Taxes

April 15 is that day every year when Americans get to file their taxes. I have seen a lot of posts going around about how awful this is. I would disagree. 

Look at it as membership. We pay membership to lots of things so we can enjoy its benefits. If we don’t get our monies worth on our memberships, we can always go somewhere else. 

There are a lot of things that the US government could do better. The citizenship here is great for middle and upper class. It isn’t very poor friendly at all. But rather than spend time on that – perhaps it would be good to be grateful for the good things that the tax system helps to fund:

1) Potable water.

2) Smooth roads.

3) Building codes.

4) Sewers.

5) Public schools.

6) Military.

7) Safety regulations. 

I have been in a lot of places where some-to-many of these were missing. And we don’t think much about them until they are gone. Do you know what it can be like to have no fire code? Or roads built haphazardly? No public education? No potable water? 

It’s doable, but not as easily. More of our day disappears as we are boiling water and vegetables. More money disappears to pay for education in expensive private schools. More care has to be taken not to step into open sewers on the streets. 

Could we do better? Of course! We can always do better. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate what we have already. Rather than griping about the government, perhaps we should show up on our local level and be grateful for what we have. We can always improve. Government is largely experimental – we try and some things work. Some don’t. 

So lets be grateful for the good we have and look toward the small ways we can improve in our communities. 

The Never-Ending Move

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So we moved into a house on base nearly two weeks ago. The never ending boxes seems daunting. Just when I finish one room, I find another box that has been mislabeled and needs to go in that room. I have been “done” with the kitchen about five times now.

Moving with a one year old has been an adventure. Most unpacking has to be done during nap time and after he goes to bed.

Part of the problem is that we are downsizing in this move. After 4 1/2 years in Japan, we decided too much junk piled up in our apartment there and so we intentionally chose a smaller one here. So I am getting rid of a lot of unnecessary stuff that piled up after living in Japan for 4 1/2 years. Sometimes I wonder if the government would be better off storing our stuff in the States and giving us furnished apartments overseas, like they do for diplomats.

The problem with the moves and stuff is that stuff that worked in one place, house and country no longer works. Everything ends up having to be redone. So then you end up searching for shelving that fits in your new place to accommodate things that fit just fine in your old place.

It would be nice if there was one universal floor plan that worked everywhere. But there is not. Our furniture is mostly from IKEA (tells you what quality it is) which is about as universal as you can get – however, our bedroom furniture – one bed two nightstands, a mirror and a dresser doesn’t fit. The dresser is in the “office” (we have 2 1/2 bedrooms – which I didn’t know existed until this move – the office is a little bigger than a walk in closet) because it won’t fit in the bedroom.

Some observations:
1) In America, we generally have more usable wall space. I think this might have been because of the earthquakes in Japan.
2) There are also more closets.
3) There are ceiling fans in every room in Texas. Helps to save on air-conditioning.
4) America has more wasted space. The room layout sometimes doesn’t make much sense why the extra floor space in the bathroom? It’s not like you can put anything there. Japanese homes are much more logical – likely due to density issues.
5) Car-centrism is an issue. One of the reasons we moved on base was the bike path out the back door which is separated from the road. It’s a great place to (safely) take Jared for a ride. In the regular city, this is unusual.

These are all things that make furniture – and furnishing a place – which is necessary – more difficult. This is one of the reasons I like the idea of pre-furnished. That way everything fits in the space as it is designed to do.

Just random thoughts as I continue the unpacking…….of course I neglected to mention the biggest reason it’s taking so long: there are just too many interesting books I’d rather read and bike paths to explore. So…….procrastination?

When Laws Make You Fat

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Having recently returned from Asia, one of the most baffling things about the US is the isolation. The US has very little sense of community, and people in the same community are incredibly isolated from each other. We lived in an apartment complex for five months before moving onto base and I never learned the names of any of my neighbors; in fact I never saw them that I know about.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this life was the lack of local stores. There was nothing nearby. Nothing. You are forced to drive miles out of your community in order to shop. There is nothing close enough to walk to.

In China, right outside the gate of my apartment complex – actually sharing the bottom floor with the first floor residents was a series of little shops. There was a congee (breakfast soup) cafe, a mini-grocery, and a clay pot restaurant all within a minute’s walk out my door. In Japan, right outside the base were all night combini’s – which are little groceries that you can buy sushi and fried rice at any time of day or night. When I lived for a short time in off-base housing in Sasebo, Nagasaki I had no vehicle and made my nightly walk to the grocery store after class ended at night when the fresh foods of the day dropped to half price. The grocery was five minutes walk. The rice bowl restaurant where I regularly had dinner was three minutes away.

For a while, I didn’t understand this dissonance. There is nothing nearby. I have never seen this in any other country I have been in (I am sure there must be others; but I just haven’t seen it) from Canada (the parts I have been in – seems like there are likely places in Canada that would have the same issues) to Mexico to Thailand and around Southeast Asia to Holland to Ghana – this is not the norm.

As I looked into it more, the compulsory zoning laws of the US that cropped up in the 80′s are largely to blame. They separated neighborhoods from commerce making it illegal to have a local grocery store in your neighborhood or anywhere near your apartments. These forced people into their cars to drive to larger stores located miles away. Kids were sued for having lemonade stands on their street corners. Neighborhoods did away with sidewalks as there was no longer anything to walk to.

Is it any surprise this coincides with the rise of obesity in the US? Correlation is not causation to be sure – and there are many, many contributing factors to the rise in obesity – but really – when we took away a local, healthier option within in walking distance and forced the public into vehicles and congestion isn’t it logical that the general population would gain some weight?

It’s funny how I hear Americans defending the so called “free market” in the United States. What free market? We don’t have one.

Again, correlation is not causation, but since our whole system in the US is experimental anyway, what is the harm in relooking at some of these laws? Asking questions and perhaps revisiting them, maybe even revoking some of them.

Show up at your local zoning meetings and ask questions. It never hurts to ask.

The Happy Medium

The US is a strange society I have realized. There are many very good things about it – but we have become a society of extremists. I am not sure if this is a symptom or a cause to our political and cultural polarization. Whatever the case, it is an interesting facet of who we are.

We have the idea that what is good for one must be good for all (odd in that we claim to be independent oriented rather than collectivist) and we see no difference in restrictions and outright bans. Yet while it might be best for a family in the suburbs to own a car, that is not necessarily the case for a family in the city – yet we cater to the wealthy “American Dream” and build infrastructure for only one model of transit rather than many. It might be better for a family to own a bike depending on their circumstances and it might be better to depend on public transit depending on their circumstances. We crush creativity and in innovation when create one-size-fits-all models, often not seeing that the diversity rather than the singularity of options encourages development. Yet people argue that the government is trying to take away our cars whenever public transit is discussed. Or they argue that it is too expensive, forgetting that the government pays a very high price to subsidize gasoline and build roads already.

We have the same issue with so many other things – there are Internet articles going around to ban technology under the age of twelve. Lets ban this, lets ban that. We can’t impose reasonable common sense restrictions on guns – we will either have no restrictions whatsoever or take them all away.

You can’t want reasonable environmental measures taken and not be anti-progress – yet if the measures taken are actually cheaper and innovative, isn’t that progress? Reforming our “great” (rated 38th in the world, so I’m not sure how we are measuring “great” – decent would be a better word) healthcare system is an invasion of…….I’m really not sure what.

Freedom doesn’t mean no rules whatsoever. Rules shouldn’t sharply prefer one group (the car drivers) over another. Yet we have lost all sense of self-limitation in our rhetoric. I am also not particular liberal or conservative. I am a happy moderate middle.

The one size fits all doctrine is simply this: lazy, self serving governing. We are not asking the hard questions of how to meet the needs of a multi-ethic, class diverse society. We are looking for one magic solution to implement everywhere. The idea that such a thing exists is a fairy tale. It is also incredibly lazy.

As a Christian I suggest we were given freedom to make choices and minds to make them with. There is much discussion in our society about “freedom infringements” (which more often than not amount to “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do”) and “laziness.” I would agree that as a nation we have a laziness problem – but it is not with the poor American worker. It is with the legislatures and electoral populace who are too lazy to come up with anymore than a “one-size-fits-all” rule.

We are better than this.

Bananas Can Kill You

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Did you know if you eat too many bananas you can die of potassium poisoning?

This of course is ridiculously rare. But it can happen.

Did you know bananas also give you low doses of radiation?

Let’s start a campaign to ban bananas! Start a banana awareness and link bananas with all the possible things that bananas contribute to: war, cancer, radiation sickness ……. No?

Okay – just kidding of course. I love bananas and I am not giving them up.

My point is this though that it seems like a lot of the rules we set up are as arbitrary as bananas.

We seem to have lost the ability to hang out in the happy medium, middle ground and see more than one side of a story.

In politics in the US we have extremes on both sides, fighting to see how far to the extreme we can take it and pushing for shock value in order to rally the troops to our defense.

But…… Both sides have valid, legitimate points. Both need to be tempered by common sense regulations.

Each side accuses the other of wasting too much money. Could it be that what we don’t see as inherently valuable we see as wasteful? And by not seeing what the other side values and allotting for it we are just digging ourselves into an eternal stalemate?

Government is not God. Neither are corporations. Government is not the devil. Neither are corporations.

Life is more complex than the Yin/Yang we want it to be. If we only see things in extremes, we miss the colors and the beauty of the incredibly complex layers of life. Life is complicated, messy, beautiful, terrible and breathtaking all in the moment. Let’s not cheapen it by oversimplifying all the issues.

When I read a particularly polarizing article, I try to think how it must sound from the opposite point of view. Then I consider a third point of view that is more moderate. And a fourth that takes it in an entirely different direction. And through these, I end up seeing instead, a tapestry of beauty and pain in the different walks of the unique people who are on a journey.

The whole issue usually gets muddled, and I no longer hold strong political opinions on most things.

But I do have a much greater appreciation for everybody. So here is where I choose to stay – if you are Republican, we will probably agree. If you are Democrat we will probably agree. If you are libertarian, populist, socialist, green, liberal, conservative, Martian – we will probably agree.

But not entirely. And that’s okay.

Letting go of extremes isn’t compromising your values, it’s expanding them. It’s looking to another and holding their personhood as valuable in itself, rather than demonizing them. So rather than ripping each other apart over unproven theories, let’s have a cup of coffee and talk.

By the way – did you know coffee can kill you?

Evening

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It’s evening in San Antonio – the weather has just started to warm up again and kids from the apartments have been playing outside for hours.

I let Jared go out on the balcony and noticed him watching the older kids playing in the parking lot down below. It was a regular circus just a few minutes ago kids all over the place riding skateboards, razor scooters, and bikes.

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Now there are only a couple still out there. I suspect it’s dinner time for most of them.

It was the laughter that caught my attention. Kids running around, just being kids in the neighborhood.

One girl, trying to get her skateboarding down went around and around and around the dog park. She’s still going.

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Another girl is riding her bike around the complex. The full circle is quite a ways. I see others zipping by on skateboards, bikes and scooters.

When do they stop riding bikes? When are they too cool for the scooters? At what age do they quit riding skateboards?

When did I stop?

I started biking again in Japan. But there was a long break from sometime in high school until 30.

Why do we stop?

The Year China Voted For Me

IMG_8388In the US election of course – I never ran for office in China. I’m not a citizen. And I think the ballot actually got lost in the mail – but it’s always more fun to speculate that someone else could have voted for me.

It was the year that John Kerry and George W. Bush were on the ballot. The truth is – I had forgotten that there was even an election that year until I went home during the summer from China. Then the election posters were everywhere, with radio casters and talk show hosts reminding us that it was the “most important election ever.”

I signed up to vote absentee, felt good about having done my civic duty, then went back to China and promptly forgot about the election all over again.

It wasn’t until about a week before the election when I was in a conversation with some other Americans teaching in China that they mentioned the election (they were arguing about who to vote for) that I realized the ballot had never made it to me.

Of course- I have to confess – at the time I had a secret hatred of the post office (one that incidentally continued the whole four years I lived in China). While I had learned to successfully navigate the complexities of bartering in the market, restaurants, street venders, train tickets etc. the post office was still my nemesis and at the time I visited it about once a month – and usually only then if I knew something was supposed to be coming.

I went to the Post Office after the conversation. No ballot. I had a frustrating conversation with the employees who eventually agreed to go look through the mail in the back to see of they had missed something. He came back a couple minutes later claiming there was nothing.

At the time, I figured the employee had probably not looked, but likely gone and gotten a drink of water or something and claimed to have looked. (I was rather cynical about the Post Office remember!) But I figured it was useless to press it. I would just come back a couple days later and see if it had come in.

The result was the same. Nothing.

At this point, due to Texas regulations at the time, there was nothing more that could be done. I jokingly asked the other American teachers who they thought China had voted for.

The answers were actually funny – because it caused quite a discussion. My friend who was more of a Democrat said China would have voted for Bush – because of the factories and outsourcing – business, which was, you know, friendly with Communism. My friend who was a Republican claimed Kerry – because Kerry was a Socialist which led to, you know, Communism. Now, for the record, this conversation was all a joke – because when you are the only Americans in a radius, you just learn to get along, and ignore things like politics (or like I did – forget them entirely because you know, what was happening in America then apparently wasn’t that interesting……. I have no excuse – I know!)

My guess is my ballot was lost in the mail, and honestly – I had such little knowledge of what was happening in my own country at the time that it was probably a good thing. I am not sure at the time I could have correctly named the governor of Texas. It’s usually not wise to vote for people if you have no idea who they are!

Bush won the election, and four years later there was another election that was the most important one ever. Eight years later, there was yet another “most important election ever.” While I voted in both of those – I learned something important in the election that I didn’t vote in.

I learned that both sides will get way off topic and each accuse the other of being the most Communist. Maybe the two sides have more in common than we think?

I guess the moral of the story is know when the elections are, register and know who is running. Also know if the person that you chose doesn’t get in, there will always be another “most important election ever” that you can vote in next time.