Friday, October 21, 2011

Kindergarten Gurus (or, Wasps get mad at this time of year"

Kindergarten Gurus (Waterloo, 2011)

Today, walking down the hill to the bus stop, my 5 year old stopped.

"A dead wasp!" He looked at the perfect, still body. "It looks just the same, but dead."

I was impatient. In a hurry. I didn't want to miss the bus.

"Yes, yes, wasps die in October. Keep walking!" My 4yo daughter and I were far enough ahead that he needed to run to keep up.

"Why?" he asked.

"Why what?"

"Why do wasps die in October?"

"Because it's cold." I threw it out, a little dismissive.

My daughter piped up at the same time. "Because they're done getting all the pollen."

This time I stopped, just for a second. I smiled. She's such a show-off.

"That too," I conceded, feeling bested by a master. I gave them both a hug. We walked.

"Wasps are just like robots," my son offered.

"Yes, they are basically like robots, programmed to get pollen. Like a light bulb. When we turn on the switch, we send electricity to the light bulb and it lights up, because that's what it does." They nodded. They've heard this before. "When we turn the switch off, it stops the electricity, and the bulb is off."

They stumbled over each other to talk, and my son won out. I never quite know how to navigate these squabbles - I don't want to reward this kind of pushiness (though it does have some practical value in some circumstances), and I don't want to sidetrack the conversation. I'll admit, this time I let it go. My son said,

"So they die, and then in spring new ones get borned, just the same kind of robots that get pollen. Because there's no flowers in winter. So we don't need these old ones anymore. So we pull out our electricity, and they fall down dead."

"That's one interesting way to look at it."

"Everything's a robot," he proclaimed. "We're robots, and cars are robots and birds and everything is just robots with electricity."

My daughter piped up.

"Noooo..." she said, almost laughing, almost sarcastic. "They're not just robots."

"No?" I asked. "Why?"

"Robots don't get mad. Wasps get mad at this time of year."

She was quoting me - I've said "Wasps get mad at this time of year" many times in the past couple of months. But she tied that back herself to the concept that the wasps can't be robots because they feel emotion. She identified a key concept of being "alive."

"That's true." I responded. And then, "Unless the robots are programmed to get mad when they're about to die..."

"All of everything gets mad when it's about to die," said my son with certainty. "We like to be alive."

We arrived at the bus stop. They mounted the stairs to the bus, almost too high for their legs. My kindergarten gurus.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A message on poverty

(photo from Tina Tang)

Poverty is a personal problem with systemic consequences.

In response to the systemic consequences, we institute systems-approach solutions that have personal consequences, and often exacerbate the effects of poverty at the personal level. These approaches have failed to reduce levels of poverty and have increased gaps between the richest and poorest. These systems cost too much money to provide no return on investment.

We require a different set of starting principles.

The most viable solutions will challenge common understanding about concepts like value, work, choice, responsibility, community and freedom. We are only beginning to have those conversations, and they are hard.

This work is generations from fruition.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Johnny, Jenny & Neeha: Talking TIME

Part 2 Talking: TIME

When we last left Jenny, Johnny & Neeha, they were having lunch. Read the previous post here

Jenny feels her friends’ ambivalence and wishes she’d kept quiet. Never have the three friends been in such different places. They pretend to read the menu they all know by heart. Jenny already knows that she'll order soup, but she doesn't want to look up right away. We are in such different places, she thinks. I wish we could understand each other, and just feel comfortable like we used to.

Suddenly, Jenny's stomach contracts and a cold, eerie feeling descends over her. With glaring clarity she understands: this may be the last time we three friends are together like this. She feels suddenly overwhelmed with sadness for all she has lost already. Jenny takes a ragged breath. Johnny and Neeha are instantly alert.
"Jenny, I'm sorry, we never should have gotten into talking about money." Neeha puts her arm around her friend, but Jenny shakes it off.

"No, that's just it! It's what we DON'T talk about that's getting in our way! Guys, I really think that we might be losing our friendship because we can't talk about how our situations are different, the assumptions or judgments we might have - even unconsciously. It gets in the way, like a wall we've been slowly building for years!"

All three sit in silence. After a minute, Johnny nods thoughtfully.

"Okay, but we can't change anyone's situation, we can't change what's different in our lives. So what can we do?"

"Maybe...we can talk about it?" offers Jenny shyly.

Johnny does not want to talk about it. He knows that he has more money than his friends and he doesn't want to be made to feel guilty about it. He went to college, and worked hard to get where he is. He thinks, what is there to talk about? It's not his fault that his friends made different decisions than he did. Jenny chose to get married and quit school - if she'd wanted to, she could have given the baby up, or found a way to do her studies part time. And Neeha didn't even try. As these thoughts flow through his mind, he remembers Jenny's words that burst out so jarringly. Assumptions? Judgments? Reluctantly, he starts to see that maybe there are some things to talk about.

Neeha still hasn't spoken. She does not want to talk about her life - it's too boring. She doesn't want to complain, and she doesn't want to listen to anyone else complain, either. It hurt her feelings when Jenny shook her off, and the outburst felt like an attack . She admits to herself that Jenny's words shook her to the core. Neeha suddenly realizes the tenuousness of the relationship that holds them together, how easily these two people who had always been part of her Canadian life might fade away from her. She shivers as she feels, for a moment, what it means to be alone in the world. She looks at her two friends. Jenny smiles apologetically and bites her lip. Neeha makes a decision.

"Okay," says Neeha, "Let's talk. Where do we start?"

"Let's NOT start with money, okay?" says Jenny. "I think I need to warm up to that. But...maybe we can talk about what we were saying earlier. About time?"

"So, what? Like, report out on how we spend our time?" Johnny asks skeptically.

Jenny swallows hard. She feels strangely brave, but it's still hard to say what she is thinking out loud.
"Well," Jenny begins, "I guess I noticed that both you guys seemed to be...I don't know, doubtful? When I said that my time is stretched? So I guess I'm thinking that you think you have more time pressures than I do. Can we talk about that?"

Neeha and Johnny exchange a look. Johnny doesn't really want to hurt Jenny's feelings by saying her days are wasted. Neeha sighs. Her feelings are complicated and contradictory - she knows Jenny is a good mother, but she still feels it's unfair that she doesn't have to work. Neeha has no idea what she can say that won't sound like she is judging her friend. The words suddenly tumble out before she fully thinks them through.

"I have to admit it, Jenny, it's true. I do think you have more time than me. I'm running from job to job spending half my time on the bus, and you're warm at home. I'm not saying you don't work hard as a mother. But how could you not have more time?"

The two women stare at each other in silence. Jenny doesn't want to say the first words that come to her - she wants to keep her friendship. She feels Neeha's comments like burning shame.

Suddenly, Johnny laughs. The other two look over at him, surprised.

"No one has more time!" he cries triumphantly, the same way he used to treat every new discovery in science class as though he were the first to come upon it. Neeha feels a smile tugging the corner of her lips as she catches a glimpse of Teenaged Johnny.

"What do you mean?" she asks.

"No one has more time because we all have the same 24 hours, every day! We all start with...what? One hundred..." he grabs a crayon from a cup left for small children, working out the math on the paper tablecloth in front of him. "One hundred and sixty-eight hours. in a week. That's all we get. You can't buy an hour more."

All three friends acknowledge this is true.

Each friend has the same 24 hours to spend in a day.

Each begins each week with

168 hours.

"Okay," smiles Jenny, a little more at ease. "We all have one hundred and sixty-eight hours. That's true, but it's what we do with them that's different." Jenny takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly. She is glad her friends have taken up her challenge instead of running, but she's already finding the conversation hard. She decides that she will have to be determined not to get offended, but try to stay curious."

"Well, I spend most of my time at work," says Johnny. "Or, sleeping."

"Sleep?" laughs Neeha. "What's that? Sleep is one thing I don't spend enough time on. Work comes first. And the stupid bus."

"For me, my kids come first," says Jenny. "The twins are still home all day and they won't nap anymore, so I spend most of my time with them."

"But, they're just little. They can't take up that much time?" asks Neeha without thinking.

"I think maybe you should come and babysit for a day, then see if you think that!" laughs Jenny. She means what she says, but finds she isn't upset with Neeha's assumption. Neeha can't be expected to know what it's like to spend all day, every day with very young children.

Johnny takes the crayon.

"I have an easy way to do this. Let's just track how we spend our time."

Together, the friends quickly narrow themselves to four main areas for time - paid employment, household maintenance, personal development and community work. Each shares their experience thoughtfully and with a broad brush. Johnny records the hours on the paper table-cloth. They take quite awhile to eat, often forgetting as they get caught up in analyzing together. When the waitress comes to clear their plates, Johnny asks her for a new table-cloth to summarize their findings. She raises her eyebrow when she sees what he's been writing, but doesn't say a word. Johnny works while Neeha and Jenny excuse themselves to the washroom.

Here is a summary of what they found:

1) Paid Employment

Johnny spends, on average, 42.5 hours at work.

Jenny does not engage in paid work.

Neeha works about 48 hours a week among her three employers.

Working requires travel time. Johnny drives about twenty minutes to work. Niha takes the bus, which takes approximately one hour each way, while Jenny primarily stays in her own neighbourhood.

Time spent on paid employment:

Average weekly hours at workplace
Travel hours to and from work
Total hours required for paid work:

2. Household Maintenance

Household maintenance includes things like housecleaning, laundry, food preparation and shopping. In particular, household maintenance is required to keep a home pest-free and sanitary for human living, and to ensure nutritional needs are met.

Johnny has a housekeeper who comes every two weeks for the heaviest work, and keeps his place fairly tidy in between. His home is pest-free. Johnny buys his lunch about half the time, and uses food services (drive-thru, takeout) at least three times a week. He doesn’t know how to cook many things, so his groceries consist primarily of frozen entrees and meals-to-go.

Jenny makes her own meals, usually from reduced-cost groceries and produce, and does her own housecleaning. With small children at home, her efforts do not always meet her own standards. She has had mice occasionally, but her home is generally pest-free.

Neeha does her own cleaning and always brings her lunch to work. She likes to cook but doesn’t have much time, so about half her meals are packaged/prepared/frozen grocery offerings. Her apartment is messy but not dirty - she generally keeps it up and does big bursts of proper cleaning when she can fit them in. Still, she battles cockroaches that go back and forth between her apartment and her neighbour's. The tenants there change every month, and they often bring infestations with them. She would like to move, but she never seems to be able to get an appointment when she doesn't have to work.

Time Spent on Household Maintenance

Food preparation
Time spent on household tasks:

3) Community Contribution

All three friends readily agree that citizenship invokes a responsibility for contribution to the community. This is one of the values that brought them together. They also acknowledge that each volunteer hour adds to the wider social benefit at the expense of one hour's participation in the economic system.

Johnny sits on a local charity’s Board of Directors, which averages about an hour a week. He's new to the Board and the other members have been there longer, so he hasn't found his niche. He's hoping to help them upgrade their IT infrastructure, which could increase his time contributions. Johnny also visits his disabled aunt for an hour each Thursday at her supportive care facility.

Jenny spends approximately fifty-six hours a week in direct child-development activities *(please see the note at the end). These activities include reading, crafts, play, music, writing, fine and gross motor skill development, and social development. Jenny cares for her sister’s two children after school, allowing her sister to continue her full time job. Jenny also volunteers three hours a week at the local community centre’s reading program while her kids play in a play circle.

Neeha volunteers one hour each week at the local multicultural centre, leading a youth art program. She also paints when she can spare some time. Several of her paintings hang in local establishments, and she donated one to the city’s library for a charity event last year.

Time Spent on Community Contribution
Supporting children's development needs
Supporting family/friend needs
Producing art
Time spent on Community-enhancing tasks:

*A note on child care: Initially, Neeha pointed out that Jenny’s children are her own. In return, Jenny reminded her friends that her children's well-being will contribute to society (if they graduate high school, take post-secondary education, get jobs) or cost society (if they remain on social assistance as adults, suffer from ill-health, or develop mental health issues). In addition, the time Jenny spends directly on child development would be performed for money by child-care workers if her time were spent at other employment, and therefore has economic value to the community. In the end, the three friends agreed to include child care as a community-enhancing activity.

4) Physical needs
The friends agreed that time must be spent each day on the physical needs required by all humans – at the very least, some hours spent sleeping, eating and basic exercise. They decided not to bother counting their time eating, since they thought it would be about the same for each.

Johnny belongs to a gym and works out there 3-4 times a week for at least an hour. He always makes sure to sleep 8 hours a night, because otherwise he gets very grumpy.

Jenny never seems to find the time for exercise with the twins still at home all day (and no longer napping). She also gets very little sleep – between keeping up with laundry and waking up with various children through the night/early morning, she considers herself lucky to get 6 hours a night. She often suffers nightmares at night, and headaches through the day.

Neeha does little better than Jenny – it’s not that she wastes her time, but between her work in the evenings and her day shifts, her sleep patterns are a little confused and she tends to sleep in 3-4 hour shifts, rather than getting all her sleep at once. She also likes to veg out a bit - not sleep, just relax. She sometimes falls asleep on the sofa with the TV on.

Time Spent on Physical Needs

Physical Needs
Time spent on personal well-being:

Bringing it all together...

Jenny, Johnny and Neeha started with the idea that each begins with the same number of hours: 24 in a day, 168 in a week.

168 Hours

Hours at start of the week
Hours spent for work
Hours spent for household tasks
Hours spent for community-enhancing tasks
Hours spent on personal well-being
Hours available for leisure:

Johnny ends up with approximately 37 hours of unallocated time in a week. Up until now, Johnny has used this time to upgrade his education and career prospects. He will likely now use his time to perform well at his job, improving his future prospects for employment and earnings. He will also use his time to catch up with friends and family that he’s been missing. Perhaps he will add another volunteer project.

Currently, Jenny spends almost half her waking hours in the long-term, active creation of productive human units for society – that is, performing unpaid child development work. For her to work at paid employment, someone else would need to be paid to do this work. During the day, Jenny’s oldest daughter is in school, but since school begins at 8:45am and lets out at 3:15pm, Jenny could not work a full shift and still be home when Heather arrives. After school care costs about as much as Jenny could earn in most part time jobs. and her two youngest children are not in school.

Both Johnny and Neeha benefit from not having children. Presumably, if Jenny did not have children, she could achieve, at minimum, a similar outcome to Neeha, since she would not be required to remain at home and could pursue similar levels of paid employment. Without children, Jenny may have finished her degree and entered the workforce at a higher rate of pay, but society would be deprived three future units of contribution. These musings may be diverting, but the reality is, there are three small children who cannot be left alone, and Jenny cannot choose to divert her time from them.

Almost half of Neeha’s waking hours are consumed by work and travel. She often thinks about upgrading her education, but she’s so tired when she gets home that even thinking about what to study seems daunting, let alone figuring out how to make it happen. She’s heard that even people with degrees and diplomas are having a hard time finding work, so she’s not sure it’s worth the investment. Truth be told, Neeha would rather spend any extra time on her art, but generally finds herself zoning out in front of the TV if she has 15 minutes to spare.

When the women return from the washroom, they stand behind Johnny and look at the chart he's made.

"It looks like I was wrong, Jenny," says Neeha. "You don't seem to have any free time at all. But do you really spend all that time on child development?"

"You mean, do I leave them to fend for themselves while I watch soaps?" The joke is mostly light-hearted. Neeha decides to let it slide.

"No, I mean, they must play by themselves sometimes. There must be some down time?"

"Neeha, I can see why you think that, but you haven't been around kids. I think some kids probably are easy, don't need much attention, but I don't know those kids. And we don't just sit around at home. I want to make sure they're ready for school. I take them out into the world, to the library, the community centre, the early year's centre, even the nursing home. We sing, we do crafts. I read to them and play with them. They are so young that they bite and hit if they start fighting over a toy - I can't leave them alone for a minute. Unless they're sleeping, I need to give them my focus. Remember, I'm with them 24-7 but I'm only claiming 8 hours a day for child development. If anything, I was lowballing."

Neeha has no reason to doubt her friend. She can't imagine spending that much time with small children. She wouldn't know what to do with them.

"But," Jenny continues, "I do have more flexibility than you, in some ways. I can decide when we're going to certain places, or stay home if we're tired. I can turn on the TV and take a break for 20 minutes. You have to go to work, no matter what, when they tell you, and be on time. That's hard."

Neeha appreciates her friend's effort to see her perspective.

"Well, I think we must be missing something, because there's no WAY I have 37 hours to spend!" complains Johnny.

"Well, we just did broad categories. But you've been studying for your certification - that's been using up a bunch of your time. Maybe you will find yourself with those hours now that you're done?" suggests Neeha.

"Maybe. I'll have to think about it. This can't be the whole story."

"It's definitely not," agrees Jenny, "But it's all we have time for. I need to catch the bus home."

"Don't be silly, I'll give you both a ride," offers Johnny.

"I'm staying downtone," says Neeha. "My shift starts at 5pm, so there's no point going home then back again."

The waitress approaches. "Will that be together or separate?"

"Together," says Johnny with his hand out. "Separate," from the other two at the same moment. An awkward silence ensures.

"Together," says Johnny firmly. He smiles at his friends. "You won't deny me. I want to buy lunch today."

As the three leave the restaurant, their feelings are mixed. The tension hasn't disappeared, but Jenny feels relief. They have talked about things today in a way that they haven't in far too long. They had some difficult moments, challenged each other, and even overcame hurt feelings. Jenny feels proud that they have come through it. Neeha isn't sure how she feels, but she knows that she does not want to lose these friends. Johnny stays quiet - today's discussions have left him with a number of thoughts to ponder.

As they say goodbye, Johnny, Jenny and Neeha feel glad that they are three good friends.

(Sorry about the formatting - Blogger kinda sucks that way. )

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Johnny, Jenny & Neeha

My kids and I like to play a game called Johnny, Jenny and Neeha.

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are three good friends. Today they are playing with marbles. Johnny has one blue marble and two cats eye marbles. Jenny has three orange marbles. Neeha has three blue marbles. How many marbles are in the game? How many are blue? Neeha loses a marble to Johnny, how many do each of them have? What colours?

You get the picture.

It’s also an empathy game – Neeha lost all her marbles and she’s crying - what should her friends do? And an ethics game –it’s snack time but Jenny only has two cookies for all three of them – what's fair? Which brings us back to math…

It’s fun. It’s challenging. Wanna try the grown-up version?

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are three good friends living in Canada. They’ve been friends since high school – now, they are 25.

After graduation, Johnny went to college and has been working in the technology sector. He recently achieved his PMP certification with support from his employer. He earns $60,000 a year, and last month he paid the last payment on his student loan. He recently bought a condo about twenty minutes’ drive from his work, and drives a 4-door GM with locally-made parts. His job generally requires 40 hours, but on average he works slightly more than that. Johnny feels that he is struggling financially and does not have enough time for leisure. He misses his friends.

Jenny’s life took a different turn. In high school, Jenny had been one of the “smart ones.” Unfortunately, she and her boyfriend had one episode of unprotected sex during her second year of university, which resulted in pregnancy, marriage, and abandonment of her higher education. Their daughter Heather turned two the year Grant graduated – the same year the twins were born. With student loans and expenses on one new-grad salary, the family had struggled. But it was only when Grant was diagnosed with cancer last year that everything had fallen apart. The expenses and loss of income meant more debt, which Grant’s life insurance had barely covered after the funeral expenses. Now, Jenny subsists with her children on social assistance. They rent a two bedroom apartment in Jenny’s sister’s house for $760 per month plus half the utilities. Jenny watches her sister’s kids after school, and in exchange they are sometimes invited for a meal upstairs to supplement her groceries.

Neeha met Johnny and Jenny during a drama production in their senior year of high school. It was also her first year in Canada, and these friends had become important to her. They helped her with English, but more importantly, they explained the social norms of high school. Neeha never expected to go to university. She felt her language skills would make it too challenging, and her parents did not believe in post-secondary education for girls. They encouraged her to marry, but Neeha was unwilling, which caused a rift with her family that extended to some of her other friends and relatives. Neeha has lived on her own for four years, in a one-bedroom apartment not far from downtown. She pays $660/month plus utilities. She holds three part-time jobs – at a bookstore, as a caterer’s assistant, and once a month doing basic bookkeeping for her uncle. She averages $11.00/hour, and works about 48 hours a week – she can’t remember the last time she had a day off. Neeha uses public transportation. She tries to spend within her means, but several times this year she has put her groceries on credit and failed to pay the balance.

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are meeting today for lunch. This is a rare occurrence – Jenny’s kids are with their aunt, and Neeha has no shift scheduled until 5pm. Johnny almost had to cancel but managed to avoid getting roped into a meeting over lunch. When he arrives a few minutes late, Jenny and Neeha are hugging and laughing, so he joins in.

They are three good friends.

“How have you been?” Neeha asks Johnny.

“So busy! I’ve been working like crazy in the evenings and on weekends to get my PMP, and last week I finally got it!”

“Congratulations! What’s a PMP?” asks Jenny.

“Oh, a certificate in project management. Now they’re giving me my first big project. I’m excited, and nervous, you know? I’m hoping I’ll have some more time to myself now that I’m done those certification tests.”

“Time? You want to talk about having no time, try having three jobs!” says Neeha playfully. But Johnny doesn’t feel playful – his feelings are hurt.

“Hey, you know, it’s stressful at my company. They expect a lot. I work hard.”

“I’m sorry,” says Neeha, “I don’t mean to say you don’t work hard. But you must realize it’s not the same. I have to piece my jobs together and I don’t even have any benefits.”

Now Johnny is feeling defensive.

“Look, I worked hard to get my diploma and now my certification, to prove myself at work, and I’m making the lowest in my whole department. My condo fees are crazy. Maybe I should have three jobs.” He tries to laugh at his own lame joke, but the air feels tense.

Jenny has been quietly watching the exchange between her friends. She speaks carefully.

“I know what you mean, about being stretched for time. I feel like I spend every day just figuring out how to make sure we have something to eat tomorrow, and juggling the bills so nothing gets turned off.”

Neeha and Johnny knew that their friend was struggling, but hadn’t realized it was so bad. They both look down, feeling a little ashamed to have been complaining.

“But, don’t you get social assistance?” asks Neeha. “And some kind child supplement or something?”

Jenny sighs.

“Yes,” she replies quietly. “Now that I’ve figured out the systems a bit better, we have about $270 a week after taxes, from different programs. It sounds like it should be enough, but it never is. You wouldn’t believe how much three little kids can eat!” Jenny also tries a laugh to lighten the mood, but it falls flat.

Neeha looks away. The truth is, she has a pang of envy. For the past few weeks she’s been lucky to take home $300, even working every shift she can get. Last week, she took home less than $400 after clocking 48 hours among all her jobs. And here’s Jenny, making almost as much for sitting home all day!

Neeha immediately feels bad. She can’t imagine trying to get by on even $50 less, and she doesn’t have kids to feed. Still, a small part of her stubbornly notes that having kids was Jenny’s own choice. Is it fair for Jenny to expect to be paid for doing nothing?

Johnny feels uncomfortable with the whole conversation. The numbers don’t mean much to him. He figures that Neeha and Jenny both have very low housing costs – Jenny lives with her sister, so who knows if she even pays rent, while Neeha’s small, bohemian apartment can’t cost too much. He, on the other hand, pays over $400 a month in condo fees on top of his mortgage and property taxes. For Johnny, it feels like comparing apples to oranges. He can’t relate.

Jenny feels her friends’ ambivalence and wishes she’d kept quiet. Never have the three friends been in such different places. They pretend to read the menu they all know by heart. Jenny starts to wonder – are our situations really so different?

Questions to consider:

1) Which of the friends has the most free time?
2) Which of the friends has the most money left after expenses?
3) Which of the friends contributes the most to society?
4) Which of the friends would be considered a good example for children to follow?

Tomorrow, we explore these questions further...