Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toron...
Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest issues in American public discourse right now is the ballooning cost of attending university — or “college” as it’s generally referred to here. The price is rising more than 5 percent annually and students are graduating with enormous debt into a marketplace with very few jobs open to an eager 22-year-old with, usually, almost no work experience.

The New York Times addressed this in a recent front-page story:

“I’ll be paying this forever,” said Chelsea Grove, 24, who dropped out of Bowling Green State University and owes $70,000 in student loans. She is working three jobs to pay her $510 monthly obligation and has no intention of going back.

“For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money,” she said. “It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money.”

‘Nothing Is Free’

Christina Hagan is an Ohio lawmaker who says students need to understand that attending college is not an entitlement. Last year, she was appointed to fill a seat once occupied by her father in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ms. Hagan, 23, is also a college student.

She will graduate shortly from Malone University, an evangelical college in Canton, Ohio, with more than $65,000 in student debt (among her loans is one from a farm lender; she had to plant a garden to become eligible). Though she makes $60,000 a year as a state representative, she plans to begin waiting tables in the next few weeks at Don Pancho’s, a Mexican restaurant in Alliance, Ohio, to help pay down her student loans and credit cards. She pays about $1,000 a month.

“I placed a priority on a Christian education and I didn’t think about the debt,” said Ms. Hagan, who says she takes responsibility for her debt and others should do the same. “I need my generation to understand that nothing is free.”

For those of you who live beyond the U.S., this must seem an odd situation. In some nations, higher education is free or much more heavily subsidized by the government. Or only the intellectually elite get to attend university at all while others — wisely — move into study for work they’d enjoy and for jobs that actually need filling.

In the mid-1970s I paid — yes, seriously — $660 a year for my education at the best school in Canada, then and now, at Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto. I had a tiny stipend from my family ($250 to 350 a month) and paid the rest of my bills by freelancing as a writer and photographer, beginning the summer of my sophomore year.It’s now about $5,000 a year to attend the equal of a Harvard in Canadian terms; Harvard and its ilk are about $50,000 a year.

That’s a brand-new luxury car every year for four years.

To afford my life and schooling, I lived alone in a very small apartment in a bad neighborhood, then moved to a small apartment in a better one. (My parents had wandered off to live on a boat in Europe for a few years.)

By the time I graduated, I had no debt and many national magazine and newspaper editors who had already been working with me. I didn’t even look for a staff job until I was 26.

So what was the value of my college degree?

Hard to say. I loved the beauty of our campus, the many clubs and sports and activities, the diversity and intelligence of my classmates and the brilliance of my professors, who were scary as hell and expected a great deal from us. I did get some very good grades in my first year and was told that writing should be my career by one professor, whose praise meant a great deal to me.

I started writing for the weekly college newspaper before I even attended my very first class. Yes, I was that driven. I knew I wanted to become a journalist — let’s get started! I didn’t ever attend a journalism school but preferred a super-demanding English lit. program that taught me to think critically, write long, argue hard for my ideas and work independently.

All of which are exactly the skills I needed and still use today, 30+ years after graduation.

No employer has ever asked my opinion of Chaucer or 16th. century theater or Victorian poetry, that’s for sure. But the underlying skills and strengths that got me in and through are what mattered.

So that’s part of the challenge. You can get high marks and love your professors but come out clueless and awaiting direction rather than being a resourceful self-starter. The people who thrive in times of economic chaos.

Like now!

I don’t envy any student trying to choose a form of higher education they hope will lead to paid employment, sooner rather than later. Some Americans have chosen to study in Scotland at St. Andrews or in my native Canada, where they get a great education at a much lower price than even some state schools in the U.S. — plus the invaluable experience of living and working in another country and its culture.

If I were the parent of an independent teen heading for college, I’d ship them off to Canada or Europe in a heartbeat; they’ll be working and competing in a global economy anyway, so they might as well start to really understand how the rest of the world thinks and behaves!

Do you think college is worth it anymore?

“Are you still writing?”

Homework Session
Homework Session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They always ask this with a little chirpy voice. Like…really?

They’re usually people with office jobs and big paychecks and paid sick days. People who line up every morning to catch the bus or train or subway and some of whom pray for reprieve from the vocational choice they’ve made.

Writing for a living looks so damn easy. No stress! No boss! No demands or deadlines!

Anyone can do it, right?

I thought I was alone in hearing this annoying question after spending my entire life as a journalist and author.

But Roger Rosenblatt, a much bigger name than I here in the U.S., gets it too, as he writes in The New York Times Book Review:

And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

Everyone wants to be a writer — it looks like so much fun! Sit around the house in your pajamas all day waiting for inspiration. Sign me up!

Even the plumber who recently came to my apartment, and socked me with a $225.00 bill for fixing our only toilet, said “Oh, when I retire I want to be a writer.”

“You don’t,” I warned him, wincing as I wrote the check. “Most of us don’t make a lot of money.”

“Oh, I just want to be a successful writer,” he replied. “You know, like John Grisham.” (Who last year raked in a cool $18 million.)

Those of us who’ve been cranking out journalism or book-focused copy for a few decades, even with some nice reviews, (my first book was called [swoon!] “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential publication), know it’s a risky way to make a living. Because your “living” can vary from $4,000 a day to $4,000 a year.

Last year I made more money from public speaking engagements and a TV option from CBS for my memoir, “Malled” than I did from the book itself. It cost me 10 percent of the option income to have an entertainment attorney review the inch-thick contract with CBS negotiated by two agents — now taking 20 percent of the option cash for their input.

I waited 12 months after publication for the final instalment of my advance, which, after my agent took her standard 15 percent cut, came to $8,500. That’s a year’s income, or more, in sub-Saharan Africa. In suburban New York, (with no kids to support), that lasts quite a bit less.

Here’s a great list from Forbes.com, and fellow journo/blogger Jeff Bercovici, why journalism still kicks ass as a way to make a living. Because it just does.

(Here’s a brilliant blog post with a visual of how “success” appears to different people, including writers.)

So, why do so many people long to be writers?

People want to be rich. If writing doesn’t make you rich (and it certainly can for those who hit and stay on the best-seller list and/or sell their work to film or television), then why the hell are you bothering?

People want to be famous. If your book is on a shelf in a store, you’re the bomb! (So is weed-killer and diapers, but hey, retail exposure is cool, right?)

People want to be on TV/radio/blogs. They crave global attention. Because then life will be so different. (Not!)

People want to feel cool and creative. As opposed to cube life with 10 days of vacation.

People want to have other people quote them as wise and witty experts. Not just their Mom.

People want to feel validated as having something compelling to say, with millions eager to listen to them. Not just their Mom.

So, having published two non-fiction books (so far), is any of this true? Does it happen?

Sort of. I’ve met a few people who knew my name before I walked into the room. That can be pleasant.

I write because it’s how I make sense of the world.

I write because it stitches me back into the crazy quilt of other people’s ideas and feelings.

I write because my skill and talent and hard work, even working freelance for most of my life, have still allowed me to earn and save more than the average American with a steady paycheck.

I write because it allows me to indulge my insatiable curiosity about the world and get paid to do so.

I write because it has allowed me to meet everyone from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes to a female admiral to the Inuk man who greeted me on a snowmobile when our tiny plane landed in his village just south of the Arctic circle.

I write because…

I’m a writer.

Why do you write?

Do you hate Mother’s Day too?

Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Sve...
Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Svenska: En mamma som kramar om sitt barn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bear with me.

Like many others watching the annual flood of maternal sentimentality, this isn’t a fun week for me. (It’s celebrated on May 13 here, but not necessarily in other countries.)

My mother lives in a nursing home in a city a six-hour flight away. I don’t plan to send flowers or a card, even though I know I should and would like to. I’m her only child. She has no grand-children and many of her friends have died or abandoned her over the years.

We haven’t spoken in a year, since our last verbal exchange consisted of her raging at me without pausing to draw breath. The Mother’s Day flowers I had sent went unacknowledged, then my birthday.

Like many mothers out there — not the cookie-baking, hugging, call me! text me! types — mine has no interest in my life. And she’s now doted on by a woman even the nursing home staff told me they found rude and weird, someone nasty to me whom I’ve never trusted.

So, Mother’s Day?

Meh. 

I know other men and women whose mother, for a variety of reasons, lost interest in their own children, no matter how well-behaved or accomplished or how hard we’ve tried, for a long, long time, to get closer to someone who…just doesn’t want it.

But we never talk publicly about it, the subject taboo.

I’ve re-written this post about 20 times, debating whether or not to even publish it. I am weary of secret-keeping.

My mother, who is beautiful, bright, sophisticated and charming, never re-married after divorcing my father when I was seven. She never seemed to miss emotional or physical intimacy.

When I was 14, we moved to Mexico. There, on Christmas Eve, she suffered a manic breakdown; I left within weeks to move in with my father and never returned to her home except for visits. I saw her first manic episode when I was 12, then again lived through them when I was 19, 25, 27 and beyond. She ended up in jails and hospitals all over the world, as she traveled alone and refused to stay on her medication.

For a long time, she wrote letters often and we spoke every week or so.

In 2003, a 4-inch tumor was pulled from her head and I asked the surgeon to “make her less of a bitch.” The words shocked me as they fell out of my mouth.

His answer shocked me even more. “Her tumor has made her aggressive for years, possibly decades,” he explained, thanks to its location in her brain. She was, for several blissful years afterward, loving, gentle and kind, the sort of mother I had longed for. (Here’s my magazine story about this experience, with a great pic of us when I was little.)

By the summer of 2010, when I flew out to see her on my annual visit, she had become unrecognizable to me, the amount she was by then drinking destroying what was left of her mental and physical health. I called my husband from the motel where I was staying and wept, in rage and frustration and despair, for 30 minutes.

When, if ever, would this shit stop?

The verb “to mother” implies nurture, care and concern. We automatically conflate the two, while “to father” often means simply to create a new life, not to stick around and take care of that child.

I’ve tried to be compassionate. I’ve tried to reach out, for decades. I’ve tried.

I’m done trying.

How’s your relationship with your Mom?

Some of the books I love

Cover of "Are You Somebody?: The Accident...
Cover via Amazon

To older followers of Broadside, a thank you — I loved hearing all your book recommendations!

Here are just a few of the many books I’ve read and loved, with the nationality of the author.

Most are memoir and non-fiction, with fiction listed at the bottom:

Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. A memoir of growing up white in rural Zimbabwe with a mad mother. (British.)

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin. Another memoir of Zimbabwe, after its terrible wars, by a journalist now living in the U.S. (British.)

Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol. If you want to understand American apartheid — the stunning lack of social mobility that starts with often appallingly weak public education for the poor — read this powerful book. A classic. (American)

Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. The best book likely written in the past 30 years about the daily life of the American poor. The writer spent the better part of a decade getting to know the women she writes about here, low-income women living in New York City. (American.)

The Creative Habit, Twlya Tharp. This legendary choreographer has tremendous drive and ambition, and her book offers many ways to tap and harness your own creativity. Life-changing book. (American.)

My War Gone By, I Loved It So, Anthony Loyd. A very dark work, this will make immediately clear the psychic costs of covering war. Not an easy read, but powerful and unforgettable. (British.)


Are You Somebody?“, Nuala O’Faolain. An midlife female journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms. She died of lung cancer in 2008, costing us a terrific voice. (Ireland.)

Brown“, Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at a writers’ conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this excellent book. (American.)

No Logo“, Naomi Klein. This young writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of corporate control and globalization. (Canadian)

“Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, Caitlin Kelly. My first book, which examines how women and guns intersect — whether a woman is a police officer, FBI or military using it for her work or has been the victim of violence or a loved one’s suicide or a hunter. The book has 104 interviews from 29 states with women of all ages, races and income levels. Booklist called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.”

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, Caitlin Kelly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012, this book has been compared to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed” about what it’s really like to work at a low-wage job in the United States. I worked part-time for 27 months in a suburban New York mall selling clothing and accessories for The North Face. It is being published in China in September 2012 and was nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

Fiction:

Lost Illusions“, Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be authors and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. “You bite the hand that feeds you – and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar”, says a newspaper employee when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change. (French)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. I love this book so much. Barbery is a professor of philosophy and a keen observer of human nature. Her story about the inhabitants of a French apartment building, and its concierge, is a wondrous work. (French)

Come, Thou Tortoise. Jessica Grant. The author is not a big name and this is her only book. I found it charming and touching, quirky without being cute or twee. (Canadian.)

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. She has written many, many books, but this one is my favorite, deeply evocative of my hometown (and hers), Toronto, and what it’s like to be a little girl. (Canadian.)

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje. Life in Toronto in the 1920s. His writing has a distinctly poetic, dreamlike quality. (Author of “The English Patient”, much better known.) (Canadian.)

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. A fellow journalist and University of Toronto alum, he’s written a charming and touching fictional portrait of life at an overseas newspaper. This is one of my absolute favorites of recent years. (Canadian)

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Loved this book! I literally could not put it down. (Russian.)

The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell. If you, as I do, love Japan, the 18th. century and deliciously descriptive writing, this is a book you’ll hate to put down. It’s a slow, gentle, lyrical book, like entering a dream. (New Zealand)

Falconer, John Cheever. One of the great American writers of the late 2th century. (American)

Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk. An astonishing book and thick as a doorstop. It’s graphic and shocking, but unforgettable portrait of a poor Afrikaaner family in the post-apartheid world of Johannesburg. (South African)

Anything written by Ray Bradbury, (American)

Anything written by Nadine Gordimer (South African)

Anything written by Thomas Hardy (British)

Anything written by Virginia Woolf (British)

Why struggle? Drop that crocodile!

American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). This p...
American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). This photograph was taken at La Manzanilla, Jalisco State in Mexico, on the Pacific Coast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the umpteenth time, my life felt like I was wrestling a large, wet, thrashing and dangerous creature — a crocodile, as it were — that was the drama du jour. It might have been the crappy relationship with my mother, half-brother, stepmother, an editor (or three).

It might have been a fight with my sweetie, now my husband. It might have been my own insecurity or fear over my weight or my work or my income.

The more I wrestled with it, the more it thrashed, its scaly and powerful tail smacking me in the head, metaphorically speaking.

Hold it tighter! Make it submit! Then I had an epiphany, one that’s shaped my life ever since.

Drop the damn crocodile!

Just drop that slimy scaly sucker and walk the hell away.

Oooooh, that feels so much better.

It’s counter-intuitive for some of us to let something drop, to allow it to simply not matter anymore. We’re taught never to give up. To try our best. To work at things.

But, you know, sometimes that damn crocodile will kill you if you keep hanging onto it, its ferocious strength draining all of yours as you keep wrestling it.

Here are just a few of the crocodiles I’ve dropped in the past few years:

— obsessing about my income. And, funny thing, it’s rising, up 40 percent in 2011 over 2010. I expect 2012 to rise even further. Neurosis is rarely appealing to anyone, especially clients.

— whining about my weight. I need to lose 40+ pounds. I could go nuts or just try to do it in my own way. I’m working on it. It will take months. Whatever.

— worrying about whether or not I’ll be able to sell my  next book. Probably will.  If not, something else will come along.

— caring what my Dad thinks. Yes, I still do. But not nearly as much as I used to.

— keeping a spotless home. I used to waste a whole ton of productive work-time on house-cleaning. Now we have a maid coming twice a month, for a total cost of $110, which is less than my lowest hourly rate. I have more time to make more money.

— fretting over the normal costs of running my business, like my web designer and hiring paying assistants and lawyers and others for their help and expertise. Outsource! It’s all a tax deduction next year anyway.

— managing some of my business associates. Too difficult. Time to move on.

— trying to please my mother. Impossible. We no longer have any relationship at all. Sad to say, I have never been happier.

— keeping up friendships that actually left me feeling miserable. Just because someone was once a dear friend doesn’t mean they’re going to remain one. You change, they change and habits that might once have seemed normal can become unworkable. If you’ve tried to resolve them and it’s just not going to happen, time to drop that croc.

— getting my hip replaced.  Two years of increasing pain, exhaustion, depression and frustration are gone since I had a new hip implanted in February 2012. I was terrified of the surgery and a poor result. I have my life back! I’m happy and strong once more.

What crocs are wearing you out these days?

Can you drop a few of them?

Being alone is an art

Tattered Trunk Sadly this major oak in a pastu...
Tattered Trunk Sadly this major oak in a pasture North of Abberton Manor has given up the ghost. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My 8th. most popular blog post — with 578 views so far — offers 12 tips on how to travel alone as a woman.

For me and for many women I know, of all ages, it’s just no big deal. For others, going to a movie or concert or eating a meal in public, certainly at a good restaurant likely filled with couples or groups of friends, remains a prospect so intimidating they refuse to even try. They feel conspicuous, lonely, out of place.

Pshaw!

If you fear doing things alone, you’re always going to be clinging to others, seeking the comfort or validation of their company, like a small child with a tattered blankie. Or, as many women do, choosing to hang onto any man with a pulse because then they’re not single and alone anymore.

(So not true. I was the loneliest of my life when married to my first husband.)

I think it also depends on the friends, family and community you live in, and your ability to ignore or withstand peer pressure. Not to mention housing costs!

I’ve spent many years alone, living alone, no man in sight , or certainly none who would be around for very long. I grew up an only child and grew accustomed to amusing myself — with books, art, music, friends, stuffed animals or Legos.

I left home at 19 and lived alone in a very small studio apartment. I did that until I moved in with a boyfriend at the age of 21 or 22 and lived with him until I was 25 and moved to France for a year. I returned to Toronto and we broke up and I lived alone til I was 30 and met the man I would marry. He and I divorced when I was 37 and someone else — seriously! — proposed to me within the month, a much older man who’d been lusting after me (who knew?) for decades.

I said no thanks, and lived alone until I was 43 when Jose moved into my apartment.

I never hated being alone. But it’s not easy.

Living alone costs a fortune, especially in the United States where, if you are self-employed or out of work, you must buy health insurance for yourself and it’s insanely expensive; in the late 1990s I was then paying $500 a month.

It can get really lonely, certainly as you age, if your pals are booked solid with caring for their husbands or wives and kids and grand-kids and work. Finding, creating and nurturing your own communities is essential to your mental and physical health.

Being alone, for older women especially, can mean descending into terrifying and degrading poverty, a very real issue for those who earned little, saved little and/or spent many unwaged years (without earning Social Security) to bear and raise children.

Being alone is apparently the new norm. From a recent issue of Time magazine:

The extraordinary rise of solitary living is the biggest social change that we’ve neglected to identify, let alone examine.

Consider that in 1950, a mere 4 million Americans lived alone, and they made up only 9% of households. Back then, going solo was most common in the open, sprawling Western states–Alaska, Montana and Nevada–that attracted migrant workingmen, and it was usually a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.

Not anymore. According to 2011 census data, people who live alone–nearly 33 million Americans–make up 28% of all U.S. households.

Here’s a fellow blogger who thinks this is a sad trend, especially for older people.

And here’s a new book on the subject.

Do you live alone?

How do you like it?

Talk to me! (Please)

Durrell in his final years, with Cottontop Tam...
Durrell in his final years, with Cottontop Tamarins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Broadside is blooming — with 939 followers worldwide, and a 50 percent increase in only a few months.

I’d love to hit 1,000 by my birthday, June 6.

If you’re a fan, I hope you’ll consider re-blogging, tweeting or linking!

Long-term commenters include three Australians: Charlene, a feisty photographer; Nigel Featherstone, a writer of the most lyrical and lovely posts and Belongum, a military veteran who shares my love of Gerald Durrell, a British writer who made me want to do what he did for a living, even if I’d never reach his level of skill!

C. has a witty blog, Small Dog Syndrome, which strikes the perfect balance of tart and amused. Lisa Wields Words makes me think of  an Amazon whose shield may resemble a thesaurus.

Matthew Wright, a New Zealand historian and writer, knows well the challenges of this business we both chose; his latest book, about Kiwi criminals, is out in July. He has written (does the man sleep?!) 45 books. So far.

Andi M. has shared some great stories, and I’m curious to see how Kate, a young Irish journalist, is faring in our mutual field. LKD, newly engaged to the stellar Sarge, whom she has blogged about at Gin and Lemonade with a twist, met me for a drink in Manhattan last year. So good to put a face to an on-line name.

We have an Edmonton Tourist and Susan from Scotland and Geoff, yet another Australian…

I love hearing from you!

So, those who have yet to comment, especially — please tell me a little about yourself.

Like…

Where do you live ?

What sort of work do you do?

What are some of your passions?

Any topics you’d like to see more of here (or less?)?

What brought you to Broadside?

And what three books MUST I read, of any period? I’m always hungry for new stuff.