Saturday, November 15, 2008

I will also be the hottest guy playing "Dr. Slider," and there is a lot of competition for that.

So I went and sweated my way around 26 laps at the track today -- that's just over two miles, and I finished it in record time -- just under two aching knees and one tired calf, plus three charlie horses and a near-stroke.

As I get older, it gets harder and harder to work out. When I was younger, I could run 6, 7, 8, miles at a time and go out partying that night and feel great in the morning. I never DID that, mind you; mostly I would go running 6 or 7 or 8 miles and then go sit home alone watching TV or reading and wondering why it was I never got invited to parties, and what I was doing all that working out and staying in shape for if it wasn't going to lead to me being the hottest guy at parties... who wants to be the hottest guy reading "Dirk Gently" books in an efficiency apartment?

Well, I do, but it's not like I had many options.

I have options for exercising, these days. I can exercise, and be sore for days afterwards, and still not lose much of the weight, or I could take the Best Diet Pills around, available from Lab-88. Their site has all these supplements and diet pills and energy boosters and things, and they're the ones used by the stars, too -- celebrities who use these things and are, well, CELEBRATED. The pills are safe, and they swear to the effectiveness of them, too.

There has to be something to it, judging by the testimonials, and by the celebs that use them. So maybe it's time I hung up the jogging shoes, got some of Lab-88's diet pills, and maybe their energy supplements, and became the hottest guy around again. Only this time, I won't be the hottest guy reading "Dirk Gently" in an efficiency apartment. I'll be the hottest guy playing "Cloverfield" with two-year-olds.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Daylight come and me wanna go home.

Welcome To Thinking The Lions: Life, only funnier. Here's what I've been up to lately:

Shoelaces and Car Accidents: Instant Karma Has The Boy On Speed Dial.

How long could you do SuperSpin? A Morning With Mr F and Mr Bunches Answers Some Questions.

The Countdown of Songs:

Song 39: Bad Day, and why this was one. Poor Mr F!

Song 38: My Best Friend's the Instant Karma Update

Song 37: Hulk-Fly introduces "The Fly" by U2. And Pee-Synchronicity!

Poor judgment happens. Just look at Sweetie-- she married me, didn't she?

If you're in debt, it may seem like there's no real option -- just keep on paying and paying and hoping things get better.

But that's not true, and that's not the only way to get some Debt Relief. While paying your bills as quickly as you can, and paying them in full, is laudable, you may not always be able to do so. Bad things happen; unexpected things happen. Poor judgment and mistakes happen.

And when they do, you may find yourself with debt that you want to pay but can't, and may think you have no options, when you do, in fact.

Your options include debt consolidation, bankruptcy, credit counseling, and other things that can help alleviate the pressure you feel and avoid harassment from creditors and collectors and allow you to deal responsibly with debt and get it taken care of.

You don't even need to be an expert to find out what your options are. You just need to go to Freedom Debt Relief. Freedom Debt Relief has all the information you'll need about all the options you have-- options you may not know exist. Options that can help.

They'll give you information about your options, including their preferred option -- the Freedom Debt Relief "Debt Reduction Program," a program you can get through a free consultation and which may help you reduce your credit card obligations.

Be informed; read their whole site and see what your options and choices are, and then deal with your debt responsibly using all the tools at your disposal.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

39 down, 9,090 to go.

I've felt guilty all day.

As a parent, you might think that you are fully aware of all the ways that your kids can be hurt, and that you have taken into account all of those ways, and are dealing with them responsibly.

You may put the emergency brakes on your stroller everytime, because of the one time that you didn't and you and Sweetie had to chase it down a hill and Sweetie got to it just before you did, and both of you got it just before it hit a mailbox, and you learned from that.

And you may put all the sharp knives up on top of the refrigerator, where there is also a barrel of cheese balls that Sweetie bought when she went grocery shopping, proving again what a great wife she is because she remembered that the only thing better than "cheese balls" is "cheese balls that come in a barrel."

And you may take all kinds of other steps to ensure that your kids do not get hurt, like making sure that Mr Bunches stands well back from you when it's Mr F's turn to "Superspin."

But then, despite all of those precautions, you will fail, because you will be clipping your toenails while you watch Brett Favre in the Jets game on Thursday night (multitasking!) and Mr F will then climb onto your lap because among the many inexplicable things he likes, he also likes having his fingernails clipped, and so you will try to be a good dad and clip his fingernails, but you'll cut his ring-fingernail a little too short... short enough that it hurts, but not so short that it is actually injured.

And then Mr F will cry for an hour and finally cry himself to sleep in his bed all worn out and red-faced and sweaty.

And then he'll wake up this morning and you'll go in there to get him out of his frog pajamas and into his sweatpants and sweatshirt because even 2-year-olds deserve "Casual Friday," and he will be smiling and happy and looking well-rested...

... but you'll notice that he's holding his hand over the finger you clipped. And you'll feel terrible all day.

And then you'll vow to take him for a ride tonight because he loves car rides.

But until then, you'll be feeling terrible.

Song 39: "Bad Day," by REM.

Gift Giving Ideas For Someone Other Than Me, For A Change.

Christmas is the time of year that I traditionally spend pointing out repeatedly those things that I want others to buy for me. I'm going to branch out a little this year and give people ideas for things to buy for OTHER People.

That's a tough thing, too. Getting someone else a gift is hard, especially if, like me, you don't really know what other people want because you spend so much time telling them what YOU want.

Despite that, I have at least a vague notion of what other people want for Christmas, and that vague notion is: "They want something really nice." Something like this:
That's only one of the too-many-to-count unique Christmas gifts & gift giving ideas from the "" website, which, all joking aside, is where I go to get presents for the majority of the people in my life: Mom, Grandma, In-laws of various degrees of relationship. The site has something that almost any relative will like. For Mom, there's that Thomas Kinkade Snowman, above. For my brother-in-law Charlie, I can pick up NASCAR collectibles and watches.

They've even got NASCAR Train sets, so I can get something for Charlie's Son, Baby Charlie, who likes trains -- making my Christmas shopping a breeze, and giving me more time to get back to what's really important about this time of year:

Telling people what ELSE I want.

38 down, 9,091 to go. (Plus an Instant Karma Update)

Everyone wanted an update on The Boy and his wrangles with Instant Karma, so I will provide a brief one. Last night, on the way home from "work," I put on my lawyer hat... although since "work" involves me being a lawyer, technically speaking I guess I left on my lawyer hat...

... and don't get confused; I don't actually wear a lawyer hat. I don't wear any hats anymore, really, for two reasons:

First, the Babies! get upset when I put on a hat and try to knock the hat back off. They do not for some reason get upset when I take the basket that is ordinarily supposed to be holding the newspaper and put it on my head [the basket, not the newspaper]. I can put the basket on my head because it rarely holds an actual newspaper, as the actual newspaper has usually been taken out of the basket by Mr F, who likes to tear up paper and then drop it on the floor in what I take to be experiments of some sort or another; Mr F seems quiet but is probably a mad-scientist-in-the-making.

Second, I don't wear hats anymore because my head has gained weight and my hats don't fit. It's depressing to not be able to fit into my old pants. It's super-depressing to not be able to fit into my old hats.

Anyway, I called the dad of the kid who hit The Boy, and learned that the kid who hit The Boy claimed that The Boy hit the kid's car.

Now, I've seen the evidence; it would be possible for The Boy to have hit the other kid's car and cause the damage to the front of the other kid's car only if The Boy was able to warp space and time, which he cannot do (so far as I know.)

But because we were at an impasse, and because I was at home by then, I left it at that and told Mr. Other Kid's Dad that I'd just call his insurance company and involve them. Then I went inside, where I picked up Mr F and Mr Bunches and had them nearly strangle me by trying to rip off my tie.

They don't like ties, either.

Song 38: My Best Friend's Girl. Why? Because it's by The Cars! I have the soul of a poet.

Down... to my life alongside all the music that is my life. read song 37 here. Don't know what I'm talking about with the accident and The Boy and all? Read Instant Karma Has The Boy On Speed Dial.

Clouds Rule:

Children tormented by demons. An old man accidentally killing people. Witches who live hundreds of years and escape from Hell repeatedly. An astronaut drifting through space... these and other great stories can be found only on AfterDark: The scariest things, you CAN'T imagine.

I like all kinds of art: Paintings, Sculptures, Mosaics, Garfunkel, whatever.

Let me let you in on a secret. I am buying this:

Don't tell anyone. Especially don't tell Sweetie, because this is the kind of purchase that is best done at my "work" computer using the credit card she left laying around accidentally, and then having it arrive and I put it up over the couch in the living room and just... SURPRISE! and hope for the best.

(I can put this on my blog without worrying about telling Sweetie, because Sweetie does not regularly read this unless I let it slip out that I was making fun of her or something, in which case she'll go read it and then change the garage door code on me so I can't get in.)

That painting, called "Squared In," ordinarily costs $405. But I'm getting it for only $249 thanks to Whitewalls, which sells art, great art, for less, over the Internet. They've got modern art and classic reproductions (like "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, which I'm getting next)and metal art and canvas art, all available for viewing, and purchasing, on their site.

They even offer free shipping, which you knew I would have to mention because I love getting free stuff.

But I love getting art even more; a painting, like "Squared In" can recreate an entire room. One minute, it's a boring old living room with a couch that appears to have macaroni and cheese ground into it. (It appears to have macaroni and cheese ground into it because it does have macaroni and cheese ground into it. I'm not very good at making Mr F and Mr Bunches eat at the table.) The next minute, thanks to some new piece of art you got, the room is transformed into something out of a museum or gallery, a splash of color and geometric shapes and intrigue and interest.

Whitewalls has something for everyone over there; while I like the modern art, they've got traditional things, too, and some in multipiece numbers, and more. So get yourself something to decorate your room and bring a breath of fresh air.

And don't tell Sweetie about the macaroni and cheese, either.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

37 down, 9,092 to go.

I was going to maybe say something that I thought might be kind of funny here about being on the same "pee schedule" as your boss at work -- because that's what happened to me yesterday; everytime I had to go to the bathroom, I went downstairs to use the bathroom and found that my boss was there, too.

That's kind of awkward in a way it shouldn't be, isn't it, to realize that your bodily functions are in synch for some weird reason? It raises all kinds of questions, number one of which is "Is it possible he is drinking as much coffee as I am?" and number two of which is "Is it possible that anyone is drinking as much coffee as I am?" and number three of which is "It's probably not healthy to drink as much coffee as I do."

And I realize that number three is not technically a question, but it was a thought that sprung into my mind when I shared my bathroom schedule with my boss.

Unfortunately, I'm now distracted from saying much of anything -- beyond the foregoing -- about that tremendously important issue because there is a giant fly in my office that I can't kill and that keeps buzzing me when I'm on the phone. It's one of those flies that almost died when it turned cold outside, but somehow made it inside where it's been hiding behind some office gear and growing larger and stronger and now it's like three flies, as if an ordinary fly was shot with gamma rays and then grew angry and swelled up to three times its ordinary fly-size.

Hulk-Fly. It'll probably be a movie next year.

Anyway, here's song 37: The Fly, by U2.

Down... to go is my life, and my music, and my thoughts. Read song 36 here. Got more time than that? Read about how Instant Karma Has The Boy On Speed Dial. It also mentions shoelaces!

Like Like:

Rachel's not sure where she came from or what she's supposed to do, unless she really is trying to take over the world with a little help from her Octopus, a Valkyrie, and her lover Brigitte. Read Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World!

Sure, some of the credit goes to him, maybe, but more of the credit goes towards the company, right?

This may or may not be President Obama's doing; I'm going to give him some of the credit at least, and say that thanks to him, you Nevadans (Nevaders? Nevadanian? Nevadatrons?) can now get health insurance more easily than ever. NV Health Insurance is a company that will first of all give you free health insurance quotes from a number of carriers (Aetna, United Healthcare, Humana, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, among them) and will second, put you in touch with licensed health insurance agents in your area.

Which means that NV Health Insurance will, as I said, make it easy to get your health insurance if you live in Nevada. You'll know, just by using them, how much you can expect to pay and who the right agent is in your area, and from there, the agent's going to do everything for you anyway.

How much easier can it get? None easier. That's how much. NONE easier.

So if you need health insurance, or want to try switching, go to www., or, if you're one of those people opposed to doing stuff on the Internet, then call (702) 448-3664. Although if you're so opposed to doing stuff on the Internet, how are you reading this? Whatever. Do things your way. Just make sure that one of the things you do your way is get in touch with NV Health Insurance and get your coverage more easily and more cheaply.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Instant Karma Has The Boy On Speed Dial.

I cannot concentrate on a single thing right now and haven't been able to all morning because my shoelaces are unevenly tightened.

It's driving me so crazy that I can't even focus on whether or not The Boy might have been responsible for his car accident this morning. Sweetie thinks maybe I'm overreacting -- to the car accident, not the shoelace thing. I haven't told Sweetie about the shoelace thing because I don't think that's a conversation I can have and still have Sweetie respect me. Imagine this:

Me: Sweetie, sit down, I have to tell you something.

Sweetie: What is it?

Me: (with a grave look on my face): This morning, when I tied my shoes while Mr Bunches was climbing on the bed and playing with your "Hello Kitty" stuffed animal, the small one, I tied the left shoe and then got my cell phone and took a picture of Mr Bunches because it was cute, and then I went and tied the right one, but they were uneven, so I had to re-tie the right one, but then I thought maybe the LEFT one was the problem because they were still uneven, so I re-tired that one, but now the LEFT one was a little too tight so I had to undo it and re-tie it to try to make it be in synch with the right one, which now was a little looser than the left one, but I was running late so I grabbed Mr Bunches and we went back downstairs and that's why I was distracted during the drive to work, the drive you had to do to take me to work because my car is in the shop making that FOUR cars in the shop in one week, what with the accident, but it wasn't the accident that was distracting me, it was the right shoelace, which was now tighter than the left one. So when I got to work, I re-tied each shoe several times and then finally I was just trying to live with it by loosening up the right shoe a great deal but the left shoe, then, which was tied the way shoes are supposed to be, not too tight and not too loose, now felt, comparatively speaking, far too tight because the right shoe was barely tied and I'm doing whatever I can to distract myself because I don't want to redo my shoelaces for the umpteenth time today because it's only a matter of time until someone at work notices me doing that, and also, "whatever I can to distract myself" clearly does not include "actually doing the work I'm supposed to be doing."

Sweetie: How much of the cold medicine did you take?

Also, I just now redid my left shoelace, so both of my shoes are now basically "tied" in appearance only; they're not really tight enough to count as "tied," but if you look at them they'll appear to be tied. I'm never going to make it through the day.

The Shoelace Dilemma is, though, distracting me a little bit from wondering whether The Boy is being honest with me about the accident he had this morning. He wasn't hurt at all in the accident, which is why I can say this as a loving, concerned, dedicated parent: It serves him right.

It serves The Boy right, getting into an accident, because The Boy only had his car available to get into an accident because he complained so much about my original plans to take his car to work today that I finally gave in and told him he could take his car (which we call "Vertie," that being short for "conVERTible") to school and I would have Sweetie drive me to work and I would take the bus home, because taking the bus home would let me start reading Infinite Jest, the new book I bought last night; I was going to start reading it no matter what today, so it's better that I take the bus because society frowns on people reading their new books while driving themselves through rush hour traffic.

I needed to do something to get to work because my car is in the shop to find out why the "check engine" light is on; my "check engine" light came on shortly after Sweetie's "check engine" light came on last week, and because Sweetie is in charge, her car got to go into the shop first. Her check engine light, it turns out, was on because her gas cap was not on tight enough.

First of all, why is that even an alert? Why does the car need to notify the owner, via an ambiguous light that could mean "your transmission will die in 2 minutes" and could mean "Your husband didn't tighten your gas cap enough at the PDQ when he got gas because he was distracted by wondering whether he should pick up two of those "2 for $1 Beef Jerkies" that they only sell at convenience stores, which makes sense because beef jerky really is a very convenient food." Why does the car need to notify the owner of that at all? When I used to work in a gas station in the way-olden days (pre-2002), we were always finding gas caps laying around and putting them in a box and laughing at the people who left them behind, because, hey, we worked in a gas station and needed something to make us feel superior to all those people who would come in to buy gas and then go on their way to real jobs and interesting lives, jobs and lives that did not involve, as the high point of the day, seeing what it tasted like if you mixed all the sodas from the soda fountain into one giant mixture. Were all those people who left their gas caps behind doomed to wander the earth with their "check engine" light on? I doubt it; that was the early 90s and in those heartier times, people didn't care if they screwed on their gas caps.

Man, these shoelaces are making me crazy.

So after Sweetie's car came out of the shop, The Boy's car had to go into the shop to see what was wrong with it -- the mechanic's diagnosis, I'm pretty sure, was this: It's a 1991 car that you bought for $1,000. What ISN'T wrong with it?-- and then, finally, my car got to go into the shop to see why the "check engine" light was on, only I didn't get it in there until late on Friday night, so it won't be done until at least tonight, so I was without a car this morning, and my options were to take The Boy's car or have Sweetie drive me, because she had errands to do and Middle had to be at work at 4 p.m. But The Boy griped so much about my wanting to take his car, which is only "his" technically, given that he didn't pitch in any of the $1,000 I overpaid for Vertie, that I finally just had Sweetie drive me.

That's why it serves The Boy right that he got into an accident today, something that did not surprise Sweetie or me at all, since the Universe routinely doles out Instant Karma to The Boy, who routinely fails to learn his lesson. The Boy appears to be hooked into some kind of universal karma hotline, such that whenever The Boy does something wrong, he is instantly repaid by karma.

It all began when we were on vacation in California, and had gone to Universal Studios, where The Boy had picked as his souvenir a baseball hat. He was carrying it and Sweetie told him he should either wear it on his head or give it to her to carry because otherwise he would drop it or the wind would blow it, and he was resisting her, insisting that he could carry the hat and it would be no problem, and then it happened. The Boy said: I can carry it and it'll be ... OH! And the hat dropped out of his hand and skidded across the blacktop, driven by the wind.

Since that time, Karma has been keeping a keen eye on The Boy, and The Boy has steadfastly been refusing to learn from it. He'll refuse to do his homework earlier in the week or weekend, only to learn that the schedule has changed and his favorite football team's game is going to be televised on Sunday and he'll have to miss it because he's spending the day looking things up for his worksheet. Insist that he doesn't have to take the garbage to the curb on Thursday night because he can get up early and do it on Friday, and he'll promptly oversleep the next morning.

That's why it did not surprise me when The Boy called midway through my Baby Workout this morning to tell me there was a problem with his car. What did surprise me was the way The Boy withheld critical information and forced me to keep restraining my panic as he doled out the story in phrases followed by long pauses. Here's how the conversation went (with my accompanying thoughts in brackets):

Me: Hello?

The Boy: You know my car?...

[What happened to the car? Was he stalled at an intersection? Had it just stopped working?]

Me: Yeah...

The Boy: I was in a parking lot....

[Did he hit someone? Run them over? Did he hit someone, run them over, and then the car stalled so that it's actually stalled on top of the person he hit?]

Me: Okay.

The Boy: It wasn't my fault...

Me: Okay.

[God, it's been a long time since I did any criminal defense. Does Wisconsin have capital punishment? Sweetie will kill me if I tell him to head to Mexico. I'll deal with that later.]

The Boy: And a guy hit my door...

[Why were you driving with your door open? How bad is the guy hurt?]

Me: What?

The Boy: And now it won't close properly.

[Let's review again. Are you saying someone's dead? Are you saying someone's not dead? Where ARE you?]

Me: So your door won't shut? That's it?

The Boy: Yeah.

Wouldn't anyone else in the world have started that conversation with A guy hit my door and it won't shut? Wouldn't that be a better way to start off that story? I felt like The Boy was getting me involved in a mystery or an episode of 24 or something, trying to keep me hooked until the end when the Shymalanian twist ending would occur and it turns out The Boy is his car, or something.

With the revelation that all that had happened was that a car in a parking lot had hit The Boy's open door and he couldn't shut it now, I gave him some advice: call the garage (where my car was, and I've got the number memorized, and that's not good. It's never good to have your mechanic's number memorized) and get the name and address and insurance company of the other guy.

"Should I give him my name and insurance information?" The Boy asked. Fair enough; he's never been in an accident before. So I said:

"Yeah, but it's not that big of a deal. His insurance company will have to pay." There was a pause, then, during which I picked up Mr Bunches, who I hadn't paid attention to in at least three minutes and who was feeling needy. Then The Boy said:

"What if it was my fault?"

[Is that my heart? Can I tell him he'd better head to Mexico before I get him? How could it be his fault that his door got hit? But it obviously could be because this is The Boy.]

I said, slowly, "Why would it be your fault?" and he said, too quickly: "It's not!" and I said what I always have to say to The Boy, which is this: "Why don't you just tell me everything that happened rather than letting it trickle out."

I always try that, and it always never works. It never worked, for example, when our mailbox was spraypainted with some insults. We woke one morning to see that someone had decided that our mailbox appeared to be one owned by people who were of a certain sexual orientation, even though it actually was not, and I asked either of the kids who still lived at home, Middle and The Boy, whether they had any idea who might have done it.

"No," said Middle.

"Why would you think I might know who did it?" asked The Boy, causing me to focus in on him in the exact way he'd likely hoped I would not. So I had asked him whether he was in a dispute with anyone at school or knew of anyone who might do that.

"Maybe someone got mad at me or something for something," The Boy said.

"Who might be mad at you?" I asked him. "And why?"

The Boy named a kid who lived nearby as the only possible person who could be mad at him and then said he had no idea why the kid would be mad at him for anything. When I said "Why do you THINK he's mad at you?" The Boy hypothesized that it had something to do with some things his friends but definitely not him had been doing one night when The Boy was definitely not with his friends who were maybe doing something to the kid who might be mad at The Boy for no reason because The Boy had definitely not been around when his friends were doing whatever it was his friends might have been doing, which, honestly, The Boy had no idea what his friends might have been doing because The Boy was definitely not around them when they were doing whatever they were or were not doing.

We replaced the mailbox and over time, the story trickled out more and more and always hypothetically. Maybe the kid had said something to The Boy at school. Maybe The Boy's friends had overheard it. Maybe The Boy had been hanging out with his friends that night. Maybe his friends had spray painted something at the kid's house. The Boy certainly didn't know any of that.

So when The Boy this morning asked what if it was his fault, you can see why I immediately suspected he was not asking that question merely out of intellectual curiosity.

Especially because when I asked him why it might be his fault, he answered me with this: "Can we just talk about this tonight?"

I couldn't take anymore and Sweetie took over the conversation, while I started getting ready to have Sweetie drive me for work, preparations that consisted trying to get Mr Bunches to let go of me so that I could go take a shower and brush my teeth; he wouldn't let go of me until I took him into the bathroom and let him throw his little red ball at the toilet, which made him happy enough that he was distracted from his problem (his problem being "Daddy's not holding me") while I tried to distract myself from pondering just how The Boy could be at fault in an accident that involved him sitting in a parking space and someone else hitting his car door.

While it's difficult for me to picture how that would work -- did he get mad at a fellow parker and throw open his door at the last minute? -- I didn't doubt and I don't doubt that it could be his fault, and that if it is, I'll only learn about it hypothetically over the course of the next few months.

By which time, I might have finally gotten these shoelaces worked out.

Children tormented by demons. An old man accidentally killing people. Witches who live hundreds of years and escape from Hell repeatedly. An astronaut drifting through space... these and other great stories can be found only on AfterDark: The scariest things, you CAN'T imagine.

Infrared Sauna: Better, and infra-reddier, than a regular sauna.

The wonder of our era is that I can go so quickly from "not knowing a thing really could exist" to "desperately wanting that thing in my house." And also that I can then go so quickly from "desperately wanting that thing in my house" to "actually having that thing in my house and figuring out how to tell Sweetie what it is and why I bought it."

That's why Sweetie doesn't let me have the credit cards so much anymore; but I've got them on me today (that'll teach her to forget to put them in the safe that only she knows the combination to) and I've also got bookmarked on my computer at work the website for Midwest Saunas, this place that will sell a far infrared sauna to install in your very own home.

Imagine: yesterday, you had to just sit around in your house and if you wanted to sweat out the bad and sweat in the good, you had to turn the heat way up, and then hear The Boy complaining all day about how hot the house was and how all the Snickers bars in the candy dish were melting. But today... today you can leave the heat down and instead sit in your Infrared Sauna, away from The Boy and his Snickers and the complaining.

The Infrared Saunas they've got at Midwest Sauna are not just good for getting away from The Boy, either. They've got actual health benefits, including giving you pain relief, helping with rheumatoid arthritis, aiding in weight loss, improving blood flow and joint stiffness, increasing flexibility, and they'll fight aging and help detoxify the body; there's a whole list of things they help with.

Plus, they're surprisingly affordable. I could probably put one on every level of our house -- although that would make it more likely Sweetie would notice, and then she'd want the credit cards back.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Fix It, America: Let's Go To College.

"Shame On America Sunday" is no more; I'm proud of America for doing the right thing and electing Obama, and have opted instead to try to become more positive, so we'll go with "Fix It, America" from now on.

Without a college education, you can't get very far at all these days.

With a college education, you can get far enough in life to be able to pay for that college education.

That's the dilemma that faces most kids who are graduating from high school these days. Like the parents that work to avoid daycare, or the kid who works to pay off the car he uses to get to his job, high school graduates are confronted with the need to go to college in order to get a job to pay for the college they attended.

Leave aside private schools; those who (unnecessarily) go to private schools may be left aside for the moment. This is about publicly owned schools, those state universities that are the college destination of both choice and necessity for most high school graduates.

According to College Board
, 56% of all students attend a college that charges less than $9,000 per year. Also according to that source, the average price of a year in college is $6,585 per student. Averages, though, can be misleading; averages, of all statistical measures, can be especially misleading. If I have $100,000, and the other 9 people in the room with me have $100 each, then on average we have $10,090 each ($100,900 divided by 10). But that doesn't give a true picture of the way wealth is organized in our little group.

In 2005-06, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the highest priced public four-year college was Vermont, which had tuition and required fees of $9,279 per year. The lowest price was held by the District of Columbia, at $2,070.

Assuming that a student graduated in four years, then, that student would spend a minimum, on tuition and required fees alone, of $8,280 if she attended a DC public university, and would spend $37,116 if he went to a Vermont public university.

That was in 2005-2006, of course. To get an idea of what happened to tuition, since then, take a look at one school in particular: The University of Wisconsin. In 2005-2006, tuition and required fees averaged $5,672 per year for an in-state student. An average" must be used here because the University of Wisconsin, like most state schools, has many campuses, with some costing more than others. In the University of Wisconsin, those individual campuses have tuition and required fees ranging from $7,568.56 per year for the UW-Madison to $5,937 per year for UW-Oshkosh; some may be lower. The average tuition for UW schools, across the state, in 2008, is $6700 -- an increase of $1100+ since 2006.

That is a nineteen percent increase in tuition and fees in just 2 years. Tuition has increased at an average of 9.5% per year at the University of Wisconsin.

This is a problem because most high school students do not have $5,937 laying around, and that $5,937 does not include the cost of textbooks and other paraphernalia that colleges now require-- almost every college now requires that students have a computer; some require laptops. (I'll get to why they require it in a moment.)

Tuition costs of $5,937 amount to an added expense of $500 per month, year-round, to a family. I am unaware of a single family that could easily absorb a hit of $500 per month into their budget -- but I am sure there are such families. Even for them, though, adding a cost of $500 per month to their budget is not something that would be easily done. And state schools tend to be the school of choice for middle-class students whose families would have a harder time paying for that school.

So most students do what is easily done -- they borrow the money. Student loans are easy to come by and easy to qualify for, thanks to federal protections for student loans: Student loans are guaranteed by the federal government (and/or sometimes by private institutions), and student loans are virtually nondischargeable in bankruptcy. What that means is that a bank that lends money to a student for tuition purposes cannot lose money on the deal -- the federal government will pay them even if the student doesn't. And what that means is that a student who takes out a student loan will pay that loan back no matter what -- no matter how difficult it becomes, the overwhelming odds are that the student will pay it back or will die owing the money and the money will be taken from his or her estate.

The idea of federally-guaranteed student loans is a great one, but the practice of it has been to create a problem by making it easier for colleges to charge more for tuition.

When there is a demand for something, prices will usually rise. When there is a great deal of competition for that thing, prices will usually fall. When government underwrites something in whole or in part (as they do universities) prices will usually fall. When government provides money for something, prices will usually increase because making money available for something allows prices to rise.

I'll put it more simply: State colleges are free to keep raising tuition because whenever they do, student loan lenders will simply lend more money.

The best-known and most popular student loan is the Stafford Loan, a government-guaranteed loan that students can take out during college. A dependent student -- one under 25 -- in 2008 may borrow up to $5,500 as a freshman, and up to $7,500 as a junior or senior, per academic year. Because the $5,500 does not cover the full tuition in many schools, students can also turn to private lenders and borrow additional money -- money that is still guaranteed by the government and still nondischargeable in a bankruptcy. (Student loan lenders also enjoy greater freedom in collection efforts, a more complicated subject that deserves its own time in the future.) One source says that private student loans are growing at a rate of 25%, as opposed to 8% for Stafford loans.

Some private loans allow students to borrow up to $40,000 additional money per year, at rates much higher, sometimes, than federal Stafford loans.

Why have those lenders sprung up? Because there is a need for them, and there is a need for them because college tuitions have been rising faster than the federal Stafford loan limits-- even though the federal government has been trying to keep up. In 2005, the federal Stafford Loan limits were $2,625 for dependent freshman, up to $5,500 for dependent juniors and seniors. Those limits were raised, for 2007, to $3500 and $4500, respectively, and now are at the $5,500/$7500 limits.

That means, in 2005, an entering UW Freshman faced tuition and fees of $5,672, and could borrow only $2,625 per year, a shortfall of $3,000. In 2008, a UW Freshman can borrow up to $5,500 for his first year of college, but will pay, on average, $7,568.56 -- falling short nearly $2200 even though she is borrowing more than double what she would have if she had been lucky enough to start school just three years ago.

Those costs do not include room and board and textbooks and, as I said, computers and the like. Some sources say that there are as many as 150 schools that require students to have a computer; when I went to Law School many years ago, a computer was required of students, and when I asked the Dean of Students how I was supposed to afford a computer, he candidly told me that the school required a computer because making a computer a requirement made me eligible to borrow the money to buy it through the student loan programs; student loans are calculated based on need and if the "need" is higher by the cost of a laptop, a student will have an easier time borrowing the money to buy the laptop the school requires.

But requiring laptops is not the problem, and is not the reason why the cost of attending universities is increasing all the time. The cost of attending universities is increasing all the time because the money is there to pay for the cost of attending universities; as colleges raise their tuitions to cover their costs, as states reduce funding for colleges, the federal government steps in and the private lenders step in to cover the gaps.

Which is not the way it should be; those of you who as a knee-jerk reaction said Great, students should pay their own way for their education are missing the point. The points. The points are these:

1. It is desirable, as a society, that we have highly-educated people.
2. The students are not paying for "education" in the higher costs, they are paying for "administration," and
3. The higher costs of college are hamstringing students and society in an unexpected way.

Let me tackle those each briefly:

1. It is desirable, as a society, that we have highly-educated people. Is that even really debatable? How is an educated society not a good thing? I learned once of a high school that set out, in its handbook, that most of its students did not go on to college, so it did not bother preparing them for college at all. What kind of thinking is that? Even if everyone in the world was going to go on to a job that did not require any sort of advanced thinking or book-learnin', isn't it better if they are educated anyway? I would rather that we have a society of people working on assembly lines and mopping floors but quoting Descartes and able to understand economics, than the converse.

2. The students are not paying for "education" in the higher costs, they are paying for "administration." This article is in no way a rant against paying professors and other teachers a high salary -- within reason, of course-- because those professors and teachers are the ones who are providing the education to the students paying for it, and colleges need to attract high quality professors and educators, so they must be able to pay the going rate for them.

No, this article is about how much the administrators are paid. Let me pick on the University of Wisconsin again, since I live in Wisconsin. The UW just picked a new chancellor, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin. "Biddy" will be earning $437,000 per year.

I like to break things down, as you know. So "Biddy" will be earning:

$36,416 per month.
$1,197 per day.
$49 per hour.
83 cents per minute, every minute of every day of every month of the year.

When "Biddy" Martin walks out to get her morning newspaper, the money she will earn during that walk will pay for her paper and leave her a dollar left over.

"Biddy" Martin's pay, at $437,000. The median family income for a family of four in Wisconsin in 2008 is $74,885. "Biddy" Martin earns six times the median income of the state that pays her to watch over their children while they go to her schools. And "Biddy" Martin does not teach. She does not lecture. She does not grade homework or walk around a room full of Bunsen burners while your sons and daughters try to analyze the salt compounds they must study.

I don't know what "Biddy" Martin does but I do know that nothing she does will help Middle, who goes off to college next year, learn how to become a veterinarian.

"Biddy" Martin is not alone; in 2007, the median pay for administrators like her across the country was $397,349; remember, "median" is the middle, so in 2007, half of all college chancellors earned more than $397,349 for the year. And it's rising quickly; in 2003, only six public school executives earned more than $500,000 per year. By 2008, that number had risen to 43. The University of Washington's chancellor walked away from his old $590,000 per year job at LSU to earn $752,700 per year on the West Coast. Nationwide, executive pay at colleges averages 4% per year annually in increases and has grown faster than inflation for 11 consecutive years.

$752,700 per year, for a person who does not stand in front of a chalkboard and teach calculus. And that person gets raises that outstrip inflation, each and every year.

It's not educators who are driving the price increases. Not by a longshot.

3. The higher costs of college are hamstringing students and society in an unexpected way. So what, many of you are saying -- going back to let the students pay for it themselves, and also falling back on they can always choose to attend a different university.

But they can't; many students must attend their home state university or the cost is prohibitively higher. Middle has been accepted to both a couple of the University of Wisconsin Schools, where she'll pay about $7000 or so in tuition, and to Michigan State University, where she desperately wants to go -- and where she'll pay nearly $22,000 for tuition and fees alone.

Students often can't choose to attend a different school elsewhere, and often must make their decisions on where to attend before scholarships and other aid is awarded, meaning they must base their choices on what they know they can afford, with either parental help, or student loans.

But let the students pay for it themselves via student loans, is a poor option, too. If Middle, a representative student, opts to go to the University of Wisconsin, and opts to borrow only tuition (relying on working and our help for her other costs) she will borrow a minimum of $23,748 over those four years.

The current interest rate on Stafford loans is 6%, declining to 3.4% over four years, but then re-setting to 6.8% in 2012. Student loans are typically repaid over 10 years following graduation. Assuming Middle borrows her $23,748 one year at a time, and setting interest at 6%, she will borrow $5,937 in 2009 and pay back a total of $7,909.20 over 10 years, for each year. Her borrowing of $23,748 over four years means that she will repay $31,636.80 over 10 years; her college education did not cost $23,748; it cost $31,636.80.

What if she goes to Michigan State anyway, and borrows $22,000 per year? Each $22,000 loan, at 6% interest over 10 years, would incur interest of $7,310 per loan; each $22,000 loan requires her to pay back $29,310, so her education, originally priced at $88,000, instead costs $117,240.

Her monthly payments, on graduation, would begin at about $260 per month if she attended the UW-Oshkosh; if she attends Michigan State, then six months after graduating she can expect to begin repaying her student loans at a rate of $977 per month.

Now here's where the problem is: Middle wants to be a veterinarian. The American Veterinarian Medical Association says that most vets in 2006 (the latest year available) earned between $56,450 and $94,800-- which is very good, all things considered. But that's for all vets. Another source says starting salary for vets is less than $40,000 per year, on average. And Middle won't be saddled just with undergraduate debt; she's got vet school to go to, as well; but even if she didn't, she would graduate owing at least $31,000 and up to $119,000, and could expect to earn -- before taxes -- $40,000 to start out.

From that $40,000, or maybe $56,000, Middle would pay a minimum of $3,120 in student loan payments, and may pay as much as $11,724 annually.

And that's for vets; what about those who want to go to a UW school and become teachers (Wisconsin teachers earn an average of about $43,000 per year) or nurses ($44,948 per year to start), or civil engineers ($48,151 per year to start)? They'll pay the same costs of education, and earn less than veterinarians.

What about the student who wants to go to law school and dreams of helping the poor fight their legal battles? If that student, with stars in their eyes, goes to the UW Oshkosh and then the UW Madison School of Law (annual tuition alone $14,730 for in-state students) and that student borrows just the tuition, not room and board and books ($1860 per year for books alone at the UW Law School) that student would graduate having borrowed $67,938... and would repay $90,510, at payments of $754.25 per month for 10 years.

And that student, who dreamed of helping the poor fight their legal battles, could go to work for Legal Action of Wisconsin and earn... $26,277.

Now do you see the problem? Why would anyone go to college and spend all that money to get a job helping the poor when doing so would put them in the position of becoming the poor they are helping? More than one-third of the starting salary of Legal Action lawyers would go to service their debt. Who could afford to choose that route, especially when median starting salaries for big-firm lawyers are more than $60,000 per year?

I'll put it simply, again: high-cost college educations force students who want to be educated to choose careers based on what is best for their debt rather than what is best for them, their family, or their country.

And who is making that money on the back end? Who gets that $9,000 in interest, or more? Private student loan lenders, lenders who made a loan that had absolutely no risk. None. Those loans are guaranteed and are nondischargeable and are easier to collect than other debts.

If I had the money, I would become a student loan lender; it's far, far safer and more lucrative than any other kind of lending.

Everyone knows about the other financial dilemmas facing the country; those have been amply discussed and will continue to be. But the cost of a college education has been increasing faster than inflation, and is rapidly pricing students out of educations, out of choices, and out of the options of doing something good for the country once they graduate. These increases are coming from top-heavy administrators earning six and seven and eight times the median income, far too high for their services, and are being funded by ever-more-readily available funds guaranteed by the federal government and It will not be long before many students cannot afford to go to college at all, and we have already hit a point where those who can afford to go must, once they graduate, pick a career that maximizes their income to the exclusion of all other options.

Do we really want to be a country where people cannot afford to become school teachers, where people cannot afford to dream of working for a charity or in a low-income area?

The Fix: The federal government should institute new rules for any school which accepts any form of federal money (whether that is federal student loans for tuition, or research grants or other federal money.) The rules should be (1) Tuition increases for a given year may not exceed the average rate of inflation over the three previous years, and (2) Salary for any non-teaching, non-research position may not exceed the median income for the municipality in which the position holder resides. The federal government should also restrict the maximum interest rate charged on any student loan to the current Prime Rate minus 1% and eliminate origination fees on guaranteed or nondischargable student loans; lenders would be free to charge higher rates or origination fees if they waived the guarantees or waived the nondischargeability. A tax credit should be offered to families who pay a portion of their child's educational costs including room and board and books, even if the child does not reside at home.

What You Can Do Until The Fix Is In: Donate to a scholarship fund; here's one to get you started: I Know I Can; Charity Navigator rates it at three of four stars; the organizing philosophy for this charity is that every child deserves to go to college regardless of his or her economic status, and they work to prepare them for college and then help them in college, financially and by providing support.