Because I liked it, I’m publishing my oft-reserved-for-print column here.

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The Salem Leader
Generation Why – Column
Justin Harter
January 2013

You like wine and pie, right?

Hold on to your wigs and keys everyone, America has a new congress. The 113th, to be exact, so I think I speak for everyone when I say now’s a good time to be superstitious.

There’s a lot Congress should, and needs, to take up. One of which has particularly grated on my nerves lately: immigration reform. I’m not talking about Mexicans supposedly leaping over fences along the US-Mexico border to take our high-paying leaf blower jobs. I’m talking about the idiotic policy this country takes that fights against itself.

Imagine this scenario: you’re out with a friend and your friend says, “Hey, why don’t you come over to dinner later? I’ll make soup.” And you say, “Hey, that sounds great. I’ll bring some wine and dessert for us, too!” And you’re all set. So you go over to your friend’s house later that evening with a nice bottle of wine and a freshly made pie. Your friend welcomes you in, you enjoy some soup, and once you both finish the main course, your friend turns to you and says, “Okay, that was great, but you have to leave now. And take your wine and pie with you.”

That is exactly what this country does when it comes to foreign students who come to America to study in our top-notch schools, both public and private. American taxpayers have helped subsidize and build the greatest higher education system anywhere in the world. It’s not without its problems (high costs being a big one), but there’s no denying an American education is far and above almost every other school in the world with only a few exceptions, like Oxford in England.

US schools already put hard caps on foreign student enrollment, saving most of the top spots for American students. But foreign students, like some I’ve met lately from Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea, have gone through insane amounts of red tape and Passport-and-Visa-Wrangling to get here. Now that they’re here, they’re studying in US schools, often with subsidies like their American peers, or sometimes paying full sticker price, for an education that’s uniquely American. And they’re doing good work, too, working with groundbreaking research to save lives here and abroad from disease and illness that plagues us all.

But once they’re finished with their degree, they can sometimes find work to remain in the US, but often they find it nearly impossible to find a sponsor to stay here, especially when the school is tapped out on researchers and graduate-level jobs. This means a 20-something individual who is at the top of their home country’s rankings (and our’s) gets sent back home with advanced degrees in science, medicine, technology, and engineering. In most cases, their home country doesn’t have the ability to support their career with jobs, infrastructure, or the kind of salary they rightfully deserve. If they can, they’re effectively competing against the US by earning patents, awards, and research accolades “someplace else”. It’d be like if we invaded Afghanistan and before we fought the Taliban, we invited them to enroll in West Point and once they finished, they could go back to fight against us.

At this point, we don’t get to sit around confused as to how India’s siphoning off technology jobs from America, or how China’s able to churn out engineers using lessons learned here in America. We did this to ourselves and we continue to punch ourselves in the face.

When most people hear “Immigration Reform” they hear “Mexicans taking our jobs”, which isn’t supported by the numbers. It is fair, however, to say that Mexicans come into the country and because of their illegal status they fail to pay all the taxes they otherwise could and they do become, to some extent, a net drain on the country. But it’s just as bad on the other end of the spectrum.

Why would it be so difficult for the US to enact legislation that made an advanced Masters degree or PhD an automatic enrollment as an American citizen? “Want to come to America to study in our schools? Great, come on in, and when you finish, we’d like you to stay.” Effectively, we’re tossing people out with their wine and dessert after we’ve spent the time giving them our soup. It makes no sense and on some level it’s rude. As if this country couldn’t use more doctors or engineers. And you can’t say they’d be taking away jobs from Americans. At what point does anyone with, say, a medical degree not get a job in medicine? What are we afraid of? Shorter wait times at the doctor’s office?

Dealing with Mexicans here illegally is an issue in itself. However, surely we can grant citizenship with the achievement of one of our own highly-valued degrees (and even service in our armed forces). We already made the soup, let’s not cheat ourselves out of a nice glass of wine and some pie. Someone’s going to eat that pie, it might as well be us.

For the last couple of years I get at least one or two emails like this per month:

Hello,

I want to create a social networking site somewhat like Facebook, but a little bit more complicated. I have looked at social network platforms like ning.com, dolphin7, socialengine.com and others, but I keep reading mix reviews. Are you capable of creating a social network website and also could you please provide a price range for this type of project?

Here’s how I reply:

Hello [So-and-So],

I’d be happy to help you out with this. I took some time and figured up how much it would cost to replicate, expand, and improve a service like Facebook for you:

Facebook currently has an estimated value of about $30 billion, along with over 1 billion active users, or 1/7 of the entire planet. To get there, we’d have to hire a comparable staff of around 2,000 people and pay them competitively at roughly $50,000 each, on average. Facebook’s network of storage and server capabilities add some costs too, and we’d need to be competitive at around 180,000 servers. Given these factors, I’d estimate that your new website would start out somewhere around $128,000,000. But to really do it right, we’d need to start at around $230,000,000.

Let me know if you’d like to get started and we’ll draw up a contract right away!

Cheers,
Justin

In early December 2012 I started packing up my belongings at my house in Indianapolis, Indiana. I neatly tucked glassware and dishes into boxes lined with packing paper. I placed valuable and sentimental items inside bubble wrap, and stuffed things with newspaper where possible. I lovingly labeled boxes “This side up!” and double-taped boxes to ensure their safety and comfort for their journey to New Haven, Connecticut.

Then Atlas VanLines showed up.

In Indianapolis I had 42 boxes worth of stuff, 3 garbage bags filled with clothes, and a few “loose” items like a TV stand, bookshelves, a sofa bed, etc. The movers I hired were under the name “Guardian Relocation” for at least as long as they were in Indianapolis. The two guys that showed up were pretty nice and courteous, even going so far as bringing in scrap pieces of cardboard to tape down to my floors so they wouldn’t trample in water from the rain coming down outside. My agent, Chris, even stopped by a few days prior with some extra boxes that came in handy. Those guys, they were alright. I like those guys.

Guardian tucked away my stuff on a truck on the morning of December 20, 2012. It was a Thursday, and they showed up half an hour into their 2-hour window. They were done and loaded up in about 2 hours. I flew out of Indianapolis the next day on Friday, December 21, 2012 to New Haven. Upon landing, I bought an air mattress and had just a scant few things I managed to pack into a car I brought over the weekend prior.

Guardian, for all their good work, told me my stuff would arrive “in 2 to 14 days”. I was told this by Chris, my agent, and by the movers on moving day. The movers, for their part, thought it might go pretty quick as drivers might want to cash in on more lucrative holiday pay. This did not happen.

After a week I was frazzled, but not angry. After two weeks I was getting miffed. After we started approaching the three week mark I was pissed.

From what I can gather, once Guardian left my house in Indianapolis the truck went about 7 miles down Washington Street, parked, and sat there until December 31, 2012 — 10 days after leaving my house (I’m being generous by not counting loading day as a “day”). It sat through a blizzard of epic proportions and in sub-zero wind chills.

From there, Guardian turned things over to their interstate-transport parent, Atlas VanLines on the 31st. Atlas took my stuff and placed them on another truck for the haul across the eastern third of the country.

After a few more days, I started calling Lynn from Atlas’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. Lynn was sympathetic and did her part in checking on my stuff between her multiple stretches of vacation days, but wasn’t finding it easy to pinpoint even in what state my stuff was in. My entire world of cups, plates, flatware, knives, furniture, books, entertainment, computer equipment (save my laptop and iPad, which I had with me), lamps, bicycles, clothes, canned goods, and more were all on that truck. At one point when asked how I was doing, I said, “Well Lynn, you can live this little dream by taking your entire desk and throwing it out the nearest window, then try to do some actual work.”

In the year of our Lord, 2013, Atlas VanLines has not discovered a way to track their trucks, locate their equipment, or contact their drivers. If only there were some sort of radio technology, or perhaps a network of towers spanning the country that could connect a woman in Columbus, Ohio to a guy in a truck in, let’s assume Idaho. Because at this point I sorta think the truck drove in reverse, backwards across the country for a while.

The truck, of course, did not drive backwards across the country. I later learned the truck was actually being pulled by two guys on horseback Oregon Trail-style. They would have to stop and shoot buffalo for meals and bury some of their party along the way. Which makes sense, because from when they left to when they arrived the movers were an entirely different group of people.

Two days before my stuff would arrive I got a call from the driver who explained he was in Baltimore, Maryland, and would be driving past me in Connecticut to deliver items on two smaller jobs “That would take 15 minutes each”, in and around Boston. One questions why someone would pay movers to do what would take 15 minutes.

Atlas moved my stuff from the second truck to the third truck in Baltimore. Upon hearing my concern they may not be able to find adequate parking near my building in New Haven (despite my efforts to get a delivery estimate so I could contact the local parking authority to block off meters just for them in advance), they moved my stuff from this third truck to a smaller fourth truck.

In this process practically every box was turned upside down, sideways, shaken, stirred, or in the case of at least three boxes dropped or smashed by heavier items. Some things, like my toaster, actually arrived with fingerprints on the side that aren’t even mine. Which leads me to believe based off that and the fact the boxes were in such bad shape that the movers had manhandled my entire world of possessions to the point that some of the boxes collapsed or fell apart, spilling their contents onto the floor, and required some amount of re-packaging. Mind you, the two boxes that were most noticeably damaged were U-Haul moving boxes, which aren’t exactly flimsy.

In addition to the unloving treatment of my possessions, the amount of time things sat in a very cold truck further weakened items, one of which was very personal to me. One of the few remaining memories I have with my mom was going to the River Falls Mall in Clarksville, Indiana with my grandmother. At a small booth in the center of the mall was an artistic sand making booth, where you could pour various colors of sand into small jars and make neat little designs. Mom and I made one together, and my grandma made one, too. My grandma’s is sitting on a shelf in her living room. The one mom and I made has sat on one of my shelves for at least 13 or 14 years now. Having sat in the cold for so long, it weakened the glue that seals the top of the jar and caused it to fall out, spilling about 20% of its contents. I’ve never been so disgusted with a group of people in my life until that point.

For their part, they recommend taking some things some other way, particularly in cold or hot weather months. Which sorta defeats the entire point of moving because if I had to move all the things they rattled off that get upset by extreme temperatures, like TVs or any electronics, glassware, etc., why would I hire movers? At that point I’d just be moving all my stuff myself. Plus, that would narrow the appropriate time to move across the country to about one weekend in March.

Upon arriving in front of my building, 90 minutes later than expected and promised, and after 19 days, which is 5 days longer than I was told, the movers showed up. It turns out, “2 to 14 days” doesn’t mean weekends, or holidays. Because, you know, Sunday isn’t really a day, because Jesus. They probably don’t even count Canadian holidays, like Boxing Day.

The drivers started unloading things and in the back of this smaller truck I could see my two $1,500 bikes sitting on top of piles of stuff, laid over, chain-side-down, which true to form, means my chains and gears were about to fall off. I even included these items on the “High Value Items” form so they could be given “special care and attention”, which judging by the comments of one of the movers, they “hadn’t really noticed those items.”

Upon unloading items into my building, they looked to me to provide them with screwdrivers and hardware to reassemble things like my sofa bed, or the small stand the TV screws into. This meant I had to rummage through boxes finding these items, and after half a god damned month I mostly forgot where things were.

At one point, the driver unloading items from the truck complained about the building’s small elevator, as if I have any control over that. “Hmm, I dunno honey, maybe we should look somewhere else, this place is in a great location, has a fair price, and is in a good school district, but it has a small service elevator and it might make the movers sad.” – Said no one ever.

If that weren’t enough, the driver made the remark, “No offense, but you’re kinda costing me money today.” This came up when I asked if that was a smaller truck they had loaded my things onto so they could navigate town easier, which evidently means they had to rent a smaller truck. I mean, who would expect a moving company to have access to varying sizes of trucks? What is this, Communist China? I wanted to reply, “Well, sorry, but you’ve kinda cost me 19 days of my life and a shit ton of my money, too.” But I didn’t, because I was afraid they’d go smash something else.

So naturally, they went and smashed something else. They brought up my TV stand, sat it down, and said, “I dunno what happened, it was just like that.” It was sitting in three distinct pieces, having splintered as though many many pounds of weight had been placed on it. Really? “It was just like that?” AS IF IT WAS LIKE THAT IN INDIANAPOLIS? Of course they know what happened to it, they weren’t careful, they threw it around, and it broke. Of course, that item isn’t covered under their insurance policy because it doesn’t cover “some wood products”, of which this is. Because, you know, movers are really only there to help you move pillows, towels, toilet paper and your dreams. One mover asked, “So what do you want us to do?” regarding the stand, as if I somehow still would want a pile of splinters, I said, “You can take it.” To which this warranted a comment about how this would cost them money. As if I just woke up one morning and magically shat a TV stand onto my living room floor for absolutely nothing and could do so again without incurring any cost myself.

After complaining about everything from the elevator to the weather to the fact they were spending money on a smaller truck and that they didn’t even bring their own tools, they finally left.

I lost my TV stand, my toaster was manhandled like a gun control bill on the floor of the House of Representatives, I had two broken plates, every box labeled “This side up” was upside down, — and I do mean every box, my bikes weren’t considered with any special care, and my aforementioned souvenir from my childhood, which I packed in bubble wrap, was in a box so heavily jostled in became unwrapped and fell apart.

At no point since has Guardian or Atlas VanLines called to ask me how my move went or how they could improve their experience (like, I dunno, giving a more accurate indication that by “day” they mean “a Plutonian day”, or that they could come by to get all these damn boxes they brought me to begin with). Lynn, the rep in Columbus, Ohio, called me while the movers were actually unloading my stuff to genuinely ask if the truck had arrived, because again, in 2013 it’s not like we have satellites orbiting the earth in outer fucking space that could remotely tell someone in Ohio where their employees are in, say, Connecticut, two states over in what they must assume is the American equivalent of Siberia.

Guardian was okay. Atlas VanLines sucks harder than Bill Clinton’s intern. Their service is bad, and they should feel bad.

When I was a kid, my mom would take me to one of the local barber shops along Water Street in Salem to get my hair cut. Except, we had a process for this. We’d get up eeeeextra early on non-school days, or Saturdays if it were the school year, and we’d go in and sit outside in the car waiting for the barber to flip the “Closed” sign to “Open”. Then we’d go in, mom would explain how she wanted the hair cut (“shorten the bangs, blocked in the back”). I would just sit there uncomfortably in what was clearly a place for old men to gather, and cringe at the sound of the razor and struggle to keep my sleepy eyes open. Mom would sit in the corner.

It was until yesterday morning I realized why we always had to get up so early: she hated going to the barber shop.

Mom went to the House of Fashion in Salem and Vivian had cut mom’s hair for years and years. It wasn’t until after mom died that I myself started going there. My grandmother still goes there. Mom, I assume, must have thought that boys should go to barbers, and thus, she would take me to the barber because that’s what moms do and Dad wasn’t inclined to doing it because of work.

In life’s little ironies, we should have just always gone to the place mom wanted to go because it was the place I eventually wanted to go when I was old enough to start making that decision on my own. I came to trust Sheila at the House of Fashion with my hair and was satisfied with her work and went there right up until I moved to Indy.

Once in Indy, I bounced around to all sorts of places trying to find the right place for a fair price (I’m sorry, I’m not paying $50 for a haircut; I don’t have that much hair. I get that it’s often priced for a woman’s amount of hair-cutting, but that’s not me, so I’m not paying it). I didn’t find such a place until I tried Snipz in Irvington, which I found and had my hair cut and slightly colored at once. I liked the decor, it was gender-neutral, had a great staff, fair prices, and they treated hair like the art that it is. It only took me 7 years to find that place. Then I moved to Connecticut.

So now I’m in this process again, scouring Yelp reviews and trying to find a place that meets my exacting standards. Because of my experiences at the barber, I detest having a razor taken to my hair. I want it hand-cut with scissors. I want it to be to no more than $25 for a haircut (and even that irks me, but I’ve grown to accommodate that much). I want someone who makes good conversation, not idle chit chat, while cutting my hair. I prefer to have a gay man touch my hair because I can get persnickety about color and style and I don’t have to feel weird or “gay” about it, but I don’t want an older guy or any woman who has that “stylist look” (you know the type: the overly fussy hair, colored all to hell, sporting ridiculously long fingernails (I detest fingernails, who knows why).

It’s not easy finding that sort of place. Here I am at it again, but over the last 20 odd years, I’ve at least learned what I don’t like. In the meantime, I keep wandering by places, noticing the fonts and graphic design on the shop window, checking out the website (no prices listed or photos of your work is a flag to me), checking Yelp reviews, peeking in at the decor because I don’t want to sit in a pink chair with a box of rollers sitting nearby, and ultimately wandering on because of a failure to match my requirements by so many places.

It’s about that time of the year when everyone sits and mutters off their New Year’s Resolutions they won’t keep. Like usual, I’m here to report on my end-of-year achievements and next year’s goals. So what’d I do in 2012 I actually said I would last year?

  1. Bike to Salem – DONE! Did this in April!
  2. Payoff all debts but the house – DONE! I have no credit card debt, no car loans, no student loans, or any other frivolous debts.
  3. Use an iPod Touch as my only phone – DONE! Did this a few months ago and no longer have a monthly phone bill or hefty data plan. I get by nicely with Ting and about 2-4 times a year I activate the cellular data plan for $20 on my Verizon iPad Mini.
  4. Read a book a month – DONE! I averaged a book a month at least. I read mostly web design/development theory books, enjoyed reading Goldfinger a few weeks prior to Skyfall’s release and a few other biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.
  5. Keep deadbeat clients under $2000 this year – DONE! I managed to lose $0 on deadbeat clients this year. Everyone paid on time and in full.
  6. Keep living expenses under $1200 / month – DONE! Some months were close, and some months were way under, but for the most part, I lived comfortably on about $1000 a month thanks to having no pre-existing debts and only a few recurring bills (water, lights, mortgage).

I failed to a few things this year. I never got to a beach, though next year shouldn’t be too difficult to do that considering I’ll be living on the coast. I didn’t write as many human interest stories this year as I wanted and I didn’t quite make 40% of my income from non-web work, though I did earn more from non-web work this year than I did any prior year.

For 2013, my goals are:

  1. Go to a beach.
  2. Finish my novel.
  3. Organize or take part in some community events in Connecticut.
  4. Push my cumulative number of miles biked over 6,000.
  5. Get in the best shape of my life.
  6. Travel somewhere (far enough to need to use a plane) at least once.
  7. Take part in a bike race or ride.
  8. Write more letters (I’ve always done a bit of this, but I want to write to a wider (read: random) selection of people).
  9. Enjoy more coffee.
  10. Replace at least 10 things with the absolute best of those things (i.e., toaster, desk chair, silverware, knives, etc.).