Caveat Emptor, they say. Let the buyer beware.

I want to add a caveat: Caveat Magister. Let the teacher beware.

There are a lot of problems and difficulties, even hazards, in being a teacher; someday I’ll write about all of them, and why people should — or, more likely, why you should not — go into teaching. But right now, I want to focus on only one problem. It’s tempting to say it’s the worst or the most serious, but it may not be; what it is, though, is the source of a great number of difficulties that teachers face, on a great number of fronts.

It is this: very few people understand what we do.

Please don’t add a new misunderstanding: I am not complaining “Nobody unnerSTANDS me!”; I am not feeling a black, absinthe-scented drizzle of angst slipping icily down my spine; I am not currently pouting. (All right, I’m pouting a little. But it’s because I’m hungry and yet I have to wait for my lunch to cook. Where the hell is my Star Trek replicator? Or maybe those instant food-pills they had on the Jetsons? Hell, right now I’d take the fat-making shakes from Wall-E.) The issue is not that being misunderstood makes us sad. The issue is that being misunderstood, because of the way we are misunderstood, means that our job, the task of teaching, becomes impossible, if one means to do it in any meaningful way.

The issue is this: at some point in the past fifty years (I’m looking at you, 1980’s) this country decided that all that mattered in life was income. Now, we are a democracy and a capitalist society, which means that we have always focused on money as motive: because in a free society, anyone can improve their lot in life; and in a capitalist society, one rises through wealth. Put these together, and you have a country where cash is the key to the kingdom, and here we are: in a world where we teach our children that they can be anything they want to be — and what they want to be, we tell them, is rich. But looking at our social institutions, particularly education, one sees the pervasive and controlling belief that education was good for people: good for the mind, good for the soul; not just good for the wallet. People used to fight for education; now they just fight it. College cost less, and taught more; K-12 schooling was more difficult, more challenging, more effective, more reasonable. Teachers were more respected, seen as experts, because what they offered was valuable in a larger, holistic sense — the way that religious leaders are respected, the way that doctors and law enforcement and firefighters are respected, because they offer something more than a simple exchange of goods and services for money: they give something that means something. Teachers used to be seen that way, I would argue. It is possible I am wearing rose-colored glasses.

But we certainly don’t think that way now. The predominant (though not the only) view of school is as a means to one very specific end. The progression goes like this: elementary school gets you ready for high school; high school gets you ready for college; college gets you a job. The goal is the job. We have a somewhat broader view of that end, because we want our children to have a job that is satisfying, and valuable, in addition to financially rewarding; but the crux of the biscuit is the number of zeroes in front of the decimal point at the end of the year.

My students think this, universally and uncritically. Whenever I ask them, “Why are you here?”, which I do with some regularity (Because I am fascinated by this and terrified, too), they joke that they’re here because they are forced to be (They’re not joking.). But then the serious answer, the one they think I want to hear and the one they parrot with eerily similar language, year after year, is this one. High school gets you ready for college, college gets you a job. They even have a similar cutoff of the pragmatic value of education: they all tell me that you learn skills and knowledge that are directly applicable and necessary in life until around 8th grade; then, once you know all the math and literacy you will need to get through your day, it’s all about the college-job-paycheck.

They think this because their parents think this. Their parents want them to do well, but mainly, they want them to be made ready for college, and to get into a good college, because a good college means you get a good job — a mediocre college means you get a mediocre job. Or at least, a good college means a better job.

And because the parents think this — or perhaps this is the reason the parents think this — the administration and the political system behind schools all think this. Our success is determined by our graduation rate, and inasmuch as we can follow it, the rate at which our students go on to successful (meaning well-paid) careers.

These aren’t bad goals, of course. The job you do matters, both to you and to society; and in this society, money talks. I do this job because I get paid to do it, and though there are times when I wish I could leave it, I don’t because I don’t know what I would do that I would enjoy more and get paid as much. And college was a prerequisite for doing this job. I even agree that most people get by on what they learned before 9th grade. That’s why they have so many problems spelling text messages. (Please note the meme above.)

But there’s a problem when you focus on the financial side to the exclusion of all else. When money is the only thing that talks. We see that in our national politics these days, when the wealthy get elected to represent the interests of the wealthy, and the rest of us just shuffle along behind hoping we don’t get trampled on by the sudden changes in direction. The problem in the predominance of money in education is this: when we keep our eyes on that particular prize, we blind ourselves to all else.

When elementary school is only intended to prepare one for high school, then all that matters is promotion through the grades. Parents pressure administrators, administrators pressure teachers, and students who aren’t ready get promoted, when twenty years ago, they would have been held back until they learned what they needed to learn — back when the goal was education and improvement, a goal that takes some people longer than others. Parents don’t care now if their kid is learning everything; they care if their kid gets promoted. Because elementary school isn’t what matters: high school matters. Because high school gets you into college and college gets you a good job, and nowhere in that equation does a child need to master the multiplication table. If a kid has trouble with math, well, he’ll go into a career that doesn’t need math. He’ll be a lawyer. He likes to argue. Besides, his brother is good at math. Can’t read, but he’s good at math. That one’s going to be an engineer. Probably with computers. Computers magically make something a good job, did you know? Yes: that’s why we have to have computers in school, now. Because kids need to learn the skills that are necessary in today’s economy. That’s why they’re in school.

So the children are promoted to high school. Now it’s time to get serious. Serious about grades, that is. Because the purpose of high school is to get into a good college, and so all that matters is the GPA. Sure, sure, they need to learn how to do the things they’ll do in college — and that’s the magical argument, by the way, which we all use, including me: they need to read this book because it’s the sort of thing they will do in college — but really, the focus is the grades. We trust the grades to tell us that the child is progressing properly, learning what he needs to succeed: the grades are all we need to worry about. And the same thing for the administration and the politicians, except you can replace “grades” with “test scores.”

I’ve never taught at the college level, but I have no doubt it is the same thing there: the second a child is accepted to a school, he is expected to know what his career after graduation will be — preferably down to the exact position he wants and the exact company where he wants that position, but at the least, a field of endeavor and a job class. And I am sure that everyone grumbles about the classes they are forced to take but don’t need for their career, just like they did in high school, just like they do in elementary school about the stuff they won’t need in high school or college, like learning cursive. And I am sure this myopic view of college as nothing but a series of hoops to jump through until you make lots of money has all the same deleterious effects as it does in K-12.

And what are those, exactly? What are the problems with focusing on promotion — grades — career? Only this: you learn what you set out to learn, gain what you intend to gain, from everything in life. And if all you mean to gain from school is getting out of school — then that’s all you get. I know: that’s what I got from high school. All I wanted was to be left alone. So I was left alone. It was college where I found that learning could expand my mind and make me into a person I liked more with every new thing I learned. College made me who I am. High school didn’t even make me ready for college, because I didn’t try to make it do that for me. I had friends who went to the same high school I did, who went on to far more intellectually challenging college experiences than mine, and into more — well, maybe not “challenging,” but I think probably more cognitively difficult careers than mine, and I’m sure that our high school prepared them better than it did me. Because they went there trying to do that. They focused on learning, and they learned. Garbage in, garbage out: and so with nothing.

There are other problems. The focus on promotion — grades — career moves resources and support into those areas, and not into others. If we need our students to learn more math in order to increase promotion rates, then we will focus on math, and drop art and music. Because after all, they don’t need art and music to succeed in high school or in college or in their careers. If students are having trouble in high school English, then we don’t add classes or more teachers to reduce class size: we dumb down the curriculum, restrict it to basic skill drilling. It doesn’t matter if they learn less, because as long as the curriculum focuses on easily mastered skills, they will inevitably get good grades, and that means they will get into college and we win. And thus we have Common Core, where the focus is on easily mastered skills, and which has been and continues to be pushed onto teachers so that students can get good grades and good test scores, and our graduation rates go up and our college attendance rates go up. Sure, our college graduation rates suffer; but that doesn’t matter to us here at the high school level, just as high school failure based on students coming in with below-grade reading skills doesn’t matter to the elementary schools that focused on promoting students no matter what the cost, because that is the only thing that matters to the administrators, because it is the only thing that matters to the parents, because all that matters in life is a good job with a big paycheck.

It’s not true. Of course future failure bothers teachers, but we have little control over this. I am, for the first time in sixteen years, teaching Common Core this year. Because that is what my administration told me to do, and because I now work in a school that has no tenure — because teacher’s unions are essentially non-existent in this Republican-controlled Right-to-Work state (A state of affairs that exists largely because teachers are not respected like they used to be, because all we do is give kids good grades and get them ready for college so they can get a good job, and then, when the child does eventually fail, because the entire system is broken, teachers make a handy scapegoat. And if it doesn’t sit right with your conscience to talk about teachers like they are all incompetent pinko hellspawn, because you remember your own teachers being good to you, well, you can always blame the teachers’ unions.) — and therefore I have to do what I am told if I want to continue earning a living. And so because my school focuses on grades and test scores and graduation and college acceptance to the exclusion of all else, I am told to teach a canned curriculum that focuses on improving basic skills in order to improve grades and test scores and graduation rates and college acceptance. And I do it.

And here’s what gets lost: novels. There aren’t any in my Common Core curriculum. Because the focus is on easily mastered skills, and because the tests that create the test scores do not require the completion of any full-length texts, just comprehension of short passages. Unless I change the curriculum in some way, I will not teach any full-length novels to my classes this year. No Shakespeare plays, except in excerpts. These students will not have the patience or the perseverance to finish anything that can’t be finished in one setting. I hope that they will learn it somewhere else, because they won’t learn it from me. But I know they won’t. (One quick note: I am allowed to change the curriculum. They will by god read To Kill a Mockingbird. And all of one Shakespeare play. But if I wasn’t the age that I am, with the experience that I have, and the curmudgeonly attitude, I wouldn’t change that curriculum. So what happens when a kid who wasn’t raised reading novels takes my place?)

Here’s what gets lost: our culture. I know it seems like America doesn’t have any beyond Disney and organized sports and bacon, but we do: we have Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. People in this country read To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye and The Call of the Wild. Our schools have always taught those works, and that gives us something important, along with all of the wonderful gifts that come from making literature like that a part of you: it gives us something in common. It’s books like these, learned in school, for no other reason than because they are worth learning, that make us who we are and that keep us as human as we are, because they are the ones that teach us it’s a sin to kill something that doesn’t do any harm to us, and that we should stand on the edge of the cliff and catch those kids running through the rye, and that every life counts, even a dog’s. And I’m only focusing on the literature because it’s what I know, but you could do the same thing with art, with Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and Frederick Sackrider Remington (No — I’m not making up that middle name.); you could easily do the same thing with music, or with film.

None of these things are part of the promotion — grades — career path. All of them are our culture. And if we don’t teach any of these things in school — and we don’t, because they don’t relate to our one overriding purpose for education — then we’ll have no culture left except for organized sports and bacon. And perpetual war, of course.

Toni and I just watched The Wolf of Wall Street last night. It’s about a guy who cared about nothing but money, and did whatever it took to get as much of it as possible, and then went about living the most worthless, hollow excuse for a human life I can think of outside of serial killers and the Inquisition. And the movie focused on that, for three hours, in excruciating detail. I have never seen that many scenes with hookers in my life. It’s a true story, based on an autobiography of the same name; the reviews online of the book (which I will not be reading myself) make the guy sound just as he was portrayed in the movie: as a guy who would lie and cheat and steal as much as he had to just to get more money to put on the pile, so that he could spend it on drugs and prostitutes and midget-throwing parties at work. (Not making that up, by the way.) Who would not regret anything in his life, because, in my opinion, he lacked sufficient humanity to know regret. All he knew was money. All he cared about was money. Now, because the movie was made by Martin Scorsese, it was not actually a celebratory movie: it was an expose of the emptiness of this kind of existence. And I have never felt happier about my life and my choices than I felt while I was watching this epic debauch. I am so proud of myself and everyone who helped me to become what I am — my parents, my wife, my teachers, my culture — that I care about things other than money, that I see money only as a means of survival and not of any source of self-worth or identity definition. I am so happy to be me instead of that shit-heel who called himself “Wolf.” I hope that was Scorsese’s intent, because if so, it was a masterful piece of work that was completely successful.

But I couldn’t help but think: if my students watched this movie, they would want to be this guy. Because he made money. And if I asked them, the next day, why they were in school, they would tell me “Because I want to be like the Wolf of Wall Street.” (I’ve heard similar sentiments in the past, but using Hugh Hefner as an example, or Bill Gates.) And that scares the hell out of me.

Caveat Populus. Let all of us beware.

The Warrior of World’s End

The Warrior of World’s End (The first book of the Gondwane Epic)
by Lin Carter

I’ve been reading some of the older pulp fantasy/sci-fi books, and this was one of those — a Daw paperback, the pages yellowed on the edges, the cover price only 95 cents. Lin Carter is one of those names I always see on rows of thin, dog-eared paperbacks in used bookstores, but not one I ever needed to read.

But that was only because I didn’t know what I was missing. And if you’re a fantasy fan, especially a fan of cheesy Robert-E.-Howard’s-Conan style fantasy, you must read Lin Carter.

This book was brilliant. I can’t wait to get back to the used store and buy the second book in the Gondwane Epic, and then keep going until I get to the end — and I hope that’s a long way off. The basic idea is this: 700 million years have passed since our current era, and the Earth’s continents have drifted into each other to form a single mega-continent — the title of the epic and name of the continent coming from the primordial Gondwanaland, the mega-continent that was the southern half of Pangaea, when all of the Earth’s land surface was in one land mass that became two and then became many — and things are, of course, very different. It’s a fantasy world-building technique that I’ve always enjoyed; my other favorite use of it was in the Wheel of Time. In this case, you have a traditional swords-and-sorcery society, with the opening narrative from the point of view of a trader riding a donkey from one great city to another, passing through the Crystal Mountains by a great desert, with his wife, who is actually a sentient plant-being. On the way through the mountains, an earthquake shakes the land, and soon they discover a Great Epic Hero wandering through the aftermath, lacking even the ability to speak intelligibly — but his thews are mighty, and his hair is glittering silver. This is Ganelon Silvermane, the hero who will save the world from doom: the star of the epic. The trader and his wife take Ganelon in and raise him like a seven-foot-tall bodybuilder/baby; they teach him to be honorable and courageous and everything a hero should be, and then off he goes a-heroin’.

It’s great. Carter uses all kinds of unnecessarily fancy words and complex sentences, but without making the book as hard to read as, say, H.P. Lovecraft’s work. There is a simplicity and childish glee in it that made me smile the whole time. It reminded me very much of Conan, or of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series, but with a heavier tilt towards fantasy and away from SF — since there is a Red Enchantress, and an Illusionist, and Death Dwarves, and a magic flying bird-vehicle made of brass and granted intelligence and a personality, and the ability to speak. Ganelon meets a lithe Amazonian-type warrior woman, whom he saves from evil priests, and who I’m sure will be a love interest at some point, but our hero is too innocent of the ways of love as of yet; so far all he does is fight great battles and break large things with mighty swings of his flashing sword, all that kind of stuff.

It was a hoot. Highly recommended for those who like this sort of thing.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

Conan stories by Robert E. Howard or Robert Jordan

John Carter, Warlord of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs
by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

This was a good read: it was a decent book with fascinating information in it, and not just because I love dogs. Though that certainly didn’t hurt.

The basic idea is this: dogs are geniuses in one specific area of cognition. The book carefully and precisely documents that genius, and discusses how it came about and what it means, both for dogs and for humans. Brian Hare is a cognition expert, and has made an exhaustive study of this topic, which resulted in this book; because it was exhaustive, he studied not only dogs, but also foxes, wolves, dingoes, and New Guinea Singing Dogs, along with as many different breeds of dog as he could, all in order to test the parameters of dogs’ genius.

The genius of dogs is this: dogs are better than any other species — better than dolphins, better than chimpanzees or other primates, and MUCH better than cats (Had to get that dig in there — but seriously, if you want to win every future argument about which are smarter, dogs or cats, this is the book for you) — at understanding humans. They can grasp more words, more gestures, more specifically taught abilities, than any other creature. Most interesting and most impressive is this aspect, which Hare goes into in depth, complete with cute anime-style illustrations: dogs don’t just understand what we tell them, they understand our intent. Dogs can learn to obey any gesture, from a spoken command to a pointed finger to a nod of the head or a turn of the body, so long as that gesture conveys the human’s intention. That is, if you want a dog to look underneath a box for a treat, you don’t even have to say it: you can point, or nod, or turn your body towards the thing you want the dog to do, and the dog will do it. This is actually quite remarkable, as it shows a level of empathy between species that would seem impossible for any but humans — and not even most of us.

Reading about the science and the stories of dog genius was interesting and touching for me as a dog lover. I will say that the book’s writing is not genius: Hare is a scientist trying to write a popular science book (with the help of his wife, Vanessa Woods), and he doesn’t do a great job of it. The book seems self-serving at times, with Hare giving himself credit for discovering the remarkable intelligence of dogs; he’s actually being tongue in cheek, but it doesn’t come through, and you want to roll your eyes a few times. But the man knows his science, and he loves his dogs; and that’s all you can really ask for from a book, don’t you think?

Rental Insanity

You know what’s insane?

Renting a home. It makes no sense at all. The basic concept of the capitalist exchange doesn’t work, here, because you’re not exchanging money for goods or services: the tenant does not own the home, and the landlord is not doing anything for the tenant. Yes yes of course, the landlord is selling the right to live on his property; but he’s not really selling it, because there are stipulations. (And how does one sell the right to live, anyway? I swear I read something once about inalienable, or some such.) Stipulations are only possible when ownership is not exchanged: a landlord telling a tenant he can’t have a dog is like someone selling you a car and saying, “But you’re not allowed to use Reverse. You can only drive forward.” That would make sense if someone was borrowing your car (and you had a pathological fear of moving backwards, or of mirrors, or of the letter R), because you still own it, and you can tell the borrower how to drive it. But that isn’t analogous to renting a home, either: because borrowing is done on a single-use basis, and only with people who know and trust the owner. I have lived in many homes whose owners I have never met, not even seen or in some cases known their names. Nobody would lend things like that. You’re giving someone a valuable thing (Because if it isn’t valuable enough to give back, then it isn’t borrowing — as we all remember from that guy in school who used to ask to “borrow” a sheet of paper every class, and who used to get crap for that verb. “Sure, Tad-Biff — you gonna give it back when you’re done?”) with the expectation that you will get it back after it has been used — generally used once. The borrower reads the book and gives it back; watches the movie and gives it back; makes punch and serves it in the bowl and then gives the bowl back. Unless you’re Ned Flanders and you’re giving your stuff to Homer Simpson, that is. But that just proves my point, because the Simpsons is a satire of modern life, with Homer as the man who does not ever abide by the social contract.

What does it say about landlords when their basic transaction makes them like Homer Simpson?

The real divergence, though, is in the money: if you let someone borrow your car, that person should certainly be responsible for the gas they use and any damage they do; but what kind of full-bore jackass would you be if you charged money just for the simple use, on top?

“Sure, you can use my car while yours is in the shop. Cost you $20 a day.”

You’d be a landlord kind of jackass.

Of course I’m oversimplifying in some ways. There are plenty of businesses that lend use-without-ownership of something valuable in exchange for money — cars, power tools, DVDs, electronics, furniture, even money; but a home isn’t a thing you “use.” Living somewhere is not using the home; we don’t say “Last year I used outside of Denver, but now I use in Colorado Springs.” It’s much more than that. A home is the place where we live: a home is where we spends time with our family; a home holds and protects all of our possessions, which shape and define our time, and therefore our lives, in all the spaces our families don’t. A home becomes a touchstone for almost everything — it’s where people find us, where they send things to us, where they bring us when we’re too drunk to get there ourselves. A home defines a person, in many ways, because it allows you to do the thing that defines you — you can’t be a gearhead without a garage, or a cook without a kitchen, or a gardener without a garden. You also can’t survive at all without shelter or safety or sleep, all of which become extremely difficult to acquire without a home — and therefore a home makes you human. Home is where the heart is, where life is.

How can I live in a place that doesn’t belong to me?

The answer is, I can’t; that’s why the laws defend the resident, the tenant, and even the squatter much more than the owner. Possession is nine-tenths, and our society recognizes that — though that last tenth, in the hands of the 1%, means that our government has done quite a lot to protect the landlord, too. But in essence, we know, deep down, that the person who lives in a place has some right to it, has some claim of ownership on it. It’s just too bad that we don’t actually live according to what we know to be right.

All right, enough: let’s pretend the basic concept is sound, and discuss the jagged little pieces of insanity that come with renting a home. First, landlords lie. The photos online do not in any way resemble the actual property; at best, they choose the one flattering angle and then stand on the garbage can in order to crop out the broken fence, the tumbleweeds, and the rusty nails and shattered beer-bottle glass spread across the yard like tinsel on the world’s worst Christmas tree. Why do they try to change the way the house looks in the pictures? Do they think we’re not going to see the place when we show up to look at the inside, or to rent it, or to take possession? Are they going to stand directly in our line of sight, holding up an enlarged copy of the photo from Craig’s List, saying, “Here, see? Here’s the house, you can see it right here. NO! Don’t turn your head. Close your eyes for a second and I’ll show you the other rooms, one at a time.” Or do they think that we’ll show up, see the reality, and think, “Well, it sure looked better in the pictures. Maybe this is just an off-day. Maybe the light is bad here. I’m sure once I’ve given the landlord money, it’ll look like it did online!”

Maybe landlords just do a lot of internet dating, and got into the habit of using fake pictures and hoping the other person doesn’t bolt when they see the truth.

Now, Toni and I have in fact rented two different properties from a distance, once when we moved to Oregon and then again when we came to Tucson; but for the second one, we had a local connection, a good friend of mine from high school who lives in Tucson, who went around and scouted out our prospects for us. This means that out of the times that we have rented a house, there is exactly one time that deceptive photos online would have taken us in. So then why?

It’s not just the photos, either. “Single-family home” in the ad becomes “Broken-down dirt-crusted center unit in a triplex” when you drive by. “Fenced yard?” Sure, if you think the row of old bent croquet wickets lining the dirt patch qualifies. “Great neighborhood” if you intend to get jumped into the local Crips — is it called a lodge? A chapter? Crips Country Clubhouse? Anyway. “Off-Street Parking” means you can park on the sidewalk between the dumpsters and the rats’ nests. “Cooling system” means you can open the windows and hope for a breeze. We all know the buzz words: “cute” and “quaint” and “cozy” all mean “small;” “character” means “old,” as does “traditional;” “easy maintenance” means “it’s already broken.” Sometimes things just vanish: the included washer and dryer, the recessed lighting, the covered patio “great for entertaining.” And in every case, I wonder: did they think we wouldn’t notice? It’s one thing if you sell a kid a toy in a cardboard box, and it’s only when he gets it home that he discovers that his new G.I. Joe Attack Helicopter doesn’t actually fly by itself — thanks for that emotional scar, Hasbro — but this is a home. The customer is going to live in it, for a very long time. They will notice that the front door is missing, and they will say something about it to the person who still legally owns the home.

But let’s say you find a place. The ad looks great, you drive by and the neighborhood seems acceptable — you know, drug deals happen in a BMW instead of a burnt-out Toyota shell, the graffiti is aesthetic, the local hoarders keep their piles inside instead of in the yard — the place has what you need. So you call: Sorry, that was rented seven years ago last July. Yeah, I need to remember to take down that Craig’s List post.

A moment about Craig’s List: all websites have their problems; some don’t filter well, some have too many ads or not enough information, some don’t have a good map or the photos are too small; but Craig’s List is special. Only there can a month-old listing be automatically renewed and then get labeled as “Posted six hours ago.” Only there can one person list the same property seventy-nine times, so that your search for a place turns up just that one freaking condo. Only there can people post an email address as their sole contact information, and then fail to return any and all correspondence. I’m glad that Craig’s List exists, because I prefer renting from individuals rather than property management companies with their own professional, polished websites; but I really wish someone could keep some individuals from using it.

But as I said, all websites have their problems. No pictures is one. That’s just absurd. Am I supposed to fall in love with the place based on your turgid prose? What is this, the nineteenth century? At least show me an etching. Another problem is failing to give particularly vital information — like the cooling system, here in Tucson. I don’t mean to be single-minded in my housing criteria, but you better believe I want to know about the air conditioning when the summer days regularly reach 110. (Side note: why the hell do all these houses have no air conditioning? Are you aware you live in the desert? And that extreme heat is uncomfortable? What is this, the nineteenth century? Shall I just sweat into my waistcoat and then bathe after a fortnight?) Another problem is when they don’t give the address unless and until you contact them and listen to a spiel about the place. It’s the same thing as the lies: you can say what you want, but I’m still going to drive by, and then insist on seeing the inside, before I give you a dime.

That brings me to a new problem we encountered on this search, but not in the past. There is a company here in Tucson that has two businesses related to rentals: they manage some properties, and they also offer a listing service — meaning they will sift through the dozens of websites and find listings that match your criteria and then send them to you, for a $60 fee for three months of emails. Fine and good. I don’t want to use the service, but I can see the value of it, particularly for very busy people, or those with the time and inclination to look for that one perfect needle in the haystack. The issue I have with them is that their listings, the properties they actually manage, are used as bait: they set the rents low, post listings on all of the regular sites, and conceal the addresses, offering their phone number for more information. Then you call and ask about that one place you saw online, and what do you get? A sales pitch for their listing service, which you need to sign up for before they will tell you a single thing about that one place you called for. Most annoying business model since the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And by the way: did someone say rent? Did someone say the rent is too damn high?

I can’t go into numbers, because they vary too widely from place to place, but the fact is, the amounts we are expected to pay for housing are just absurd.

A recent report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard, puts some numbers on just how bad this problem is: About half of all renters in the U.S. are using more than 30 percent of their income to cover housing costs, and about 25 percent have rent that exceeds 50 percent of their monthly pay.

from The Atlantic

How some of these people can stand to demand this much money for the broken-down shacks they offer is beyond me. I am extremely happy that we have moved to a place where there is enough inventory, and enough vacancy, to enable us to find a place for a decent price — which occurred partly because it was empty long enough for the landlord to bring the rent down — but sadly, the state where we live is one of the worst for paying teachers, so even with reasonable rents, the rent is still too large a piece of our income. But I know I am saying nothing that people don’t already know, and already bewail. Allow me just to point out that in Jonathan Swift’s famous essay A Modest Proposal, the one about eating Irish babies, the villains he names specifically are the landlords who take every penny that the poor Irish could earn or beg, leaving them no choice but to starve:


I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.


The rent has always been too damn high. Always.

Let me move on to something that not everybody will know about: renting with pets. The first problem is that this cuts your choices in half, if not by two-thirds — although (and this is even more annoying than the number of landlords who won’t allow pets) several of those just don’t have it listed as an option, but if you call them, they don’t mind pets at all. Jerks. The second problem is the types of pets that are allowed: cats OK, but not dogs. Dogs OK, but not cats. Dogs and cats OK, but not over 25 pounds. I had a landlady turn us down once when I told her I had an iguana in a terrarium. The biggest problem, though, is that owning pets seems to be seen as a license for landlords to demand stuff: additional clauses in the agreement. Pet deposits. Pet rent. I mean, pet rent? Are you assuming that my pet has an income, and therefore you deserve a piece of it? Let me tell you: he doesn’t. Nobody pays him to be cute. He gives it away for free. Which is what makes him a better person than you. Let me also note that this whole scheme is bunk: would you charge me different rent based on the number of people living in the place? What if I had two jobs — would I pay two rents? The whole thing is ridiculous. An additional pet deposit on top of the security deposit presumes not only that my pet will do damage to the home, but also that said pet damage will be on top of the damage that I will do to the home, which will consume the entire security deposit. Same thing with additional pet clauses in the agreement: can’t you just leave it at “Don’t mess the place up?” Do we need to describe the ways I am not to mess the place up? Thank you for your trust. Here is all of my money.

All of it, and not just for rent. I’ve seen places that want first and last and a security deposit and a cleaning deposit and a deposit for each pet. A new one this search was a place that actually said the deposit was non-refundable. So does that mean they’re just going to keep it when you move out? Not surprising, that happens more often than not, but to just say it like that takes a lot of brass. Then they want fees: application fees, up to $80 per adult (And again: why do you need both of us? If I can pay the rent with my income, aren’t we done talking?). Just to apply for the opportunity to give you all the rest of my money. They want a credit check, a background check, proof of income (which must be three times the monthly rent), proof of employment, rental history going back five years, references from your last landlord and from three trustworthy individuals who know your character. It’s insane.

Look. I just want a house. Not a big house. It doesn’t have to be brand new, and it doesn’t have to be in perfect condition, and it doesn’t need to have nine bathrooms and a spa and all chrome-and-platinum appliances. I just want a place where my family can sleep at night, and then get up in the morning and go about our day. A place where I can write, and my wife can paint, and our dog can play with his Wubba. Somewhere that has rooms that fit our furniture, with enough space left to walk around and between things. Somewhere I can put my books on shelves, instead of in plastic tubs in the storage shed in the backyard. A cute place would be nice, but I’ll take a place with potential. Somewhere we can feel safe. Somewhere to live.

Is that too much to ask?