Sunday, February 28, 2016

Honest Pay for Honest Work

Earlier today I read this opinion piece about earning power today compared to earning power during the baby boomer years, and it made me think. Here are my thoughts.

When I was growing up during the 1960s and '70s, my father was the only breadwinner. My mother was a homemaker. On my father's single salary, my parents were able to purchase a lot and build a house on it. They owned two cars, not brand new luxury cars, but still two reasonably good vehicles. When my father died my mother got a job that allowed her to keep the house and keep my sister and I clothed and fed and supplied with whatever we needed for school. We went on vacations every summer. When I got my driving license she bought me a car - not a new one, but my own car. She sent me to Europe for two weeks as a graduation present when I graduated from high school. When my sister was old enough to drive she got her own car as well.

Because my father had died I was eligible for Social Security benefits, which helped with my college tuition. I also received a Pell Grant. That took care of tuition, and my mother took care of my living expenses while I attended a small university a short distance from my home town. When my sister went to college she attended a private university that was more expensive, but my mother managed that, too. When my mother passed away in the '80s, she left a substantial sum of money to my sister and I. I used my inheritance to pay out-of-state tuition at the university where I decided to go to graduate school.

My job with my employer is considered 'exempt', which means that my employer is exempt from paying me overtime if I work more than 40 hours per week. That means that I can work 18 hours a day and still make no more than what I would earn for 8 hours. I am supposed to be able to receive enough salary that I wouldn't need overtime pay. In reality I don't earn enough money to do what my father did. I couldn't afford to buy a house in today's economy, at least not without putting myself in debt for the next 30 years and struggling to pay my other bills. I can only afford to take trips to places I can drive to, because air fare is too costly. My employer gives me four weeks of paid vacation time annually, but I typically only use it for 3-day weekends or to extend holidays, because I can't afford to take a trip out of state and stay in a hotel every day for a week or more like my family did during my childhood vacations. My husband and I have one car. We couldn't afford to insure two vehicles. We don't have children, and I don't know how my coworkers who do manage to make ends meet.

I do have some extra expenses that my parents didn't have, such as cell phone and cable tv bills, but I don't think those are so much that I should be unable to do what my parents did. But when I was a child hotel rooms for four people cost $60 a night at most. Meals for an entire family didn't cost as much as $20. Gas for the car cost less than a dollar a gallon. Health insurance cost less. Electricity and water bills cost less. Houses were less expensive, so mortgage payments were lower. When we sold my parents' 3-bedroom 2 bath house back in the '80s, it was worth less than $50,000.

I know that inflation happens, and that the cost of living is higher where I live now than where I grew up. But it's disheartening to think that here I am, 55 years old, working for my employer for 20 years, and I have so little to show for it. I'm fortunate to have a pension; people who were hired a year or two after me didn't get one. But if inflation continues at the same rate it's currently at by the time I'm old enough to retire, my pension won't do much for me. I probably won't be able to afford to live as I live now. I might have to move into a tiny studio apartment and give up my car just to retire. And my husband, who only works part-time, doesn't have a pension, or any kind of retirement savings. He doesn't earn enough to pay bills and still set something aside for the future. Even though his job is hourly-paid, he's not eligible for overtime, either. If he works 40 hours in a week he doesn't get anything beyond his usual wage, even though he's worked twice as much as he normally does. If he retires he'll have to live on my retirement income. And my employer stopped offering health insurance for employees who retire, so we'll have to figure out how to shoulder the burden of our own healthcare when we're not working anymore. If healthcare costs keep skyrocketing, most of our income will go for insurance premiums and medication. That's not much of a retirement to look forward to.

I'm far from the only person in this boat. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that in another 20 years or so there are going to be a lot of retired baby boomers like me who need affordable housing and healthcare and something to do with their time besides watch tv all day. And in another 20 years after that the next generation will need the same thing, only they'll all still be paying off their mortgages and student loans if we don't find a way to make those things less costly.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Adventures in Skyrim, part 1

A couple of months ago I restarted playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Back when I first got the game, I tried to blog my adventures, but eventually I stopped playing. I've decided to give it another go this time, but rather than blog each session, I'll summarize. 

I'm playing a Dunmer (dark elf), initially concentrating on archery, but now starting to pursue Destruction magic. As of this writing, my character is 16th level and has become a thane of Whiterun, as well as claiming the title of Dragonborn.

The Memoirs of Nelyth Othrelas

Part 1:

It is difficult to believe that many weeks have passed since my adventures first began. Yet at the same time it feels as though years have passed, for in those weeks I have experienced so much.

Let me begin at the beginning. Not my own beginning, which is of little consequence to my story – or perhaps not. Perhaps none of this would have happened had I not chosen to leave Solstheim to visit Skyrim. Certainly I would not have been arrested and sentenced to death as a rebel. I still do not know how that occurred, for I cannot recall what happened to me before I woke in the back of a wagon on the way to Helgen. I must have been struck on the head, or perhaps afflicted by magic. I have found no one to ask. Those who were with me in the prisoner wagon must not have been present when I was taken captive. They did not seem to know me. It came as a surprise to find myself in a wagon with the rebel leader, Ulfric Stormcloak. Even when he could not speak I found him unpleasant to be near. He is not a leader I would have chosen to follow.

Whatever the reason, the Imperial soldiers had deemed me a rebel, too, and they meant to execute us all. There was no trial, no pleading our case before any magistrate. One moment I was in the wagon, my head still thick from whatever robbed me of my senses, the next I was giving my name to a soldier just before I was made to kneel at the headsman’s block.

What rescued me, you may wonder – a sudden reprieve given by an Imperial official? An attack by rebels rescuing their leader? No, my salvation came from a source I could never have looked for. Until that day I believed, like the Nords, that dragons no longer existed. But it was a dragon that saved me. The soldiers and the headsman died or fled. I was able to gain my feet and seek shelter in a nearby stone tower as the dragon breathed flame at Helgen. When I climbed to the second floor too look out, I was nearly burned myself. Once the dragon moved away I leaped from the window to the roof of a nearby house to make my escape.

I met the one Imperial soldier who had shown me a tiny amount of kindness, and he helped me find my way out of Helgen. He even permitted me to take weapons and armor from the stores of the Imperial troops. We had to fight off a few Stormcloak prisoners who had escaped their cells, as well as a bear who had decided to take refuge in the caverns below the town. Eventually we escaped the caverns and emerged on the road leading to the town of Riverwood, where the soldier who had helped me told me we could seek aid from his uncle the smith.

In Riverwood the smith showed me much kindness, giving me leave to take clothing and food from his household and allowing me to sleep there as well. He has even given me training in smithcraft. Once I had recovered from my experiences at Helgen, I set about finding a way to earn some gold to carry me back to Solstheim. The soldier who had helped me suggested I join the Imperial army, but was not surprised that I found that suggestion distasteful. I have no desire to join the ranks of either the Imperial army or the Stormcloaks. His uncle the smith also recommended that I visit the city of Whiterun to tell the Jarl there what had befallen Helgen. The soldier had to return to the army. Before leaving for Whiterun, I made the acquaintance of some of the people of Riverwood, including the local trader and his sister. The trader asked me to pursue thieves to a nearby ancient barrow to recover an item that had been taken from his shop. I agreed, but decided that I would go to Whiterun first.

In Whiterun I was welcomed by the Jarl, though his steward was less friendly. After I had spoken with them I met the Jarl’s court wizard, who asked if I would be willing to seek out a tome on dragons he wished to acquire. Curiously this book could be found at the same ancient barrow where the Riverwood trader’s stolen golden claw had been taken, though the wizard would not say how he knew the book was there. As I now had two reasons to go to that barrow, I set off to recover both the golden claw and the book.

Vanquishing the bandits who had occupied the antechamber of the barrow was no great feat. It was simple to creep up on them unseen and dispatch them with a few arrows. As I explored further I found more difficult challenges, not only draugr but also dangerous traps. I discovered that in order to access the book I must first recover the golden claw, for it acted as a key to open the chamber where the book lay.

Once I had both items in hand, I returned to Whiterun to give the book to the wizard. While I was there, a second dragon – or perhaps the same one as Helgen, I cannot say – attacked the watchtower outside the city. I went with the Jarl’s guards to combat it. It was not my responsibility alone to slay it, but when it died a startling thing happened: some energy flowed from its body into mine! I could not explain it, but the Nords immediately proclaimed me Dragonborn.

When I returned to the city, I heard a strange voice calling out as if from a very great distance. After I went to the Jarl’s palace again he told me that the voice I had heard was the call of the Greybeards of High Hrothgar, calling the Dragonborn to come to them. The Jarl also made me a Thane of his lands, granting me the right to purchase a home in Whiterun and assigning me a housecarl to serve me. Lydia has become my faithful companion and protector since that day.

I did not go at once to High Hrothgar to meet the Greybeards. I heard that trolls are often seen in the mountains, and though High Hrothgar does not lie far from Whiterun it is on the other side of the mountains and there is no pass. Instead I sought to earn more gold, with a thought to purchasing a house in Whiterun. Before that day I would never have thought of doing such a thing. I have since slain many of the bandits who now infest the lands while other men are away fighting in the interminable war between the Empire and the rebel Stormcloaks, as well as ridding Skyrim of innumerable wolves, bears, spiders, and other troublesome creatures. I have killed two vampires. I have earned enough gold to buy and furnish a handsome house in Whiterun, Breezehome, which fortunately lies conveniently close to the smith’s forge and to the Drunken Huntsman, a charming tavern run by a friendly Bosmer.

Only after I had made the acquaintance of the Jarl of Falkreath and also visited the town of Morthal and the village of Rorikstead did I make my way to Ivarstead, the village which lies at the bottom of the mountain below High Hrothgar. Fear of trolls no longer troubled me, for I had slain five or six of the creatures already in my travels and I now had Lydia to help me. But I did not expect to be attacked by another dragon as we climbed the 7,000 steps to the Greybeards’ abode. This one long refused to land and let us ply our blades against it; we had to expend a good number of arrows before at last it settled on the mountainside and we slew it. After that the lone troll that lurked above the path waiting to attack unwary pilgrims was hardly a challenge.

The Greybeards have taught me that the energy I feel when I am near a dying dragon is its soul, being absorbed into my body. I can use this energy to power my thu’um, to give the powerful Shouts they have shown me how to use. I know now how to run briefly at tremendous speed, and to knock things back with the power of my voice. I do not know what I am meant to do with this power, other than use it to slay more dragons should they appear to threaten the good people of Skyrim. I will learn my destiny as I continue to travel the length and breadth of Skyrim. But for now I will go to fetch the horn of Jurgen Windcaller, as the Greybeards have asked me to do.

Part 2:

I have completed my task for the Greybeards, but when I entered the tomb I found the horn missing. In its place I found a note inviting me to meet someone a the inn in Riverwood. Upon returning there I learned that the innkeeper, Delphine, is more than she seems, for it was she who had somehow crept into the tomb through another entrance and absconded with the horn. She and her friends, who I have yet to meet, are suspicious of the motives of the Thalmor and think they may have something to do with the arising of the dragons. She wants me to infiltrate the Thalmor headquarters. I am not sure that I am willing to go along with this plan, but I will cooperate for the time, as she seems to have much information about dragons that would be of benefit to me. It was Delphine who gave the wizard in Dragonsreach the information about the book I retrieved for him from Bleak Falls Barrow.

After parting with Delphine, Lydia and I traveled much of Skyrim, visiting most of the larger towns and cities, slaying more bandits, and being asked to carry out various tasks for people we met along the way. The priestess of Kynareth in Whiterun has asked me to retrieve a blade called Nettlebane from a hagraven, so that the blade can be used to gather sap from the tree Eldergleam to revive the sacred tree that stands outside the temple in Whiterun. I have not yet completed that task. Instead, I took passage back to Solsteheim. 

What a pleasure it was to return to my home, though I was greeted as an outlander by the people there. The island has not been spared the depredations of dragons, and I slew one just outside Raven Rock. I have also cleared Fort Frostmoth of an undead menace and have hopefully stopped the swarms of ashspawn that have plagued the land. After clearing the for I met with the wizard Neloth at Tel Mithryn, and while I cannot call him a friend, he will perhaps have a more favorable opinion of me since I have helped his mycologist find a way to repair his tower. At Tel Mithryn I met his apprentice, Talvas Fathryon, and in the end I chose to send Lydia back to Whiterun and ask Talvas to accompany me.

While we wandered about the island, we stumbled upon a Dwemer ruin, which I will eventually want to explore, but not yet. In the meanwhile I have returned to Skyrim with a new goal. After I completed the task Tel Mithryn's mycologist set for me, which concluded with slaying a spriggan Earth Mother, I found a chest in a cave. Within the chest lay an oddly shaped gemstone. The instant my hand touched it, I heard the voice of Meridia, telling me that I must take the stone to her shrine, which lies near Solitude. I have decided that I will complete this task first, before taking Talvas with me to retrieve Nettlebane. His spellcasting capability should be of good use against a hagraven.