Reading the Grocery Store Novel

In the last few days of my senior year of high school, my English teacher gave us a choice for our last reading assignment. We could either read Dante’s The Inferno or After the First Death, which she described as a grocery store novel. Years later, I began to suspect she used that as a sort of litmus test to find out what kind of adults we would turn out to be.

This incident came to mind numerous times while I read Brian Caplan’s The Case Against Education, which I recently finished reading. He argues persuasively that education is 80% signaling instead of human capital development. It’s about letting people know you’re competent by getting the right papers. Look! I graduated high school! I’m not a complete fuck-up! Look! I graduated from Prestigious University! I’m competent! Look! I have a masters degree! I am tenacious and enjoy suffering! Look! I have a PhD! I don’t know how to stop working on something once I start! Pls hire!

This signaling theory neatly explains why my husband has 2 masters degrees and a fistful of bachelors. Education in Finland is highly subsidized; they pay you to study. As a result, my husband knows people with masters degrees in philosophy who are working as cleaners. When everyone has a master’s, showing you’re not a fuck-up gets a lot more challenging.

The easiest solution to this problem is fairly obvious: stop subsidizing education and stop trying to force everyone into the college track. The problem is convincing people this is a good thing to do. Let’s look at my nephew, for example.

My oldest nephew is now 22. He’s been out of high school for damn near 5 years (he graduated at 17). He was an average student, but like everyone else from a middle class family, was placed firmly on a college track. He took the ACT and scored a 19. He had good extracurricular activities, though. He was on swim team and worked as a lifeguard at the Y. He was a decent viola player. With the encouragement of his parents’ and guidance counselor, he checked off all the high school graduation requirements and college application requirements one by one.

Then he graduated and went to community college. He didn’t have any idea what he wanted to study, but he had to do something and knocking out some gen ed requirements seemed like the thing to do.

It was too much for him; he dropped out. He complained he needed to brush up on his math. I told him about Khan Academy and had him start taking the math placement test there. I think he started it, but never finished. He spent the next 4 years bumming around, working various minimum wage, entry level jobs while all the adults in his life took turns telling him what he should do. I told him about how wind turbine technicians was a growing field, how VoTech had a training program he could enroll in and it would pay well.
After hemming and hawing, he enrolled back into community college to knock out those gen ed requirements before he enrolled in VoTech to learn a trade. He’s following my advice about taking one class at a time while working full-time instead of quitting work and going back to school full-time while living off of student loans. If nothing else, I’ve managed to bash the fact that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and will follow you around until the day you die (or flee the country never to return again) firmly into his brain. This semester he took music, English 102 and fitness.

But the whole situation infuriates me. Why should he have to take gen ed requirements? Is it likely a music course in community college is going to round him out that necessary bit more than all the music courses he had in his previous 13 years of mandatory education? Is it likely he’s going to have to analyze a poem in order to figure out why said wind turbine is failing to turn properly? Maybe they think Don Quixote will hold the key to this mystery? Haha, just kidding. They don’t read Don Quixote at community college. What was the point of all that general education he got in high school if he can’t even get into a vocational program without MORE general education?

It’s completely useless and a waste of time. I completely agree with Caplan that we need a proper vocational training program in the US. He says not everyone can be Germany with its swell apprenticeship training program. The reality is that we don’t need to be, and even Germany’s highly praised apprenticeship program is suffering from rigid German formality. When I was there 5 years ago, I met up with a cousin of my host family and asked her what she was up to. “Oh, I’m an Azubi.” Cool, what in? “A dry cleaners,” she answered. Words failed me and so did a polite answer. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I tried to choke out. What I really wanted to say was “Is that really something that you need an entire apprenticeship to learn? Couldn’t you just learn it on the job?

The answer is no. In Germany, you can do an apprenticeship in pretty much anything. The plus side is you’ll end your secondary education with a skill so you can find a job. The downside is that is your skill. While you may switch skills, doing so shows a disturbing lack of ernsthaftigkeit [seriousness], which is decidedly unGerman. And good luck getting a job in a field where you don’t have a qualification. Foreigners (especially Americans) may be able to do that; they just aren’t serious about the things they do and every one knows it. The work these unqualified people do is probably shoddy as far as any vernünftig German is concerned.

There’s no reason we can’t have a similar system here–only better. Why not make vocational tracks that run along side the college track at school? No need to separate them out into different schools like they do in Germany –god knows that would only increase the amount of competition among parents to get their kids into The Good School (“you know, the one where the kids don’t just learn skills that result in gainful employment! I want my kids to go to college and then work in marketing!”). Instead, we can let the students themselves choose their classes. Those who feel more academically compelled (coughnerdscough) will naturally drift into the classes they belong. The ones who are mechanically inclined can find their rightful place. Teachers in the respective classes can become mentors to these students and help guide them to enroll in classes that will result them in either going to the college that’s right for them or the trade that they’re best at, along with any writing and math courses that are relevant to their fields.

The choice part is key here. In Germany, teachers and parents choose for the kid when they’re only 10 years old. My host sister’s teacher wanted to place her in the Hauptschule track, which leads to Berufschule, because her English and German skills were weak. My host parents protested and managed to get her into Gymnasium, where she did very well and later became a doctor. Take that, overly rigid system!

Kids need to be active participates in their education. It needs to be something they do and not something that is done to them. My nephew just drifted along through college. He kept playing viola because his mother insisted on it. The same with swimming, though I think he was a bit more passionate about that. As soon as he graduated, he stopped playing viola. He quit working at the Y after a while, too, and then stopped swimming. What was the point, then, of all the money and time invested into that viola playing? Did he enjoy it? I’m not sure. Did it make him a more rounded individual? Maybe? He seems to prefer metal to classical music, though, and even when he was in high school his preferred sheet music was HIM transcribed for viola. It certainly didn’t get him into college and it isn’t getting him into any sort of well-paying job.

I tried to encourage him to take his viola and a friend who also played an instrument and backpack around the safer parts of the world, playing on the street for money. He’d learn a lot, I told him. But he lacked the courage. It sounded too risky a pursuit and, after all, he had it pretty good at home.

So he’s puttering his way through community college a second time and I’m sitting here, biting my lip, hoping that he makes it through this time and learns a trade. For some reason, I’m a lot angrier than he is at the time he’s wasting. This is his springboard into his thirties. The more he does now, the more opportunities he takes, the more he’ll be able to achieve later, even if he starts from a low base.

I have my own share of regrets when it comes to the education system, though I can’t say they relate much to signaling or mal-investment. I was college material. I belonged to the groupd of nerds that rolled their eyes at pep rallies and used the time to do homework instead. I read to the end of my world history book over Thanksgiving break to find out how the world ends (with the fall of the Berlin Wall, in case any one wonders. We now live in post-world.) I worked my way to an IB Diploma and entered college as a second semester sophomore. Granted, I went to an easy college, but honestly after the stressful experience that was high school, I was burnt out and needed a break.

When my senior English teacher gave us a choice between Dante and the grocery store novel, I picked the grocery store novel. My friends who have gone on to achieve masters degrees, MDs and PhDs and beyond? They chose Dante.

“When else am I going to have the opportunity to read it?” one of them responded when I asked why.

The accurate answer to this question is, of course, whenever they want. It’s in the public domain. But the realistic answer is…some things no one reads unless they’re forced to in school.

[I have a lot more to say about the Case Against Education, especially as it relates to homeschooling, but that will be another post]


The Perfect Recipe

– 2 pounds boneless chicken tenders
– 1/4 tsp. sea salt
– 1/8 tsp. ground pepper
– 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
– 2 packages bacon (2lbs total)
– 1/3 cup honey
– 1/2 cup mustard
– 3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
– Dash cayenne (optional)

Sprinkle chicken with spices, wrap with bacon, coat with mustard mixture. Place on wire racks over cookie sheets and bake at 400F for 12-15 min. Then flip and bake for another 12-15 min.

Finding recipes that everyone at my house can eat and will eat is a never ending challenge. My husband can’t eat anything with a lot of carbs in it because of his diabetes. Gamma can’t eat anything with dairy in it because of his diabetes. Beta complains we always eat meat. By this she means our dinners consist of some sort of meat dish, like steak or roast beef or carnitas or something. It’s not accurate; sometimes we also eat stews.

For a while, stew was our go-to dish because everyone would eat it, it was low carb, no dairy, and I could easily scale it up. Then Alpha suddenly decided he didn’t like stew, so he stopped eating it. Then Beta decided to start crying every time we had any sort of meat dish. So some of us would eat soup, some of us would eat meat; rarely did we all sit down and eat the same meal.

Until these bacon wrapped chicken tenders. I first ate this at my sister’s house. I helped her with the preparation, which was a bit finicky to make as they required covering each chicken tender completely with bacon. After noting how eagerly everyone at the table ate those, I got the recipe from her and brought it home with me. It would be the perfect addition to my collection of low-carb diabetic friendly recipes. My husband loved it and, even more miraculously, so did the kids. They devoured them with gusto. To make things easier one me, I stopped wrapping every bit of the chicken tender with bacon, using only one piece of bacon per tender. I still got good coverage, though perhaps not as complete as my sister’s. They also didn’t taste as good upon reheating, which was a problem since I always quadrupled the recipe to minimize how much I cooked.

But the family ate them. The first time I made them, we sat outside in the summer, under the evening sun, the kids exclaiming how good they were, how we should eat these every night. They must have had 4 pieces each, more than they usually did.

And here, with this happy tableau, I should stop. Because if I kept going, I’d have to tell you that after a few months Alpha remembered that he doesn’t like bacon and stopped eating the bacon, peeling it off instead and giving it to his dad to finish off. Gamma, for some reason, decided to stop eating bacon as well. Then Beta suddenly realized there’s mustard in this and she doesn’t like mustard. So she started refusing to eat the chicken completely unless I made special mustardless batches for her. Which is what I did, as I was determined not to let this perfect recipe go.

My husband, meanwhile, was getting overwhelmed with bacon. “I can’t keep eating this much bacon every night!” he protested. “Can’t you make some batches without bacon for Gamma and Alpha?” I sighed, but agreed. At least it’d save bacon. I did this a few times, but getting the proportions right was tricky. I had to figure out how much of each chicken each person would eat. The properly made chicken would get consumed pretty rapidly since my husband and I both ate it. Then the baconless mustard chicken, being eaten by the boys, though that often varied depending on how hungry Gamma was feeling. Last was the mustardless bacon chicken. Get the proportions wrong and listen to whichever unfortunate child is stuck eating their personalized chicken for a week complain about it.

Finally, thought, I had enough. “You know what?” I told my husband. “I’m done making three separate versions of the same chicken recipe. If they don’t want to eat it how it’s supposed to be made, they can have stew!”

For, by this time, Alpha had decided he liked stew again. And I am through dealing with alterations to what should have been, and once was, the perfect recipe.


How to get by without a dryer

I don’t use a dryer. I have a dryer, but about 95% of the time it stands idle. I prefer to line dry my clothes. Whenever I tell people this, their reaction follows a predictable pattern. First surprise. “How can you do that with six people in the family? It’s so much laundry.” Next comes defensiveness. “Well, we could never do that. I don’t like the crunchy feel.” “It takes too much time.”  “It isn’t worth it.”

So I thought I’d take some time to explain how we make line drying work for us and why it’s completely awesome and you should do it, too.

First off, why should you line dry? Dryers are easy and convenient, it’s true. But they are also horrendously energy inefficient. So much so that the energy star program took one look at dryers and decided there wasn’t any point in trying to come up with an energy efficient standard. They use a lot of energy and there’s no getting around it. Even worse, you have to pay for this energy. So basically, you’re using a lot of energy and some money to accomplish something that will happen with just a bit of time and patience. Line drying is also more environmentally friendly. Looking to decrease your carbon footprint? Look into line drying. Additionally, your clothes will last longer if they don’t go in the dryer. All that lint in the lint catcher? That was part of your clothes.

So here are some tips on how to make line drying work for you.
1) Wear your clothes more than once.

When I was leafing through an IKEA catalog, I came across one of their “helpful tips.” They showed a chair with a pair of pants draped over it with the suggestion that customers do this to air out their clothes so they can wear them again the next day. I showed it to my husbands. “Americans will never go for this.”
“Why not?” he asked, puzzled.
“Because they don’t wear their clothes more then once. They wear them and they throw them in the laundry.”

“But that makes a lot of laundry!” he protested. “Why wash them when they’re basically still clean?”
Why indeed. But this is how Americans roll and this is why they have so much laundry. This is also what I used to do until I went to Germany for a year. After a few weeks with my host family, my host sister pulled me aside. “Stop putting your pants in the wash after wearing them once,” she told me. “My mom’s complaining that it makes too much laundry.” So I stopped. And I’ve stopped every since. In Germany, jeans can be worn until they’re actually physically dirty. Shirts as well, but it’s more common to switch those out daily.
Finns do this as well, but they take things a step further. They tend to wear junky clothes, like sweatshirts and t-shirts at home and change into ‘nicer’ clothes, like jeans or whatever, only when they go out. This keeps their nicer clothes clean longer, so they have even less to wash. Once my in-laws asked me to take a picture of their whole family together and I obliged. All of them are in sweatpants and t-shirts, except for my mother-in-law, who quickly changed into something nicer for the picture.
Since living with my husband, I’ve adopted his habit of wearing shitty clothes around the house and changing into nicer ones when I leave. My shitty clothes I can usually wear 2-3 days before they need washing. In the evenings, we hang them up on a chair to let them air out so we don’t smell horrible the next day. Most of our kids are too young to do this; their stuff gets dirty every day and we don’t try to arrange wardrobe changes when they leave the house. But Alpha is getting to the point where his pants can be worn more than one day at a time before they’re dirty, so we remind him to hang them up after he takes them off so he can wear them again.

2) Do your laundry in the evening or according to the weather.

In the winter, we use two drying racks we bought from IKEA to dry our clothes. These take up a lot of room, so in order to use them most efficiently, I wash the clothes in the evenings and Alpha and I hang them out before he goes to bed. By the time morning rolls around, most of the laundry is dry. After breakfast, I can take it off, fold it right on the racks and we put it away. No laundry baskets full of clean laundry waiting to be folded.
In the summer, things work a bit differently because I hang them on my rotary clothesline. I do one load of laundry before I go to bed. When I get up in the morning, I take it out, start the next one and hang them both up after breakfast. They usually dry within an hour.
In the summer, I also keep a close eye on the weather forecast so I can plan my laundry according to what the weather is going to do. I’ve noticed you need at least two of three factors in order for laundry to dry well outdoors:
1) Warmth. By which I mean 50F or above.
2) Wind.
3) Sun.
I consider 50F to be the minimum temperature for hanging clothes outside. While clothes do dry in freezing weather, I’ve never managed to make that happen before the sun goes down and once that happens, I no longer have two of the three. It’s also really hard to tell if clothes are dry when they’re cold. Rubbing them against your check helps.

3) Getting rid of that crunchy feeling.
This is probably the number one objection to line drying I hear. People just don’t like the fact that their clothes are stiff when they’re line dried. To that, all I can say is, “Kaikkeen tottuu, paitsi jääpuikkoon perseessä – se ehtii sulaa ennen.” You can get used to anything except for an icicle up your ass because it melts too quickly. In other words, you’ll get used to it. At this point, whenever I’ve worn clothes dried in the dryer I feel like they aren’t clean. Like I’ve pulled them out of someone else’s closet and they’ve already been worn.

 There are, however, some things you can do to minimize how stiff your line dried clothes feel.  A good rule of thumb is that the slower your clothes dry, the less stiff they’ll be. Shaking them out before hanging them up helps loosen the pile. It also makes them less wrinkled.

The last solution is the most labor intensive: iron your clothes. My host mother irons all of their clothes, even their socks and underwear. A bonus side effect is that their clothes are always very neat and nicely folded. But she used to get up at 5am to start ironing and would iron after dinner while watching TV. My host sister and I would pitch in as well. Germany is actually where I learned how to iron. At my house, we didn’t iron anything. If my dad needed to iron his dress clothes, he did it himself. But in Germany, ironing is common enough that my sociology teacher asked the class who did the ironing at their house and singled me out specifically. I stared at him blankly. “No one. We don’t iron.” He didn’t quite know how to respond to this, so he just moved right along. In Germany, however, I would go home after school and stand in my host sister’s room, ironing the clothes.

 My mother-in-law in Finland also irons everything. But she has an advantage over my host mother: she has a clothes press. You lay the clothes inside it, clothes it, and it irons them. It’s pretty nifty.
Using these methods, line drying is not only possible, it’s actually quite easy. It does take some time to adjust, so give it a try for about a month or so to see how you do. And let me know if you also make the switch from dryer usage to line drying.