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A Rock and a Hard Place: A Story About Poverty and Wishful Thinking

A Rock and a Hard Place

A Rock and a Hard Place:  A Story about Poverty and Wishful Thinking

H. Bradford

3.11.19


I grew up poor.   Of course, poor is relative, and to some degree, everyone was poor where I grew up in rural Minnesota.  The median household income in Cromwell in  2016 was $26,094.  In contrast, Duluth, a city about an hour away, has a median household income of $45,950 So, it is a poor area for this region.  Against this backdrop, my family was poor, owing to the fact that only one of my parents regularly worked outside of the home for most of my childhood, my father’s employment was fraught with periods of layoffs and injury, and because my parents were very young when they had me (my mother was in high school).  While I wasn’t the poorest of the poor and benefited from support from my grandparents, I grew up aware that we didn’t have the nicest home (a trailer in the woods), best toys, braces for my teeth, other families seemed to have more, and that finances stressed my parents out.   I remember one winter when my father was laid off of work, we ate potatoes and eggs during January and February.  I remember wanting things to be better for my parents.  I remember, in about the first grade, wishing that Santa would bring us more money.   As a child, I really didn’t have the tools to understand poverty, how it works, how to escape it, or that escape from poverty is atypical.  In my immature mindset, poverty was something best escaped through some miraculous circumstance.  For instance, Charlie Bucket escaped poverty by finding a golden ticket in his chocolate bar and surviving the maniacal factory trials of a mad capitalist by virtue of his….virtue.  The Beverly Hillbillies escaped poverty by finding oil on their property.  Following this theme, I was convinced that we would escape poverty by finding a valuable rock.  This happened twice.


The swampy yard of my childhood featured at least two large rocks.  I would climb on one of them, which was mossy and would have been a good location for a rock garden if it wasn’t set in a swamp or shade.  Another rock that captured my imagination was located inside the forest across from our driveway.  This rock was also located in one of many swampy pools near our home which was ideal for finding frogs in the spring, but would dry up by summer.  Something about that particular rock captured by imagination.  It was gray and jagged.  Like the other rock, it was large enough to sit and play on.  Perhaps because it was deeper in the woods, surrounded by ferns and other prehistoric plants,  half submerged in a vernal pool, I imagined it was associated with dinosaurs.  I imagined that the rock had something to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs.  It became obvious to my mind that it was in fact, a meteor.  I knew, on a scientific level, that meteors are rare and valuable, so I decided that this was going to be our golden ticket out of poverty.   On a superstitious level, whenever we saw a meteor streak across the sky, my mother told us to say “money, money, money” as fast as we could, until it disappeared and perhaps money would come our way.  I was always disappointed that they never lasted long enough to say the incantation more than a few times, if any at all.  Money certainly never came of it.  In any event, I convinced my brother that it was a meteor.  It probably isn’t hard to stretch the imagination that far, since it was a large rock in the middle of a forest.  Obviously it got there somehow, so why not outer space?  My mind was not geologically grounded enough to consider glaciers.  My brother and I dragged my mother out to this meteor, convinced that it was going to make us some money.  She followed us to the rock.   Maybe she cautiously hoped that we had indeed stumbled upon something of value.  Just like Antique Roadshow, undiscovered wealth was waiting to be found.  I showed her the rock and explained the characteristics that clearly made it a meteor.  It wasn’t.  I don’t remember what happened after we brought her into the woods.  But, we never became wealthy from it and eventually I forgot about the rock and stopped playing in the woods.

Image result for rock with dinosaur toys

A random image of dinosaurs on a rock from FreePic


The second rock incident happened much later.  I went on a road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario with my grandmother, brother, and mother.  I was about fourteen years old.  On the way back, we stopped at a rest stop or overlook, and I saw a large, clay colored rock.  I was convinced that this was an agate.  I suppose traveling up the North Shore of Lake Superior I had agates on the brain.  I convinced my brother that it was an agate.  Although it was dull and reddish brown, I was sure that if we loaded it into the car, then cracked it open, it would split into two perfect agate geodes.  The otherwise dull colored rock had a specks that glistened in the sun, which to me indicated that it was secretly an agate.   This was around the time my parents divorced and we were moving on to a new life in a low income apartment, on food stamps, in a new single parent household in Isanti, MN.  A magnificent agate would have been a huge help.  My mother was reluctant, but once again I got my brother on board.  We both convinced her to load the forty or fifty pound rock into our vehicle.  After all, we couldn’t possibly leave this opportunity for wealth behind.  It road around in our vehicle for months.  Eventually, my mother asked a rock collector at the county fair about it.  The expert scoffed at the idea that we would find such large agate.   But, we didn’t know how agates formed or how they would have broken up into smaller pieces over time.  I was disappointed that it was….just a rock.  It was a rock and an unwanted passenger in the backseat of our car.  I think we eventually rolled the rock onto the lawn of our low income apartment complex, which upset the management.  The last I remember was seeing it rolled up against a tree by the parking lot.  Did we get into trouble?  Did they make us move it?  Did they know it was our rock?  I don’t know.  I just know that once again, we pinned our hopes on a mineral miracle. Image result for agate geode

What I imagined we would find inside the rock….

              

I’ve been thinking about these stories lately.   It seems foolish that I believed, on more than one occasion, that we could escape poverty by finding valuable rocks.   But, these ideas are really no different than some of the other faulty thinking regarding poverty or social class.  For one, the idea of discovering something valuable to escape poverty is a common narrative in society.   I already mentioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,  The Antique Roadshow, and Beverly Hillbillies.  Any story involving hidden treasure similarly follows the notion that wealth is out there waiting to be found.   Lottery tickets similarly create the notion that wealth is out there.  It is just a matter of the right numbers at the right time….and SOMEONE has to win.  Even if the odds are low, it COULD be you if you just participate.   The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes also reinforces the faulty thinking that wealth is something that can unexpectedly happen.  Game shows also promote this idea, as contestants compete for money or prizes.   Of course, some skill might be involved, but a person’s ability to solve word puzzles, guess the correct price, or answer trivia questions is generally not a surefire way to make it ahead in society.  In another example, one of my favorite children’s stories was called Silly Simon, about a foolish young man who was abused by his mother and could never do anything right, until his silly antics caused a princess to laugh.  He was awarded gold from a king for this feat.   This teaches that wealth is something that can happen in just the right circumstances or with a not so useful skill-set that suddenly has value.   Another common trope is the orphan who is adopted into wealth, such as Annie, Oliver Twist, or a low rated TV show that aired when I was a child called Rags to Riches.  At least I never once imagined escaping poverty through adoption!   I grew up in a world informed by Publishers Clearing House, scratch tickets, stories of orphans and treasures, game shows, etc.  At the same time, never once did my pre-college formal education tackle the topic of causes of poverty.   This is a disservice to children, who are often bullied for their social class.  I remember my brother was once upset that a classmate of his (in Isanti) said that our family lived in the dumpster by the school.  I remember a classmate (in Cambridge) picking on my family for using food stamps and another teasing me because my family didn’t own our own washing machine (which I hadn’t even considered a sign of poverty until teased for it.  I liked going to the laundromat).   If children are not raised to understand social class, then being poor is mysterious and easy to blame on lack of luck or some kind of flaw.

Image result for silly simon


Even as I entered college, I really didn’t understand class.  I felt embarrassed that everyone else seemed to have stories about going on vacations that involved sailing in Greece or backpacking in Europe.   I didn’t want to talk about myself.  (Of course, at this point in my life I have traveled a lot, but upon graduating high school I had never been on a plane and felt jealous when I met college students who had studied abroad in high school or went on elaborate family vacations.  I felt less than them!  That this was not a matter of money, but that I wasn’t “good enough” to have these opportunities.  But, these feelings motivated me to prioritize travel).  I felt ashamed that my parents were not doctors, professors, business owners, lawyers, or any of the other prestigious professions that other students’ parents seemed to have.  I felt that there was something wrong with me and my family.  I felt that I was inferior.  That if I was smarter, more attractive, harder working, more talented, more outgoing, less strange, or any number of other qualities, that I too would have an exciting and successful life.  So, rather than analyze the difference between myself and other students I met as a matter of socioeconomics, I felt that I was defective.   Internalizing being poor as a flaw or a failure was just as faulty as believing that wealth could come from meteors (or lottery tickets, sweepstakes, game shows, etc.).  Yet, this is more insidious and pervasive.  It is something that I believe to some degree even to this day.  Being poor….it did make me flawed!   I have crooked teeth because we couldn’t afford braces.  I have a crooked spine as well.  We didn’t have access or an understanding of psychology, so some of these needs also went unmet or unknown.  So, I am not the optimal person I might have been in other socioeconomic circumstances.  Certainly, I am a passable person and everyone has flaws.  Yet, for all of my passion for learning, all of my talent, hard work, or any number of positive attributes, I will never be “living my best life.”   In parts, I am to blame.  A scarcity mindset prevents me from taking too many risks or living too freely.  I will never feel empowered to quit a job I don’t like or make major life changes because in the back of my mind, I know that there is a lot to lose and fear of going without. Image result for living my best life

Yeah, not really.  But life is….okay.


The narrative of self-determination  is perhaps the hardest one to overcome.  I can rationally conclude that success does not come from meteors, agates, game shows, or lottery tickets.  Yet, I have not quite abandoned the notion that with hard work, education, talent, risk taking, determination, etc. I should be able to accomplish my goals and dreams.   This is the narrative that our educational systems socialize us to believe in the most, as in the context of capitalism, educational systems need to justify their own existence by promising that education can help us become self-actualized, successful people.   So, this is why I find myself up against a rock and a hard place.   This is also why I think we need to be careful about what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about class.   We must abandon the language of “living the best the best life,” goal digging, girl bosses, slaying and narratives of self-made successes.   This isn’t to argue that everyone should adopt “learned helpnessness” or the idea that nothing we do has an impact on our environment or life outcomes.   Instead, I think that narratives about upward mobility or class should be tempered by socioeconomic realities rather than individual efforts.  This itself is contested, as conclusions about upward mobility vary depending upon how this is measured and defined.   For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department posits that upward mobility is a reality for low income Americans, who on average see their incomes rise over time as measured by tax returns.  If one defines upward mobility as entering a new tax quintile, then yes, upward mobility is possible.   Marxists define things more broadly, as class is about a relationship to production.  A quintile increase in taxed income may not translate to increased access and control of capital.  Because upward mobility is not operationalized by Marxists as increased status or income, social mobility is less common in socialist interpretations.  In this broader view, capitalism itself is prone to instability and declining rates of profit over time, so income gains are never a given and always challenged by a profit motive that is inherently at odds with high or even stable standards of living for most workers.  But, one does not need to be a Marxist to understand that life is limited by class, and compounding this, it is limited by gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.  It is also limited by job availability, unemployment trends, globalization, new technology, etc.  You can work very hard, have many talents, educate yourself extensively, make all the right choices, and you can still end up working menial, unrewarding jobs in which you worry about retirement and live paycheck to paycheck.


It was foolish for me to think that we would find money in the form of a meteor or an agate.  Even if we had, that money would not have sustained us for long.  I had so much hope back then.  But, of course, this is false hope and wishful thinking.  My favorite quote is “We must prefer a real hell to an imaginary paradise” by Simone Weil.  Of course, she was probably talking about some spiritual nonsense, but I have always interpreted it as it is better to think clearly without hope, than have false hope in ignorance.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of hope that most working people will have a windfall of wealth, much less live their lives without economic hardship and worry.  There are no meteors, agates, winning lottery tickets, etc. to save us.  Even education, hard work, innovation, talent, etc. are not tickets to a better life.  A better life is secured through collective struggle, not individual efforts or accomplishments.  It is class struggle that shortens the workday, promises pensions, provides health care, mandates paid leave, and all of the other benefits that ACTUALLY do improve lives and creates opportunities.   Living our best lives is a function of the mass movements that seek to end war, protect the environment, provide public transportation, end police brutality, empower women, dismantle racism, etc.  So, I do have some hope, or at least, a methodology for betterment.

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Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Pacaya Volcano

hiking pacaya volcano

Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Pacaya Volcano

H. Bradford

1.17.19

I recently went on a short trip to Central America.  With only a short visit to Antigua, Guatemala, I wanted to try to make the most of my time in the country.  I figured that one way to do this would be to hike up a volcano.  After all, the country has at least 37 volcanoes, of which, three are considered active (others are extinct or dormant).  Pacaya is one of the three active volcanoes and one that tourists can easily access for hiking.  Another active volcano in Guatemala is Fuego Volcano, which made headlines when it erupted this past summer, killing 190 people (with over 200 people still considered missing as of October 2018) and displacing almost 3000 people.  The eruption was the largest in Guatemala for about 40 years and was followed by another eruption in November that resulted in the evacuation of 4000 people.  The nearby Pacaya volcano has been continuously active since the 1961 (Wnuk and Wauthier, 2016) and in a state of mostly mostly low grade eruptions since the 1990s, with a major eruption in 2010 that resulted in the evacuation of several thousand people, several deaths, and the destruction of land used for coffee growing.  Pacaya’s volcano tourism took off after this eruption as tourists were curious to see active volcanism (i.e. lava, tephra (volcanic ash, rocks, particles) (Steel, 2016).  Despite the destruction and human suffering wrought by active volcanoes in Guatemala, I wanted to visit a volcano and experience the dynamic geology of our planet first hand.  My main worry is that I was going to physically struggle with the hike.  And, I did!  But not for the reasons that I thought!  This is a story of a journey up a volcano, but also a voyage through sleeplessness.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor and nature


Before leaving for the U.S., I booked a hike through Grayline one of many “day trip” companies based in Antigua or Guatemala City.  My plan was that I would do the hike the morning after arriving in the country.   The particular tour that I purchased included a visit to a hot springs and lunch and was a little less than $100.  There are cheaper tours and more independent methods of travel, but I felt satisfied with the price and convenience.   In any event, I departed for my trip with the idea that I would be hiking up a volcano on the morning after my arrival.  This would not have been a problem but for a few complicating circumstances.  For one, I worked a night shift on Wednesday night, then left for my trip on Thursday (directly after the night shift).  I was able to get some fitful napping on my flights but did not fully sleep Wednesday or Thursday.  Furthermore, my flight from Houston was delayed for several hours due to weather elsewhere in the U.S. which had stalled the arrival of my plane and disrupted the flight schedules of the airport.  This meant that I actually arrived at my hotel in Antigua at 4:00 am Friday due to delays.  It also meant that I was awake for about 36 hours.  It also meant that I was committed to hiking up a volcano on a tour scheduled to pick up at my hotel at 6:30 am.  It was not going to be a fun hike.  I attempted to take a two hour nap before leaving for the hike, but failed to fall asleep.


I wearily watched the landscape pass from the window of the van that took me…and less than a dozen other tourists…to the volcano.   There were several large hills and we approached a very steep looking volcano.  I thought that perhaps this was the Pacaya volcano and dreaded the impossible hike ahead.  Thankfully, it was probably the Fuego volcano, which is about 4,000 feet taller than the Pacaya volcano.  The van veered away from the larger volcano to a park entrance, where we were descended upon by locals trying to sell/rent us walking sticks.  A walking stick would have been a great idea, but I felt a little overwhelmed and pressed through the crowd to the visitor’s center.  In retrospect, I should have supported the locals trying to make a little money from a volcano that might otherwise play a potentially dangerous or destructive roll in their lives.  After all, Pacaya has erupted 48 times since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala (Steele, 2016).   I felt vaguely nauseated from fatigue and not sure how I would tackle the hike ahead.  Our group assembled near the start of the trail, where we were offered horseback rides up the volcano.  Taking a horse cost about $15, which was a tempting idea but I went there to hike up a volcano and I was going to hike up a volcano!   Hiking was rough.  I felt dizzy with tiredness.  I felt like a zombie, pushing my brainless body forward and upward with immense effort.  I was slow.  The hike was a relentlessly steep hill that never ended.  There were no flat areas.  Just…up, up, up, up.  The only redeeming quality of the hike was that it was shaded by a forest.  I wanted to cry I was so exhausted.  By the time I was hiking, I had been awake for 40 hours (with some cat naps in chairs).  The 40 hours had consisted of a nine hour shift at the shelter, a van ride to Minneapolis, two flights, a flight delay, a late arrival to my hotel, pitiful tossing and turning in my hotel bed for two hours, around two hours drive from Antigua, then THIS, the hellish hike.  I took two caffeine pills that only seemed to make my head swirl.  With each step I contemplated how far I would go before I gave up.  All the way, my sluggish, slow self was hounded by horse escorts hoping that I would give in and take a horse the rest of the way.  No, no.  I’m okay.  I don’t need a horse.  I really don’t need a horse.  No, I’ll make it.  I’ve got this.  I’ve got this.  I checked my watch along the way.  I had read that the hike up only takes one to two hours.   At around the one hour mark we were told that we were close.  I heard two thunderous booms.  The explosive sound was exciting enough to re-energize me and I was able to complete the last 15 minutes or so through the treeless, drier viewing area.  It was hard all of the way.  I panted from exhaustion as I plodded along and cursed myself for signing up for the excursion.  But, I made it!  I made it!

Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, cloud, nature and outdoor

Image may contain: one or more people, sky, cloud, mountain, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: sky, mountain, outdoor and nature

 


The viewing area is not at the summit of Pacaya volcano, but it does offer a view of the summit as well as a view of nearby volcanoes.  The summit crater exudes smoke and gas, which can be seen from the viewing area below.  Another tourist I spoke with went on an evening hike and said that sparks can be seen flying from the summit crater.  This would be an impressive sight, but for her meant precariously hiking down the volcano in the dark.  The viewing area itself is located at about 7,500 ft above sea level and the summit is 8,373 ft above sea level.  It may feel a little disappointing that the tour does not take one to the very top, but I was happy to avoid hiking up the steep, hot looking slope.  According to blogger, Melinda Crow (2017), the actual hike to the viewing area is about two miles and covers an elevation change of about 1,300 feet or 650 feet per mile.  It felt challenging, but not absolutely impossible, as obviously I did the hike with minimal sleep.  In any event, I milled about the viewing area with the belief that the hike was done….but nope….the group then descended down some slippery dark rocks to a lava field.  This was discouraging as I had little interest in climbing back up or climbing up anything more.  I was quite content with the fact that we didn’t actually climb to the summit of the volcano as I was exhausted and it was hot and dusty out in the treeless black field of lava.  I could see a plume of smoke at the top of the volcano and was glad to be where I was.  The blackened valley featured a lava store and fumeroles wherein tourists could roast marshmallows.  This was a big attraction for me.  I had fantasized about roasting a marshmallow on the volcano, but with little sleep, mild nausea, and a strenuous hike behind me, I didn’t feel up to the task of digesting a puff of gelatin and sugar.   There was also a shop nestled in the valley, which sold souvenirs and I believe some snacks.  I really didn’t pay attention to the shop, as I was eager to begin the hike back while I had enough energy to keep myself from collapsing. The hike down was better.  The lava area was quite dry and the air was thick with dust.  My lungs were unhappy with me and I was glad to move away from the lava field and smoking crater.   The rocks on the way down were slippery, as they were often small and easily tumbled under my boots like the wheels of roller skates. Image may contain: one or more people, child, outdoor and nature Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature Image may contain: cloud, sky, tree, plant, outdoor and nature Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, outdoor and nature


Following the volcano hike, the group was rewarded with lunch and some time at some hot springs.  At that point, I had been awake far too long to have an appetite.  Oddly, being sleepy tends to make me more hungry, but at a certain point of sleep deprivation, even digestion seemed like too much effort.   I watched the others eat their meals while I sipped a diet coke.  After lunch, or my non-lunch, we all set off for the series of pools.  There were two levels of pools of varying degrees of heat.  The hot springs were actually a spa resort called Santa Teresita.  I had imagined that the hot spring would be an actual bubbling puddle of geothermal heated water.  This was far nicer.  The complex featured 11 pools and a thermal circuit of several pools that switch between warm and cool pools.  I probably didn’t do the correct cycle of the circuit, but it felt nice to just relax in warm water.  It was no substitute for sleep, but it was restful.  While I didn’t sleep, I did take some time to lounge on a beach chair and vegetate in the sun.   The hot springs were a fun addition to the trip, but also complimented the volcano hike well.  For one, it was soothing for my weary body and two, the hot springs found in Guatemala are near volcanoes, where water may be warmed by magma.  Pacaya volcano is located about 10 km southeast from Lake Amatitlan where the hot springs were located, so it is possible that the hot water that I found so relaxing was heated by Pacaya’s magma. (Warring, 1983).  I am not knowledgeable enough about geology to know this for sure, but it was neat to think about the hidden connections within the earth.

Image may contain: one or more people, outdoor and water

 


When I returned to Antigua, I had been awake for 48 hours.  My day continued with a walk around my hotel to explore the city a little.  I also ate dinner with members of a travel group that I would be traveling with for about eight days.  This kept me up until 10 pm, in what was probably one of the longest spans of time that I had been awake in my life.  While it would seem that after hiking a volcano, working my shift, spending a day traveling, and then…walking and exploring, I might have fallen into a dead sleep.  NOPE, I could not fall asleep when I finally had an opportunity for REAL sleep!  I had pushed myself to stay awake for so long that awakeness had a terrible momentum of its own.  At that point, I didn’t feel like a human being.  Just some hollowed out husk flopped on a bed, with an empty, buzzing head and tired limbs.  I finally dozed off at midnight, but was up again at 4:30 am ish for a day tour to Lake Atitlan the next morning!


Based upon this experience, I would offer the following advice to other travelers.  One important lesson is to NOT book strenuous activities on the day after arrival…as arrival can be postponed by weather.  I didn’t have much choice since my time was limited and I felt compelled to maximize it.  Another obvious piece of advice would be to avoid working a night shift…then staying awake to travel.  I also could not avoid this because I wanted to squeeze the most out of my accrued vacation time.  Taking the night off would have meant exhausting nine more hours of accrued vacation time.  Vacation time is precious.  The loss of a day is one less day I get to spend somewhere else.   My need to work and desire to maximize my time set me up for a very unpleasant hike.  As another general piece of advice, wear sunscreen, a hat, and bring a bandana.  The sun is pretty intense, especially on the lava field.  So….I scorched myself.  Also, the air is heavy with particulates.  So much so that my lungs felt heavy.  Wearing a bandana over my face helped my to endure the worst areas.  Thirdly, while I had attempted to be in OKAY shape before the trip (by jogging several miles a few times a week, using a higher incline on the treadmill, and generally increasing the amount of exercise I was doing before the trip), I was still sadly out of shape and struggled up the hill.  I don’t think the hike is something that needs to be taken THAT seriously, as with patience and slow effort, almost anyone without complicating health conditions can probably complete the hike.  One lesson I have learned is that there really is no substitute for hiking hills (as treadmill incline really doesn’t seem to replicate the real impact of gravity).  A better idea might have been visiting a place with many stairs and just forcing myself to go up, up, up.   My biggest anxiety was over if I would be physically up for the task (as I would have felt embarrassed to be TOO out of shape) but I think this was unfounded.  It wasn’t THAT hard, but it was challenging.  A final piece of advice was carrying small binoculars.  I brought them along so I could watch for birds (I only saw some hummingbirds during the hike).  Aside from birding, I thought they were useful in getting a closer view of the summit (even if there was not much to see but smoke).   In the end, it was worthwhile.  It was arduous, but I can always look back and think…”remember the time you were awake for …like 40 hours…and climbed a volcano.  I think you can handle this.”


Sources:

Crow, M. (2017, September 24). The #TravelTruth About Hiking the Pacaya Volcano in 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2019, from http://firstread.me/pacaya-volcano-2017/

Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupts again (2018, October 12) retrieved 16 January 2019
from https://phys.org/news/2018-10-guatemala-fuego-volcano-erupts.html

Steel, M. (2016, September 20). Travels in Geology: Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya: A feast for the senses. Retrieved January 17, 2019, from https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/travels-geology-guatemalas-volcan-pacaya-feast-senses

Warring, G. (1983). Thermal Springs of the United States and Other Countries, a Summary (Geological Survey Professional Paper, pp. 1-400, Rep. No. 492). Washington: United States Government Printing Office.

Wnuk, K., & Wauthier, C. (2016). Temporal Evolution of Magma Sources and Surface Deformation at Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala Revealed by InSAR (Doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University).

other useful source:

https://www.science.gov/topicpages/p/pacaya+volcano+guatemala

 

100 New Year’s Resolutions for 2019

100 New Year’s Resolutions for 2019

H. Bradford

12/25/18

Here are my 100 Resolutions for the New Year!

100 New Year's Resolutions

Intentional Living Grows Through the Bullets of a Journal

journal

Intentional Living Grows Through the Bullets of a Journal?

Capitalism and the Organized Life

H. Bradford

12/3/18

Mao Zedong once wrote that political power grows through the barrel of a gun.  I am no Maoist, but there seems to be a cult growing around the bullet journal.  It is enough to make me wonder if intentional living grows through the bullets of a journal.  It started earlier this year, when I noticed that my coworkers had very elaborate planner books.  I have kept a yearly planner and separate goal book for a few years now, but these books were always utilitarian.  In the books, I very plainly record my schedule and goals throughout the year.  These books were used to track my progress or organize my life.  I never considered the aesthetics of keeping a schedule.  Then, suddenly, it seemed that everyone had fancy books with stickers and colorful pens, in which they tracked the minutiae  of daily living.   It seemed like a lot of work…and a lot of cost…as these planners cost $80, plus various accessories.  Generally, I had been paying less than $10 for my planning supplies.  However, the siren call of stickers, pens, lists, and schedules called me to Michael’s, where I had a 50% off coupon.  I bought my own fancy schedule book, albeit a cheaper version.

Image result for bullet journal

Image stolen from internet.


First of all, I was surprised to find an entire aisle of the store devoted to planner books.  When did this happen?  I only noticed the trend this year, when suddenly everyone had these books.  And now, boom…a whole aisle!   According to the Star Tribune, the first official bullet journal was launched in 2014 by Ryder Carol and today over 281,000 people follow @bulletjournal on Instagram.  The goal of these journals, planners, or notebooks is to live more intentionally (Pearson, 2018).    Bullet journals are particularly popular among millennials,  who on average spend $60-80 on purchases at Appointed, an online store that specializes in paper products such as journals and calendars.  A London based psychologist named Dr. Perpetua Neo (whose name seems like a character from the Matrix or a diabolical machine) posits that millenials like these planners because it gives them a sense of control (something they don’t have much of in the face of wars, unstable economy, debt, etc.) (Babur, 2018).  That is an interesting theory.  Sure, I want control in my own life.  But, what is the end goal?  Why be in control and what must one be in control of?  Common categories for the planning products include finance, goals, health, and spirituality.  For me, I want to be more productive.  In this sense, bullet planners are something akin to Pinterest meets the scientific management of the personal life.  I imagine that if somehow I squeezed out just a little more time from my day, I would be a better person.  It is about control, but it is also about productivity and the self as a project.


Scientific management was method of management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his 1911 book “Principles of Scientific Management.”   The book was based upon lessons learned when he tried to increase the productivity of workers at Bethlehem Steel.  Scientific management involved such things as timing the workers, controlling their movements to improve efficiency, and paying them on the basis of their productive output (Mihm, 2018).  Taylorism is alive and well in workplaces today.  For instance, each time a work place does a time study to increase efficiency, it is following this century old method of increasing worker productivity by cutting superfluous worker activity and establishing benchmarks or output goals.  Amazon warehouse workers have been made to wear bracelets that track how long it takes to fetch items, which they must do each nine seconds (Salame, 2018).    From a Marxist perspective, capitalists try to increase the productivity of workers to increase their profits.  Workers generate profit for capitalists because there is a gap between the wage they are paid and the value of their production, which is called surplus value.  If workers were paid the exact value of their production, there would be no profit.  For instance, at one of my jobs I take photographs of Santa Claus.  This  generates $1000-$2000 of sales each day.  In order to make a profit, the photo company must make sure that wages paid to Santa, the photographer, and the managers is less than $1000-$2000 per day.  Of course, there are other costs as well, such as photo paper, the camera, costumes and uniforms, receipt paper, etc.  These are considered constant capital, that is, they do not generate profit and therefore, while these costs can be cut (such as wasting less photo paper) they are mostly money sinks.  On the other hand, labor is variable capital.  A lot can be done to manipulate variable capital in order to generate more profit.  Wages can be cut, productivity increased, work day lengthened, breaks shortened, staffing deceased, etc.  The matter of profit making is complicated by the fact that things such as competition, the replacement of workers with machines, and the need to invest in new technologies tends to cause profits to decline with time.  That means that inevitably, labor costs have to be cut and the exploitation of workers must be increased to remain profitable.  Scientific management was a way to increase profits by squeezing more productivity from workers.


What does all of this mean for personal lives or have anything to do with planners?  No one profits from how many books I read in a year, how many days a week I work out at the gym, or any number of things I might track in my journal.  However, I believe that the rise of bullet journaling serves capitalism in a number of ways.  For one, it seems that some aspects of bullet journaling apply scientific management to the personal life.  That is, if a person tracks their goals, daily habits, spending, fitness, or other facets of their life in an intentional manner, a person can eke out more productivity.   Productivity is viewed as a virtue in our society.  It is rare to be shamed for being productive or sad because your day was exceptionally productive.  Max Weber argued that the virtue of hard work associated with Protestantism (frugality, discipline, and hard work) were important in fostering the growth of capitalism.  While Marxists look to material conditions and would view these values as a part of the superstructure of a society, these sorts of values certainly play a role in the functioning of an economic system.  Capitalism functions a lot better if the workforce generally values productivity and hard work.  On the other hand, because we are overworked, we have little time for leisure and personal pursuits.  Our free time has to be regimented because it IS in limited supply.   My time sheet for two weeks of work at ONE job was 116 hrs this week.  I have two other part time jobs in addition to this.   My coworkers who lovingly fill out their journals also work multiple jobs.   There is no way for me to read 30 books, see 50 new species of birds, or attend 150 political events a year without some radical scheduling.  My desire for productivity in my personal life is a desire to live as something more than a worker.  My desire to work is the desire to sustain myself and have some extra for living (hobbies, travel, experiences).  The sad thing is that about 8 million Americans have multiple jobs.  Pretty planners might be a way to beautify the prison of work that we find ourselves in until retirement or death removes us from the labor market. No automatic alt text available.

I drew a volcano in my book.


Another aspect of this trend is gender.  These planners are marketed to women.  I was frustrated that the designs for the books, stickers, and other accessories were SO extremely feminine. The planner was full of floral prints, rainbows, unicorns, pastels, You Go Girl, Girl Boss, vapid inspirational words or quotes about being a free spirit or following your dreams, and other traditional gender tripe.  Why can’t planners have skulls, fossils, bats, moths, dark colors, swear words, quotes from revolutionaries, glow in the dark, scratch and sniff, etc.  I want a planner that says I will work until I die or that suicide is always an option.  I don’t need the “Happy Planner” (the brand I bought) since I think “The Scarred by Depression Planner” is a more accurate description of my way of life.  Why do women have to be happy?  What if someone wants “The Angry Planner” wherein you write your goals into little flaming piles of shit?  Anyway, I am sure if these planners remain popular, these products will start to appear (if they haven’t already) to draw more consumers into the market.  However, right now the planners are very traditionally feminine (which isn’t terrible, but just seems narrow and to me, indicates that these planners appeal to white, middle class women with semi-conventional tastes. .  The fact that these planners are marketed to women also indicates some things about society.  One, women don’t have a lot of time!  Planners are a way to manage time, which many women lack due to responsibilities as paid workers and unpaid workers who take care of children, elderly, or adult men by cooking, cleaning, and managing homes.   It also represents the ways in which women feel pressured to view their bodies and selves as an unfinished project.  Tracking diets, exercise, hobbies, goals, etc. are a way to become an ideal woman.

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  I drew a bird.  But will it really be …my year?


Anyway, I bought myself a planner.  I chose one with a travel theme.  I like travel and I want 2019 to be a great year.  I enjoy tracking things and I will admit that I view myself and my life as an unfinished project.  I am never enough.  I will never be enough.  I doubt that a planner will help me feel like a enough, but it might help me squeeze more productivity out of each day.  Or, perhaps it will serve as a memory book of all the things I did or tried to do in 2019.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with creating fun schedule books.  I just think this trend represents a certain way of existing within capitalism and patriarchy.  In previous societies, such a thing might be unthinkable because days, hours, and even linear time are concepts that discipline us into workers…and there was a time long ago when we weren’t workers or at least not the wage workers we are today.    I don’t think bullet journals are some kind of capitalist conspiracy to oppress us.  For people with ADHD it may help organize life in a useful way.  For others, it may be a fun, relaxing, hobby akin to scrap booking or more traditional journaling.  However, I do think that if a person is going to live intentionally, this should also mean intentionally questioning why we must be so productive in the first place and who profits from our sense that we are not enough!  Certainly the companies that make these books profit if they are charging $80 for them!  Health and fitness industries, travel industries, cosmetic industries, magazines, etc. all survive by the insecurities of women who feel they are not enough.  I am not above this.   I am not enough.  And because of that, capitalism will always be able to squeeze just a little more from me at work and at leisure…. No automatic alt text available.


Sources:

Babur, O. (2018, October 22). Bullet journaling is everywhere now. Our love of planners is about our desire for control. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/22/17996604/bullet-journal-control-planners-bando-appointed

Mihm, S. (2018, February 23). Amazon’s Labor Tracking Wrist Bands Have a Long History. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-23/amazon-s-labor-tracking-wristband-has-a-rich-history-behind-it

Pearson, E. (2018, November 06). Bullet journals go mainstream as more people strive for an ‘intentional life’. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from http://www.startribune.com/bullet-journalists-jot-down-tasks-goals-and-memories-in-hopes-of-planning-a-more-intentional-life/499841641/

Salame, R. (2018, February 20). The New Taylorism. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/02/amazon-wristband-surveillance-scientific-management

The Gender Question: My Pronouns

The Gender Question_ Unpacking my Pronouns

The Gender Question: Unpacking

My Pronouns

H. Bradford

10/21/18

Wednesday October 17th was the first International Gender Pronouns Day.  The goal of the day is to raise awareness of gender pronouns, including referring to people by their preferred pronouns and normalizing asking about the pronouns.  In activist circles, this is increasingly becoming commonplace.  Recently, both of my workplaces asked me for my preferred gender pronouns.  But, I can remember just a few years ago when I was asked for the first time to publicly announce my pronouns.  This is a reflection of how I felt and my own gender journey.

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The first meeting that I was asked to use my preferred gender pronouns caught me off guard.  I felt afraid and unsure of what to say.  I knew what the expected answer was…she/her/hers….and I felt afraid to say anything but the pronouns that would match my outward appearance.  I didn’t answer at all.  Meeting after meeting, I didn’t answer.  I dreaded when it was my turn to share.  I would simply say my name and something else (for instance what group I was in or why I was there), avoiding the question or trying to bury the question in other information.  Only a few times was I called out.  “Oh, you forgot to share your pronouns!”  I wanted the question to go away.  It seemed like some hokey, liberal trend to be inclusive- but really, it felt like an interrogation into the walled up parts of myself.   I have wrestled with gender identity, but came to no conclusions or worse, no plan of action.  Thus, I have slid through life avoiding the question and relegating it to some condemned, musty, walled off part of myself that could be attended to when I had the time, courage, or emotional safety.  The “gender question” asked at activist meetings forced it out of the dark corner that I had been avoiding.  I resented that.  No one shines a light in my haunted house! Image result for haunted house

Mn State Fair Haunted House


For some context, I have felt alienated by my femaleness.  It started sometime around the 5th grade.  I didn’t want to grow up to be female…or the “w” word.  I didn’t want breasts or a period.  I didn’t want curves or for people to see me as a woman.  I didn’t want to become…such an alien thing.  It is a feeling that has hung around.  I could provide more details or examples, as often creating a narrative of lifelong questioning is necessary for legitimacy.  But, I don’t care to and legitimacy does not have to be rooted in history and long stories.  In any event, despite feeling un-female, I wondered what alternative existed for me.  What else could I be and how could I become it?   Despite these feelings, I have generally presented myself in a feminine way (to some degree), with makeup, shaved body, and long hair.  Thus, to question or feel disgusted by and alien from my body and biological/social lot seemed disingenuous.   Worse, when I have talked to some people close to me over the years, the reactions have been that I must be mentally ill or just trying to be trendy….because gender dysphoria is cool.   This left me feeling a bit lost and defeated.  By my 30s I tried not to think too deeply about it.  That is…until that pesky question kept coming up!


I started to test out answers.  Mostly, when it came up, I said I go by she/her/hers and they/them/theirs.  No one cared.  The question moved on to the next person.  This was nice and gave me more confidence.  No one stopped the whole thing and said, “Wait!  You are NOT they, them, theirs…. you are just trying to be trendy here!  Call the gender police.”  Or, “They, them, theirs is for MORE androgynous looking people.  Clearly you wear makeup and have long hair.  You are not constructing gender properly.”  In the few instances where I felt that I needed to give an explanation, I said that I was gender questioning.  By cautiously answering…but being met with zero reaction or questioning, I began to feel more comfortable.   These questions felt invasive and loaded at first, but it turned out it was not an inquisition. Image result for gender police


What am I?  I feel weird calling myself a woman.  It just seemed so…not me.  It seems like a special title reserved for some other people.  I didn’t ask for this body.  There are parts of it I would be happy to be rid of.  At the same time, I think she/her/hers is appropriate for me.  Despite how I might feel about myself, the world sees me as female.  I am treated like a woman.  Each time I fear for my safety or am treated as “less than” a man, I am living a female experience in a female body (I don’t mean this to reify biological gender, but as a shared experience of oppression).  I feel safer in female spaces than in spaces dominated by men and I feel like I do not behave or present in a fashion that is gender queer enough for trans or non-binary spaces.  I present myself in a “feminine” way.  I have been subjected to and subjugated by female gender norms.  I fear aging.  I fear becoming too ugly or too fat.  My presentation of self is still very much governed by patriarchal gender norms for women.   At the same time, gender is socially constructed.  There is no feminine.  Long hair and makeup can be masculine, androgynous, feminine, or really anything or nothing at all.  Despite the arbitrary nature of these rules, my presentation has social meaning that is associated with femaleness.  I could reject this, but there is no real way to reject this as reconstructing gender usually hinges upon gender tropes.  Binary gender is such a part of our cognitive landscape that it is hard to escape.  Inevitably, it depends upon rejecting what is viewed as masculine, feminine, mixing up these characteristics, or inventing something androgynous (which is often stereotyped as thin and skewed towards masculine).  She/her/hers is also useful in showing solidarity with women.  I am a feminist.  Maybe I don’t always feel like a woman, but I live in this world perceived and treated as one.  I experience oppression as a woman and she/her/hers can be useful gender shorthand for these experiences and my solidarity with those who also experience this.


Although I am she/her/hers….I am also not these things.  It feels like gender is Schroedinger’s cat, which both IS and ISN’T.  Both things exist in the box that is myself.  I am female in body and experience, but also not these things, both because there is no female body and universal female experience and because I feel alien from the female parts of me (whatever those may be).   This is hard to explain.  To address the first aspect of my non-femaleness, well, femaleness does not really exist.  What is female?  Breasts, certain hormones, certain chromosomes, vaginas, or other biological characteristics?  Some females have some of these characteristics and not others, have all of these to varying degrees, or have some of these in some parts of life and not in others.   I have some biological markers of being female, but I do not necessarily want them, and being female is more than just biological rules and boundaries (which are themselves socially determined).   I would be happy to not have breasts, for instance.  I have always hated them.  I am actually really happy that mine are small, since I really don’t want these female associated appendages hanging off my body.  They serve no purpose in my life.  I have no intention of breast feeding, which seems like a body horror, nor enjoy their utility in sexual attraction.  Yes, I called it a body horror.  I feel that chest feeding can be wonderful and nourishing for OTHERS who are not alienated by their bodies, but to me existing in this body, the very thought of it seems like a torturous humiliation.  In this sense, and others that I won’t share, I am very much not a woman.


Femaleness is also related to gender roles, expected behaviors, and social position.   Where do I fit in to that?  Sure, I think that I am “feminine”, but I think that this is one facet of who I am and more or less just a part of the full constellation of human traits that everyone shares to varying degrees.  I am not “feminine” in some ways, in that I don’t necessarily follow female gender roles.  I am not particularly nurturing, not at all motherly or maternal, am emotionally reserved, not much for traditional roles of care giving and cleaning, independent and self-reliant, not romantic, generally more rational and scientific than spiritual or emotional, etc.  Once again, these are characteristics that get divied up between masculine and feminine, but are not inherently either.  Still, I think that bodily, emotionally, and socially, I have traits that I feel are masculine, feminine, and androgynous.  I don’t feel a close affinity with my femaleness, but I don’t entirely reject it either.  Thus, I really like they, them, their as gender pronouns.  I also like to go by H. as well as Heather, since I think it represents my non-binary self.   Heather is very feminine in our society.  I used to hate my name because of it.  However, I am trying to accept that Heather is just a plant.  It is a flower that grows in rocky, boggy conditions- with no innate femininity, masculinity, or androgyny.  The sound of the word Heather is not feminine, as people in other countries have similar sounding names which are pegged as masculine- such as Hadir in Arabic speaking countries.  I can be Heather and not necessarily be feminine.  But, I do enjoy when friends call me H.

Image result for heather plant


Gender is complicated.  I don’t have the answers.  I consider myself gender questioning because I haven’t arrived at my final destination.  I don’t know that I will.  There may be times in my life that I embrace my femaleness more.  Other times, it may be a source of pain and humiliation.  I haven’t always enjoyed getting asked what my pronouns are, but at the very least, I am starting to feel more confident.  At this point, I feel confident enough to say that yes, there is a they, them, their part of myself.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t look or behave in a non-binary way or reject gender enough.  I don’t need to be legitimate in anyone else’s eyes.  It is gender that is illegitimate, not me.  Even if my feelings ARE the result of being trendy or mentally ill, why stigmatize either? Traditional concepts of gender (and sex) benefit no one but those at the top of our patriarchal, capitalist economic system.   As my life progresses, perhaps I will feel bolder and ask to be H. or they, them, their more often.  Perhaps not.  For now, this is where I am at.  Thanks for asking.

 

A Tale of Two Interstate Parks

Copy of Copy of Thre

A Tale of Two Interstate Parks

H. Bradford

8/25/18


Summer is quickly coming to an end in the Northland, so I wanted to squeeze a final camping adventure in before the season shifts to fall.  To this end, I headed out towards Interstate State Park, which is actually two state parks.  There is a Minnesota Interstate Park and a Wisconsin Interstate Park.  They are located within 10 minutes drive of each other, straddling the banks of the St. Croix River.  Both are located around two hours south of Duluth/Superior near the towns of Taylor Falls, MN and St. Croix Falls, WI.  Both can be reached by taking either Interstate 35 in Minnesota or HWY 35 in Wisconsin.  I opted for HWY 35 in WI, which is a pleasant, leisurely drive through many small, Wisconsin communities.   Here is a review of the parks! Image may contain: sky, plant, tree, outdoor, nature and water


 

Interstate State Park, Minnesota

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Interstate State Park in Minnesota is the second oldest state park in the state, after Itasca State Park.  While my other state park adventures were filled with solitude and insects, this park was swarming with people!  It is a popular tourist destination and more tourist oriented than the other state parks that I have visited this summer.  Despite the buzzing throngs of humans, very few opted to go on the free glacial pothole tour that was offered at noon.  Every weekend and Monday at noon, park staff provide a free tour of the park’s glacial potholes.  I went on the tour and learned about the formation of the large potholes in the park, while meandering around some of the large potholes near the park’s entrance.   Basically, when the glaciers around Lake Superior began to melt 10,000 years ago it created a powerful torrent of water which created the modern St. Croix river.  The cliffs through which this water flowed were formed 1.1 billion years ago from the lava released from a mid-continental rift that spreads from Minnesota to Kansas.   The powerful river once rushed over these cliffs, creating potholes in the landscape as smaller rocks got caught and scoured holes into the surface.  Interstate State Park boasts the largest “explored” pothole in the world.  This means that there are larger potholes in the world, but they have not been dug out to determine their actual depth.  Visitors to the park can actually stand inside one of the larger potholes.  These potholes were manually shoveled out earlier in the last century and the visitor center features some modern artifacts that have been retrieved from the potholes over the years.  Each year, the potholes are pumped out, as they fill with water, leaves, and other debris.  Aside from the potholes, the naturalist also told us about the billion year old basalt left behind from the mid-continental rift.  The surface of the basalt is pock marked with air bubbles from when the lava cooled.  It was neat to learn about this history and to think about walking on top of such ancient rocks.

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After partaking in the tour, I set up my tent at my campsite.  At this point, I may have gone hiking, but instead, I wanted to explore Taylor Falls.  About 10 minutes drive away from Interstate Park is the Franconia Sculpture Park.  On Sundays, the park offers a free tour at 2 pm with one of the sculptors.  So, after the glacial pothole tour, I went on a sculpture park tour not far from the park.  Prior to the weekend, I had never heard of the sculpture park.  I expected to find a quaint community project with a few quirky sculptures.  Instead, I found a massive field of impressive sculptures, some created by famous artists from all over the world.  Artists even stay at the park as residents and interns.  There is also a workshop wherein artists can created their works.  It was an impressive artistic institution pretty much located in the middle of nowhere (Taylor Falls only has a population of about 900 people).  Once again, the guided tour was not well attended.  It was myself and two local senior citizens.  However, it was great to learn more about the artists, their methods, and the meaning of some of the sculptures.  I hadn’t put much thought into sculptures before- or at least not the process of making them.  An artist was busy making a metal sculpture from a mold she made over a plastered comforter spread over a friend’s body.   The artist was not an engineer, so she had to figure out for herself how to work with metal and create something structurally sound.  I could better appreciate the technical challenges of erecting giant sculptures of metal, cement, or stone after the tour. Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature


Since Interstate Park is located within Taylor Falls, Mn, the local tourist attractions warrant mention- as these are connected to the park through the Railroad Trail.  After visiting the Franconia Sculpture park, I returned to the state park and followed the River Trail from the campground to the town.  Within Taylor Falls, I grabbed some dinner at the Drive In Restaurant.  The Drive In Restaurant is an old fashioned drive in, where you can eat in your car.  I chose to eat at a table.  The servers wear Poodle Skirts and serve classic American foods like malts, sundaes, burgers, fries, etc.  They actually had a veggie burger on their menu.   This is easily within walking distance from the park, as are several other restaurants.

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On the way back to the park, I followed the Railroad trail, which follows along an old railroad bed.  It is less stunning than the River Trail (which follows the St. Croix river) but worth hiking simply to mix things up.  Together, the trails make for about a three mile loop.  Thus, Minnesota Interstate Park does not have many trails (as these are the main two trails in the park).  It is not a state park to visit if you expect to do a lot of hiking, but worth visiting if you want to enjoy the St. Croix river and some local tourist attractions.   The Railroad trail leads hikers past the Folsom House (which is up the hill from the trail), which is a house built in 1854 by lumber baron, W.H. Folsom.  The house was closed when I visited, but it is generally open on the weekends during the summer and fall.  The trail also brings visitors past the historic rail station.  Another attraction, back in town and not on the trail, is a small, yellow library dating back to the late 1800s (it was built in 1854 as a taylor shop but later became a library).  The diminutive library continues to lend books to this day.  Finally, for those looking for something else to do after hiking to two short trails, the state park is unique in that it offers steamboat tours.  Tickets for the steamboat tours can be purchased near the park’s visitors office.  Tickets cost about $20, which I was content to forgo as I had already explored the river on foot and didn’t feel like spending more money.   The St. Croix river can also be explored by canoe or kayak and there are several rentals in the area.

Tiny Library from the 1800s


 

  Park Overview:

Pros: Beautiful cliffs over the water, many local tourist attractions, guided pothole tours, largest explored pothole in the world, riverboat tours, kayak/canoe opportunities, easy hiking trails, and well-staffed park and campground.


Cons: Very busy with tourists, loud traffic, not many hiking trails, relatively small park Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor, nature and water


Interstate State Park, Wisconsin

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On the other side of the St. Croix River is Wisconsin’s Interstate Park.  As mentioned, this was Wisconsin’s first state park.  I visited here early Monday morning after camping at Minnesota’s park.  At 7am, the park was devoid of tourists and hikers.  This gave me the opportunity to explore the park’s trails alone.  Unlike the Minnesota state park, there are many trails to explore.  Most of these are small loop trails which connect to each other in a series of lopsided figure eights.  Each loop is usually about a half a mile to under a mile long.   I hiked several of these small loop trails.  One of the highlights was the Pothole Trail.  Like the Minnesota park, the Wisconsin Interstate State Park also features potholes.  These potholes are smaller in width and depth, so they are not as impressive as the Minnesota potholes.  But, if you want to take in  more glacial potholes, the trail is still worthwhile and the trail itself features a nice overlook of the St. Croix river.  I also followed the Meadow Valley Trail, which was a bit swampy and buggy.   It is mostly just a connector between a parking lot and the Pothole Trail.  Another trail is the Summit Rock Trail, which brings visitors to the highest point on the bluffs.  This trail features the best observation point of all of the trails, since it is the highest.  I also followed part of the Echo Canyon Trail, though this was done to get to the Lake o’ the Dalles Trail.  The Lake o’ the Dalles Trail is a one mile loop around a small lake.  This is the only place between the two state parks where visitors can go swimming.  Otherwise, the currents of the St. Croix river are either too strong or the cliffs/bluffs are too steep.   This area features a beach house and the trail is described as a wildlife viewing trail.   I didn’t see much for wildlife, but I did encounter poison ivy.

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I didn’t mention that the Minnesota Interstate Park was buzzing with both people, but also a new colony of honeybees.  I have never seen a swarm of bees colonize a tree before.  The naturalist pointed them out and put up a sign so that everyone would avoid that area.  After a few hours, the bees were settled down in their new home.  Despite nearly walking by the swarm, the bees were content to focus on their new home.  Other than this brief and interesting encounter with these bees, I had no major insect incidents over the course of my park visit.  However….I did notice how there was NO poison ivy in the parks.  This was a first, as the other parks I have visited this summer had abundant ivy.  I guess I was lulled into complacency, since during my hike around Lake o’the Dalles, I noticed a lush gauntlet of poison ivy right by the trail (which I had already been following).  When I looked down at my legs, I saw they had small red bumps near the ankles and lower calves.   I couldn’t do much about it at the time.   This was a good lesson in paying attention and wearing taller socks/shoes/long pants.  Several days later, my legs are still bumpy, red, and itchy.   This was my first brush against poison ivy and the reaction was not that severe, just annoying and ugly.  I have used Vicks Vapor Rub and Cortisone cream on it.

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Despite the poison ivy, I saw a Giant Swallowtail butterfly, which are rare…


There were a few other trails which I did not have time to explore.   Otherwise, the park also features a small museum and gift shop.  The museum features information about glaciers.  It also has a display of various clams found in the St. Croix River.  Traveling HWY 35, one passes by Clam Dam and Clam Falls, which alludes to the mussels found in the river.  Personally, I haven’t paid much attention to mussels, so the display was neat because it showcased the variety of local clams.  The mussels have unique names, such as Fawnsfoot, Higgin’s Eye, Monkey Face, Snuffbox, and Winged Maple leaf.   Some of these mussels are endangered and I know that I certainly have never paid attention to the differences between species of clams.  The St. Croix River has over 40 species of mussels, making it one of the most significant mussel habitats in the country. No automatic alt text available.


I did not explore the local tourist attractions outside of Wisconsin’s Interstate Park.  St. Croix Falls, the community near the park, is larger than Taylor Falls and also more spread out.  While I did not stop here, I did stop in Balsam Lake (which was slightly out of the way but roughly 15 miles away from the park).  The small community features a museum, a city park with camping, a few eateries, and some historic buildings.  I ate lunch at KJ’s New North.  The deli/coffee shop does not have any vegetarian items on the menu, but they made me a veggie sandwich with all of their veggies (peppers, pickles, lettuce, tomato, avocado+cheese).   The food was tasty and the service was good.  Since the town has its own municipal self-serve camping in the park, this might be a camping option when the state parks are full.   Pine Park features disc golf and the basic camping sites have a shared restroom and shower.  I visited the park briefly and found that it was great habitat for woodpeckers.  I saw four species of woodpeckers in my first fifteen minutes in the park, including a red headed woodpecker.  This was my only birding on the trip.

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Park overview:

Pros: Various hiking trails, glacial potholes, swimming opportunities, camping,  quieter than MN Interstate Park, close to St. Croix falls and other nearby communities, gift shop/mini museum, first Wisconsin State Park, and cheaper camping fees than MN.


Cons: Poison ivy and tourists (but less busy than MN Interstate Park…though it was a Monday)

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Conclusion:

Both parks compliment each other well.  Minnesota’s Interstate Park is great for its potholes, boat tours, and proximity to tourist attractions.  Wisconsin’s Interstate Park is great for hiking, swimming, and its interpretive center.  Together, the parks give visitors an appreciation for geology, knowledge about glaciers, and great views off the bluffs divided by the St. Croix river.   The proximity of the parks to the Minneapolis area and the dramatic natural beauty ensures that both are a popular destination.  They aren’t the most tranquil state parks, but if you don’t mind the sound of cicadas, traffic, and people they are a great place to visit.

Image may contain: Heather Bradford, tree, plant, outdoor and nature

Aitkin County Fair Review

Review of the Aitkin County Fair

Aitkin County Fair Review

H. Bradford

7/30/18

Aitkin County is Minnesota county with a population just over 16,000.  Despite the fact that is the neighboring county to Carlton County, where I grew up, I have never attended their county fair.  I usually attended the Carlton County Fair or a fair in St. Louis County.  This year, I attended the Aitkin County Fair with my family.   The fair was held early by fair standards (July 4-7th).  I attended on Saturday, which was the final day of the fair.  Here are my general impressions of the fair, though it may be an unfair assessment.


 

Pros:

 

Free Admission:

Most fairs charge a fee to enter.  This was always true of the Carlton County Fair.  The Aitkin County Fair costs nothing to attend!  There is a $5 parking fee, but this is easily avoided if a person parks further away.  This means that a person looking for free summer fun can wander around the fair at not cost.  Of course, rides and food are a bit spendy, but a person could choose to spend nothing! Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor


Children Activities:

There were a variety of free activities for children.  There was an entire building dedicated to free crafts for kids, where children could make noodle necklaces and spinners.  My nephews did a few of the free crafts, but were less interested in other free activities such as viewing animals or learning more about farming in an interactive, children’s barn.

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Tractor Parade:

Another highlight of the fair was the tractor parade.  There is something really fun about watching a parade of tractors.  The drivers tended to be older men, but there were also some kids and women.  The tractors followed the perimeter of the fairgrounds for a 20 minute parade that showcased the mostly older model tractors. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature


A Variety of Booths:

The Aitkin County Fair featured a two buildings of booths.  My favorite booth was for the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  This booth was selling guidebooks on a variety of topics at half price.  I purchased a guide to ferns, a guide to moths, and a wildflower guide.  I also purchased two half priced children’s books for my nephews on the topic of bats.   I collected pamphlets from other booths on gardening in Minnesota, Minnesota trees, and pollinators- which may have come from booths for the DNR and University of Minnesota Extension.  The Aitkin County History Society also had a building at the fair.


 

Aitkin Gobblers:

This doesn’t have much to do with the fair, but the mascot for the Aitkin schools is a turkey, since the area was once known for turkey farming and processing.  Aitkin County once produced a half million turkeys each year and Land-o-Lakes operated a turkey processing plant in Aitkin until 1985.  The school adopted the turkey mascot because of the importance of turkeys to Aitkin.  Well, I think this is a great, unique mascot.  I made a point of trying to find an Aitkin Gobbler T-shirt while in Aitkin, but I could only find one at a local thrift store.  I purchased the shirt for $3, but was disappointed that it did not feature the image of a turkey.  At the fair, there were only a few turkeys.  One of them looked droopy and had an empty water dish, so I gave it some water (which it immediately stepped on and knocked over. Oh well, at least its foot was no longer dehydrated..)  There are not many turkeys in Aitkin any more, but at least a few could be found at the fair and I found a Gobbler shirt.     The range of wild turkeys is expanding, so it is more common to see wild turkeys in Aitkin and Carlton counties.  So, perhaps the turkey will return as a wild and free bird.  Fair organizers should really play up the importance of turkeys…

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Fire and Rescue Table:

Aitkin County Fire and Rescue had an awesome table tucked away in the far northeast corner of the fair.   The table gave away full sized bottles of water for free to combat heat exhaustion.  We were all given at least one bottle of ice cold water.  They also gave us vials of insect repellent and other free items related to staying safe.  We were encouraged to take us much as we wanted.  Maybe because of the isolated location of the table and the fact that it was the last day of the fair, we were given a large amount of free goodies.


 

Cons:

Banana Derby:

The Banana Derby should probably go into the “con” category.  It is one of those surprising things that seem out of place in this day and age.  The attraction was literally a race between two dogs with monkeys riding on their backs.  It was free to observe and money was made through promotional photographs with the monkeys.  This didn’t seem right.  Monkeys in sweaty, polyester jockey costumes holding on to dogs as they ran on a small track.  Even if the dogs and monkeys are treated well, that sort of performance is probably stressful and tiring for the animals.  Is this the worst offense of the fair?  After all, animals are put on display for several days or served as food.  This is a complicated issue, but there seemed like something distinctively exploitative about carting dogs and monkeys around the country and training them to race.  Perhaps it is simply the unusual nature of this particular entertainment that calls into question the issue of animal treatment.  I will say that whole thing was pretty surreal.

 

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Lack of Produce:

Because the fair is held in early July, most gardens have not produced many crops as it it too early in the season.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplants, peppers, and so on tend to arrive later in late July and August.  Thus, the fair did not have many vegetables on display.   What could be done?  Maybe people could be encouraged to enter peas, lettuce, or immature versions of the later season crops. Image result for shriveled vegetable

Not an actual photo from the fair…but my impression of the veggies…


Business Booths:

While there was a building full of booths for organizations, there was another that was focused on businesses.  These offered prizes to promote their business.   These prizes seem a little scammy.  For instance, I received a call that I was one of  the finalists for a prize at the “Atkin” county fair.  Considering that the caller did not know how to pronounce Aitkin, I felt that it was not a representative from a local business or a genuine prize.  My brother also received a call regarding another prize, and it was clear that everyone who entered likely got a call from the business.  The prize offerings seemed like a way to gather customer contact information to trick people into purchasing products and services.


Lack of Swag Bags:

While at the fair, I tend to collect various pamphlets and free things.  Soon, my arms were full of books, pamphlets, and booklets.   None of the booths offered any sort of bag to carry the items in…except…the Aitkin County Republican Party.  I grabbed several bags and gave them to my family members.  I didn’t mind carrying my stuff around in a bag that said “God Bless America- Aitkin County Republican Party” as I found it rather ironic.  I didn’t feel ashamed, as it felt more like a prank or that I was a troll.   Is this wrong?  Should have I cared more?  I would have felt more embarrassed with a Democrat bag, since at least that would seem halfway plausible to the rest of the world.  A long story short, I guess I should have come prepared with a purse or backpack large enough to carry my loot.

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Not an actual photo of the bag, but you get the idea…

 

Overall:

The Aitkin County Fair is definitely a small fair.  There aren’t huge crowds and it is easy to amble along, enjoying this slice of rural living.  Rural life has been in a long decline, so there is a sense of emptiness at the fair.  Still, there is a sample of what once was with barns of goats, rabbits, cows, turkeys, pigs, and chickens, even if there are only a few representatives of each.  The few withered vegetable entries were sad, but on the other hand, there seemed to be robust interest in creating art, as the art barn had many entries.   There are carnival rides, free activities for kids, organizations with booths,  and of course, the tractor parade.  There is also music, fireworks, tractor pulls, 4H demonstrations, and a magician.  I did not partake in those events, but I am sure that each would add to the experience.  As a whole, I think it was a charming fair and worth a visit precisely because it is a small town affair and because of the hard work the community puts into organizing it.

What is LASIK Like?

What is LASIK Like_

What is LASIK Like?

H. Bradford

7/15/18

Earlier this week, I underwent LASIK eye surgery.   In the past year, I had considered it more deeply than in the past.  I figured that perhaps I would try to get it in a few years to mark turning 40 (as I am constructing a list of things I want to do to mark that milestone year).  However, a few things had prompted me to get the procedure early.  One, in April, one of my contact lenses (one eye) was back ordered for over a month.  This meant that I had to wear the wrong eye’s prescription in the back ordered eye (as I had run out of contacts for that eye but was able to re-stock the other eye) for over a month.  Two, in May,  I actually lost a contact lens while at work.  This meant that I had to have one of my housemates drive to my job with a replacement lens so I could see well enough to work.  Both of these instances made me consider moving my timeline ahead.  I ultimately decided to go ahead with LASIK because I found that I could qualify for reasonable financing, which made it possible for me to afford the procedure.


 

History:

I began wearing glasses in the first grade.  I remember that I actually WANTED glasses at the time, since I thought that glasses were cool.  Although I had mild vision problems, I remember lying on the vision test since I really, really, really wanted to glasses.  Yes, I lied.   I began wearing glasses, which as is turned out, was not all that I hoped it would be.  By the time I was in high school, I really hated wearing glasses, especially an exceptionally dorky pair that I had in 10th grade.  As it turns out, glasses can be expensive and after my parent’s divorce, I remember getting a cheap replacement pair that I really hated since that was what my mother could afford.  There is no shame on my mother or for being poor, it was simply a reality of my life and what we could afford. Thankfully, I was able to get into contact lenses in the 11th grade.  From then on, I wore my contact lenses every day and only wore my glasses for a few minutes a day (such as when first waking up or just before bed).  I wore my contacts without problem or incident, spare an inflamed cornea that I suffered in my early 20s.  I switched contact lens brands and the problem cleared up, spare one week of wearing an eye patch….which I also didn’t mind for the pirate aesthetic.


However, in the past few years I have traveled a bit more and started to feel a longing to be rid of both contacts and glasses.  In one instance, I remember traveling some very dusty roads in Namibia, which irritated my eyes.  There was also a dusty windstorm which also resulted in dust in my contacts.  Generally, wearing contacts during travel that involves camping, dust, wind, or water activities has been an inconvenience.  In my imagination, I began to think that I would be more adventurous if I simply got rid of my contacts once and for all.  This is patently untrue.  I am not adventurous because I am cautious by nature.  HOWEVER, I imagined going rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, camping, and other activities far more if only I was rid of contacts.  In my medical imagination, I began to associate LASIK with freedom and adventure.  Beyond this, almost everyone in my family has had LASIK.  This includes my mother, father, brother, and even my grandmother.  They are all advocates of LASIK, as it has worked out well for them.  Therefore, I felt confident that it would probably work out well for myself as well…

The Process:

I had not been saving for the procedure, as I had fantasized that it would happen at some far off time (in a fantasy world where I am better at saving).   I noticed that Weiss Eye Clinic in Hermantown offered financing for LASIK.  Before making an informational appointment, I checked to see if I would qualify for the financing option as that was no point making an appointment if I could not afford it.  I qualified online, so I made my appointment.


The first appointment was a consultation with a basic eye exam.  It was a short meeting which discussed how LASIK work and checked my eyes to see if I would qualify.  One important test was the thickness of my cornea, which was well above average and therefore eligible for LASIK.   Corneal thickness is important since LASIK reshapes the cornea.  I was told about some of the risks, which I had already read about online and didn’t feel particularly concerned about (I suppose since everyone I know who had the procedure did not have any major complications).   From there, I scheduled another eye appointment.  This was scheduled over two weeks from the consultation date, during which time I could not wear my contact lenses.


Not wearing my contacts was awful.  I hate wearing glasses.   I actually had a count-down on my bedroom calendar.  Each day, I checked to see how many days I had left on my calendar.   I have not watched a calendar countdown with such anticipation for the end since I was a child and my mother would hang up a cloth Advent Calendar with pockets for each day.  A stuffed mouse would sit in the pocket for each day leading up to Christmas, moving one pocket over for each passing day.   I was very aware that I was always wearing glasses.  They became sweaty and foggy with heat and temperature changes.  They always seemed to get dirty, so I would wipe them off multiple times each day.  It was my first time regularly wearing glasses since 10th grade.  I also felt that I couldn’t do physical activities.  I imagined them bouncing up and down on my face while running or just getting dirty and sweaty.  When I went for walks, a sudden rain suddenly became an enormous annoyance as once again, the glasses became unusable.  I know that people wear glasses without problem and actually enjoy wearing them, but to me, they are a facial prison.  I can honestly say I hated every day that I had to wear my glasses.  The only bright side was that I picked up a lot of overtime at my job.  I had 25 hours of it one week.  This made the time pass faster and made glasses less terrible, since I wasn’t doing anything public or active (just working).


After what felt like an eternity of wearing glasses, I had my eye exam.  It seemed like a regular eye exam, which generally tested my vision to make certain that the surgery would make the proper refractive correction.  I also had to watch a video and take a quiz about possible complications.  The only unusual aspect of the eye exam was a glaucoma test, which I have not had before.  My eyes were dilated for the test and remained dilated for several hours after.  This made for an interesting morning as I went about my day in the intensely…painfully bright world.  I went for a hike and imagined that I was a dark elf or some other mythical creature of a nocturnal world. I kept to the shadows of the trees, trying to avoid the sinister sunlight which I could barely endure.  After all, this was my first time leaving the dark, matriarchal comforts of Menzoberranzan.  (Yes, oddly I thought a lot about dark elves on the hike).  I don’t own prescription sunglasses, which may have helped.   I also went for lunch at Toasty’s, trying not to let the world see the fact that my pupils were giant lunar eclipses.  By the time that I had a work meeting a few hours later, the pupils were not quite as huge- but still large enough that I felt that I had to explain myself.  In any event, I was scheduled for the actual LASIK surgery about a week and a half after this exam.


It was smooth sailing until the surgery.  I thought little of it and had no anxiety prior to the surgery.  Oddly enough, I was not at all worried about having my eyes pried open and corrected with a laser.  My only worry was that I might get sick from the Valium I was given before the procedure.    I have emetophobia, so my main concern when entering a new situation is whether or not it will make me puke.  I did not suppose the laser would cause me to vomit, hence it caused no anxiety at all.   Thankfully, the Valium was awesome.  I don’t drink or use drugs, so I generally enjoy when I am given a medically sanctioned sedative.  I need to be sedated.  I am stressed out about the world.  I work at a domestic violence shelter.  I feel like I am living life in a meaningless hellworld where everything will die, everything is painful, and there is nothing I can effectively do about it.  Yay, Valium!


The procedure itself involved being given Valium, putting on medical booties and a hair cover, having numbing drops administered to my eyes, then laying out on a table.  While on the table, my eyes were clamped open in a way that I imagine is similar to a scene in A Clockwork Orange.  I was too numb and relaxed to mind.  While on the table, I looked up at the laser.   The procedure I underwent was Z-LASIK, which apparently is performed using only a laser and is marketed as bladeless.  I understand this to mean that a laser is used to both make a flap in the eye and reshape the cornea.  Thus, while on the table, a small flap was cut into my eye with a laser.  Once the flap was made, the cornea was reshaped.  From my own experience, it involved looking up at a red light.  There was also a green light, which I was not supposed to focus on.  The red light appeared diffuse with a focused red dot at the center.  I gazed up at the light, like looking into the eye of a mechanical angel or God.  There was a slight humming sound and accompanying odor, which was the smell of carbon atoms released from my cornea.  It was not an unpleasant or worrisome smell.  The whole process lasted less than a minute then was repeated on my other eye.  I did not feel any pain or discomfort, though I could feel that something was happening to my eyes.


My brother warned me that he could not see at all after his LASIK surgery.  However, I could see right away.  My main problem after the procedure was that I had trouble walking, as the Valium had made me unsteady.   After the surgery, I was instructed to sleep (as I would sleep through the pain as the drops wore off).  When I arrived home, I slept from about 10 am to 3pm (I took a Tylenol PM).   When I woke up, I could see generally well and didn’t feel too much discomfort, though light was shrouded in halos.  I could see well enough to drive….and felt well enough to go to a HOTDISH Militia meeting and a Homeless Bill of Rights event that evening.   My only error was that my night vision was not that great the first day and after both meetings, I went for a walk until dark, then had to drive home.  So, as a word to the wise, it is probably better to test your vision a bit more after the surgery.   I went to work the next day.


 

     After Care:

Aside from sleeping, I was instructed not to go into water (other than a shower) for two weeks, to avoid eye makeup for one week, to put antibiotic drops in my eyes for four days, wear goggles while sleeping, to avoid rubbing my eyes, and wear googles or sunglasses while doing outdoor activities that could result in a foreign object entering my eye.   I had an eye appointment the morning after the surgery and another following up will happen at one month, three month, six month, and twelve month intervals.  During the next two months, my eyes could change and adjust.  For now, my main side effects experienced have been dry eyes after sleeping, halos, and lessened night vision.  I have noticed that the halos and night vision has improved over the past few days.  I hope that they continue to improve as my eyes heal, since I work at night.  None of these side effects are severe enough that I regret having the procedure done, though I am still operating under the assumption they will continue to improve.


It is truly amazing to see with my own eyes for the first time since the first grade.  Each day, I still come home from work thinking that I have to take out my contacts.  It is great to wake up able to see and go to bed able to see.  I think this will also help on flights and at work.  Whenever I wanted to take a nap, even a short 15 minute nap, I have had to take my contacts out.  This is because they always became uncomfortably plastered to my eyes after even the shortest nap (which I sometimes use my break to nap).  This means that taking small naps on planes, buses, trains, or on work breaks has meant taking my contacts out.  It is great to sleep without taking out my lenses!  Flights are terrible because they have always dried out my contacts.  At least now I can see on flights without removing my contacts.  I also had the great realization that I can actually see in the shower.  This seems like no big deal, but it is neat to be able to see ALL of the time.  I think that it really does open up possibilities- especially in terms of water sport participation.  I hate water.  I am a coward when it comes to water.  But, at least I will be able to SEE if I choose to go rafting again or SEE if I do any activity that involves water in my eyes.  One of my goals is to try out more watery activities, even though I hate them…simply because I CAN!


 

Cost:

My procedure, including all of the follow up visits, cost $3,300.   My insurance covered a $400 eye exam prior to the LASIK, but insurance does not cover LASIK itself.  Weis Eye Center offers financing through CareCredit which is a glorified, medical credit card.  The main benefit of this card is that you pay no interest at all if you pay off the balance within 12 months.  However, due to other bills and spending goals, I opted to pay interest and finance the procedure over 2 years.  I could have chosen to pay it off in 3, 4, or 6 years, which obviously would have resulted in smaller monthly payments, but much more interest.  My hope is that I can pay it off in less than 2 years to avoid paying as much in interest (even though I will pay some).   I feel comfortable that this was not a terrible financial decision, even if paying it off in one year would have been more ideal.  With that said, I believe that insurance should cover the procedure.  While it is viewed by society as elective or cosmetic, I think that it is entirely reasonable to want functional eyes without the use of glasses or contacts.   I have found glasses and contacts to have many draw backs, especially regarding travel and physical activities.  I think that anyone who wants to have their eyes corrected should be able to access this (so, ideally, beyond insurance it should be a part of the services available to people if medicine was socialized).   Of course, each person has to weigh the risks on their own.  Dry eyes, halos, lessened night vision, or more serious complications are certainly worth considering.  And, not everyone hates glasses and contacts as much as I have disliked them.  Glasses can be fashionable and more comfortable than contacts.  And, obviously, I wore contacts for years without problems other than minor inconveniences.


     Conclusion:

It is entirely possible that some complication could still arise or that my minor eye problems will not correct themselves.  Still, to me, LASIK feels like freedom.  I certainly idealize it.  Realistically, I have not done a single adventurous thing since getting LASIK earlier this week (though I did SIGN up to do snorkeling on my upcoming trip).   But, I have enjoyed the everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  Seeing all of the time is great!  Not having to touch my eyes or take out my lenses is also super!  I will be going camping next week, and it will be nice to be able to blindly navigate to a toilet at night or not have to fumble around to find my glasses in the dark.  So far, I have enjoyed the sum of the small, everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  While I won’t magically become more intrepid it will at least give me one less thing to worry about.  With that said, I definitely recommend LASIK.

Road Trip: Texas to Minnesota!

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Road Trip:  Texas to Minnesota!

H. Bradford

5/20/18

This year, my brother accepted a new job in Minnesota.  This meant that he had to move his family and belongings from San Antonio to Minnesota.  The move presented a logistical problem, as he has two vehicles but would have had to pay someone to move one of the vehicles north.  So, rather than have him pay someone to move his vehicle- I volunteered to drive it for him!  I thought it might be fun to travel from Texas to Minnesota on an epic sibling road trip.  I planned out some stops and a route for us.  Because of my work schedule (eight days on/six days off) I was able to fly to San Antonio and embark on this road trip without having to miss work.  Of course, the only problem was that 1.) I hate driving.  2.) I have never driven that far before.  3.) I have never really driven in major cities.  But…the lure of adventure outstripped my anxieties and the cross country odyssey began.  Here are some highlights from the cross country journey!


 

Day One/Two: San Antonio

 

Riverwalk:

I arrived in San Antonio in the late afternoon after working a night shift the day before (and a stretch of nine shifts in a row prior to the trip).  Although I was sleep deprived, I had just enough energy to explore the River Walk for a few hours. The River Walk is a well touristed area, but an easy place for a leisurely stroll and overpriced food.  I enjoyed eating Mexican food, observing ducks, and posing by The Alamo. In the past, I have had some misgivings visiting and posing by The Alamo, which is a symbol of Texan independence/statehood. On the other hand, it could also be viewed as a place where Mexico squarely defeated insurgent U.S.settlers.  Or, it could be viewed as a Spanish mission to educate or covert (i.e. acculturate/destroy) Native Americans into the Catholic faith. However one wants to remember The Alamo, a highlight was watching my brother convince one of the park rangers to take a photo with me by pretending to be a guileless tourist, rather than San Antonio resident for the past several years. Image may contain: 2 people, including Heather Bradford, people standing and outdoor


San Antonio Botanical Gardens:

It is hard to rank something like botanical gardens, since each is unique in their own way.  However, I will say that San Antonio probably has one of the best botanical gardens that I have been to.  A person can spend hours in the massive gardens, which features plants from several Texan regions, a pond, a bird observatory, children’s gardens, herb gardens, butterfly gardens, a Japanese garden, collections of ferns and citrus fruit, and much more.  The garden also offers a great view of San Antonio. I visited the garden while my brother was finishing his exit paperwork for the army. I focused on birdwatching, which is also great at the botanical gardens!

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The Missions:

After visiting the botanical garden, my brother and I headed off to see some of the San Antonio missions. Although I have visited San Antonio twice before, I had not visited the missions on my prior trips.  I was not entirely interested in them, since well, they are monuments to the conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism. However, since it was my last visit, I had not previously seen them, and they are World Heritage Sites, I thought there might be some value in paying a brief visit.  As such, we checked out two of the four missions. We visited Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion. I would say that a highlight of visiting Mission San Jose was walking along the defensive walls of the grounds and imagining what life must have been like for the people who lived within the walls.  We paused to take a photo of the ornate, Rose Window, which was very popular with tourists. Otherwise, after walking the grounds, we headed over to Mission Conception, which was much smaller. The most notable thing about this mission site was the Native American murals. The ceiling of one part of the mission featured a sun with a mustache.  I like to think that the artist wanted to slip in some sort of subtle cultural resistance against Catholicism. No automatic alt text available.


Government Canyon State Natural Area

One of my favorite places to visit in the San Antonio area is Government Canyon.  In the past, I have spent many hours hiking the canyon area. A must see highlight of the hike is the dinosaur footprints, which are located about two and a half miles from the visitor center.  Unfortunately, each time I have visited the tracks have been submerged in water. Despite the algae, mud, and water, the shape of the tracks is generally visible without much imagination. From the dinosaur footprints, hikers can choose several other trails.  This time, my brother and I chose to take the overlook trail.

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Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, tree, outdoor and nature


 

Day Three:  San Antonio to Gainesville, Texas

On day three of the trip, we finally left San Antonio via HWY 281 towards Marble Falls.  This route was preferable to the congested and speedy I-35, which would have taken us through Waco Texas (and to Mammoth National Monument).  The easy drive took us through Texas’ Hill Country, past many things named after Lyndon B. Johnson. Our first stop was in Marble Falls for breakfast…


Blue Bonnet Cafe:

We stopped for breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, Texas.  I am not a huge fan of pancakes, but I will say that I had the best pancake I’ve eaten at this cafe.  It was fluffy, filling, and thick. I also appreciate that everywhere I ate in Texas had iced tea (at all hours) and that I was often offered a “to go” cup for my refill.  This is not the norm in Minnesota. In any event, the breakfast was a great start to the day, which says a lot since breakfast is my least favorite meal.

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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge:

Following breakfast, we detoured away from 281 to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.  The visitors center was closed, but we went on to hike at the Warbler Vista.  Our goal was to see the elusive and endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler, which is endemic to Texas and only breeds in mature juniper forests.  We wandered along a jagged juniper lined hill trail. While we heard birds, we saw nothing for most of the hike. Then, towards the end of the hike, we decided to take a moment to investigate the source of a birdsong.  Sure enough, it was the Golden Cheeked Warbler!  I struggled to photograph the quick bird as evidence that I had seen the endangered warbler. The bird actually landed a few feet away from my brother, then zipped off to some nearby evergreens.   I was able to snap a photo. We saw and heard the bird a few more times before finishing the trail.  At the end of the trail, I saw two scrub jays, which were also a first time sighting for me. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is also home to the Black capped vireo, another endangered bird. We set off to the Shin Oak overlook, where the bird is sometimes found. However, we did not have any luck seeing this bird.   We saw an Indigo Bunting and many cardinals, which seem pretty abundant in the Texas Hill Country. Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, grass, outdoor and nature Image may contain: bird and outdoor


Dinosaur Valley State Park:

 

Our journey continued towards Dinosaur Valley State Park.  This brought us back along HWY 281 to enjoy more Hill Country scenery and small, Texan towns.  One of the more unique towns that we passed through was Hamilton, Texas. Hamilton features a Frida Kahlo themed Mexican restaurant and the grave of a man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.  Further along 281, Hico Texas hosts a Billy the Kid museum. We did not stop at these places as we lacked the time, but I think that they would have been interesting stops.


We drove on to Dinosaur Valley State Park, which is known for several sets of dinosaur foot prints.  When we arrived, the day was very hot. We were initially very excited to pose by the giant dinosaur statues and find the prints.  The excitement gave way to frustration. The park was very busy and the tracks were located in the water. We slipped out of our shoes, waded into the water, and crossed slippery rocks to view one set of tracks.  This was a lot of effort. I had imagined that the tracks would be permanently etched in mud turned to stone along a dry path. Nope. It is my understanding that all of the tracks are located in the Puluxy River.  There are times of the year when the river is drier and access to the tracks is easier.   Based on my experience, I would recommend bringing water shoes and preparing for some wading to access them.  I would also recommend a water proof camera or not bringing along anything that should not get wet.  On the other hand, the park is an ideal place to bring kids, since children can literally swim around with dinosaur foot prints. Image may contain: cloud, sky, shoes, outdoor and nature Image may contain: outdoor and water


After viewing one set of footprints, we decided to go for a hike.  Hiking on any of the trails involved crossing over the river (which is another good reason to bring water shoes or waterproof hiking boots).  My feet got wet in the crossing. The heat and wet feet added to my waning morale.   I was encouraged by the idea that we might see a rare Black capped vireo on one of the trails.  However, we didn’t see many birds and after driving all day, we didn’t have much energy for a long hike. Our final destination was still over two hours ahead of us, so we eventually turned around to plot the final leg of our day’s journey.

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Gainesville, Texas:

We spent the night on Day Three in Gainesville, Texas, which is located very close to Oklahoma.  The drive there was pleasant enough as we skirted around major cities and the associated traffic.  By the time we arrived, it was late in the evening and we were both tired. We didn’t do much sightseeing in Gainesville, but managed to drag ourselves to a Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel.  I ordered a vegetarian taco, which was stuffed with “mixed vegetables.” As it turned out, the mixed vegetables were literally the sort of mixed vegetables a person gets from a can or in a school lunch (carrots, corn, green beans, lima beans).  It was odd and disappointing.  Otherwise, we strolled around the historic downtown area and called it a day!


Day Four:  Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas

Day four took us from Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas.  We set out early, followed Interstate 35, and made our first stop in Oklahoma City to visit a few tourist sites.  Oklahoma has some lovely landscapes and I regret that we did not stop to take some photos as we pressed towards Oklahoma City.

Myriad Gardens and Bricktown:


This botanical garden was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still a relaxing place to visit.  I enjoyed the small collection of unique fruit plants such as the blackberry jam plant (Randia Formosa) and fruit salad tree (Monstera Deliciosa).  Outside of the greenhouse, there was a park/amphitheater with ducks, irises, and a sunken lake. Myriad Gardens is located by the Bricktown Entertainment District.  My brother and I strolled around the area, enjoying the river walk along the Oklahoma River. I regret that I did not take more photos of Bricktown itself, which seemed like a pretty typical center of urban tourism.  Originally, Bricktown was an industrial area centered around the Santa Fe Railroad. Bricktown and neighboring Deep Deuce were once centers for Oklahoma City’s African American population, but this shifted with the decline of industries, construction of major highways, and desegregation of the city.  In the 1980s the area was purchased by a private developer and further gentrification was promoted by the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects (MAP) program. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bricktown-and-deep-deuce-oklahoma-city-1889 Image may contain: sky and outdoor


Museum of Osteology:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the museum located miles away from Oklahoma City’s center in what appeared to be a neighborhood of warehouses, fields, and road construction.  It was also strange that the remote building was a private museum of skeletons collected by an individual.   It seemed rather eccentric that a person would collect over 300 skeletons, which he personally cleaned, and displayed for the public.  Despite the weird location and fact it was someone’s menagerie of the dead, the museum was actually one of the most memorable that I have visited. The displays were professional and scientific. The skeletons were generally organized by taxonomic families and featured interesting facts.  For instance, I learned that hedgehogs were no longer grouped in the order Insectivora (as it no longer exists).  All of the skeletons were real, with the exception of a collection of early human remains replicas. The center of the museum featured giraffe, whale, hippo, and elephant skeletons.  The gift shop was full of unique souvenirs, including unicorn skeleton bumper stickers, glow in the dark animal skeleton t-shirts, and toad skeletons encased in plastic.

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Chisholm Creek Park/Great Plains Nature Center:

Upon arriving in Wichita, we felt like taking a walk.  We had heard of the Great Plains Nature Center, but read that it was closed on a Sunday.  My brother searched for another nearby park and found the Chisholm Creek Park. As it turned out, the park WAS actually part of the Great Plains Nature Center and OPEN.  This was great luck! We hiked along the trails, which meandered through wetlands, forests, and prairie areas. I saw many birds, including two black crowned night herons, many tree sparrows, and great blue herons.  The park was surprisingly busy for a Sunday evening, with people of all ages enjoying nature. While we didn’t stay long in Wichita, Chisholm Creek Park was definitely worth a visit (and probably even better when the visitor center is open!) Image may contain: outdoor


Day Five:  Wichita to Sioux City, Iowa

Day five of our journey was packed full of driving, outdoors, and adventure.

Tallgrass Prairie Reserve:

Just over an hour away from Wichita on a farmland and meadowlark lined highway is the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.  This park is a small piece of the ecosystem that once spread across the midsection of country.  Only 4% of the US’ tall grass prairie remains. We arrived early and were immediately charmed by the hilly, grass carpeted landscape and socially awkward park ranger at the visitor center.  Best of all, the park is FREE to visit!  We set off on a trail that began near the visitor center, which took us through pasture and along a wooded river trail.  The small patch of woods hosted a large variety of birds, making for some of the best birding on the trip.  It also shaded us from the sun and provided a nice vantage point for viewing the prairie. We hiked for over two hours, ending just as the sun was gaining strength. If we would have had more time to explore, we could have taken a bus tour to visit other parts of the park and view the bison herd.  Instead, we had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we set off on back roads towards Topeka. I wanted to avoid toll roads, so we took a slightly longer route. The longer route gave us a nice view of the Flint Hills and smaller Kansas communities.

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Westboro Baptist Church:

I was not aware that the Westboro Baptist Church was located in Topeka, Kansas.  The hateful church is located in a quiet residential neighborhood. We stopped for the spectacle of seeing the infamous church and also for the opportunity to give them the finger.  We made the quick stop before taking a fast food lunch break in Topeka. Across the street from the church are two colorful houses. One is decorated in the colors of the Trans flag and the other is clad in rainbow siding.  The house with the pride flag colors is the Equality House, which has hosted weddings, drag shows, and fundraisers. The Trans flag house was purchased by an eight year old transgender child through crowdfunding.  There are many fast food restaurants located near the church, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat before continuing our journey. Image may contain: tree, sky, house, plant, outdoor and nature   Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, tree and outdoor


Indian Cave State Park:

From Topeka, we headed to Indian Cave State Park in Nebraska.  We arrived in the late afternoon, once again following rural roads.  I wanted to visit the park, since I thought it would be interesting to see petroglyphs left behind by Native Americans thousands of years ago.  There is also a ghost town nestled within the state park.


We found that the park was very expansive if not a little confusing.   The petroglyphs were located at the furthest end of the park, along a cliff face facing the Missouri River.  The rock wall is more of a cliff than a cave.  Still, the site is easily accessed from the road.  Unfortunately, many people have carved messages into the rock face over the years.  The petroglyphs are hidden within a mess of graffiti.  There seems to be little to prevent further desecration of the monument, so I would recommend visiting the park for the opportunity to see it while you can! Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


After visiting the petroglyphs, we followed the road back to the ghost town of St. Deroin.  The city was abandoned after the Missouri River shifted and the town lost ferry service. Interestingly, the community was part of the Nemaha Half-breed reservation, who were a group of mixed ancestry Native American/European people.  The reservation ceased to exist in 1861 but some of the descendants continue to live in the area to this day.  It seems like a fascinating history, since they would have been outsiders to both societies and I wonder how modern descendants fare today.  For instance, do they identify with their Native American roots or do they want some kind of federal recognition?

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Finally, we explored a wetland trail near the remnants of St. Deroin, where we saw over a dozen Indigo buntings and my brother saw a bobwhite.  The trail offered a few of the Missouri River, as well its previous path by St. Deroin.


Sioux City, Iowa:

After a long day of driving and exploring, our final stop was Sioux City.  We didn’t arrive until after 9pm, so we really didn’t have time to explore.  My impression was that Sioux City seems to be a hub for semi trucks.  The only thing we did in Sioux City was share an appetizer sampler at Perkins, almost collapse from exhaustion when we arrived at our hotel, and complain about the news coverage of the royal wedding.


 

Day Six:  HOME!


Lake Crystal:

On our final day, we drove from Sioux City to our respective homes.  The final journey took us through Lake Crystal, Mn, where my brother picked up the rest of his family.  I stopped by the nearby Welsh Park, which is named after the second longest city name in the world. Apparently, many Welsh people settled in the area.  There was once a Welsh Methodist church and there is also a Welsh Heritage Orchard.  There is also a Welsh farmstead on the national register of historic places (Jones-Roberts Farmstead).  I don’t know the specifics of Welsh settlement in Lake Crystal, but Blue Earth and LeSueur Countries attracted a few thousand Welsh settlers who farmed in those counties.

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Pigeon Lake Rookery:

Continuing north, we stopped at Pigeon Lake.  Pigeon Lake is a wildlife viewing area, where a person can stop alongside the road and view several islands which serve as rookeries for pelicans, cormorants, and herons.  Without a spotting scope, it is hard to see the scope of the species breeding on the islands. However, even without a spotting scope, hundreds of birds can be seen dotting the islands. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and water


Sartell to Duluth:  The End…

My brother’s final destination was his new home in Sartell.  We spent some time viewing the new house, which was still devoid of his belongings.  From there, my mother drove me back home to Duluth. Thus my road trip ended! I was exhausted, as I had driven over 1,400 miles and seen many things.  The next morning it was back to work for me.


It was nice to have the opportunity to go on a road trip with my brother.  I felt as though I had lived several weeks over the course of several days.  We were busy from the early morning to late night each day.  Even with a busy schedule, we didn’t scratch the surface of everything we could have seen!  There were bones, birds, dinosaur foot prints, petroglyphs, and hikes.  The “flyover” states have plenty to offer and I think that for as much as I dislike the US for its politics, racism, sexism, other isms, history, and place in the world- I can appreciate the US for our natural landscapes.

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Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

H. Bradford

4/8/18

In 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was launched under the Bush administration.  The program allows student loan borrowers to have their loans forgiven if they make 120 qualifying payments on their loans while working full time as a public servant.  This includes work for state, tribal, and federal organizations, 401c non-profit organizations, Americorps, Peace Corps, and some other qualifying non-profits. I did not learn about this program until about two years ago when I was faced with the reality of paying my student loans and spent some time looking through repayment options.  Since the program is not well promoted or advertised, many people are not aware that they may be able to have their loans forgiven. Had I known about it, I could have enrolled years ago and made some headway towards the 120 qualifying payments. This past year marked the 10 year anniversary of the program, which meant that the first cohort of enrollees in the program were qualified for loan forgiveness.  However, many found that they had not been making qualifying payments and would potentially have to start over. In all, only about 1000 of the 7,500 people enrolled in the program are expected to actually qualify for loan forgiveness this year (Lobosco, 2018). It is unknown how many, if any, have actually seen their loans forgiven, but the frustration of many borrowers has resulted in some lawsuits against loan servicers.  I have had my own frustrations and setbacks as I have tried to navigate the program. I will try to share some of the things I have learned along the way so that others can avoid the pitfalls that have thwarted so many borrowers.

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Direct Loans and Consolidation:


One of the criteria for loan forgiveness is that student loans must be Direct Student Loans (which confusingly are also called Direct Plus Loans and Unsubsidized/ Subsidized Stafford Loans.)   Payments on loans that are not Direct Loans (such as federal Perkins Loans and FFEL loans) do not count and so if you spend time making these payments, it will not works towards the 120 or 10 years of payments.  If you decide to consolidate these loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan, you will loose credit on any payments on the Direct Loans you had been making payments on.  Thus, if you make payments on loans that are not Direct Loans or make Direct Loan payments AND then consolidate all of the loans, and the payment clock will reset once the loans are consolidated. Therefore, aside from working at a qualifying institution, it is important to consolidate non-Direct loans into a Consolidated Direct Student Loan early in the payment process.  In general, it is best to consolidate all federal loans early in the payment process (since once they are consolidated into the Direct Consolidation Loan the 120 payments reset).  I made the mistake that some of my loans were consolidated and some were not.   This is because I had consolidated some of them years ago.   I accumulated additional loans which were not part of the consolidation.  Both of these loans were serviced by Navient with qualifying payment plans, which I made payments on for a year.  It  was my belief that some of the loans may not qualify for forgiveness after 10 years of payments.   Because of this error and to make certain all loans were forgiven, I reconsolidated the loans.  Consequently, I lost a year of payments towards my 120 qualifying payments.   Despite the loss of time, I figured it was better to start over and have everything forgiven than reach the end with only some forgiveness.  Thus, if you are entering the program, make sure that your loans are Direct Loans and that you consolidate early on if you have multiple loans!  There are some other entities that try to offer consolidation loans.  If your consolidation loan is through a bank or some other entity than the federal government, it will not qualify for PSLF.

(Originally, I wrongly wrote that only consolidated Direct Loans qualify.  All Direct loans qualify for the program- but in my case, I was unsure if my loans qualified and was making payments on consolidated and non-consolidated loans.  When I consolidated them I started over.  If you are confused on this matter, read the section on eligible loans: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service/questions)


 Qualifying Payments:

 

To qualify for student loan forgiveness, borrowers must make 120 qualifying payments.  This means that only certain payment plans meet the criteria for forgiveness. A person can qualify by making payments under a standard payment plan.  There are also several income driven plans (IDR) which include Pay as you Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE), Income Based Repayment (IBR), and Income Contingent Repayment (ICR).  To qualify for IDR, I filled out a request form and submitted it with my income taxes. Generally, if a person qualifies for IDR, the payments are 10-15% of discretionary income, or income above 150% of the poverty line.  Borrowers must also demonstrate some sort of financial hardship, but simply having a high loan balance compared to annual income is sufficient to qualify. Each year, a borrower must submit new tax information and a new request form to qualify for the payment plan.  To apply for income driven repayment, you can visit StudentLoan.gov https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/ibrInstructions.action?source=15SPRRPMT


Not all payment plans are qualifying payment plans.  For instance, some borrowers were on extended or graduated payment plans.  These plans are NOT qualified for forgiveness, as borrowers found out the hard way when they tried to apply for forgiveness this year.  While these plans also lower monthly payments and are also government sponsored payment plans, they do not qualify for the program. However, the federal spending plan passed in March has made $350 million available to borrowers who made ten years of payments under these plans so that they do not have to restart the clock on repayment (Lenza, 2018).  Despite this recent provision, the funds are only available until they have been used up, so, it is best to either apply for these funds immediately if you have been on the wrong payment plan or switch over to a qualifying payment plan. Image result for public service loan forgiveness image Image from: https://blog.iontuition.com/qualifications-public-service-loan-forgiveness/

Employment Verification:

The heart of this program is employment in public service.  It is important to note that this does not have to be continuous employment or even employment at the same job.  For instance, if you make qualifying payments while doing a year of Americorps service, spend a year working at a for profit company, followed by a year of non-profit work, this would still count as two years of qualifying payments, even if the work was interrupted.  Of course, the year at a non-qualifying workplace would not count, even if payments were made on the student loans. Full time is considered an average of 30 hours a week or more, so it is possible to be a “part-time” worker in terms of hours and benefits, but still be considered full time by PSLF standards.


The program does not require individuals to submit employment verification each year in order to qualify in the end.  When I applied for income driven repayment, I checked a box stating that I worked in a non-profit. I figured this was sufficient for their tracking purposes.  It is…and…it isn’t. While a person COULD work at qualifying workplaces for the duration of the ten years, then, at the end of the 120 payments submit an employment verification form to prove this, it is better to submit this annually for a number of reasons.  1.) This program is under attack by politicians, so, officially enrolling in the program is a good way of getting grandfathered in should the program end. 2.) Your employer may not qualify- so it is better to know sooner than later. 3.) It is a way to keep track of progress towards the 120 payments and avoid any mistakes that will cost time and money by delaying forgiveness.


If you wish to submit an employer verification form, here is is.   Simply have your employer fill out the required parts, then you can mail or fax it to the Department of Education.  But, beware, submitting this form will set in motion a series of unfortunate events….


https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/public-service-employment-certification-form.pdf

Changing Loan Servicers: A Series of Unfortunate Events

While there are many good reasons to immediately submit the employment verification form, there is one major downside.  The major downside is that this will switch your loan servicer to FedLoan, which is the most unpopular and poorly rated loan government servicer.  The government has several student loan servicers including Great Lakes, Navient, Nelnet, and Fedloan. Despite the fact that they all oversee student loans for the government, only FedLoan is used for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  This means that once you submit your employment verification form, your loans will be transferred from your servicer to FedLoan. FedLoan has poor reviews for customer service, miscalculating IDR, delayed processing of payments, slow processing time for paperwork, etc.


I submitted my employment verification form in January.  In the meantime, I continued to make payments with Navient.  It took four months for the loan to finally be switched over to FedLoan.  And, when it finally switched over, I was given less than a week’s notice that my payment would be due!  Not only was my payment with FedLoan due in a week…it was for the full amount…as the income based repayment plan was not transferred with the loan.  While FedLoan had no problem transferring my banking information for automated payments from Navient along with the due date of Navient’s payment, the servicer was completely incapable of transferring my payment plan, even though I had renewed the payment plan in December.  The payment plan was not set to expire for eight months. Worse, I was expected to make a nearly immediate payment of over $1000. Yes, this was a nightmare.


To navigate this disaster, I submitted a renewal for my income driven plan on the same day that I learned my loan had been transferred.  This form can be submitted electronically on FedLoan’s site. Borrowers are also able to submit tax forms electronically on their website.  Despite my quick action, I read that FedLoan is notoriously slow and inept at calculating IDR. Some borrowers have had to wait three months to have their income driven repayment plans approved.  In the meantime, borrowers are expected to make full payments. I also called the next day and spoke with a representative, wherein I explained my situation and the surprise at the sudden high payment.  I was able to defer my loans for several months while the IDR is being processed. I actually asked to continue to make payments for the same amount that I made with Navient for this duration, but was told that these would not count as qualifying payments for PSLF.  Although I was approved for temporary forbearance, to make 100% certain that my checking account is not debited the full amount of the loan, I suspended payments for the month. This can also be done electronically on FedLoan’s website. Now, I am hoping that with this multifaceted approach, I can avoid some of the frustrations other borrowers have experienced.  My main piece of advice is to be observant and proactive.


I am still in the early stages of my relationship with FedLoan.  With time, FedLoan should provide me with a report on my payment progress towards the 120 payments.  I have not yet received the report, but I have read that some borrowers have found errors in how this was calculated.  Again, it seems like FedLoan is the shit show of loan servicers. But, I will say that the representative I spoke to was helpful and my forbearance was processed within 24 hours.  I also received notice yesterday that my IDR was processed. This means that it was processed within four days. While the new payment plan has not yet gone into effect, perhaps this is a kernel of hope that FedLoan may not be absolutely awful. Image result for fedloan

Other Information:


Currently, borrowers who do not work at work places which qualify for PSLP can still qualify for loan forgiveness.  Borrowers who make qualifying payments on their undergraduate student loans for a MERE 20 years can have their loans forgiven.  And, if you have debt from graduate school, you can see financial freedom after 25 years of qualifying payments! Hope springs eternal as there is the possibility that debt can be forgiven by retirement.  If it is not, delinquent student loan payments can be taken out of social security benefits (up to 15% of benefit). It is important to note that any student loan debt that is forgiven by the government is counted as taxable income.  It is also important to note that at this time, PSLF debt forgiveness is tax exempt (but 20 and 25 year forgiveness under extended payment plans is not). One final thing to be aware of is that marriage means that Income Driven Repayment plans are calculated with both incomes.  This changes payment amounts and may bar some people from qualifying for these plans. Thus, another piece of student loan repayment advice is to never get married.

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Conclusion:


Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness can be frustrating to say the least.  I am thankful for my education, but certainly wish that education did not require taking on such debt.  In exchange for my education, I am certainly willing to provide a service to society. Though, rather than creating debt that is escapable only through death, we should provide free public education from pre-k through Ph.d.  For those who are passionate about lifelong learning, there should also be free or low cost, varied, and plentiful continuing education programs, certificate programs, and trainings. We should all be passionate lifelong learners.  Instead, education is becoming increasingly private, expensive, and market driven- qualities that are anathema to creating a population with a zeal for expanding their human experience through learning. The present system is flawed in many ways.  At a basic level, it is bad for capitalism since it thwarts the reproduction of labor. If people cannot marry because of debt or must pay student debt into old age, there is a diminished ability to ensure the sustenance and continuation of labor. While I have no sympathy for capitalism’s continuation, the student debt system will inevitably cause crisis in capitalism as workers are increasingly burdened by loans.  PSLF is a small, relatively unknown escape hatch from student loan burden (which still requires 10 years of payments and a lot of hoops). But, for many people, it relieves them of the worst burdens of their debt as they provide various services to society. More must be done. This modest program must be defended, but beyond this, we should demand forgiveness of all crushing educational debt and quality education for all.

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Image from:  https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/senate-bill-would-provide-student-loan-debt-relief-070617.html

 

Sources: (not formatted correctly…)

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/articles/2018-04-04/how-student-loan-borrowers-can-requalify-for-public-service-loan-forgivenesshttp:

https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/02/pf/college/public-service-student-loan-forgiveness/index.html

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