Thinking Out Loud

all of my ideas are works in progress

Home Ownership

Backstory: The goal has always been for me to get a job that pays enough to support the family on one income so that we can switch back to Stephanie being the full-time parent. That is evidently never going to happen on this continent until I can do something else, so back to school I go. The whole point of working at Walmart for two years was to save up tuition money. Once that was done, I could quit Walmart and focus on school.

Having tuition saved up and quitting Walmart was also the moment we reexamined what we wanted out of life, whether we wanted to be global nomads or anchored with all the nice stuff living in one spot gets you. And if you're going to stay in one spot, you might as well buy a house so that you can be earning equity instead of lining someone else's pockets. So the choice was always pretty much go back to Asia or buy a house.

We didn't go back to Asia.

We started house-hunting in early August, looking mostly outside the Lynchburg city limits but within commuting distance to the library. The USDA has a program where you can buy a house with no down payment if it's in the county, which I realized too late is taxpayer-subsidized encouragement of suburban sprawl and commuter traffic, but it got us what we needed when we needed it. We could have managed a down payment by blowing my college savings, but then we ended up blowing my college savings on a minivan after the Honda was totalled by an uninsured motorist. Yeah, it's been a fun couple months. We'll find a way to make school work out.

We found a place in Madison Heights, an unincorporated community in Amherst County, just across the river from Lynchburg. The 'neighborhood' is kind of white trashy, but there's no traffic on our street, we're a 10 minute drive from the library, it has three bedrooms, a dishwasher, a microwave, an established vegetable garden, and it doesn't have lead paint. And our monthly house payment is less than our rent in Lynchburg.

USDA loans always take longer than normal to close on, and buying a car in the middle of the process forced them to reevaluate our credit, and we were told over and over that we wouldn't be closing until mid-to-late-October, and I kept pushing back the date of our move-out with our old apartment. Then we got a call saying we could close at the end of September, so we did. This gave us a nice, long overlap. For a week I came over at night to clean, paint, and repair stuff before moving any big furniture in, and I brought over a trunkload of boxes each time, so by the time we actually moved in on the 10th, it was pretty much just the table and beds, some shelves and some lamps. Then I spent the following week going back to the old apartment every night to clean and touch up paint so we can get our deposit back.

The place was on the border of being a fixer-upper, with holes in the drywall, broken doors, a a population of stray cats bringing poop to the yard and flies to the house. The previous occupants seemed to be enthusiastic about home improvement, but not particularly competent. I painted houses for a summer during college, but working alone at night after an exhausting day of parenting, with limited tools and budget, but it still looks a ton better. Fortunately, most of the yard/exterior work can wait until spring. This place could have sold for a lot more if the owners had bothered to clean and do basic maintenance, so unless there's an unforeseen market collapse, we could make a tidy profit with some cheap blinds, a coat of paint, a washcloth, and a little elbow grease.

We've got about five boxes left to unpack before we're done moving in, and a list of more home improvement projects to last us as long as we expect to be here. It turns out I've pretty much forgotten why a microwave is supposed to be desirable and have barely used it for anything.

Pictures and video tour to follow.

Hanging with the Baptists

On Monday the 24th, shortly after midnight, we got a knock on our door. (Aside: for nearly a month since I quit working at Walmart, I've been getting to bed at 10:30pm. It's awesome.) It was a police officer, asking if we wanted our car towed.

"What?! Why?"

"You're disoriented, sir. Just take a moment and tell me what you want to do."

I'm not disoriented, I just haven't been given enough information to understand my situation. I'm generally pro-police, but every interaction I have with LCPD lowers my opinion of them.

A girl from Winchester somehow collided with three parked cars on our street over a good 30 meter span, possibly after being involved in another collision out on the cross street. This is the third time our car has been smashed into while parked in front of our house and the fourth major collision in Lynchburg. (For those of you who haven't been following us closely, our trusty Honda Civic was totalled last month by an uninsured motorist, but we'd been meaning to upgrade to something that could handle three carseats anyway, so we took the opportunity to trade up to a Chrysler Town & Country.)

So at least this time the other person was still at the scene and actually had insurance. That should make things better, right? Of course not. When it's a hit and run, our uninsured motorist coverage kicks in, we get it in the shop and have a rental the same day. With someone else's insurance, we have to wait for them to 'complete their investigation'. It's been a week, and they still haven't been able to get a statement from the other driver. I can get a statement from the Dalai Lama faster than State Farm can get in touch with their own customer. She was driving a car, so we know she's not Amish.

We couldn't make it to our church and we missed the annual children's program, so, you know, blessings in disguise. We did want to go to some church, so we wound up going to a Baptist church down the road. This is Lynchburg; if we still don't have a car next week, there are like five other churches within walking distance.

It was okay. I'd never been to a Baptist worship service before. The sermon was fairly pedestrian, Mark 2:13-17, nothing you wouldn't hear in a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting. Much higher singing:sermon ratio than our meetings, and their hymnbook is twice as thick, which is neat, but all their music sounds like it's been arranged for an off-Broadway musical. The way they pray catches me completely off guard - somebody will just be in the middle of saying something and suddenly, 'Oh, they're praying now.' They do do that thing like Catholics do where they just stop in the middle of the meeting and everyone greets all of the other nearby congregants, which is something we could be better at doing (we Johnstons, not we Mormons, generally). I also liked the more relaxed dress code. Unfamiliarity aside, it felt safe and inoffensive, maybe to excess.

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In Defense of Science, Part 17

High fructose corn syrup isn't a dietary problem. It's an economics problem.

On a biological level, all fructose molecules are the same. It doesn't matter if it comes from corn syrup or honey or agave nectar or recaptured fairy farts, fructose is fructose is fructose. It has 4 calories per gram, same as any other carbohydrate. It does have a slightly different metabolic pathway than glucose, but I can guarantee that if you took two groups of people and the only change you made was replacing all of the fructose in their diet with sucrose or glucose, there would be no significant difference in their health.

Freaking out about high fructose corn syrup is like running around the deck of the sinking Titanic, flinging pitchers of ice water over the rail, because you have been told that our current crisis is being caused by ice.

Marketing a food as "Contains no High Fructose Corn Syrup!" conveys as much useful information as "Contains no Ranch Dressing!" Yeah, it's an ingredient I probably shouldn't eat a lot of, but some isn't going to hurt me and its absence tells me nothing about whether the product is healthy.

Americans are sentimental about agriculture, especially corn (cf. Oklahoma!). For nearly a century, the US government has paid corn farmers to grow corn, but only sell it as corn in limited quantities to artificially keep the price of corn high and defend against foreign competition, but they can sell corn derivatives, like corn syrup (made scalable in the late 1960's). This scheme is worth billions to the corn industry but only costs pennies to each individual taxpayer and consumer, so there's little motivation to change it, and any politician that threatens to trim corn subsidies from the budget is hit with "This politician want to take away the amber waves from hardworking American farmers!" scare ads from the corn lobby. This is why high fructose corn syrup is one of the cheapest sweeteners on the market.Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup is like a cheat code for infinite profit for food manufacturers. It's cheap, and it lets them use other cheap, low-nutrient ingredients with long shelf lives. Because the fructose lights up the brain centers for pleasure and desire, food manufacturers can get people to pay for compressed sawdust if they add enough corn syrup. People eat more of this cheap junk food because it's cheap and because it's stripped of fiber and protein that makes a person feel full.

High fructose corn syrup isn't what's making people fat. Eating too much added sugar and not enough real food in combination with a sedentary lifestyle is what makes people fat. (Fats and oils are also a problem, but not as much as we've been told and probably not the root of epidemic obesity.) Replacing high fructose corn syrup with more expensive 'natural' sweeteners is not a solution. Being afraid of whatever ingredient daytime TV hosts tell you to be afraid of this week is not a solution. High fructose corn syrup makes it cheaper and easier to add too much sugar to your diet, but it doesn't change the basic laws of metabolism, and harping on it won't fix anything.

So, China is NOT Happening

We're pregnant.

We...were not keeping good track of things. We're still a little vague on the due date but probably late January/early February 2016.

We discovered this after making the decision to go to China. For a while we explored the possibility of proceeding with the China plan. People in China have babies every day, surely they can handle one more, right? But after both of us had a series of panic attacks about it (fortunately, never both of us at the same time) we decided that we are just not brave enough to do this. It did not help that Stephanie's only exposure to non-martial arts Chinese cinema was To Live.

So, onward.

I'm still going back to school, though probably Old Dominion Online instead of Arizona State Online. Probably still electrical engineering because I still need a program that can be completed 100% online and because it's both interesting to me and likely to pay well.

We're still moving; we're not all going to fit where we are. We're still selling the car; we're not all going to fit in the one we have. I'm still leaving Walmart, because I've reached the financial benchmarks I planned and I value my mental health.

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So...China is Happening

Several weeks ago, we got this free sample in a container that reminded me of a Japanese ice cream novelty, and I said, wistfully, out loud, "I miss Japanese ice cream novelties," to which Stephanie replied, "Well, why don't we just go back to Japan?" and I'm like, woah, the ice cream wasn't that good, but the idea was planted like a virus in my registry, spinning an infinite loop and eating up all of my RAM while I was at work that night.

So, we ended up talking about it in depth, and really examining what we wanted out of life; when, whether, and how we would swap parenting roles. The endgame is still, and always has been, one parent working (preferably me), occasional world travel, a sustainable and socially-responsible lifestyle, and a home with actual countertops, a microwave, and a garbage disposal in a town with an active gaming community. The house is going to be a while yet, no matter what, but we can meet a lot of our goals at once, right now, by me going back to teaching overseas and pursuing more education online at the same time.

I don't usually actively seek spiritual guidance, but we both fasted and prayed about this quite seriously, and we both got solid confirmation that this is the right thing for us to do. And also China is not my idea; I've been actively saying no to China for ten years.

So, after identifying a few cities with tolerable climates, pollution levels, and population densities, I started throwing out applications. I've been doing late-night interviews the past couple of days, and I just signed a contract for a job at a public high school in Guiyang, Guizhou province, south-central China. We're going end of August.

Maybe I'm rusty, but Chinese is hard - it feels harder to pick up than Japanese or Korean. Fortunately, I've got Emma hooked on Ni hao, Kai-lan - maybe she can interpret for us.


Emma Says
Emma, 4

"Babies are small people, but those tall girls are tall girls."

(describing the result of her first attempt paining: a big blue smear)
Emma: I love this picture.
Me: What is it a picture of?
Emma: Paint.
Me: What does it look like?
Emma: Blue.

"My finger is full of junk."

"Our bathtub is just like a baño."

"How many times do I have to tell you?! Don't. Die." (admonishing us on how to play video games)

"Hey, Mom, my head is missing!" (she couldn't see her head in the car rear-view mirror)

Emma turns four today. In the past year she's grown articulate and is full of the imagination and wacky non-sequiturs common to her age, even making up her own stories and songs. She can set the table, wash dishes, clean up clothes and toys, do buttons and zippers. She counts by 2's, 5's, and 10's, does simple addition, can read and write simple words, and now sometimes uses the foreign words and expressions she knows. She can write her name, take turns, match, and assemble a puzzle of the United States.

How Flash Saved Me From the Internet

We've got two computers, and they each have both Firefox and Chrome on them. On the new computer, Chrome is my browser, with all my profiles and passwords saved, and Firefox is Stephanie's, so we don't have to keep logging each other off and signing in to things as we would if we shared a browser. On the other computer, Firefox has been my browser ever since I needed it to properly use an online class that didn't like Chrome. I've been working on that other computer most of the time lately.

For the past few months we've both been playing a lot of Bloons Monkey City - which, depending on the computer, browser, and other tasks, can sometimes get slow and choppy. But then, probably almost two months ago, a Flash update came out that made it dramatically worse.

I ended up uninstalling Flash completely, but then I couldn't play Bloons. So I switched over to using Chrome, which doesn't need Flash to run most browser games. But then I didn't have all my passwords, profiles and settings, and I didn't want to add them, both out of laziness and because it's on the computer I've trained Emma to use Chrome on for PBSKids.org, and I didn't want her playing on a browser that had my logins and accidentally sharing, liking, or other stuff that could bleed back to my regular online presence.

So, because I wanted to continue playing a game (which I'm pretty much done with now), and because I was too lazy to go over to the other computer or even switch back and forth between browsers, I basically stopped using anything that required me to log in. I went from checking my email several times a day to once or twice a week, Facebook even less, blogging nary at all.

My life hasn't been dramatically better as a result, but it has been better. It doesn't matter what you believe, getting onto the social Internet these days is basically signing up for thousands of strangers to scream at you that what you believe is wrong and you're a bad person for believing it, so that's not great. (Probably a month before this, I unsubscribed from most of the blogs I followed, even though they were writers I heartily agreed with, because apparently I've reached some kind of limit to the amount of yelling I'm willing to put up with.)

Probably the most important realization was how little I missed it. Very little of what my social media contacts have to say is actually important. (Nothing personal. Very little of what I have to say is actually important.) There's no shortage of other ways to spend my time. I realized I hadn't been watching anime in months, so I got caught up on that, I've been burning through more books, learning math, applying to jobs.

I'm not furious with social media, but I don't need it at this time in my life. All I really use Facebook for is distributing pictures, and I don't take a lot of pictures. I'm not threatening to delete my account, I just don't care, and if it so happened* that I was in a situation where I couldn't access it, it would be no great loss.


Setbacks and Progress

I didn't get in to Valdosta. I promised myself that I wasn't going to get bummed out about it. I did anyway. I told myself I would take a long weekend and then jump back on the horse and apply to Alabama. I still haven't. That was...a month ago?

I spent some time looking at jobs again. The goal, after all, is a job. But that just reinforced my suspicion that a job I can get that pays what S makes doesn't exist on this continent.

I took a look at ASU's online programs, and called in to ask some questions about their bachelors in electrical engineering because, hey, why not? Their sales representative admissions counsellor sounded distinctly skittish about my low undergraduate GPA. If a bachelors degree program is scared of my GPA, what hope do I have getting into any masters program?

So, if I want a job, I need more schooling, and if I can't get into a masters program, it's going to be back for a bachelors, don't know in what yet, depends on what I can get done fast, cheap, and mostly online, and actually leads to a viable career. It will almost certainly require math. That will cost significantly more than I've allocated for a masters, but I can get the lower-division math classes out of the way, online, from CVCC super cheap. So, one thing led to another and I'm starting precalculus in two weeks.

Meanwhile, at the job I have to pay for the job I want, I got a promotion. I'm now a customer service manager, king of the cashiers. It's mostly what I was already doing as a cashier cross-trained in customer service, financial services, and site-to-store, so, 'Would you like to get paid more to keep doing what you're already doing, plus some accounting stuff?' 'Okay.' 90 cents more per hour, on top of the 95-cent raise a month ago when Walmart decided to be less awful. More hours per week, and it will look better on my resume after I leave. With more money coming in, and likely a more expensive educational path, I'm tempted to stay on a few months longer, but I still want to be done with this before Thanksgiving comes around again.

We are now entirely debt-free. On S's income alone we were just breaking even and would have been stuck that way for years, but with my job we were able to pay down her student loan and my car loan aggressively while also saving for my education. We've opened up a few new avenues of saving - travel and the car that will replace the one I just paid off - but now my income isn't divided to any other purpose and my saving toward schooling will only increase.

One thing we'd decided to do as a 'reward' for reaching that goal was buying our first tablet. I got a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 7". I...I don't get it. I'm sure the first generation of tablets firstbooted into a tutorial and made no assumptions that the user was already familiar with tablets. But now everyone else has had a tablet for ten years and I've touched a smartphone once. I can't figure out how to move or configure anything, I can't freaking figure out how to close a program that is running, I've got preloaded Google crapware and duplicate Samsung preloaded crapware that I can't uninstall, it takes me ten minutes to fine the 'Settings' menu. I am the old guy that comes into the library and asks for help and doesn't know what 'right-click' means.

Quick and Dirty "Teriyaki" Salmon
4 salmon filets or steaks
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. molasses
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 shakes ginger powder
1 shake garlic powder

Arrange salmon on broiler pan. Mix other ingredients. Spread sauce on top of the salmon. Broil 5-6 minutes. Flip, spread more sauce, broil 5-6 more minutes. Done.

Bitter Dredge

I guess I am still not as over the Glasgow Library incident as I thought I was, or would like to be.

I've just finished reading Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads by Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. It was okay. She assumes you've already become familiar with the content of her first two books and cites them without giving any further information, so if you haven't read her other work it's significantly less useful. She bemoans the lack of parental involvement from dads and the paucity of parental advice targeted at and consumed by them, and then proceeds to give only cursory attention. She's a little to eager to put people in simplistic boxes. The amount of attention to the problems specific to upper-middle-class Jewish families is disproportionate to the actual number of upper-middle-class Jewish families.

What makes this book interesting and different, though, is that it's a book about adult-adult conflict resolution that takes into account broader social context and role, rather than merely individual psychology.

But reading the book dredged up a lot of awful memories from Glasgow, and raised some troubling questions. Exactly one person outside of the Board thought the Board was in the right. At least dozens thought the Board was in the wrong. Many offered us their private concern and support. But no one stood up for us in public. No one dared to oppose or hold accountable a group of five small town bullies ruining a powerless outsider on a whim. Why?


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