Thursday, September 15, 2011

Student loan debt: My first political rant

(Tried to cram this into a Facebook status update, and it didn't quite fit.)

I've never considered myself a particularly political person. I don't aspire to be so, either, as I find politics generally dirty and upsetting to my otherwise (and preferred) rosy view of humanity. I've only tagged one post with "politics" in my blog before, ever. By nature, I err on the side of conflict avoidance, so political sparring just hasn't ever held much appeal for me. With that said, I finally feel too intensely about something to keep my mouth shut about it - and I look forward to hearing your ideas in response, especially if you disagree with me.

So. Michigan congressman Hansen Clarke is proposing a bill to forgive all student loan debt in our country.


As the initial spark of "WOW, THAT WOULD BE AWESOME!" fades, I'm left feeling appalled that anyone, let alone the 160,000+ people and counting who signed this petition today, can think this is a decent idea. (On a sidenote, I find it curious that this petition website ups its number of signatures it "needs" every time it hits its the moment, it "needs 165,000", but I'm sure by the time most of you read this, it will undoubtedly be higher.)

So yes, the proposal sounds great in theory, at first glance. I have student loan debts I'd surely enjoy seeing magically erased as much as the next person. If the government bailed out Wall Street, why not "College Street" too? After all, isn't it better to invest in the bright, innovative, hard-working minds of tomorrow than in greedy, corporate, bureaucratic schmucks?

This idea was proposed two years ago, too, and with it came a barrage of supporters. Genuinely depressing stories emerged, of people who felt they'd worked incredibly hard to earn their college educations, only to be faced with a dismal job market and the inability to keep up with soaring interest rates on their loans. Yes, the interest rates are often outrageous, and much like with the housing/mortgage crisis, not enough understanding conveyed of the risks involved in saddling oneself with five- or even six-digit debt. I have great sympathy for those who have studied and worked hard for their degrees, yet are now struggling to stay afloat because of their debt burden.

However. What about the thousands of others who aren't in the same situation, for better or worse? What about parents, or even young students themselves, who worked extraordinarily hard to put money in a college fund to avoid having to ever go in debt to fund their education? What message does universal-debt-forgiveness send them? "Haha, suckers, way to work your ass off for 20 years for nothing!"

It's a bit like telling all the Ferrari and Lamborghini owners in the world, "Hey, we realized that what we charged you for these cars was unreasonable, so we're going to refund all your money to you. Oh, where are we finding the money? So glad you asked! Well, since the Honda and Toyota owners didn't spend as much as you did, we feel they can all pitch in for your fancy-car-reimbursement plan."

What about people who didn't even go to college because they opted to enter the workforce after high school instead? The educated elite can argue all they want for labeling such a situation a tragedy, but to do so by default steals agency from anyone who made that decision with intention. Steve Jobs, for one, understood that college is not necessarily the ticket to success, and didn't feel the exorbitant tuition rates were worth his while. While college is undoubtedly a tremendous privilege and life-changing experience, it is not the end all, be all - and is certainly even less so at the tune of $200,000 of debt, which a mere bachelor's degree these days offers no guarantee of allaying.

So what about people, you ask, for whom not being able to afford college was a disappointing reality, and not a choice? By which I mean, those who were qualified - who perhaps were even accepted at elite schools - but didn't have the financial means to go at the time. Yes, this is sad. But isn't suddenly making free the education of those of us who DID have the privilege to go a slap in the face to those who didn't? "Oh, if only you'd been born into a family with the wherewithal to take on mounds of debt on your behalf, you too could have had an elite education, for free eventually...but, too late now."

What about people who did take out loans to attend school, and have worked hard for 5, 10, 20 or more years to pay their loans off already? Is this not a slap in the face to them as well, for all their efforts to make good on their promises to repay what was once borrowed?

In the meantime, if this bill were to become a reality, would the promise of it on the horizon not diminish incentives to be fiscally responsible for those of us currently saddled with student loan debt? Let's offer a dozen people full-time jobs, but qualify the offer with "Or you can just hang out for a year and not work, and we'll still give you a year's salary at the end of it." I can guess which option most people are likely to opt for in that scenario, and it's not the one most likely to get our economy churning again.

Most of all, where does the money come from to bail out the debt-strapped graduates? Money doesn't just grow on trees, I'm sure you've heard. The government is already trillions of dollars in debt, so if it's the government that's expected to pick up the tab, it's really not forgiving anyone's debt - it's just transferring it. To whom? (1) Taxpayers, who as far as I'm aware, are the exact same people this would supposedly "bail out", and (2) Future generations. Great job, America. So many of my peers who spent their voices in college railing against the irresponsible spending of our predecessors are now pouncing with glee on the notion of doing the very same thing - denying responsibility for incurred debts because they seem unfair - so someone else has to deal with them instead.

Wake up and smell the hypocrisy, please!

Lastly, even if this bill ever passed, then what? Is college just "free" from now on? Or is it just students who graduated in 2011 or earlier that get a retroactively free ride, and from now on, everyone will be expected to pay exorbitant tuition rates again?

I'm not saying that the economy, higher education system and entire institution of student loans aren't broken. I think they are. But the solution is not to absolve young people of financial responsibility in their own lives. The solution is not to teach an entire generation that if, oops, they made the decision to invest in something that didn't pay off the way they thought it would, that the government will take care of everything.

Of course, I'm still enough of a liberal at heart to believe that government, despite its disappointing performance for most of my life so far, can be a positive force in its citizens' lives. I would like to see the government concern itself not with forgiving all debt, but with helping prevent the kind of sky-rocketing interest rates that have indeed destroyed lives - and that goes not only for student loan debts, but for home loans and mortgages, credit card companies, etc. Nevertheless, to blame the banks and loan companies entirely is to ignore underlying, problematic societal attitudes, and the need for a shift in our collective thinking about money, education and the wealth of our society.

I'd like to see the government - society as a whole, really - take more responsibility for the financial education of our youth, particularly as they approach college age and face huge decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. As thousands of petition signers have demonstrated today, the "Go into as much debt as you need to to attend the school you want" model is not working out for most Americans anymore. Families are pouring millions of dollars they don't have into the "investment" of higher education, which simply isn't producing the same ROI that it did for the baby boomer generation. The solution, however, cannot be a soothing Band-Aid for the nation's educated albeit disillusioned twenty-somethings. Rather, I think we need a broader examination of the real problem at hand - our society's misunderstanding of, and subsequently dysfunctional relationship, with debt.

End rant.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Running some numbers (pardon the pun)

All right, I think it's working. Now that I got the big stuff out of the way in that last updates entry, I feel liberated to devote an entry to some elaboration on the smaller stuff.

Shockingly (I've become so predictable, I worry), the topic I'm drawn to write about is running. In my pre-Seattle life, I'd never raced longer than a half marathon - and only one of those, at that. Since moving here barely two years ago, I've done 10 races longer than the half-marathon distance that once seemed quite daunting indeed.

Not that I really hold a candle to the many, many talented and prolific runners out there who are putting in huge miles way beyond what I do. The great thing about the running world is how simultaneously empowering and humbling it can be. Nevertheless, my move to Seattle clearly marked a turning point in my athletic life. As I head into my most dense period of endurance racing yet, I found myself crunching some numbers tonight - and turned up some interesting results.

Of the four marathons and ultramarathons I've run, there has been a distinct hierarchy in my mind on how I'd rank my performance in each, relative to perceived exertion.

#1: Eugene Marathon, May 2011 (3:45:16)
#2: Vashon Ultra 50K - Trail, June 2010 (5:34:34)
#3: Vashon Ultra 50K - Trail, June 2011 (5:36:24)
#4: Seattle Marathon, August 2009 (3:55:51)

Eugene was just a blast, hands down. I felt strong and relaxed pretty much the whole way. I knew what I was doing. It wasn't the longest distance I'd ever run before. I'd had more racing experience to fuel and hydrate properly on the run.
The 2010 Vashon was also a blast. Nervous about tackling a distance six miles beyond what I'd ever run before - and on trail, to boot - I started very conservatively. I had the wonderful Elodie to pace me the last ten miles. It was challenging, sure, but again, I felt strong and solid the whole way through - and even knocked out a miraculous first place finish.
The 2011 Vashon, though my pace reflected almost identical performance to 2010, was much, much harder for me - physically and thus, mentally. Things just didn't feel as good as the previous year.
The 2009 Seattle marathon was just kind of a mess. It was exciting because it was my first, and I had about 16 or 17 really amazing miles - but I just totally fell apart after that. Rookie mistakes. Got cocky, started too fast, didn't really fuel, and so forth.

Until tonight, I'd never really sat down and taken a hard look at the statistics of my training/preparation for each of these events. During my extremely brief stint working at 24 Hour Fitness when I first moved to Seattle, I remember consulting a personal trainer, Kyle, about marathon training tips. He'd run a bunch of marathons and ultras, and his biggest piece of advice was, "Don't underestimate the importance of running high weekly mileage."

If my general training strategy has a weakness, it is indeed in my weekly mileage. When I meet new people and am preceded by my running reputation, they often assume I must run all the time - every day, at the very least. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anywhere from zero to two runs a week is pretty standard for me, three runs a real accomplishment, and four runs a week a rare miracle.

Tonight, I looked at my training log and added up the average weekly mileage stats for the 8 weeks preceding each major endurance race I've done. I found some astounding and revealing differences that I'd never really noted in comparison before.

#1: 2011 Eugene - 25 miles/week + 1-4 cross-training sessions (max: 43-mile week, longest single run in training: 24 miles)
#2: 2010 Vashon - 32 miles/week + 1-2 X-training (max: 48-mile week, longest in training: 25 miles)
#3: 2011 Vashon - 22 miles/week, no X-training (max: 41-mile week, longest in training: 20 miles)
#4: 2009 Seattle - 19 miles/week + 0-1 X-training (max: 33-mile week, longest in training: 21.5 miles)

See? I don't run as much as most of you think I do. For all the rambling I do about it on my blog, I'm really quite a part time runner.

So what conclusions can I draw from all this? First, that Kyle was right: weekly miles matter. Second, that racing experience also matters - but not so much that it will totally compensate for under-training. Third, that cross-training is generally a good idea. Fourth: given that conventional marathon-training advice states that beginners should aim to run 30-50 miles/week in training, I could probably be a hell of a lot better of an athlete if I just put in few more miles each week.

On a curious sidenote, my overall body weight seems to have little effect at the margin. I don't keep consistently detailed track of my weight, but suffice to say that I was roughly ten pounds heavier when I ran the Eugene marathon than I was when I ran Seattle. In that case, perhaps overall racing experience did compensate after all. Hmm!

Anyway, here's to running higher mileage. I've logged 42 miles and 3 cross-training sessions this week, with six weeks until marathon day - so far, so good. Now, off to bed so I can get up and squeeze in some miles before hitting up the river in the afternoon for string band practice :)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Living my fullest life

Yowzaz! Pretty sure this is the longest I've gone without blogging since I moved to Seattle. Perhaps if I get some major life updates out of the way, I won't feel as daunted by writing in my blog in the future, because the big things are covered and I can go back to writing about small everyday joys and more mundane musings. Here goes:

1. Alan and I moved into our new place on Lower Queen Anne! We had a successful housewarming BBQ/birthday party at the new digs with friends, our newly minted grill, and the most delicious homemade red velvet cake ever - kudos and thanks to my friend and baker extraordinaire Lauren W.

2. My temp copywriting job at REI Headquarters has been extended a few times, so I'm still commuting down to Kent daily to research, learn about and write about all the sweet gear we sell. Pretty pleased to still be working there! What kinds of things do I write? See here. Straightforward as our writing tasks often are, I am forever inspired by my colleagues' cleverness and creativity.

3. Yours truly has become a running/training/athletic MACHINE! Well, so I like to think. I got in a bit of inspired frenzy to sign myself up for a bunch of races. On the docket for the coming months are two full marathons, one half, and my third official ultra (50K). Oh! And I'm going to run 30+ miles around the perimeter of Mount Saint Helens in a few weeks with my friend and fellow Dutch/Swedish hybrid, Ged. Wish us luck!

4. Speaking of July, a team of 11 friends and I tackled the Ragnar Northwest Passage 190-mile Relay for the second year in a row. Our team, the Alpacas by Day, Ninjas by Night, had a blast. I wrote a story about it for the REI blog here. (Beware: link does not always cooperate in Firefox. Try another browser if it doesn't work.)

I am blessed with good friends in this city.

5. Speaking of more running, I tackled my steepest, most rugged trail run yet last month, with my now-longtime trail running pals, Elodie and Tom - the Angel's Staircase run in the Methow Valley, about four hours east of Seattle on the other side of the mountains. 5000 feet of elevation change over 25 kilometers, peaking at 8000 feet, with stunning views in all directions. 6th place among women, I'll take it!

This ridiculously awesome photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama.

Beautiful views courtesy of race director James Varner, whom I interviewed and wrote this story on for Outdoors NW magazine several months ago.

6. Oh, and let's talk about where those marathons are that I've signed up for. I'm going to Vegas, baby! Running the strip at night - a nighttime marathon, how cool is that? Talked into it by my lunchtime running buddy at work, Logan (not that it was a really hard sell...)

7. But what's even better than Vegas? Answer: Flying over the North Pole on a direct flight from Seattle to Amsterdam to visit my mom and run the marathon there next month! Dutch Rosetta Stone lessons are in full throttle again. Can't believe it's taken me four years to get myself back to Holland, but it will great to see my mama and run 26.2 in the city that made me truly fall in love with running in the first place.

I took this photo in 2007. The marathon course runs along this river.

8. Alan took me to see Weezer on my birthday last month. In case you didn't hear the story (I love this story!), Alan and I were walking along a street in Seattle many months ago and passed a billboard advertising Weezer in Seattle on August 19. Knowing that I was once upon a time a big Weez' fan, he asked if I'd like to go. Snootily, I scoffed that the only way I'd go to a Weezer concert today was if they played Blue Album start to finish. We turned a corner and the next billboard we saw was, "WEEZER - Playing Blue Album and Pinkerton, start to finish." Wha?!! So we went! It satisfied in the nostalgia realm in big ways.

Yup, I was quite sure I could dig up an old photo of me in my trusty Weezer tee. Me, at 15, with my parents and Dutch cousins/family I haven't seen in years.

9. Been trying to ride my bike more lately...commuting a lot around on two wheels, including several bike trips up to Green Lake in the north part of this city, to go swimming with Oberlin friends - Ruth, who's happily staying another year in Seattle to continue working for Habitat for Humanity, and Shari, who spent the whole summer here leading kids' nature camps for the Audubon Society. Do I have cool friends or what?

10. So, I've been writing all this while sprawled out on a bunch of pillows and blankets on our balcony, looking at the night profile of the Cascade mountains, the shimmering Lake Union, the Seattle skyline all lit up, and even a good number of stars. Really, really happy in the new apartment! A good friend of mine whom I'll kindly keep anonymous recently paraphrased my blog as "Blah blah blah ohhhh Seattle, blah blah blah I'm so special because I love Seattle soooo much blah blah"...snarky, sure, but that's the nature of our friendship anyway (he's the big brother I never had!) and furthermore, I can't imagine a better summation of my feelings. Thank you, you know who you are, for stating it so eloquently. Indeed, I freakin' love this place!

11. Have we been over the fact that I get to have a reunion next month with this wonderful woman?

It's been a long time coming. Thank you, good world, for giving me the opportunities to work hard, play hard and accomplish so many of the things in 2011 that I hoped I could. And thanks to everyone in my life who's making this one amazing ride! You all are great.