Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SOTU 2015

Below are the thoughts that went through my head during President Obama's State of the Union address. The president's remarks are in red. My thoughts are in blue. 

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds... They were young and in love in America, and it doesn't get much better than that.


Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.

But higher education has never been more irrelevant to success in America than it is today. A high school diploma or college degree doesn't really mean anything.

We've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years.

The stock market doubled, but retirement funds weren't magically re-filled. Health care inflation is at its lowest rate in 50 years? No way. I don't believe it. I just paid $25 for a single dose of Miralax at the hospital.

We know that more small business owners plan to raise their employees' pay than at any time since 2007.

I'll believe it when I see it.

Like millions of hardworking Americans, Rebekah isn't asking for a handout, but she is asking that we look for more ways to help families get ahead.

Yes. To take it one step further, we're not even looking for ways to get ahead; just staying afloat will be fine.

During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority – so this country provided universal childcare.

1. Your grandfather was in WWII? Cool. I didn't know you had military service in your background.

2. Our country provided universal childcare? Really? I hate that war is a greater motivator for social programming than just the existence of basic family needs.

Today, we're the only advanced country on Earth that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.

I've stayed home several times, without pay, to care for a sick child. It kind of sucks all around. I've also had 4 babies without paid maternity leave. And Wally's gone back to work within 24 hours of each birth (within two hours of the last one), since he works at a job without paternity leave. We did the old-fashioned thing of saving up money before each birth and then living off of it. But paid sick days or provision for medical leave would have been nice.

Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.

You can't legislate being a decent employer. Businesses will find a way around anything, just like they did with the Affordable Care Act. Mandatory health insurance for employees working 30 hours or more? Cut them back to 29 hours a week. (We have personal experience on this one.)

The problem isn't full-time employees not having enough benefits. The problem is employers using part-time and contract employees to avoid having to provide any benefits. Even if legislation is passed that guarantees full-time employees seven days of paid sick leave, it's not going to help the low-wage positions that actually need this benefit.

And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.

For real.

We'll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter's earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company's long-term interest.

Yeah, I'm tired of this "small businesses can't support all this bureaucracy" bullshit. It's not crazy to expect those who benefit from the good work of others to ensure a decent life for their workers. I watched the president of our company take international vacations with his extended family every year, spend hundreds of thousands in renovations on their second home, and still refuse a wage increase to employees.

That's why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero.

I agree that skills training is needed for more jobs than ever. And high school isn't adequately preparing people. I like that this initiative would be open to people of any age and income. There's still much that needs to happen to improve our current education system.

And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend.


Tonight, I'm launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes – and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.

Wait, what? He might as well have said, "And tonight, I'm launching a new Traffic Magic Machine to help us stop rush hour and give all of us everything we need to be. Next topic."

Um, anything else on what this is, how it works, what it actually means?

In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it.

Ha-ha, cool. I'm kind of ambivalent about further spending on space, but NASA gave us disposable diapers, which have made a tangible difference in my life. So, carry on, carry on.

But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They've riddled it with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.

Argh. For real. I'm not actually looking for more tax breaks for the middle class. I'm really okay with paying taxes. But when I'm paying a higher percentage than corporations and the super-wealthy, it sets me off. Let's fix the tax code.

When the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That's what our enemies want us to do.

I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building...

Yes, thank you.

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for fifty years, it's time to try something new.

Awesome! Yes! It's about time!

In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola – saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn't be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts.

Yay for bipartisanship! (cue patriotic music in my head)

That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they're right, but because they make us safer.

It's okay if we only do these things because they're right.

Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are.

I like that. "It's not who we are."

We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

Yes, absolutely. Even on the opposite side of this issue from President Obama, I can whole-heartedly agree with this. Way to find common ground.

Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

It might just be the post-partum hormones, but this made me tear up. I love the idea of opening our arms to everyone looking for a better life in America.

I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol – to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.

Well-said. I hope it's not just more politic-talk, and they can actually get stuff done.

I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.

Let's speak this to the children in every womb also. Get women the support and resources we need to care for the children we conceive. Don't make us choose between killing our babies and economic stability.

It got long-winded with all the obligatory soliloquies in closing. But who am I to judge for being long-winded?

Picture Source

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Salt Lake City! And Southern Utah! And Hey, The Grand Canyon Is Kind Of Close!

Salt Lake City was not anywhere on our bucket list of places to visit.

We had two free airline vouchers and a vacation window in mid-June, so I called American Airlines about six weeks in advance to check flights. Our comp tickets were the lowest of the low, because even with the availability to fly any time, any day of the week, we couldn't get to a single airport along the west coast, near any national parks in the northwest, not one of twelve airports serviced in Florida (TWELVE), and nothing along the eastern seaboard.

So three days and four phone calls and an hour and a half later on the phone with several American Airlines reps (the only way to book with these vouchers), I finally reached an agent who was as intrigued as I was frustrated by the challenge to get us on a flight to anywhere. She checked at least a dozen destinations without success, before throwing out, "Salt Lake City? I have two seats on a Wednesday morning flight, and two more seats to return a week later." 

We'll take it.

So two baby-mooners on a budget (twins due in 4 months), we booked a couple nights at a ski lodge in southern Utah ($65/night) followed by a super-cheap hotel room in Salt Lake City ($45/night) via Groupon. The ski lodge was beautiful. The super-cheap hotel room was under construction and under-staffed, and a little out-of-the-way, but safe, clean, and included complimentary "breakfast." A rental car for the week came to about $100, including taxes and fees.

I was so sold on Salt Lake City's low cost-of-living that I asked Wally to apply for jobs in the area. (Nothing's come up yet.) As it turns out Utah has a lot more to offer than just living on the cheap.

The more I researched stuff to do, the more convinced I was that we should just move there. It's an outdoor, active culture with family-friendly everything.

Park City Olympic Park

This is the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Ski flying looks even more terrifying in person, staring down from the top of the launch. (Each ski lines up in one of those green tracks. See the video below of people with steep life insurance policies.)

We stopped to watch a summer kids camp practice freestyle ski jumping into the pool. This is when I realized that kids in Utah are in a totally different culture than our pampered little Texans. Sure we have summers of horseback riding, hiking, and swimming. But these 8-year-olds are strapped in full-on ski suits jumping into a pool deep enough to drown, and then swimming to the edge with three-foot-long weights on each foot.

Wally took a chair lift up to the top of the hill and zip-lined back down over the ski jumps. And then he got to ride in a bob sled. It all looked really cool, but being pregnant (with twins) meant I was stuck at the bottom listening to strangers' tell all their twin horror stories.

Downtown Park City 

Luckily, we visited their line-up of expensive Main Street shops during a cold rain, so after $12 sandwiches, we squinted and speed-walked our way back to the car, and the trip stayed on budget.

Grand Canyon National Park

This was straight-up terrifying. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever take your children here. Maybe occasional 3-foot chain link fencing was acceptable in 1919, but there's been a bit of erosion since then, and someone gets paid really well to bury stories like this.

Okay, truthfully, it was stunning. Grander than I expected. And the views from the restaurant on the north rim were beautiful.

Nonetheless, I'll never take our kids there. Because I love them.

Interestingly, even though the canyon is only 10 miles wide, it's a 220-mile drive from one side of the canyon to the other. So driving south from Utah, we tried to meet up with my brother, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, on the south side of the Canyon, but it was just too far to drive.

Brian Head 

Ski resorts in the summer are super-cheap, and we found a good deal on Groupon that came with a living room, kitchen, large bathroom, and bedroom. The on-site coffee shop, restaurant, and spa are open year-round, and there's lots of great hiking. For homebodies from Dallas, the views were stunning.

Bicycling is really popular on these winding, narrow mountain roads in southern Utah. But no one values the lives of cyclists very much (neither the drivers nor the cyclists). Every encounter turned into a game of chicken as we drove, with a tailgating SUV behind us and cyclists attempting to hold their own as we shared a lane of traffic on the freeway.

Speed limits are just suggestions. I think once the snow melts, it's just a free-for-all. Also, most 18-wheelers in Utah look like this, with extra trailers in a train behind the first:

Picture Source
Picture Source
The scariest driving moment for me was a section of road with snow melted across half of it. This twenty-foot patch in the shadow of a mountain had me absolutely panicked. (I wasn't even driving, luckily.)

Snow in Utah in June

Navajo Lake

We took our rental sedan on a rocky side road to hike Cascade Falls, a trail so popular that no road signs exist and the turn-off is not on any map.

Cascading Falls
This trail revealed that I'm either the worst helicopter mom ever, or Utah parents don't love their children. I hugged the wall most of the hike, with a hundred foot drop-off as the alternative, but four-year-olds were running up ahead of me, with their parents slowly following, oblivious to any fear or danger. You can see the trail and drop-off along the hillside below:

The Menu

We checked out Diners, Drive-ins, & Dives for places to eat in Salt Lake City. So much good food! Moochie's Meatballs & More was obviously a local favorite, as there was already a line to the door for meatball subs when we arrived at 10:30 am. I embarrassingly held up the line trying to interpret their wall of sandwich options.

The Evolution of Moochies (clearly, Food > Art)
Maxwell's East Coast Eatery had an awesome Sunday brunch menu to go with their regular full menu. I took advantage of both, thanks to my pregnancy cravings, and enjoyed a yogurt parfait with pepperoni jalapeno pizza.

Temple Square

A beautiful city block in downtown Salt Lake City is dedicated to the Mormon Temple and affiliated buildings. We enjoyed dinner at The Roof Restaurant, which won my heart with an endless buffet and awesome views of the Mormon temple. (No coffee or alcohol, but with the pregnancy, I wasn't supposed to be drinking those anyway).

I imagine we felt about as out-of-place as Mormon visitors might at the Vatican. We were surrounded by beautiful landscaping and architecture and history, much of it foreign to us, but we could enjoy it in our own way. I couldn't get over how nice everyone was. Since we aren't LDS, we couldn't enter the Temple, but as we visited other buildings in the square, everyone was very welcoming. It was cool to see the Tabernacle, which looked familiar, since the annual televised Christmas special of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is filmed there.

In Conclusion

We took our little baby-moon trip just in time! I was about as big as could comfortably travel, even though I was cleared to travel through August.

19 weeks pregnant with twins, June 2014
We spent hours driving from Salt Lake City in northern Utah to Brian Head in southern Utah to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Prior to our trip, my sister e-mailed a list of podcasts to download, and even sent us a CD of an NPR Snap Judgment segment on a girl who sent a stripper in her place to her ten-year high school reunion. But we haven't been able to finish a conversation since Joe was born in 2010, followed by Josh in 2011, so the hours of road-tripping in good company was just as fun as the sites and experiences!