Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Slackers

Recently, I posted the Slacker's Guide to the Presidency. It turns out that I needn't have bothered. Since his inauguration, Trump and his Congress have kept themselves very busy fouling our drinking water, making sure the insane can get access to guns, keeping us safe from doctors and grad students and babies, in-securing the nation's nuclear stockpile, going to war with China, going to war with Mexico, going to war with Australia (?!?), making education more like Amway, screwing people out of their retirement savings, and "fixing" healthcare. In fact, though I might be inclined to criticize such a thing so early in his term, I'm thrilled the President chose to go on vacation so much already. In fact, I think the more time he spends out of the Oval Office, and away from pens, the better.

Though I'm no longer worried about the President's productivity, I am increasingly concerned about my own. Paying ultra-close attention to the opening month of the presidency, the chaotic transition that previewed it, the endless general election season that gave birth to it, and the infinite gut-wrenching primary season before that has diverted so much of my time and energy that I'm concerned that the muscle memory be permanent. I do realize that the theme of this blog suggests that weak productivity is more a chronic condition than acute, but this is different. The Slacker's Guide is supposed to be about getting more from less, not something from nothing. There is a point at which work, home, farm, and family all start to seriously suffer--especially since it's not like we were talking about a breakneck pace of effort to begin with.

And so, the Slacker's Guide will delve into something I've mostly avoided so far: Self Help.

Before I go on, let me clarify that I mean literal self help. I don't expect anyone but me to get anything out of this, other than a tasty dollop of schadenfreude. It's written in second person because my style guide demands it for these lists, not because I actually want anyone else do any of this.

The Slacker's Guide to Productivity, during the Advent of the Apocalypse:
  1. Do something: Typical self help advice recommends prioritizing work according to deadlines or importance. Okay, but let's adjust that down a tidge. If the task of the greatest importance or nearest looming deadline is walling off attempts at anything, let's break through that. Meeting deadlines is more likely if you start by do something and gently slide over into doing something more pressingly necessary.
  2.  Make a list: Never having found a satisfying replacement for the Palm to-do list has been a handy excuse, but it is possible to put this stuff on paper. I guess. Making a list doesn't guarantee anything actually gets done, but it's possible that having to face a growing collection of things undone right there in black and white might direct some of that low-grade guilt.
  3. Take up arts and crafts: A friend of mine spent lots of his free time the last year sharpening his artistic skills by photoshopping his cats into superheroes--by the way, he has a newly minted doctorate in chemical engineering, so there is a considerable intellect being thus directed, and precious little free time. Meanwhile, I spent the last year reading political blogs. It slowly dawned on me that through his efforts he had both a new skill and a body of work to show for it. Also, no cats are harmed. As such, the cats have neither more nor less contempt for him than they had to start with. I on the other hand have, well, this world we live in. It may time to log some recording studio time, or break out that novel, or... something. Actually, Slacker Guide writing kind of falls into this category, so maybe this is going well already.
  4. Go visiting: This is sometimes a great way to drag someone else's productivity down closer to your own, but occasionally a face-to-face conversation with a smart colleague can accidentally yield a good idea. Very occasionally, that good idea may be related to work, and you've done something productive rather by accident.
  5.  Do mindless tasks: Cleaning a desk or a coffeepot, filing stuff, organizing drawers, and such doesn't take the creative energy that seems to be so lacking right now. Also, stuff like this usually comes with something visible at the end to show for it. As a bonus, nothing helps to kick a real to-do list into being like mindless busy work. I find that by the time I've put the first pen away, I've already remembered six things that require my attention right now.
  6. Plan rewards: Holding out a social media break until after the forms are filled out is pretty standard advice, but do it anyway. Going right for that dopamine rush of checking if there's been an impeachment so far today is not getting things headed in the right direction. You just checked again, didn't you. Ugh.
  7. Don't just eat something: The hole in your psyche is too large for even a whole sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies to fill up. Trust me, I checked. Eating for sustenance, or even pleasure, is a fine thing, but that's not what we're talking about here is it? Some of this plan is about literal survival during the coming clusterstorm, and you're not helping things from a cholesterol, lipids, and blood sugar point of view.
Pithy lists notwithstanding, I'm very worried about the scalability of my problem. It's one thing for a lone Slacker to have a rough couple of weeks (months, years...). It's quite another for the majority of us who voted against this president to suddenly be unable to do anything. I mean, we've gotten pretty good at angry protests, mean tweets, and hilarious memes. We've probably even gotten under Himself's rather thin skin--I, for one, am literally trying to get him to respond to me personally on Twitter in hopes of increasing my followers and readers (it's a long shot, but not impossible given his habits). But to what end? Will we still remember how to do things when it's time to Make America Great Again...Again? What happens when we've burned off all of our anger and are left with nothing more than outrage soot?

I don't know, but I'm going to try. Or at least try to try. I'm going to try to break free from the enormous gravity of my own suffering and attempt to get back at it. Right after I check Twitter and Facebook, read this one article, and finish my cookie.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Oh, You Were Finished. Well Allow Me to Retort.

An open letter to my Senator. His letter in italics, my response in bold.

February 7, 2017
Dear Sir,

Thank you for contacting me about the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. I appreciate hearing from you.

Ah, no. You do not in fact appreciate hearing from me. Your voicemail was jammed for weeks, in all of your PA offices, plus DC. Eventually you started diverting us to your website where you can more effectively data-mine us. I should have misspelled something so that I could better keep track of what junk mail and dinnertime phone calls my response on your website generates. Keep in mind, I'm perfectly satisfied with my long-distance carrier. 

Related: Dear Sam's Club, I didn't intentionally misspell Tripple H Farm, but that's how I learned this trick.

As you know, on January 20, 2017, President Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as the Secretary of Education. For 28 years, Secretary DeVos worked on behalf of children, parents, and teachers to ensure that all children, regardless of income level or zip code, are not trapped in low-performing or failing schools. Because of Secretary DeVos's work to expand charter schools, virtual schools, school choice, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts, hundreds of thousands of children that had been trapped in low-performing and failing schools have gained access to a quality education. 

Okay, Secretary DeVos's fetish for charter schools isn't all bad. I too would love to teach in a school where we could hand-pick all of our students. Under the current system, a single student with extraordinary special needs can consume so many resources that I'll never be able to afford that harp (harps? harp classroom?!?) I've had my eye on. Cyber schools are a whole other thing, but that's another blog post. In reality, though, the Secretary doesn't work for my imaginary fancy, shiny, public/private charter school that only teaches the most motivated Slackers. She works for all of the students that I'd be not so interested in taking. The reason we have a National Department of Education is so a kid with special needs doesn't receive a worse education because she lives in Pennsyltucky

  Secretary DeVos understands the necessity of a high quality education for all Americans, including students with disabilities. Secretary DeVos is dedicated to enforcing the rights of students with disabilities and giving them the best education possible-including giving their parents the freedom to choose the best school or environment to help their children thrive. Secretary DeVos has also stated that she will direct the Department of Education to fund research on evidence-based practices that best aid in educating students with disabilities.

This is so entirely not true! Did you catch even the highlight reel of her confirmation hearing? Does "choose the best school or environment" mean that she's going to force private, parochial, and charter schools to accept every student? Is she going to use Federal dollars to cover the gap between the cost of educating typical students and students with profound special needs, a history of violence, or other expensive/complicated/disgusting qualities? If that's the plan, I'll stop right now, but I think we both know that's not the plan. Can you imagine the Right's reaction to the Federal government either compelling all schools to take all students, or shoving so much money at the problem that there are plenty of resources for every student?

  Like Secretary DeVos, I have long been a supporter of education reforms that allow parents to choose the schools their children attend. No one cares more about a child, or knows a child better, than the child's parents. Giving parents the ability to choose the best school for their children can only help children achieve their potential. Many states and cities around the country have already implemented successful school choice programs, resulting in increased test scores, graduation rates, and a brighter future for children.

This will work great if you fully fund the whole thing, but let's be realistic. Fully funding education (including my harp, and a few new pianos if you don't mind) has never been a priority. Your goal is to divert money from already strapped public schools and funnel it to non-public schools. I am sure that Lebanon Catholic (my alma mater) will benefit from such an arrangement--Lebanon School District, not so much. Unless you do that must-accept-every-student thing, mentioned above. 

  These reforms are a positive game-changer for our country by harnessing badly needed competition to lift education standards for all children - especially those from lower income families who often otherwise must attend sub-par schools.

Sub-par schools are a problem, but offering a choice to parents who can cover their share of tuition out of struggling schools and allowing the money to follow the student just increases the gap. The paragraph above indicates that you're interested in increasing opportunities for all children, but the methods you've laid out here do not accomplish this goal.

  On February 7, 2017, the Senate voted 50-50 on Mrs. DeVos's nomination to be Secretary of Education, with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaking vote to confirm her. I look forward to working with Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education to ensure that all children are able to attain a quality education.

I feel very stupid for ever thinking there was suspense here. Mitch McConnell calculated exactly the number of votes he could spare and gave them to two very vulnerable Senators. Your vote was never in play. Your independence, that you demonstrated by never giving a straight answer on whether you were voting for Trump until 6:45 PM on Election Night, was never going to be applied to this. I find myself wondering if you have any independence at all. Does calling my Senator, or writing him letters, have any impact on someone who will vote with the leadership on anything? Signaling to the President that the Senate will occasionally block his worst ideas could have been done in this case. Ms. DeVos was either a nice little reward to a huge Republican donor, or the first step in dismantling the Department of Education. More on that in a moment. 

  Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.

Count on it, sir. You're not going to develop a spine, I don't think, but that doesn't mean that I have any intention of letting up on you. PA went red in the last election, and that's a puzzle I'm still working on. You slipped through on the momentum of a candidate that ran on a very different set of values than what he's been governing on. Killing the Department of Education--which, let's be honest, Secretary DeVos has been charged with doing during her term, unless the Congress gets there first--may be a Republican value, but it's not a PA value. You are honor-bound to serve us, and though I didn't vote for you, I didn't do nearly as much as I could have to defeat you. That is a mistake I will not make again. 

Pat Toomey
U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania 

Your Friendly Neighborhood Slacker