Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The burkini, or who knew that my spring lesson wasn't over yet?

My ancestor Franciska is about their age and scowling in the 1893 photograph I project to my third- and fourth-grade students. 

“How do you think this girl is feeling?” Unhappy, angry, sulking, reply some of the students. They are right, and I explain to them why: It is a hot day—in the photo, she and other family members squint into the sun, and the grass below them is dried out. Franciska and her sister Rosika are in the photo; my great-great aunts. Their brother Bela, my great-grandfather, is lying on the ground, propped up sideways with his elbow, in short pants, and light polo shirt, holding a croquet mallet. He looks serious, but comfortable. Both girls are wearing long-sleeved, lacy dresses with high necks and tightly laced up boots. Rosika looks possibly resigned, or at least calm; Franciska, the younger sister, totally pissed off. 

Suffrage is the issue that kids usually learn about for women's history, but I tend to think out of the box. I wanted to show my students another aspect of women’s rights for a change. I began by showing my students photos of what women wore at the beach over a hundred years ago, and read them picture books about Amelia Bloomer and Annette Kellerman which presented the idea of dress reform, the 19th-early 20th century effort to allow Western women to wear looser, lighter, and more sports-friendly clothing. Ironically, the bloomers that were so controversial in Bloomer’s mid-19th century were considered acceptable as swimwear by the early 20th. But then Kellerman, an Australian swim champion, came along and changed that, too, with her one-piece bathing suit. In Boston in 1907, she got arrested for it. 

This shocked my students. Getting arrested for wearing a one-piece bathing suit? “But Amelia Bloomer and her friends got arrested, too, when they wore bloomers and dresses that reached ‘only’ their knees,” I pointed out. 

So, women have been getting arrested for what they wear to the beach for quite a while now. But in this day and age, who thought they would risk arrest for wearing MORE than what is required?

We always think of the historical changes in women’s wear as being gradually less, or more like what men wear. Bloomers to one-pieces-to-bikinis. Long skirts to knee-length-to-pants-to-shorts.

A nice, simple trajectory toward less, except that not every woman wants that. As I was reading and talking with my students, I was not, myself, wearing pants, shorts or short skirts like most of the girls were. As an Orthodox Jew, I habitually wear knee-length or long skirts, and I cover up somewhat at the beach or pool. I also feel more comfortable this way because I am overweight and fair-skinned. It’s still swim material, like a rash guard or scuba outfit - just more of it.

Also, I live in a fairly multiethnic area. As my students and I were discussing the issue of dress reform, I was mindful of the fact that South Asian emigre mothers of some of my students might also cover up to some extent — and I framed our discussion in terms of choice, not being forced to cover or uncover.  Personally, I wear what I wear and I don’t care what other people do.

I also realize it’s not a cut-and-dry situation - that women in Saudi Arabia have to cover their hair whether they want to or not, and that in the case of Jewish Orthodoxy, girls are raised to believe they must cover their hair once they are married. But we take for granted that a Western, secular society is supposed to be more free, say, than a country or run by imams. It's not a simple issue. I don't have a problem with covering up even more than I usually do when I visit, say, a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem, but I also don't like it when that neighborhood becomes the whole city. Or when an entire, supposedly secular city like Nice imposes its vision of secularism on its beaches.

In any case, what the so-called liberal French authorities are doing isn't particularly indicative of choice or freedomThe sight of policemen standing over women telling them to wear what even I would consider skimpy is deeply disturbing. I don't think it's an accident that, in the face of unwillingness to address the very real problem of terrorism, that the government chose a rather weak, ineffectual attack on women.

And it does nothing to counter the threat of terrorism. For security reasons, I don’t think women should be allowed to keep their faces covered. However, I would think that the women who are banned from French beaches because they can’t cover up,wind up feeling even less a part of French society. That kind of disassociation is more likely to lead to extremism against the West.

I hope my students recalled the dress reform books and discussion when they saw the news about “burkini bans” over the summer. I hope they remember the main point I tried to make - that dress reform was about choice, not force.

Knowing what I know about my great-great aunt Franciska, no doubt she was scowling in that photo because of the uncomfortable dress she had to wear on that hot day. And, I note to my students, she and her sister grew up to become not only suffragists, but also dress reformers. Franciska was very anti-religious and would most certainly have not approved of the burkini. On the other hand, she lived in a different age, when women weren’t judged by how good they look in a bikini. And she would most definitely not have liked the sight of those policemen standing over the women on the beach.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

It shouldn't be so difficult to find like-minded kayakers....

After a bunch of frustrating non-starters yesterday, I figured, if I can’t focus on anything now, at least I want to get out and kayak, which is a major de-stressor for me. I would go alone if I felt safe, but I am still too much of a newbie. Since my daughter is away, had every opportunity to go out kayaking this week, go away for a few days, and I couldn’t. The boat has been sitting on top of my car since Friday.

So, I overcame my usual social anxiety and posted on a statewide kayaking FB page I was looking for people to kayak in the area with - kayak owners, specifically, because of our flexibility in terms of where and when we can go. Currently, I only have one person I go with and I would like to widen my circle. 99% of the organized meet ups are on Saturdays when I can’t go.

I was quite specific—about not being available Saturdays but otherwise flexible. That I can go farther away, but would rather not all the time and I suggested some closer venues. Believe me, I have spent more time researching where to go than actually going, because I lack partners. I said I was looking for other kayakers in the area to go with on an informal basis. 

Most people had useless responses, things I already know about where to go. Or they’d suggest things over an hour away that I already know about. I don’t mind going to those places, but I was posting to look for people to GO with. One person said, yes, great—and she organized it for Saturday, the one day I can’t go! [[headdesk]]]

Finally one guy and another woman (he seems normal but she’s got all these wacko conspiracy theories all over her page including one about "international banker" takeovers and you know what that means) expressed interest for Friday, so we set it. And my friend and usual partner joined in - which fine, but the purpose of my posting it was to find additional people. So far, only the conspiracy theorist is the only one who confirmed it, so I begged out. Sigh. Why is it so hard to find local kayakers who I have something in common with??? I already feel socially uncomfortable, and being a fat kayaker who might not be taken seriously as a human being doesn't help.

Really, all I just want to meet a few people whose company I enjoy who also kayak, who I can just go with without an organized meet up. People I have things in common with. I go with a very nice group an hour away, but they don’t have open meet ups that often. Also, when you are with a formal outing, there isn't much time flexibility. You can't be spontaneous.

At this point I think I just want to get out there, even if I’m alone, just to get out on the water. I feel self-conscious and not very safe, but I'm tired of not going.  I was already frustrated that I didn't go as much as I wanted to in Puerto Rico. If I weren't so body-conscious and worried about safety, I think I'm better off alone some of the time, really. I can be out on the water all day as long as I am well-supplied with sunblock. But I don't want to be alone all the time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Unaffordable health care

It wouldn't be a plan if I didn't talk about money. In my love of breaking things down into subtopics, and sub-subtopics, I will refrain from talking about that elephant in the room but rather its spawn: HEALTH CARE. It's a pretty big expense in my plan to go solo.

Those of you who know me will probably stop here: "Oh no, a political post." Yes, it's political because it involves policy, laws and regulation. Please keep reading. This is one person's experience with the American health care funding system. Yours might be different, especially if you are working full time, but I suspect that my situation is pretty representative of what people on Obamacare are experiencing.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am glad we have the ACA, or its nickname, Obamacare. Without it, I would be on COBRA, which is an acronym when laid-off employees pay to continue the health plan they had when they were employed. 16 years ago, COBRA was about $300 a month for one person. That cost has since tripled, and I am supporting two of us.

The ACA provides a subsidy, based on income, to health care insurance premiums. If your income is low enough, you get almost-free health care: Medicaid or, for your child, the state Child Health plan (CHIP), a program which Hillary Clinton was instrumental in developing in the 1990s. ACA also prohibits insurance companies from refusing people based on their medical history, age, etc. It also enables parents to keep their children on their health insurance plans until (I think) age 26.

Now, ACA stands for "Affordable Care Act." What the law did NOT do was make health care affordable to the average person paying for it - the unemployed and the self-employed who support their families.

It is unaffordable in two ways. Firstly, the cutoff salary for Medicaid/CHIP is low. Because I was working for the first half of this year and presumably will get Unemployment insurance for the rest of the year, on paper it looks like I am earning an ok salary even though I am out of work for the near future. I missed the Medicaid and CHIP cutoff by only $3,000 dollars - as a result, I will be paying about twice that in premiums.

Also, because of the way the tax year fell (half a year full-time employment plus half a year unemployment insurance although next year I will have neither), my subsidy will be lower. My government subsidy (based on an income this year of $45,00) for a third-tier, Silver plan (they go by Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze) for the two of us is about $260 a month. I am paying the rest, about $420. This does not include dental or eye for which there are no subsidies, and does not cover much in the way of therapy. If I figure in our uncovered expenses, I wind up paying at about $650 a month. If I were on COBRA, it would be twice that, but still!

Next year, my income will be much lower because I won't have any more unemployment insurance and I will just be starting out as a new indexer, but my daughter will only have one year on Medicaid before turning 18, and after that she has to be insured again through private companies.

Also, because of the second problem (below), health insurance rates will be much higher.

The ACA leaves costs in the hands of for-profit companies - the health insurers and the drug companies. Not only does it make it unaffordable to begin with, but those companies have been gradually pulling out of providing ACA plans because their profits aren't high enough. The remaining insurers keep upping their rates - in fact they are now saying that come November, they will raise rates around 25 percent. So, assuming that after a couple of years I am earning enough to go back to an ACA plan, I will still be paying through the nose while earning, if I am lucky, $45K a year.

In Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Israel, there is universal health care and costs are contained by government regulation - their systems aren't identical but basically, they recognize that health care should not be a for-profit endeavor and that all citizens should have it. Insurance companies are so entrenched in the American system, however, that Obama came up with a compromise proposal: What is called the "public option." Here, they would be able to sign up for a government-administered program which would be non-profit.

This isn't revolutionary. Such a program already exists under Medicare and Medicaid, which aren't perfect but my parents' generation depends on it. However, the Republicans in Congress shot the public option proposal down, and Obama went along with it just to get ACA passed.

The excuse for opposing the public option is that it would require raising taxes or closing loopholes on the super-rich. Good. Tax rates for top earners need to go back to what the GOP used to consider normal. But would taxes also go up for ordinary citizens to cover universal, nonprofit health care? Yes, it would, but I don't ever hear Canadians or West Europeans asking to switch their way for our way.

In any case, here we have it: Unaffordable. High rates, low cutoffs for Medicaid, insurers pulling out or raising rates. The Republicans are saying: See, Obamacare is a failure. The Bernie Sanders Democrats are saying See, Obamacare is a failure. They are right, but for entirely different reasons, and with opposing proposals on how to deal with it.

Obviously, I am all for some form of public option. Like my previous post on vacation time, I note that my attitude is shaped by my experiences living and traveling in countries like Holland and Israel (and having Canadian friends) and other West and North European countries. One of my pet peeves is American voters who permanently live outside of the U.S. and aren't affected by its domestic policies and yet vote against public services for people who DO live here.

I was chatting with an old friend from outside the U.S. a few days ago on an unrelated subject. Being that she is also Jewish and in the divorced crowd--where there are a lot of angry, unemployed or underemployed men who think Trump will save them--she had been getting a steady diet of Obummer/Killary/Trump-as-messiah in her social media feed. She seemed to believe what they were saying. So I asked her about health care in her country. She raved about it, how helpful it has been for her - and recalled how horrible the American system was in that so many people didn't have health insurance.

I pointed out what most non-Americans would NOT know: That it was Hillary Clinton who spearheaded the move toward universal health care in the 1990s - and that she failed, except for CHIP, because of Republican opposition. That that opposition was the start of all of the conspiracy theories against her that persist today. That it was the GOP-led Congress has had no solutions to the country's failure to provide affordable health care, and that Trump (in addition to his other, um, problems) isn't any better.

I think a light bulb went off in her head. She hadn't known all that (and it's true, if you don't live here or of are a certain age, you wouldn't necessarily know).

So here I am, on an unaffordable plan, but I wouldn't want it to be dismantled. One of the chief arguments against the ACA was that it would result in people working less. I can say for myself that this is true. I would still be in a career that was killing my health, just to have health insurance, under the old way. Now, I can gradually train to and start my own business knowing that, even if it is expensive, we are insured. Supposedly, about a third of Americans are working freelance and/or own their own businesses. Tying good, affordable health care only to full-time, permanent jobs makes no sense in a world with fewer and few full-time, permanent jobs. American culture worships the entrepreneurial spirit, but you can't succeed in your own small business if you can't afford health care for yourself or your employees.  Even employees at behemoths like Wal-mart wind up getting public assistance. The American entrepreneurial spirit is stymied by the lack of affordable, universal health care.

There are many, many reasons to NOT like Obamacare. It isn't sustainable in its current form - there has to be a public option, loopholes have to be closed and/or it needs to be reshaped into a combination of government regulation and free-market like the Dutch have.

The case of another friend, an American who has been adversely affected by the ACA: She worked part-time for a company which, because of something in ACA, had to offer a plan. So they did. A really bad one which covers almost nothing. But her husband's company then enacted a rule that said if one's spouse has the option of another insurance plan, they have to take said spouse's plan (even, as in this case, it covers almost nothing). So keep her husband's plan for the family, she had to quit her job, thereby lowering their income significantly.

I told my dad, who said it should be the company that is blamed for this policy that hurts its employees. Okay, yes, but a change to ACA could put a stop to this. Either you demand that companies offer plans with decent coverage, or don't demand it at all. Or, if you have the public option in place, then you don't have to go with a company plan at all and still get a good plan.

One reason I'm glad Sanders ran was that he made it acceptable again to talk about the public option; he was not afraid to point out that health care is still not affordable for many. I'm not sure if Clinton would have put it on the platform otherwise, because ACA has put Congress in a state of ongoing hysteria, but she did. I hope she picks her battles, though. Right now there is a lot of talk about various domestic policies - paid leave, college costs, what constitutes a livable wage, civil rights. I realize that a platform should not be about one issue - although Israel ranks high on my list I am not a single-issue voter. But I feel like fixing the ACA and environmental issues are not being prioritized. To me, a healthy public and a healthy planet make for a positive world - and what happens in American affects that world significantly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August anxiety

It's that time of the year when I feel like my life is about to end again. By that, I mean that once August hits, I become aware that summer is well more than halfway over. A few years ago a good friend of mine, who started as a school librarian but changed to a different area of librarianship a couple of years later, said that the problem with working in a school is that you end up living for the summer. The other ten months, in other words, are so taken up by work that, at least for someone like me who has the habit of postponing to begin with, nothing but work -- school and book selling -- got done during the year. On top of that there were the almost-but-never-got-there Plus 30 classes. Anything health care related, anything form-filling-out related, relaxation related, social life, etc got done during the summer. So, by habit, by this time of year, I am starting to get that panicky feeling that "living" for 2016 will be over in less than a month.

A couple of summers I was away until right before school -- five years ago on our Hungary-Holland-Israel-Hungary trip, and two years ago in the Pacific Northwest, but usually, I was back from whatever vacation I was taking by the end of July, and early in August, dread would start setting in. It wasn't the job so much as it was the knowledge that it would be another ten months before "life" set in again.

I always felt I wasn't allowed to complain about this state of mind. The average American gets two or three weeks per year, and in the Jewish community most people have to take most or all of their vacation days for the Jewish holidays. But most people I knew weren't working two jobs, and at the end of the day, or at least on the weekend, they had a spouse at home to talk to, to help with, to plan things with. I didn't. For the majority of teachers --those who work hard as opposed to those who game the system -- the school year gets so intense that a lot of them have to take sick days just to grade projects, do report cards and fill out the ever-increasing paperwork.

Having lived in Europe, I saw how wrong the American system was, with few opportunities for time off. I didn't buy into it and I still don't. I'm not interested in a race to the bottom, where you work and work for mediocre pay and benefits and you don't have time to focus on your kids or yourself and your life just goes by. I don't know what is going to happen to me, all I know is what I am going to try to do, but the downward spiral of American way of life is not acceptable to me. I feel the familiar knot of August anxiety tying me up, and I have to remind myself that this time, I am not going back to work in a school. I am doing something else.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Almost at Plus 30 and not even a luftmensch

Last night I signed up for another post-grad course: Indexing theory and practice. I hope this investment works for me. “Investment” can be both helpful but can also be dangerous - keep one stuck in a bad place if one has invested a lot in it already. Stuck in a career, stuck in a relationship, stuck in a house. I have mistakenly invested in all three - I hope I am a bit wiser this time.

There are times I feel like I wasted the past 12 years and tens of thousands of dollars I spent as a school media specialist. I was only three credits from my “Plus 30”— the 30 post-MA graduate credits required to get a raise beyond my current levels. In my state, Plus 30 usually means an additional 3 or 4 thousand dollars a year. I came close about eight years ago, but made the mistake of taking my last two classes while going through divorce. It was too much for me to handle, and I didn’t finish either of them. When I switched districts, still paid at low levels because of the pay freezes of the past decade, I was determined to complete it. I needed three more classes. Three months after I started in the new district, I took a grant-writing for libraries course over the summer; in the fall, a theory course on classroom management which I was required to take anyway to make up for an error in my certification. So this summer, had I stayed in education, I would have taken my tenth course (iPads in Education was first on my list), thirtieth credit, and started with a raise this fall. 

Except I didn’t. The new grant writing skills went to waste as I scrambled to meet the absurd and sabotaging demands of my principal and, even aside from her, the ever-increasing duties and paperwork required in the profession. I had written a grant for my daughter’s school, but the administrator who was receptive to it is no longer there, and I have learned to just let it go. 

The classroom management course I took last fall, in a way, made my situation worse, as I kept trying techniques that I thought would make a control-freak happy. There’s a lot to be said for a “bag of tricks” to deal with various student behaviors. However, it did not help for me to constantly try to apply new tricks in the situation I was in. Being pulled in so many directions - what I thought was right, what she wanted or said she wanted, what the professor wanted, what other teachers wanted - was counterproductive and took me off focus. I couldn’t think or operate coherently anymore, at least internally, by the time I finished the course in December.

Seven months later, it still kills me that I came so close, and even years ago, to that Plus 30 raise. It would have made a difference to my pension and unemployment benefits, too. At the same time, it was that hope for a raise, and all the money and time (summer months, mostly) I put into it, that kept me in a profession I should have left years ago. So, I have to make peace with that time, and money. And I can use it to my advantage in indexing - I have learned and read and been exposed to enough teacher education material to give me expertise in indexing it, once I learn the indexing techniques. 

And I am signed up for my tenth post-graduate course after all, even though it won’t benefit me in a school system. I’m not even sure it counts as post-graduate credit, since it’s an “extension” course. 

I’m not what some derisively call “a professional student” — maybe what others would call a luftmensch, constantly taking classes and not trying to make a living. Although a lot of my post-grad classes were wonderfully interesting, my theory and procedure-oriented courses were not, they were more of a time-suck than useful. 

I’m not taking Indexing for fun—as I noted to my friends, it’s something that would probably put the average person in a coma. And it’s a financial investment as well as time - about $700 plus books. But having tried out indexing and its software with M1, I find that I like it. For me, creating an index is like solving a puzzle, filling in blanks in a searcher’s mind, putting myself in the shoes of a 6-year-old new reader or a 50-year-old scientist or a 30-year-old fact-checker or a 40-year-old traveler. I have always like helping people find information - whether it was for the purpose of travel, for reading, for research - and this is another aspect of it. I find some of my dormant skills waking up as I try it out. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Showing promise?

As many of my friends offline know, I made the decision to leave school librarianship about five months ago. I also wanted to see if I would do better for myself working on a freelance basis (topic for another post). Before moving on, however, I had to find a new profession that suited me - and the answer was indexing. It fit me to a T, but it requires extensive training and mentorship.

I taught myself basic use of Cindex, the most popular indexing software out there, and did my first index in the past couple of days. I wouldn't have done it without the straightforward feedback and encouragement of a well-known indexer, someone whose articles I read in grad school, someone I have never met. Now I understand, truly, what it means to want to pay it back, do this for someone else some day. That she even takes time out of her day to help a stranger (even one who, as she said, "shows promise") means a lot to me. I don't know if she thinks of herself as mentoring me (and really, I will need a mentor who lives closer to me), but in just a few days she has given me enough sound advice to make me realize that she is, at least for a few days, my first mentor. Let's call her M1. I'm going keep this post short now, because after three days of getting my feet wet, I have to spend today doing the dreaded mundane things--phone calls about my bad Internet service, doctor callbacks, appointments, packing books and bringing them to the post office (after stupidly reopening online bookstore when I said I would not), etc.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Addiction and distraction

For a week and a half after I returned from vacation, I have held out. I am only allowed to read books, not sell them. I have even limited forays to my best secret source to twice a week. But the end of last week found me in a diner two and a half hours from my home, having my first coffee at two in the afternoon with having ice cream for breakfast while two boxes of newly acquired, out-of-print and antique books sit in my trunk. I had bought them in the saddest mall in America, in old mining country. 

The hardest thing for me to do at the moment besides the surge of health care,  unemployment and high school paperwork—and even the smallest bit of paperwork is like pulling the blinds down over my brain—is NOT to revert back to obsessively selling books.

Bookdealing is how I have kept my head above water the past few years as my teacher salary dropped. It has also given me the means to spend the next few months training as an indexer rather than being broke. However, if at present, I spend time on the books, then I won’t spend time on the indexing courses. I won’t spend time taking care of the house, now that I am home. I won’t spend time even creating my own business and its website.

I know myself. I could easily spend day and night working on book scouting, listing and selling. That has been my life the past few years. I would go to my "real job" as a school media specialist, come home, and work on listings. I was always working except when I would take off a few weeks in the summer It wasn’t just the money, because the money isn’t THAT good (if it were, that’s all I would do). As my work in education became less and less satisfying, less survivable, bookselling became my key source of independence and self-respect.

The fear of the unknown I face now makes it tempting to do what I already know and neglect everything else. Because, who knows if I will be successful or not as an indexer, with all of its marketing requirements? Who knows if anything will pay decently within the realm of my degree in library / information science, given the instability in the publishing world?  

To prevent myself from taking refuge in the bookselling obsession, I keep the online store “closed” for most of July. I make a pact with myself not to even look at any books, even though I now have a phantom-like backlog looming over me from inside two cabinets, under the piano and filling the library cart my mother picked out of her synagogue's bulk trash when they renovated. For these ten days I diligently take care of health matters, paperwork, cleaning house, etc. I celebrate my 50th. 

Two days later, like an addict, I am back to my old tricks: I am at a book sale. Not only that, but it's not even, as they say in Dutch, vlak bei (nearby). It wasn’t that I feel a need to work on the books. Wading successfully through other matters made me realize how important it was to keep the books on the back burner for now. I am at this sale more out of curiosity than out of need.

This is the thing: At some point I will be returning to the books, and in fact, expanding the business. One of my sources is book sales. There aren’t many big ones in the summer locally; the two July ones occurred (both on the same day) while I was in Puerto Rico. All week, in between thinking about my birthday, I was quite aware that two large, annual sales were going to be held, respectively, the day after and two days after that.

I haven’t been to either sale, and neither has my father--for here dubbed DAD as in The Daddy of All Dealers. Although driving distance, they aren’t that close by, but if I’m going to be expanding my biz eventually I want to know if they are any good. I don’t want to wait another year to find out. One of them is almost four hours away, and I’m definitely not up to going. The one the day after that is 2.5 hours away.

I almost don’t go, but at 6:30 a.m. I find myself lying awake in bed thinking: Might as well. It’s so last minute that I don’t even have coffee and breakfast: If I were doing this properly, I would have left the house at 6 a.m. so that I can be close to the head of the line well before the sale opens. Just in case it’s a good one.

So I’m running late. But my expectations are low. It’s not near a university town, or run by WASP-y ladies. But the number of books they advertise they will have gets me going, even if now I am going to arrive after it opens.

Part of it is, admittedly, my need to escape again, even for the day. I have spent the last week doing paperwork, catching up on doctor appointments and organizing house. My brain has shut down, offended at having been forced to do so many mundane-yet-oh-so-overwhelming tasks. But I can do book scouting in my sleep, and driving in rural areas relaxes me. 

What I don’t realize until I get to one very large town, is that I had seen that area a few years ago while my daughter was in sleepaway camp. At that time, I spent several days going as far as I could go into the rust belt towns with their hopeful antique centers. It was new country to me and it was true, the antiques were cheaper. Through another, more southerly route, I had eventually passed through this area, these towns with their identical main streets of attached, soiled white aluminum siding homes with black-railed front porches, boarded-up shopfronts punctuated by the occasional diner, bar, auto mechanic or antique shop. It was a weekday, and few people were in sight: Was this because just like in that 1980s Tom Cruise football star movie, all the young people wanted to leave - and had left? Were the streets empty because it was only aged parents left inside them? The houses are nothing to look at, but they aren’t abandoned, and the rows of them, and rows behind them, and rows behind those, indicate that once there was a reason to build them. Once these towns were somewhere you could grow up, have a social life, get a job in. Now, I don’t see much of anything resembling a business. If there is any economy—and there very well might be—it is, like mine, on the Internet in someone’s house, not in a storefront or office.

It looks even worse when I arrive at the mall. “Code of conduct” warning signs are posted on the entrances. The automated doors don’t work. Two anchor stores remain, almost all of the small ones are gone. There’s a cell phone store, a pizza place and a hot dog place.  

The only cheerful thing in there is the security guard who leads me to the empty Gap where the book sale is. I am even less cheerful when he tells me that, before the sale opened, the line snaked all the way around to where I came in. I am dismayed: These people are buying the books that I would have gotten my hands on if only I had woken up half an hour earlier. After about ten minutes inside, I realize that they are not my competition: They are there to buy books to read, not sell. At least 90 percent of the books are near new or for other reasons not of value (books on gardening, crafts, remaindered biographies, outdated editions of textbooks, etc). Even the “vintage” table is mostly cheap 1940s novels that look collectible with their dust jackets, but actually don’t sell for much. Now my librarian-ness kicks in: I am happy that so many people out here want to read. I have satisfied my curiosity. I will not be back next year. 

It’s not like when I am at a good sale: There is no reason here to move with the speed of light; I do not need to go into octopus mode. But I am here, so I spent about an hour picking out a book here and there. I’m pleased when I recognize some good finds. It isn’t worth coming back, but I’m not going to lose money on this. 

This blog could easily be devoted just to my book-dealing adventures, but I don’t want to give away my secrets. Besides, it would become like the book-dealing itself, a temptation away from the other things I have to write about, like making a livable career after after 50. But I will say something here: When you are at a mediocre or bad sale (especially after all that driving effort), it is very tempting to see value in books that have none. You so desperately want to come home with more than a couple dozen books. It’s like going on date and you don’t like the guy at all but talk yourself into seeing him a few more times. You grab that book on the artists of Provence, thinking how beautiful it is, how specific in its title, the quality of the plates. You want to buy it, but you know that it is not long out of print, and the chapters are short, not scholarly. You put it back. You think of all of the math and science books the Daddy of all Dealers has given you to sell; could it be that those 1920s geometry books have value? No. You have tried to sell similar ones before without success. Back it goes. That antique, 6-volume music reference set? That will sell, but I doubt it’s worth paying $3 per volume. I do ask, but they won’t bring down the price as a set. I put them back. 

You have to remind yourself over and over again that $3 per book is not worth a guess, because the “misses” add up to a lot of wasted dollars.  You can’t even look up the not-sures on your phone, because the battery has died. You have to be as good at guessing as you are at the high-quality book sales where there is no time or room to look up something on your phone. You wish there were more books in that room worth reselling, and you fight the urge to take more that are on the iffy side. You go through your bags, put a few iffy’s back on the tables. In the end, you come away with 40 books. That not reason to drive so far again. 

A teenage volunteer helps me cart the books to my car. On the way we pass what used to be a large store space; it is now occupied by a call center. (I think to myself; wow, a call center that isn’t overseas). I ask him about the near-dead state of the mall. “There’s one up the road, they’re better than this one but not doing so good, either, he says.

I sigh, thinking of my daughter the same age. “Where I live, when I grew up, going to the mall was what we did for fun,” I say, then wonder where my wistful tone came from. I have always disliked this aspect of where I live—that it was one of the few things to do in the 80s and it’s still true. My daughter, just last week, overdrew her bank account at our nearest mall. But at least she had something to do. Where do these rust belt kids go or do? I think my answer might be stereotyping, so I shut down that thought. A few hours from here, at the Democratic convention, various politicians are trying to answer it, too. 

I start the drive back, taking my time now. After an hour, I reach the large town I recalled from several years ago. This place is not one to forget, with its massive city hall piled upon the highest hill, its “Union Station,” a department store with a Jewish name in 50s script, its 19th century statue of someone, on a white column cut into a hill, churches of at least eight denominations, two of them Eastern Orthodox. It is a place that could not have existed without its satellite mining towns. The city was probably depressed to, but not as obvious at first glance, and it is as pretty as I remembered it from a few years ago. It is there that I finally stop for coffee at a diner, and it had been so many years since I had diner coffee that I forgot how good it was. I read articles on my phone while sipping, the last one a New Yorker one, feeling the, no pun intended, the iron-y of reading the New Yorker in this long left-behind region. 

After I get home, I look up the value of the books I have bought. Better than I thought. My reason for going—to answer that question: Is it worth going back again or not—has not been answered. Like so much else I am facing, I am not sure. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a writing challenge began...

It's not Wednesday (that post is in reserve for tomorrow), but I do want to post this right away: My new blog is part of a challenge created by my old friend and former writing partner in Budapest. He moved there permanently; I lived there for a few years in the 1990s. We worked together at various writing and editing jobs, drank together (he knew how and I didn't) and did the usual Expat-who-wants-to-be-Hemingway thing on a regular basis: Wrote and critiqued each other in a coffeehouse (in this case, The Astoria). I'll call him The Dream Warrior, as he calls himself on his blog.

The Dream Warrior writes, on his blog: "We agree to posting on our blogs at regular intervals, let's say weekly. We announce to people that we're doing it, and then there's social pressure to maintain the blog. If you don't publish on the appointed day, then you're not only letting yourself down, or not living up to some lofty ideal, you're letting down a friend whose face you'll have to look into when you explain that you didn't live up to your mutual expectation."

Now, I can't literally look my old friend in the face if I don't post at least weekly; I haven't seen him and his family since my last trip to Hungary five years ago. But Dream Warrior has a talent for jerking me back into common sense with that wise-old-man-who-never-gets-old mien he has possessed since I met him in 1992. So he can be thousands of miles away and it will still be his voice going "Hmmm, well," his eyebrow raised, if I don't keep up.