It is going on two years ago that I posted here about my emergency heart surgery and my brush with my own mortality in the late summer of 2015. Since then I’ve physically recovered better than would have been expected in most ways, but in all honesty I’m still struggling to find the new, post-operation “normal” in my life. Over the past year in particular I’ve been facing various forms of existential crises that in some ways have been more difficult for me than the heart surgery recovery itself. This was crystalized for me in the realization this spring that in 2016 I was actually conned out of more money than I was able to earn during the course of the year!
I’m not talking about paying more for little treats for myself than what I should have paid; I’m talking about being tricked into paying for something essentially useless, that quite literally cost me significantly more than my year’s salary. This has led to some significant stress handling difficulties for me, and it has forced me to re-evaluate the direction of what’s left of my life. For those who have been tracking on my life and ideas here –– friends, family, regular readers and those who are otherwise in the habit of praying for me –– as I did following the surgery a couple years ago, I feel I should explain this in a bit more detail.
For 18 years now –– basically the last third of my life –– my primary employer has been the City of Espoo’s municipal board of education. I got into the business of being a school teacher two years before that, teaching philosophy at an adult high school, and based on recommendations by friends and colleagues who were impressed with my work, Espoo’s Etelä Tapiolan lukio (South Tapiola High School) hired me to teach the same subject area.
My primary subjects to start with there were philosophy and religious education, and in addition to those I was asked to teach psychology as well. Working with the basic background I had in the subject from my studies in theology, and with a bit of help from my friends, I managed to teach myself enough of that subject to bluff my way through teaching it to teenagers fairly well also. In my second year at Etelä Tapiola they started offering a modified international version of the British secondary school diploma system, as designed by Cambridge University, known as the AICE Programme. Within that system I began teaching sociology as an “AS-level” examination subject. That soon became one of the school’s most popular courses, and I found it very interesting and rewarding to teach it. The following year I was asked to start teaching the required “value subjects” –– religious education and ethics –– at the middle school level, in the English-speaking classes at Pohjois Tapiolan yläaste (North Tapiola Middle School): the primary “feeder school” for the English-speaking line at Etelä Tapiola at the time. This line at “Pohjis” eventually evolved into what is now Espoo International School. I had some reservations about that part of the work to start with –– the idea of trying to get 13-16-year-olds to take religious education seriously, which many of them clearly saw as the academic subject they were required to take which had the least relevance to life as they know it, did not sound like a particularly rewarding career path –– but I ended up making myself quite at home in that aspect of my career as well.
This career opened up for me, I have to admit, not just because I was good at it, but because really no one else wanted it. I can count on the fingers of one hand, without using my thumb, the total number of native English-speaking people in the world who are qualified to teach religious education in Finland, and there are actually many good reasons for that. In fact the biggest challenge I faced over the course of my first seven years teaching in Espoo was my epic struggle to become officially qualified to do the work that I was doing! That is obviously a very long and very painful story that I won’t go into just now. In any case, to start with I was brought in to teach in a program that was being phased out, without any clear indication of what sort of program would follow for those studying in English to get university entrance qualifications through in Espoo’s public school system. Over the course of my career these systems have frequently been in flux, but somehow I’ve managed to keep going with them for a remarkably long time by Espoo standards.
My passion for this work, across all of the subjects that I have taught, has been for getting teenagers engaged in discussions about the very meaning of life: what counts as truth; what counts as “normal”; what sorts of goals are worth working towards; why should we bother with various sorts of expectations we are faced with; what kinds of things all people should theoretically be entitled to, just because they are people; and how we can constructively relate to those who come from entirely different religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds. Especially while I was struggling for official qualification in the field I wasn’t making much money at this, but I received strong feedback that I was making a difference for some of these kids, and helping all of them to think more carefully about what they were doing with their lives. And then when my sons, who went to an entirely different school in the next city, started to get a bit of extra recognition within their extended peer networks for having a father who was recognized as a rather cool teacher, that made up for a lot of the grief I had to deal with along the way.
But as my sons became adults another major shift happened in my career: Etelä Tapiolan lukio switched over from its improvised combination Finnish-British system to being part of the de facto mainstream in English-speaking international secondary education: it became an International Baccalaureate school. This was helpful for the school in many ways, but one of the side effects was that the subjects that I was most passionate about teaching no longer fit into the school’s curriculum. I could no longer teach philosophy, psychology, sociology or higher level religious education: I was asked to take up the IB “Theory of Knowledge” class, and to do middle school student guidance counselling to fill the gap in my hours and keep me on staff, but these weren’t where my heart was at. Finally, for the 2011-12 school year, I decided to take a sabbatical break, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, not really sure if I would be coming back to Espoo from there or not.
I didn’t find any way to permanently settle in there in Cape Town though, and I didn’t find any other alternative employment right away, so in the fall of 2012 I did return to Espoo International school, now as only a part-time teacher of middle school religious education and ethics. The salary for this actually turned out to be less than my sabbatical pay had been, but I had no childcare, alimony or mortgage payments to make any more, so I decided I would just tighten my belt and live with it. To keep myself out of trouble I applied to start working on my PhD at the University of Helsinki and I was accepted directly into that program for the next spring semester. Things looked pretty tolerable at that point.
I won’t go into any details about how things at the middle school have deteriorated for me since then, or how my extended sick leave for emergency heart surgery figured into the big picture. Suffice to say, my salary has progressively decreased, the workplace stress has progressively increased, and the feeling of making a positive difference in those young lives has largely faded away for me. Gradually I came to realize that my long-term unemployed friends here actually, quite literally, have a higher economic standard of living than I do. And then, as frosting on the cake for this stage of burn-out, came the realization that a loan I had arranged, to help some working men in western Kenya start a business providing safe drinking water for people in their region –– for a sum significantly more than what my 2016 salary turned out to be –– was money that I would never see again!
The bulk of that money had gone into buying what was supposed to be a top-of-the-line borehole drilling machine, which in spite of all the hype associated with it, turned out to be an essentially useless piece of equipment in the area where it was intended to be put to use. I have since come to the conclusion that those selling these machines are among the lowest level of con artists.
I will follow up in a later blog with more details of the con I fell for here, giving more specific warnings to keep others from falling for the same. For now I will simply tell you that machine I was conned into helping my Kenyan friends buy is called The Village Drill (abbreviated hereafter as VD), designed and marketed by a group of Mormon engineers from Utah operating under the generically religious sounding corporate name of WHOlives. I was referred to these people by a former clergyman, who now self-identifies as a “serial entrepreneur” and a “motivational speaker.” That in itself should have set off all sorts of warning lights for me, but I mistakenly believed that I could trust the integrity of this individual I knew from 2/3 of my life ago regardless of his “career shifts.” That has turned out to be the most expensive mistake of my life thus far. When a man who has been through multiple divorces tells you that something else has been his most expensive mistake in life, that should tell you something!
The VD –– in the words of one established expert in the field I have since been talking to –– is essentially “a beefed up version of manual rotary jetting with a little more capacity to drill through clay and soft/weathered rock”. The third column of the chart below indicates what such a machine is best suited for:
In short, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this machine. It is not at all suited for the sort of geographical conditions found in the area north of the west end of Kenya’s Rift Valley, it is priced at roughly ten times what a diesel or electric powered drill of comparable size and weight goes for, with lower penetrating capabilities than such motorized machines (from which it borrows its basic drilling technology), it has significant maintenance problems, and for all that it comes with no warranty and with seriously deficient customer support.
Consequently the only customers that WHOlives has had for the VD thus far –– according to a report they managed to slip into a peer-reviewed engineering journal last year –– have been “either non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated them for use in developing communities.” In other words they have been trying to go after people with deep enough pockets where they can afford to lose money; and if the poor people of Africa end up not getting as much as promised in the process, “at least they tried.” Of course this report leaves out mention of at least one Kenyan start-up, funded with a loan arranged by a rather gullible school teacher from Finland, but in that regard I will be in touch with the journal in question to suggest corrections and retractions later.
So now what do I do? I’m trying to try to avoid getting too cynical about this mess. My Kenyan connections made their own significant mistakes in this process, but they tried very hard to get this massively overpriced sub-optimal piece of Mormon engineering to work and I really can’t want to blame them for failing at it. I was the one to blame for the biggest mistake in the process: suggesting the damned VD system to begin with! But be that as it may, as things now stand I need to dig myself out of this hole before I can do anything else in Kenya regarding which local people there can say “hakuna matata” when I lose more money. In other words I won’t be able to travel to Kenya this year to further work with pastoral training programs and I won’t be able to make any personal donations to keeping the school lunch program that I helped initiate there running. This grieves me significantly, but there are times that I have to accept that –– largely because of mistakes I have made in terms of misjudging who I can trust –– certain things are just beyond my control.
And part of the problem that losing more than a year’s pay draws my attention to is that I cannot continue on with a career that has such a low level of pay to draw from. Things have come dangerously close to the old adage, “I pretend to work and they pretend to pay me,” being literally true. As one of my cleverer students pointed out in her final exam essay this spring, the primary difference between an employee and a slave is that the employee has the functional possibility of quitting an unsuitable job. I now need to see if I do indeed qualify as an employee in this regard, and if it turns out that I am thought of as a slave, I need to try to find a way to escape!
Under the circumstances I am quite willing to do any honest form of work for which an employer would be ready to take on a man of my age, with my particular set of linguistic and academic abilities, in the sort of health I am in, even if they don’t pay an entirely livable wage for such work. I am not proud or squeamish at this point. But one thing I am not willing to do is continue teaching middle school lessons 2-3 hours per day, every day of the week, to the exclusion of any other occupation, for less than a subsistence wage. And at this point there is no reason for me to expect that the middle school’s administration values my work enough to make the adjustments necessary to keep me working there voluntarily. This is now a matter of mutual understanding between myself and the principal there. So effectively that means that, while I am officially on vacation at the moment, in practice I am unemployed already. I honestly have no idea where my next salary is coming from, and when.
The principal of Etelä Tapiolan lukio, has been kind enough to nominally keep me on staff there to co-teach a class one hour a week, just to keep my foot in the door, so to speak, so I can stay in my employee housing for the time being, but I am very seriously looking whatever work I can find at this point. At the same time of course I am trying to double down on finishing my doctoral studies, however much easier said than done that may be under the circumstances.
Overall though I have to admit, I’m perhaps now more than ever in the position of Kris Kristofferson’s most famous lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Though I am a US citizen by birth, I am also a naturalized citizen of a civilized country that actually believes in human rights –– that provides basic health care to all citizens and won’t let me freeze or starve to death, or die for lack of the basic prescription medicines I’m now on, because of my lack of capacity to pay. Beyond that I really don’t own anything that creditors would find it worthwhile to repossess. So in effect I’m confident at least that things really can’t get any worse for me. All I really stand to lose is time –– time during which, under other circumstances, I might have been able to do more good in the world rather than struggling with the uncertainties of my basic subsistence.
Even so, at least for now, life goes on. It remains to be seen where this freedom will lead me, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. For those of you in the habit of praying, please remember to mention me as you do so.