Monthly Archives: February 2012

Little Victories

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Putting my little nose to the ground and taking advantage of a little bit of windfall cash that has been coming my way, I almost forgot to notice that I’d gotten rid of my credit card debt!  WHOO HOO!  Not particularly a little victory, but still an aggravating one.  This is the third time I’ve paid the card off after it crept up to ~$5,000.

I did it by making any available payment I could whenever I got the money.  I’d put a reasonable amount aside for the budget, for whatever had to be taken care of unexpectedly that week, and then I crammed the rest into a credit card payment.  One month I made three payments.  Finally, it’s done.

What’s more problematic is why this keeps happening over and over again.  There is a small amount of frivolity on those cards, but much of it seems to be life happening with no back up plan.  When I divorced, for example, all the utilities were in his name.  Putting utilities in my name cost me several hundreds of dollars in deposit money.  Some companies let me make payments through my regular bill.  Others demanded money upfront.  So, out came the card.  The importance of a) knowing what your budget really is and b) having an emergency fund has never been more apparent.

I used to have one of those, too.  It got depleted in the divorce and refinance of the house.  But thank goodness I had it!  So, I’m slowly putting it back together.  Because my work is contract, and I usually have no money coming in during the summer, I have to first put back my three months of living expenses before I can even think about a six month emergency fund.  It’s not easy to make nine months of income stretch to twelve, much less put cash back for emergencies.  I guess another way of looking at this is to say I really need a nine month emergency fund — three to live on during known unemployment periods and six in case I have more extended unemployment.  For me, that comes to about $23,000.  Yeesh.  After taxes and my small retirement and insurances are taken out, we’re living on $25,000 a year.  So putting back damn near all of your take home pay is not going to happen all at once.

I take advantage of “found money” and now I’m putting all of that away instead of throwing it into credit card debt.  After I refinanced my home, I saved about $65 on the mortgage payment each month.  I promptly wrapped that into the credit card payment.  Now that the credit card payment is gone, I have $200 freed up to put towards putting my summer money and emergency fund back in place. That by itself won’t do it, of course.  You can’t even save up enough to live on in the summer in time.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing.  $200 saved is $200 available when your car breaks down.

And that, to me, is a little victory that eventually might add up to a life that thrives, not just survives.  I could become obsessed with having a mortgage and paying it down, but in the meantime, while I’m trying to regain my balance (and believe me there are TONS of things still unbalanced), I’ll celebrate the little victory of having a mortgage payment that’s cheaper than most folks’ rents around here.  And while I’m aggravated that this is yet the THIRD time I’ve paid off my credit card, I’ll not waste energy mourning over what I might have done instead with that debt repayment money (a beach with drinks and tiny umbrellas comes to mind).  I’ll take the little victory that it’s *done* and that my budget has been enriched by the correction of my mistakes.

So maybe I’ll have to take whatever summer work I can find for the next few years in order to put money back and pay off my divorce debt (sitting at no interest, so I got a good deal there) without having to take out a HELOC on my home.  Giving up the time now is worth not incurring yet another debt later.  It’s a small victory — especially if I can manage to actually pay bills with new summer sources of funding and not have to dip into saved summer money that can then go on to build a bit more of a cushion for me.

I also used some of the found money to get a good deal on a smallish deep freezer just delivered today (free delivery on appliances, whoo!).  It’s an expenditure, but it’s a small victory as I can now put back more than what my meager fridge freezer space will hold.  This is especially helpful as I just laid waste to the local Shop ‘n’ Slave during their two day sale-fest.  The pantry is coming right along!  Hopefully by summer, I’ll be doing well enough to tremendously reduce my food bill.  That will be a nice little victory in itself.

The sprouts on my windowsill are a little victory.  I usually cannot grow anything green, but the combination of a sunny ledge, some Dixie cups full of dirt and reusing clear plastic food containers as tiny greenhouses seems to have produced some greenery.  They cheer me, if nothing else, and some days that victory is big enough.

Wherein I Whine and Moan and Bitch About My Coworker…

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My bit of internet absence recently has been due to an overwhelming amount of grading.  How on Earth does it manage to pile up so?!  When I wasn’t suffering through various magazine analyses, too-short short writings and holding forth on logical fallacies, I was busy trying to take small baby steps toward this new course the Deanly Lady wants.  This new Mission Impossible will be the subject of many forthcoming posts.  At least, if I can get past bitching about my colleague first.

I helped hire him as a partner for my original first generation student retention program.  The first year he was wonderful — a regular little brick thrower!  In the two years since, however, he’s gotten progressively more disgruntled with the position, with his salary, his recognition, the course material, with what is expected of him, you name it.  He has some valid points. I, too, loathe having to use Pearson’s largely useless and cluttered website and online textbook.  I, too, thought the orientation course we teach served little value in its presented form.  I agree we’re not getting paid enough.  I am also enraged by the lack of administrative support outside of my own department.  The difference is in how we’re dealing with these issues.

I redesigned the orientation course to provide the content I thought they needed to know while trying to honor the website material they’re forced to purchase.  One of my student evaluations this year says, “The website was worthless, but I’m really grateful I had Ms. BG.  What she gave us in the course helped a LOT, and she didn’t close the class down weeks early, like some other teachers I heard about.”  What?!  There are other teachers who are just shutting things down early?  (A secret part of me thought “Damn, how clever!”)  I put a lot of effort into the reporting of our little program, making sure it got into the hands of the right people.  I cannot control what they choose to do about it.  But I can ensure they get it — and consequently, as many upper admin as possible see what we’re capable of doing.

So far his way of dealing with it seems to be to bitch about it to me.

So, because of previously mentioned reporting efforts and student evaluations, Her Deanliness has asked us to head up the project to put new Mission Impossible class into place.  Coworker has been heel dragging ever since.  As he didn’t get his way when it came to getting more money than me or a reassignment of his job title, nor did he get the volume of classes he was expecting to teach…well, let’s just say he was told “No” in virtually every category he tried to negotiate…he’s moved on to what seems to be Phase 2:  Labor Strike.

Now again, I understand his point to a degree, and on the surface, he seems to be making a valid observation about the work we’re expected to do.  We’re paid this Spring for the teaching contracts we’ve already signed off on last year — not for new work.  The problem is, some new work is going to have to happen in order to do the summer work.  If we want those research and teaching assistants, for example, the department will have to know NOW — not in the summer.  If we want to be brought up to speed so we know where we need to start in the summer, we’re going to have to have a few meetings NOW.  He wants to do none of this, on the grounds we’re not paid to do it.  I’ve tried to point out to him that we are, in effect, doing work NOW.

For example, we have to come up with a work plan that will enable us to be paid for the summer.  It’s the one concession we got (and only one of two I’d asked for personally) and it was easily awarded — no free work in the summer time.  A new work plan is technically work we are not paid to do in the Spring; but if you want summer money, cough up the work it takes to get paid in the summer!  So far, his grand contribution to the work plan has been to say “looks good” to the ideas I brought to the meeting.  The Chair asked me to put the work plan into more outcome oriented language and offered to help me with this.  Coworker is suddenly only available for meetings just before and just after his scheduled Monday, Wednesday and Friday teaching courses.  This has to be done, so I am going in next week on my office hour to meet and get it done.

Coworker is coupling a healthy dose of passive-aggressive behavior to his little labor strike.  He’s expressing worry that he won’t have any real input into what he’s being asked to sign off on in terms of work, while simultaneously making sure he’s never available to give input, such as suddenly reducing the number of contact hours he is available to meet.  He’s complaining about not really understanding what a work plan does and being “in the dark.”  So I offered to let him rewrite the plan himself, so that he would have full input.  No, no, that’ll be OK, he’s sure I’ll do just fine.  He just wants to register concern.  Duly noted.  The one meeting we held (unpaid, snicker) to talk about the work plan, I brought my grocery list of what I thought it might take to go from scratch to pilot project.  He brought his concern about teaching a 90 person class and his insistence that we do no work this Spring.  That was it.  No suggestions about research, little in the way of making connections, no ideas about content, no ideas about time frames to get this done in — just “I don’t want to do this.”

I’m getting more than a little pissed at his lip service toward labor concessions while fully letting me take the burden of labor on my shoulders.  We have to have a work plan to get paid.  I don’t know how to do one either, but it has to get done somehow.  We’re going to have to set a few things up in order to make sure other things happen.  What I *really* don’t like is that he’s making me paranoid.  I get a sinking feeling he’s holding back on doing anything so he can bail on me and claim his input was never asked for or taken into account, so he won’t sign off on doing any of the work.  What is more likely, but no less paranoid, is that he may be dragging his heels and naysaying because he’s trying to look for work elsewhere and hopes to have an exit plan at the end of the semester, leaving me holding the bag trying to get it all done.

To which at this point I’d say, “WHOOPEE!”

So, this weekend I await with bated breath his “comments, though they will probably be limited” on the work plan I will be reorganizing with the Chair come Monday.  I can hardly wait.

Get Down with OPP (Other People’s Pantries)

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Yes, I just dated myself….I don’t care.  :p

Pantries are not just for the individual.  I think a community pantry is essential for the health of the folks who live around us.  You never know who is using the pantry.  Sure, there are some folks who have learned to use it like a regular grocery store, but generally speaking, that’s not the trend of people who use community pantries.  Many people who use it are doing so because of a temporary disaster, financially speaking — or sometimes environmentally speaking.  For example, last winter we had a huge snow that knocked out power for some folks — to the food pantry some of them had to go, when all the food was spoiled and the paycheck was a week away.

They call them food banks for a reason.  😉

You make deposits just in case one day you need to take that “money” out.  You “loan funds” to the rest of your community so that they can continue to grow in a healthy way.  I try to put a bit of money aside each month for a food bank in my community.  It’s just something that is important to me.  I focus on foods that I think most people would like and would give them the biggest nutritional bang for their buck, so things like peanut butter, cereal, pasta and sauce, etc.  Sometimes I try to put together a complete, if simple, meal. I rarely spend more than about $10 or $15 a pop, and I don’t do this more than once every four weeks or so.  Incidentally, sometimes I also do this with pet food, old towels, and kitty litter to my favorite cat rescue group.

I will save up about three months of such purchases so that the donation looks bigger, lol.  And then I’ll turn it in.  Hey, every little bit helps.

Get down with OPP!

Paying for the Pantry

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The biggest thing I have to remind myself of when it comes to a pantry is:  patience!  I want the pantry to be in place yesterday, but it takes a while to put one together, and even a pantrynoob like me can comprehend that.  At first I was utterly overwhelmed by the various sales papers, coupons and blogs I would read by women who seemed to have this down to a fine art.  I’m still not going to be able to get the hang of running through the checkout with a bunch of coupons and a couple of bags of absolutely free products in return, but I have figured out a few essential components to putting together a rather glamorous little pantry.

What do you eat?  It does no good to run to the store for that 10/$10 poptart sale if you don’t actually eat the stuff.  Ditto for stockpiling cans of cheap tuna when tuna sandwiches make you gag.  The biggest lesson I learned is:  don’t put your pantry together based on what you think you *should* eat; put it together based on what you actually *do* eat.  For me that means pasta, rice, tomato sauce, chicken broth, yeast for making pizzas, and that sort of thing.  I sat down and made a two week menu of those sorts of meals that I consistently made and enjoyed, and I looked at what ingredients in those meals were nonperishable and set out to hunt for those.  Same for things like paper towels, toilet paper, and supplies like those.  Seems simple, but I found myself chasing after a “good bargain.”  But if you don’t use those things, it becomes waste.  And waste is never a bargain.

Is it ever on sale?  If it’s not, you’ll need to just plan on picking up one or two of it periodically as you go to the store and putting one back.  If it is, then that’s what you comb the sales papers looking for.  While I do look at everything in the sales paper, I’ve noticed many of the sales and coupons are for crap I don’t use anyway.  So I skim them so I don’t get distracted/overwhelmed by pictures and colors and numbers.  I also pay attention in the stores I like to shop in as to what they put on sale periodically.  When I see the peanut butter go on a big sale, I don’t think twice about grabbing some extra.  If pasta goes 5/$4, I grab it.  Maple and brown sugar oatmeal boxes?  Yes please!  (Be sure to check expiration dates on some things.)  But I have to first know what I eat, and then pay attention to the store and see what’s been put out for quick sale.  Some weeks there is nothing.  But some weeks it’s great.

Making little packages out of big ones:  This is something that applies to buying food in the same way as making big meals that you then freeze in smaller portions.  If I buy a family size pack of chicken tenders, I can usually get five meals out of that of about four or five strips a pack.  I put them into Ziplock bags and I toss them into the freezer.  Olive oil is another good example.  Buying a giant can is ounce for ounce cheaper.  Decant some into a pretty glass container, and it looks lovely as well as being cheaper.

How much can you spare and when?  I took a look at my budget and realized there was a little money in there for occasionally “overspending” on groceries.  If there is nothing on sale or there is no room in the freezer to stuff things in there, I don’t overspend at all.  But if I have a spare $20 that trip and I see a cheap deal on roasts, for example, I grab several of them and throw them back.  It makes the upfront bill a bit more costly, but over time I have a variety of things to pick from at any given point, and I’m never really “low” on things like meat.  I also realized that even though I’m paid twice a month, the majority of my big bills kick in during the first 10 days of the month.  So extra groceries aren’t really an option then.  But that second pay, whoo-hoo!  Some spare change can definitely be dug out then.  In order to know that, though, I have a regular date with my bills, a day or two prior to every single pay.  It’s the only way I managed to figure out why one week my belt would be tight and one week there was some wiggle room, even though I was following similar budgeting principles from week to week.

Getting over the poverty mentality of “just enough:”  In order to overspend on my groceries, I had to get over the concept of just enough, which I picked up from my time as a member of the working poor.  When I was a young, single mama with a small toddler, I spent a lot of poorly compensated paychecks where most every penny was spent or accounted for when payday hit.  I used to hit the grocery store with a calculator and a dollar figure in mind and count down from the dollar figure, lol.  There was no such thing as overspending, because there was nothing to overspend.  But if I did have a spare money, I sure didn’t use it to buy more groceries — I was paying down debt or affording a little luxury or trying to put a few pennies back.  Once I became working class or (dare I say it?) lower middle class, I still found it hard to break that idea that even if you have purchased “enough” groceries for that pay period, you should buy more to put back.  Seems silly, but the instinct kicked hard.

Coming up, OPP:  Other People’s Pantries….lol.  Would also love to gather your strategies for filling the pantry!

Survival Skills (Academia)

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I’m sure we’ve all thought about what else we might have done in life “if only we had known” the things we know now.  Well, my answer springs to my mind instantly.  I would’ve just gone ahead and been a cultural anthropologist.  The only thing that kept me out of that major was the fear of living on grants for the rest of my life.  If I had been alone in the world, that was one thing.  But I had a little boy to feed.  So I shied away from living on grants.

Little did I know!  Academia, which I got into in a whirlwind of happenstance, is pretty much the same thing.  If you’re not an adjunct, with reappointment on a semesterly or nine-month basis, then you’re a low paid faculty member on a nine month or 2 – 3 year contract.  Pretty much the same as living on a grant and reapplying for funds/seeking funds elsewhere!  Oh well.  I enjoy my job.  I survive on the pay, and after a few moves to correct some dumb personal behaviors and some external factors, I might even thrive on the pay. I have, however, learned how to survive on the job, which is a different scenario altogether!

As I’ve been contemplating survival in other ways (pantries, disaster) it crossed my mind that survival in academia is just as critical a skill.  I watch so many folks churn through the system and not thrive at all or crushed under the weight of it all.  Or, stuck in the same boring position they always have been.  Here are a few things I’ve managed to adapt to that have kept me and my little Master’s degree plugging along for a few years now.

(This is irreverent to be sure, so please don’t come down on me like a stack of midterm essays!)

Know thy power structures.  It’s important to know who really does what.  One thing I always told the incoming GTAs was to be good to the department secretary.  When you really need something done, s/he probably knows exactly how to do it, and if s/he doesn’t, s/he will know who will and will probably even call them for you.  Likewise, know who is willing to impart good advice and who is just blowing hot air.  The difference is usually palpable…

Know how crap works around here.  My coworker grossly underestimated the power of this one, even though I tried to explain it to him desperately and kindly.  Your mileage will vary at different institutions, but likely the Dean is NOT going to override the department Chair, even though you’re hoping to use the Dean as a club for that purpose.  Why?  Because a) the Dean realizes you’re trying to use her as a club and b) Chairs are there to deal with things so the Dean doesn’t have to.  Responsibility is delegated.  Do you really think she isn’t talking to the Chair way more than she ever will talk to the average Instructor?  I nearly swallowed my tongue when he said, “I doubt the Chair knows more about this special project than we (Instructors, not Teaching Assistant Professors even) do…”.  What?!  Of course he does.  That’s just How Crap Works Around Here.  Also, even though we all desperately deserve raises, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get them.  It might mean, though, that if you know a Chair or a Dean has a particular bent for certain ideas, you can finagle some summer funding as long as you word it right.  It also sadly means that we have to have a keen sense of our place in the academic universe.  We should all be special and loved for the work we do.  In reality, we’re cogs in a wheel.  I’m not saying things can’t be changed.  But not realizing the cog factor is going to create quite the surprise for you when you’re replaced with another cog…

Faculty meetings are important places to be.  They are also sources of good entertainment, if approached with the proper frame of mind.  They are also good sources of information about what *might* be coming down the pike for your department.  You can take advantage of upcoming situations to pitch what you might be able to do within the department and thus make your stock rise a bit higher in the eyes of the aforementioned powers that be.  Sure, we’d all like to be recognized for the special snowflakes that we are.  But tenure track jobs are few and far between.  Contract work, however, is a dime a dozen.  So spike your coffee and take notes.

Keep calm and carry on!  During every faculty meeting, I keep tick marks of the number of times someone has a complete panic meltdown over some impending issue.  This averages two meltdowns in our department per meeting.  You can recognize an approaching meltdown by the look on the face of the faculty member that renders roughly into the horror!  the horror!  Keep calm and carry on.  90% of the things I’ve seen discussed in fac meetings rarely come about, and the horrific nature of whatever scourge the Dean is about to visit upon your hallowed halls usually does not come to pass.  Now, I’ve known a few cases where it came to pass and worse.  Remember, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you….But seriously, people.  Keep calm and carry on.  Besides, what else can you really do? Which brings me to…

Outrage is largely useless.  And it truly is.  Unless you have a union that actually has teeth, there isn’t much you can do about it anyway.  I’m not saying the good fight isn’t worth it.  But I am saying that raging into the wind with no clear purpose is counterproductive.  This is where knowing the powers that be and How Things Work come in handy, as the powers that be will usually fight those battles for you.  Usually.  There is usually one documented moment of outrage during each faculty meeting.  Said outburst could also be categorized as “raging into the wind,” or “THE SKY IS FALLING.”  Again, keep calm, and carry on.  Get mad over the things that truly matter.  Your performance will be measured.  Higher ups will sniff over their alleged inability to cough up three more dollars for your paycheck.  This is part of How Things Work.  Channel that outrage into something more productive, like a faculty group that can bring to bear multiple voices to express the problem.  Or, have a Friday afternoon coffee bitching session to clear the air with fellow commiserators.

Teamwork doesn’t always work.  I’m still struggling with this one, to be honest.  I love the concept of group work, coteaching, etc.  What it got for all my hard work over the past four years is a coworker willing to throw me under the bus for a few more dollars and what he thinks is better title recognition — for doing the same work.  Fortunately, I saw this one coming and did not become codependent upon his work in order to do my own.  So, my suggestion is to make sure you can always represent yourself…just in case. Shame, though.  There really are so little spoils to be tussled over.

Adapt, adapt, adapt!  This has been key to my survival.  My coworker only wants to teach one specific sort of thing.  We keep getting offered everything but that.  Colleges are increasingly looking for ways to move forward, to work intradepartmentally, and while it’s important to be true to your own vocational passions (and I’m not judging his), if you want to continue to work in academia, you have to adapt to it as well.  Especially if you work in the Humanities, you’ll often have to come up with lengthy ways to justify your existence to skeptical persons of all stripes.  It’s part of How Things Are.  Figuring out how to adapt to compensate for prevailing attitudes is critical.  It doesn’t always work, unfortunately.  But it’s better than being caught unprepared!

What would you add to this list?