veronica_rich: (Default)
Recently publicized changes to the SAT isn't the only time standards have been eased in an attempt to make things less complicated for students. Maybe these occurrences just get lost in the shadow of changes that put more work on them (or parents!), such as New Math, and increasing education expenses. But once in a while an institution will actually do something to make life simpler or cheaper - at least for some.

Those entering the university when it was still a good year-and-a-half from being my alma mater were going to be treated to a little less stress than those of us already students in the Lang. & Lit. Department, thanks to a reimagining of earned credit hours. Graduating college is not "attend XX years, earn the degree" - you're required to complete a minimum number of hours to collect that sheepskin and those hours usually have to break down into a minimum number in each of particular categories, such as core classes and major-related courses. The majority of Lang. & Lit. classes were worth 3 credit hours my first three years in school; the university board eventually voted to make many of the harder upper-level ones worth 4 each, to take effect the first semester of my senior year. To earn 12 credit hours used to mean taking four classes, whereas after the change it would only require three and the credit hour fees stayed the same. Further, future graduates wouldn't have to have quite as many of those classes on their transcript to qualify for the degree.

Most faculty liked it. Younger students loved it; the university administration, it seemed, had built a significant lever into a better mousetrap that would allow their charges to either relax a little or, for the very ambitious, to fit in an extra class here and there and graduate a semester or two earlier than under the old system.

Once in a while, life is able to execute a perfect win-win. This wasn't one of them, though to be fair it seemed that way for a year before an obvious chink split the tantalizingly buffed armor. For those of us who had calculated in our sophomore year precisely how and when to take what classes were needed each semester to graduate at a certain time, ending up with an overage of credits in our last year didn't bother us ... but having to pay extra for what we didn't ask for did. You were limited to 18 credit hours each semester for a flat tuition fee, but every hour over cost you an extra $150. If you were a junior planning your last year, you still had to take certain classes to graduate on-schedule. What was originally a well-crafted plan to push through my last 36 hours needed, in 12 carefully-delayed upper-level classes - 18 hours each semester - under the new points system turned into a 44-hour mess which cost me an extra $1,200.

Since the senior class was the smallest of the student body and the change only hurt us and some of the juniors in the department, it seemed at first our finances would simply be ground under the cogs of progress. For reasons I can't recall 20 years later, the administration was made aware of the problem but wasn't going to do anything to fix it for us - probably because were were only a subset of seniors; perhaps because as mostly English majors we were viewed as math-ignorant, and as mostly 21-year-olds not experienced in negotiations with adults who knew more about how the world worked.

A senior friend of mine was the first to think to register a formal complaint with the dean's office - and after she won her case, I had the distinction of being the second person on campus to go through the process. I had to schedule an appointment with the assistant dean and lay out a case to get my $1,200 back. A few more people doing this after us and word-of-mouth led to the administration finally making the option available to any upperclassmen caught in the same cogs.

Early this year I had a situation at work in which I had to cover for a supervisor on emergency medical leave for several weeks, in addition to doing my own job. After he returned, I waited a month to see if upper management would do anything to acknowledge it; when no extra pay was forthcoming, I bypassed two superiors and went to the owner of the company for a raise or at least extra back pay/bonus. I had fumed for a month that I'd been taken for granted, but when I sat down with her, she said she didn't know I hadn't been rewarded and apologized that I'd had to bring the matter to her. And while I still didn't get the amount I requested, nor the lesser amount I felt should have been paid, I did get something - and was reminded of the first time I had to tell someone in charge they'd screwed me out of money that was rightfully mine.

To this day I still don't know if the extra fees was truly an unintended consequence the university board hadn't taken into account or simply something its members hoped wouldn't come to light among much of the student body - it would still be a few years before the Internet became a factor in rapid, wide communications, Facebook's founders probably hadn't even been to their first junior-high dance yet, and tweets were still all about birds.
veronica_rich: (Default)
If Ray Bottoms and Jav Carter liked you and you could do something for them, you were in. More to the point, your business was in with the county commission, as they effectively controlled two-thirds of Moran County's general revenue budget.

I hated the county courthouse beat, and these two yahoos was the sole combined reason. I didn't mind covering the courts, or doing articles about budgets in the county assessor's or tax collector's offices, or collecting the week's incident reports from the sheriff's office. No, what ruined the entire thing for me was dealing with Ray and Jav. Every Tuesday morning I had to spend at least three hours hanging out with them in their office, covering whatever business they and the third commissioner, Ron Harmon, discussed and voted on - or rather, whatever Ray and Jav agreed should pass.

This was my first job as a reporter. I was twenty-one and looked like I was about twelve. Ray and Jav weren't the only sexist throwbacks I had to try to work with to get information for stories in Moran County - contrary to some of the more sensational depictions of journalists in movies and television, most of us don't generally charge into a place and demand to be recognized or catered to. It's not the best way to get information out of many people. Being respectful and friendly will get you a lot further with about ninety-eight percent of subjects. And, I was happier when things went well and people cooperated with this approach; after all, my desire was to write, not fight.

But Tuesdays with the commission wore on me; part of just about every meeting's downtime was spent with Jav and Ray reading passages of my previous week's articles aloud from the paper and discussing in front of me what they saw as inaccurate, overblown, or plain scurrilous (that's my word; they wouldn't have known how to spell "scurrilous" let alone what it means). It was early in my career and besides being somewhat intimidated, I had a reputation to build - arguing with officials I had to cover would hardly help me be taken seriously or seen as unbiased. I was an interloper in their fiefdom - a modern type of enemy in another kind of castle.

Several months after I began my job, Jav was voted out of office, but there wasn't much time for me to be relieved. He found a job with an equipment dealership the next county over and, over the next few years, managed to sell quite a few pieces of equipment worth thousands of dollars each in exchange for Moran County's tax dollars. Here's how it worked: Ray would tell his buddy Jav what equipment the commission was looking to buy, the commission would do the minimal legal due diligence in advertising for bids, the bids would come in, and in a lot of cases, Jav's employer just happened to submit the bid fitting the exact specifications of what had been advertised.

Eventually, a losing bidder came forward accusing Jav and Ray of colluding to write the bid specs in such a way as to exclude any cheaper, reasonable equipment supplier. I had questioned them before that point, but they flatly denied and there was no witness or paper trail to prove them liars. But with the introduction of another local, longtime equipment dealer willing to put his name on such accusations, Ray and the other two commissioners were forced to bring Jav in to represent his employer in a discussion at public meeting.

For three years I had taken notes in these meetings, dutifully writing their lies for the first six months and occasionally after that when Jav came to a meeting - enough to slowly build resentment for having to try to be fair in the face of nonsense and disrespect not only to me, but to the citizenry paying their salaries. This time, I stopped writing after about five minutes and simply watched as Ray and Jav played out their petty drama as carefully as any rehearsed actors. I wasn't about to write this in detail like I normally would; I was just after some shred of truth for an end result.

And then Jav made the mistake of asking why I wasn't writing any of their remarks.

I could give a detailed accounting of the specific way my temper snapped. I could write my dialogue (or monologue, since I was the only one doing any talking for a solid three minutes) - such as telling the guys how everybody knew they had met for a chicken lunch every Sunday they were both in office and how I suspected that is where they illegally hammered out how to vote outside of public scrutiny. Or how I accused them of lying and cheating on so many bids and of trying to intimidate me into not writing about their antics and then trying to shame me when I did. Or the way I told them I knew they were lying that day and how I wasn't going to help them do it again.

What's important is for some reason, that finally shut them up. Jav's company never put another bid in for equipment for the next three years I worked at the paper, at least - maybe to this day it hasn't, I don't know. When I ran into him or Ray outside of commission meetings from then on, never again did either try to do that thing men who enjoy intimidating women do in which they invade personal space and get overly friendly. Instead, each would either nod at me (Ray) or scowl deeply (Jav) and make a wide circle around my person.

They were my first petty princes to call on bullshit, but not my last. In retrospect, despite the grief I felt at the outset of that job, their castle might have been the most fun to storm.
veronica_rich: (Default)
This is a story about love.

My freshman year of college was rough, for a lot of the same reasons anyone's life is once they leave their childhood home - learning to deal with a measure of financial responsibility, scheduling chores and work or classes, and the like. An added problem with my situation was I was carrying on a long-distance relationship with a boy a year younger than me and we had just started dating earlier that year. When I visited my parents every few weeks, it was a minefield because I had to figure out how to balance time with George against time with them; both George and my mother had bad tendencies to act like jealous paramours being denied time with me by the other.

This is a story about independence - but only a little.

I won't lie; I was happy to be away from my parents. My ambitions, amorphous and unformed as they were, I knew were still bigger than the tiny town in which I'd spent my only eighteen years to that point. That didn't strike me as odd. What did disturb me was that as time went on, I began to feel more resentful of George's attentions. He called me all the time, or wanted me to call him, and in the early 1990s before the advent of ubiquitous cell phone use and flat monthly plans it was terribly expensive. Also, he grew more desperate, wanting me to check in frequently, and I let this interfere with me making even more new friends and finding activities and even intern-type jobs I might like. The longer I was away, the more I began to feel like he was a burden sometimes - and the more I believe he began to sense it. The relationship went on too long, and it ended badly.

But over the holiday break of my freshman year, there was no sign of resentment or remorse or reversal between us. There was, however, the second worst winter I can remember in my life - ranking in cold and ice and misery only behind the one from which spring has finally begun to drag us this year. The university extended our break by another week, because the roads were so bad that only a small percentage of students would have been able to return in time for classes if the school had not. A big snow was crystallized by freezing rain near the beginning of my mid-December break, and for three weeks it was so damn cold you could walk out on top of the snow in the yard without sinking so much as a centimeter into the diamond-like glitter.

Because of this, George and I handled most of our "visits" by phone until one Saturday it was decided Mom would drive me to his house in the four-wheel-drive truck and George's parents would bring me home after our movie. George lived on a small, steep hill between two parallel streets which had been cleared ... but his driveway had not. Approaching his house from the higher road was right out, since ice, gravity, and trees are bad bedfellows for a one-ton vehicle. So Mom parked at the bottom of their hill, where I would walk up to the house.

This is a story about how a staircase of even blocky, uneven steps would have come in terribly handy - and how I managed to climb without them.

George's hill was just as glassy as our yard. I stood at the bottom examining it for a solution; he stood at the top by his house, presumably doing the same. By unspoken fiat, we both began to approach the middle of the hill - both of us on our hands and knees. I was able to gain only a slight advantage of traction on knees over my boots, but it was enough. It was slow going, and later I would hear what entertainment it had provided our parents (and my seven-year-old sister, laughing in the warmth of the truck cab). We met halfway with no time for greeting, since stopping would mean ending up on our asses literally in the street below.

I didn't remember any of this until one Sunday in January when I watched freezing snow mounting on my car outside my front window, debating if it would be wise to risk a wreck and injury to drive to work the next morning ... and recalling how twenty-four years ago, I had been willing to tumble down a hill into slow-moving traffic just to be able to kiss a certain boy.
veronica_rich: (bastard)

How many people can point to the moment they became an irreversibly awful human being?

Neither can I. But I know when I damn near became a contestant for it.

In "Coupling," writer Steven Moffat introduced the concept of the giggle loop - when the spark of laughter at a situation so inappropriate, so solemn or wrong, mutates into horrible, necessary laughter. Behavioral scientists can tell us why this happens, and why it's normal and nothing to brand ourselves demons over - so I need to hire one to live in my pocket who can step out and rationalize on my behalf to my victims, in case I ever come as close again as I did fourteen years ago.

In the TV show the characters are nearly pulled into a giggle loop at a funeral, which is not exactly a goof (unless you subscribe to the God-as-prankster school of thought). But neither is head injury, and I still laughed like a goddamn loon. It was 2000 and I was a small-newspaper editor in the South. It was uncommon for me to have much free time at the office, but one afternoon I was indulging in some in the back-room office of our accountant, Louise. Maybe I felt uncommonly light that day because the weather was good, or maybe all three of us were just awful; whatever stew was at work kicked in when Angie showed up in Louise's doorway. "Somebody's here to see you about brain damage," she said, matter of fact, aiming a thumb back toward the front lobby - thankfully two hallways away.

It was her tone of voice, the dry way she reported it, maybe even the combination of syllables. But it reached something in my hindbrain that set off such uncontrollable laughing as I had ever known only once before in my life, way back when I was a teenager (that's another story). Pretty soon the loop was in motion and Angie and Louise were nearly howling too; every so often one of us would draw enough air to squeak out "brain damage!" and dissolve once again into hell's lobby.

Meanwhile, in the office lobby, the woman who'd come by with her brain-damaged son to ask for some publicity for Brain Damage Awareness Week was - well, I can only imagine what she was doing or thinking for the ten minutes it took me to bite on the side of my hand enough to stop laughing and dry my eyes enough to go see her. I'm pretty sure we weren't loud in the back, just quietly, madly snickering our way into future reincarnation as dung beetles.

You think you can see how this will end. You are fortunately mistaken.

I kept a straight face and demeanor the entire five minutes the mother made her pitch for publicity to me, even though my soul and bladder died a little each of the fourteen times she said "brain damage," from the severe Oscar-worthy command of every sphincter in my body. I nodded, I spoke, I shook hands and promised an article. And nearly tore facial and stomach muscles trying not to rejoin Angie and Louise in the giggle loop still playing out in the back office. (Knowing they were still laughing but not hearing them is how I knew that earlier, the mother hadn't heard us before I came out, dear reader.)

Never before had I found brain damage humorous, and never since has it made me laugh. But for that brief slice of time, something temporarily damaged in my own mind made me respond to the phrase itself like it was a sort of jayus, like it was the pinnacle of the worst Dad Joke of all time.

veronica_rich: (Default)
Since this is my first time participating in LJ Idol, and I've been made to understand this is how I have to get people to start trying to love me, well ... I'm not sure I can quite manage that. Maybe you'll see something in here in common with your life, or something you wish to find in a new online acquaintance, though.

I am in my early forties and live in a large Midwest U.S. city - on the fringes of it, actually. It's way expensive for most of us to actually live in any city, now isn't it? I'm a journalist, which is what I put on my resume, because I don't like saying I just don't write that much anymore. I'm actuality, I'm a newspaper editor, which means I spend far more time telling other people what to write than producing my own stories. But I used to be a reporter, and I've produced about 5,000 articles in my career. I once figured this up and based on word count alone by average article length, I've published the equivalent of about 20 novels. Of course, they would be nowhere as near interesting reading as, say, Pirate Captain's Heart or The Other Side of Midnight, but saying "20 books" makes me feel better about what I've accomplished since I graduated college 20 years ago, than "documenting a bunch of stuff that happened mostly in small towns, that lines the bird cage two weeks later" does.

Here's a life tip for you kids: If you enjoy fiction-type writing, never take a job doing practical or technical writing. Or at least don't do it for long.

I used to have a lot more hobbies than I do now, and I used to write a lot more. My creative writing has been mostly fanfic, as you can see if you visit my LJ, but I've been writing for the hell of it since I was about 12 years old. (Even earlier, really; Grandma used to keep a hastily-scribbled, yet long, note I'd written at age six explaining why I refused to feed my rabbits that day on their farm ... the saga of how I'd found a big scary rat in the can of pellet feed.) I haven't written much for work lately, and I need to get back into the practice of it, and I'm hoping this will be a key to that.

And, if I told you much more about me, I wouldn't have fodder to sally forth in this season of LJ Idol!

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