Assisted Living, Part II

(This is a continuation of a previous post, Assisted Living Part I).

If your parent is going IN to assisted living right now/today/really really soon

  1. Take a copy of your parents living will and any instruction they gave you about how they want things to be. Take your power of attorney with you. You’re going to need it. let the facility scan it, or make a copy of it, but keep the original.
  2. You’re going to sit down with an intake nurse and probably another specialist – one for the business end, and one for the medical end. Watch what they write like a hawk. Remember that “no feeding tubes” story? Yeah that’s a thing.
  3. Be super-clear on expectations:
    1. If they’re doing your parents laundry, make sure everything is labeled, and inventoried.
    2. If you’re doing it, make sure it is clear where dirty laundry goes (it helps to provide the hamper if you can) and how often you’ll be coming to get it, as well as where the clean laundry goes.
    3. If your parent has instructions that they only want to eat dessert if that’s what they ask for, make sure the nurse (and the kitchen) is clear on that. (Mom pretty much ate just egg salad sandwiches and then just dessert and then opted out.)
    4. If your parent has instructions that if they don’t want to do PT they don’t have to, make sure that the nurse (and the PT) is clear on that.
    5. If your parent has instructions that hygiene is important to them, make sure that the nurse (and the bather) is clear on that.
  4. If your parent has any cajoling tricks you can use with them if they are reticent, like TV time, or getting to use their own conditioner, etc. etc. , let the right folks know! The “right folks” are the head nurse, the person who cleans the rooms, the person who delivers the food, the person who bathes your parent, etc. — in short, *everybody*.
  5. If folks with long hair have specific rules (e.g., please use lots of de-tangler/conditioner, please braid, do not use elastics) let those folks know and make sure it’s written down.
  6. Bring lots of familiar stuff:
    1. Their own toiletries (including any electric conveniences like shavers, toothbrushes, etc. that the home will let you).
    2. Their own blankets, clothing, linens, etc.
    3. Paintings, pictures, albums, alarm clocks (if they’re the punctual type), puzzles, craft/hobby things
    4. Knitting needles and sewing scissors may get taken away from folks if they’re in memory care.
    5. If they are technologically savvy, a e-reader or an tablet is a great thing, too. You can load it up with books, pics, etc., and you can facetime.
      1. Most places are really good about security, but I’d also get it labeled.
    6. Some places will let them bring their credit cards and ID, but maybe quietly cancel them – or replace with a dollar-affixed debit card or pre-paid card if those are actually usable in the facility (e.g., vending machines).
    7. My mom’s window had birdfeeders outside it, so whenever I visited I filled them with birdseed.
  7. Ask if you can bring outside food – bringing in a special treat on admitting day can help relieve all the newness.
  8. Re-define/nail down the visiting hours, when you get to meet with the doctor, and what the next few days look like. Use the whiteboard or posting board in the room to write down the date and time you plan to visit next if you know that.

When your parent is in assisted living

  1. When you visit, sneak in Starbucks gift cards for the folks who do the heavy lifting – bathers, laundry folks, food deliveries – they aren’t supposed to accept them but they will and your parent will benefit. YES, they’ll be awesome to your parent even if you don’t or they don’t accept them – but the gesture goes a long way. And you’re going to feel helpless so that can help you feel like you’re doing something. Alternatively, bring in a bakery tray or something for the nurse’s station. Or a box of candy.
  2. Bring food, if your parent is eating, that they like – treats, chocolates, snacks, soda.
  3. Bring things to read (if they are readers, magazines are good because new content) and share news (focus on the positive if you can). Unless they’re the type that loves good drama in which case, share the drama. 😃
  4. Eyeball their care—is their bathroom clean? If they are incontinent does it smell like they need to be changed or does their room smell fresh? Ask what they got to have for dinner last night/breakfast that day, and if they liked it.
  5. If your parent has doctors appointments outside of the care facility, the care facility usually sets up all of the transportation to/from the appointment, as well as the appointment itself – so if mom or dad has an optometrist, or an oncologist, or a cardiologist, etc., make sure they all know where mom or dad is going/has gone, and that they can coordinate with the care facility.


If your parent is having any major medical procedures as part of this process (surgeries)

  1. Many assisted living facilities do NOT have staff on hand to support things like wound care (which you need if you’re recovering from surgery). So your parent may have to go to a different facility to recuperate. That will be one of the more expensive ones, but good news! Medicare covers 20 days of the recuperation part (including room and board) for 100% (or near enough), and then the next 80 days at 80% (near enough).
  2. You should know that the medical community wants to make everyone better, either because they are that way by nature or because most medical care is for-profit by nature. But telling your parents’ doctor to knock it off, that mom or dad doesn’t need another surgery when they’re already going downhill, is hard. You need to evaluate if the thing the doctors want to do will prolong the life and what kind of life it will prolong. If your parent has written any decisions about THAT in their living will, take heed of that.
  3. My mom was on hospice – which is what happens when you have six months or left to live, and offers all kinds of palliative care benefits (that are covered by Medicare, by the way) – and her doctors were insisting that with just one more surgery they could Do a Thing. We had to tell them it didn’t make sense to put her through that risk, and that pain, for dubious benefit. We asked them to honor her hospice care and keep her as comfortable as possible. “Hospice” is not a specific facility, but rather a layer of care on wherever the patient is (even if the patient is at home).

Last but not least – this whole process will be frustrating, abstruse, process-laden, and generally a pain in the ass.  Find a friend who has bandwidth and use them to vent, do NOT vent at the healthcare professionals as it won’t help you (or them). 

Assisted Living, Part I

I’ve thought about writing this blog post off and on, for about the last six months; the only thing that prevented it is that it’s going to be long. There’s too much to encapsulate in a few paragraphs, so this is part 1 of 2. Know that while this entire thread is using “parent”, this could hold for a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. We’re all going to need some kind of help at some point.

If you want to skip to the part about “what you need to do now” without the backstory, skip down to “What you should do right now“.

I’m part of Generation X, and our parents are elder boomers (for the most part). Aside from the political and socioeconomic differences (particularly heightened recently what with the elections and COVID) between our generations, I also find a difference in willingness to ask for help, and to talk about health issues. My mother was the perfect case in point: she’d announce she visited the doctor and then just as quickly announce that it was no one’s business what the doctor said. (Or she’d lie and say “everything’s fine.”)

It comes to us (the kids) to try to have these conversations with our parents about preparations and planning and wants and preferences for when they (and we) need help; what that help looks like, who administers it, and what happens when it’s not enough. I would love to say that for all four of my immediate parents — and six parental units total — we had these conversations with grace and aplomb. Unfortunately, we lulled ourselves into a sense of security because “dad says it’s all taken care of” or “mom has a will and living will and healthcare power of attorney and gave us copies”. The basic checklists that I found online, after the passing of my father in law (vowing to have the conversation with all of my parents to make sure this sort of cockamamie bullshit didn’t happen again), didn’t cover what I should’ve been looking for. I found this out just about a year ago, the day after Thanksgiving 2019, with my mom.

My mother was a drinker from at least the time I was 7 — and drank more heavily as she aged. For me it was noticeable as “more than just mom’s generation of drinkers” when, after she retired and became incredibly sedentary, she’d start drinking at noon every day and her glass would drain and refill until 10pm (every day). I later discovered she would drink up to the equivalent of 3 bottles of wine a day. A lot of erratic behavior (including falls, repeating herself, etc.) would get swept away under “mom had too much again”, and despite multiple attempts to reason with her she would not stop. There were other signs I did not get to see and that were not shared (to spare me), things like hallucinations and incontinence, and on Pearl Harbor Day 2019 Mom was admitted to the hospital with hallucinations and, it turned out, a need for near-immediate surgery due to complications from her drinking. She was discharged to a recovery facility shortly after Christmas, diagnosed as not-really-recoverable shortly after New Years’, and lived four more months in the facility as vascular dementia, successive mini-strokes, and a general disinclination to cooperate with anything or anyone accelerated. COVID struck during this period and we weren’t allowed to visit for about six weeks, by the time they granted us a special exception we knew why.

This process was a lot more painful than it had to be, because there were things I didn’t know and questions I didn’t know to ask; and so as with most things legal and health care in this country there were added hoops to jump through when I was already dealing with complicated things. Which is what brings me to write this all down, so hopefully if and when someone else needs it, they don’t have this added layer of administratea (or are better equipped than I was).

What you should do RIGHT NOW (regardless of stage)

  1. Get a healthcare power of attorney.  Most attorneys have this as boilerplate with a bunch of questions you answer to get it done, but the thing is you have to have this.  No one will talk to you about your parent, or not really, without it.  And no doctor or nurse will listen to you unless you do. (If your parent wants the other parent to have this, fine. Make sure they do. And then make sure there’s one for that parent. And make sure there’s a backup).
    1. True story – mom had specifically written DO NOT USE FEEDING TUBES in her living will. The nurse checked the box for using feeding tubes if needed (right in front of me, her having read that NO FEEDING TUBES directive in moms living will, and having had me point it out) in front of me anyway.  I made her re-do it. Her explanation was that she “always checks that box”. If I hadn’t had power of attorney, I could not have spoken for my mother in that situation.
  2. If your parent still has their marbles:
    1. Have them write a living will about what happens while they’re still ALIVE but otherwise incapacitated (mentally and/or physically)
      1. Do they want to be resuscitated?
      2. Do they want to use feeding tubes if they can’t (or won’t, because they’re “not hungry” for days on end) eat? (This is common!)
      3. Do they want to just eat junk food if that’s what they’re asking for?
      4. Is hygiene important to them? Do they want their hair washed regularly and their nails kept trim, even if, in their crazy-state, they say they don’t want it?
    2. Have them write a will about what happens when they’re not still alive:
      1. Do they want a funeral? An obit? Cremation? Spread ashes somewhere?
        1. Believe it or not, a lot of people specify cremation but not “what next”. 
      2. Walk through all the steps.
        1. It helps to use a story (real or fake) about someone else’s experience about a parent who didn’t have one or more of these things and then how the family didn’t know what to do and gosh isn’t *that* awful?
        2. Feel free to use mine. My mom *had* a will and a living will; but she didn’t say what to do with her ashes when she went, she didn’t say what to do if she refused to have her nails trimmed or bathing, she didn’t say if she refused anything but dessert that that should be okay, she didn’t say what to do if she refused physical therapy. We spent months “guessing” what mom wanted because we couldn’t decipher between genuine obstinance, dementia, and what was best.

If your parent clearly needs help and you’re running out of the ability to provide it for them

  1. First, *objectively* assess your parent:
    1. When faced with authority – specifically, medical authority like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, therapists – are they compliant? Friendly? Acquiescent? Combative? Do they shine it on and do whatever they want anyway?
      1. This is important to address realistically, because any prospective healthcare environment (read: assisted living, etc.) will evaluate your parent – usually a nurse practitioner or therapist (or sometimes both) will both interview your parent *and talk to existing caregivers*.  And they take notes.
      2. If you have the combative/argumentative type, do they have an easy “key” – e.g., they can be bribed with food, or TV, or such?
    2. Do they have substance abuse issues? You must be clear about those, because it can impact medications and can complicate transitions.  A beer or glass of wine here or there is not really a problem.  A bottle of wine every day is a problem.  Most care centers do not allow alcohol at all.
    3. Do they get along with others?
      1. This will help you determine if, going to a facility, they need one that has lots of “community” events, or ones with lots of alone time or “anti social social events” (e.g., TV room).
      2. It will also impact how likely they are to receive the idea of having a roommate.
  2. What kind of care do you think they need?
    1. If they need someone to check on them once or twice a day, to make sure they took their meds, ate, bathed, etc., then you can probably use home health care – someone who visits (usually a team).  Sometimes they do Physical Therapy as well.  This may be more cost effective than a home, and can help out folks who are already living with mom or dad but just can’t do it all themselves.
    2. If they need more regular care – they have incontinence they can’t self-manage, they are a fall risk, they are in later stages of dementia, or a couple of visits a day just won’t cut it – consider Assisted Living. There’s a lot of varieties of these:
      1. Ones where the parent gets what looks like an “apartment” of their own, with some furnishings but can bring some from home, and they get “visitors” to check up on them. (Some of these facilities have in-house doctors, others have docs that visit but in-house nursing). They get to go to a cafeteria for food (restaurant style), there’s group TV and crafts and  posted schedule of things, there’s field trips, etc.
      2. Ones where the parent gets their own *room*, but it’s more in a corridor situation, with a private bath.  In this case they get a specialized bed (usually), nurses visit daily and take vital signs, they are on a special diet, etc. etc.
      3. Ones where they share a room (usually a function of cost of #2 above)
      4. Ones where they are in effect in “lockdown”, aka memory care; they have their own room but they have a monitoring wristband or such that means they can only move in certain areas of the facility, and people check up on them more often.  This is for the later stages of dementia.
        1. You might start with home health and branch slowly into assisted living, depending on what’s better for mom or dad, or what’s more cost effective.
      5. A doctor may recommend one or the other based on medical condition (do they need physical therapy? Are they hooked up to an IV? Do they have post-op healthcare they need to heal up from?) and the ability of the person living with mom/dad to physically lift them in an emergency (for example, my stepdad could not lift my mom, so she could not come home, because if she fell – and she had a history of doing that – there was no way to get her up).
  3. How much do you/they have to spend?
    1. Medicare does NOT COVER ASSISTED LIVING (or home health care)
      1. Medicare will cover specific physical therapy and post-operative recuperation stays at a rehabilitation clinic, for a max of N days (I think it’s 100), and only the first 20 are covered 100%
      2. And, if Medicare declines things that should be covered, you get to fight them (a lot) by using an appeals system (like described here).
      3. Most insurances do not cover assisted living (or home health care)
    2. Medicaid covers assisted living, but you usually have to blow through half (or more) of your cash assets FIRST.  Some elderly couples have divorces of convenience so the wife can keep the house so the husband can go to the assisted living place.  Medicaid’s coverage varies by state.
    3. Assisted living costs vary wildly, depending on what the facility offers and (frankly) how well-trained their staff are.  We wanted to get my mom into a really nice place, but they didn’t have wound care (she was post op and because of her vascular disease wouldn’t ever really heal). The really nice place was about $5500/month.  Where she ended up staying was about $11k/month, because they had wound care (e.g., the right kind of nurses available). 
    4. Home health care visits vary wildly as well, but it’s basically an hourly rate for two people and can range from $60-100 per visit, depending on what they do per visit.  That sounds like a lot, but as compared to $300/day, it may not be.

Next post: when it happens NOW.

That’s How it’s Done

I use Flipgrid to consolidate inbound tech and economics news; along with a few podcasts and my weekly Economist that represents the bulk of my news media intake.  This time of year it’s a particular minefield, of course, with politics. But for the most part it’s my regular vegetables of tech and economics that get me what I want to know.

I was reading an article about how Amazon is launching an Alexa service for property management — e.g., the property manager pays for/owns the Alexa that lives in the residence with the renters, using it as a de-facto localized presence to control smart home things and, essentially, as an “added service/feature” of renting the place. (So much as you’d look to see if there was that extra half-bathroom or if there was a walk-in closet, you’d see if they included Alexa, too).

For the record, I read articles, because a pet peeve is when you get the poster who forwards an article that they clearly haven’t read (e.g., using the article to make a point that the article actually counterpoints). This is a case of me reading two separate articles, coming to a conclusion, and that conclusion was wrong.  It’s a better case of a colleague gently educating me.

Firstly, to the other article.  Granted, this NYT article is about a year old but we all remember the news that made the rounds about how Alexa is always listening. It’s true, she is: she *has* to.  Obviously she can’t start your timer or add your biodegradable pet waste bags to your Amazon cart if she can’t hear you.  In the NYT article, it’s about what she has done, and where that data goes, once she hears you. There is a sentence from that article, however, that did not stick in my brain from last year, so when I read the TechCrunch article, I made a comment on Twitter/Linked In.

My comment, quoted, is here:

“Two things: 1. interesting way to make IoT accessible to a broader base and 2. I would not at all be reassured the data is truly deleted (and isn’t, say, shipped off in snippets for “logs”/“troubleshooting”, for example). Also, the hand waving over who’s data it is needs to stop. Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

For the record, I still think #1 is true, and most of #2 is still an open question for me. I’m not at all clear on what happens to the data (yes, deleted at the end of the day, but… is it? What part of it is deleted? Is it every command, every call; or for example is there a record still in the smart thermostat (or a downstream reporting service) of all the changes I made, for example? And so forth.) Or who owns it (e.g., if something happens in the home, and the home belongs to the property manager, and the Alexa belongs to the property manager, but I’m the one renting the home, is that day’s data mine or the property managers?)  However, this post is to talk about someone who reached out to address the last point:  “Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

Now, it’s true that she does have to listen. However, a generous colleague reached out — privately, via LinkedIn messenger — to reassure me that Alexa does listen in for her name, but that listening happens only on the device… she doesn’t “trigger” until she hears her name, so no data leaves her until she does.  Or put the way they put it (bold is mine):

“Wake word detection is done on device in a closed loop, that is no audio sent to Alexa (aka. the cloud). Only when the on-device model detects the wake word with a high confidence, the audio of the wake-word it sent to the cloud for additional verification (besides false-positives this handles for example “Alexa” being said in ads).  No audio is ever sent to Alexa without a visual cue (the blue light).”

(Incidentally, the NYT article has this in a sentence that didn’t stick in my brain at all (bold is mine):

“…it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers…”)

I wanted to share my colleague’s message because *this is exactly how it is done, folks*.  While I would’ve been just fine with them pointing this out as a comment to my LinkedIn post, they’re being polite and careful, because not everyone would be and frankly, they and I had one lunch at one time and that’s about all we know of each other.

My larger point — because I know that not everyone is in to public correction and many could find it disconcerting — is that we need to be better at private correction, at accepting new data, and at assimilating it or at least making the sincere attempt.  You will read articles and they will be carefully constructed on the part of the author — either attempting to be scrupulously fair or attempting to sway you one way or another — but what you don’t get to see is what was omitted, either via editorial jurisprudence or a required word count or assumed common knowledge.  What you don’t get to realize is what your brain has omitted, either via convenience, or simply the wear of time.

So thank you. I happily sit corrected :).

Eat Your Vegetables

Let’s take a moment and talk about Podcasts, shall we?

(Author’s note: I had to do a check to make sure I hadn’t posted about this before, because I had thought about posting this a bazillion times. Clearly never did.)

I rely on podcasts for the bulk of my audio entertainment. I probably spend 2-3 hours a day listening to them: the morning run/workout, the commute to work, the commute from work; then there’s weekends driving 75 miles each way to/from my son’s father’s house.

I have three tranches of Podcasts:

  • Podcast Vegetables
  • Podcast Main Course
  • Podcast Dessert

The largest group, of course, being Podcast Vegetables.

Podcast Vegetables

Understand that I like Vegetables.  As a kid, not so much, but as an adult, I recognize them as a tasty low-calorie low-fat low-carb way to fill my stomach.  My absolute favorite are roasted broccoli, followed by roasted carrots and then pretty much roasted every other vegetable you can name.  Don’t give me your sauteed stuff.  Gimme your charred-end-bits, slightly-salted, roasted-in-the-oven veggies. They’re good for you, they take up (relatively) little attention, and did I mention they’re good for you?

In the podcast world, I give you:

  • Up First With NPR News: 10-12 minutes of encapsulated news, alive and in your feed by 5am (yes I checked), personable.  Few interviews so Steve Inskeep doesn’t interrupt so many people.
  • Marketplace Tech with Molly Wood: 5-7 minutes, up to 10 if you include the “Related Links” section (my fave), of tech-related news.
  • Marketplace Morning Report: You get three (3)! of these, one or two from London (BBC partnership) and one from New York (usually with David Brancaccio), each is 7-15 minutes long and spans from the morning markets to the news of the day.
  • Marketplace with Kai Rysdaal: 20-30 minutes each afternoon, a good mix of what happened and what to think about. Also: listen for the market song (“We’re in the Money” for a good day, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got That Swing)” for a mixed day, and “Stormy Weather” for when it’s down.  One thing I really appreciate is Kai interviews folks on the ground who really have to deal with the brunt of economic choices. And he’s unfailingly polite.
  • The Indicator by Planet Money: a daily 5-7 minute podcast revolving around some statistic, indicator, or other numeric thing in marketplaces and/or economics and an exploration therein.
  • Planet Money: a weekly (ish?) 15-30 minute podcast that started right around the 2007 crash; super useful to understand why some things work the way they do (or don’t) in economics, trade, and monetary policy.

Main Course Podcasts

But Bobbie! I hear you saying.  Bobbie, I need some real deep-dish, filling, main course!

I give you:

  • Hidden Brain with Shankar Vidantham: 30-45 minutes, roughly weekly, of why we act the way we do, with studies and experts.
  • The 538 Politics Podcast: 30-70 minutes of what the F happened in politics from a data scientist’s view (and or political analyst’s view).  Incredibly un-partisan, hyper-logical, almost infuriatingly so.  Claire Malone is my fave.
  • Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt: although it’s more Dubner these days. The authors of the book series (Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, etc.) have a podcast about… economics.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell: Not just accepting what your history teacher taught you, Malcolm Gladwell looks at what we thought happened and what probably happened.  Example: the great Toyota acceleration problem, or why LA has a lot of golf courses and very few parks.
  • Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly: The Host of Marketplace and the Hostess of Marketplace Tech spend about 10-20 minutes with an expert in the field on a current event (or movement) and then discuss.
  • This American Life with Ira Glass: 60 ish minutes weekly (drops Saturdays or Sundays). Usually features stories with a common theme, broken up as “acts” (e.g. Act 1, Act 2, etc.)

Something Sweet?

Of course, there are the ones I save for the long slog to go and get my kid (and return).  Often an aggregate four hours in the car, I reserve these for my Sunday dessert.

  • Factually with Adam Conover (NEW): 60 minutes of Adam Ruins everything crossed with interviewing  an expert on the thing he’s ruining.
  • Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwitch: Science for ears.
  • Every Little Thing from Gimlet Media: How did Cheerleading start? Why are flamingos badass? Why do we reserve blue for boys and pink for girls?
  • Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me: 45 ish minutes weekly, dropping Saturdays, of a news quiz with 3 guests (usually comedians).
  • No Such Thing as a Fish (the QI Podcast): 45-50 minutes on Fridays of four brits talking about facts unearthed for the QI show and riffing off of each other’s discoveries.
  • Science VS. from Gimlet Media: Common debates of the day (is alcohol good for you? what about colonics? what about juice cleanses or intermittent fasting or keto diets?) on a roughly weekly basis for about 40 minutes. Hosted by Wendy Zuckerman.
  • The Nocturnists: I have to admit I only listen to the first part, which is about ten minutes, where the doctor in question is relating a pivotal story from their practice.  After that the host interviews the doctor but I find that less interesting.
  • Reply All from Gimlet Media: a 45 minute fortnightly delve into the latest internet meme, concern, or drama.
  • Invisibilia: All the things that surround you that are intangible but you have to deal with.  Like differing opinions, psychosomatic pain, and how we perceive things. But it’s fun.
  • More Perfect: Jad Abumrad investigates different stories of the Supreme Court.  It’s a lot better than that sounds.

Some Ephemeral Notables:

 

Eat Your Frogs

“Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The relative cholesterol of frogs notwithstanding* this has been my mantra for the past several days. As part of the seasonal reorganization of things here at my company, I have a new boss and new coworkers (sorta) and so there’s a bit of an administrative tax associated with that: the PowerPoint that describes your products. The weekly update email on how those products are doing. The monthly update PowerPoint on how those products are doing. The one-off PowerPoint to discuss the ProblemChild in your product, and the one-page Word docs to describe the individual projects of your Product. Then of course there’s the emails about each of these items.  It was a rough three weeks getting all of that in order, but now I think we’re there and it’s time to eat another frog.

America needs to eat a frog. Actually, your average American citizen needs to eat a *lot* of frogs, because it is Election season. Whatever their opinions are about the candidates for the Top Office are, and how much they do or do not like said candidates, that is (frankly) the least of the frogs Americans need to eat.

*All* of the 435 House of Representative seats are up for reelection this year. Thirty five of the 100 Senate seats are, too. One hundred and sixty three ballot measures are up in 35 states, and 72 citizen initiatives. In my home state we have some pretty big decisions to make, including the possibility of a carbon tax (the Economist covered it last week). There are initiatives about pot, about gun control, about taxes, and about minimum wage; I guarantee the average American has an opinion about some or all of those. I equally guarantee there are no simple choices.

Let’s take my home state: Washington. We have the aforementioned carbon emission tax on the ballot, which economists love but I guarantee you local businesses will not. Ditto the Minimum Wage initiative (actually economists are split on that one, depending on who you talk to regarding artificial price floors, etc.). Firearms make another appearance, this time around risk protection orders. Another initiative asks you to weigh privacy risks against proper compensation for home health care workers. There’s also not one, but two advisory votes (where we get to let the State House/Senate know how we feel about taxes they approved without subjecting them to vote). You may think we have a lot in our state but it turns out California and Alabama voters will have a much thicker pamphlet to read through.

All of these frogs to eat and yet, while the states are doing their best to saute them in butter and garlic (or is that braise them in red wine and tomato sauce?) our election year coverage seems largely devoted to the biggest frogs who, depending on the status of the Congress they are rewarded with, may be stuck in the mud anyway and unable to do much other than croak for the next two years.

Because of the howling cacophony over those “biggest frogs”, it’s rare you find an intelligent, balanced conversation over the little frogs (and possibly tadpoles) we need to consume. It’s almost like the sheer dread of that first big frog negates the fact that once we’re done chewing that one and swallowing it, we have to eat another fifteen, or twenty, or thirty frogs.  Unlike college, there isn’t going to be some sort of machismo pride on the line for chugging your frogs; there’s not going to be a team of your brothers and/or sisters cheering you on as you eat your frogs.  This is probably because they’ll be busy with their own frogs. Stopping to discuss the balance of flavors in the small frogs, or cooking method, seems ridiculous.

It is, however, the platefuls of small frogs that await us are what we’ll have to subsist on for the next two years (at least — remember Senate terms, for example, are six years), and they are not getting the attention they deserve. I’d argue the biggest frogs are over seasoned and will be cooked to a crisp, leaving little taste on the palette and not otherwise making any long-term impressions. It’s those carefully prepared, home-grown frogs we need to fill up on. On voting day,  you get to pick your frogs.

*50mg per 100g of frog meat, in case you were wondering, vs 88 for chicken. There may be a missed opportunity here.

Amphigory & Discovery

In 1992, I was in my second year of college and caught between a love of English (Literature), and Marine Biology. Naturally, then, all of my humanities credits were embedded in literature. My college offered a course in British Literature, and I took it.  I had had the instructor before (Dr. Linda Leeds) and I would have her again (in a custom course in which I spent it studying the Vita Merlini), and she was most judicious in her judgment.

In my time with her, she remarked that:

  1. My journalism teacher had succeeded in curing me of writing “cute” but not killing writing for me, and
  2. That I really should have stuck with English as a major (true, I use it more than Marine Biology to date)

I remember that in our Brit Lit class we thought we were so smart. There were 30-odd of us, and we “convinced” her to let us watch “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” as part of coursework.

The joke was, of course, on us. Have you watched the movie? I cannot, to this day, without being able to dissect Every Single Joke into a commentary on English Literature or historical fact. There is a reason there is a killer rabbit. There is a reason there are irritating French soldiers, there is a reason there are wanton harlots and questionable witches and messed up science. There is a reason the guy who is being carried to the “Bring out your dead” collector isn’t really dead, and why Dennis was considered “old” and mistaken for a “woman”. There is a reason the professor appears halfway through, the monster had 3 heads, and Robin has a divergent experience and minstrels. There is a reason a cow is thrown, a rabbit is the “Trojan Horse”, and there are no actual horses. There is a reason for the shrubbery, the Castle Aaaargh, and Wicked Newt. (If you are willing to dive deep and view askew, there is even a reason for the “Swedish”subtitles in the opening credits).

The joke was on us and I cannot speak for the others in my class, as I do not know any of them anymore, but I watch this movie with my son and smirk both in the pure joy of a Monty Python movie and the knowledge that it’s so much more well conceived than anyone thinks. It hasn’t killed the joy of watching for me, and here I am some 23/4 years after the fact fondly remembering an English Teacher.

That is power.

I do not know what has become of Dr. Leeds.  She was extremely effective as an instructor and I really do wish I had listened to her more often. I only know that I am not the only one who benefits from her wisdom and generosity.

And I am not the only one who cannot watch this movie without winking at the Black Knight, who always triumphs, regardless of the circumstance.

Give

Today, I was an adult. I got up early (even for me). I wore professional business wear (not jeans). I wore heels for more than 9 hours. I paid for parking, in downtown. I held meetings. I followed up.

And I spoke in front of 250-odd people on the reason why I work with Team Read.

Here is the text of my speech. I flubbed it in a couple of spots, but the sentiment is there. If you can, give: http://www.teamread.org.

Good morning. Thank you all for coming to our Annual Fundraising Breakfast. I know it takes some effort to get up and presentable and into downtown at 7:30am, so well done all of us.

Being, as I am, a technologically minded person, and surrounded, as I am often, with technologically minded people, who all agree on the importance of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – in education, it may have been a surprise to some of my friends and family that I chose to invest in, and support, Team Read. After all, this is about reading, right?

Right. Step one, in a long list of steps to a robust and complete education. Without reading, and specifically without quick and thorough reading comprehension, no student will survive that hallmark of third grade math: the word problem. We all remember – a train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour, and so forth? Only now they’re multi-step problems in third grade, like this one:

Ashley is 61 inches tall. Adam is five feet four inches tall. How many inches taller is Adam?

So we help students improve their reading fluency and comprehension, paving the way to use reading as a tool for all and any disciplines they need to pursue through the course of their educational careers.

That is only half of the story though, and only half of why I support Team Read.

About two breakfasts ago – I measure these things in food – Kiarra Thomas, a Team Read tutor, spoke here about her experience being a tutor. She talked about how she learned very real job skills – dealing with her charge, budgeting time, being responsible for this student. She spoke about how these skills and this experience helped form her educational and career path, and how it helped her get other jobs. Too often we are given to looking at our teenagers as “just teenagers” – oh, those kids – whereas Team Read provides, to qualified and eager teenagers, a real job, with real experience, and real impact. These teenagers are equal to the task.

And that’s why I am here today. And that’s why you are here today, too.

Team Read relies on the support of volunteers and donors, and I want to thank you for being here this morning, and learning about the good work of Team Read, and sharing your enthusiasm for this organization with others.

So thank you.

Freedom

It’s that time of year again, where kids are out of school and we all forget about the responsibilities and management associated with education. School’s out for the summer!

Here in Washington State our legislators have come up with a budget (after two special sessions, for which, may I remind you dear voter, our congresspersons get paid). It got signed in, but doesn’t include the funding for the recent education bill that got passed, which totals slightly over $2 billion. Out of $38 billion, that means we’re missing about 5% or so of our budget. As much as I want to look at that and still give us an “A”, I’m a pretty harsh grader.

This little rounding error is for reduced class sizes, voted in by the constituency. The reason why there’s no funding for it is the measure didn’t include a funding resource, which is like saying “Do you want to have free groceries?” as a voting item. Of course you want free groceries, or reduced class sizes. When we don’t address how it’s going to get paid for, however, we end up with extended sessions and bickering and our very own elected officials trying to delay a measure we elected to have.  A funding measure wasn’t included, though, because as soon as you mention the possibility of raising taxes — of any sort: real estate, business, sales, or (eek!) instantiating an income tax — people lose their collective shit.

Here’s the thing: we can get mobilized around *some* social progress. We have gay marriage and subsidized healthcare and it only took Donald Trump one speech to ignite and unify the Latino vote (hi, I’m one of ’em, Donald) and get NBC, Macy’s, etc. to drop him like a hot potato. We are a country moving towards better social freedoms, recognition of our needs as a society, and intolerance of intolerance.

“We” (and by “we” I mean our dear, elected officials) do this because of one very simple reason: those movements represent votes. They get the Latino vote. Or the gay vote. Or the elderly vote. Or the African-American vote. Or the women’s vote. They love those voters! Those voters will help them *win*. It will be great.

As long as those voters aren’t educated.

We live in a country that is 14th in the world for education — and a state that is 20th in the US. Those figures are dropping with each year.  You don’t have to be smart to vote, and when you have your Legislative Branch playing games with numbers to “pass a budget” that doesn’t include all of the things that it is required to pay for, it’s better if the voters aren’t smart.

I live in a good school district. Our kids get issued laptops.  One of the more common rejoinders to this is: if the school district can furnish laptops, why can’t it pay its teachers (or reduce class sizes)? Great question.

Local school districts augment federal and state money (because it’s not enough) by levies and bonds. Here in our county it’s not uncommon to see an education bond measure every two years — for this district or the one down the road — to cover a given thing. Technology levies are separate from operating levies are separate from capital bonds (the latter used for building new schools). So if the tech levy passes but the operating levy doesn’t, you get computers but no one to administrate them.

Let’s take a look, then, at the operational cost of a teacher — that’s really what it comes down to, right? The teacher is who your child interacts with on a daily basis, they’re the ones that “take all summer off” and “Only work like 6 hours a day and get multiple in-service days and spring break and such”. Let’s look at a “Schedule C” teacher, who has either a BA and 90 credits or a Master’s Degree. We will take one who is 5 years in. That teacher makes $43,607/year. (Note to those who go look up those hourly rates — those are based on in-class hours. They are not based on hours worked).

Let’s further say the teacher doesn’t work at all during the 10 weeks of summer (they actually go in a week early, but it makes the math easy), or spring break (1 week), winter break (2 weeks), and holidays (Veteran’s day, Day after Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, Mid-winter break adds up to a week). I exclude Thanksgiving and Memorial day because they are typically off for everyone.

OK so 52 weeks/year, minus 10 for summer, 3 for regular breaks, and another for miscellaneous days == 52-14=38 weeks. That translates to $1147/week, before taxes, or an hourly rate of $28.67. Woo hoo! Riches behold!

Well, wait. Do they really work 40 hours?

My son’s school starts at 7:4oam and gets out at 2:10pm. Teachers are expected on-campus by 7:10am. So let’s assume they hightail it out of there with the kids and do not stay late to cover detentions (they do), test retakes (ditto), clubs (which they do and it’s usually on their own time, but it’s a choice so we will ignore that). That’s 7 hours. Oh, they get lunch, for 40 minutes. That means 1 hour, 40 minutes short of an 8 hour workday.

Except there is no room in there for lesson planning, grading, etc. Six classes at 30 kids/class is 180 kids worth of papers to grade, tests to grade, and lesson plans. Fine. Let’s be super-generous and say that is used up with that 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: my kid averaged 3 hours of homework per night in 6th grade. Each class had one graded item per night, roughly, not including major projects and papers. Translation: go through roughly 180 pieces of math homework and check the answers and they showed their work correctly. At one minute per paper you have used up all of your 100 minutes and then some).

Great! We’re done.

No, we’re not. These days, your dear teachers are expected to answer email from students and parents. This averages 30-50 per day (I am not exaggerating, I asked a bunch of different teachers — and I know I contributed to that count more than a few times). Call it 30 per day at 1 minute to read and 1 minute to respond– that’s another hour. Then add in IEP meetings (teachers with a student in their class in an IEP attend one or two of these a year — and there’s about 2 per class, so 12 per teacher) and those add up to another 15 minutes a week. Then add in staff meetings, call it another 15 minutes per week.

With me? Your 40-hour per week teacher is now at roughly 48 hours/week. Let’s go back and do that math again: $24/hour. Looks great! Except remember we removed all those weeks off the teacher gets — we assumed s/he didn’t get paid for that period.

Now lets look at how much “life” costs.

  • Take off 20% for taxes.
  • The cheapest 2 bedroom apartment I could find within a 20 minute drive (because there is a gas/transportation trade off here) is $1200 ($14,400/year).
  • $300/mo for food
  • $100/mo for transportation — bus and/or gas money/insurance
  •  $150/mo electric/gas
  • 10% for retirement

That’s $2294-(20%*2294)-1200-300-100-150-(10%*2294)=2294-458-1200-300-100-150-229=and guess what we’re in negative numbers. Because after I take out electricity/gas we have only $86, and that’s what the teacher can put to retirement.

As long as they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. Or unforeseen medical expenses. Or mandatory union dues. Or chipping in for the kid who can’t afford school supplies. Or student loans, because our higher education system is horrifically messed up, too.

Today we celebrate our independence from a government that wanted to give us taxation without representation. We need to look at our government today and understand our responsibilities, and theirs. We pay the taxes. We may need to pay more. In turn, we need our legislators to represent: not just because they “let” us have the freedoms we were already granted (my 12 year old was shocked to find out gay people couldn’t get married already) in our constitution, but because we put the legislators where they are today.

If they don’t represent what we need, then we need to put others in there who do. That is the ultimate freedom we have as Americans, and we need to remember it, and use it.

Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.

Advocacy

The freeway between Centralia and Vancouver, WA is actually quite pretty, despite the gray drizzle that is the hallmark of October through April in Washington. Either side of the freeway is lined with trees, broken up occasionally by pastoral lands and the occasional body of water. The morning drive was shortly after dawn, the evening drive at night: without the benefit of scenery I listened to Snap Judgment podcasts.

I was bouncing between these two fair cities because my mother lives near one, and the 2014 Annual Washington State PTA Legislative Assembly was in the other. This is a departure from previous years, where the Assembly has been held in Seattle; in an effort to make things more equitable for non-Puget Sound schools the PTA has moved the event. Although to be frank I’m not certain how moving it to a far corner of the state benefits most. If we want to put everyone to equal inconvenience, I think we should hold it in Yakima next year. It’s wine season then, and odd years are not voting years.

The purpose of the two-day Assembly is to have representatives from each school PTA across Washington caucus and vote on the top issues the PTA Legislative Team will work on in the coming two years. To clarify: Of the 15 issues presented, we pick the top 5, which represent where the lobbying dollars and effort go.  There are educational opportunities as well – yours truly attended an eye-opening seminar on the capital budgeting process used by school district to figure out what they need in and for a new school – but the primary focus is to get together and vote your conscience or your constituency, and to influence others to vote your way.

It is an exercise in diplomacy that I find a constant challenge.

My school had four issues it cared very, very much about; the largest overlap with my own concerns was Funding McCleary. (To read more about McCleary, see this. And maybe this too.) I participated in a caucus and I opened my mouth to indicate that people like facts and data to support rhetoric; I found myself then scheduled to speak at the microphone at night. It was slightly over one minute, I spent it reminding myself that I should not speak too quickly, and I pelted people with facts.  I was one of 4 “pro” speakers, and there was 1 “con” speaker… and only one “no” vote at the end of the day.

When given an assignment to publicly speak I find that I don’t do it well on my feet. I spend hours finding data, drafting text, practicing, rehearsing, etc. In previous jobs where I had to present in front of 80 or 100 people I would carefully prepare, sometimes days in advance, or sometimes on the redeye between Seattle and London. Extemporaneous speech is not something I am good at, and it makes me sick to my stomach for the period immediately preceding and following.

The purpose of advocacy – and of acting as a representative of your school and constituency – is to speak up even when it means you are going to be personally discomfited, to be personally challenged, and to be publicly opposed.  As PTA parents we advocate for kids who are still learning to advocate for themselves, and frankly for an educational society that is often oblivious to their need of advocacy. After my brief spotlight that night I had to call the male person and calm down before I could take the wheel and drive the 100 miles home to my mother’s house.