibly. Much of the increase in the price of oil is due to our falling dollar, which falls because our government is spending too much and likely taxing too little. The more in debt we incur, and in particular the more we go into debt for things that add no value, like our War in Iraq, the worse the recession and our pain will be.

Do not be a financial loser, like most Americans. Vow to be a financial winner. To start, you must know where your money goes, how much you can really afford and you must use debt responsibly.