Wednesday, February 01, 2017

California: The Little Big Dog

When we met Moo, we thought she was 10 months old, and would top out at 45-50 lbs. This was about six months younger and 10 lbs. heavier than we'd intended, but once we met her, there was no question: this was (and is) our dog.

She'd had a kind of a tumultuous life up to that point. Rescued off the street at just three weeks, she was fostered out by the animal shelter, adopted by a family with not one, but two toddlers, and then re-fostered by a neighbor when they just couldn't keep up with a puppy. That neighbor worked at my mom's vet, so my mom saw the posting and knew we were looking to adopt a dog. The rest is Moo-story.

Perhaps because of that early life, or maybe it's just her personality, Moo is a paradoxically rambunctious but careful dog. We knew from her history that she was social with other big dogs, but didn't know about smaller ones. The first time we encountered a family with a couple of cocker spaniels out on a walk, we learned: she just ramped everything down. Her go-to move for small dogs was to roll over and let them conquer her. They've always been her best friends.

Presently, we examined her paperwork from the shelter more carefully, and learned she was SIX months, not 10, when we adopted her. She didn't stop at 50 lbs., or 60, or 65... her most recent weigh-in was 75.2 lbs. She is a BIG DOG.

Except, she's not.

I've come to realize that she is absolutely sure she's a small dog. She's never tried to jump on our bed, or take food off the table. She will sit on the couch... but just with her back legs, forepaws on the floor. She will do the same with a person's lap if it's on the couch. And when our little dog, a Shibahuahua weighing in at a scrappy 11.6 lbs., decides to lie down in the middle of Moo's crate, she just looks at us all sad, like, "Where do I go now? There's no more room for me. She took it all." It's not even in her repertoire to kick the dog that is literally 15% of her size out of her own crate.

Deep down, she just doesn't believe that she is the size she is, that she has the strength she does.

As a California native, I'm proud of our progressive environmental regulations and our diversity and inclusiveness and our thriving industries. I'm proud of being a world destination, and love showing off Los Angeles to anyone who visits me. I'd be proud of our awesome weather, but I guess that'd be a little weird, since no one does anything to make that happen.

But it baffles me that we seem to be a little big dog. Here we are, with an economy larger than France, with 12% of the US population, the two largest seaports in the country, and the busiest cargo airport in the country... but when someone gets in our crate, we just don't know what to DO about that.

It's time we realize how big we are, how strong we are, and how much we are worth... to the nation, and to the world. Only then do we have a shot at demonstrating that value to our allies or enemies. And that is what will let us stay strong, vibrant, and thriving.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hard Work

American culture tends to assume that people who have a lot—of money, power, stuff, whatever—work hard for it. Maybe they didn't at first; maybe they started off with an advantage... but they have to work to keep it and grow it. And that people who have little must be lazy.

This assumption has deep roots in the Puritan ethic that played a huge role in founding our country. The Calvinists who believed that their fates were predestined and completely unaffected by their actions still saw success and prosperity as signs of their favor from God. And, although their fate after death was already written, they did not seek to anger God by frivolous activities and self-adornment; their asceticism meant that their hard-won profits were re-invested in their livelihood.

But today, while we have shed that asceticism and instead revel in pursuit of worldly signs of wealth—nice cars, big houses, designer clothes, or even less conspicuous consumption such as constantly climate-controlled houses or lights on in every room—we retain the notion that affluence is a sign that you are favored by God. Even if we don't consciously understand it this way, we still implicitly assume that those who have, worked for it; those who lack, deserve it.

We've entered a Bizarro world where, not only do we assume that wealth requires hard work, we actually rate the hardness of work based on the wealth it generates. We think of “flipping burgers” as easy, even as we watch people sweating over fryers, running back and forth to fill orders, and taking flak from abusive customers with a smile on their face. We think, “I would never want to do that.” and yet, we consider it “easy.” We don't think it's easy because we have any reason to think the work itself is not hard to do, but merely because it is low pay. And then in a strange tautology, we think the work should be low-paid because it is so easy.

Consider how hard is the work of a megacorp CEO sitting at a desk larger than my son's bed, in an office larger than the typical American living room, with an en-suite bathroom and multiple assistants for various tasks? To be sure, CEOs do work hard. They often work 60+ hours a week, evenings, weekends, travel away from their family, manage meetings with very powerful people and millions of dollars on the line. Their work is stressful. But when they are taking home millions of dollars per year, how do we compare that to the “hardness” of their work?

On the other hand, consider a man who wakes at 4 a.m. to get ready for his first job. He showers quickly, dresses in worn but rugged clothes, and reports to a shuttle point by 5:30 to go to a far-flung construction site. By 7 a.m., he's doing heavy lifting and working with tools that can maim or kill if used incorrectly. As the sun rises in the sky he starts sweating. The dust kicks up and sticks to his brow. He gets a half hour for lunch, and an occasional bathroom break; he knows they're supposed to give him two 15-minute breaks on the clock, and he knows of union jobs where that happens, but he's never been able to get one. Here, he's an “independent contractor,” hired as a temp with no benefits, no paid time off, no job security. Keep your head down and don't complain; you're lucky to even have a job.

He comes home at 5:30, showers, grabs a bite to eat, and leaves for his evening retail job. If he's lucky, it's in a tipped establishment and he can smile and accommodate his way to more money. If he's unlucky, it's again temp work, seasonal, could end at any moment... and an inconsistent number of hours stocking shelves, ringing up customers, and trying not to take it personally when people yell at him for not being able to meet their every unreasonable demand.

Meanwhile, he barely sees his spouse and children. That's who he's doing this for: working 60+ hours a week at low wages, so that his spouse can work a more flexible job and sometimes show up for the kids' holiday programs and school open houses. But 80 hours a week doesn't cut it anymore for a family of four. If they are compensated for 50 weeks a year (because in jobs at this tier, you don't get vacation time, and sometimes don't even get sick time), at 80 hours a week, at an average of $10/hour (nearly 40% higher than the Federal minimum wage), after payroll taxes they've got about $3,000/month to pay rent (that's not enough income to get a mortgage), buy groceries, put gas in a car or buy a bus pass, pay utilities, buy clothing and school supplies, pay for after-school care, and handle any other expenses that come up – such as a $2,000 emergency room visit or a $4,000 blown head gasket in their 12-year-old car. Health insurance? Savings? Laughable—every dime is spent the second it comes in.

Who works “harder”? That's a ridiculous question; the work isn't remotely comparable. They both work hard. But does the CEO's vastly higher compensation actually cause him to “work harder”? At some point, does more money actually get more product?

Now we've elected a President who definitely “has.” His home glitters, his name illuminates skylines. He travels in the rarefied circles of world leaders and business magnates. He's famous for being rich, and rich for being famous. He can lose $916 million in one year—enough to give every Pennsylvanian in poverty $550—and just keep on chugging.

Does he know what it means to work hard?

Many of us assumed he did. We assumed that it has to be hard work to maintain that empire. But the more we get to know him, the more it seems that he doesn't ever actually do that work himself. Intelligence briefings are boring—go meet with Kanye. Let's take a phone call from Taiwan; it's too complicated to understand why that pisses off China. Rather than finding people with impeccable qualifications and distinction in the relevant field, let's just pick our friends and colleagues, or their spouses, to fill our Cabinet. It would be too much work to do otherwise.

We need to change our understanding of work, and hard work, and how it relates to assets. We need to remember that farm work is hard. Caring for children is hard. Preparing safe and appetizing food is hard. Stopping fires is hard. Chasing down criminals is hard. Cleaning offices is hard. Constructing new buildings is hard. Mining coal is hard. Managing a store is hard. We ALL work hard. We ALL deserve to be able to come home after 40 hours a week, know that there's enough food, that our housing situation is stable, and spend time with our children and partners free of stress and worry. This isn't a rural issue or an urban issue. It's not a white issue or a black issue. It's not a coastal issue or a plains issue. It's not a Boomer issue or a Millennial issue. It is a human issue.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sushi Cake

When D4S1 was turning 7, I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. I've made all their birthday cakes myself (except that one year that my best friend was in town and did it for me), because we found out when he was nine months old that he reacted to wheat. So I needed to know... chocolate? Vanilla? Carrot? Peanut Butter and Jelly? I didn't give him a prepopulated drop-down list, I figured he knew what the choices were.

His response was, "I wish there was a way to have a sushi cake."

That was not in the universe of things I thought he might say.

I asked for more information. "Do you mean a cake that looks like sushi, or a cake made of sushi?"

"A cake made of sushi!" he responded with enthusiasm.

"You know, I think I  could do that."

And so I did. I pressed a layer of rice into a springform pan, then added a layer of fillings, and kept doing that. And it worked!

Every year since, we've done the same thing. I've gotten pretty good at it. This year, R8S2 asked for one for his 8th birthday.

For the Cultural Potluck at the end of this past school year, D4S1 said he wanted to bring sushi. I reminded him that we are in no part Japanese. This did not dissuade him. I decided that, given its relevance to our family's particular culture, sushi cake was an acceptable contribution. While I completely failed to get pictures of them, I made two smaller cakes... one with fish and one vegan. I figured that sixth graders would be shy about consuming raw fish. I was wrong; that one reportedly disappeared in short order, while there were leftovers of the vegan one. Lesson learned.

I've now made nine different sushi cakes in all. It takes me about 45 minutes to do the actual assembly and decoration, but there's some prep work with making the rice and slicing the fillings. 

People ask how I do it. It's not terribly hard, though having the right equipment helps. Here's the rundown...

What you'll need:
Sushi rice (regular short-grain rice can work too, but sushi rice is finished slightly differently)
Rice vinegar
Sea salt
Sushi fillings (vegetables, fish, whatever you desire)
Seaweed for decorating (optional)
Large bowl, preferably wooden
Rice paddle or other similar implement
Springform pan (I have never tried doing this in a regular cake pan. I really don't know if it would come out.)
Wax paper

What to do:

Make Sushi Rice

   4 cups Sushi Rice (uncooked)
   water sufficient to cook

Cook sushi rice per instructions. If you have a rice maker with a sushi rice setting, that works great. If it's a Zojirushi, that's 6 of the little cups that came with it (which are 2/3rds of an American cup).

Mix together:
   1/2 cup Rice Vinegar
   3/8 cup sugar (6 tablespoons)
   2 tsp. sea salt

until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

Dump the rice into a large bowl (a wooden salad bowl is great for this), and pour over the vinegar/sugar/salt mixture. Mix with a rice paddle or large spoon until thoroughly integrated.

While that cools a bit, chop up your fillings of choice. Our favorites are cucumber; avocado; sashimi-grade salmon,  yellowtail, and tuna; salmon roe; and shrimp (butterflied). If you choose to use raw fish, make sure you are using a source that is intended to be consumed raw. Use anything you like in sushi... crab meat, cream cheese, tamago, tofu... it's all good. (By the way, the shrimp come already cooked and butterflied that way in a frozen package from the market where I get all my sushi-specific stuff. I have no idea how to make them look like that.)

Take a 9" springform pan and cut a circle of wax paper that fits pretty well in the bottom.

Using a rice paddle or something similar (maybe a rubber spatula or something? I haven't tried other tools), press a thin layer of sushi rice into the bottom of the pan. I used to use my hands for this (get them wet first, so the rice doesn't stick to them!) but the paddle gets a tighter layer. Press it allll the way to the edges-- you want the edges really tight so your cake looks smooth and round (and doesn't fall apart) when you take it out of the pan. The layer shouldn't be more than a quarter-inch thick-- the thinnest you can do without being able to see the wax paper through it.

Add your ingredients in a radial pattern. This is something I've refined over the years-- at first I'd just line them up across the pan, but that makes the cake harder to cut. So I started arranging them in a radial pattern and that works much better.

More recently I've used even smaller pieces:

Now, repeat until you've filled the pan:

Next, turn it over onto your chosen cake platter:

I have another piece of wax paper here as sort of a doily for the base. I'm not good at making doilies out of wax paper. See, sushi cake does not require any great general artistry or craftiness.

Next remove the sides of the springform pan:

 And then the bottom:

This was when I was still figuring out how to line the pan. Now that I use the wax paper, it comes out like this:

Next you decorate. This is really just a matter of arranging things in an artful pattern on top. But this year, I actually cut letters and numbers out of seaweed to put D4S1's name on it:

The Sushi Cake has developed quite a bit over the years. My first year, this is what it looked like:

 I tried lining the entire pan with seaweed. It made sense in my head. It doesn't work that well.

For his 8th birthday, I used rice molds to try to make it cuter:
...but the seaweed REALLY doesn't work well on the inside of the pan. It just kinda melts.

I started to get that by year three:

That was, you'll never guess, his 9th birthday. After that, he said, "Mommy, will you please put the salmon roe inside the cake too?"

...but they're still fun to decorate with some.

By the fifth time, I was starting to get the hang of it:

And then this year is when R8S2 asked for his own:

Saturday, September 05, 2015


An unemployed cat posted on social media that the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.1%, showing strong recovery.

A commenter noted:

"Most unemployed lost benefits long ago and are no longer counted among the statistics or percentages. Makes 'unemployment' look great when in reality it's not."

That is an oft-repeated point, and so I found myself curious about it. I looked at the labor force participation rate over time on (it's impossible to find by navigating the site, and there's no direct link, but if you google labor force participation over time you get right to it).


The graph at the left shows the rate from 1960 to now. The first mark on the Y axis is 60%; the top of the scale (which we never quite reached) is 67.5%.

Overall, participation went up steadily (with a few bobbles) from around 1970 to 1990. This is the period when women were entering the workforce in larger numbers (or just refusing to leave when they got married/had kids). It peaks, but only gently, around the dot-com bubble, and starts sliding downward right about 2008, when the bottom fell out of the market. 

So yes, labor force participation has dropped off since the crash, and in a steady way that certainly looks like people basically "aging out" of the tally.

But there's one further factor to consider: the population pyramid.

  The bulge of the Baby Boomers has just started to cross the 65 threshold. How much of that drop-off are long-term unemployed, and how much are people who figured this is a decent time to get out anyway, since they're retirement age?

There's also the impact of the ACA. That will be more visible in the coming years, but certainly, with the ability to buy HMO and PPO coverage individually off of health insurance marketplaces for comparable prices to group employer insurance, regardless of existing conditions, some people who only held jobs so they were eligible for insurance have and will continue to leave the force. Leading up to HIE implementation, the CBO estimated that would be about two million full-time equivalents (where one person working full time is one FTE, and two people each working 20 hours a week is also one FTE).

What absolutely none of this addresses, however, is underemployment. I think it likely that the biggest issue isn't people who are no longer counted in the workforce, even though they need to support themselves or their families... but people who are scraping by on jobs that fail to make any reasonable use of their skills and education. Jobs that pay less than they used to, for the same work. People with Bachelor's degrees praying for a minimum-wage boost so they can get their car fixed, finally. To a large extent, the jobs we're regaining are simply the wrong jobs. I think it's this, more than anything else, that leaves people unsatisfied to hear "Unemployment drops to 5.1%." It just doesn't look that way from down here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Posted on Facebook in reply to this link: Why Are Americans Terrified of Transgender 6-year-olds?
People are deeply unsettled by any ambiguity whatsoever around gender. Just take a look at some clips from the "It's Pat!" skits on Saturday Night Live poking fun at this human trait.

Try going into any toy store and saying "I need to get a birthday present for a two-year-old." They will immediately ask, before saying ANYTHING else, "Boy or girl?" They can't even BEGIN to process the request for help picking out a toy for a toddler until they have entered the correct gender category. For two-year-olds, who themselves don't yet have a fixed gender identity!

I remember in one of my Sociology classes learning about an experiment conducted in the viewing area at a maternity ward (back when babies all sat behind glass in the nursery). The researcher stood there admiring a particular baby. Another person or family would come along to gawk at their new relative, and he'd strike up a conversation. He'd ask who they were there to see, and say admiring things about their baby. They'd reciprocate, and he'd say, "That's my new niece over there." They'd then remark on those ballerina toes, or adorable cheeks, or beautiful curls. "What a delicate little angel!" they'd say.

They leave, next family comes in. Lather, rinse, repeat, only this time, "...nephew." Same baby. "Wow, look at him shake that fist! He'll be a tough one!" "He's built for football!" "What a little bruiser!" SAME DAMN BABY.

My own experiment: I've got two children. We didn't find out gender in advance for either of them. Cue fifteen random strangers a day asking "What are you having?" and not even knowing what to DO when I didn't know. My shower cake was half "It's a Boy" and half "It's a Girl" because the bakery literally didn't have any gender-neutral decorations.

We are nearly compulsive about reinforcing gender identity, as soon as possible, with everyone. We form our mental image of who a person is based on their gender first. It's no wonder that people who don't fit the assigned binary gender framework cause unease. We begin ALL social interaction with gender, and don't know how to proceed without it. That's what we need to change. People first.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Not Me? Prove It.

Inspired by a screenshot from, which (apparently) showed  graphic online abuse based on gender, and (apparently) followed up with commentary that said, basically, "We cannot trust men to be allies, and feminism doesn't need them." I didn't read the original post; I've seen enough to get the idea. But I read the reactions of many people very upset at the notion that men would not be accepted as allies. And then I responded:

This reminds me of an experience I had in college. A Sociology professor who thought he was some hot s**t wrote on the board one day instructions that divided the class into different areas of the hall based on race. (Many people sat in the aisles because they didn't identify with just one race, but anyway.)

Then, we talked about race.

It was slow at first, but yes, it had the intended effect: with a homogenous group around you, it was easier to be honest and say the things you're usually afraid to say.

Then one African-American woman dropped a bombshell: "I expect all white people to be racist."

I'd noticed that she seemed generally not friendly, and definitely not interested in talking to me. Now it made sense, and I was offended.

She went on, though. "...because it's been my experience that they usually are, so if I just make that assumption up-front, I save myself a lot of heartache and hassle."

WHOA. That made me stop. Was I aware of pervasive casual racism? More or less, as a concept. It wasn't a part of my daily life, but yeah, I knew it was out there for some people. But I'd never stopped to think about what it would DO to a person.

"So yeah, they have to prove to me that they're NOT racist. And that's just the way it is." And now I know I have to prove it, and I can't expect someone who has lived a life of not-me white people belittling and dismissing and victimizing them to assume I'm any different.

But, dammit, I HAVEN'T had to live a life of people assuming I was uneducated, uncouth, and downright criminal from one glance at my face. So I decided right then and there I could put up with "proving it." It was a really, really small thing in the grand scheme.

So be an ally. But don't get bent out of shape that you have to prove it. Because yes, people have been hurt, sometimes really horrifically, by people "just like you" only not in ways we can't see. And they are simply learning from experience. Give them a different experience, but don't be shocked that they learned from what others taught them. That's just the way it is.

Monday, November 12, 2012

God bless the child that can pay his own way.

Mitt Romney, May 17, 2012: 
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Bill O'Reilly, November 6, 2012: 
“It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

What I found most shocking about these two quotes... and most similar... is the lack of any sort of acknowledgment that people might actually deserve “stuff”. Might actually be “entitled.”

Is it possible that, if you work 60 hours a week, moving constantly, doing the things that other people don't want to do for themselves, stuff that requires lifting belts and work gloves, where you don't get paid vacations or sick days, that you have earned health care, food, and housing? Is that enough for Mitt Romney? Is it enough for Bill O'Reilly?

Here in California, the minimum wage is $8.00/hour. Plenty of really grueling jobs pay that wage. I'm not an accountant, and don't even do my own taxes... but I'll keep things simple. Here's the math for a family of four with one full-time, one part-time job at minimum wage:

60 hours per week x 52 weeks per year x $8.00/hour: $24,960 gross pay possible

...but let's say four days per year, on average, they're too sick to work. Because they're “contractors” instead of full-fledged employees, they don't get paid sick time (it's rampant all over the place... my mother-in-law has been a tech writer “on contract” for the last 13 years). So take off...

8 hours x 4 days x $8.00/hour: $256 so the gross is now $24,704. This assumes no vacation, no taking a morning off to go see their kid's holiday pageant at school, nothing.

But, these are still wages, so in spite of no paid vacation or sick time, they still pay payroll taxes. They're kind of complicated; there's several different ones. At least the $110,000 wage cap for social security deductions doesn't come into play. Here's what your hypothetical family will be paying:

FICA + Medicare: 7.65% of gross pay $24,704 = $1,889.86
Federal Unemployment Insurance: 0.9%* of the first $7,000 = $63
State Disability Insurance: 1.0% of gross pay $24,704 = $247.04
State Unemployment Insurance: 1.5% to 6.2% depending on employer's record; using average 3.85% of first $7,000 = $269.50
There's also an Employment and Training Tax, but it maxes out at $7 and isn't paid by all employers, so I'll just ignore it for now.

* Usually FUI is 0.6%, but California is paying its bills late, so we have to pay more into the Federal system.

The grand total of all wage taxes paid in a year by this family is now $2,469.40. But they haven't paid income taxes yet, so they're still in that 47%.

What do they have left at this point? $22,234.60 per year, for a family of four.

So do they pay income taxes? Well, let's take a look at the standard deductions, and the Child Tax Credit:

This family, assuming they're married, middle-aged, and not blind, qualifies for a standard deduction of $11,600, though there's the whole part about deducting the children and the tax credit. Some sources say such a family gets a total of $15,200 in deductions, which makes their taxable income $7,034.60.

According to the IRS tables for 2011, this family will owe $703 in Federal income taxes. However, since they have two children and make less than $110,000/year, they can claim $2,000 in child tax credits. These are now the tax-free folks who actually get money back from the government after a negative Federal tax bill. They can receive a credit of $1,297, to add to the $22,234.60 they take home.

We haven't even looked at what that $23,531.60 will pay for. This family has no health insurance, no 401(k) or IRA, and has to buy housing, food, transportation, clothing, and utilities. (But we're upset that they might get an Obamaphone.)

Why aren't they working more hours, though? Surely if they worked 80 hours a week, they'd be taxpaying citizens?

A family with two parents who work a total of 60 hours a week can get by without paying for childcare. Once you have two parents working full-time, though, you have to pay someone to care for the kids when they're not in school (if they're not under five and still not eligible for free education... another thing we don't think these people deserve). At minimum wage, the math just doesn't work out. Some families can rely on a grandparent or other relative for childcare, but if this person is not working, the wage-earning family likely is still somewhat responsible for the caregiver's expenses.

But let's say that their local school happens to offer some sort of free after school program, so they can both work 40 hours a week. Or one works 30 and the other works two jobs... somehow they get to 80 hours. They are still not paying taxes. With two children, you need a taxable income of $19,000 or more to exceed the tax credit, and the 80-hour a week minimum wage four-person family is at $14,634.92. Even if they get bumped up to $9/hour and 80 hours/week, they're in the 47%.

All they had to do was back-breaking, often humiliating, sometimes dangerous work, cleaning up after other people, 80 hours a week. And they think that this entitles them to health care, food, and housing? They think that they should have stuff?

In the Republican world, poverty is not just a moral failing. Your economic standing is a measure of your worth as a human being. If you do not already have something, that is sufficient to determine that you are not deserving of that thing. 

Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news.”