Archive for January, 2004

The Thinker

Thoughts on the Cusp of Being 47

It’s that time again. Tomorrow I have another birthday. To be precise, it will be my 47th anniversary of my birth. That means, in reality, I have already lived 47 years and I begin my 48th year. But never mind, 47 sounds better than 48. And age is just a number, right? So should I even be reflective about dates I check off on a calendar?

I guess so. I can’t pass any of my birthdays without some reflection. Being 47 is not particularly more difficult than being 46, and was a heck of a lot easier than turning 40. On my 40th birthday I hid indoors. Thank God my wife did not give me a 40th birthday party; she must have took my not so veiled threats of bodily harm seriously. Now turning 50 doesn’t seem so terrifying. I can join Alex Trebek and become a member of AARP, although I will be nowhere near retirement age. And I can pretend I will look a lot like Lauren Hutton, who recently passed 60. She graced the cover of a retirement magazine recently. It declared that 60 was the new middle age.

Maybe so. I can use balms like these, but as my age creeps higher the likelihood of my death becomes less abstract. Aging seems to happen at a slow enough pace so that I hardly notice the new lines on my face, or my need for trifocals, or spots of sun damaged skin or the occasional liver spot. Perhaps I flatter myself but I seem to still retain something of a boyish look. I have some gray hair but it blends in well enough with the dirty blond stuff that it’s hard for me to notice except when I am visiting a hair stylist.

In general my health is excellent. I weigh a bit more than I would prefer, but it is not a dangerous weight. And while I haven’t measured by BMI lately I work out with weights a lot, so much of my weight is muscle and not fat. Like most middle-aged people I’ve discovered I can’t eat what I want anymore. My inner child occasionally rebels against being on a perpetual diet but I’ve largely come to terms with it. I learned long ago that life isn’t fair.

I keep waiting for my midlife crisis to end. Every year I think I am just about there and I find out I was a bit premature. But this year it does feel that, if I am not out of the woods, at least I have glimpsed the edge of the forest. For much of my thirties and forties I was driven by an indefinable angst centered on thoughts of aging and death. But also I felt like my life was being directed more by what was expected of me rather than my own will. I often longed for the irresponsibility of youth with, of course, none of its drawbacks. Those fears, at least for the moment, have receded like a low tide. I now understand on both an emotional and a logical level that I am finite. That’s just the way it is. So I must accept this simple truth. This means if I arise each day in good health and with the ability to direct my life then I am blessed. I can’t stop death from happening to me someday, but I may be able to delay it. For the moment at least life is good.

I am king of my little hill again. I’ve staggered through some difficult problems when I was 46, including whether to change jobs (I start a new and more challenging job at the U.S. Geological Survey on February 23rd), my dear mother’s decline and partial rehabilitation and various family issues I can’t get into here. And the moment at least these problems feel sort of managed.

Yet the years go by so quickly. Sometimes when I think about it, it seems impossible that so much time has passed. My high school graduation is nearly thirty years in my past. My marriage is in its 18th year. But in my memory it is like it all happened yesterday. I often can’t reconcile in my mind the reality that so many years have passed. It seems surreal to be 47.

But if I have to be 47, I feel good about being where I am. I pictured myself in my youth at 47 as a much older and weather beaten creature than I actually am. For a couple years, and longer perhaps, I can have the illusion of some youth. I know I see a fundamentally false picture of myself but I don’t care.

So I am trying, and usually succeeding, at smelling life’s roses. I am fortunate in so many ways. I have a job I enjoy and that pays very well. I have the free time I need to putter and indulge my hobbies. Soon I will not have to endure the torture of a soul draining commute to and from D.C. every day.

Life offers no guarantees. It just is, but I can make it as pleasant as possible given its chaotic nature. During my 47th year my parents will likely move to this area for the simplicity of a retirement community and to be closer to my sister and myself. It will be good to see more of them and be able to help them without driving 600 miles. But their move also brings with it some anxiety of being a caregiver.

I will need to be there for them in their last days. I know I will do my part to bridge their passing. No one should leave this world unloved and uncared for, and I will do my best to make sure that is one less burden they have to face at that time of life. I will keep my fingers crossed that problems with my wife and daughter will become less difficult and more manageable in the years ahead. But there are no guarantees. There may be lots of heartache and misery in the years ahead.

All the more reason that, on the cusp of 47, to seize the day.

 
The Thinker

Bring This On?

I saw this image in today’s Washington Post. The image has been haunting me. Seeing it I can’t help but put myself in this poor guy’s shoes.

This man was one of the “injured” men from a suicide bomber attack near the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad yesterday. The blast killed four people, including two Iraqis, and wounded four others, including this man.

He appears to have no hands or feet. It’s hard for me to think of someone like this as “wounded”. What is he lucky enough to be alive for?

I am aware that if Saddam Hussein were still in power that people would still probably be tortured. Many others would be summarily executed for being the wrong ethnic type or hosts of other trivial reasons. Had we not invaded, there might have even more mass murders by Saddam’s regime.

But it is clear that no war is without its ripples. It is important that once in a while we see a consequence, however unintended, or our noble intentions. This “ripple” is just another innocent man wounded in a terrorist attack in Baghdad. Just to stay alive he will need constant support. He will not be able to feed, bathe, or even go to the toilet by himself.

So far over 500 of our soldiers have died. At least 5000 of our soldiers have been wounded. Conservatively 9000 Iraqis died as a direct result of our invasion. Who knows how many more will die in terrorist bombings like this that were unlikely to have even started had our invasion not opened up this Pandora’s box. There was no al Qaeda presence inside Iraq before we invaded. These and most of the other suicide bombings sure bear the mark of al Qaeda.

Saddam may not be terrorizing his own people these days but others with axes to grind, principally against us, seem to be stepping in to fill his shoes.

Bring this on?

A Man injured in the blast of the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad. Credit: Ali Jasim -- Reuters

 
The Thinker

Odd Choices for the Oscars

I guess I should be thrilled that “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” was nominated for eleven Oscars yesterday. To me it was a no brainer that Peter Jackson should have also been nominated as Best Director. Clearly the movie also deserved its many of the other nominations, including Best Music and Best Makeup. Since both the movies and the director were skipped in these categories over the last two years the chances are good that Peter Jackson will win Best Director this year, and LotR:RotK will win Best Picture. Hollywood has some serious dues to pay Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films.

So why am I ticked off? Because despite the stellar acting by a superb cast, it did not receive even a single acting nomination. For me it is hard to pick among such worthy candidates from the film. Let’s start with Elijah Wood. I long ago got over that he was too young to play the part (Tolkien portrays Frodo was in his early 50s). And I must say as I watched Wood’s antics in the extended DVDs I personally don’t like the guy. He comes across as young (which he is), abrasive, arrogant and full of himself. Nonetheless his performance across all three films was outstanding. It’s hard for me to pick his best scene, but the one that comes to mind is the one at the end of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” where he decides to leave his friends and travel to Mordor alone. His performance in that scene alone was worthy of an Oscar.

Arguably Sean Astin as Sam should have at least been nominated for a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor nomination. In LotR:RotK his acting reached a crescendo. Like the horse Seabiscuit he came from behind and surprised all of us with the quality and depth of his acting. Was it because he portrayed someone who was at heart a very simple and plain man that he was overlooked? Maybe Sean didn’t deserve an Oscar, but surely he deserved a nomination.

And how could the selection committee get through the movie and not possibly nominate Miranda Otto for Best Supporting Actress? My wife loathes the character of Eowyn in the book. And yet she was totally blown away by the depth and complexity of Miranda Otto’s performance. At all three showings of the movie that I attended, the highlight for both me and the audience was Eowyn’s killing of the Witch King. It was one of those magic movie moments that are increasingly rare. You know, the kind where you get so lost in the story that the whole world goes away you actually become one with the story. That scene is unforgettable and produces a primal thrill that never really leaves you. I have been engaged in tasks as mundane as driving when I recall the scene and tears spring from my eyes.

Along with Elijah, Sean and Miranda there were also top notch performances from Bernard Hill (as Theoden), John Nobel (Denethor) and of course Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn). Here we have six excellent candidates and yet not a single nomination. It makes no sense. Instead, who do we get? Johnny Depp for “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Give me a break! Yes, it was a very comic and enjoyable performance but his performance was hardly one deserving of a nomination. It was so over the top it was in outer space somewhere. As my wife pointed out, he looks like he is either high on dope or drunk throughout the movie. The man belonged in detox.

Other odd nominations included Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider”. It was certainly not a bad performance for a girl about 13 years old, but hardly one of an actress at the top of her form. I really liked “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” but Best Picture? Nah! Not even close. I haven’t seen every movie on the list but of those I’ve seen the only movie that deserves coming close to LotR:RotK would be “Seabiscuit”.

It’s been clear to me since “The Color Purple” lost both Best Picture and Best Director in 1985 that something is wildly wrong with the Oscar’s nomination and selecting process. While there will always be disagreements, when things are that out of skew all we can do is shake our heads. It is not our judgment that is at question, it is Hollywood’s judgment that has gone awry. But time is the ultimate arbiter. “The Wizard of Oz” lost in 1939 and is now an acknowledged classic. The same is true of “The Color Purple” and will be true of the Rings pictures, even if Hollywood snubs them and Peter Jackson one more time. A hundred years from now people will be huddling around their plasma screen TVs to see the Rings movies one more time. “Master and Commander” will be forgotten as just another sea picture.

 
The Thinker

Misleader

It’s important that you take a look at my extended entry today folks. My thanks to The Whiskey Bar for compiling this list of quotes on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction claims by Bush Administration officials.

These are not ambiguous quotes. These are quotes full of complete certainty. Then how can it be that just the other day our chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay contradicted all that we’ve been told by this administration? His conclusion:

“My summary view, based on what I’ve seen, is that we’re very unlikely to find large stockpiles of weapons. I don’t think they exist.”

So how did this happen? I see three, and only three possibilities here.

The first is that the intelligence given to the president was conclusive. It said that Iraq currently possessed weapons of mass destruction and was targeting the United States. But that’s not what the intelligence summaries said based on information known and published even before the war started. They were clear that the information was partial and sketchy, and that the findings should not be used to draw any definitive conclusions. Intelligence agencies actually disputed each other on numerous point. The State Department was in particular skeptical of claims made by other intelligence agencies.

The second possibility is that the American people and our Congress were lied to by our Administration. This is possible but unlikely. Although this is one very arrogant administration, it’s hard to imagine if the administration knew that intelligence this poor it would still make these pronouncements as fact when it knew them to be wrong.

The third and most likely reason was that intelligence was read selectively. Evidence supporting Bush’s predisposition to invade Iraq was deemed credible. That which offered a different point of view was dismissed. This is quite plausible former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in his recent book, made it clear that the administration had plans to topple Saddam Hussein even before 9/11. It was also the entire point of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s personal intelligence office. It was instructed to find the evidence that supported toppling Saddam, and to ignore the rest.

Ultimately though the reason doesn’t matter. In the first case simply did not happen. The intelligence summaries provided to the press prove it. In the second case we have clear grounds for Bush’s impeachment and removal from office. In the last case we have the most egregious case of misleadership imaginable.

Thus far over 500 American soldiers have died in our preemptive and unnecessary war in Iraq. We already have over $150B either spent or allocated to fighting and occupying Iraq, and doubtless the number will continue to climb in the years ahead. Conservatively at least 9000 people, mostly Iraqis have died in this war. Over five thousand of our soldiers have been wounded. Our armed forces are spread thin and occupy a country that had no connection with 9/11.

We fought the wrong war at the wrong time. We actually made our country more vulnerable to terrorism because we diverted forces away from those responsible for 9/11: al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And if that were not enough we managed to squander most of our good will with other countries.

I can think of nothing a president can do that is worse than sending off our armed forces to start and fight the wrong war. For such widespread misleadership alone George W. Bush must not be reelected.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

People I’ll Remember at Work

I’ve noticed that there are lots of people in my agency who seem to be married to the agency. I have yet to feel that degree of loyalty or attachment to my employer. If the job isn’t working for me, or if there is a more interesting job elsewhere then I am gone to greener pastures.

Nonetheless as I leave ACF I realize there are people there that I will genuinely miss. Some of the people I will miss have already gone. That was true of Joe, who left 18 months or so ago. Joe is in his mid fifties and worked for us as a contractor for many years before he was arm-twisted into being a federal employee. He was an odd choice because he was quite the office gadfly. This is an accomplishment in itself because my division is full of gadflies. For years I worked tangentially with Joe. As a result of an office relocation we were forced to share an office for a couple months. As a consequence we were in each other’s faces constantly.

Joe had a flair for being outrageous and speaking his mind, even when foolish and dangerous. My boss at the time I think admired that trait, but he also admired the fact that Joe was used to doing the less glamorous assignments (like the Year 2000 Migration) and actually getting them done on time. That’s a great skill to have. Joe was irreverent, an atheist, and a divorcee from a very bad marriage. I learned he was shacked up with a girl friend that seemed to love him but whom he refused to marry. He won’t marry again, he said. “I won’t make that mistake again.” Joe survived by his wits. Life was never boring when I worked with Joe. We could go weeks without talking to each other then I’d stop by his desk and we’d get into these long philosophical discussions on the meaning of life and all work would stop. I miss Joe. I gave him my email address before he left for another agency. He never dropped me a line and I forgot to look him up. Too bad. I’d like to reconnect with Joe.

The man who hired me, Jim was a strange bird too. He was very intimidating but also unforgettable. He was at that stage of his career (early 60s) when he was trying very hard to prove himself. He was hankering for a senior executive service (SES) position for which he was never selected. He was amazingly aloof and remote, at least to me. He hired me and then didn’t talk to me for weeks on end, letting me fend for myself by reading manuals and walking around the office looking for work. He basically saw himself as too busy working on higher-level things than to give me much time-share. He seemed to like to build empires, which often existed more in his mind than in reality. He could be very intimidating. I often felt scared to even talk to him. Nonetheless he was a great schmoozer with his chain of command. As a result he somehow managed to become the office director. I believed he would get his SES some day but I was wrong. Instead we got a new SES who took an instant disliking to him. They were apparently oil and water. Jim’s dream of separating his office from the SES’s was quickly shot down. Jim retired abruptly under circumstances that looked more like he was being fired. It was weird: I spent most of a week visiting parents in Michigan, came back, and he was gone. No farewell luncheon. He wasn’t around long enough to even say goodbye to anyone. Jim may have been aloof, but I know he must have been crushed. He must be still licking his wounds somewhere. While I didn’t like Jim that much, I did respect him. When I heard the news of his sudden retirement I actually felt sorry for the guy. I loathed the SES who cut him loose and still do. One of the reasons I’ll be glad to leave ACF is to be away from that man.

And speaking of gadflies, there is Deb. She is our database administrator. We had offices next to each other for years. It was always easy to know when she was around. Her piercing voice could be heard at least 100 feet in all directions. Deb is one of these women who cannot not share her mind. She is extremely good at what she does, which is manage a very large enterprise Oracle database. After about a year of knowing her I discovered she was a fellow Unitarian Universalist. Suddenly her behavior made a lot of sense because I have found UU churches to be full of gadflies. Deb may be a gadfly, but she is also very funny, sharp as a tack, dedicated as hell, persistent and worth three times what they pay her. She is so good no one can succeed in tempering her tongue. She may be opinionated but Deb speaks the truth. I’ll carry that aspect of her into my next job. Since she’s a UU, maybe we won’t lose complete touch with each other. Perhaps I’ll see her at a UU conference or at General Assembly.

Of all the people at ACF, the one I admire the most is Diana. When I started she was the project manager for a large enterprise grants system under development. I was really in awe of how good a job she did managing the construction and deployment of that system. This is a system used across the country by nearly 2000 people. It replaced dozens of legacy and stove-piped systems. Overall it was an amazingly smoothly run project that she directed with unbelievable competence. Her firm direction and fearlessness triumphed over incessant requirements creep, network infrastructure problems and constant changes in the development team. She still works for us now but on an intermittent status. In fact I’m giving her some of my most critical work. I am doing this deliberately because I know if I give it to her it will get done, and with the highest degree of professionalism. If she wanted to she could soar to the top of the organization. But she is happy doing what she does best and happy with her intermittent status because it gives her lots of time to travel with her husband.

Then there is Dave, one of our team leaders. Dave was a contractor, who became a Fed (federal employee), who got fed up being a Fed, left, then came back as a contractor, then became a Fed again. Dave is ten years my senior and jumps into everything thrown at him. I can’t fault him for his desire to be superman, but he always takes on way more work than he can really handle. At a recent meeting with my bosses we discussed who would get my work. Dave happily and perhaps foolishly volunteered to take 80% of it. I know he’ll have to farm it out at some point, and much of it will get delayed. He can’t do it all. But Dave is always sincere about meaning to get it all done and on time. And that counts a lot in my book. Dave inspires me to step up to the plate too and volunteer to juggle perhaps a few more projects than I should. It eases the guilt feelings.

Dave has a technical equivalent: James. James is Chinese and runs all of our development servers and development infrastructure. James is the most brilliant technical person I have ever met. He probably clocks twice the hours he bills; he never seems to stop to do anything other than smoke. He has become our indispensable man. He does the impossible to keep the development people going. James is unassuming but clearly ambitious. He’s another one of these people I can go weeks or months without talking to, but with whom I can have amazing conversations. Our conversations are not deep philosophical ones like I had with Joe. They are technical conversations. Our last conversation was an involved discussion on web services architectural strategies. It was the sort of conversation only James and I could have. I am quite confident that in the whole Office of Information Serives he and I were the only one who would speak coherently on such a complex matter. We know and respect each other. He knows I am in awe of his technical skills, and he quietly acknowledges my mastery of understanding how information technology works.

If there is one person at ACF though I really feel attached to it is Lynnette. She’s a contractor working on our web team. I’ve given her a lot of work over the last couple years. Because she is a contractor I was wary of opening up to her at all. But the more we interacted the closer we became. And the more we interacted the more I realized that we were very much alike. It’s a pretty rare experience to really know someone I work with, but I learned a lot more about Lynnette than I ever expected. She drove me back to work from an offsite meeting once and we had a long “this is my life in summary discussion” that blew me away. It was one of these unbelievable stories of triumph over adversity that sounded too amazing to be real, but was clearly fact. In spite of her adversity though she hadn’t lost her humanity or this innate sense of optimism. I watched her roll down her window and give money to a homeless man. We often discussed politics and usually found agreement. She came to my church once to attend a Palestinian fundraiser I helped put together. Lynnette is exquisitely poised, professional and deep. I’ll likely miss her the most.

I will miss my daily interactions with these people but I also know this is the proper time for me to move on. But I will always remember Joe, Jim, Deb, Diana, Dave and Lynnette. I learned something from each of them. I won’t remember all with fondness, but I will remember them. And I’m grateful that I tarried six years at ACF just so I could encounter them at a close and persistent range.

 
The Thinker

Caucuses are Undemocratic

I realize not many people watch C-SPAN. Perhaps they should. It can be an eye opener. Not only do you get to see politicians live and unfiltered, but occasionally I see something very disturbing. This happened Monday night when C-SPAN broadcast live from one of the Iowa Democratic caucus precincts. It was enough to convince me that the caucus system has to go.

The way the caucus system works is that on caucus night you visit your local caucus and find others like yourself who support your candidate. You essentially declare your support for a candidate openly. You then have to listen briefly to statements from groups supporting each candidate. You then might choose to move from your candidate’s group to another candidate’s group. This might be the one virtue of the caucus system. This differs from, say, the Chicago political machine where your local alderman’s friend gets you down to the polling place and gives you a suggested list of people to vote for. At a caucus you are required to hear a differing point of view. I assume this dates back to an agrarian time when newspapers were hard to come by and many voters might go to a caucus having little or no knowledge about the candidates. Clearly this is not an issue in the 21st century.

But here is where the caucus system breaks down. In Iowa (and I assume many other caucus states) only “viable” candidates count. You know your candidate counts if your candidate is actually awarded delegates from your precinct. In Iowa if your candidate (say Dennis Kucinich) doesn’t make a 15 percent threshold, sorry, he gets zero delegates. You are effectively disenfranchised. Across Iowa it is possible that a candidate could get 14 percent of the vote but won’t get a single delegate. This is not democracy. It’s a variation of Animal Farm where “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Oh, but it’s not over. Since the 15 percent don’t count, they have the opportunity to throw their allegiance to some other candidate who is viable. Heck, anyone can change their mind up until the final count and move from candidate group to candidate group. Eventually though a final count is called. Those who were marginalized out of the process may have picked an alternate candidate. Or they may have given up in disgust and gone home.

Delegates are broken down proportionately based on the final count of viable candidates. The candidate coming in second for a particular caucus though may get awarded an extra delegate. In Iowa the rules say that if the delegate count doesn’t break down proportionately, the highest candidate drawing less than 50% gets the extra delegate. So strike another blow against democracy.

The caucus system is really a delegate selection process that disenfranchises marginal candidates, inflates delegate counts for the “viable” candidates and may award a special silver medal for the second place candidate for a particular precinct. You have no secret vote, and your can change your candidate affiliation as many times as you want before the final vote, perhaps wending some personal favors for your vote.

It’s a stinky process. It needs to go. Thank goodness next Tuesday the voters in New Hampshire have the opportunity to vote in a real primary. Those who choose to vote for Dennis Kucinich will know that their votes actually mattered. Voters won’t effectively be tapped on their shoulders and offered advice in the voting booth. They can make their choices secretly and anonymously.

The caucus system may have made a certain amount of sense at one time in very rural states where people are few and far between. But those days are long gone. We have cars. We have modern telecommunications. We know how to do a secret ballot. Abolish these absurd and undemocratic caucuses!

 
The Thinker

South Beached

Last June I wrote about my adventures losing weight. Well they weren’t really adventures. Those who claim losing weight is fun are fooling themselves. It’s never fun to diet. I looked forward to the “adventure” as much as a root canal. Still I knew I was putting on more weight. It wasn’t anything dangerous but I was afraid to get near a scale and learn the awful truth. The awful truth turned out to be 198.8 pounds. For the record that’s 8.8 pounds more than I should weigh to avoid the stigma of being “overweight”.

Now I certainly didn’t look overweight. I get complements all the time about how trim I look. I’ve never been one to neglect exercise either. For two years my exercise has included not just aerobic, but weight training too. I’ve probably converted quite a bit of fat into muscle. I have been conscious for years about what I eat. I can’t eat anything anymore without thinking about the tradeoffs. Even so food is apparently an enormous pleasure to me. When opportunities present themselves (like Christmas cookies arrive from friends) I find it impossible to just say no. So mostly I try to keep these foods out of my house.

Clearly eating less and exercising more was a great weight loss strategy while it lasted. I lost weight regularly, but it was a hard thing to sustain indefinitely. The body resisted. My last attempt at a formal diet was The Carbohydrate Addicts Diet. It didn’t work for me. I stayed pretty much where I was. This was due to the fine print: you can have carbohydrates at one meal a day, but you have to limit them to about a third of your total calories for the meal. I went overboard. I found I couldn’t limit them that rigorously. But more importantly, the diet did nothing to solve my craving for carbohydrates. I still had thate underlying addiction.

So now it is about a year later and I’m trying the South Beach Diet. Much to my surprise here I am two weeks later and I’m still on it! And I was also surprised to find that I dropped four pounds in one week! I have never lost that much weight that quickly before. But I had never tried a carbohydrate free diet before either. The first two weeks of the South Beach Diet are a lot like any day on the Atkins Diet, except the meals are supposed to be low fat. Carbs: just avoid them. And I have. No bread. No milk. No jellies. No fruits. I really crave fruits at the moment.

No, it wasn’t always easy. The first couple days were the roughest. After a few days I found myself at the CVS buying sugar free candies and making a lot of sugar free Jello. The mornings and afternoons weren’t difficult. Substituting eggs for cereal in the morning was easy. For lunch I chose salads or lean meats. String cheese worked for my midmorning snack. A hand full of peanuts was often my afternoon snack. Dinners were heavy on low fat meats, and lots of steamed vegetables. My broccoli and cauliflower consumption has gone way up.

I found sugar free Crystal Lite hard candies and have been eating them as dessert. They taste good thanks to the Splenda in them, but eating more than four or five made my stomach upset. My indulgence lately has been these protein bars. Some of them are excellent. I may be cheating a bit because they while they have only 3g of impact carbohydrates (the type that make you crave more) they have more of the non-addictive type. But mostly they contain protein, so it is balanced. They taste really good, but they are expensive. They remind me of a Snickers bar.

The South Beach diet emphasizes restoring a good blood chemistry. It does this by turning off the craving for carbohydrates. I find my physiological craving is gone but it is still there on the mental level. Tomorrow I will begin phase two. I can’t wait to introduce some carbohydrates back into my diet. Perhaps that is not a good sign, but right now the taste of a fresh apple, or even a bowl of Raisin bran in low fat milk sounds delightful. During phase two of the diet I am supposed to reintroduce carbohydrates slowly. That will be a tough test for me. Even though it could have been much worse I feel like I have been suffering. But I can’t deny the results of this diet so far.

I have learned a lot from this diet. I didn’t understand how addictive processed carbohydrate foods were. I didn’t understand what it was about being “processed” that made them bad for me. Dr. Agatston’s clear writing was an eye opener. I never made the connection that a processed food was essentially a partially digested food. This means the carbohydrates in them are readily absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar. And this raises your insulin level quickly and makes you physically crave more processed carbohydrates. So now I am wiser at last. I will be more selective about not just how much carbohydrates I eat, but how likely they are to make me crave more of them. I am armed with my book giving the glycemic index for various foods. I think with care I can add to my diet decent tasting carbohydrate foods that won’t make me want more.

I have noticed what people on the Atkins diet have told me: they often feel lethargic. I get winded easily. I still maintained my exercise routine, but at the health club peddling away on the elliptical machines I found that it actually hurt to keep up the pace. The blood sugar that I normally would have had running around my blood stream was not there, so it had to be drawn from my fat. It was weird; it was like I could feel the fat actually being burned off!

The rest of this dieting is monitoring what I eat and regular exercise. I will check my weight once a week to measure how I am doing. I will do my best to adjust my eating habits accordingly based on what the scale is telling me. I don’t ever want to be overweight again. I hope this time I am armed with the right information and the right attitude to fully accomplish my goal. I figure if Bill Clinton can lose 25 pounds on this diet, I can do something similar. There are no sure things in this life. But as I look at the numerous obese people around me, I know I don’t want to spend my fifties with cardiac or adult diabetes problems. I have a lot of life ahead of me and I want my good health to last as long as possible.

 
The Thinker

Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Presidential Primaries and the Election

The presidential primary season is about to begin in earnest on Monday. That is the day when Democrats in Iowa will caucus. Eight days later New Hampshire voters will go to the polls to select their favorite candidate. Whoever wins these primaries will doubtless hope to ride these early victories all the way to the nomination. However, if history is any guide many of those now campaigning like mad in both states might have been better off skipping these states altogether. That’s because neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a great track record picking the candidate who ultimately will win the nomination. So Wesley Clark may be smart to avoid Iowa. Let the others throw money at each other while he conserves his cash, organizes the key southern states, then hits them big on February 3rd and on Super Tuesday. It’s a smart strategy.

I found online results of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary going back to 1972. I excluded those years when an incumbent was running, and looked only at the Democratic primaries in these states. Both states are batting .500 in picking the eventually nominee. In baseball terms this is a great score, but not here. The best that can be said for winning in these early primaries is that the name recognition may improve a candidate’s odds. But that’s about all that can be said for it. It costs a hell of a lot of time and money to even compete in these states. Part of this is because there are a plethora of candidates for the party out of office in these early caucuses and primaries. If Iowa and New Hampshire have a job, it’s to winnow the candidates’ list down.

The primaries on Feb 3rd should be far more telling. Why? Because the states participating are more moderate states than either New Hampshire or Iowa. On that date Democrats in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina will vote. If I had to pick a bell weather state among these, I’d pick Arizona. Traditionally a fairly conservative state, it has been trending Democratic more and more these days. This is due to a very fast growing population, many of whom migrated from northern states. If I had to bet money (and of course I am rooting for Howard Dean) I’d say the Democrat that wins Arizona will win the nomination.

I proclaim no special prognostication skills when it comes to the primaries and the general election. The tightness of the race in Iowa, according to polls, indicates it is up for grabs. My sense is that Howard Dean will win Iowa. I suspect he will win it by about 5%. I believe it because he has a fanatical youth following. They will turn out for him and work for him in droves. My sense from attending four Dean Meetups is that this will be the real big surprise of the 2004 election. Both parties will wake up and discover that a critical mass of younger adults (those under 30) is now politically engaged. It’s about time Generations X and Y woke up from their lethargy. Maybe they were too young to remember Reagan, and took the wonderful and prosperous 90s for granted. Perhaps now they have woken up to what Republicanism has done to our country. It appears that they don’t find it very agreeable.

In the longer term the odds will still favor Dean simply because he has a network in place and he has the money (and can get a lot more when needed). Dean’s biggest problem will be his mouth. The campaign in Iowa suggests that going negative against his fellow Democrats is turning away voters. He will have to tone down those remarks in the future and direct his anger at the Republicans instead.

I’ve thought for about a month now that the Democratic nomination will eventually be fought out between Dean and Clark. I don’t think we will get run of the mill Capitol Hill politician as the nominee this time around. Voters seem to be saying they want someone different and unconventional. If I have been surprised lately it is how quickly Wes Clark is catching up in the polls after having been drubbed down to near the back of the pack after his initial fast start. His campaign has finally come together. He is generating serious money from a large network of supporters. This is causing the Dean campaign to look over its shoulders in worry. Although Dean is still ahead in New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Clark ultimately wins in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a history of loving mavericks, as it did in 2000 when it picked John McCain over George W. Bush. But it likes conservative mavericks more than liberal mavericks. Although Dean is really a centrist, Clark is perceived as a centrist and that may be the critical factor in New Hampshire.

Once the nominee is decided then the real battle for the general election begins. It will be a tough campaign for Democrats to win, but it could easily swing either way based on a number of topical issues, such as the ever-present U.S. economy or happenings in Iraq. As much as I like Dean, I tend to agree with the Clark people that Clark has better odds of fairing better against Bush on national security issues in the general election. So if Clark wins the nomination I won’t shed too many tears for Dean. I could back Clark enthusiastically. He just seems a bit suspicious to me because he only recently became a Democrat. I don’t know where his heart really lies.

Clearly the election will be fought over two issues: national security and the economy. On the national security issue Bush will appear to have the advantage, but either Clark or Dean are smart enough to know how to expose the fraud that is our war in Iraq. Clark is more likely to pick off Southern states for the Democrats. But I am dubious that the Democrats need the South to win this time. Based on the popular vote in 2000 we didn’t need the south, except Florida. If we can hold what we won in 2000 and pick up a couple states we can win the election. Bush is beatable. So don’t give too much credence to polls this far out from the election. The vast majority of Americans can’t yet name a single Democratic candidate for president.

The best issue for the Democrats on the economy will be the large net job loss (likely to exceed two million jobs) during Bush’s term. He will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have a net job loss in his term, and it’s hard to see how that will work to his advantage. Numbers like the December employment statistics (where jobs grew by only 1000 jobs) must make Karl Rove nervous. This appears to be a jobless recovery. The result is a lot of unemployed people competing for the same number of jobs, playing a dispiriting game of musical chairs with each other. Democrats will need to get them to the polls.

I tend to agree with my friend Frank Pierce that the Democrats need to play up the issue of outsourcing. We’ve been outsourcing blue-collar jobs for decades, but outsourcing white-collar jobs is a new phenomenon and troubling for many of us who felt secure with our college degrees. Those who have been outsourced more often than not find themselves making half of their previous income. Democrats need to paint the vision of a nation of clerks working at Wal-Mart if the Republicans stay in charge.

It is a shame the voters won’t focus as much on the federal deficits (which are the largest in history) or Bush’s exorbitant tax cuts for the rich, or the way he is wrecking our environment. Voters as a class seem to care more about short-term than long-term issues. Doubtless the Democrats will leverage them if they can. Of all these issues the federal deficit is the most compelling. Traditionally voters have agreed that the government should live within its means. It is ironic that the Democrats can make the better claim of being the party with a track record on financially responsibility.

Ultimately the Democratic nominee must simply promise more pragmatic and progressive stewardship like Bill Clinton delivered. His was a legacy of real prosperity unmatched in over lives. It should make the difference in many swing states. An appeal to a return to the “Great 90s” might swing the election.

 
The Thinker

Transitions

Life is full of transitions of varying degrees. I have begun a transition that will culminate in about a month when I leave my current job with The Administration for Children and Families and begin a new job with the U.S. Geological Survey. After a week and a half of nervous reference checking, USGS finally made a decision. Somewhat to my surprise they chose me to fill this job. It involves the collection and presentation of large volumes of real time water statistics. I’m not entirely clear where the boundaries of my job will begin and end, but you can see part of it at the USGS Water Web Site.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The vibes in my interview felt great. My new boss is not the caustic, aloof and somewhat pompous man who hired me at ACF. She feels comfortable. I’ve been told a good marriage feels like slipping into an old shoe. A good boss should give the same feeling. My new boss Susan evoked this feeling. During our ninety minute interview (which had been scheduled for half an hour) we talked candidly and freely. I realized that we were two of a kind. We’re dedicated but pragmatic, involved in our jobs but not owned by them.

Many of my job transitions have been traumatic. The most traumatic was when I abruptly was laid off from my job with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1988. I found unemployment a new and very unwelcome experience. I scrambled and found temporary work that kept me from missing mortgage payments. I eventually wended my way back into the civil service (elapsed time, about 3 months, perhaps a record breaker.) In the long run I lost no money but it was a nerve wracking experience. It felt good to be back in “Club Fed” after a brief experience in the private sector, even if it did mean returning to the Department of Defense and working at my least favorite federal building in the whole world: The Pentagon.

But my move out of the Pentagon to ACF was not without trauma either. I was working for the Air Force at the time as a technical leader. Mostly I managed a large client/server development project. My project manager abruptly turned on me and kicked me off her project in a display of temper that still shocks me to this day. I was wholly pissed to be thrown off this prestigious project that I had nurtured and work hard on for years, to a lot of great acclaim. I felt I didn’t deserve it. From her perspective I wasn’t as liked as well as I should be by the members of the team, and that was a fatal flaw. Perhaps she had a point. What really annoyed me is I could not get either my immediate supervisor or his supervisor to even hear me out. So I decided the organization must be dysfunctional and I should not be part of it anymore. I put myself on the federal job market again.

It turned out that what my project manager saw as a fatal flaw was exactly what my new boss at ACF was looking for. Literally the day after I interviewed he had hired me. I felt more than a little vindicated but figured it was all for the best in the long run. I was sick of working for the Department of Defense anyhow. Working for an agency whose mission didn’t usually involve killing people or snooping into their private lives seemed very appealing.

So one goal for this latest transition is to do it right. I want to leave this job with my coworkers actually feeling some sense of loss. Both my boss and team leader have been supportive. They gave me glowing references when they could have sabotaged the whole deal.

Overall I have enjoyed working at ACF. It was the most fun early in my tenure when I was putting together our agency’s first extranet. This project was very fun, heart stopping at times, but quite successful. It won me a lot of recognition. It’s been less fun the last few years as the sexy projects have been few and far between. I have a lot of talent and sometimes I felt management has been too busy to notice it or to use me properly. But it wasn’t enough for me to look for jobs actively. The USGS has an email job announcement list. I subscribed to it, saw this job, and applied. I had applied there before and even had one interview. In many cases I never heard a word, or positions mysteriously vanished. Lots of USGS jobs are only open to those who are already working there, which limited opportunities even further. I’ve been told by a number of people that I was very lucky to get this job.

Now I move to a job where I don’t necessarily have to rise out of bed before the cows wake up. For the first time in my twenty year career work will be three miles away instead of twenty plus miles. I can revel in the luxury of meeting my wife for lunch any day I want to. I can even bike to work. If emergencies happen I can be available on short notice, rather than ninety minutes away or more.

And perhaps I will feel less physically vulnerable. Since 9/11 I have been uneasy working in D.C. Perhaps no dirty bombs will explode here. Perhaps no truck full of plastic explosions will level my building. Perhaps the first suitcase nuclear weapon won’t explode on the Mall. But if it does, I likely won’t be a casualty. I will survive.

My expectations of my new position may be false. But I don’t think so. This has the earmarks of a job I will happily keep until I retire. The USGS is a gorgeous campus surrounded by trees and populated, I hope, by friendly and good people. I want it to be my ideal federal job. I hope it turns out that way.

Club Fed is a good place to work most of the time because you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same job of agency for your entire career. The trick though is that you have to be quite a bit above average, or at least perceived that way, to move from agency to agency. Performance appraisals are routinely inflated in the federal government. Most of us get Excellent or Outstanding Ratings, and not all of us deserve them. Some get them as a result of being some boss’s favorite employee; others because managers are afraid if they give Satisfactory or Fully Satisfactory they will lose the employee and the position won’t be coming back.

Many managers I’ve worked for have little idea what I did for them because they were too busy responding to their managers. I’ve been writing my own performance appraisals for years. I’m not even sure if most of the time my boss even reads them; he doesn’t seem to have the time. But I figured since I was writing my own appraisal it was up to me to make them shine, and I worked hard to have some significant and difficult accomplishments I could show each year. This was not always easy because I was not always given sexy projects, and my projects often spanned years.

During the last performance cycle I was a bit miffed because I went from an “Outstanding” employee to an “Excellent” employee. I realize not everyone can be outstanding, but I was working as hard as I always had and doing all the same things, if not more, that I did in previous years. Perhaps because I was more than a little pissed, I pressed my boss for an explanation. The explanation was very revealing.

What it came down to was that the benchmarks had been raised and we hadn’t been told. Essentially he was being told to score everyone lower. While that wasn’t the catalyst for me looking for another job, it certainly was one of the factors. It was unilateral and unfair. But our Deputy Assistant Secretary was simply implementing Bush Administration policy, and the Bushies hold us rank and file civil servants with more than a little contempt.

In fact, let’s be truthful here: the Bushies basically loath us. They wish they could unilaterally fire about half of us and they don’t care how badly our mission would be hampered as a result. And they think we are vastly overpaid. There must be something contemptible about us because we haven’t run large corporations and don’t come from privilege. That we manage year after year to do the impossible on shrinking budgets and with fewer personnel, all while policy makers keep changing the rules on the fly, doesn’t mean squat to them. We’re not from their social class so we must be held at arm’s length.

 
The Thinker

Healthy Love and Mental Health

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on mental health issues over the last year or so. Maybe my life is unusual in that I believe I come in contact with more people with mental health problems than most people. Or perhaps I am overly sensitized to mental health issues. But the more I learn about mental health the more I believe that the majority of us have persistent or chronic mental health issues.

A lot of us don’t seek treatment. The usual coping mechanism seems to be to ignore mental illness or just chalk up its miseries as part of the price of being alive. Some of us develop coping techniques so we can keep these issues contained in some relatively safe spot. Occasionally they pop out, often during periods of stress, to show us they are still around. Clearly for others mental health issues are so chronic and debilitating that their whole lives are filtered through the suffering and pain of their mental illnesses.

I went through a period of mild depression a couple years back. Unlike lots of people I sought treatment. For months I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even recognize the symptoms within myself. But eventually I figured out that crying at my desk for no logical reason and enduring persistent low level headaches for weeks at a time meant something was out of kilter. It seemed strange to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office, and stranger still to be spilling my guts to a therapist. But it seemed to work for me. Within six months I was off the drugs and felt relatively back to normal. In that sense I was fortunate. My depression appears to have been situational and limited in time and scope. But I had enough of a taste of it to develop empathy for those with much more chronic mental illnesses. It also made me realize that the scope of the problem is huge and our response to it as a society is less than adequate.

It is clear from my reading that the causes of mental illness are still hard to pin down. There appears to be a genetic predisposition toward depression for many people. But it is not clear if it takes events for depression to be manifested, or whether people can get depressed solely due to a predisposition. I do believe that a lot of depression has its roots in how we coped with difficult times in our lives. And I am increasingly convinced that much of these stresses have their roots in early childhood. But they have receded so far in memory that we have no recollection of them.

I have been curious of late why good people stay with people who are toxic to them. Why on earth would a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband cling to him and say that she can’t live without him? My reading suggests that it may be a result of addictive attachment hunger issues from our early childhood.

I think this is true with me and might be one of the reasons I suffered from depression. It is also one of the reasons I have been either so naive or idealistic when it comes to romantic love. I want to believe there is someone out there who is so in tune with me that we play off against each other perfectly. This ideal person (presumably a woman) can play me like a piano, and I can play her the same way, and life is somehow a continuously pleasant buzz instead of a series of challenges and harsh realities that it often is.

I know that when I was born I was one of three boys in diapers that my mother was shuffling at the same time. As a parent who struggled through nurturing one child I know how difficult child rearing can be. I can’t imagine doing it for three young and active boys at the same time, not to mention two older girls that my mother also was mothering in 1957. In her biography my mother fessed up. I came along at a time when she was mentally and physically exhausted, and quite likely depressed (although she has never admitted to being depressed). While she loved me as any mother would love a child, she was overwhelmed with work, stress and motherhood. I was very much a “time-shared” baby. I know I didn’t get the amount of mother time that children typically get. I probably picked that up even as an infant and it affected me in some powerful ways. Although adolescence is a natural time to pull away from the parents, I pulled away particularly from my mother. The issues were I thought overly excessive Catholicism and conformity, but I now suspect that these were but catalyst issues. The likely real issue was simply that I had not gotten the quality time from my mother than I wanted as an infant or growing up and I resented it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could do something about it. And unfortunately when I struck back I did it in a mean and vindictive way.

Part of my coping process until that time had been to play the “good son” role. I endeavored to be the peacemaker in a family of 10. A large family is, by its nature, a boisterous, sometimes rowdy, and always loud place. When the noise and the perceived mayhem got too bad I withdrew to my room and tried to shut it out. I latched onto my father, whom I perceived as calm and gentle mannered, unlike my rather temperamental mother. But my father also got to work with civilized people in clean and modern office environments eight hours a day. My mother was a housewife. Mothering and parenting was a 24/7/365 occupation.

As an adult I suspect I seek that which I felt I was sufficiently denied as an infant. Growing up I likely wanted to feel like I was one with my mother, and I wanted to feel special and utterly cared for by her. An inevitable part of growing up is learning to detach from the mother and confront the world alone. I was probably detached way too soon for my liking. Missing that attachment I seek it now in my marriage. But the reality is that marriage is not a supplicant relationship where I get the love I need from an authority figure. It is a relationship of equals where my responsibilities to provide love are as necessary as my wife’s obligations to me.

So my notions of how romantic love should be (shared perhaps by the majority of people in my country) are probably naive also. It is probably counterproductive and unhealthy for me to seek that sort of bonding in a marital relationship. We need to realize that we are seeking the unattainable. More importantly, if it were attainable, it would be unhealthy.

Still, for many of us adults this lingering attachment disorder echoes through our adult lives. My hope is that I have channeled these longings in appropriate ways. I have tried to have a consistent loving and nurturing relationship with my daughter. And yet sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in the nurturing the relationship as a reaction to my attachment disorder. Since my daughter is now fourteen she is going through a natural and necessary process of pulling away from me. I wonder if I was perhaps too much of a micromanager of her life. I wonder whether I should have trusted and empowered her more earlier. If I had, would she be a more functional young adult? I don’t really know but my gut says “yes”.

It would have been smarter to know and understand this before she was born. I would have changed my parenting strategies a bit, I think. I will be upset to learn if in spite of my best efforts my daughter spends her adulthood affected by similar attachment disorders.

If so Rosie, please forgive me as I forgive my mother. I did the best I could.

 

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