How to Change Banks: My Changing Banks Checklist

This photo shows a closeup of George Washington's image on the US $1 bill

If you follow my blog or my social media accounts, you’re aware that I recently changed banks. The process took me five months and I ended up paying about $50 in fees to do it. (I originally thought I paid $75 in fees, but one fee ended up getting refunded. Anyway, I digress…) Given that the whole point of this exercise was to stop giving money to my old bank, I found ponying up for these fees incredibly frustrating.

Looking back, I realize that, despite careful research, I made several mistakes along the way—expensive mistakes. Mistakes and unnecessary transactions come with fees attached, and the system is designed for consumers to make lots of mistakes.

Think about it: The changing banks process is already arduous enough. Add in a few fees, and you may get frustrated, angry, discouraged, and/or apathetic. (I’m guilty of the first three.) Worse yet, you may stay put or stop the changing banks process altogether.

Don’t! Persist and move your money to a bank or credit union that better aligns with your values. I’m here to share my experiences, step by step, so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Here’s my changing banks checklist so you can avoid fees, spend less time in the process, and preserve your sanity.

The Changing Banks Checklist

  1. Do your research and select a bank that aligns with your values.
  2. Open new accounts at your new bank.
  3. Activate your new debit/ATM card (if applicable) and order checks.
  4. Switch your paycheck direct deposit (if applicable) to your new bank.
  5. See if there are any fees to transfer funds from your old bank to your new bank, and make a plan to deposit/transfer money to minimize what you’ll pay in fees.
  6. Also consider the amount of time it takes for the transfers themselves in your plan to avoid fees (e.g., my old bank charged $3 for a three-day transfer; deposited checks were free and typically took a day or two to clear).
  7. Make a list of all your bills and services that were paid from your old account, including utilities, credit cards, magazine subscriptions, insurance payments, retirement savings, recurring donations, smartphone apps, etc.
  8. Once you have sufficient funds in your new account and/or a few paychecks have been deposited, go through your list of bills and services, one by one, and change each autopayment and/or electronic billing information over to your new bank account.
  9. Monitor your new and old accounts for approximately a month or two to make sure everything is migrating over as expected. Are your paychecks getting deposited to your new account? Are your recurring payments getting taken out of your new account? Are there any straggler bills or services getting paid from your old account? (If so, switch those over ASAP.)
  10. You’re almost ready to migrate everything over—but before doing so, double-check all old bills to make sure they’re set up with your new account, including the next scheduled payment. (I missed one auto pay bill and overdrew my account, leading to a hefty overdraft fee and having to scramble to transfer money back, which sucked.)
  11. When you’re confident you’ve covered all your bases, transfer the majority of your money from your old account to your new account, leaving enough funds to cover required minimum balances (if applicable) to avoid any fees.
  12. When this last transfer clears, call or make an appointment at your old bank to close your account.
  13. Close your account, request a cashier’s check or cash for any remaining funds from your old account, and deposit that in your new account.
  14. Shred your old debit card.
  15. Celebrate! You’ve successfully navigated an incredibly arduous process and migrated your money to a bank that supports your values. (I, for one, treated myself to a honey-dipped doughnut from Mariposa Bakery.)

A final thought: At first, I avoided many in-person conversations because I thought I could save time and money by doing things over the phone or online. Then, after receiving conflicting advice between my old bank’s customer service reps and the website experience—and paying fees for it—I ultimately decided to make an appointment and wrap everything up in person. The in-person meeting took all of 10 minutes and was actually the most pleasant, fee-free, and efficient interaction with my old bank.

(Yes, based on that last exchange, the irony of my new bank being all-online is not lost on me. However, from my experience thus far, they have outstanding customer service.)

Have you changed banks? Which steps did you take to do it? Share your expertise by leaving a comment!

Photo courtesy Rafael Gonzalez via Flickr Creative Commons

Community Gathering

This photo shows a New York City billboard of Ellis Island children covering the side of a building

I’m actually not sure which generations of my family were immigrants—my great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, I’d presume. There are mysteries on both sides: My maternal grandmother’s family has many gaps from her illegitimacy; my paternal grandfather’s gaps stem from his estrangement with my father.

The bottom line is most of us, as Americans, are immigrants.

What I know of my lineage: My mother’s father’s family emigrated from Danzig, now Gdansk, a then-disputed territory on the border of Germany and Poland. Because of this inconclusive geography, I don’t know if my ancestors considered themselves German or Polish, and throughout my upbringing, both heritages were mentioned. These Eastern European relatives settled outside Pittsburgh, with many descendants still there.

My father’s mother’s predecessors came from County Clare in Ireland. Growing up, I never heard her mention her Irish heritage, although some email exchanges before my first trip there revealed said county. When I asked for a specific town within County Clare, she said she didn’t know.

My mother’s mother—New York City, full stop. Her father may have been Welsh. Her mother—no one knows. Thomas and Andersen were the last names. UK? Ireland? It wasn’t discussed.

My father’s father—Italy. Where in Italy? Excellent question. Throughout the years, I heard Naples, Rome, Sicily. While studying abroad in Rome, I found a street near my apartment in Trastevere—Viale Cesare Pascarella. Good enough for me, in the absence of other concrete signposts. Rome it would be. My grandfather passed away a few years back, and I never had the opportunity to ask and find out for myself. Such is the dynamic of respecting the parental relationship and the boundaries that have been long drawn.

These origins, and many customs, have long been lost. However, two things were kept, with varying degrees of success: food and religion.

Nana’s food: My father’s mother liked to cook. She was an Irish cook, first and foremost, with a specialty for roast pork, potatoes, sheet cakes. She did adapt to her first husband’s cuisine, however, and made a decent red sauce. (Sauce was the term, never gravy.) When I think back to meals around her New Jersey table, though, adaptations of what was readily available were frequent features: small white potatoes, brimming with salt, out of a can. Red Jell-o, both cherry and strawberry, sometimes with banana or pineapple, sometimes not. (Young me preferred not.) Pickled beets and onions. So maybe not so Irish after all…

Grandpa’s food: My mother’s father gravitated toward hearty Polish dishes. Potato soup. Pork and sauerkraut. Bread and roast meats. I was at his bedside, giving him a rundown of all the food I had eaten on a trip to Poland, when he passed away. The last words he may have heard were my descriptions of pierogies, kielbasa, and piwo w sokiem.

Religion: All sides were Catholic, although at the end of their lives, most grandparents were lapsed. To my knowledge, none of their children or grandchildren are practicing. In fact, of all the grandkids, only one was confirmed. (Me.)

I don’t know why my ancestors emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.

I don’t know if they were good, decent people.

I don’t know if they were demonized.

I don’t know if they worked hard.

I don’t know who they were.

I can only look back two or three generations, and the gaps are still vast.

And with that blank slate, I look at my new fellow Americans, coming in from all over, for a myriad of reasons, and I know—you too could be my family.

You belong here, too.

Ellis Island children billboard photo courtesy June Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

Why We’re Changing Banks, and How We’re Doing It

This photo shows a pile of cash with a $20 bill on top

I didn’t start out as a Bank of America customer. I moved to Boston in 2000 and needed a local bank. Fleet was close to my apartment, so I went with them. (Don’t judge. I was young and convenience trumped all.) Within a few years, Bank of America gobbled up Fleet. And because of apathy, I didn’t change, just accepted it—even though the fees were high. Even though customer service wasn’t great. Even though the interest was piddling. Their website worked, I liked their app, so fine. Laziness won.

Then I saw this article from Food and Water Watch showing which banks were subsidizing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Oh hi, Bank of America, to the tune of $350 million dollars.

Then Election 2016 happened, and I didn’t want my money to continue passively supporting policies that didn’t align with my values.

My husband and I, after nearly 14 years together, had never combined bank accounts, but it was something we had discussed doing “at some point.” (See above re: laziness.) He was a Citizens Bank customer. We checked the DAPL funding site. Oh hi, Citizens Bank to the tune of $72 million dollars.

So it was time—time for us both to change banks, and while we were at it, combine accounts. We started researching new banks, based on the following criteria:

  1. Is the new bank active in the local community and/or have a community/labor-friendly history?
  2. Did the new bank have a good record of corporate responsibility?
  3. Did the new bank have a strong Texas Ratio?
  4. Did the new bank charge minimal fees?
  5. Did the new bank have a decent customer service record?

Based on those criteria, we narrowed our choices down to five banks—three national banks with strong digital offerings, and two local entities (one community bank and one local credit union).

Each was then evaluated on the five questions above, and from there, we had two finalists: Winter Hill Community Bank (in our neighborhood) and Ally bank (online only).

Winter Hill got great ratings for community involvement, local development, and overall fiscal health. It got poor marks for customer service. It only had three locations in our neighborhood, and charged a fee for using other banks’ ATMs.

Ally got decent ratings for corporate responsibility, and high marks for customer service. It offered slightly better rates for its accounts, and free ATMs through their network. If customers go out of network, there’s a fee, but Ally refunds up to $10/month in fees.

All things weighed, we opted to go with Ally and to use our Ally ATM cards at Winter Hill Bank whenever possible, so they’ll benefit from any applicable fees.

We’re in the final stages of making the switch now, with all the headaches that changing banks entails. But in the long run, I’m glad to be putting our money where our values are.

Photo courtesy Ed Ivanushkin via Flickr Creative Commons

Same as it Ever Was: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

This photo shows a vista in Topanga Canyon, California

Welcome to Same as it Ever Was, a series in which I’ll review books, movies, and music from the archives that are still timely and relevant, shedding light (for better or worse) on present-day political, cultural, and sociological issues. Let’s kick things off with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, set in Topanga Canyon/LA County, published in 1995.

Does the following passage sound familiar?

Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?” A cluck of the tongue, a shift from one hip to the other, blue eyes, solid as stone. “Delaney, believe me, I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was–and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway on-ramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

“Not in the least–it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined–and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills–all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost.” He dropped his hand in dismissal. “It’s old news.”  …

“Look, Delaney,” Jack went on, cool, reasonable, his voice in full song now, “it’s a simple equation, so much in, so much out. The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services–welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like. You want to pay for that? And for the crime that comes with it?”

T.C. Boyle has always been an astute observer of what Vogue called “the need for control, the increasing helplessness of white males.” But with The Tortilla Curtain, he almost takes on the role of soothsayer. Written 21 years ago, this conversation (and other similar points throughout the book) could have informed so many stories that drove the 2016 Presidential election, both overtly and under the surface: the President-elect’s first speech, demonizing Mexican immigrants, as he announced his candidacy. The ongoing marginalization of minorities. The hidden economy that preys on illegal immigrant labor. The disregard for the environment, to our ongoing peril.

When I finished the book, I suspected Boyle had intended to create a modern-day version of Candide, Voltaire’s immortal satire/tragicomedy, in which the hero is subjected to increasingly over-the-top disasters in his recklessly optimistic pursuit of a better life. Indeed, Boyle’s Mexican protagonists, Candido and America, are named so-on-the-nose that the reader has little reason to doubt they’re stand-ins for much larger statements. But, despite Boyle’s possible intent, can The Tortilla Curtain be considered a tragicomedy today, knowing how little progress we have made in more than 20 years? And is it now to be interpreted as an out-and-out tragedy, given the now-legitimate policies of our president-elect? Without giving plot points away, this story starts and ends with violence, one man-made, one natural. Given how little we’ve learned, I’m pessimistic (perhaps like Boyle and Voltaire) that we may still find ourselves on the same trajectory.

I do have a few nitpicky points for this book review: The four main characters in The Tortilla Curtain tend to surreptitiously cross paths frequently, in ways that took me out of the story. (LA is a big place, no? How do these four people always tend to find themselves at the same intersections, grocery stores, etc., always at the same time?) The villain is seemingly without motive and at times cartoony, an evil presence who wreaks havoc with all four protagonists (and also happens to be an illegal immigrant). Instead, I would have loved Boyle to depict a conflicted INS agent as the malevolent presence in this book, a by-the-rules person just doing his/her job, with all the gray area and compromises that requires.

But perhaps that’s for another book–after all, given how little has changed, it seems we’re due for a sequel.

Photo courtesy DrumsKickAss via Flickr Creative Commons

Right of Way: A Vietnam Travelogue

I look at the traffic, coming in droves from all sides: mopeds, taxis, pick-up trucks, and bicycles. The mopeds are the most impressive; some solely carry their driver, others are laden with flowers, food, cartons, ducks, hens, pigs, and other animals, with cargo carried on baskets behind the driver, or on laps, or on a well-constructed and expertly balanced pyramid over the rear wheel. Others carry families, three kids flanking a parent, laying waste to the idea of a saloon or people mover as a household requirement. Lanes, to the foreigner’s eye, are nonexistent, and instead, one sees constantly created pathways as each vehicle finds its own way, in its own time. The moped engines are the loudest — a quick rev of each engine as they weave through the melee — but the tut-tut honk from the cars and trucks give them decent competition for volume. The sound, collectively, takes on a low-level roar.

On my first day in Saigon, I am intimidated by the streets, and stick close to Van, my old friend and host for the next two weeks. I confess this outright, so we can address it right away.

“Perfectly normal,” Van says as we approach our first intersection. Her gait is smooth and unhurried, perfected over eight years living in the city; her tone is calm and soothing, developed after welcoming countless Westerners here.

We stop at the curb and look at the waves of oncoming traffic. The impulse, whether Western or Darwinian, is to dart. But it turns out this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Read the full story over at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel

Photo courtesy M M via Flickr Creative Commons

Eternal Flames: The Spooky Ghost Town of Centralia

This photo shows a smoking pit in Centralia, Pennsylvania

In Centralia, the ground is hot to the touch. Cracks in the earth ripple outward, earthquake-like; steam rises in steady plumes, or billowing clouds. Tree trunks are charred and white, masquerading as birches to the unknowing passer-by. But there are no passersby in Centralia, a ghost town deep in Pennsylvania coal mining country. In fact, no one gives much thought to the town anymore.

The town’s tragedy seems like folklore, a Halloween tale from ages ago. And like so many folk tales, there are conflicting stories as to what actually happened. “Burning leaves,” a resident of neighboring Mount Carmel claims. “No, a garbage fire,” another counters. Of this everyone is in agreement: In 1962, a spark from the fire spread into an open seam, leading to a labyrinth of coal mines. The fire quickly took hold, supplied by the countless reserves of coal below and oxygen above. Today, more than 50 years later, the fire rages beneath the town, contained but unstoppable.

My father’s friend repeats the story, then adds an update. “On Friday night, I brought two large plastic buckets full of water to the street corner and left them sit. When I went back Monday, the water had evaporated entirely, the buckets melted down to two plastic puddles.”

Long intrigued by Centralia, I decide to visit. My father, a history buff, offers to accompany me; his eagerness to see the town surpasses my own.

While it is a gray, overcast October day in central Pennsylvania, the landscape pops with color. Vibrant red and orange leaves, thick green hills, and golden hay fields bookend the road, until we approach our destination.

The first sign of trouble, a change swift and dramatic, is in Shamokin Township, as we enter the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The highway approaches a mountain used frequently for strip mining, and the term is appropriate. The beautiful fall foliage vanishes, replaced by deep piles of raven-black coal extending the mountain’s length. Scrubby trees stand out sporadically, stubbornly surviving. A layer of coal dust covers everything, blackening rooftops, plants, cars.

Past the mountain, we continue through Kulpmont and Mount Carmel. I see perhaps five people; the air is eerily still and silent. Houses, showing no sign of inhabitants, rise at sharp ninety-degree angles from the ground; most are painted some shade of white with a thick dusting of coal residue. They stand stiffly at attention as we pass through, monotonously leading us to the hills in the distance.

We soon see a sign–CENTRALIA 4 M.–and an arrow pointing left. While the town has been removed from most state maps, a few road signs still exist. Warily, my father proceeds through the intersection. “Should be there in a few minutes,” he says quietly.

Four miles in, we see nothing but open fields, and look at each other, confused. I had expected at least an abandoned thoroughfare, or a church. I’ve heard six people still live here, but there is only one house in sight, and no sign of activity. We pause for a moment, the truck’s idling engine the only sound.

***

According to David DeKok, author of Unseen Danger, the fire officially started over Memorial Day weekend, 1962. With the holiday approaching, the Centralia Council voted to clean up the town landfill in preparation for the parade. “Cleaning” was done by setting the pit on fire.

The landfill, however, bordered one end of Centralia’s maze of mines. Before cleaning, any landfill holes leading to the mines were filled with incombustible materials; volunteer firefighters set the landfill ablaze on May 27. They let the top layer of garbage be consumed, poured water on the pit until they could no longer see any flames, then retired for the holiday weekend celebrations.

But the fire had burned much deeper than they thought. Smoke and flames were again visible on the 29th; despite repeated dousings, the fire continued. It was discovered that a huge hole at the base of the landfill, leading to a labyrinth of old mines, had not been filled. The volunteers had failed to find and close the one hole the fire needed.

***

“Is that it?” my father yells. I turn to the left and see streaming smoke rising from a hill in the distance.

The “hill” is, in actuality, the mines. As we approach, the smoke billows harder, swelling to full-cloud shapes in some areas. Now serving as twisted signposts, the smoldering fumes lead us to the former heart of the town.

We park near a sign the Department of Environmental Protection has posted: DANGER. UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. WALKING OR DRIVING IN THIS AREA COULD RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. DANGEROUS GASES ARE PRESENT. GROUND IS PRONE TO SUDDEN COLLAPSE.

I look around. To my left is a graveyard, looking strangely clean and well attended. Puffs of smoke rise from small holes in the ground. Straight, a road leads to nowhere; it and surrounding flat gray fields are a thin lid covering the continuous fire. We pass small patches of asphalt interspersed throughout the barren fields; I realize they are former driveways, the only testaments to where houses once stood.

Smoke conceals what lies ahead; the smell of sulfur, while not overpowering, permeates the air, a constant background presence. I kneel to touch the ground. It is slightly warm.

Standing up again, I regard the sign once more, and for a brief moment, feel a rush of panic. The ground could open up and swallow me, or my father, or this truck, dropping us into a fiery inferno. We could faint from inhaling the noxious emissions. The town has been destroyed for a reason…

“Let’s check it out!” my father says, and walks up the road to nowhere, heading toward the towering smoke.

I linger, choosing instead to inspect the graveyard. I approach it cautiously, treading lightly. Contrasting the gray and desolate mines before me, the graves are pristinely maintained, with neatly cut grass and pruned trees surrounding the headstones. Some post dates as recent as 1986, well after the fire had started. Stooping to examine a gravestone, I look closer at the ground. Out of the grass, delicately, trickles finger-width streams of smoke, so fine they could be mistaken for misting dew.

I follow the “road to nowhere” to the summit of the mine hill, feeling as if I have reached a volcano’s peak. Smoke pours forth from all directions, concentrated over several large gashes slicing one side of the mine pit. Trees lie on their sides, charred, white, roots dried and shriveled. The ground is crumbly, a mix of dirt, ash, cracked asphalt, and rock. I cannot see my father; like fog, the gases can sit and linger, limiting visibility to only a few feet, or move rapidly, depending on the ferocity of the flames below and wind above.

Unlike a volcano ready to erupt, however, there is no roar of sound, just the quiet rustling of light breezes pushing the smoke along. I proceed, watching where I step, looking around on all sides. I can see healthy-looking hills far away in the distance, their brilliance obscured by the smoggy, gray air. The landscape is black in its many shades, punctured with shocks of plants and debris colored white and ash, the former lush hillside now withering, scorched beyond repair. I head toward some tall reeds and grasses ahead that have mysteriously retained a look of normalcy. Up close, they seem a bit starved for water, but no more shriveled than plants in any other dry region. Hearing a puff-puff-puff, I step back, and see three short bursts of smoke among the reeds, much like an old steam engine, or train whistle.

And then my father is there, stepping from behind a patch of blistered trees and toasted hillside. His eyes are excited, a mixture of horror and wonder at the spectacle before us.

“Look,” he gestures to a small hole not five feet away from where I stand. Clear gases ripple slowly from the opening, blurrying the landscape beyond. “Like heat from a grill,” he notes. I go over and warm my hands.

On our descent to the car, I notice that patches of litter are everywhere — beer cans, old t-shirts, food wrappers. Most debris looks old, long untouched — but could they be prematurely damaged, being aged by the fierce underground heat? I note the amount of litter and wonder — clearly the town, however obscure and dangerous, does not lack visitors. Are they occasional or frequent? As if in response, we see several people through the distant haze; we wave in acknowledgment.

We are further intrigued when we reach the truck. We’ve started a line of cars — two sedans, another pickup, and a van are behind us. Are they tourists? Former residents coming back? Geologists? I attempt to speak with someone, but they are all out of sight, disappeared into the mist. I have not seen one state trooper to keep foolish visitors away; no barricades. Anyone who wishes to tempt fate may do so.

***

By the early 1980s, the fire had raged for more than 20 years. Remedies to stop it (excavating the entire coal supply, deterring its track, and flushing out the pit) were proposed and abandoned, mainly from lack of funds. The fire, still ferocious, began to emit toxic gas levels in inhabitable amounts, affecting the health of Centralia residents. Centralians frequently exhibited toxic inhalation symptoms; several nearly died.

Basement walls became hot to the touch; gases accumulated in homes at levels so high no amount of ventilation could dissipate their lethal concentrations.

And then the ground began to open up. One boy, playing in his grandmother’s yard, was nearly swallowed when the earth fell in at his feet; neighbors came to his rescue. Cars began to crack asphalt when proceeding down a street. Holes pocked the alleys, some spontaneously opening.

Ultimately, with no guarantee of stopping the fire, all plans to save Centralia were forsaken. By 1986, the majority of families had left.

Today, the town’s roads, mines, and fields remain, but its community has vanished. The Commonwealth had most homes demolished; the few structures remaining are in poor shape. In September 2002, the U.S. Postal Service decided to discontinue the town’s zip code, in conjunction with the post office closing five years earlier. As of 2003, zip code 17927 ceased to exist.

As for the mines, the plentiful coal below Centralia continues to supply the 50+ year old fire. Scientists, examining the nature of anthracite, available coal reserves, and the mines’ layout, have projected the fire could burn for a thousand more years.

Photo courtesy Sue via Flickr Creative Commons

This story was first published on DivineCaroline.com.

I’m With Her

This photo shows voters' legs and feet behind red-white-and-blue striped voting booth curtains on election day

Watching our former Secretary of State debate a former reality TV star, so far below her in intelligence, demeanor, and dignity, I felt great admiration and respect for her superhuman composure. Rage at his narcissism and outright contempt for his opponent, her supporters, and the entire political process. Appreciation that, as the first female candidate for President, Hillary Clinton was willingly taking on this slog, so those afterward won’t have to. Sadness that, in 2016, this is how ugly the slog still is, for those who dare to be first.

Donald Trump claims the election is rigged because Clinton is “even allowed to run”, but he has it all wrong. It is he who is the audacious one, one so outrageous to claim that a zero-experience buffoon could be competent at the most complex, nuanced, and responsible role in our country, and perhaps the world.

As John Oliver so aptly put it, perhaps Trump is an appropriate final hurdle for Clinton to pass en route to the Presidency, to have to defeat “the final boss”, a living embodiment of her entire career’s worth of sexism, privilege, entitlement, and incompetence in one bloviating, grabby body.

I hope we never witness another debate–or campaign–like we saw this year. I hope no candidate has to endure the indignities Hillary Clinton (and, by extension, the 17 GOP rivals) did. I hope, over the coming years, a powerful female leader becomes normalized in the eyes of the press and the public, so we can get down to business.

Because, if this election has taught us anything, it’s that we have a lot of work to do.

I, for one, am ready to work. I’m with her.

Photo courtesy Michael Rosenstein via Flickr Creative Commons

Being a Bridesmaid is Really Expensive

This photo shows a floral arrangement of pink roses

I’ve been a bridesmaid nine times.

Nine.

Times.

That’s a lot of dresses, made-to-order dyed shoes, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, updos, travel, and gifts. And while I’d love to tell you I was able to do each on a budget, that wouldn’t be the truth.

A few years back, I started calculating what I had spent on other people’s weddings, hit a certain nausea-inducing threshold, and just stopped.

So, real talk: Weddings are notoriously expensive, even (maybe especially) for the wedding party. But like any Grownup milestone, you can keep costs manageable with proper planning—or some tough conversations.

Read the whole story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

New, Yet Familiar

This photo shows a baby hand gripping an adult's index and middle fingers

*Dusting off some old stories…the following is a family essay from 2012.

My niece is just about four months old, the newest member of our family and the first of her generation. My sister, her mother, has been sending daily photos, and we’ve all tracked her growth via our smartphones. Day by day, slowly but surely, a personality has started to emerge – playful and goofy, determined and opinionated, sweet and curious. We assign her these traits from these still images, and the occasional brief video, quick glances of how she interacts with her parents, toys, and dog. We see her intense concentration as she studies a new toy, a look of delighted recognition as she snuggles with her father. Inevitably, the comparisons begin, text messages exchanged in response to a particularly evocative photo:

“She looks like you here!”

“This one is a dead ringer for Grandpa!”

“Doesn’t she resemble Mom in this one?”

It makes sense, in a way – she is a reflection of all who came before her, made up of the same genetic material that shaped all of us. Her furrowed brow in one snapshot brings my father to mind, her wide eyes in another are a direct translation of her own father’s. I find myself wondering, too, if there are countless expressions and details that may be mirror images of those we never met – in-laws I’m not acquainted with, but also lost generations. Does she look like my ancestors who fled Gdansk? Or perhaps those who came from Naples? These are details we can’t quite assign, but still may be expressed – and now will be attributed to her directly. I like the idea of a trait, long dormant or diluted, now suddenly rearing back to life through her.

We look for patterns and the familiar with all we encounter, even (maybe especially) with a new baby, the physical collection of all we were and the aspirational determinant of what we are to come. These initial details get her story started, and help us explain the origins of what we can see – so far.

At the same time that we play this game of genetic Memory, matching her details to those we recall from others before, I find myself eagerly anticipating when she begins to assert the traits that are wholly hers without question, the qualities that are uniquely her very own and of her choosing. Maybe she’ll be a gifted athlete, unlike her aunts and grandparents. Perhaps she’ll be artistically inclined, like her parents, but in a medium neither has tried. Or, and most likely, she’ll surprise us all with an interest that none of us anticipate – something wildly off our radar.

I expect this assertion will happen sooner rather than later. I’m reminded of my cousin, now in her twenties; she was such a memorable toddler that her young malapropisms and nicknames have been cemented in the family lexicon (e.g., “all bodies” for “everybody”, “can’t want it” for “no, thanks”). It was her unique worldview, and our delight in her presence, that shaped us, in a way, and how we communicated then and still.

I feel this mix of evocation and anticipation with each daily photograph, with each visit with my niece. It’s a privilege to get to know her, this unique little individual who will also show me and my extended family so much of, and about, ourselves. It is staggering to meet an infant and realize that we will be profoundly important to each other, for a lifetime to come.

Photo courtesy Frank Guido via Flickr Creative Commons

An Open Letter to the MBTA

The following is a letter I recently sent to the MBTA in response to their call for public comments regarding the proposed fare increases.
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Mr. DePaola and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board:

I had the pleasure of attending the February 2nd public comment meeting in Boston on the proposed MBTA fare hikes. It was a privilege to witness the high turnout and hear the opinions and stories of fellow greater Bostonians in regard to these unwelcome proposed changes at the T. Because I did not have a chance to speak at the meeting, I’m submitting my opposition to the fare increase in writing.

I have lived in the Boston area for nearly 16 years: 6 years in the North End, and nearly 10 in Somerville’s Winter Hill. I have always relied on the T as my primary form of transportation, and it connects me to school, work, and social functions. When I first moved here, the T was a financial necessity; as a limited-income graduate student, I could not afford a car. As my income increased, however, I still preferred to take the T, appreciating its wide network, affordable fares, and environmentally friendly benefits.

I must say, though, that I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my T-riding experience over the past four years in particular. Simply put, as the fares have increased, the quality of service has decreased. Buses are regularly erratic, late, or don’t show up at all; trains are frequently disabled. I often encounter turnstiles and escalators that are out of service, along with crumbling sets of stairs. The service interruptions during the winter of 2015 were deplorable, and need not be rehashed here.

Cumulatively, the T riding experience of late is one that is embarrassing, inefficient, and oftentimes unsafe. And with each passing year, the same ineffective solutions get proposed: more cuts in service, more increases in fares. The political will is, in a word, lacking.

I’d like to see some real, creative, and sustainable solutions to solving the continuing issues plaguing the MBTA.

  • To begin, the Commonwealth needs to forgive the Big Dig debt that the T has inherited, so future revenues can be allocated to much-needed capital and service improvements.
  • Second, an analysis of inefficiencies and dishonest practices should be undertaken with the goal of real accountability and reform, particularly in terms of expensive and egregious offenses (such as the 2,600 hours of overtime claimed by one employee) stopped cold. Such abuses should not be permitted to continue, nor should taxpayers be beholden financially for the T’s mismanagement.
  • Third, an income-to-increase proposal should be seriously considered, so the lowest-income riders (e.g., students, the elderly, and disabled) are not shouldering the bulk of the financial burden with each proposed increase. Those who ride the T and have higher income brackets should pay their proportionate share.
  • Lastly, we need to engage the full wealth of resources at the Commonwealth’s disposal to finally solve this continuing crisis. For example, we have world-class universities with budding engineers, economists, financial experts, and urban planners right in our backyard. Why not take advantage of them? The Commonwealth could kick off a public-private partnership challenge grant program, where groups of students could submit sustainable plans to fix the T, with criteria covering improving services and cutting costs over the coming years. The winning group could receive free tuition/student loan forgiveness and seed funding to kickstart their proposal, in partnership with key stakeholders at the T and branches of state and local governments. This certainly would be more cost effective, and more innovative, than the current same-old same-old proposals.

In closing, I’ll offer an anecdote. I recently was on a flight back to Boston from Tokyo, surrounded by scientists and engineers who were coming here for a conference. When we landed after a 12+ hour flight, the gentleman next to me asked whether he should take a cab or the T to his airport near Hynes Convention Center. I am almost always a T advocate, but I asked this man whether he lived in Tokyo and was used to efficient public transit. He was, and so instead I told him to take a cab. It pained me to do so. But I knew, based on consistent recent experience, that his T ride would be spotty at best, lengthy, and confusing. His first impression of Boston would likely be a very negative one.

I then thought of how many international visitors Boston receives every year, and how poorly our transit system must measure up when compared with other countries, places where public transit is valued, deemed worthy of investment, and recognized as a social good.

We are falling behind, but it is not because of a passive electorate. If anything, the public–if these comments meetings are any indication–is more engaged than ever. It is our leaders who are the real disappointment, for letting the T deteriorate this far.

So in closing, under current conditions, I strongly oppose the fare increase. But start showing some real civic commitment to the T, and the public will invest along with you.