27 May 2011

How to support engineering

David and I were headed out to dinner last Friday and as we were walking to the Thai place that we like, I noticed a bunch of people with some kind of big display set up on Ellsworth Drive. And because I am inexorably pulled toward bunches of people with big displays* as Pekoe is inexorably pulled towards people wearing colors that have a high contrast to orange cat hair, I veered in toward the people to see what was what.

What it was was the Blair Robot Project***.  My alma mater sponsors Team 449 in the FIRST Robotics Competition and I won't bother to retype all of the "about us" text, but Blair competes prett' near every year and does pretty well prett' near every year. 

I admired the robotics, explained why I couldn't have any of the baked goods they were selling, stuffed a buck in the till, took a picture or two, and asked for some literature. I also gave my business card to the one of the adult mentors and suggested that she e-mail me and ask for a donation. I figured that if I got an e-mail, then they actually wanted the money.  I got the e-mail!

My company is chock full of engineers, so I figured that I could convince my Boss that supporting this kind of thing could help to grow our future employees.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, a whole bunch of the Blair Robot Team are ... female.  Women are underrepresented in science and engineering.  Sort of like wheat products are underrepresented on my shopping list.

Had he been hard to convince, I had a good paragraph from their hand-out at the ready:  "FIRST encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals.  FIRST and FRC are not just about building better robots or better engineers - they're about about building better individuals and better communities." Alas, I didn't have to quote this high falutin' rhetoric because my Boss agreed right away that our company should make a donation.  The check request awaits his signature. 

So if you wish to support science and engineering, or future women engineers, or cool robot stuff, check out their website:  Blair Robot Project or this one For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).  If you want to make things super easy on yourself send a check to Montgomery Blair High School, 51 University Blvd E, Silver Spring, MD 20910 (put "Robotics Team" in the memo line). 

And if you want to see why I want to work with these folks after they graduate from college, check out the Quotes page.  Three of my favorites:

"The drive chain is loose? Not my problem. Here, have a wrench. It might not be the right size." Eric Van Albert, in a rather blunt blog post

"Robotics is really preparing us for jobs at NASA. Look. We're past deadline overweight, overbudget, and our [project] doesn't even work!" Ben Shaya

"The harvester almost harvests, the shooter almost shoots, the robot almost drives, and the code almost compiles!"Ben Shaya, in describing the progress made on the robot

*What do I veer away from?  Well-meaning volunteers (or poorly paid staffers) with clipboards who ostensibly wish to "educate"** me about their issue but are really fundraising.  I don't give money to people on the street. 

**In the Leta dictionary (i.e., what I've noticed that people really really seem to mean) "educate" means "hector others into seeing things your way." 

***I think that's the first time that I didn't accidentally type "Blair Robert Project." 

24 May 2011

Doing what I thought I would

I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.
---  Steve Martin

My mother passed away a few months ago and left me some money.  I didn't expect this because when she died, I was scheduled to meet with the finance people where she lived in a few weeks and get the ball rolling to sign her up for Medicaid.

We'd have conversations, Mom and I, where she would fret about having nothing left to leave me and my nieces.  And no matter how I answered ("You don't have to leave us anything.  You raised me and have given me lots of good memories as well" or "We didn't earn the money, it should go to keep you comfortable." or "Don't worry, you *won't* have anything to leave us and that's really okay."*) she still fretted about it.  Which meant that even though I was in charge of her bank account (which was larger than mine) and received the statements for her (reasonably small) mutual fund, etc., Mom and I had trained me to think of her as inches away from destitute.  So I figured that when she died, she would be poor, I would pay for her funeral, even more stuff I have no room for would end up in my apartment, we would miss her, the end.

In addition to fretting about running out of money, Mom said many times that she didn't like living there and hoped that she wouldn't have to do it very long.  I can't say that I blame her because I can't think of anyone who has ever expressed a hope to spend their final years in a nursing home, no matter how nice it is.***  So in my heart of hearts, I guess I wasn't too surprised when she passed away in January.  I'm grateful that it was a relatively easy passing and not the scary and horrible one I'd feared for so long.

And in the end she got her wish.  She had something to leave us.  I got 50% of her estate and my two nieces got 25% each.  I was so prepared to left just mementos that my first response was nausea.  I was literally nauseated.  And then I was scared because I've seen how not very good with money I could be.

For years I would think off and on about what I would do a with a "windfall."  What if I won the lottery?  What if I found bags and bags of money?****  But, okay, let's assume some strings-free money, what would I do.  The fantasies always ended up having three elements:

1.  I'd get rid (finally) of my student loans.
2.  I'd buy a new car because the Protege which has served me so well is a little old lady now.  She's 12 which is, what, 96 in human years?  120?
3.  Fund my retirement.
4.  I'd give more more to charities I care about, especially theaters.
5.  Other.  Often other included stuff like pedicures or massages or a personal chef.  When I was thinking really huge sums of money than #1 was "move Mom out of the nursing home and get her in-home care."

But I always assumed in the way back of my mind that I manage to fritter the money away.  Theater tickets, meals with friends, impulse purchases, having the No Money for Leta fairies steal it in the night ...

Now that I've inherited Mom's savings and her annuities, though, I am rather proud that I'm doing what I hoped I would do.  My desire not to waste this final gift from my mother has meant that I am being more careful with it (I think) than I usually am.  The scorecard so far:

1.  The student loan monkey is off my back.  This is like having a hefty raise in pay.  Half of that money is going to savings, so it feels as though I've turned my loan debt into a dollar-cost-averaged savings plan.  That happened first.  The brunette you saw dancing in the streets?  That was me.  So, check.

2. I bought a shiny, new Jetta.  Sunroof.  Manual.  Elegant charcoal grey color.  And an Equality Maryland affinity license plate, so that's a few bucks that went where my mouth is.  Check.

3.  My (very attractive, how can there not be an extra fee for that?) new financial planner and I have already started deciding what's gonna go where so that I won't have to eat cat food when I'm older.  Check.

4.  Silver Spring Stage got a check from me.*****  So did several other theaters I like.  My favorite was when I walked up the lady running concessions at Forum Theater during intermission and when she said "May I help you?"  I said "Yes, you could give this check to the right person for me, please."  And she looked at it and "Oh my, yes!  Thank you!"  And it wasn't even that large of a check.  I felt like a patron of the arts for the rest of the evening.  Check and check.

5.  See the Steve Martin quote, supra.  Mainly I've bought some new clothes and picked up the check more often.  But even so.  Annnnnd, check.

One of the nice things about having some extra disposable income is that when I went to see a show at the Hub Theater and the nice lady selling tickets accidentally overcharged me (not by much, just a few bucks) I suggested that instead of going through the effort of cancelling my transaction and re-doing it, she just code the overage as a donation and send me a thank you letter (because I think I *will* be itemizing this year).  She was delighted to comply. And once again, I feel like a patron of the arts.

I could get used to this.  I really could.

*Multiple Sclerosis as severe as my mother had it is very expensive.  The "continuum of care community" where she lived for the last ten years of her life started out costing about $5,000 a month when she was living independently and having aids come in a few times a day and, when she had to move over to the nursing home section and having skilled nursing ended up costing $313 dollars a day.**  (For people who do math as well as I do $313 x 30 = $9,390 per month or $114,245 per year).  This was significantly more than her income.

**Of all the folks I have met with MS, I haven't seen anyone with a worse case than Mom's, so most people with MS diagnosis should not look at Mom as a pattern for their own futures.

***And, as nursing homes go, it was very nice.  But still depressing.

****Not that I buy lottery tickets, but fantasy doesn't require that.  And if I found bags and bags of money, I'd call the FBI.  I grew up in America. I watch TV.

*****The Stage is my theatrical home, so they got the biggest check.  By far.