The Importance of Ability

January 15, 2013

I haven’t blogged in a while.  To be more accurate, I haven’t blogged in nearly a year.  We all know how it is with New Year’s resolutions.  It works out well for a few weeks, then real life comes roaring back with a vengeance, and most of the resolutions we vowed to keep are lost quickly.

I’m not making a resolution this year to blog, but since I have time now to blog, I may as well write something to fill this space.

My topic today is about being disabled (or differently abled, if you prefer).  For the last four years, I have had lower back problems.  About once a year, my lower back will spasm out of control to the point where I can’t move because my back has stiffened up on me.  The first time it happened was when I was at school, and the pain just increased over the day to the point where I couldn’t sit down and I could barely get up and off of a bed.  Since that time, I’ve been to physical therapy twice, I’ve taken a back class from my HMO, I’ve seen a chiropractor a few times to manipulate my back, and I’ve been in the ER to get an IV of Valium to loosen my back so I can drive home. 

The first time this happened, I wasn’t sure what was going on.  I hadn’t injured my back, and I’d never really taken Ibuprofen for muscle aches before.  Since that time, I’ve learned that I may have back problems for a few years as my hips and lower back muscles re-align with physical therapy exercises that I do for about 45 minutes every morning.  It’s a depressing thought that this problem will be around for years, but it’s a great motivator for getting to the gym every morning.

Recently over my holiday break, my back hurt again.  This time wasn’t nearly as bad as before.  Only one muscle spasmed in my back, and my back felt stiff for about a week (instead of three or four).  I didn’t pass out from the pain (as I had done in the past) and I was able to get out of bed from the first day to start my recovery.

Despite the fact that my back may be getting better over time, it’s still a scary thing to be incapacitated at any level by an injury.  When my back hurts, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “What if this is it?  What if this is the way you will feel for the rest of your life?  How will you live life now?  Can you adjust, adapt?  Will you be a different person?”  So far none of this pain has been permanent, but it’s definitely an insightful experience.  I can empathize with those who have to answer these questions for real.

So, how would life be different if I had severe back pain every single day?  For one, I probably would have to work from home, not only because sitting up for hours at a time at a desk would be painful, but I probably would also need drugs on a daily basis that would have severe side effects like sleepiness.  Getting anywhere would be difficult.  The seats in my car would need to be changed since the cupped design of my seats actually increases my back pain.  I may not even be able to sit up straight when driving (if my medications would allow me to drive), and I probably couldn’t use public transportation since walking to the bus would be difficult and sitting in bus seats is even more painful.  I wouldn’t be able to lift anything heavy, so I’d need help with groceries, and taking my cat to the vet.  I couldn’t do anything that required me to sit on the ground or sit on my knees for more than a few seconds at a time (as I learned when my friend had to help me put my IKEA furniture together).  Although I could probably still go to the gym, I would be relegated to the reclining bikes, which I had to do for two months the first time I hurt my back.  I could no longer play tennis, and I would have to give up most of my volunteer activities as they require lifting and pushing heavy carts.  Although each of these may seem small (although I would argue none of them is small), taken together, I would be a different person if my back injury never healed.  I’m not sure who I would be instead, and it’s difficult to think about.

I’m currently part of a group of people that meets each work to talk about issues of diversity.  This experience has helped me realize the importance of ability and how those with different abilities have to approach the everyday activities most of us take for granted.  In that sense, having back pain has been a valuable experience for me to see how others live.

As a public worker, I feel that I should clarify some misconceptions about being a public worker.  In full disclosure, I did not intend on being a public worker.  I have worked at two universities as full-time staff.  After my first experience working at a university, in which budgets were already being cut (even before the recession), hierarchical management structures abound, and risk-taking with new ideas is not common or encouraged, I went back to school for further training in a technical field.  When I finished with my second masters degree, I was unemployed for six months until I was hired by another large, public research university.  Although my experience is more positive the second time around, I feel a lot of stress about my job knowing that I am not paid my market value, my salary has been reduced about 8% since I started over a year ago, and the university is experiencing pay freezes for the foreseeable future.  I stay because I like the people I work with, I find the work I do interesting, and, honestly, I am not sure I would have the level of responsibility I have now in a private-sector job.

A few months ago, a colleague at work posted an article about public sector employees and unions.  You can read “America’s Public Sector Union Dilemma” by Lee Ohanian of The American at http://american.com/archive/2011/november/americas-public-sector-union-dilemma.  Although I do not have a firm opinion one way or the other about unions (I think they have good and bad points) in either the public or private sectors, I felt this article is misleading as it groups all public employees together.  The data is often from 2010 or earlier, which for many places such as Wisconsin (where I live now), may not be as relevant with policy shifting on a weekly basis because of the recession.  In addition, the article does not coincide with my experience in both the public and private sectors (I have worked both full- and part-time in both sectors).

Below I have provided arguments against many of the statements made in the article.  I admit I do not have data to back up my claims like Ohanian has; many of these observations are from first-hand experience.  However, such experiences should be discounted for generalized data as first-hand experiences paint a more detailed picture of what is happening at the micro-level while the data more broadly describes general trends across the country.

  • The author lists the higher job security of public-sector workers, but this is not necessarily true.  Funding for state public sector jobs is determined by state officials, primarily legislatures and governors.  When the state budget is reduced, as has occurred in recent years in nearly all states (this author cites the current economic conditions that make the supposed job security of the public sector worth more now than in years past), pay and jobs are cut in the public sector.  At least at this time, there is no more job security in public sector jobs than in private sector jobs (and possibly less job security, depending on where you live).  Some have argued that the reason the recession continues to affect all workers is that public workers continue to be laid off as state budgets tighten.
  • If the problem with the public sector is competition, and the lack of it attracts unions, it is not clear that getting rid of unions would increase competition and help make public-sector wages closer to private-sector wages.  There will never be a lot of competition for some public sector jobs because the reason the public sector exists is that these are services that the private sector would not provide for everyone, regardless of ability to pay, or could not do so cost effectively.  Public sector jobs that have little or no competition in the private sector include building infrastructure like roads and telecommunications or research universities that make a significant amount of money from grants (often provided by the federal government) to research ideas that may never lead to a profitable product or service (think cancer research in which much of the research assists in understanding the disease but has yet to find a cure).
  • Although the author notes that many factors may go into public and private sector pay (see Figure 2), since these are not parsed out, it is also not clear and not fair to assume that unions have anything to do with public pay being higher.
  • Also, there are far fewer public sector positions than private sector positions, with less variability.  Since many public sector jobs require some education but many private sector jobs do not, it is not fair to compare average wages in the public and private sector, especially not in making an argument about unions that represent less than a third of public sector workers.  Private sector jobs include many more minimum wage jobs such as retail, food service (restaurants and fast food, for example), and car cleaning, jobs that are either non-existent or scarce in the public sector.  Public sector jobs include many that require higher education, including universities with professors and experts such as economists, statisticians, and other researchers that often require at least a masters degree, if not a Ph.D. or post-doctoral experience.
  • To actually make the argument that public sector unions are increasing wages, a fair comparison would be to take the average wages of the jobs that are found in both sectors and determine if public pay is really higher than private.  It would also be fair to list the benefits given to each sector.  In my experience (and it is limited to working in four different universities in four different states), public sector workers receive lower pay than they would on the private market and sometimes receive better benefits, but those benefits are quickly disappearing in this recession.  For example, in Wisconsin, public workers now have to pay for part of their healthcare and their retirement accounts.  I recognize that many private workers have had to contribute for a long time to these benefits in their companies, and Wisconsin as a state was not typical in paying wholly for these benefits for its employees (in fact, it is the only state I have ever worked in that paid completely for these benefits for public employees).  However, most private employees have not had their pay frozen for many years (I do not want to name states, but I know of university employees in one state who have not receive any sort of pay raise (including a cost-of-living increase) for at least five years).
  • Private sector employees enjoy some benefits not enjoyed by public sector employees that are not mentioned in the article such as no government-enforced caps on salary (which is my problem), no government wage freezes (also a problem where I work), the ability to negotiate pay privately and have that pay remain private (anyone can find out how much I am paid – it is public knowledge and I had no ability to negotiate that salary even though I tried).  I admit that in my experience, when lay-offs occur in the private and public sectors, they tend to occur much faster in the private sector than the public sector, most likely due to how positions are funded and state law.
  • The case studies are a nice way to show how unions can go wrong, but without the data to back up the argument that these case studies are typical and not just outliers, it is hard to see how they fit into the article.
  • As far as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is concerned, with California’s prison overcrowding, it may be that prison guards do deserve more compensation because they have to work with more prisoners in tighter quarters which can lead to more violence and problems within the prison system than if the prison population was at normal levels.  It is abhorrent that the prison guard union would fight against treatment for prisoners, especially in light of the fact that the Supreme Court has told California to resolve prison overcrowding, forcing the state to lighten sentences and release prisoners early, many of whom are not ready for release and should be receiving treatment or be behind bars.
  • As far as the teacher union example, this does not relate to economics, though it is a common problem across the nation.  In recent years, the government has focused on changing teacher evaluation and compensation with several federal and state grants and many people are involved (including school and district officials and unions) with creating more rigorous evaluation systems and pay based on merit rather than seniority or education (which have been shown not to highly correlate with student outcomes).  However, these systems are only in the beginning stages of development and many problems still have to be resolved in the process.
  • I completely agree that in order for unions to survive, they have to work with other members in their industry and community instead of working against them in order to survive, though I would give this advice to anyone, not just unions.  Collaboration and cooperation are usually more efficient and useful than the alternative, regardless of the context or circumstances.

Now that I’ve established myself to some extent in my new city, I signed up for a dating web site to meet new people.  I’ve talked to a few different guys in the last couple of months and I’ve met one of them offline.

For most of my adult life, I have worried about having a boyfriend.  I’ve been on a few dates, but I haven’t had a boyfriend in over 10 years.  At first I thought I didn’t have a boyfriend because I was different from everyone else.  Then I thought it was that guys were intimidated by me (bolstered by my mom’s thought that being an independent woman can be intimidating for men, but that they should learn to deal with it).  Sometimes I’ve thought it was because I wasn’t a cute, petite, blonde girl.  At other times I figured it was because I’m shy until I get to know someone, a bit of a wallflower at parties, and I don’t talk a lot in large groups.  Now I’m starting to wonder if it’s that I don’t have time.

In the last few days, two guys I’ve been speaking to have asked me out.  Unfortunately, because I have a busy schedule this month, I can’t meet them until at least next week.  One of them has asked me several times if I’m as busy all the time as I purport to be now, and it was hard for me to answer him.  Sometimes my life is very busy, but most times I think I have just the right amount of stuff to do.  In the winter I wasn’t doing much of anything because it was cold out and because I was new to the area.  With spring finally here, I just want to go outside and walk, bike, or play tennis.  I’ve started volunteering and I attend cultural and community events when they interest me.  Does that make me too busy to date?  And if it does, what does that say about me?

I’m not sure if I’m too busy to date.  I suppose if I found someone who had their own interests that they were involved in regularly, my schedule wouldn’t seem so busy.  I’ve come to the conclusion that if I seem way too busy to some guy that I’m dating, then he needs to get a life and/or he needs to like being alone most of the time because I really don’t want to change my life for one person.  That may sound disingenuous to some people, that I’m not trying hard enough to fit someone into my life, but that’s how I’ve always been and I like being that way.

Not enough great things are said for being single.  I never have to answer to someone else.  I don’t have to discuss my decisions with someone else.  I never have to worry if someone else spent all of my money (except, of course, for identity theft).  I don’t have to take into consideration someone else’s needs, wants, and feelings when I do something.  I can travel whenever I want to wherever I want.  I can stay with my friends, whether they are women or men.  I can talk about any aspect of my life with anyone without worrying that I’ve given away information about my mate’s private life. I don’t have to worry about disagreeing with someone or a potentially messy break up.  I don’t have to plan my life around someone else; I get to do pretty much whatever it is I want to do.

I love the freedom of being single; I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up.  Dating is about the give and take, but it’s also about accepting a person for who they are, and I’m a person who likes to be doing something most of the time.  So I say, take it or leave it.

The Groundhog Day Blizzard

February 2, 2011

I woke up today believing that I had a snow day only to find out per the Internet that I was supposed to report to work if possible or take “appropriate leave.”  Fortunately, my office allows us to work from home, and I have accrued so much overtime this week that I only have to work a couple of hours today to avoid taking vacation.

However, I’m discouraged by the fact that the university that I work for has required all employees to report to work if possible even though city and state government offices are closed for the day, city buses are not working, and the state has declared a state of emergency for the region.  In fact, we are still under a blizzard warning for two more hours today and have been advised to stay off the streets all day, if possible.

My question here is:  What are the priorities of the University?  This is a question not just directed to the university that I work for but also to American society in general.  Why is it so important for workers to risk their safety to be at work?  I understand that snow days have economic implications, but is putting people’s safety in jeopardy worth the money lost in a snow day?

I was just speaking to a friend on the East Coast about the blizzards her region experienced in the last few weeks.  Many people were angry that cities didn’t clean up fast enough, that roads were hampered, and that airports were shut down.  Why is it so hard for us to stop one day?  Why is it not okay that nature is still something we can’t control and we just have to deal with it as it comes?  For being a culture that prides itself on its flexibility, we’re very inflexible when it comes to nature.  Getting angry at the weather isn’t really an effective strategy to cope with it.

There seems to be a disconnect with what we profess to believe and what we actually believe when the situation requires us to make a decision.  Perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities and realize that when we say safety is first and foremost our priority, it really is our first and foremost priority, regardless of the circumstances.  I may not be going into work today, but I will be working from home knowing that there are many people who may have put their lives in danger today trying to get to their offices during the blizzard.

I’ve had quite a few little surprises lately.  Nothing life shattering, mind you.  In fact, probably nothing that will change the course of my life, but surprises that make me feel just a little bit better knowing that there are literally millions of people around the world who were born and raised in the same era that I was.

So, what are these surprises I’ve happened upon?  I’ve come to realize that there are many famous people that are my age.  This shouldn’t be an earth-shattering realization, but who I’ve figured out is my age and what they’re doing now in their late 20s and early 30s gives me hope for my generation, not to say I’d lost that hope.  It’s just hard when you’re still young to convince others that you’ll make something of yourself since most people don’t achieve their prime until at least middle age.

I already knew that people like Macauley Culkin (born August 26, 1980) and Chelsea Clinton (born February 27, 1980) are my age.  But I recently learned that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (born February 17, 1981) and Jake Gyllenhaal (born December 19, 1980) are also my age.  One of my side hobbies is looking up information about the actors and actresses I see in films and television.  I recently saw 500 Days of Summer and Love and Other Drugs as well as an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal talking about his upcoming 30th birthday, so I thought I’d see who else was our age.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a list of more famous people that are 30 (or nearly 30):
Christina Aguilera (born December 18, 1980)
Jessica Alba (born April 28, 1981)
Giselle Bundchen (born July 20, 1980)
Nick Carter (born January 28, 1980)
Hayden Christensen (born April 19, 1981)
Zooey Deschanel (born January 17, 1980)
Eliza Dushku (born December 30, 1980)
Danielle Fishel (born May 5, 1981)
Ryan Gosling (born November 12, 1980)
Michelle Kwan (born July 7, 1980)
Matthew Lawrence (born February 11, 1980)
Eli Manning (born January 3, 1981)
Thomas Ian Nicholas (born July 10, 1980)
Chris Pine (born August 26, 1980)
Christina Ricci (born February 12, 1980)
Jason Ritter (born February 17, 1980)
Ben Savage (born September 13, 1980)
Jason Schwartzman (June 26, 1980)
Jason Segel (January 18, 1980)
Jessica Simpson (July 10, 1980)
Justin Timberlake (born January 31, 1981)
Wilmer Valderrama (born January 30, 1980)
Venus Williams (born June 17, 1980)
Elijah Wood (January 28, 1981)
Ming Yao (born September 12, 1980)

Another year has begun which means it’s time for new year’s resolutions.  Although it’s already January 4th, I thought I would commit my resolutions to writing this year in the hope of actually accomplishing all of them by year’s end.

1.  Learn to cook at least 10 Indian dishes. Cooking has become one of my hobbies, even though I’m not very good at it.  I have yet to try Indian cooking, and since I love Indian food, why not give it a try?  At the very least, if the dish doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to, it will probably still be pretty tasty.

2.  Write at least 5,000 words a week. I was writing before I got my full-time job, which explains the scant blogging in the last few months. My goal while I was writing was to get 1,000 words down on paper every day, but with a job, that might be difficult (especially if I’m writing a lot at work, too).  Thus, 5,000 words a week seems like a fair compromise.

3.  Edit the novel I wrote for a complete second draft. This is part of the writing that I started doing in the summer.  I wrote an entire novel in two months but I’m not sure how to go about editing it.  Fortunately, I found some great books at the library from Robert J. Ray targeted toward the “Weekend Novelist” that discuss how a book is organized and how to use that schema to edit a novel.

4.  Try to limit my self-critical jokes and comments. This resolution isn’t quantified like the other ones, so it may be harder to keep.  I tend to make fun of myself a lot.  I think it’s funny and I want people to understand that I may appear stuffy and uptight, but I’m really funny and don’t take everything too seriously.  However, I’ve had quite a few friends tell me that I sound like I have low self-esteem and that it makes me seem like I’m not an awesome person to be around, so I figured I’d better start presenting myself more the way I see myself so that I don’t scare off other people.  And if my psychology degree serves me well, not talking negatively about myself might actually help my self-esteem.

5.  Volunteer and donate to charitable causes. Now that I’m no longer in college (at least for the moment) and have a steady income, I figure I have to start giving back to society.  I’ve already started exploring volunteer opportunities in my new community and am thinking about donating to National Public Radio and ASPCA (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the organization with the sad animals on its commercials), which I donated to during Hurricane Katrina.

6.  Call and email my friends more often. I have a few friends I call quite often (quite often for me, that is, which amounts to a call every 2 or 3 months), but I have other friends that I think would appreciate a phone call or two this year as well.  For some reason I just don’t like talking to people on the phone, so I end up Facebooking or emailing people that I probably, honestly, should be calling.

7.  Watch at least two Netflix movies per week. This may sound like a silly resolution to most people, but it’s hard for me to dedicate time to watching movies at home.  I’ve had a Netflix account for over 3 years now, and I’ve probably only regularly used the service for 6 months of that time.  To make my Netflix subscription worth it this year, I’d better start catching up.

8.  Read at least 40 books from my bookshelf. I have a massive collection of books, and most of them I have had for over 10 years.  This year I’m going to dedicate myself to reducing that book collection a bit, if only since some of them are already antiquated (for example, my American history textbook from before 2000 or the biography of Hillary Clinton written before she even ran for president).

9. Learn to knit. I’ve been meaning to learn to knit for years; I even bought a “Learn to Knit” kit about 5 years ago and have never opened it.  Now that I have some free time to be crafty, this seems like an appropriate resolution.

10.  Blog at least once a week. This blog has been neglected long enough.  Because I have more free time now, I shouldn’t have any excuse to prevent me from putting my latest thoughts in writing.  And who knows, maybe I’ll come up with a theme for my blog this year through all that weekly writing.

Happy 2011!

Two days ago I had a milestone birthday.  I turned 30.  And today I had a milestone event.  It was the first time I told someone that I was 30 years old.  When the interviewer, working on a campaign survey, asked for my age, I hesitated a moment remembering that I had just celebrated my birthday, but I debated which birthday it was.  I blurted out “30” after a few seconds of consideration, realizing that I might be forgetting how old I am now. "30" road sign

Nearly the whole time I was 29, when I would talk about my age, I would always say, “I’m nearly 30….”  I forgot most of that year that I was still in my 20s and hadn’t quite crossed the threshold of the 30s.  It’s almost like I just wanted to get on to the next number so I could say a nice even number when people asked about my age (note:  I think I’m getting old enough now that people should stop asking how old I am and I should stop advertising my age in conversation).  Now that I am facing the next decade of my life, I feel it’s a good time to look back at what I accomplished during my 20s and plan what I want to do next in my 30s.

I feel bittersweet about my 20s.  On one hand, I accomplished a lot in that one decade.  I conquered my fear of flying, studied abroad twice, and completed four degrees.  On the other hand, I had my first and only heartbreak, have moved from one place to another nearly every year, and never really took hold of the whole working mentality.  Overall, I have to say that I accomplished a lot in those 10 years, much more than I had intended.  I’m not even sure what goals I had for my 20s when I celebrated my birthday 10 years ago.  I probably just thought about finishing college.  I might have been thinking about studying abroad already, but I hadn’t restarted my Spanish in college yet ( I had stopped taking Spanish after the requisite four years in high school).  Past that, I’m not sure I could plan out my future very well.  I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life; in fact, I could barely decide on one major (which is how I ended up with three by the time I graduated from undergrad).

What do I want to do next?  This is a hard question for me to answer because in many ways, I’m still stuck where I was 10 years ago trying to make a plan for my life.  I honestly still don’t know what I want to do.  I’ve tried a few things, figured out what I don’t like while finding a few things I did like.  However, I can’t decide how to put all the things I like together in my life and still make a living doing it.  For example, I absolutely loved studying abroad, learning Spanish, and writing a thesis doing language research.  I kind of liked teaching, but I really can’t imagine myself teaching Spanish 101 year after year just so I can do the research.  I can’t decide where I’d like to live, but I can’t embrace the idea of being a nomad my entire life either.  I’d like to own a house some day, but I don’t know where I want to settle down, who I want to settle down with, and what I’ll be doing to pay for that house.  So much is up in the air right now!

This could be a good thing, though.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. worker will change careers 7-10 times in their lifetime.  I’ve already changed careers four times, if we count my education and full-time jobs.  Right now, having just graduated from another master’s program, I have the freedom to use my education to change my career yet again.

Because I can go any number of directions in the near future, my main goal in my 30s will be to establish some stability in my life.  This might mean figuring out what I want do with my life — or at least what I’d like to do for some number of years, who I’d like to spend my life with, and where I want to buy my first home.  I have a decade to accomplish these very broad goals, and I intend on having fun and learning a thing or two while I’m at it.  C’est la vie!

Weather-Obsessed

July 24, 2010

I am obsessed with the weather.  I think about it constantly.  I can’t go through an hour without thinking about the weather — how it is right now, what it will be like in 5 minutes, how it will change my day, whether I need to change my plans because of the weather.  I can hardly start a conversation without making some remark on the weather.  “What great weather we’re having today” or “It looks like it’s going to rain soon.”  When I am in an unfamiliar place, I like to highlight the odd weather we have in the Midwest such as blizzards, tornadoes, flooding, and extreme temperatures.

I only realized that I was weather-obsessed last night when I received a call to complete a survey on local news stations.  Some of the questions asked about the weather — which channels I preferred for their weather coverage, how important weather coverage was to my news viewing habits, how I would like to the weather presented during the newscast (within the first five minutes, as a five-minute segment in the middle of the news, as a recap at the end), and if I could name any of the newscasters on the channel I prefer (I couldn’t, but I could tell the interviewer some of the nicknames I have for them).

What is this addiction to weather all about?  I think there are several factors to consider that might explain my weather obsession.  First, I come from the Midwest.  In fact, I don’t just come from the Midwest, I have lived in Tornado Alley, that stretch of the Great Plains that is infamous for having more tornadoes than any other part of the United States.  Midwesterners like to talk about the weather because it changes constantly.  In Nebraska (and probably many other states), the saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather right now, wait 15 minutes.”  The Midwest in and of itself is not the most interesting place to live, but the weather makes us unique and, thus, a great conversation starter.

Second, in many cultures, especially in the United States, the weather is a safe topic to discuss.  If one is waiting at a bus station or in a grocery line and wants to make small talk with the stranger beside them, all they need to do is make a remark on the weather for the conversation to get started.  The weather is a safe topic to discuss because a) we all live with the weather, even if we never go outside; b) we all have an opinion about the weather, and most of the time our opinions concur, and c) it doesn’t matter what we think of the weather, none of us has the power to control it.

Third, the weather is ubiquitous.  Everywhere on earth has weather.  The fact that it varies from place to place makes it interesting to discuss, especially as an explanation as to why people in a particular region live the way they do.  For example, when I lived in Spain, I initially thought that all the houses were white because it was cheaper to paint them white than some other color (like white washing fences).  However, it turns out, that because Spain is slowly becoming a desert, it is hot and dry, so the white houses reflect sunlight and cool the interiors, which is a good thing since most Spanish homes do not have air conditioning.

Perhaps if I were from somewhere else, I might not be weather-obsessed.  Maybe it’s a mark of my Midwestern roots.  Or maybe it’s a sign of good social skills.  Whatever the reason, you can guarantee that at some point while I’m watching TV or surfing the Internet, I’ll be checking the Doppler radar and the weekly forecast so I have something to talk about later.

I completely admit I’m a Lostie.  I only got into the show about two years ago, when I was living in Texas.  One of my friends at work lent me the first few seasons, and I was hooked.  About a month ago, I watched the series finale with the rest of the Losties in the world, and I wonder:  Why do we have to know what Lost means?

I have had my own theory about the island throughout the show.  I think the survivors were in purgatory.  I don’t think Jack dies at the end of the series, but I do think that he has found his own peace so that he can move on from purgatory (his peace is figuring out what he thinks he was meant to do, whether or not that was really what he was meant to do).  However, I’m not stuck to my theory.  I’m not sure I’m right; in fact, I don’t think the writers intended just one interpretation of the events on Lost.  I think they wanted Lost to mean whatever it needs to mean for each person.  For this reason, I think the series finale was perfect.  The events are open to interpretation while giving some closure to the island and the lives of the survivors.

The bigger question to ask, however, is why we need to figure out what Lost means.  Is this a common phenomenon around the world?  I would theorize that perhaps it depends on the culture.  Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which include power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation, may help explain why we need to know what Lost means to us.  Clearly Cultural indexes several countries around the world on uncertainty avoidance, the willingness of a culture to live with ambiguity.  A higher score on the uncertainty avoidance index means that a country is more willing to accept ambiguity; a lower scores signifies that a country is less tolerant of uncertainty.  The United States ranks in the lower half of the index.  We are not comfortable with not knowing the answer, and I think that is why we have to find some meaning in Lost.

I admit that it would not be fair to the series if fans did not try to discover some significance behind the characters and goings on of the show.  But I think we may have gone too far when we create sites like Lostpedia that explain every detail of the show.  I imagine once the entire series comes out on DVD in August, with all of the special features explaining the connections among the characters and the events, that the Pandora’s box of Lost theories will reopen.  Maybe, instead, we can call a truce and just enjoy the show for what it is — a story about airplane crash survivors just trying to live one day at a time, like the rest of us.

For more information on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions:
Clearly Cultural
Geert-Hofstede.com

I was listening to Phil Collins on the radio today (to save face, I also listened to U2 in my car, to which this topic applies as well), and as I’ve noticed many times before, he often sounds like he has an American accent when he sings.  I think many British singers sound American when they sing, although there are a few exceptions to that (for example, the Beatles, or for a more modern example, Lily Allen, often sound British).  I have always wondered why this is.  Are these singers really changing their accent, or is my interpretation of their accent different when they sing than when they talk?

Searching through several different forums online did not help me answer this question.  Some people claim that singing allows the singer to elongate vowels, so it is difficult to pinpoint the singer’s accent, though I don’t completely buy this because many of the vowel differences between British and American accents do not have to do with the length of the vowel sound.

Many explanations mentioned that British artists have been heavily influenced by the United States, especially those who sing rock and roll and pop.  I also don’t buy this explanation because, first, I am sure those who live in the United Kingdom listen to a lot of British singers whom we have never heard of on this side of the pond.  Second, Americans are also influenced heavily by British people, though I’m not going to pretend the proportion of songs coming from Britain to America is even close to the amount exported by the United States.

The dumbest explanation I saw is that there is no “American” accent or “British” accent, making the question ignorable.  Although this person is technically correct — there are many different accents in the United States and the United Kingdom — there is a standard (perhaps more than standard, an educated) accent for both countries.  In Britain, there is the “queen’s English,” though whether British-sounding singers follow this dialect is beyond me.  In America, we have a standard American dialect, which most actors use in movies unless their character comes from a region with a distinct accent (New York, Boston, the South, etc.).  One proof of this standard American accent is the accent that foreign actors use when they play Americans in movies (for example, Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in “Avatar” or Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in “Twilight” and “New Moon”).

I have no theory of my own to answer this question, but I imagine the reality is a mix of both perception and change in accent of the singers.  I notice that American singers often change vowel sounds, for instance, “me” sometimes sounds like “may” (Brittany Spears does this a lot, as do many other teen pop idols).  Perhaps this change is perceived as a different accent in other English-speaking countries?  Also, I know it is not common to pronounce the “r” at the ends of words in songs, so that “I’ll be there” sounds more British than American.  In the end, I think the change in accents (whether real or perceived) makes music interesting.  I love being shocked to find out a singer is really British (or Australian, or South African, etc.), and I enjoy analyzing the accents I hear, in music and in everyday speech.  How boring the world would be if we didn’t have different accents!