US$1 Trillion and Counting…?

It was always a foregone conclusion that I would attend university. But, I must be one of the only people amongst my friends who didn’t graduate from university or graduate school with crippling student loan debt.

Despite an early career as a ‘professional student’, which included an extended period spent ‘finding myself’ and finishing my undergrad (1988-1993, spent at two separate institutes and with enough credit hours to have at least three majors), a Master’s (1994-1997), and just shy of a PhD (1997-1999, with a few extra semesters still on the roster spent in absentia), I didn’t take out a single student loan. Not one.

To be completely transparent, from my third year onward as an undergrad, I worked at least part-time and had help (particularly with tuition fees) from scholarships and/or my family throughout. My entire graduate education tuition was provided for through assistantships and fellowships, and I was paid as a teaching or research assistant (at times very handsomely). I worked hard; and I played hard. But, I had no debt of any kind at the end of it all. Even the credit card debt I’d wracked up when times were leaner were paid off by the time I left the halls of the academy for ‘the real world’.

I am a rarity in the US evidently.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across graph from a study carried out by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), which included current college loan debt by age range and was astounded to see that a healthy percentagee of those in their 60s still had outstanding balances from their college days. A healthy 5.3%, in fact. That amounts to nearly 2 million individuals in their 60s! Think about that. You’d expect that an individual would graduate university sometime in their early to mid-20s. Then, get a job straight away, work for 30+ years, and then they still have student loan debt? How is that possible?

I well remember peers of mine in graduate school tabulating how much their education had cost. One such peer had a PhD from NYU, one of the leading schools in his particular field. Because teaching jobs at the time were few and far between, he could only get an adjunct teaching position, which meant he was paid about the same as I was as a first-year PhD candidate on a fellowship and assistantship. His student loan payments were double his rent and car payment combined, and he lived in a shit hole. Another friend who had completed his Master’s and was a brilliant archaeologist and historic preservationist had something like US$70 000 in student loan debt upon graduation. Finding jobs for them was more about survival than what they were necessarily trained to do or enjoyed doing.

According to the same study carried out by the FRBNY, student loan debt in the US now tops both outstanding automobile loans and credit card debt, and has been estimated at US$1 trillion. That’s staggering. Granted, that balance isn’t shouldered by one individual nor even one generation as the graph above shows. But, still. With roughly 37 million individuals (or 15.4% of those who have debt of any kind) collectively carrying that debt, that’s a heavy burden to bear.

From my relatively privileged position of not being saddled with crippling student loan debt, it’s easy for me to say that I fully support an education system which is free to all. Recent graduates have plenty enough to worry about—securing a job in their chosen profession, developing their careers, etc. For those who happen to marry and/or have children at the same time, which is perfectly within their rights, why add the burden of student loan debt to that list of concerns? Furthermore, shouldn’t we as a society want to see our citizenry well educated and trained, equipping them as much as possible with the tools they need to succeed in their professions?

If knowledge is power, why do we make it so difficult to gain a body knowledge? If it’s inherently better to teach a man to fish, why charge him with interest to learn to do so?

Surrealistic Pillow, pt. 1

Surrealistic Pillow, pt. 1

My dreams lately have been … unbelievably weird. Not frightening. But, just truly odd.

So, I thought I’d try a little series to look at over time. This might just peter out to nothing. But, it might also provide comic relief.

Today’s dream:
I’m in Moscow and trying to get .. somewhere. Not quite sure where. First, I have to navigate some sort of strange set of obstacles to find my bus. One such obstacle was insanely high and consisted of what I thought were bound bales of hay but ended up being old Christmas trees packaged very tightly. The only reason this was apparent was because of the newer and fresher ones that had just been added to the gigantic mound. (I didn’t actually get over this obstacle in my dream but obviously managed to since I eventually found the bus. The last of my dream that was focused on this particular vignette had me trying to get over it and tumbling back down to the ground when I lost my foothold.)

Moving on…

I’m on the bus. This was not a typical bus for Moscow. For one thing, the bus was spotless and didn’t smell of pickled cabbage or piss. And, it was shiny. It was more like a the inside of a bus in Amsterdam. The other difference was the people. They were… friendly. Not chatty by any means but certainly smiling and looking generally alright with the world and others in it.

As I’m happily enjoying a bus ride in Moscow (definitely not something I can say I ever enjoyed doing in Moscow), I then realise to my horror that I’ve missed my stop. All the ladies around me realise this as well and offer knowing looks of sympathy and words of support and encouragement as a lug my stuff to the exit.

When I get to the exit, I see this drunken, soiled man sprawled on the steps leading off the bus (doors still closed and bus still moving) mumbling incoherently (and obviously enjoying the mother of all benders) with a half opened, very large can of red salmon caviar next time, into which he is sticking his hand and helping himself to bits of ikra. (Insert big gigantic ‘what the f…?’ here.)

The babushkii standing around quite openly judging this poor soul encourage me to use the other exit and, wait for it, apologise for their drunken countryman. I run to the exit at the back of the bus where the nice, supportive ladies are and exit the bus to the sounds of ‘it was nice to meet you!’, ‘good luck, girl!’, and ‘safe journey!’ (I don’t think anyone ever spoke to me other than tell me to get out of their way or to ask what the next stop was in the 8 years I used public transport in Moscow.)

I get off the bus and find myself in the middle of a Finnish woodland.

Things that make you go, ‘hmmmm’.

Homage to the Annoying Bird of Spring

The first signs of spring in the far North are not green shoots peeping through on their way to becoming tulips or daffodils. Nor are they the green buds of new leaves popping out on the long-barren trees. Nope. We await the first calls of what we have come to know as the ‘annoying* bird of spring’.

When we lived in Moscow, some time in late February as the days grew noticeably longer and the sun finally peeped through the clouds after months of darkness and persistent snowfall, we would hear the call outside our flat. Our first reaction was invariably, ‘Was it…? Could it be’?! Then, we’d hear it loud and clear and know that all would once again be right in the world and the snow would eventually stop falling. The call was annoying in its repetition. And, annoying because we had no idea what the bloody bird looked like. Try as we might to find the annoying bird of spring upon hearing its signal of hope, we failed.

When we moved to Helsinki and landed our lovely flat in a wooded area with plenty of birds about, we were delighted to discover the call of the annoying bird of spring once again after one of the hardest winters we’d ever endured. It wasn’t so much that winter was colder than Moscow or that there was more snow; it is simply infinitely darker than anything we’d ever thought possible. The sound of our old friend delighted us no end, and told us we had survived. Spring was on its way finally and the darkness would give way to sunshine, green leaves and the long days of summer.

Yet, we still were unable to see the owner of that annoying, yet welcomed call year after year. ‘We hear you’, we would cry to our friend. ‘But, what do you look like?!’

My darling husband in particular has been obsessed with discovering the identity of that great signaler of spring. As his obsession was reaching epic proportions, I heard the most delighted shout, ‘I found it! The annoying bird of spring! Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’

Thanks to the a series by the BBC, Lolo’s Secret Life of Birds, and after close to five years, we’ve finally discovered the identity of our fowl, feathered friend.

We give you, the great tit.

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The incredible irony is that on any given day, many of these lovely little creatures can be found perched on our very own balcony greedily claiming their treats from our bird feeder. A few days ago, I looked out and there were no less than seven of the cheeky little buggers sat along the railing!

All this time, what we assumed were finches were in actuality our beloved annoying birds of spring! To us, the great tit will always be the annoying bird of spring. And, its song will always bring a smile to our faces. But, its nice to know its true identity.

*NB: We don’t actually think this bird is annoying in any way. In fact, we love this bird and its song in particular.

Hope Where There Is None

For more than eight years, Moscow, Russia was my home.

As cliche as it is, I learned more about myself in that time than I ever thought possible, met amazing people along the way, and discovered a place that had been mythological in my post-Cold War imagination. As a child of the ’80s, Russians were ‘the enemy’. At moments during my stay there, they took on that persona to a tee. However, that was the exception, and I loved my life in Moscow and wouldn’t trade any of the time I spent there. So many individuals welcomed me as the ‘silly American’, and I miss the daily interaction with them despite the difficulties inherent in contemporary Russian life.

Perhaps that’s why it pains me to hear of how little things have changed in the five years since I left. Russia has the dubious distinction of being one of the few remaining countries in which the HIV epidemic continues to expand. What’s more, it has occupied one of the worst of all statistics as the country with the fastest growing epidemic in the history of the global pandemic. That is not an accolade any country should aspire to and most governments would take action to remedy it quickly.

That hasn’t been the case in Russia. In fact, the opposite holds true.

Primarily fueled by the sharing of unclean injecting equipment and compounded by one of worst tuberculosis epidemics in the world, the Ministry of Health has maintained its hostility towards ‘Western’ or ‘foreign’ evidence-based practices and prevention methods which could save a generation of young Russians and prevent the further spread of HIV. Many small-scale local-level projects were funded not by domestic sources by but international agencies such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Distributing clean paraphernalia and informational materials on safer sex and drug use, providing counseling and social support services to those who had no where else to turn, and delivering training seminars to local-level healthcare professionals to introduce international experiences and human rights-based approaches have helped immensely. Yet, as obvious as it might be, Russia is huge and reaching every corner without governmental support is impossible. Furthermore, as the funding from international sources has dried up, many of those local-level initiatives have had to close and left a gaping hole for those least accepted and cared for in Russian society.

It’s quite simply heartbreaking.

Much of our news in the West focuses on the Russian elections. However, there are many other unheard stories, both of unimaginable determination and heroism, as well as of tragedy and despair. The Andrey Rylkov Foundation has made it their mission to work towards a humane and just approach to drug use and fight for the rights of those who most need it, and listen to and respond to those most ignored. Engaging with drug users, they provide harm reduction services in and around Moscow. They also work to highlight the extreme positions of the Russian government towards drug treatment and harm reduction strategies which have been proven to help prevent HIV. Spend 20 minutes from your day and watch this video about what they do and why.

Is there hope? There must be. Is failure an option? Not really. Life in Russia is not easy. But, working with individuals who are considered social outcasts, undesirable, and many perceive the best solution is to simply ‘let them die’ is unimaginably difficult. But, it’s well-worth the struggle if it improves the conditions for even a few individuals at a time.

So, as insignificant as it may be, I just want to thank Anya and all those who continue to do this type of work. Keep fighting the good fight!

Family is family…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the composition and meaning of family recently.

For me, it has always been those who I know I can count on when things are very bad at a particular moment and those who share my joy at the happiest of times, my sorrow at the darkest moments, and the mundane for everything in between. For me, despite the distance between me and my biological family, I know they are ‘there’ and hope they know the same holds true for me. Obviously, my husband has been my daily family tie since we fell in love, and his gigantic family has welcomed me with the warmest of arms. But, my ‘family’ has also consisted of ‘my tribe’—a small group of several individuals whom I love and who love me back unconditionally in that way that only families can. None of this really has to do with any specific identity or sexual preferences. The most important qualification is love. Simple, honest, persistent love.

My pontification of ‘family’ recently has been more related to politics (of course) and how others find it so simple and necessary to define the meaning of ‘family’ for people they do not know. I’m a fervent supporter of marriage equality for all, largely because I see the desperate sadness of those who are denied that joy of defining their family for themselves. I also find it unconscionable that there are individuals who find it so repulsive. Largely, I’ve found that those who object to same-sex marriage are the very same individuals who deride LGBT rights in general because of the ‘promiscuous lifestyle’ of gay men whilst dismissing extra-marital affairs of their own as irrelevant and a ‘private matter’. Nevermind that there are plenty of examples of gay men and women who have been in decades-long relationships with their partners and never had an affair. Not that it is anyone’s business but that couple’s.

I don’t understand preventing couples in loving, committed relationships from enjoying the same legal rights as heterosexual couples vis-a-vis a recognised civil union. If a church wants to prevent it, fine (although I find fault with that as well). And, if the couple’s only ‘difference’ is that it is a same-sex couple, who is it hurting? Not the gay-bashing homophobes, surely. If they are concerned with examples of solid, loving and life-long relationships — e.g., preservation of ‘the family’ — why prevent two individuals who have lived together in good times and bad from publicly declaring that union and granting it the same legal protections?

I don’t get it.

Perhaps that’s why initiatives such as The Devotion Project are so incredibly important. Quoting their Facebook page, ‘The Devotion Project is a series of short documentary portraits of LGBTQ couples and families, chronicling and celebrating their commitment and love’. Couples and families.

The third video in their series, ‘Listen from the Heart‘, follows the lives of the Fitch-Jenett family. And, what a family it is. You need only listen to them to hear their devotion. Watching it and seeing the love and commitment is not only a shining example of how families should be, but should thaw the heart of even the staunchest opponent to same-sex marriage.

Simon is an incredibly lucky boy. If more children had parents as devoted to him and to one another as his are, the world would be an infinitely better place. And, many a heterosexual couple would do well to learn from their example.