Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Days of Love

I just saw pictures from my Dad's and wife's wedding. It's their second marriage, and they are both in their sixties. A second chance at love. They are smiling into each other's tearing eyes as they say "I Do" for the rest of their days here on Earth.

Don't get me wrong. It took me a little while to adjust to my DAD getting married again. Weird. I am not sure how I feel about having a step-mom after all these years, but I know I already consider Karen a friend. She is a lovely and kind lady with strong opinions, a gorgeous smile, and a life history of hard work. What's not to love?

I was thinking about my Dad the other day when my best friend told me about her visit to Plum Island. I have a poem about the place somewhere. I just need to dig it out. It's so old, it's not even on my computer.

My Dad loved Plum Island. It was the one place he could go and be with the sea without the impediments of build-up and spring break crowds. He brought us there often. I remember the dune-bound cottages, the smell of the sea grass, the feel of the sand, the weather-worn-fences. He always wanted a cottage there. And a lighthouse. He used to say he wanted to live alone in a lighthouse. I don't think he would want to do that alone anymore. He has Karen. Who can blame him?

I remember the way my Dad would announce on random mornings, "Okay..beach day!" It was usually in the middle of the school year, a cold day when we would have it all to ourselves. We would bundle up in two pairs of pants, double socks, scarves and hats and sweat in the car on the way to Plum Island. By the time we got there, the icy ocean air felt so good sneaking through the crevices of our collars, slinking down our necks through our shirts. The birds screeched at our intrusion.

Plum Island had a bird sanctuary, fences we couldn't cross because the sand pipers and natural winged things nested there. My father told us the names of the birds (which I have forgotten) and explained what it meant to have a sanctuary for living things. He was the one who taught me the importance of some solitude in nature, encouraged my capacity for wandering and observing, taking a day to be in love with nature. He was the sailor who had traveled the world, and I don't think he ever outgrew that.

My Dad has tattoos on his forearms that bulge even now. He told us in the Coast Guard, they used to call him "Popeye" because his forearms were bigger than his biceps. He had a metal toolbox with a sticker on the inside lid. It said "Powerful Pete." I think his Coast Guard buddies gave it to him. As kids, we thought this was very funny. But we knew my Dad was a strong, handsome man, a man who worked in boiler rooms and on ship decks.

My Dad was expansive. He talked metaphysics with me. The Cosmos. Timelessness. His discussion on "nothing" was always my favorite. "Would the donut without the hole still be a donut?" I always tried to picture what "nothing" looked like. I would put my hands out, look at the space between my hands, try to ignore the light, and think, wow. That's nothing. "But it's something, isn't it?" he would say. He painted a giant rainbow across my bedroom wall. Something where nothing had been before.

He plunged into mystics and teachers like St.Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross. The solitary, Jesuit life captivated my attention even as a kid. "The Dark Night of the Soul." Robes. Chanting. Monks. Mystery.

He told us stories of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint of animals and birds. We had a statue of St. Francis on our front lawn. Later, he built a grotto in the yard and placed Mary,the Virgin, near St. Francis, bird feeders and trees. The neighborhood birds loved it.

We often visited monasteries and convents. I roamed the grounds and thought how wonderful a life in beauty would be, a life of stone prayer steps, formal gardens and grottoes, ancient cemeteries for just the holy. At ten, my best friend in elementary school and I decided we wanted to be cloistered nuns. I was reminded of that yesterday as we watched the ridiculous Nacho Libre with my sister-in-law who didn't get the Catholic humor. I laughed my head off.

Catholicism gave me my love and appreciation of rituals and shiny things. Our visits to St. Joseph's Shrine, the Worker's Shrine, were fun for me. The place bloomed of stained glass and smelled like burning candles. We lit candles for those we loved. The scent of incense, sound of bells and chimes. The chalices and Tabernacles and marble alters, the monstrance, all reminders of a history I could never grasp as a child. I get it more now.

The statues were awe inspiring. That is, until I saw the statue of St. Lucy with her eyeballs on a plate. That always put me into fits of giggles.

Later in life, I became fascinated with devils, demons and exorcism. Amityville Horror. One of my favorite movies was The Seventh Sign. Demi Moore was pregnant. The world was coming to an end. Is there anything cooler than that when you are a kid?

My Dad played in a guitar troubadour in my hometown church, and as a child, I sang with them. I was used to getting up in front of a crowd, something that strikes me as funny now, since I spend most of my time hiding behind a computer. My Dad could play the bass, some piano, and taught me to use a tambourine. I took some piano lessons but couldn't deal with all the notes. Too much for me as a kid and maybe even now as an adult.

Music is playing and candles burn in his wedding pictures. My Dad can't take his eyes off his new bride. He is happy, and I am happy for them both. Every child wants to see her father happy. It's the way it is.

So Dad and Karen, I wish you the best. Your ceremony looked beautiful. May happiness follow you through the rest of your years and into the next life.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Making Connections in the Abortion Debate

photo courtesy of http://www.webshots.com/
I'm on my soapbox and have been since yesterday. I'm steamed by the impending sale of Sallie Mae and the way they have misled the public. I'm steamed about the plight of higher education and education in general. And so I am steamed about the abortion issue.

What the heck is the connection here, you wonder?


I'm about tired of the abortion debate. I've lived it ever since I was a kid and it never ends. And why doesn't it end? Because people want to separate themselves into pro-choice or pro-life.

Let's look at those terms. So if I am an pro-life, that means I am associated with clinic-bombing radicals, protesters who often do nothing for the advancement of poor women but expect these woman to make healthy decisions, and people who endorse adoption without raising a finger to adopt or help change adoption rules. I might also be associated with a particular religion, a particular political group, and nasty names I don't even want to consider.

If I am pro-choice, I am considered a baby killer. I might also be associated with a different religion, a different political group.

Wow. I'm a woman. What the hell kind of choice is that for ME?

Let me make my position clear (for anyone who really cares). Abortion is a symptom of societal illness: poverty, lack of education, unevenly distributed resources. If you want to eliminate abortion, which I do, then you must attack the symptoms before the disease continues.

I hate abortion. The idea of killing anything appalls me. I know I said I wanted to serve in the military before, and I love our troops, but when it comes down to it, unless it was "shot or be shot" I couldn't kill anything. And I don't think I would be able to recoup emotionally. It's not in me. I step over ants if I see them. And unless they are attacking my house, I don't kill them. If they attack my house, it's self defense. I do have to live. Right now I am itching and tearing my skin open from bug bites. A little bug spray might have helped. But I'm not out to kill anything, especially babies.

What's my point?

Abortion is not usually valid self defense unless it's a mandatory, medical (horrible) choice between who has to die: the mother or the baby.

Now before every pro-choice person in the nation jumps on my case, let me say something else. I want to eliminate abortion. I want to do it through education. We can't do anything through education unless we invest in education.

I don't think a public health class is a bad thing. I went through a health class. It had no effect on my decision to have sex or not to have sex except that it taught me some preventative measures. It was no different than a biology class.

And yes, we did learn about abstinence. But in the long run, it was my parental influences and my own beliefs that helped me make a decision as a teen. Were they the best decisions? Probably not. Did they correspond to my parents' strict beliefs? No. But I am here and I have two beautiful children, children who have cognitive special needs, children I would have had no matter what their disability could have been. And I have overcome some pretty big obstacles to be the kind of mother I am to them now. College was part of it. I'm a pretty good mother. Not perfect by any means. But a good mother.

People who don't have this kind of education can't make such informed decisions and might not end up with real choices in the long run. Neither will their children. To me, to have an abortion or not have an abortion is NOT a choice. It's a logical fallacy. It's the either/or mentality that brings sorrow to both sides.

Abortion should not be a political issue. Are tubal ligations political issues? How about vasectomies? How about plastic surgery? These are medical choices that come with responsibility. They require extensive counseling, before and after the choice. Women who have abortions are left with emotional and physical scars. Women who don't are left with responsibilities they and society cannot handle. Why? Lack of education and uneven distribution of resources.

If we want to eliminate abortion, here's what we need to do, in my not so humble opinion.

1. Teach health in school. Yes, discuss sex and birth and contraception and safe sex and AIDS and all those important things that go on in the world with or without your acceptance. Be real. Teens have sex whether you want them to or not. Better to have them protected.

2. Teach your kids your personal beliefs. Take them to church. Take them to church sponsored religious education classes that correspond to your ideals. Encourage your ministers and religious ed teachers to hold classes on issues dealing with sexuality and discuss what kids are learning in health ed. This is your personal right and your responsibility as parents.

3. Openly advertise and make available medical options for contraception, including the "day after" pill for women who have been violated or who have made a serious error. Couples who know they don't want children should have the option to choose tubal ligations or vasectomies, even if under the age of 35.

4. Tighten up regulations on Internet sex sites, especially those that encourage violent sex, prostitution, kiddie porn, and all that horrible "stuff" kids have access to. Why encourage rape that could lead to abortion?

5. Encourage our media to STOP SELLING SEX. If you are media and you have any talent whatsoever, you will not feel the need to market to our most basic common denominator: our natural sex drive. Come on people. Let's EVOLVE a little here, shall we? Media should be for news and entertainment. How about entertaining our collective MINDS for once?

3. Treat abortion as a medical and psycho-social issue. Women who feel they need abortions after the first trimester are fighting incredible pressures and need support. They don't need the either/or choice that can leave them devastated no matter what they choose. Medical advice and objective counseling are MUSTS.

4. Women must also have the choice of seeking religious-based counseling, if that suits their background and belief systems. Private, Catholic hospitals need not provide birth control or any abortions, but that must be known up front and the woman must not be forced into going to a Catholic hospital (via a health plan, for example). It must be a woman's CHOICE to pursue these options.

5. Women must have support systems in place no matter which choice they have to make, impoverished women especially. They will need health care, physically and psychologically. They might need food and shelter, child care, and employment. They might need parenting classes. But if we educate women before they reach this disastrous point, then fewer women will require ALL of these resources. The investment will pay off in the form of lower taxes and increased productivity.

6. Make adoption easier. If it takes six years and $20,000 to adopt a child in this country, how can we possibly expect this to be a viable option for anyone? Also, mothers who choose adoption should have the right to visit their children, not to take them back when they want, but to preserve some kind of relationship that doesn't leave the child feeling abandoned and lowers the risk of Reactive Attachment Disorder. Visitation happens all the time in divorce. Let it happen with adoption as well. Again, this will require family counseling.

7. "Partial birth" abortion as purely birth control is murder. Doctors who provide services like these are participating in infanticide.

8. To me, any abortion that is performed after the fetus has developed a brain and nerve endings is one that should not be performed. BUT, I don't always think a first trimester abortion is the wrong choice, especially for women who have had health problems, histories of addiction, etc. Again, this is where medical and psychological counseling become imperative. And again, women need to know what their resources are. For this to happen there MUST be resources.

9. Stop funding abortion clinics. Use the money for education and resources for women who are pregnant. Clean up the health care industry that doesn't want to pay for ANYTHING.

Consider that motherhood is a major life change, that women are already at high risk for depression, and that even in the absence of an abortion, women are under tremendous pressure. And consider that women are already prone to poverty, a major incentive to choose abortion over other options.

We need to respect ourselves as human beings, and that includes our unborn children. But we can't get there unless we are willing to consider options and open up resources from every sector. When we do this, we exercise our true freedom as Americans.

Real choice means women and children are neither condemned to a life of poverty nor condemned to death. Real choice means we all get a shot at living productive lives.

*More links and research forthcoming.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tweny Questions

photo courtesy of http://www.webshots.com/
Here's my morning list of things I don't understand and would someday like to figure out. I hope I get enough time before I come back as a lilac. I might not care then.

1. Why is Bristow, VA not a town (why doesn't someone MAKE it a town?), and why doesn't it have its own county, national, or regional park?

2. Why isn't there some kind of Bristow Preservation Society to stop this ridiculous subdividing in our neck of the county?

3. Why is the Independent party not represented by election officials even though it's a recognized party?

4. Why is Ralph Nader considered totally crazy by some people (other than he is in neither popular party, seems a little over the top when it comes to food, and sometimes comes across as a visionary with no practical applications) ?

5. Why do insurance companies treat mental health differently from other physical problems? Isn't the brain the part of the body? Or are they just too afraid (greedy) to treat possibly the most important mechanism for our human evolution?

6. Why should we build more hotels in Manassas instead of fixing up the ones we have?

7. Why should we build more restaurant chains in Manassas when we have empty buildings already?

8. Why don't corporations donate space to non-profits, especially when they often have lots of unused space?

9. Why don't all political parties respect the rights of every human being and treat some as more important than others?

10. Why, when you write to the Department of Education, do they insist they have no authority over important issues like unlicensed schools?

11. Why do people care if their phone calls are being screened for words like "Kill the President" if it's automated, inexpensive screening for terrorists?

12. Why should people care who knows their business so long as that information is treated respectfully and not used as a source of exploitation?

13. Why is the ACLU so bizarre and radical, protecting the rights of sensationalism and not citizens?

14. Why don't people learn more about the religious and political histories of this country and advance from there without requiring such a limited scope?

15. Why can't we deal with biology and bodies (i.e. women usually have bigger breasts than men)?

16. Why do we, the people, allow such an uneven distribution of wealth?

17. Why do we as a world tolerate war?

18. Why can't we make hot ice to drop in our coffee and keep it warm?

19. Why, when sleeping or making love, do we sometimes feel like we have one too many arms?

20. Why have you read to the bottom of this list?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

As I Wander, I Wonder

All That is Gold Does Not Glitter

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

JRR Tolkien

I am looking at the quote I have at the top of this blog: "Not all those who wander are lost." And I have to think (and laugh)---ADHD!

I've decided to come more fully out of the ADHD closet. I did so a little in a previous posting, but now....well, it's time.

It wasn't until 2004 that I was diagnosed with adult ADHD.

That's a long time to go through life without knowing you have some kind of disability.

I always managed somehow until things like multiple appointments, kids' homework, school activities, husband's needs, work stress and other things derailed my coping mechanisms.

As a child, I was forced to cope through the rigidity of my home life and my own observations. The front of the class was always my seating of choice, and I did well there, so long as there was no window to provide me staging for daydreaming. I knew I could not concentrate in the back of the class. And I knew I could not concentrate if I sat near friends: Susan tickled me until I was made to stand in the corner, and Charles got me in trouble more than once.

My college friend Michelle has always had the capacity to make me laugh uncontrollably, and I had a hard time staying away from her in class. But still, I got through college by setting and charting structure for myself. I remember making the EXCEL spreadsheet with the little arrow drawings indicating my daily schedules, all nicely blocked out. If I had to make an appointment, I would scribble it in the little blocks, between my class and work schedule. I would write important dates elsewhere on this paper: due dates for papers, meetings, etc. I kept this chart in the front of my book bag. I also made up yearly calendars of events for student activity groups. And I always had a class syllabus to keep me on track.

I had to listen to the teacher AND write notes AND read the books to make it all come together. And while I left my undergrad with a 3.9 average, I still remember my struggle to keep up. I was an English major, and I was a slow reader. Getting through survey courses was a challenge. But I loved the diverse texts and ideas I got in the discipline. My mind was always well fed and stimulated. The positive reinforcement I got from college kept me in high achievement mode.

Probably one of the greatest gifts I received from my undergraduate college was the chance to work with the Office of Disabilities. There, I would read aloud to students, help them with writing, and learn about their particular challenges. As a newsletter editor, I had the opportunity to interview students and faculty, and so I learned about disabilities from both perspectives. I had an excellent boss who offered me both creative license and good direction, a winning combination in a supervisor. These experiences helped me cope with my ADHD even though I was yet undiagnosed.

Remaining undiagnosed can lead to serious detriments personally and professionally. People think you are dippy. Others think you are irresponsible. Employers might not want to accommodate you. The short attention span, the distractability, the forgetfulness, the need to get up and move contribute to a general perception that you don't care or are not listening. In fact, you are probably listening more than others, but you might be listening to many things at once. External conversations sometimes intrude on your focus, and it's easy to be led to a "huh? Sorry, I didn't hear you." And sometimes, you hear things you wish you didn't.

Then of course, there is the impulsivity. Not everyone manifests this symptom either, but I know I sure have....the blurting out, the interrupting, the not thinking before choosing words, reacting instead of acting. We all have these tendencies at one point or another, but in people with ADHD, they are exaggerated and get in the way of life. Obviously, people respond rudely (or worse) to behaviors like these. This sets up the undiagnosed, untreated ADHD'er for failure.

In the world of disabilities, ADHD is sometimes scoffed at or misunderstood even by doctors. People think it's not a real condition. They think people who are medicated for the condition are drug addicts. They think many, many things, and it's discouraging because in all actuality, not only can ADHD be a positive attribute, it can be managed through medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). ADHD is a neurological condition, a physical problem like epilepsy, for example. You can't treat an epileptic with a healthy dose of childhood spankings and adult servings of "Why can't you smarten up?"

Which brings me to the point that people with learning deficits are typically quite bright and creative. I put down in my profile here that my hobbies include "intellectual meandering." I think about stimuli and I write and I net search, which is why this blog is eclectic. My ADHD helps me with that. My ADHD also helps keep me OVERLY focused at times, another strange conundrum of the condition. But then, that "symptom" allows me to do things like participate in NaNoWriMo. If I am not in the overly focused stage, I tend to work in shorter bursts, take a break, then come back to whatever I am doing. This tactic works well for academic and writing tasks, but it does not work well for cleaning the whole house which, by the time you work in a short spurt, is messy all over again.

Now that I know I have ADHD, I make sure I do things like keep one calendar here by my computer. I write down appointments as soon as they are emailed to me, or I bring my appointment cards downstairs. I also leave business cards in my car, in case I need to call someone on the road and can't remember the number. I try to keep my kids on a structured schedule, even over the summer. It ends up helping all of us in the long run.

I still bounce my leg quite often (as I did all through college and I am doing now) and twist my hair. I sometimes might seem to stare if I am concentrating hard on what someone is saying. Other times, if there are lots of distractions, my eyes and attention still wander.

Not being a sports fan anyway, I usually find the crowd more interesting than the game. I recall a boyfriend taking me to a professional baseball game and being horrified at my constant looking at the "bleacher creatures" instead of paying attention to the god-awful, slow innings. He wasn't happy that I insisted on bringing some school reading with me, either.

Socially, I 've never done well at big public concerts, clubs, or other crowded events where there are lots of distractions from an invigorated audience. My immediate response to these overly stimulating environments is to just watch everything going on around me, and I do get a certain amount of pleasure out of that, but not the kind of pleasure other people do.

And so, I have wandered into this discussion of disability because....the topic wandered into my mind. I don't think that's a bad thing, and obviously, I have survived living with it. I wouldn't recommend going years before being diagnosed, however. Spare yourself some unnecessary self flagellating. Get it identified and work on coping. But remember--a little wandering in life can be a very good thing.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Plight of the College Student: Generation Debt

photo courtesy of http://www.webshots.com/
Congressman Barney Frank
House Committee on Financial Services
2252 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515

July 26, 2007

Dear Mr. Frank:

I am writing to request that your committee implement consumer protection for student borrowers. As you know, the “wild west” of the student loan industry has been under attack by the Committee on Education and Labor. While many aspects of the HEA have been positive, the act does not help those of us who have outstanding loans and no consumer protection. Because most lenders provide more than just student loans, it is our belief that banking and consumer related issues like these fall within the purview of the Finance Committee.

It is already common knowledge that many lenders use illegal collection methods and have attached outrageous interest rates and penalties, leading borrowers either into default or further into debt, leading then into wage and other garnishments. Those of us working in the service and/or non-profit sector have been left struggling as we try to help our communities without slipping into default.

My own story highlights lack of consumer protection on student loans: I borrowed more than $50,000 in student loans for a Doctoral program that was running unlicensed sites across the country, including in Washington, D.C. where I attended. While the school was asked to leave, I have been left with the debt, no transcript, no degree, and no money to hire an attorney. The school was cited by both the Department of Education and the accreditation agency AFTER I submitted complaints to them and a variety of other agencies. According to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, this is something I would have to bring to court, and yet I cannot. Consumer protection outside of court would have spared me and my family this unjust burden.

This kind of debt, as you know, is toxic to taxpayers who not only pay for student loan programs but must pay again when lenders send students into default by using rapacious methods to increase lender profits and collections. Consumers and taxpayers alike lose when these lenders are defended but borrowers are not. We are asking that you help protect us as you protect other consumers: students ARE consumers when the lenders are making a profit.

Thank you for your time.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt


Mr. Miller and Mr. Kennedy
Committee on Education and Labor
Democratic Staff2181
Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

May 23, 2007

Dear Mr. Miller and Mr. Kennedy:

I am writing to request a public forum/open hearings to address the student loan crisis. As you know, the current investigations of Nelnet, Sallie Mae and other lenders, and the departure of student loan officials who have had conflicts of interest have brought the struggles of students to the headlines and to the attention of people like yourselves. Know that students, borrowers, and tax payers follow and appreciate your efforts.

In order to allow this information to be better disseminated, and in order to hasten a bill protecting the consumer rights of students, however, tax payers, borrowers, and all other constituents need a forum. This is the basis for my request.

I have included a copy of my personal story at the bottom of this page. And of course, mine is just one story.

Thank you for your time.


Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt

In April of 2000, I attended a residency requirement at the Governor’s House Hotel (1615 Rhode Island Ave NW), a ten-day credit-bearing seminar that counted towards completion of the Ph.D. program and actually counted as my official entry into the program. During this seminar, we visited Union’s other “site,” the “Office for Social Responsibility,” (previously located on Nevada Avenue, now closed).

Failure to Benefit:

I attempted to resolve academic discrepancies with Union Institute’s administration. Immediately after I brought up the licensure issue, the President, then Judith Sturnick, “retired.” I was put on “inactive” status as a student and then withdrawn without my consent, without opportunity to complete the program, and without a viable transcript to show what I had completed. Furthermore, because at that time Union did not issue official transcripts until the students graduate, I was not able to transfer any of the work I completed or credits I earned. This means I would owe over $50,000 for two years of attending a program I was not permitted to complete.

In the midst of this chaos, I hired an attorney who allowed me to make small payments and who attempted to have me reinstated into the program and at least be able to complete. Union’s response was that because of the investigations from the Ohio Board of Regents and the U.S. Department of Education, the entire program had changed (as noted in their website), and I would not have the ability to complete by picking up where I left off. In fact, the academic standards of progress, about which I had specifically complained, were under investigation. I would, essentially, have to begin again! And, since Title IV funding had been suspended, I would not be able to get funding to continue in the program. Union was unwilling to make any monetary amends. Again, this left me with no degree, no transcript, and a host of debt, and I could no longer afford to pay an attorney.

Prior to this happening, I was an “A” student, working to put myself through college. I now work as a contract, distant education instructor, a position which will never allow me enough earnings to pay this debt. In addition, I have two elementary aged children with special needs and some health problems of my own.

I have contacted every agency I know to resolve this issue, and I have requested a discharge through Sallie Mae. I have been denied the discharge, cannot claim bankruptcy, and continue to accrue interest as my loans are in forbearance.

I remind you that mine is only one story.


Sent to a listserv on literacy issues on 7/30/2007. Please note, this is NOT an indictment of all for-profits and is based on some limited experiences I have had working in education. I have had just as many positive experiences in the non-profit and for-profit education sectors. But it is also based on research.
Most certainly, this is NOT encouragement for students to drop out of school! It IS a commentary on the state of education, an urging for policy to change in favor of students and protecting student rights, encouraging their graduation and growth, and benefiting all of us.

Why Attending Proprietary Schools May Have No Measurable Effect on High School Drop-outs' Earnings

According to Dr. Tyler, http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/ann_rev/rall_v5_ch3.pdf page 73:

“A final lesson from this study is that the one type of human capital
investment in which a large percentage of male GED recipients participated—
off-the-job training—did not result in higher wages. Off-the-job
training in the study is defined as government-sponsored training or training
provided by a proprietary school. Forty-one percent of the GED holders
obtained some off-the-job training, and the median amount of training
time for those who obtained any was 569 hours. However, this type of
vocational training had no measurable effect on their wages.”

Having worked the administrative and teaching ends in proprietary education, I have witnessed some gross injustices to GED holders and high school drop-outs who took out enormous loans to attend and ended up in worse financial positions than when they started. Their demise began right in admissions, continued through financial aid, and too many times to count, followed them through their classes, resulting in drop-outs or withdrawals, lending credibility and possible further connections to Dr. Tyler’s research.

High school drop-outs holding not even the GED would come through admissions and be asked to sign a waiver stating they realized they were enrolling in a program but did not hold a GED. These students then proceeded to the financial aid department, where they were given usually a mix of federal and private loans. The private loans were typically high interest, and some of them were directly through the school, funded through the publicly traded parent company. Apparently, this is common practice in some states (see http://www.highered.nysed.gov/oris/forms/06-07/OEDS-06.doc part 2, current enrollment).

However, these same students were not provided remedial classes to ensure their success. When they dropped out or were withdrawn, they left still owing the loans and now were unable to pay because they didn't have the educational or work experiences they expected to obtain through their programs. Many were minorities from impoverished neighborhoods, struggling students looking to climb out of their sad legacies. A high percentage were on welfare and/or were disabled.

The same was true for students who entered just with the GED, and these were a majority of those admitted. No remedial classes were offered, no student services, no screening other than what admissions provided. If students were admitted with documented learning disabilities, the schools did not have the resources available to accommodate them. In addition to learning disabilities, many students came in with mental and physical disabilities, which the schools also were unable to accommodate. (I worked with one girl who was admitted when the school had nothing more than a magnified computer screen to offer as an accommodation). Given the high national statistic of adults with disabilities (see http://www.ldonline.org/article/6014 ), and the number of welfare recipients with disabilities, you can imagine schools like these were full of needy students. (See http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/workforce/welfare/wfroles.html for a discussion of welfare recipients and disability rates)

While it is true most students were required to pass an admissions test prior to acceptance, there was evidence that some of these test scores were tampered with or "bumped up" in order for admissions reps to meet their quotas. Proprietary school admissions tests do permit students to repeat the test, and so many students entered in this fashion, but what percentage holding the GED would have to be obtained from the testing companies (for example, the Wonderlic http://www.wonderlic.com/). But it is unclear to me if large percentages of students holding the GED can pass such standardized admissions tests; as a teacher, it was obvious in the classroom that these students lacked the necessary background knowledge to succeed without remediation.

Students with criminal records, even if they completed the GED and the vocational program, had and have difficulty being placed into jobs. Most students with a criminal record trying to work with the schools' placement departments could not pass the background checks or security clearances, requirements of many applicants in the high tech industry, an industry dozens of proprietary/vocational schools cater to.

When schools like these go out of business, too many students who enroll after completing just the GED privately or through the criminal justice system are left without certificates, degrees, or jobs. Additionally, since they were not able to complete, they have minimal hands-on education and still no professional or academic references. Many become discouraged and choose not to continue their education at all. But these students still owe on their loans, remain in low paying jobs or unemployed, and so cannot climb out of their pasts and into brighter futures.

Obviously, GED students transitioning to higher education require more counseling and services than students who have successfully completed high school. And in the long run, issues like these, linked to issues in student loans, affect the statistics being presented in Tyler’s report, discouraging statistics that indicate students with GED’s don’t always succeed financially, sometimes short-term, but often long-term as well.

Some states, such as New York, have implemented stronger regulatory measures including on-site supervision by the State Education Departments. Pamphlets (see http://www.highered.nysed.gov/bpss/disclos.htm ) are given to ensure students know how to file a complaint against a school. I believe these are more recent practices (see http://insidehighered.com/news/2006/12/06/qt ), and I am curious in the long run how they will affect graduation and success rates for students who came in holding a GED or less. I also wonder if high-school drop-outs hold the skills and wherewithal to initiate and follow through with such a complaint. I would think a neutral, third-party student advocate would also have to be on site.

Finally, when it comes to servicing GED holders and high school drop-outs, I am not sure publicly held, proprietary schools can effectively provide viable, cost effective classroom and experiential services for students AND please their shareholders at the same time. The push for admissions quotas becomes too strong a temptation to admit students who require services that a school with high tuition and a tight budget cannot provide. Administrators become trapped between making budgets work and making Deans happy, many times leaving teachers and students alike disgruntled.

"....the evidence is that returns to vocational training are quite low, and this is the type of postsecondary 'education' that GED holders tend to get the most of.
Second, we know that (1) the returns to 2-year and 4-year postsecondary education are about the same in the general population, (2) the returns to postsecondary education are about the same for GED holders as for regular high school graduates, and (3) unfortunately, GED holders tend to get very little postsecondary education from 2- and 4-year colleges relative to regular high school graduates."

August 2, 2007

Dear AG Cuomo and Staff-

Thank you very much for your heroic persistence in getting to the roots of student loan corruption nationally, not just for residents of our state. I am personally cheered by each one of your new and vital discoveries towards connecting the dots and correcting these wrongs.

I hope you prevail in your every effort to correct this terribly unjust and predatory sector of the financial industry.

I hope you are able to pioneer a means to make student loan debt dischargeable under and without file bankruptcy after a trial of time, hardship and or disability confirms that in some cases student debtors just can't pay- as you asserted in your testimony before Congress. Debtors in student loandefaults, sanity and well-being is worth more than the government's or private lenders' right to never let age out and never ever write off highly aged receivables of paupers and people with disabilities- in every case.

Social Security, SSD and SSI were not intended as collateral for government and private student loans. The concept is un-American. People came to America because debtors' prisons are not legal here. If anything represents the American way- it is that everyone should be allowed a clean slate and a freshstart after a devastating financial misjudgement or bad luck. How is it that only educational debtors are held in virtual debtor's prison in perpetuityinto the 21st century in the United States of America?

I am very much a victim of this cruel, self-serving system. My average income has been under the poverty range my entire adult life. I have been on some sort of social support almost all of my life- even when I was employed, because I made so little money. I have a severe combination of disabilities that went unnamed and undiagnosed, preventing me from graduating from college and entering the career for which I trained.
I have had my meager bank account attached, income tax refunds targeted for offset. I paid back the principal about twice over in a garnish, which created terrible privation by eating up my carfare to get to work and impoverishing me as a single mother and my daughter without recourse. They still say I owe over 12 thousand dollars when I only borrowed $3,500 originally.

The private collection agent for the US Dept. of Education illegally threatened and lied to the chief financial officer and my former workplace itself to expedite the implementation of the garnish and rally my supervisors against my plight, ultimately contributing to my being laid off in 2005.
When I lost my job I had a lot of debt and no chance of repaying it. With regrets, I filed for bankruptcy on my daughter's birthday, shortly before the B-R laws changed in late 2005 and was granted a discharge of all allowable debts in early 2006 under Chapter 7.

My lawyer successfully negotiated asettlement for a $2,000 NYS HEA student loan (1968-1974), but was not able to engage seriously, let alone negotiate with the contract collection agency ofthe US Department of Education, which held my National Defense and National Direct Loans of the same era. The contract agents of the US Department ofEducation did not feel they needed to treat my attorney in a professional manner and didn't. His efforts to help resolve this most devastating mistake of my life- borrowing to go to college when there was no hope I could graduate- were totally frustrated and exercised in vain. This same collection agency turnedaround and taunted me for enlisting legal help. The Progressive collection agent, Mr. McGrith, lied and said I had not properly engaged this counsel as my legal agent on some unnamed technicality and demanded that I make promises to him to repay when there was insufficient money coming in for the foreseeable future. He shouted at me, called me at extremes of day and night abused, threatened, lied to, intimidated and harassed me in an attempt to collect money that I could not produce. Then he flipped the loan unilaterally into consolidation without my consent to lock in interest rates and re-start the clockon a 32 year old student loan at zero again. Progressive dispatched the bloated, aged loan to yet another agency called NCO, based near Philadephia/Trenton, with the an agent called Robert Bruton who seems to have disappeared since.

I admire all the valuable work you have done for future college students and their families, but please remember to support relief for past victims of injustice of student loan corruption. Our congress people talked a good talk in anticipation of the discussions around the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, which recently passed in both houses without any measure whatsoever of justice for past victims, leaving us as desperate as ever.
The return of bankruptcy relief and relief without having to file bankruptcy for student debtors after reasonable tests for hardship or disability after afixed number of calendar years is only fair and right.

Please tell me if there is anything I could do or that my friends could do to help bring this to reality. Be assured that I will support your implementing this legal change in any way possible. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to someone on your staff toward this end.

You have been the brightest star and the only hope for us undischargeable student debtors. I am so proud to be a New Yorker in light of your leadership in this vital human rights issue.

Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.

Heather Dunbar
New York State Leader
Van Etten NY
I'd like to respond to the question posed on a listserv of whether or not GED prep teachers are enabling students who enroll in their programs.

Ethically, I think there is something to be said about working in a system as it is being improved. I've worked in systems like these in both the private and public sectors, non-profit and for-profit, live and online. The sectors have included adult learners, ESOL students, and high-school drop-outs.

There is a range of programmatic transition affecting seekers and holders of the GED, and some impact students more than others.

What I am getting from this discussion is that students pursuing the GED:

1. Require one-on-one time, dedication, and instruction;
2. Require more instruction and assistance in transitioning to postsecondary education;
3. Require follow-up support after obtaining the GED and beginning to work at long-term goals.

Some programs that support these needs are already in place, and others require further development. For example, when teaching the GED prep course, I used a highly structured curriculum that did not allow much time for discussion of transitioning, long-term goal setting, or anything other than passing the test. Now, some students did pass the test. They were high level students with already set goals and skills to get them past this first step. But some others did not pass the test. Was I enabling them? Possibly. Did they have other options at the time? Yes. Did they leave the class better prepared than they were before they entered? Yes. Did they leave the class having lost anything? No (unless they paid the nominal fee and just never showed up, and even then, they might have lost only $75.00 or so).

The same cannot be said for vocational programs that charge high tuition and may offer no further benefits to high school drop-outs than what low-cost programs offer. As we discussed, some of these programs can be found in publicly held, proprietary schools in which Dr. Tyler points out are filled with students holding the GED; there may be no measurable effect on high school drop-outs' earnings when they attend these schools. This brings me round to a previous discussion from NIFL on online assessment. (http://www.nifl.gov/pipermail/assessment/2007/date.html)

Having taught online for about five years, much of it contract, I have worked with a range of programs, including those from publicly held, proprietary schools. When I say "publicly held," I mean these schools are run by corporations. They are traded on the stock market. They have a Board of Directors. Employees and outsiders buy stocks. In my opinion, these schools did great injustice to high school drop-outs.

One school hired student support faculty while undergoing accreditation, only to let them go once the school had what it needed (I am not sure if they were on the stock market or not). One publicly held IT school charging high tuition seemed to have changed its curriculum for some students, mid program. Students expecting to receive live education were suddenly required to complete general education courses, including writing, online. They were ill prepared to do so.

Students who enter career schools usually do so because typical postsecondary routes of education either appear unattainable to them or do not fit their needs and goals. These are highly auditory and/or kinesthetic learners, often learning disabled, who would never opt to take an online course unless required to do so. In addition, not only did the online program intrude on their selected majors, the technical environment itself changed mid-program: the school switched to a poorly developed software that had so many limitations and bugs, neither teacher nor student could succeed. (For example, comments on quizzes, assignments, and essays were limited to so many characters, leaving little room for feedback.)

The drop rate for these online classes was beyond belief. Students were provided minimal live resources. If a student was having a particular problem understanding the material, my only option as an instructor was to refer him or her to the dean who might or might not respond. Most times, the feedback I got from students was that the dean was too busy to set them up with tutoring or further support. The schools had high turnover of faculty and administration.

Late submissions, many after the course ended, were the norm--meaning, of course, I worked beyond my contract period and students who had already received a final grade continued to submit work. I was expected to grade these and change the final grades; I did so for the sake of the students who had been struggling with the IT issues. Other more serious ethical issues came up continuously, plagiarism being a primary one. In addition, I was asked to change a student's final grade after I submitted final grades to the dean, without the student completing additional work. What happened to these students? Surely, they ended up back in the pool that Dr. Tylor describes, and they took out loans to do so.

If you look at blended and pure online models presented in the assessment discussion, good online programs require screening to determine whether or not a student is suited for online learning. They provide constant support (as we do weekly in PWC where we use Project Connect in conjunction with live, weekly sessions), and they do not set students up for failure financially or academically. There ARE such programs out there. But I have yet to see it in the publicly held sector. Because of this, as I said before, I am skeptical that publicly held, proprietary schools can provide what students (and shareholders) need. Perhaps some school will prove me wrong, and this would be a boon for all. In the meantime, however, there are GED holders and high school drop-outs holding high debt, no meaningful education, and impoverished futures.

Look for more personal stories as this post is updated.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Morning Meditations

photo courtesy of http://www.webshots.com/
I'm in my morning stream of consciousness mode, so forgive me if I meander a bit. I'm drinking coffee and ridding my senses of sleepiness, and sometimes that's a great time to write. Other times, well, depending on what you are writing and whom you are addressing, it can be not such a good thing. It's one reason I started my web page and blogging. I found myself trying to clarify my thoughts and ideas to an inappropriate audience (i.e. nearly strangers who might misinterpret the intent or not care or not understand), and it finally occurred to me (DUH!) that as a writer and a thinker, I had something to say. I should say it somewhere else. So here I am at Poetry and Polemics discussing the Luxurious Choices we make in life and how those choices might affect the world.

Here's a choice: decide who your audience will be. Try to avoid total Internet wackos. I define a wacko as someone who wants to move Internet animosity from the net to real life. Obviously, when you have a blog, there is always this risk, but there are so many blogs and some of them so much more radical that I would be a boring target. I might raise a few eyebrows in my own community, but I don't think I am saying anything universally troubling or so far "out there" that a wacko would choose ME as a target.

It occurs to me I might be daring trouble by putting that statement out there, but it's a fact of blogging and Internet life that there are some not-so-kind people who take it to the next level and bring it into the physical world. Then again, it might be some of these people have already brought it to the physical world and are just now bringing it to the web-world. It depends on the wacko.

Remember, I am mostly talking about hatred and violence here. I'm not talking about eccentrics (goodness....that would be ME!) or even people that might look radical on the page but are not in real life. Some of those people are just doing it for effect, to get a little more attention. Some of them are just venting. Some of them are serious, though, and that, as my friend Kathleen just wrote to me, is scary. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the venting and curious from the real and serious wackos. Hatred is scary stuff.

I know I am sometimes offensive to people here on my blog, and in general, unless I get picked on, I don't care. I don't think I have been picked on, but if I WERE...I would be really pissed (is "pissed" a swear?) and argue it's my right to express free speech. It's my right to go to public meetings and say what I will. It is NOT my right to inflict my beliefs personally on others or take my personal angst physically out on individuals. So, for example, I'm not fond of some of my local politicians' decisions or their public manifestations of their beliefs. But I wouldn't try to run them over. There's the difference.

Writing, journalism, participation in democracy....that is free speech. "I (might) disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" so long as it's not intruding on MY freedom. If you are radical and have something to say, I think you ought to save it for the right forum. And try not to be mean. Save it for the polls or something even more public. But keep it organized and peaceful, please.

This brings me to the topic of marches. When I was a kid, I used to watch marches all the time on television. My parents weren't ones to shield me from the evening news, and I saw a lot of bigotry and hatred live. I also watched movies like Billy Jack, and my sense of moral and social justice was deeply offended at an early age. I am quite sure I have not grown out of that.

I was quiet as a kid. I had a hard time expressing my thoughts and feelings, partly because I was just that way vocally, and partly because my father, the stern Sicilian, mandated it. I "knew my place" as a child and as a female. I was the underdog, the only girl child. Many of my thoughts went to paper and not to my parents, and so I thought a lot.

I remember sitting in Kindergarten while the teacher read a Raggedy Ann story to the class. I couldn't have cared less about Raggedy Ann. I was thinking, "Why are we here...on the planet?" Yesterday, my ten year old asked me the very same thing as we were volunteering at a food pantry. I was taken aback by the sudden question, not that we hadn't discussed this before, but because of her timing. "Getting philosophical, are we?" I asked. "We are here to make the world a better a place." I spared her my beliefs on reincarnation and how we are forced to live with the decisions we make now and the kind of planet we have created.

We've discussed these beliefs of mine before, but I told her those are MY beliefs. We've talked about other beliefs as well (heaven/hell, for example). I'd like her to be exposed to all kinds of beliefs, by ultimately, I would like my kids to believe in some kind of God and believe in making the world a better place. They can choose the venue for that later. There's plenty of time for them to choose a particular doctrine if they want. Or if they don't want. I'm not hung up on doctrine.

I AM hung up on non-violence. Oh yeah. This brings me back to marches. I like the idea of marches. What I don't like is a march at which some perhaps initially well-intentioned person loses his/her head and acts in such a way that undermines the march. When I watched the marches on television as a kid, I saw a lot of that. Such group behavior made me sick and scared. Group behavior in general scares me to this day. The mob mentality is horrifying. If you want to see a scary movie, watch the most recent making of War of the Worlds. Absolutely human nature at its worst in some scenes. I got that same sick feeling I used to get as a kid.

Lots of historical things were happening right before my birth that affected my family, and of course, these things followed me through childhood. Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, the year of my brother's birth, brought memories back for my mother who remembered watching it. She relayed it to us. The Kennedy assassinations. Woodstock. Viet Nam. Watergate. The Cold War. Kent State. These were backdrops of my childhood. And the people who actually lived these things were my role models. Very confusing and frightening indeed.

I think about bringing up children in this current time of war and cultural strife and how that will affect them in the future. I want them to be able to make sense of it all without being as scared as I was. I don't know if we can avoid that all together, and a little of the emotion that goes with world events is not always a bad thing. I think about the children here and abroad who are scarred by war every day, and I remember how lucky we are here in spite of our sometimes ridiculous national selves. And I thank God I am here. But that doesn't mean we get to ignore the rest of the world and live in our personal Nirvanas. I think that's irresponsible. Constant day dreaming isn't something the world can afford.

Anyway....here's what I think about in the morning. That's sort of scary in itself, isn't it? Some people wake up with a kind of tabula rasa. Not me. I think I process this stuff all night and bring it to the mornings with me. It's sometimes hard having busy-brain like this. But I wouldn't give it up. It's important to me. So I will just take my usual nap later. An hour off in the afternoon isn't going to kill anyone, and that's more than we can say for other choices we make in life.

To this new day and the choices we make. May peace be with us.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mysteries of the Melting Pot

I've been thinking about the myth of the "melting pot." The "melting pot" theory has been under fire (hee hee hee....punny) because it implies everyone comes to the United States, somehow integrates into a homogeneous group, and thereby creates a new group called Americans, something like melting down metals to create construction girders. But do we really all want to be melted down like this? I know I don't.

I come from two distinct ethnic groups, but both Mediterranean: Lebanese and Sicilian. However, my own exposure to these cultures were minimal, partly because my immediate family has split, moved, and has become otherwise disconnected in some ways, and partly because we are missing some history on my Mother's side.

My mother's father was Lebanese. My mother's mother's origin was a mix, but somewhat unknown. We think she had some French blood, but whether that was French Canadian or France-French, I couldn't tell you. I suspect, given the origins of her birth in Lowell, MA it was Canadian.

From what I can tell, my grandfather's family came through Ellis Island with the name "Farrah." Some of the family either changed the name to "Farah," or it was misspelled during immigration. In the Arabic language, these names have different pronunciations.

My grandfather's family settled in Ashton, Nebraska. Why Nebraska? I they were part of the many waves of immigrants attracted to the meat packing industry, thriving in that part of the country. The family opened a small store in the area. After the store burnt down (and the family lost all their birth records), they heard other relatives had moved to Lowell, so they migrated again during the turn-of-the century textile-industrial boom of the late 1800's early 1900's.

My grandfather spent decades as a single father, moving the family from one cold-water flat to another, trying to keep everyone together in a time when single fathers had to fight Social Services to keep from having the children put in the city orphanage.

In the 1950's my mother worked as an assembler in the still-standing Boott Mill which had moved from the cotton industry to electronics. My mother stapled wires to televisions moving by on a conveyor belt. She tells of the time she fell behind and climbed on the belt, jumping over over boxes to catch herself up, eventually shutting down the whole assembly process, to her utter embarrassment.

By the time I was late into my childhood, my grandfather had finally moved into a nice, subsidized apartment building that ironically, has been turned into dorms for the college I attended as an undergrad.

My exposure to my Lebanese roots consisted of Kibbe, stuffed grape leaves, large and loud family gatherings, and warm hugs and kisses from everyone. We would visit my grandfather some Sundays, go to Joseph's bakery and buy fresh pita bread, meat pies and spinach pies. The bakery is no longer there.

My mother tells me that her father and aunts spoke some Arabic, that her father at least knew how to swear in Arabic. We had some distant cousins further away whom I never met, and they might have spoken more Arabic. Sadly, most of the little Lebanese culture I got first-hand has been lost to me since the passing of my grandfather and his sisters and the further migration of our family.

Later in life, I would get some second-hand exposure through the Lowell Folk Festival. And I just now bought some spinach pies in a Manassas store I didn't know was near me. YUMMY!!! I am glad to have these reminders of my mother and her family.

The Sicilian side of my family came over via both sets of my great-grandparents on my father's side, through Ellis Island in an attempt to escape the MAFIA. The MAFIA followed them to Cambridge and Boston. At least one relative of my deceased grandfather was a bookie, but I am not sure what else he might have been.

My grandfather worked first for a NECCO sugar-wafer-candy plant, and later for the Harvard Coop in the shipping department. He would bring us throw-aways from the bookstore and tell us stories about the American Hari Krishnas on the corners of Harvard Square. He described the race riots and his hasty retreat home one day in the 1960's when things were really heating up. Later, my grandfather volunteered to sit on juries, experiences he recorded by hand in a black binder he entitled "Joe on Jury."

My Sicilian heritage includes lots of pasta and bread-based food, large Holiday gatherings, loud laughter, and Christmas presents from every Uncle, Aunt, brother, sister, distant aunt, uncle, cousin...amazing numbers of presents and a visit from Santa Claus, my grandfather with an old suit and a taped on beard. How my grandmother, a broad shouldered, strong Sicilian woman would laugh and laugh.

Some weekends, we would go to the North End of Boston where my grandfather and father would buy fresh fruit from street vendors. Shops with plucked chickens and cow slabs hung from meat hooks, visible from open windows. My mother was appalled.

After, we would go to the Feasts, where Italians would parade through the streets, carrying a statue (usually of St. Anthony) on a decorated pallet, the crowd pinning money to the figure as the pallet-bearers passed. Ladies hung from open windows and called down in Italian to the parade. They dropped dollar bills and waved.

I don't like to cook, and I don't like olives. But I wish I had more ethnic connections like these, and I know I am not alone in this wish. Crafting traditions like memory quilting and scrapbooking revive and hand down memories from generation to generation, while genealogy searches have become an intriguing past time for thousands of Americans. We have an innate desire to know our roots, to understand our relationship to the world at large and to celebrate our heritage. First generation immigrants understand the value of these roots. But often the roots begin to grow out far and wide, and coming back to them takes great effort.

Other times, though, the roots stay closer together. My sister-in-law, for example, took many hours to research my husband's family history. It turns out, their family were immigrants from Germany, butchers, descendants of the Lord Fairfax family. They are original Virginians, which is interesting in this time of mobility and flux.

When we reject immigrants, we reject our own histories and cultures. We forget about our own roots, ignore the beautiful variety of our own heritage. And we have a harder time accepting everyone else's as a result. There is nothing like a walk through our family's past to remind us where we came from and why.

We are Americans. That's a special kind of thing. But it's not all one thing. And that's a great thing.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Flags, God and The Great Controversy

photo courtesy of http://www.webshots.com/
And yet another stimulating topic generated by my brother Michael, a certain leader in independent and possibly offensive thinking. Personally, since I know Michael to be a mellow and kind person on the whole, I am not offended. I offend him by editing his word choice, but I don't edit his ideas. Maybe that is what I will do with comments sent my way that include cussing. Edit out the cussing.

Jackass isn't a swear. Too bad Blogger doesn't have a cuss editor. But ENOUGH on the FREAKING cussing topic.

On to better things, here is the discussion brought up via Michael, and my responses follow. Feel free to jump into the fray. If you want some background, see The Politics of Resentment.

Regarding the Floridian Motorcycle Man and His Fellow Neighborhood Speeders:

"It's definitely a cultural issue. And it's not just the cars. It's the speeding and drag racing of the cars as well. 9/10 of the time, you will see a Puerto Rican flag made out of beads hanging from their rear view mirror...just as they cut you off within mere inches of scraping your front bumper, as they did with 10 other cars behind you. Is this a racial stereotype? Sure it is. But it's a pretty accurate one from what I've personally experienced.

Oh, and if you think Mom would ever go up to a nice Spanish speaking guy and ask him to stop speeding...you've obviously been raised with Bizaro Mom from the parallel world where she doesn't fear being conked by everyone. Thing is, I can't say I'd blame her for that one. They're usually punks. And yes, I am speaking again from personal experience...not to be confused with a racist conclusion. Keep in mind, I was also a driver for Domino's...and practically the only "white guy."

From experience, I would say that the attitude and driving etiquette improves slightly with age and maturity...like in pretty much all cultures. Of course, the same cannot be said for all individuals. And the ones who still have flags on their mirror tend not to be those individuals.
Solution: BAN ALL FLAGS!!! :-P

(That sounds WAY better than the sign that slogan originally came off of.)

To which I responded:

I have to remind you: Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

And even punks sometimes respond nicely to nice people. I've talked to a few in my lifetime. They might make faces at you behind your back, but so what? If this punk is your NEIGHBOR..it's not like you are walking up to some gang and saying, "Excuse me, noble group representing your ethic heritage, would you please refrain from speeding?" He's your NEIGHBOR. You have the right to ask. Just practice in Spanish first....in case. Besides. That "punk" might turn out to be a nice guy!

I agree. In our Utopia, ban all flags. Including the Confederate ones we have flying in places around here. They ALL have become a source of angst.

To which Michael Responded:

You know...it's interesting. Even many religions ban the use of any and all flags because it "turns worship away from God." I wonder if there may indeed be some wisdom to that. When we get behind a flag, we are agreeing to lump ourselves in with a group of people and lose our own individuality. We are then victim to any stereotypes and prejudices that group may represent. I wonder if "turning away from God" is really just another way of looking at "turning away from ourselves." We are no longer defined as who we are, but rather who we are with.

On a side note (something else to stir up trouble about) as far as the "Pledge" in school goes...I know that I certainly wouldn't want my kids pledging their allegiances to ANYONE....other than themselves and their loved ones. They're not old enough to decide if they want to pledge their allegiance to a flag...let alone the country it supposedly represents. That's like brainwashing at an early age, telling them to "pledge their allegiance" at age 5...making them promise that they'll never decide another country might be better than theirs. Kids should NOT be patriotic. The age where you may decide if you're a patriot should be the same age that you're are allowed to vote.

Also (to stir up even more trouble and extend this response longer than it was previously intended), as a fully cognitive adult, I do NOT pledge my allegiance to this country or to ANY country. I live to be happy, and to be left alone by people who would have it otherwise. If for some reason I was sufficiently unhappy, I would leave. My allegiance is to myself and those I care about. It is to them that I pledge...not to the United States government, under God or otherwise. And don't give me the guilt trip about all the soldiers who died to give me this freedom or that freedom. This sort of "non-allegiance" is EXACTLY what they fought and died for. If I had no place else to go, I would damn sure fight too...and do so proudly. It would not be for my "country"...but for my own personal right to be left the hell alone.

Okay, I'm done. This was meant to be a lot funnier, but somehow I got into a political rant. I'm sure there are a LOT of people out there who COMPLETELY disagree with me on these issues and would call me a spoiled jackass with no real knowledge of the world and no respect for the veterans and blah blah blah.....I don't care. I've heard it all before and none of it changes how I feel about this. The only way we can truly start making peace is if we do so on a deeply personal level. You just can't do it by leading mass armies over to political hotspots to weed out dissent. The bottom line is, if every soldier on every side in every country suddenly said "You know what? Screw this...I have a lady friend at home, and gosh darn it I'm taking her out on a picnic" (or something to that effect)...as simplistic as it sounds, war really wouldn't be an issue.

Seriously. If everyone...just for ONCE...all at the same time...decided to focus on things that matter to them and only them, then the problems of the world would be reduced to a single issue. That issue would stand out clearly and everyone who was not originally involved in its formation would be able to remember exactly "what started it all." Then the people who finally realized that they were never really a part of the struggle can just sit back and enjoy life...casually watching as the original architects of the conflict destroy themselves by refusing to break the cycle of vengeance. A bit heady? Well, to put it simply..."Let the presidents fight the war...don't send the poor."

To which I responded:

Wow. Loaded entry. Let's take this an issue at a time.

First, I am a huge proponent of individuality. But I am not convinced pledging the flag detracts from my personal beliefs or my own individuality. I used to believe that, but I have changed my mind. My prerogative. In Utopia, we can ban flags (if it doesn't detract from the Utopian-ness of our made-up world). But in reality....here we are.

I view pledging the flag as a symbol of national unity, that we have the same goals: liberty and justice for all. I am pledging to an ideal, not a piece of cloth. I want my kids to do the same. Remember, I am a big Thoreau fan. Thoreau preached the ideal of individuality, but he was an American and chose to be. He practiced his own sense of social conscience and did so by taking from great American traditions of individualism and freedom. He left his family and his town for awhile, and then he joined them again. He didn't kill anyone or beat anyone up for not believing in what he did.

My pledge does not box me into any particular religious tradition. I translate "one nation under God" as whatever you believe God is, even if that's no god at all. "God" is the word we use for all we don't understand. To me, if you really don't believe in God, you believe we are capable of running our lives and our world, which requires a tremendous amount of personal responsibility if done correctly. So "under God" is just a term. So is "In God We Trust." Translate it however you want. No one says you have to be forced-fed a generic translation. Use you sense of deconstruction. Fundamentalists do it all the time.

I love our soldiers, and you are correct that they fight and die for my right to make any of these statements and to publish yours as well. I would fight for those rights, but I wouldn't engage in someone else's civil war that has been raging for centuries and cannot be resolved from outside, violent intrusion. If the United Nations decided to go in and settle this, that would be one thing. But the world does not like war, so our President ought to get the message.

I don't like that our soldiers are being killed. I don't like that people kill each other over religion or disparage one another for their beliefs. In my mind, live and let live. We can duke out the particulars with Congress, but I mean "duke it out" in the intellectual sense. Please, let's not reduce ourselves to our lowest instincts. We can do better than that.

Here's a seg to something that really bugged the hell out me: the radical that disrupted a Hindu prayer and then was defended with, "This is not a religion that has produced great things in the world." WHAT? Hinduism was one of the first known religions of the world, the parent of Buddhism, the theory behind reaching for insight and human/spiritual evolution. Hindus gave us popular notions of Transcendental Meditation, Transcendentalism, stunning architecture, and besides that...great, natural food and yummy specialty foods. You don't have to believe in many gods to be a Hindu. See the "Concept of God." And even if you choose to believe in many gods, you can also choose to see these as manifestations of a SINGLE God. Religions that espouse a trinity do this. So what? I personally believe there are many, many manifestations of God, including US. Get over it. And stop being so insecure in your own beliefs that you feel the need to condemn others. It's rude and annoying.

New seg to Islamic persecution in this country. Not all Islamics believe in violent Jihad:

Jihad, sometimes spelled Jahad, Jehad, Jihaad, (Arabic: جهاد IPA: [ ʤi'hæːd]) as an Islamic term, is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam, although it occupies no official status as such in Sunni Islam.[1] In TwelverG> Shi'a Islam,however, Jihad (Holy Struggle) is one of the 10 Practices of the Religion. It can also be translated as 'To Strive'.

Not all followers of Jihad believe in killing. Remember the Old Testament, "An Eye for an Eye"? Recall the Crusades? Do all from Christian and Jewish descents believe that? Of course not. Go argue with Wikipedia and history if you want. Go argue with numerous followers of Islam. But do it respectfully and don't do it with guns.

Did I respond to all of your points, Michael? I hope so.