Financial Literacy Is Overrated

Robin Hood“Mom!”


“Can I borrow five bucks?”

“You’re five. What do you need five bucks for?”

“My Junior Bow.” We went to the Bass Pro Shop about a month ago. We passed by the hunting section. I wandered in looking at the bows. I don’t hunt. I’m a vegetarian Gandhi-loving pacifist. Archery is fun, though.

“You need this,” said Rusty, showing me a cross-bow so complex it required an auto mechanic.

“No,”  A few days earlier, after the banning of dodgeball hit the news, we’d discussed all the things you can’t do in schools nowadays. I learned archery in school. Now that we have land, I contemplated picking it back up again. I don’t want to kill large animals. A crossbow is unnecessary.

“How about this?” he asked. It was a huge compound bow. I don’t want to be on a Homeland Security list, either.

“No, a simple bow. Like Robin Hood.”

“Oh, you want a longbow.” Helpful Salesman advised they didn’t have longbows. This was the hunting section. Longbows aren’t best for killing. I didn’t want to kill anything but targets. Maybe even study kyudo, zen bow. Samurai hunted. Kyudo supplies should be in the hunting aisle.

Declan picked up something at eye level. I thought it was a toy. It was the Junior Bow. Helpful Salesman informed him that the $149 starter hunting bow was a real bow. Seeing my face, he advised that it was only available when you turned seven, but he’d put this one on hold. I thought that’d be the end of the subject. Alas, I was mistaken.

Declan has been scrounging, saving, and trying to earn money. When asked why, he says consistently, “For my Junior Bow.” He remembers the price, counts pennies, and makes piles of coins in Mr. Smiley, the bank my dad gave to me for my pennies and Declan now has on his dresser.

“Mom, I need cash.” He does this a lot lately. I worried that he was developing a drug habit he needs cash so often. He reminds me, “For my Junior Bow.”

Today, it was a whole five bucks–usually he scours the car for pennies, or tries to see if there’s change in my pocket.

“But it costs more than that.” I said.

“I know. You can lend me five dollars today. Then $144 dollars a different day.” He shrugged his hands in the air to illustrate this was basic common sense.

WHAT? At five, he can already fleece me into the hundreds? I’m not even saving for college. I’ve got two words for that–West and Point.

I’m in deep trouble with this kid.

He taught me a lesson. Financial literacy is dangerous. I’m canceling all references to the subject in my teaching. True, I think financial literacy is one of the most critical yet undertaught skills in schools. I always integrate it in my lessons, no matter what subject I’m teaching. I tell students who “hate math” that they can continue to do so–if I hire them for my business, I won’t have to pay them correctly. I win. But truthfully, finances are important.

Years ago, a student I’ll call Jonathan (that’s his name) brought me a bank statement.

“Miss! What are all these minuses?” They were overdraft fees.

“Did you put any money in this account? Here’s where you got gas, and where you went to the store.” There were three days’ difference between the two transactions.

“No. They forgot about this one so I went shopping.” He hadn’t realized that could take multiple days to clear. There may be a delay between when you spend the money to where the cyberbank delivers it. Ouch!

But now I had this little five-year old Alex P. Keaton staring me down for five dollars today so he could “borrow” $144 tomorrow. And the totals equaled out. Sans tax–that’s a lesson for a different day.

Money grows on treesTeaching financial literacy is dangerous. It’s too expensive. If the next generation knows more than Congress and the IRS about fleecing me for money, I’m going to be broke, no matter how much I work and how well the business does, taxes aside.

Today it’s $5, tomorrow it’s $144, what’s next? Real estate? “Mom, I saw this property down the road–it’s a fixer-upper, but I think I can flip it for a nice profit.”

Suze Orman and Clark Howard are getting put on the back shelf before it’s too late.

I’ll just tell the kid to watch Les Stroud on the Discovery Channel, and go into the woods to make his own Junior Bow. He can invest that $149 somewhere else.

But if I see him turn the cartoons even once for Financial News Network, I’m canceling cable.

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No, I Do Not Want To Play Zombie Brain Suckers–I’m Trying to Do Yoga

What happens when I find the yogi?

What happens when I find the yogi?

I’m up to my eyeballs in stress. So is everyone in the universe. It’s time for some yoga. I’m grateful that I’ve learned enough for a routine–it’s sort of like watching Cool Hand Luke but with fewer beatings…a chance to “get my mind right.”  Today, I am reminded that could do better in my yoga practice.

My friend is puts daily “yoga tips” on her LinkedIn and Facebook Pages. I appreciate the gentle reminder, “Are you going to do your yoga, or WHAT?” I have been trying, but I have a serious problem.

Yoga is impossible with kids and dogs. That’s why all the good yogis climb mountains to escape them.  The other day, I gave it the old college try. I had some music. I unrolled the mat when everyone in the house was busy doing their own thing, transfixed by screens or hobbies. But yoga is powerful–it calls out like “the force.”  Everyone knows the minute the yoga mat hits the floor, even if it is silent as a whisper. That, you see, is the perfect time to interrupt.

If I were a yogi on a mountain, no one could interrupt–it’s hard, far, and cold. That’s the idea. But they always find me.

“Mom, are you doing yoga again?” Declan was in the doorway. A nanosecond before he was three rooms away hypnotized by the computer.

“Yes, I’m doing yoga. Please go finish your show,” I entreated.

“Mom, yoga’s stupid. Let’s do karate. REAL karate, like Poe.” He followed this proclamation with two minutes of kung fu panda theatre, chopping at my knees. Finally, he left the room. I resumed.

“Mom, can you take apart these gears?” Standing on one foot, balancing in tree pose, I separated the gears.

“Mom, are you balancing?” I ignored him, focused only on my spot on the wall. “Mom!” He took just one little finger, touched it to my hip, and pushed. I tipped. “You’re not doing a good job.”

Remember my post about patience? Never to wish for it, because situations will appear that will require the practice of patience–usually very trying ones? The same is true for focus and inner peace.

The dog, not to be left out of the fun, joined. Soon, both boy and dog were lapping me in circles like a I was the center of a centrifuge.

“Mom yoga is very stupid and it makes me want to yell,” he announced.


“Because it’s stupid stuff.”

“Well, you’re going to be left behind on the road to enlightenment. Go watch your show.”

“You’re moving to Enlightenment?”

“No, it just comes.”

“When does it come?”

“In its own time. Go…watch…cartoons!”

Today, I figured I’d try again. Declan was safely installed in front of a screen rotting his brain cells. Poor parenting, good strategy. Poor parenting equals good yoga.

Secretly, I signed off of a chat, saying “I’m going to do yoga.” Then, quietly, I unrolled my mat. Yoga radar cannot be defeated by silence.

Woosh! “MOM! Are you doing YOGA?”


“Mom, do you want to play zombie brain suckers?”

Start the routine again. “Mom, I farted! Mom, I need a yoga hug. This is the yoga love position. Mom, let’s do dinosaur yoga. Mom, Mom. MOM!” I gave up. I laid down in savasana, the resting position, and tried to end my yoga right. Claudia said to do this to rest and avoid agitation. I was already agitated.

The boy left. Savasana isn’t very exciting. I relaxed. The yoga took over. Until… thump, thump, thump, POUNCE…a boy leapt through the air landing full-force on my abdomen. There is no contingency for this in yoga. I resorted to martial arts. A deflection.

I ended yoga beyond agitated, into the realm of angry and annoyed. Yoga isn’t supposed to annoy me. It’s supposed to bring me inner peace. I do not feel inner peace right now. I can only hope that if I keep getting disturbed and annoyed by this type of study that I will gain good karma and work toward inner peace, or that I will have an increasing tolerance for focus and patience in the end.

Otherwise, tomorrow, I’m going to start Googling famous yogis on mountains. I’m going to plug it into my GPS. Then I’m going to find a nice mountain, too.

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Never Pray for Patience–And Don’t Get Hit

Never pray for patience. When you pray for patience bad things happen. Bad things do not happen because you are praying for patience, they happen because if you want patience you need to practice patience. You can only practice patience when things are happening that require you to practice patience. Usually difficult things. Things you do not want to happen.

It’s called hyperfocusing. I learned this lesson studying Japanese sword. Every time I practiced, I’d slice my foot or get bashed across the hand with a wooden bokken. I’d end up with hands that looked grotesque. I earned a couple of nice scars.

Girl with SwordI resolved that I’d work harder, practice harder, study harder.  I would no longer get hit in the hand. And then, BASH, it’d happen again. Still, I studied. I considered every nuance of every angle possible. Every eventuality, every possibility. I made a plan. A plan that didn’t include me getting bashed. Ironic for someone who can’t plot a mere two moves ahead in chess.

Except when someone’s swinging a wooden stick at you really fast, it’s a different sense of urgency then when you move a bunch of two-inch wooden guys on a board for fun. Planning ahead was more than just winning a game–it was self-preservation.

Still, I kept getting hit. A lot.

If I wasn’t getting hit, I was being thrown. I got thrown farther than anyone else I knew. Probably because I don’t weigh enough, but also because I’m not very good. You’d have thought it was opening week of spring training and I was the ball or that there was a casting call for bad guys in a Jackie Chan movie–who can play dead the best? Oh, me!

I kept studying the art of avoiding getting hit, looking for the secret to dodge the blows. I meditated. I contemplated. Should I be faster? Develop better timing? Learn mind reading? I’d try anything…

Finally, Michael, my instructor, told me the secret. “Listen. As long as you think about not getting hit, you’re going to get hit. You have to think of what you’re going to do.” 

Sure enough, he was right. One day, I was exhausted. My mind was empty. It was clear. I was not making a plan. And a magical thing happened–a reaction. I didn’t get hit.

This is true for Japanese sword, but it’s also true for life, work, patience, and problems. Ducking and covering isn’t a very effective strategy. We spend a lot of time planning for the worst. And then what happens? The worst. A result of hyperfocusing. Planning for the bad puts it in our minds. It puts the energy in the exact place we didn’t want it to go.  Energy doesn’t know whether it’s good bad or indifferent. It just goes where the focus is. It’s our job to take that negative focus away and just do. And let the energy go where it’s supposed to go, to creating magic.


What is Your Superpower?

“Don’t you ever sleep?” I asked my friend, Heather. She is always awake. Pretty much every minute. I can verify this because I wake up at about 4AM to write for a couple hours. She is there. I see her posts after I go to sleep at my somewhat religious 10PM. It’s amazing to me. Waking up as early as I do, I’d probably go to bed an hour earlier, myself, but I seem to have The Boy Who Doesn’t Sleep which makes it difficult. Maybe he belongs to Heather and a mistake was made in the nursery. I’ll have to check her whereabouts for that day. It’s worth spitting onto a paper and sending it in to a geneticist to check.

"Superhero Me"

“Superhero Me”

“I don’t need to sleep,” she replied. “It’s my superpower.”

“Wow,” I said. “A superpower.”

I wonder if we all have a superpower, and if so does it mean we’ve taken powers from other areas and concentrated them? Or that we’re just endowed with extra talent and the world can’t touch us?

Now I’m wondering. Do I have a superpower? What could it be? Let me check the superpower checklist:

Able to leap small buildings? No, but I once ran around the entire track jumping the 400 hurdles and only fell on my face once, toward the end.  After testing me on the high jump just in case, Coach said I had to stay on the ground.  I’m not really fast, agile, and can’t teleport either, and I haven’t been running much lately. Maybe leaping and transportation are not my thing.

Super healing powers and ability to regenerate? I wish I could cure cancer and other serious diseases. I’d use this to help a lot of people. I can’t, though. However, every time I slice myself cooking, I seem to be able to manufacture the correct amount of butterfly stitches to avoid the hospital–all one-handed while bleeding. That’s pretty cool. But my wound doesn’t heal spontaneously, so perhaps that’s not a superpower after all.

Can I control nature? No, but I can watch The Weather Channel and predict when a storm is coming. I can even I shovel snow, putting nature where I want it, and making shapes out of it like snowmen and angels. I can bend the will of nature–I helped train my dog.  And I heed the call of nature when necessary.

Mind control? I want mind control. I needed it yesterday teaching my seniors–the last class of the day. I’d like to control their minds directly–make them pay attention even though it’s period seven and they are five months from graduation. If I can’t have their minds, I’d like a chip for their phones that annoys them till they focus. Someone build me that app. Without mind control, I try to stare them down. They don’t think I’m planning an evil consequence, because I never look evil–I missed evil class in teacher school. Evil consequences are not planned by superheroes, anyway. They are planned by arch-villains.

One time, I did use telekinesis to explode an Orange Crush. That’s a superpower.

“Put that away,” I said, “before I unleash the chi.” The student laughed.

Never…doubt…the chi….” I said, circling my hands sending energy toward the soda.

The Orange Crush exploded instantaneously, spraying sunlike stickiness all over the doubting student and three others nearby.  The chi became my superpower, even though in my heart of hearts I know it was a combination of a shaken soda and incredible coincidence. But the story is passed down to this day, and somewhere in a corner of the internet I’m not supposed to know about, there is a Facebook page touting my skills as a ninja.

Maybe that’s my superpower. The story. The legend. The lore.  Maybe that’s what most superpowers are. That image of that larger than life person you won’t mess with because they just might explode your soda. Or the picture of that person saving the world that makes you want to save the world, because if we all do our little bit, the world indeed gets saved.

That is my superpower. The art of the story with a touch of humor, maybe even the ability to see possibilities in students others can’t. Most would argue, that’s not really a superpower, it’s someone who needs a good shrink. But I’ll take what I can get, because superheroes don’t get to choose their powers, they just try to do the best they can to save the world while avoiding all the kryptonite.


[Credits: A special note on the image credit. I borrowed it from Living in High Definition, a beautiful blog about a family facing heartbreaking medical challenges with grace. I am grateful to this image for leading me to their story. If I had superpowers, I would help them first.]

Think Ahead or Die: Chess Education in Grade K (Chess: Part 1)


Author Peter Smalley's son levies a crushing defeat on the family cat.

Author Peter Smalley’s son levies a crushing defeat against the family cat.

Chess Story One:  Playing Chess with the Boy

We are playing chess. Declan and I. I started playing at about five. Never mastered it, because I don’t think several moves head. I’m too social. I’d rather talk. In chess, you must think several moves ahead–devise a plan in response to every counter-initiative long before your opponent hatches his evil scheme.

I never have a plan. I just move the pieces around until someone better than me wipes me out.  But I can’t lose to a five-year old. That’s the line in the sand. There’s pride involved. I wipe him out mercilessly every time.  He tries hard. He asks all the right questions.

“Why does the knight move like an ‘L?’ Why not ‘A’ or ‘S’ or ‘C’?” I must confess I do not know.

“Why can the queen do anything she wants?” Because that’s the role of the woman in the universe.

“Why don’t you let me win?” Because I’d bring shame upon myself that would last all of eternity.

So, I said this, “Life doesn’t ‘let you win,’ kid. Do you want to grow up with a false sense of self-esteem? Do you want to lose the ability to feel like a winner when you win for real? Or do you want the system to artificially create conditions so that no child gets left behind and you have a false sense of self-worth that will be stripped away the minute your first boss kicks you in the teeth with the reality of your very existence?”

He paused to consider this. “Mommy, if he kicks me, I will defeat him with my karate–like this!” That is the upside to owning a martial arts establishment.

“You don’t really want me to let you win at the cost of your self-respect, do you?” I inquired.

“Yup. Let me win.” Another generation down the toilet.

Occasionally, he’ll try the “I’m going to put it here, but don’t take it, Mommy” defense. As if that negotiation will let him get away with the flagrant dangling of an unprotected queen. I immediately take it. He’ll yell, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO TAKE IT!”

So I reply, “Listen, we already discussed this…if I don’t take it, you’ll get a false sense of self-esteem. It’s like inflating test scores. It just reduces the national IQ in the end.” And he grumbles. I follow up with some sage advice from the heart. “In life, you have to protect your assets.”

“Don’t say ‘assets’ Mommy! It’s a bad word.”

“No, ‘assets’ is okay. Liabilities are bad.”  He’s already moved on to the next piece. Planning ahead.

The game continues. I win.  Again.  Maybe some day, he will take in some of these lessons and improve. I really don’t want that to happen, though, because then I’ll have to start planning ahead and improving. And when it comes right down to brass tacks, I don’t want to put in all that hard work. I just want to win–the easy way.

Tomorrow:  Part two of my chess series. Hardly call it a “series,” and I’m really bad at chess. Chess and Improv–Why Making 2 or 3 Plans Makes You Less Likely to Get Squashed.

[Photo credit: Peter Smalley, author, biochemist, and father of this budding chess champion. I wish to set him up with Declan if the cat ever goes on vacation]

A Formal Apology to Henri Matisse

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.53.48 AMI was looking at a picture of bamboo. I love bamboo. I have spent so many hours painting it. In my sumi-e practice, I have painted a million bamboo plants. In the beginning, I thought this was insane repetition. In Western schools you don’t sit and write the letter “e” a million times. Maybe that’s why I always flunked handwriting.

I used to sit and work on the same image or same kanji hundreds of times. Eventually, I learned, it was all the same. To create an image a thousand times is to create it once. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, a cherry blossom–whatever. The goal is to reach perfection. The reality is that perfection doesn’t exist. The perfection is, in fact, in imperfection. Sometimes, our drive to be perfect consumes us. We suffer. Practicing these arts teaches us eventually that the learning–the experience–is in the journey–perfection is just a destination to imagine in the meantime.

What I liked about creating sumi-e was that it seemed unfinished. The Western eye saw that and said “Oh, you forgot half, you moron.”  But truly, that was its perfection. How liberating to jump that line. To realize that simplicity was, indeed, complete, and that the mind’s eye was charged with filling in the details. That the truth of the image could lie in a single leaf. The mind does the rest. This totally changed the way I looked at nature.

Bamboo was always my favorite. I’m not sure why.  When I was younger, I always drew a couple things over and over. One was a big tree. It’d start on the side of a page, and cover half. Sometimes, I’d insert a river with a little boy fishing, a fence…Often the tree emerged in a graveyard. I always loved graveyards. Still do. The colonial graves would appear around the tree, one by one–always slightly out of artistic proportion, because every time I put in details, the picture got skewed. Seems a fitting metaphor for life.

Bamboo was different…a single sweeping line with a couple interruptions, flowing leaves.  The unfinished tree picture was always that…unfinished. The bamboo was complete in its simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.37 AMYears before I studied sumi-e and shodo, I lived in Russia for a short spell. I saw a Matisse exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There were tons of Russians standing around with hands on their chin contemplating a picture of a house that looked slightly less skilled than a similar picture I drew in kindergarten.  I stepped away, trying to hide my laughter at the scene of these art aficionados contemplating what seemed to be a child’s mess.  My friend Svetla was concerned.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “I’m just not sure why everyone’s so serious about that picture.”  Seems I’d thrown out a judgment. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too ignorant to suspect the magnitude of my own stupidity.

She proceeded to talk about line, form, and other things with which I neither agreed nor could have processed at the time. Sometimes life throws depth at us that we’re just not ready to ingest. I tuned out, wondering which subway station would have farmers with the best vegetables to assemble for lunch. I also wanted some cheese.

Years later, after I had studied years of Japanese sword, calligraphy, and art, I ran across Matisse again, seeing a full catalog of his works. I stopped. I noticed the mastery of each line, color choice, form. I looked at this stunning catalog, researching Matisse further–how he evolved from what I would have understood to be a “proper artist” to one who liberated himself from the constraints of the establishment to transcend the rules.  He was, indeed, a true master worthy of the time those dozen Russians with their hands on their chins spent contemplating his mastery.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.48 AM      This was an epiphany. I was finally embarrassed by my earlier assumptions. I took a moment to apologize to Matisse.

In Japanese culture, there is a concept of “shu, ha, ri.”  Shu: is when you learn something and repeat it over and over,  following the rules. Ha: you make it your own, adding style and flourish. Ri: You forget the rules. Leave them behind. Transcend them.

Henri Matisse was at “ri.”

This lesson never leaves me. I consider it when I think about  self-development, improvement, and simplicity. 1. Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. They are the truth. 2. Often times, society makes us stop before we approach “ri.”  Society laughs at “ri,” It cannot comprehend that degree of freedom, always forcing us into boxes, expectations, and rules.  3. In order to achieve our greatness, we must make that jump from the safety of the rules to the exposure of mastery.

All the great artists, musicians, thinkers, and creators were at “ri.” It’s difficult to understand, and harder to measure. Society doesn’t always approve, and often, it’s only in the end that people step back and say, “Wow.”

These are lessons I’ve learned, but not always practiced. I see that in my writing, in my approach to education, in my willingness to take chances in life, I often stop at “ha,” conforming to the rules of society when there is so much more to be done. Truth is, most of us do just that.

Only when we commit to take that last step, despite the fact we will be seen as non-conformists and outliers… only when we promise ourselves we will speak and act upon that truth, can we get to the level of “ri,” and change the world.

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