Downsizing in retirement: My own observations, Part 1: decluttering

I am nearing the completion of my downsizing, selling and moving out of an “estate” house and into a smaller condo.

I approached this subject with a posting here May 13, and said this would be an OJT experience.  I tried to preview the issues that could come up, and indeed there were a lot of unexpected twists.

It will take several postings to cover in detail some important points of what I learned from what actually happened, and some of this will be discussed with more specifics on my “doaskdotellnotes” blog where I talk about my obligations under my own trust.

I did want to hit one point hard tonight: the value of decluttering before downsizing. The house had a lot of unnecessary “stuff’ (kitchen related) that my parents had used.  I have also accumulated a lot of books and CD’s over the years, partly before my life played out largely before you could put your collections in the Cloud in digital format. I also had a lot of personal papers on various matters (like substitute teaching, and various matters concerning the original publication of my books).  Finally I had a lot of excess clothing.



What struck me was the amount of manual labor required to pack (by the moving company) and to haul away the junk (by junk removal companies, which I had really started before, especially with excess furniture).  All of this was on top of some furniture donations through the realtor to hurricane victims.

I remember on some volunteer assignments how much effort goes into sorting used clothing for distribution to clients in various community assistance and service events.  It takes a lot of time to deal with an unneeded item, either to give it away to someone who would really need it, or to dispose of it safely.  It does add perspective on volunteerism, which  may be more of a matter of hours and time than I used to think.

(Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2017, at 7L30 PM EST)

Why the “mandatory coverages” in Obamacare set a bad stage for future Internet law; Trump is actually on to something

Let’s think a moment about how mandatory insurance can work, in different areas, like health, auto, property.

Generally, you have to have auto insurance to have a driver’s license (how it’s required varies by state) you need property insurance for a mortgage, and with Obamacare (and previously Romneycare in Massachusetts) health insurance.  And Medicare and single payer in most other countries can be viewed as mandatory health insurance, paid for by much higher taxes.

Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) is partly driven by requirement that “healthy” young people will buy coverages they as individuals are almost certainly not going to need, to support otherwise much higher premiums for people who do need them.  I’ve said here that we probably need publicly funded props (subsidies — not just tax cuts — and reinsurance, to help pay for health care for the sickest people), which would affect the deficit and maybe require cuts elsewhere (maybe in Social Security, for example, slowly increasing age eligibility) to control spending.  I may be OK with some of the aspects of “community rating” – that is, men have to buy pregnancy coverage because it takes two to tango – and we want, as a policy matter, some sort of gender equality. (It wouldn’t hurt me some day if PrEP were covered, although at my age it’s not real likely.)

But requiring people to buy add-on coverages for other people’s risks (“moral hazard”) is generally a dangerous idea, that can set up a bad precedent for other misuse.  That’s one reason why I am somewhat behind “TrumpCare” or “RyanCare” or “PriceCare,” if you really get serious about covering everybody somehow.  The Republicans want the states to take more responsibility for this area.  Under a federal system (compared to a unitary system like China’s) that seems appropriate.  We no longer trust the states to manage their own ideas of “equal protection” (from the 14th Amendment all the way to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, ending with Stonewall) but we generally allow states a lot of leeway in just how they want their residents to pay for services or how much to privatize some services.  States vary on whether or not they have their own income taxes, and to what extent they want to charge user fees or tolls.  As California found out in the late 1970s, they can have their own battles on using property taxes to fund public education.  So, yes, the OMB is appropriate concerned about how the reddest states will handle a block grant approach to health care. But our Constitution and federalism limit just how much coercion the federal government can use, even for worthwhile policy goals.

In the past twenty years, auto and property companies have been combining normal property or physical liability (and damage loss, from accidents and storms) with cyber liability from Internet use.  The latter liabilities can include the cost of defending frivolous defamation suits (as with review sites) and copyright or even incidental trademark or patent infringement (from trolls), but they can also include losses due to identity theft or cybercrime (recently, ransomware).  In some cases, the higher limit auto policies are available only in umbrella policies that have all these other coverages (which have nothing to do with the likelihood of causing an auto accident or of being hit by a tornado).  In fact, as we know from the attempts around 2001 or so by the National Writers Union to buy media perils coverage for its members (and another push for this in 2008, shortly before the financial crisis), the risk for an individual consumer of being sued for Internet behavior is extremely hard to underwrite and predict, compared to the risks in the physical world.

I can imagine (especially from the “Left”) pushes to make cyber insurance mandatory components of property policies, and I hope the GOP would apply the same skepticism to this idea it has to health insurance mandatory coverages.  You can imagine the pressures:  because I have an unusual last name, I’m not as prone to identity theft as someone with an Anglicized name, but should I have to subsidize the premiums of someone more likely to experience it?  Because of the “gratuitous” nature of my self-publication (it doesn’t pay its own way) activity “in retirement” (maybe that’s like “in relief” in a baseball game’s bullpen), I don’t face the same risks as other people who actually need to support families with their writing, but I face my own unusual perils (mostly related to “implicit content” as I found out with a bizarre incident in 2005 when I was working as a substitute teacher – the concept has to do with attracting politically or socially motivated targeted risk to others connected to “you”). The main prevention is to know what I am doing.  (I do;  for example, I know how to recognize scams.)

But the permissive legal environment that has allowed user generated content to flourish does raise serious questions for me, involving some personal matters (how I place value on interactions with others who have more intrinsic need, and how I am willing, with volunteerism, to fit in and belong to a group and speak for its needs – accept “partisanship”).  The legal props include Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor, all of which makes me wonder how the Web still works in Europe, where these kinds of protections are weaker and where there is even an enforced “right to be forgotten” (and where, as Trump points out, defendants have to prove they told the truth in libel cases).  The permissiveness seems to have led to an world where there is a lot of recklessness and abuse, ranging from cuberbullying or stalking or revenge porn, to outright terror recruiting — largely because writers with sincerely put arguments wind up preaching to their own choirs, created by news aggregation.  Again, I could be silenced if I had to be insured, because my speech is not “popular” enough to pay its own way, especially in a mandatory insurance world.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2017 at 6 PM EDT)

Volunteering usually needs to get personal

Conservatives often prompt the idea that the needy can be served by volunteerism even better than by publicly owned and run services (as we can see right off from the health care debate).

It’s rather logical to ask, then, if volunteerism, working in service to others for free, is to be expected on moral grounds from those who are able.

Right off the bat, I call to mind some passages in the 2007 book “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero, where the authors maintain that only within the nuclear and somewhat extended family can a determination “from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs” be made. I remember how that quote of Karl Marx was thrown around the barracks of Fort Eustis back in 1969 when I was in the Army.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has voiced similar ideas, that “It Takes a Family” (his 2005 book) to socialize people into meeting real needs.

But you can encircle the family with communities, and those with a country, so you can imagine how a moral expectation of service can fan out.

I can imagine, however, a mentality, where the poor could view some sort of structured personal attention or care from “the rich” as a moral entitlement, even in a “free” and conservative society.  Off hand, that doesn’t strike me as particularly encouraging for developing healthful self-concepts among the disadvantaged.  I’m recalling a time in kindergarten, in early 1949, when the teacher (who ran the class in her home) separated the class into “brownies” (who stayed downstairs – and I was one, despite that everyone was “white”) and “elves” (who got to sit in the living room upstairs).  I felt like I was put into a defined underclass, yet entitled to expect attention.  Maybe that did help shape some of the development issues I would have in the grade school years.

We don’t start out on life in the same place in line, to be sure.  OK, we can get into the whole debate on the role of “privilege” in setting up moral expectations of people. There are different kinds of disadvantage.  Of course, being born into poverty or in a totalitarian culture normally hurts once likely future station in life.  But there is a perpendicular situation:  within a particular family, which may be well-off, one is born with disability or a general lower level of capacity.  It can happen between twins or multiple births in the womb, or just among siblings.  So the social conservatives are right in saying that inside the “natural family”, if it is about the right size, people learn to develop affection and bonds to others in the family or group who may be less capable.

The tendency to look at some people as “better” than others relates to the real concerns about the outside world knocking that practically everyone in my generation dealt with.  Less capable people could become a drag on the group if faced with security problems.  Among men, the biggest and strongest often stepped up to defend the clan and took the casualties.  There was not a lot that could be done about most disabilities, so there wasn’t a lot of talk that helping those with disabilities was an expected thing to do.  On the other hand, the expectation of adhering to the personal discipline of confining sexuality to heterosexuality marriage was seen as a personal equalizing force, giving stability and sustainability to a families, tribes and whole countries that faced external perils.

Obviously, today things are a lot different.  Many people (myself especially) are not tied to families, and see pleas online to get involved personally with the needs of others in a way that would have been seen as inappropriate or unwelcome in earlier generations.  “Gofundme” has become a social norm today, when it strikes an older person like me as grating and self-indulgent.

Practically all communities have organizations that serve the poor.  Many are faith-based.  They offer services like healthful food preparation and delivery (sometimes owning their own gardens for fresh foods), various monthly community assistance (like groceries, clothing, HIV testing,, as well as meals), to specialized services needed by specific communities (elderly, some LGBTQ, asylum seekers and refugees, single mothers, those with mental health or substance problems).  Often the communities ask for lots of volunteers for special events (Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, monthly assistance).   Sometimes there are home-building or rehab events (as with group homes for the disabled, or with Habitat for Humanity) The interaction between the volunteers and those being helped will vary, not always being encouraged. Sometimes it seems that the purpose of the activity is more to build social capital among the group (often faith-based).

Volunteering has become more subject to bureaucracy.  Now there are usually automated background checks of volunteers, especially for those who will drive vehicles or work with minors.

I do find that occasional volunteering to be problematic.  I don’t accomplish much or make much difference when I am there.  Further, there are situations where unexpected personal risk is involved, like driving into unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods to make deliveries.

I think it should be more promising to look for more specialized opportunities where one can use one’s own expertise.  With my background, for example, I could perhaps direct chess tournaments attracting low income youth.  Or I could do something with my classical music background, although that can become problematic if it involved pandering to notions about popularity.  If I were involved with music, I’d be more interested in seeing some particular neglected works(not just my own as I composed) performed. As a self-published book author, I do get questions about being more supportive of community book stores (hard copies instead of Internet and Kindle) and of literacy initiatives.

But actual interaction with clients will often be problematic for me.  That is something I did not learn through familial socialization the way others have.  I didn’t learn to place emotional value on having someone depend on me. In the decades of my own upbringing, you would learn that partly through heterosexual courtship leading to marriage and parenthood within it.  Otherwise, my own somewhat “sheltered” upbringing really didn’t require me to interact personally with people with earthier temperaments;  some of it was avoided by placing unwelcome interaction in the category of teasing or even bullying, avoidance of somewhat physical competition on other people’s terms.  That artificial isolation and introversion continued during my long-track information technology career as an individual contributor, where I basically interacted with just “the choir”, people with cognition similar to mine. This diffidence really showed up when I worked as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s, and, with low-income or disadvantaged students (especially middle school) encountered interpersonal demands that one normally needs to have been a parent to encounter.  Or perhaps one would learn it through helping raising younger siblings (I had none) or raising as sibling’s children after a family tragedy, something which sometimes happens in inheritance situations (like “Raising Helen”). It’s notable and ironic that when I was growing up, eldercare was not seen as a challenging issue because our grandparents didn’t live as long as they can now.  My own eldercare situation from 1999 on to 2010 had aspects (how old even I was as well as Mother) that would not have happened often in earlier times.

Focused interaction with clients requires commitment to a narrower set of person-related goals than I have experienced until now.  I like being the public person who forces others to “connect the dots”.   The level of personal commitment needed requires (as the character Ephram on “Everwood” once wrote in a fictitious essay) the “ability to change” and share an outcome for a group. The one time I was the most personally engaged was in the mid 1980s when I volunteered with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas as an AIDS “buddy” (rather assistant), although somewhat on my own terms.

On a couple of occasions, both in the early 1990s, I got feedback from two different organizations that I would not be effective unless I was more involved with the group, including spending more time with it and being more integrated to the group’s specific goals.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 10 PM EDT)

Retirees could face rental qualification issues as they downsize

This blog is not the normal place where I discuss personal history details, but personal experience does jive with policy and business issues for me when it comes to retirement and growing older, just as it has with gay issues.

I did come out of my “career ending” (so to speak) IT layoff at the end of 2001 with ING (now Voya) in better shape than most, with very ample severance and retirement pension.  And I did land from a seven-plus year eldercare experience, with a lot of hired caregiver help in the last 18 months (over $100,000 worth) much better of that I might have.  For example, in 2013 the “estate” amounted to private insurance to cover my dental implants (no, Medicare doesn’t cover them).

You don’t get to drop out of the competitive world and yet stay in “public life” (to quote one of actor Anthony Hopkins’s more notorious characters) forever, as you know it is a mathematical certainty that you will have a last day, a last supper (so to speak), a last plane trip, a last film, a last blog post. At some point it is likely (though not certain) that “my” brain will have to deal with the idea that it is over.  It gives me more reason to ponder the afterlife (the “Focus” areas as much as the Hallow Heavens, as the Monroe Institute puts it), the nature of how “I-ness” (a “strange loop” of Hofstadter) embeds itself into some sort of permanent distributed consciousness.

One of the issues is downsizing.  I am in an “inherited” house, which technically belongs to a trust.  There can occur some situations where this could be risky (like recovering from a big natural disaster).  It could be easier for me to focus on my “journalism”, fiction and music if I was in a modern, secure building, like I was in Minneapolis (the Churchill) from 1997-2003.  I could be more credible with others.  Yes, I have “space”, but housing others involves time and risk and is hard to set up to do properly (this has come up with the asylum seeker issue, as I have written here before). There is a particular risk of holding real estate assets whose value could disappear in a major WMD terror attack.  Yes, we don’t like to talk about it.  Renting might be safe.  Of course, you can get into Stansberry (or Ron Paul) -like debates on how personal nest eggs can disappear quickly because of global currency manipulation – who knows where Donald Trump’s stumbles can lead? I do understand the appeal of the doomsday prepper position after all, but am not equipped to deal with it. I remain dedicated to solving problems and making civilization work and sustainable.  (Hey, I voted for Hillary.  I wanted Al Gore in 2000, and we might have avoided 9/11 and the War in Iraq.)

I’ve recently started looking at the issue of how retirees who have assets but less income than normally qualify for an apartment.  I covered this on a legacy blog post in late April after looking into this a little while in NYC.   I would much rather live in a secure building with the “general population” than in a 55+ community, which is probably more expensive but may be easier to qualify.  Some of these communities are located farther in the exurbs (or all over Florida) and it would be hard to reach normal urban cultural activities from them – but some have their own theaters, for example.  Many senior centers bring in artists to perform but they are likely to be less intellectually challenging and more conventionally “popular”.

I’ve seen many comments that many apartment developments, those run by large property companies, do not want to use savings for qualification.  I can understand the reluctance:  investments can lose value, or be spent.  It sounds as if it is possible to convert (by having your financial institution sell some assets and set it up) some savings to secured cash accounts, for a year’s rent, and this may work with some landlords.  You would want to keep your name on rent for future periods (beyond a normal security deposit) in case something catastrophic happens to the building. That may or may not be safer than having cash tied up in conventional condo or co-op ownership.

Sometimes builders buy tear-downs from seniors in houses and let them live rent-free for a while, during which period the senior needs to find an apartment.  A senior might need to do it this way to have the cash to set up such a rent deposit account. Furthermore, pension income or even social security income could go down in the future due to problems at a previous employer or due to a more hostile political climate.

I was also told, and this seems disconcerting for someone with little family left, that the senior should be prepared to provide references to the landlord.  This is difficult if he or she hasn’t worked steadily in years but has lived on assets.  It does suggest that, given longer life spans and fewer kids,  seniors should consider trying to work as along as possible — even if it means some objectionable consumerist and myopic personal hucksterism — rather than ride on assets and play the pundit game (as I did).   There was a hint to use volunteer organizations for references.  But imagine the coercion involved in such an idea.  That gives the bureaucracy of larger charities in a position to judge the characters and reputations of people who need references – and encourages some charities to put more pressure on retirees to support their narrowly focused agendas.  This is a very disturbing comment.

I won’t go too far further into this problem here today, but in the past I’ve gotten feedback that it is difficult to be effective in any volunteer organization without really “belonging” to the group.  I’ll go into this more in another post soon.  Again, rather disturbing, but it is part of the whole problem of maintaining social capital among people without their own families, as even some libertarian writers like Charles Murray have noted.

Typical 55+ discussion.

(Posted on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

A few good links about service, resistance, and civil disagreement — and engagement

Here are a few links today that have to do with the general area of “giving back” when you are privileged, or perhaps the “Pay It Forward” idea (like the 2000 movie).

The first is a blog post from the “Mental Health Wellness Blog” of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA.  Yes, this congregation certainly has more than its share of high performers, in high school and college students, and grownups.  It’s generally mainstream liberal (more or less Obama and Clinton).  Maybe some (like the Steve Bannon crowd) would see some elitism, but in the past the pastor has introduced ideas like “radical hospitality” (right before Hurricane Sandy, which did little damage here), which might arguably matter today in the immigration (refugee and asylum seeker) issue. In fact, the congregation has sponsored one refugee family (which is thoroughly pre-vetted and housed in a regular commercially rented townhouse or apartment in northern Virginia).  Some of the congregation participates in community activities like “Lotsa Helping Hands”, which do build social capital.

The blog posting title is titled “Talking Politics”.   The tone of the post presumes that most people with “real lives” (families to raise) need to focus narrowly on things and have limited interest in the abstraction of political issues that you see all the time on CNN (most of all in the age of Donald Trump).  A couple of points stood out.  One idea is to be focused on one or two issues.  I started out that way two decades ago with “gays in the military” (in the early days of “don’t ask, don’t tell”) but, partly because of background and my own approach to “retirement”, I spread out into most policy issues, concentrically, over the years, in my books and blogs.  So I’ve been breaking that rule for a long time.  The other point is in item 3, to “volunteer” and to make sure some our your work is “offline” and uses your “body” as well as your mind.  That could get dicey.  Yes, it can start with the practical issue of service, being efficient in meeting the real needs of other people as, (in the polarity speak of the Paul Rosenfels Community – formerly Ninth Street Center  — demands on “feminine subjectives” – unbalanced personalities like me., which I wound up doing dishes for their Saturday Night potlucks back in the 1970s). But it could extend to allowing your own body and its external trappings to become fungible – like the “Be Brave and Shave” fundraisers at the Westover Market in Arlington a few years ago (for cancer).

The next point is an edgy piece on the Foundation for Economic Education, by African-American columnist TJ Brown, “Fight for a More Civilized Bigotry”.  Maybe this sounds like an oxymoron. Brown talks about the  development of his own attitude toward transgender (or non-binary gender) people. But he correctly (and with writing far gentler than from people like Milo Yiannopoulos) notes that the “radical Left” demands obedience to its demands from those who have been in some privileged class.  His column fits well into the discussion of campus speech codes, as well as violent protests.  Note the recent statement from the James Madison Program at Princeton after the unrest at the appearance of libertarian Charles Murray (“The Bell Curve”, “Coming Apart”) at a campus event in New Hampshire – let alone Milo.

Then I note a Facebook posting by Jack Andraka (Stanford University sophomore, known for inventing a simple blood test for pancreatic cancer, as chronicled in his 2015 book “Breakthrough“) today,   He writes “Development is complicated and these issues don’t lend themselves to ‘silver bullets’ If you’re thinking of going into development or really any non-profit/social entrepreneurship venture read this”.  That is, an article by Courtney Martin, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”, here.   Now the word “development” in this context usually means “fund raising”, or it may mean going to a hardship area to serve.  The writer asks young adults particularly to think twice about the idea that going overseas is the best way to serve.  It certainly may be riskier (like Doctors Without Borders and Ebola recently – or the 2003 film “Beyond Borders” by Martin Campbell.

.The last reference for the day concerns “resistance”.  I think that the boundaries between service, activism, and resistance are getting blurred these days, which may be disorienting to many people contemplating their own actions (me, for one). The Invisible Team has published a handbook on Google Docs, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”.  First, the word “agenda” catches my attention.  For a few months in 2009-2010, the Washington Blade newspaper called itself the “DC Agenda” when its parent company folded, until it got the right to use its trademarked name as an independent paper. Anyway, the Guide refers, of course, to community organizing (in the style of Barack Obama, maybe).  There is the appropriate focus on local issues, but one point stood out, to act defensively, rather than make your own policy proposals (which I do).  It sounds like saying its OK to pimp the victimhood of members of your own marginalized group.  Say how much you’re oppressed!  That never sits well, with me at least.

I do think it is very hard to make a difference with service — beyond the political value of “paying your dues” as an answer to inequality — without belonging to a group and sharing your life in some substantial, interpersonal way with others in the group, with some sense of proprietary loyalty to those persons.

(Posted: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 at 9:45 PM EDT)


Volunteer organizations and some employers need to be more transparent about personal risk


I recall that particular dichotomy on the “right” leaf of an elementary school bifolio report card, “Progress of th pupil as an individual” v. “progress of the pupil as a member of the group.”  I was definitely the fomer.  I’ve always been remote from meeting the real needs, in an adaptive sense (what Rosenfels meant by “adaptive” v. “creative”) of other people.


So volunteering effectively is a challenge.  I noted, on Nov. 6, that the possibility of unusual personal risk is always in the back of my mind. That can morph into what we used to call cowardice, in the days that we had male-only conscription.

One of my takes is that organizations asking for volunteers, or for services (like hosting people) need to be transparent and clear about what they are asking for.  Organizations can share liability with volunteers for serious mishaps (earlier writeup).

But organizations (and some employers) sometimes have periods of unusual demand, or unusual personal sensitivity.  I agree, that there have been a few occasions where I signed up for something provisionally, and then had to back out when I found out that an assignment could present an unacceptable situation that I am not prepared for.   In the future, I will be much more insistent that organizations disclose certain details to me than I have in the past, when I have reason to suspect that the organization or employer faces enhanced challenges from its own clients.


Many organizations find that “occasional” volunteers don’t work out that well, and find that a minimal rate of participation, including orientation, and also other bonding with members of the group, turns out to be necessary.  I was told this on two separate occasions in the 1990s after a couple of misunderstandings.  People are supposed to just “know” by belonging.  But this can be dangerous for new volunteers in some situations.

There were a couple of occasions when I was substitute teaching, especially shortly after I had started in 2004, when I backed out of a couple assignments after learning that the duties could involve far more intimate contact with disabled students than I had anticipated (details).  I had accepted the assignments, by cell phone codes, believing that I needed to be venturesome to see if substitute teaching would generate enough assignments for a decent income.  The assignments had been outside my normal “profile” preferences emphasizing academics.

This was a very sensitive issue for me.  Had I ever had my own children through conventional marriage, I would be prepared for “OPC” (other people’s children).  That’s one reason, by inverse logic or by “potentiality”, why “family values” matter, so that someone like “me” can step up when necessary.  But think about the situation another way.  I could have been working for minimum wage in a convenience store, exposed to the physical dangers we all know that problem brings.  Or I could have been delivering newspapers at 3 AM.   I was in a sense starting over.  This is the underside of “class warfare” and resentment politics (as we just saw), and it’s all very disturbing.

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 at 10:45 PM EST)

Does mandatory national service make sense now, in a free country, to promote risk-sharing and “egalitarianism”?


Sunday, September 11, 2016, I looked at the Selective Service system, now possibly redundant, for any future military conscription.  It’s natural to ask whether it would make sense to extend the idea to national service.

I remember hearing proposals for national service after all the insider trading scandals on Wall Street starting in the late 1980s (or earlier, as in R. Foster Winans’s book “Trading Secrets”).

In early 2002, shortly after my “career-ending” layoff at the end of 2001, I did look at volunteering for the Peace Corps, and I went to an orientation session in Minneapolis.  But when I looked at the application form, it turned out they were looking for people with much more active social interaction (with children, for example, or the disabled) than I had experienced in the IT workplace as an “individual contributor”.  They even wanted personal references who could attest to the candidate’s interpersonal skills.  And, yes, the web presence I had built up in conjunction with my books could have been a problem overseas in underdeveloped countries.


I recall, back in the 60s, that VISTA (Volunteers in Service for America) had some traction.  After 9/11, the government tried to promote Americorps but it seemed lost in its our bureaucracy.  The “Teach for America” program seemed to have some merit.

I think it’s unlikely a federal government bureaucracy can run service programs nearly was well as private non-profits, especially those that are faith-based (where, unfortunately, LGBTQ discrimination could still happen in some religions).

I think college-age people learn a lot from overseas projects that churches sponsor, with some risk, in the summers.  And churches often sponsor bus “camp” trips to volunteer after domestic disasters, but a lot of times volunteers are the ones who have to learn from more resilient rural residents who have to eke out a living in more hazardous places.

When I grew up, there was an expected time progression.  You were supposed to be in college by 18, and be graduated by 22.  Student deferments from the draft, morally controversial, somewhat sheltered the better off (and white), kept young men on this schedule if their grades were good enough. .

It’s natural  to think that national service could help solve the student debt problem,  Yes, there is help for veterans (link)   The Peace Corps has rather limited assistance that can help (link ).

I think the “libertarian” answer to student debt would more be that students should work more during their college years and often enough, start out adult lives with their own apartments and cars sooner.  This is particularly appealing for colleges located in technology areas (whether Silicon Valley, Austin TX, or the Research Triangle Park corridor in North Carolina), where there are plenty of companies that can give students a head start on the real world of work.   In fact, Peter Thiel gives fellowships to gifted students to drop out of college and start tech companies.

I recall in the summer of 1965, when I was still “living at home” and going to George Washington University, taking organ lessons at First Baptist Church from an 18-year-old organist Bill Evans who was a freshman at Peabody in Baltimore at the same time.

There are plenty of sites online that take sides on the national service debate.  This one mentions the mandatory risk taking (like the military).    Brookings offered a thoughtful discussion in 2002 by E J Dionne and Kayla Meltzer Drogosz.  Karen Whitney offers a piece for the “liberal” Huffington Post in 2012.   (Huffington has a piece against Teach for America.)   Richard Stengel proposed a detailed national service plan in Time Magazine in 2007 (“A Time to Service: The Case for National Service“) with many provocative components, including a Baby Bond, and various corps, such as Disaster Response, Senior, and Green. and a “summer of service”.   Most of the “pro” pieces come from a mindset of a certain forced egalitarianism, communitarianism, and statecraft.

During the time of “don’t ask don’t tell”, national service could have become relevant if the draft had been reinstated (as after 9/11).

One other facet off this comes to mind.  When I drive into rural areas, I see signs asking people to join volunteer fire departments – with all the risk-taking – everywhere.  Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper had once mentioned the idea of joining one – I don’t know if MLB contracts would allow it.  I’m also reminded of the idea of Mormon missions – which the missionaries pay for themselves – but which sound like they involve so much religious proselytizing. Fire departments (as we say on CNN’s documentary on 9/11) involve a lot of communal living, just like the military, and back in the 1970s, before the lifting of the military ban could be taken seriously, their “forced intimacy” was sometimes used as ammunition against anti-GLBT discrimination laws.

Sebastian Junger offers a rather interesting argument in the video above, noting that humans are wired to survive together as a group and serve the common good, when necessary (see review of “Tribe” May 31 ).

Update: Oct. 1:  Hillary Clinton has proposed “National Service Reserve” on her own website.  She made some bluster of the fact that she tweeted about this at 3 AM while Donald Trump was indulging his fantasies about women’s desirability on Twitter.  While her proposal focuses on the service of young adults, it wounds logical to conceive as national service as periodic throughout a lifetime, but that would have a big effect on the courses of lives (like mine). Back in 2002, I did hear about a Peace Corps volunteer who had joined at 82.  On the other hand, not every (or even most) volunteer commitment should be viewed as “national service”; that would drain local volunteer projects.

Pictures:  from AARP’s “Meal Pack Challenge, as it ended, Monday, September 12, 2016.

(Published: Wednesday, Sept, 14m 2016 at 3:30 PM EDT)

Should school districts make community service hours a graduation requirement?


On Sunday, February 11, 1968, I stood in newly issued fatigues in formation in a biting wind, with snow flurries, after a southern cold front blew into the Carolina Midlands at Fort Jackson, SC, as the drill sergeant barked, “I need some volunteers”.  We all raised our hands, almost as if giving a Hitler salute, so as not to stand out.  I didn’t have to “volunteer” that day and was soon back in drafty but warmer barracks. I thought, we have to learn to deal with the “freezin’, fuckin’ cold”.  Soon, the skin on my wrists would start to crack.

Now, fast forward.


Many public school systems (and many private schools, like Catholic or other parochial schools) now require community service as a graduation requirement.  Is this a good idea?

“Mandatory volunteering” is an oxymoron. But there is practical pressure on a lot of us to give back or to join in, because if “we” don’t, we depend on others who make the sacrifices and take the risks for us.

Actually, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Community service requirements for graduation, as an issue, intersects with or is related to, but still distinct from, some other issues like the military draft (whether it should include women), national service, corporate internships in lieu of regular jobs, and even use of community service in criminal sentences (making “service” non-voluntary).  These will all be covered later separately.

The best piece I could find on it was a 2008 New York Times article by Douglas Quenqua, “Good Deeds, the Backlash”. (An earlier similar column from 2003 had curiously been removed by the NYT.)   But there are pieces by the School Superintendent Association, college administrators, and “”. This last site does set up an “opposing viewpoints” forum that I have envisioned doing in the past.

In general, many observers are critical of the obsession by school systems with meeting a “clock hours” requirement, but the same observers believe that some volunteer assignments do provide valuable student learning experiences, perhaps worthy of some academic credit.

I would be inclined to agree with that summary.  Think about it.  Maryland schools require 75 clock hours.  That would be something like 19 Saturdays with four-hour stints for a whole semester.  But that’s about the amount of class-equivalent time that it takes to earn about six credit hours in college.  Is six credit hours of “service” reasonable, say split between junior and senior years in high school?  Probably.  But when there is a preoccupation with “The Hours” (like the three-part movie), there’s a tendency for abuse.  Companies offer youth tours for “service credits” to the Caribbean or Central America, maybe with little service and some risk to the safety of students.

High schools (and colleges, but we’ll come back to that) should construct assignments where the focus is on skills learning (including people skills), and completing certain projects.  It’s easy to imagine projects that teach handiness (or “handyman”, to quote one of my own novel manuscripts) skills and service the community.  For example, organic garden work to provide healthful produce for food banks (diabetic clients are helped), or construction of affordable housing (leaning some construction trade or shop skills), or perhaps some environmental cleanup, or sometimes, tutoring in literacy and math programs.  In Washington state, representative Steve Berquist says community service inspired a young man become a teacher (and potentially run for office). And, yes, service assignments can give some students experience with regimentation and manual labor, a sense of the world that they will depend on.  If that sounds a tad Maoist, so be it.  Yet, all of this sounds cynical, apart from love and belonging.


In college, sometimes there a projects, worthy of academic credit, more readily done in the real world outdoors or in corporate computer labs (like in Research Triangle Park) than on campus (UNC or Duke nearby).  At Grandfather Mountain, NC, (in a film I staw there) biologists learn rappelling skills because that is the only way to study some altitude-sensitive unusual plants and animals – which could wind up having medicinal value for people.  I’ll come back to interning later, but it seems valid when there can be genuine graduation credit given and when there is real learning involved, as well as potential service.


We could see science fair projects as a kind of service, or find ways to fit them in to a service program and give credit.  Think about the contribution of Taylor Wilson, and of both Jack and Luke Andraka.

I think you can make a case for the fact that high school graduates should have learned some other community skills: learning to swim, learning CPR, and to some extent rescue skills.

(Published: Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016 at 10:45 AM)