Archive for November, 2005

The Thinker

The Unfair FAIR Act

Because I guess the federal government does not have enough to do, it is time to throw a little fear, uncertainty and doubt at my agency. The Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act, or the FAIR Act for short, requires the government to examine every position with a fine toothcomb to determine if a federal position is “inherently governmental”. If it is, good news for the federal employee: job security. If it is not, the news may not be so good. Then the agency has to go through a rather costly, stupid and pointless process to prove that the private sector cannot do the same work cheaper.

In theory, this sounds like a good deal for the taxpayer. In practice, it is pennywise and pound-foolish. The FAIR Act has finally raised its head in my agency. It looks like in the next year or so my little world will undergo a FAIR Act evaluation. About a year ago, I was asked to use their bizarre codes to lump my employees into job categories. You can see some of them here. Since my people are in the information technology business, they fell under the “W” series of function codes. The function codes are relatively straightforward. The logic gets dubious because someone must also make a judgment as to whether the work is potentially commercial in nature. There are six reason codes from which to choose. I do not want to say the deck is stacked, but it is tough to give all but the highest management positions a 100% inherently governmental rating.

Take my job. Someone decided that the supervisory part of my job is commercial in nature. The management part is not. I am not entirely clear what the difference is and the dictionary is of little help. Anyhow, the powers that be, when they tried to put the square peg that is my job into the round hole of the Excel spreadsheet agencies must use to categorize employees decided that 75% of my job was commercial. Yes, supervision can be contracted out. Any dumb contractor can apparently walk around to see if someone is at their desk and appears to be doing work. The making decisions on behalf of the government, supposedly 25% of my job, are inherently governmental. Therefore, my job is apparently not safe from the grim reaper of outsourcing either. I imagine the three of us unit chiefs could easily be replaced by one federal employee, who spends his day doing nothing but pure “management”.

Here is my idea of what supervision is: making sure the people working for me do what they are supposed to do. It also includes ensuring they perform an honest day’s work, approving leave, scheduling training, job counseling and performance appraisals. How much of my time do I actually spend supervising? At most, it amounts to 10%. Why? Because I am not managing an assembly line. Every one of my employees is largely self-directed. At most they need a little guidance from me. They are not morons. In most cases, I could not do their work without a lot of training, so I am hardly qualified to tell them how to do their work. In short, like most federal employees GS-12 and above, they are all professionals. They should not need much in the way of supervision because they have college degrees, have a work ethic and take pride in their job. They need and easily work from a set of goals that I give them.

What is management? Doubtless, my definition will not meet whatever criteria the White House dreamed up, but it involves making and implementing decisions, based on firm guidance from my management. Within my sphere of control though, my decisions are sacrosanct. That makes the work management. The only difference though between my job and those of my employees is that they cannot make decisions on how others will spend their time unless I specifically delegate that responsibility. Of course, I routinely do just that. They are after all, professionals, not morons. Consequently, my team leader has his position rated at 50% management. It is actually likely more than that.

All of my employees were recently emailed their FAIR scores. Most of them have positions that are potentially commercial. Job title: information technology specialist. Sounds like it can be outsourced. Database administrator? It is just another commodity available on the open market. At least this is what passes for logic in the FAIR Act regulations. Employees might as well be hamburgers.

Except, of course, they are not. Why? Of course, they are people with families and commitments. But also my employees are in the hydrology business. Understanding the world of hydrology is critical to their effectiveness. You would be hard pressed to find too many universities in the United States that even offer degrees in hydrology. One could beat the bushes hoping to find people who have some skills in hydrology, information technology and legacy computer languages like Fortran. Good luck, I doubt there are many of them out there. To be optimized though they also tend to need a decade or two steeped in the culture of my agency. You need all three things to be effective in most of the jobs in my part of the federal government.

None of my employees are expendable. Unless the government makes the strategic decision to abandon more than a hundred years of science and get out of the water data collection business, we will keep doing measuring and monitoring ground and surface water for the nation. Moreover, my employees will continue to be engaged in collecting the information and putting it out there for the public. The public has a right to the information. After all, they paid for it.

In fact, the sure way to throw a monkey wrench into our science is to do just what the FAIR Act seems to want to do: replace most of my federal staff with off the shelf contract programmers. If this agency is like the last agency I worked for, most will be from India and here on H1-B visas. That agency did not save any money at all, since contractors routinely bill 100% overhead so they can make a profit. (Hint: the government is not in the business of making a profit.) My old agency was required to cut the number of federal positions. “Inherently governmental” in my old agency meant supervision or project management. If you were neither, sorry Charlie. Fortunately, learning the grants management business is a bit simpler than learning the hydrology business. Grants management is just another information system at heart. Hydrology is not. It is a specialized science.

So although it is not fair, we will doubtless go through this FAIR Act nonsense, which is required every five years for every position in the federal government. My employees are already nervous and I get the sense that some are quaking in their boots. All of them are superb, finely optimized and give far more in time and brilliance than the forty hours for which they are paid. Nevertheless, apparently we must treat them as commodities. The bottom line is whether according to the wacky FAIR benchmarks some beltway bandit can do the job cheaper. If so, some of them may be out of a job.

I seriously doubt in a truly fair competition that any private company could compete with us. However, according to the unfair FAIR Act their positions are fungible. They are just modern assembly line workers, easily replaced. Perhaps a contractor could do the work cheaper. Arguably, they do not come with annoying things like benefits and pensions. However, it is unlikely that any contractor also comes with dedication and passion to my agency’s mission. They will work their eight hours and then check out. In addition, it will be up to what is left of management to monitor their work to ensure fair value to the government. (Wait, that is supervision. Monitoring can be contracted out too! Therefore, no accountability is required. I am beginning to understand the ultimate nefarious purpose of the FAIR Act at work.)

I am sure there are legitimate cases where our work should be outsourced. They were outsourced long ago. It does not make any sense to me to have federal employees serving food in the cafeteria or cleaning the restrooms. However, any position that requires intimate and sustained domain knowledge of the agency’s mission should not be outsourced. We want these people to stick around. We do not want them dashing from contract to contract. Replacing just one of my employees with a contractor would require at least 1-2 years before they would be as productive as a federal employee. Moreover, they would have no incentive to stick around.

Of course, our executives, like the leadership of federal agencies everywhere, are under enormous pressure. Therefore, even though they know a lot of this outsourcing makes no sense, they must press forward anyhow. It is the law. They must salute and give the illusion that saving a few bucks is not counterproductive.

I do hope we get new leadership in both the Congress and the White House that is more sensible. At a minimum, the FAIR Act needs a major overhaul. Supposedly, the law is tuned to ensure best value for the government. The reality is that under the current rules, federal employees are at a significant and unfair disadvantage.

The Thinker

Dinner at the Marysville House

Sometimes when traveling you hear about places that have a certain character. Having seen much of our country, I have noticed that there is a lot of faux character out there. For example near Scottsdale, Arizona you can visit an “authentic” western town called Rawhide. Gunfights occur every hour on the hour (admission required). Buy official Rawhide T-shirts in one of its many stores. In short, it is just another tourist trap. If you want a place with real Western character will have to look elsewhere. Frankly, I was convinced it had wholly disappeared.

I found the mythical western experience early this month in Marysville, Montana at a place called the Marysville House. I have been meaning to write about the experience for weeks. I had minor issues to deal with since then, like my mother’s death and funeral. However, even such tragic events could not erase the memory of the Marysville House.

Marysville, Montana is a genuine ghost town about twenty miles northwest of Helena, Montana. (Earlier this month I was in Montana on business.) During its heyday in the late 19th century, over four thousand people lived in Marysville and surrounding areas. Almost all of them were there to find gold. Those that could not lived off servicing the local economy. Of course, the gold eventually tapped out. What remains is a genuine Western ghost town. However, this is not a story about Marysville because I saw little of it. My party arrived there at dusk as the season’s first snowstorm arrived.

To get there from Helena we had to travel about seven miles north on the interstate, then head west on Route 279 for about ten miles. Look carefully for Marysville Road, a plain dirt road on the left. I am glad we had a guide; otherwise, we would have never found it. Once on Marysville Road you drive for five or six miles moving into the mountains. Then suddenly you are deposited in what is left of Marysville.

What I did see of Marysville in the twilight were a few genuinely dilapidated buildings. The new wet snow collected quickly on our rental cars. On the other side of the road through the snowflakes and under a bright light was the entrance to a dubious looking building called The Marysville House. A first glance might dissuade you from entering. The Marysville House is a bar and a restaurant. Like the decomposing buildings surrounding it, this “house” has seen much better days. I do not know what Montana has in the way of building codes, but I suspect a professional safety inspector might feel the need to put on a hard hat before entering. If you are wary, do not be. Go on in.

For in the Marysville House is a bar that puts Cheers to shame. It comes with a collection of regional barflies on intimate terms with each other. Clearly, the bar is the social center of this area. Behind the bar are the usual collection of spirits, stacked toward the ceiling. There is also plenty of draft beer on tap. I did not hang out at the bar, not being the drinking sort. But it was hard to ignore because of the constant roar of laughter coming from the bar.

Our guide had been to the place many times, and seemed to know everyone there by first name. He guided our party into the “restaurant”, an adjacent room with a large roaring fireplace. Patrons sit at indoor and unadorned picnic tables. Bring a cushion if your derriere is sensitive because you are likely to be there a while. Like most of the restaurant, this room is paneled with unfinished planks. Practically every inch of the paneling was spoken for with numerous carved initials, names and dates. At the Marysville House, if you can find the space, you and your Swiss Army knife are welcome to carve away.

Our waitress was a woman who had obviously not spent much time in charm school. She took our orders matter of factly, made sure we had plenty of drinks, and brought out a basket of rolls to tie us over until dinner. At the Marysville House you had better be prepared to wait for dinner. For you see the chef in the back (who is easy enough to watch hovering over the pits) will only do one table at a time. And if you arrive at rush hour, as we did, and there are a half dozen tables ahead of you then you will get your food when he is darn well done with it. Meanwhile have a drink. Have another drink. Because you will have plenty of time to drink, ponder carvings in the paneling and the odd pictures on the wall while you wait for dinner.

Nevertheless, only we fussy easterners seemed to mind. The food may take a while to reach your table, but you cannot get braised meat like this at your neighborhood Chili’s. When your meal finally arrives (we waited nearly two hours), you are not going to complain. You are going to chow down. The steaks were expensive but enormous. One steak at the Marysville House should provide plenty of calories to see you through one day and part of the next. I got the feeling to fully appreciate a meal at the Marysville House I needed to have spent the day doing something authentically western, perhaps roping steers or mending fences.

That is not to suggest that its patrons consisted of cowboys. Many were “city slickers”, if you can call a relatively modest city of 30,000 or so like Helena a real city. They were largely working folk, but a fair number were obviously living in the vicinity. Smoking, thankfully, was not allowed in the restaurant. (In April, Montana finally passed a law requiring smoke free restaurants, although bars are exempt through 2009.) However, the patrons were definitely full of western values. In addition, they were both noisy and friendly.

Our waitress though was not so much unfriendly as indifferent. She would disappear for a half hour or more at a time, resurfacing only to take new drink orders. After an hour we politely inquired about how much longer it would be before our food arrived. It bounced off her like water bounces off a duck’s feathers. “It’ll get here when it gets here,” she replied tartly.

With so long to wait, nature called many of us. The restrooms are located an arm’s length or two from the bar. You might have the expectation that when you use their restroom you should be entitled to some privacy. Not at the Marysville House. The good news was that the doors did lock. The bad news was that the doors were made out of slats and there were prominent gaps between the panels. But no matter. No one at the bar clearly gave a damn so you had to discreetly unzip yourself and do your business. If you did not like it, the great outdoors was a convenient and nearby alternative. However, they at least did not discriminate. The “ladies room” was equally as transparent. By this time, I was almost expecting an outhouse and newspaper for toilet paper.

Most of the dinners come with an overly soggy half ear of corn. It was hard to forget the taste of the baked beans, for they had clearly been simmering for hours over the pit. My bill (I had barbeque chicken) came to about twenty dollars. Had I bought drinks or steaks it would have easily been twice as much.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. My food was okay and a bit overpriced. But this was the first western meal I ate that actually tasted like it came off the chuck wagon. And to have it served in aging restaurant off a dirt road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere frankly tickled me pink. And if that were not enough, I was surrounded by a cast of characters that seemed surreal but still felt authentically Montanan. It was a true grit kind of place. So if in Montana, take a chance and revel in the unique and somewhat bizarre experience of dinner at the Marysville House.

The Thinker

Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This is not a review for Harry Potter devotees. Of course, I have one of them in my family (my sixteen-year-old daughter), although my wife also marginally qualifies. I have read the first two of the books, but never quite felt the need in my busy life to pick up the subsequent books. Maybe I am too old to get into fantasy marketed primarily toward teens and preteens.

Consequently, I came into the latest movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cold. Therefore, this is a review for those of you who might have some appreciation for the movies and are wondering whether it is worth your time.

I understand the movie is quite faithful to the book, and the material may be my biggest problem. For as Harry Potter fans know, the fourth book continues to take the stories further toward the dark side. Hogwarts, which was fantastic if somewhat cute in the first movie, is now an ominous and scary place. Gracious! If my child had the calling to be a wizard I would send him or her to some school likely to be a whole lot more benign. I certainly would forbid them to participate in events like the Tri-Wizard Tournament. This is a complex and potentially deadly set of games, which happens in this movie to be hosted at Hogwarts. Even gladiator combat seems benign compared to this rough stuff. I cannot imagine why the school’s administrators would encourage students to come out and witness such rough stuff. Of course, Harry, age 14, somehow manages to become a participant in this contest supposedly only for those age 17 or older. This makes complete sense in this fantasy world of course, but throws a discordant note to those of us with children. It deserves its PG-13 rating, although I am sure many parents are taking impressionable children to it anyhow. They should stiffen their resolve and let their children age a bit.

At three hours, the movie is a potential kidney buster. Moreover, it is engaging and well directed. This is the kind of movie that makes you wonder if this world could even be depicted without modern computer-generated imagery. The CGI is in almost every scene. It has become so good that it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish the CGI from much of the live action. While the directing by Mike Newell is nearly as good as Alphonso Cuaron’s direction of the last movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, watching the fourth installment of this series did have me irritated by one big problem.

To be plain: Daniel Radcliffe is not a very good actor. Granted it is tough to find someone who looks like Harry Potter who is also a decent actor. The good news is that Newell does a decent job of getting the most out of Radcliffe during his scenes. The problem is that there is not much native talent for Newell to draw from. While marginally better than Orlando Bloom, one has to wonder if maybe it was time for Radcliffe to drop out of the series. There must be better talent out there than him. Nevertheless, like the Lord of the Rings movies, the ensemble seems to be stuck together for the duration of the series. The problem is that by portraying the key character in such a mediocre fashion, the whole movie and the whole series is brought down a notch. This is a shame. Fortunately the otherwise fine directing and seamless special effects make up for much of Radcliffe’s mediocrity.

At least the movies are improving. The first two, directed by Chris Columbus, were pedestrian efforts. With so much money to spend and a guaranteed audience, the producers can take time to find the excellent talent they need to up the quality level. If only they would change Daniel Radcliffe!

So most likely even if you are a Harry Potter neophyte you will enjoy the movie. You may find yourself lost at times, as I was, by the sometimes-baffling array of characters coming and going. A lot of the fun and humor in the movie is dependent upon having thoroughly read the books. Otherwise, odd scenes like Ladies of Beauxbatons sashaying down the main hall at Hogwarts seem unnecessary. For me it was a solid B+ of a fantasy movie.

3.1 on my 4.0 scale. I enjoyed the last movie a bit more, perhaps because it was shorter and easier to follow.

The Thinker

Yin without Yang

Clearly, it is going to take a while to process all my feelings about my mother’s death. For now, it seems surreal. Even when she and my father lived 600 miles away, even when I did not see them for a year or two, still they were always in my present. Both were an easy phone call or email away. With my Mom’s death all that has changed of course. My father is now a widower. Now he is left to pay the bills and try to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He remains in decent health. Of course, we, his children, hope for many more years of good health and happiness for him.

At 79, he is not quite the man that he was. We see signs that he is losing some of his independence. He still drives a car, but he drives it locally and only during non rush hours. I am grateful because the drivers in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area are unforgiving to someone with aging reflexes. As a consequence in order to come visit us, someone has to drive him here (about 30 miles each way). Today being Thanksgiving, we provided the dinner. My sister Mary drove him over.

Seeing him come in the door to our house – alone – for me drove home the reality of my mother’s death. Yin was without Yang. Yes, death is a natural experience but this seemed decided unnatural. It was exactly two weeks ago today that my mother died. Even if last Thanksgiving my mother had to be helped bodily into our house, that was more natural than seeing my father come through our door without my mother.

My father remains philosophical and pragmatic. He brought with him a number of my mother’s keepsakes, principally a lot of costume jewelry. My wife got to pick through them and retain any items that she wanted. The book I gave to my mother on famous movies stars back in 1974 was returned too. I guess it was on loan. My father said my mother had enjoyed reading it many times. There are still things for him to sort through. Doubtless, many bills will need to be settled. My mother’s possessions are being farmed out to family if possible. The lesser ones are likely to end up at Goodwill. Then there is the matter of her interment. Her body was cremated but her ashes will go in a nearby cemetery. My father still has to pick out the exact plot. He is still a bit puzzled why I would want to attend this last act.

On the surface, my father seems like himself. We played a game of Scrabble (he won). We went for a Thanksgiving walk, a custom in our family so we do not feel so guilty about the feast to come. His mind is still sharp but our Thanksgiving walk came harder to him. I could hear him breathing heavily as we walked.

At our table, he was sometimes the odd man out. Had my mother been with us, there would have at least been someone his own age with whom to discuss things. We tried to keep him engaged but a lot of the conversation simply was not relevant to him. Discussions about TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has no relevance in his life. So quite often, he was left alone in his own thoughts. Nevertheless, he seems philosophical about this time of his life. He seems to understand that his time too is nearing an end, and the world belongs to newer generations.

I am glad he has his retirement community. Too much time with my family would probably be a tedious experience for him. However, at Riderwood he has plenty of people in his own age group with whom to chat. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful experience in his life in more than twenty years. Many of the residents at Riderwood also grew up in this area. Consequently, there are endless stories to plumb with residents about the way Washington D.C. used to be sixty or seventy years or so years ago, when he was a young lad.

I hope that he has the time for a late life renaissance. Since he is unencumbered, perhaps he will take Elder Hostel vacations again. Perhaps he will visit distant relatives at times of his own choosing. On the other hand, perhaps he will simply stay at Riderwood where he is so happy, and enjoy time with family when we are in his neighborhood.

Since husbands tend to die before their wives, we are also wondering whether he might start dating again. Riderwood has many widows. A courteous gentleman like himself should be in high demand. Time will probably tell us whether he will even entertain female prospects. None of us wants to see him lonely. Fortunately, he does not appear to be the least bit lonely. He makes his own social life.

I may be projecting, but being spouseless after fifty-five years must be difficult on many levels. The void must be difficult to fully accept and work through. So we watch him with some wariness, sanguine that his last years are likely to be happy ones, but wary nonetheless. Since we live locally, my sister and I are also feeling our way through this change. How can we best support my father during his last years? Right now, we do not know the answers. We want to give him the space he deserves as a grown up in full control of his faculties, but we also want to be ready to step in when needed.

Yes, it does feel surreal. It feels surreal to play Scrabble with my father, to have his mind still so sharp, yet to have my mother irrevocably exiled from our lives. In a way, my mother still lives on. In my desk drawer are two cassettes of conversations with my mother taken some three year ago when she was of sound mind and body. I have yet to transcribe the oral history that I took. I need to. However, right now I cannot work up the courage to listen to the tapes. Her passing is still too near. I too need a little distance in order to gain perspective.

While I mostly feel fine, I sometimes wonder if I am like a soldier suffering from shell shock. Perhaps rather than being at the end of my grieving process, I am just at its beginning.

The Thinker

Addicted to Cute

Some creatures are just obscenely cute. They can give the unwary a heart attack at a hundred paces. Such is the case with Tai Shan, the four-month-old baby panda unveiled for public observation for the first time yesterday here in Washington, D.C.

Image provided by the Washington Post

Reputedly, it costs ten million dollars a year to host their parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the National Zoo. Tai Shan’s parents arrived in 2000 for a ten-year visit. For years, we panda obsessed Washingtonians have waited in vain for a little cub. We knew not to get our hopes up. Our last pair of panda, Ling Ling and Sing Sing, often disappointed. That Ling Ling got pregnant at all was due to extreme artificial insemination. However, none of her six pregnancies succeeded in producing a healthy cub. It seems Sing Sing just was not interested in sex. In addition, Ling Ling was a hopeless klutz in mothering business. Yet hope springs eternal. If the Red Sox can win the World Series, surely we Washingtonians could someday enjoy a baby panda. After five years, this new set of pandas at last delivered the goods: one incredibly adorable, precocious, innocent and utterly harmless baby cub. Washington’s panda fever, always near a critical level, burst into full Scarlet Fever.

Until yesterday, most panda fanatics had to contend themselves with newspaper images of Tai Shan. Those who needed more, like my wife, spent hours each evening watching his every move on the Animal Planet Panda Cam. The pictures streamed across the internet were grainy (and for some bizarre reason, only available in black and white). There seemed to be no action on the Panda Cam by little Tia Shan that would not elicit oohs, ahs and sighs from my beloved.

If you are wondering if you can still grab a ten minute observation ticket to view little Butterstick (as many call him, since he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born), it’s too late. It took about two hours for the National Zoo to release all of its 13,000 baby panda viewing tickets. While the tickets were free, a few entrepreneurs managed to make some quick bucks by auctioning off their tickets on eBay. One female poster on Craigslist a few days ago promised sexual delights in exchange for a ticket to view the panda cub. This took prostitution to a new and hitherto unknown level. (I have no idea whether she succeeded. The ad is no longer there.)

Tia Shan is not likely to go anywhere for years, but he is likely to keep growing. In three years when he has reached his full size, he will be just another cute panda. Adult pandas are fun to look at too, but baby pandas are exponentially more fun. So now is the time when serious panda fanatics (about half of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area) must view Tia Shan while he is still small and squeaky. After all, what other animal has such big eyes, or at least gives the appearance of having big eyes by having their eyes surrounded by so much black fur? If his small size were not enough, he is just learning to amble. Every step elicits maternal or paternal feelings. Moreover, when he talks he sounds like a chipmunk.

If it were just baby pandas around my house then perhaps the cuteness would be endurable. Lately though it has been all baby animals all the time. My wife spends much of her free time hanging out on the Live Journal community called Baaaaaby Animals. Looking at baby animals on the Internet has become something of an obsession for her. If I did not live with her, I would think the rest of her life must really suck. However, once you have the baaaaaby animal addiction, it seems there is no way to stop it. Most evenings I hear her cooing or sighing over the latest pictures that users have posted of their childish critters. Currently she is fixated on baaaaaby bunnies. The species does not really matter to her. I have heard her coo over baby rhinoceros. “Baby anything is cute,” she tells me, as she quickly scrolls down to the next picture.

It makes me wonder if maybe we should have had a second child. Perhaps a couple more years changing poopy diapers and dealing with childhood temper tantrums would have killed this new maternal craving. Alas, it is physically impossible for her to reproduce at this point. So perhaps those maternal feelings must be expressed through the endless stream of pet pictures on Baaaaaby Animals.

Yes, it is an addiction but a benign one as these things go. Fortunately, so far it has not translated into our house becoming a petting zoo. We are down to one adorable and extremely snuggly nineteen-year-old cat, plus a Betta named Fred the Ferocious Fish, who observes me with a perpetual frown from across the room. While none of us can bear the thought of our cat dying, my wife already has plans for our post cat era. The next pet she has decided will be a baaaaaby bunny.

I just hope they come litter trained.

The Thinker

The Other and Bigger Air and Space Museum

So here I am living practically right next door to Washington Dulles International Airport. Yet for nearly two years (since it opened), I have avoided a new museum treasure almost next door: the “Annex” to the National Air and Space Museum. I feel like a fool for having waited so long.

Yes, of course the museum on the National Mall is a treasure. It consistently rates as the top attraction for those visiting the Smithsonian. However, as big as it is, its size is limited. You can only stuff so many spacecraft and aircraft in its modest interior. Consequently, what is displayed there is the best of the best. The museum can only skim the surface of our national aerospace experience.

The Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center contains much of the other stuff that is too odd or simply too big to fit into the museum on the Mall. It sits south of one of the main North-South runways at Washington Dulles International Airport. It is not accessible from the airport’s terminals or many concourses. This is a shame because it would make a great place to visit between long layovers. If you are visiting the museum on the Mall, there are bus tickets that you can buy from that museum to the Annex. Having sampled the Annex though, if you are seriously into either space or aeronautics then you will want a full day to explore the Annex. If you are an aerospace fanatic, you may need a couple of days.

You can find the museum on the east side of the airport property. Rather than turn into the terminal, head south on Rt. 28 (Sully Road), which borders the east side of the airport. A new interchange allows for a convenient entrance and exit to the Annex. Unfortunately, parking costs $12. If you want to partake in some of the IMAX movies available, be prepared to use your charge card. Otherwise, you can wander the enormous museum at your leisure and for free, unless you decide you need a snack at the McDonalds McCafe.

The museum is organized into a space wing and a number of aviation wings. It is difficult to miss the main attractions. They include the space shuttle Enterprise (which never actually flew in space), the Concorde and the SR-71 (the world’s fastest airplane, now retired). All these engineering marvels are certainly worth viewing. Seeing them in person adds a new dimension. I did not appreciate just how large the space shuttle actually is. As for the Concorde, it is a much longer aircraft than I expected — over two hundred feet from nose to tail. For the money it cost to fly in it when it was still flying, I expected larger windows.

Since we had only a few hours, my brother and I largely limited our time to the space wing of the museum. We both grew up in the midst of the space race, so we remember intimately the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned spaceflight programs. At the time, we were huge space buffs and followed every trivial detail of the space program. The space wing is chock full of spacecraft, missiles and rockets. You would expect this of course. What I did not expect though was the huge variety. For a space buff, it is the place to go to fill in the missing gaps. I marveled at some of Robert Goddard’s rockets. I looked at a variety of missiles used by Germany, Japan and the United States in World War Two. You want satellites? There are dozens to choose from, as well as various other space capsules, models of Mars rovers and copies of probes that have even left our solar system. Many of the exhibits are extra engineering copies of the satellites that went into space. There are also scale models of all sorts of spacecraft when the original or a copy were not available. I was impressed by the models of satellite launch vehicles, all in a row. Most unexpected exhibit in the space wing: the mobile quarantine facility used by the Apollo 11 (and other) astronauts back from the moon. Carl Sagan at the time had NASA panicked that the returning astronauts might have picked up a new virus. In retrospect, it was a specious worry, since the moon supports no life.

There were also other exhibits that I did not expect. For example, if you wondered how the Apollo astronauts took care of their biological urges you can look at the “fecal disposal bags” they used in weightlessness. (I hope the technology has improved.) You can also see some samples of the shrink-wrapped food that they ate. (The pecan cookies still look edible.) Steps take you up a level so that you can see the exhibits closer to the ceiling. They also allow you to get a perspective of the space shuttle from something other than its side.

The museum is huge, and it is still a work in progress. More wings will be added in time, which means I can go back from time to time and enjoy watching the collection grow. It is not only huge; it is a gorgeous and airy museum that feels very 21st century. The museum includes an observation tower that will take you up seven floors. From there you can glimpse the large extent of Washington Dulles Airport, as well as watch aircraft take off and land on the north-south runway. Unfortunately, the museum is quite a way from the terminal, so the view could be better. The sixth floor includes an exhibit on air traffic control. You can watch terminals used by flight controllers that show and explain current flight traffic in the Newark area.

I have just scratched the surface of this museum. Nevertheless, I already know I will be back again. Since it is in biking range for me, it will be an easy ride once the interchange opens up to Centreville Road.

If you are coming to Washington principally to see the Air and Space Museum, you will kick yourself if you do not also devote a day to spend out in the Northern Virginia suburbs walking through the Udvar-Hazy Center.

The Thinker


If politics is theater then the last two days have been a lot like the movie Clueless. The American public has turned decisively and irrevocably against the war in Iraq. The American people know this war is lost and it is borne out in countless polls. Yet with a few exceptions, nobody in the White House or Capitol Hill can acknowledge that we are hanging in on a fool’s errand. That is why the excrement really hit the fan yesterday. The normally hawkish Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha yesterday simply acknowledged the sad reality in Iraq, and called for the immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. This stirred up a huge hornet’s nest.

There is an elephant sitting in the White House Briefing Room. There is another one roaming Capitol Hill. These elephants though do not represent Republicans. Instead, they are the elephants in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. These elephants have a simple message: we have lost the war in Iraq. It is all over but the body count. What we are witnessing, at least those of us tuned to C-SPAN, are furious denials asserting that the elephant is simply not really in the room. Despite massive and undeniable evidence that we have lost Iraq it cannot be openly acknowledged in Congress. Consequently, the Republican House leadership has its death rays trained on Rep. Murtha, a conservative, pro-defense advocate, who shed blood for this country in Vietnam. Murtha is the infidel that dared to acknowledge the elephant. The ironic part is they are really aiming their death rays at their own heads, but are too clueless to understand it.

Meanwhile the White House hopes that with sufficient vitriol, the elephant will disappear. Therefore, we get White House press secretary Scott McClellan absurdly comparing Rep. Murtha with Michael Moore. Yet what choice does Bush have? This is his only card: the wan hope that with sufficient pompous bravado and “stay the course” rhetoric that America will suddenly fall behind him again.

Ain’t gonna happen. Bush has cried wolf one too many times. He is now a parody of himself. All he can do is cry “Stay the course!” when it is clear to everyone but those who placed their trust in him that staying the course simply means more fiasco lies ahead.

Hello! It has been two and a half years since we unwisely invaded Iraq. Is the situation any better than it was when Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln? No, sorry, it is worse. Much worse. Moreover, it is not as if we have another army in our back pocket to improve the situation. It is quite clear to the American people that what we are doing in Iraq is not working. Something needs to change! Bush is like the guy with a shot engine and broken transmission convinced that if he adds another quart of oil the car will run as good as new. The American public clearly sees the smoke belching from the engine. We see the transmission in pieces on the ground. “Well, he’s pretty clueless,” is what the American people are thinking. When asked by a pollster, we let him know what a buffoon in allegedly leading our country. According to Harris, Bush’s approval ratings are plummeting even further, to 34%.

Yes, of course it is more of “stay the course”. That is all Bush knows how to do. That is his philosophy in a nutshell. Admit no mistakes. The War in Iraq is just another faith-based initiative. Remember, we are getting rid of “evil”. Terrorists in Iraq, and the governments of Iran and North Korea have nefariously joined forces and created an Axis of Evil out to destroy America, turn us into Muslims or Communists (the lines get kind of blurry) and, oh yes, stomp on cute little bunnies too. That is the kind of people these evildoers are. Consequently, when anyone of consequence dares to disagree with him he has to paint them as actively aiding and abetting terrorists. It is amazing that he does not arrest them as enemy combatants. His buffoonery is no longer humorous. Instead, we see him as the small, naked and pathetic shell of a man that he is.

The arguments for war against Iraq get more and more bizarre. We are told that Bill Clinton thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction too. Hello! Yes, he thought Saddam was a dangerous man and was concerned that Saddam might have had WMDs. Here is the difference: Clinton was way too smart to wage a preemptive war based on conflicting intelligence. But Bush had his ideology to guide him. He was incapable of looking at the evidence impartially. He trusted his guts, not the evidence. Now he is being called to account. Why? Because in the real world people who make decisions about war based on gut feelings encounter this gaping pothole called reality. It was the reality pothole, not evildoers, which resulted in the senseless death of over 2000 of our soldiers and the resulting insurgency in Iraq.

Subconsciously Congress realizes that they have been taken for suckers. The thought is too terrifying to acknowledge, so for most it has not yet surfaced. They voted their fears and biases rather than doing what they should have done: make an informed decision based on debate and a hard look at the evidence. So most of them find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. For now, they feel they have no choice but to continue goose-stepping behind the President, even though the President has already goose-stepped off the cliff. It will be clear in retrospect, when so many of them are tossed out of office in 2006 and 2008 that they should have leveled with their constituents. It is much better to plead a mea culpa on their vote for the Iraq war, then work to solve the situation than to march off the cliff with their foolish leader. For in politics in the end it only matters what the voters think on Election Day.

Those who are now castigating Representative Murtha will, within weeks I suspect, be fervently wishing they too had acknowledged the elephant in the room. Those who do something concrete to change the course of our involvement will likely be rewarded by voters. It could be something like calling for staggered troop withdrawals, or setting deadlines for Iraqi troops to assume full responsibility. Whatever it is, it must acknowledge the elephant. For the U.S.S. United States has already hit the iceberg. The hull has been breached. Water has been surging in for some time. In fact, the stern of the ship is already submerged. Those in Congress who are members of the reality-based community are already in the lifeboats. Those in Congress who want to be reelected have two choices: jump in the lifeboats or try to save the ship. Even if saving the ship is likely to be futile, at least they can say they took some action to change the unwinnable current strategy.

However, standing on the deck cheering on Capt. Bush is political folly.

The Thinker

Inheriting the baggage too

For those who are wondering, my mother’s funeral was quite lovely. While it would not be accurate to say everyone had a good time, it went about as good as a funeral could go. The music was lovely and touching. The priest gave a simple but heartfelt sermon that hit all the right notes. After the funeral mass, many stayed for the eulogies. Most of us children had words to say publicly; you may have read mine already. Tears were shed, but the tears were as much from laughter as of sorrow. When we remembered my mother’s little eccentricities, we could not help but laugh. Afterwards we repaired to one of the restaurants in Riderwood for a nice luncheon reception. My Mom must have been disappointed that she had not prepared the food.

My friend Courtney attended and saw my family at its full size for the first time. She remarked how much my family looks alike. She is right. You would be hard pressed to find any family where the siblings looked so much the same. Perhaps it was her remark that had me watching my own family, small though it may be. Before the service, my wife and daughter largely sat by themselves on a bench. There were plenty of people to talk to, but they preferred to stay quiet and silent rather than seek out conversation. I found myself greeting arrivals at the door to the chapel. I am learning to be gregarious, but it does not come naturally. Part of me wanted to be sitting on the bench with them.

The patter continued during the luncheon after the service. My nieces were at a table together laughing and sharing memories. And there was my wife and daughter, at a table by themselves. I joined them, but eventually mingled. This was, after all, family. Many I had not seen in years. The time I have with them is precious because we are so geographically separated. Why would I want to distance myself from them, particularly at such a turning point in our lives? Why would my wife and daughter? It is not as if they have not had plenty of time over the years with my side of the family and feel comfortable with everyone.

One thing is for sure: neither my wife nor I are extraverts. We tend to prefer the pleasure of a good book to a social gathering. If I must engage socially, I prefer small groups of people that I know. Still, there was a time when my daughter was popular. From ages 6-9, she was definitely the popular girl on the block. She was our amazing social butterfly. Girls were constantly knocking on our door, streaming into her bedroom or wanting them to come to their house. She was the nexus of a complex social, preteen network. It seemed more normal to send her to a sleepover on a weekend then not. She changed, but I do not know why. Now my daughter seems more like a cloistered nun than a social butterfly. Yes, she does have her friends, principally the “losers” (social outcasts) at school. Mostly they share her ambiguous sexual feelings and aversion to all things trendy. However, it is a small group of genuinely good teens. They meet irregularly in person. Most of their conversations are on IM, not in person.

Having twenty family members in the house for the wake was a bit much for her. She said a few polite words and then scurried out of sight into her room. The door remained closed until they were gone. Like her mother and I she likes to write. Still, it seemed more than a bit odd that she would disappear like this. She does this quite often. This girl, once so popular and the block extrovert, has morphed into the block introvert.

What happened? I am sure there were many factors. She had friends who got weird on her. They experimented tragically with drugs and sex, things that were not her scene. Yet on another level, I think she was also just modeling her parents. It is unfair to say we never host parties, but the last real party in our house was in 1999. My wife and I do attend parties once or twice a year. Yet invariably we don’t stay too long. Usually an hour or so before anyone else is even thinking of leaving my wife is tugging at my sleeve: let’s go. It usually does not take much persuading for me to leave either. Especially if it is a large group of people I do not know I find myself fumble mouthed and fumble footed. Somehow, I missed the class on successful social navigation. Few things terrify me more than having to go to a party full of strangers then have to make casual conversation. Therefore, I generally avoid it. Give me home. Give me peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I am starting to come out. It may be a modest midlife renaissance, but it is a start. My new job has its social aspects. I have learned to swim in it. I do this a lot on business trips. I am usually with a group of 8-12 people. We spend the day in meetings and the evenings at restaurants. Most of these people I now know a bit more than casually. I do not find it too burdensome. In fact, I am finding it kind of fun. It used to be that as soon as business was over I was anxious to run to my hotel room. Now half the time I find I want the conversation to linger. Perhaps that is a good sign.

However, most likely my engrained habit toward introversion will never wholly recede. It is too comfortable. Likely one of the reasons I fell in love with my wife was that she was a shy introvert like me. There would be no need to worry about having to fend for myself in big parties if I married her! Now I am starting to understand that my daughter has modeled our behavior. I do not think that she intended to model us, but she did nonetheless. Just like Mom and Dad, her most comfortable times seem to be in her room, alone.

If it were just her introversion, perhaps this would be no more than coincidence. She is currently half way through her teenage years. What I am now seeing is more like a perfect meld of my wife and myself, rather than the free and independent spirit I had hoped to raise. I find it spooky sometimes. Neither my wife nor I were first in line in the dating business. Maybe we had self-image problems, or we carried from childhood a latent shyness. While I wanted to be dating but seemed to lack the courage, my daughter explicitly chooses to shy away from intimate relationships. Perhaps it comes from witnessing some of her friends self-destruct in these relationships. In addition, I think that she picked up that this was an area of tenderness in her parents, so she was supposed to model it.

I am beginning to perceive something that should have been blazingly obvious. While children are not intellectually sophisticated, they are excellent readers of other people. Perhaps since they learn to talk through learning to read emotions, they become very adept at understanding people’s body languages and the complex subtext to daily living. Most of this emotional intelligence I think is buried in their subconscious, so they are not explicitly aware of it. Since we parents are a constant presence in their lives, we model a version of reality that for them, after a while, seems entirely natural. It is more than religion that our children pick up from us parents. It seems to be pretty much everything. Even in areas where our children seem to be a contrast to their parents, it appears that (in my daughter’s case) it is picked to deliberately highlight the contrast.

My shyness is her shyness. My self-image problems are also hers. My feelings of toxic shame she also seems to carry forward in her life. And it goes on and on.

Perhaps all this comes from genetics. I am skeptical about this line of reasoning. Had foster parents raised her, I suspect she would have modeled them, instead of us. I do not know whether to be flattered or to be upset. Overall, I probably lean more toward the upset side. I raised her to be an independent thinker: so why is she as a liberal as I am? If she has to inherit attributes of me, why could she not pick just my good attributes and not the bad ones? Why would I want traits like my feelings of guilt to be carried over to another generation?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently to change any of it? I really do not know. Perhaps if I had been less a presence in her life, she might have turned into someone quite different. Instead, I played the dutiful and loving father role. I am sure it has many positive aspects. Somehow, my lesser aspects came along for the ride, as did my wife’s.

On the plus side, my daughter inherits our creative instincts and strong intelligence. These characteristics will serve her well in the future. She will have to work through a few issues though. I suspect my self-esteem is higher than my wife’s is. Which will she carry into adulthood? My wife is much more the bookworm than I am. Will she pick up my wife’s love of literature and always have a book in her hands? On the other hand, will she be like dear old Dad, read newspapers, and skim the media for content? Does it matter?

Time will tell. She is rapidly moving toward adulthood. Nevertheless, I do not think what my daughter went through is at all unique. I strongly suspect her friends are engaging in similar and mostly largely unconscious behavior emulation of their parents too. As I ponder my own mother’s death and try to understand the gifts she left me, I also realize some baggage came with her gifts. I hope that when my turn comes to leave this planet I will have left her with more gifts than baggage.

The Thinker

The chickens have come home to roost, at last

Occam’s Razor likes to peer into the future. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I get it wrong. Overall though my ability to prognosticate is good. After all not many like me were predicting prior to our war in Iraq that it would turn into the insurgency that it did.

My timing can be off though. Perhaps I see trends too early. Clearly, after reelecting Bush a year ago Americans are now having buyer’s remorse. Had the election been held even a month later the presidency might well have flipped. However, shortly after last year’s election, I pointed out that Bush had set in motion events that could not be stopped. His comeuppance could not be forever postponed.

Events in 2005 have cascaded into a crescendo of bad news not just for Bush, but also for Republican rule. Bush’s approval ratings have tumbled even further, averaging recently at around 37%. While we will have to wait a year to find out the damage done to the Republican’s hold on Congress, we might get a hint from scattered elections this month that another political earthquake is coming.

One sign that should be very worrisome to Republicans is that Tim Kaine (a Democrat) won the governorship here in reliably red state of Virginia. It took a lot for Democrat Mark Warner to win the governorship in state four years ago. To win he had to convince Virginia voters that he was both a good ol’ boy and was not a liberal.

As governor Warner defied conventional logic and proved that even in a red state voters will support pragmatic taxes increases. Working with minority Democrats in the state assembly and a handful of moderate Republicans he was able to pass a modest half-cent increase in the state sales tax. As a result serious money started flowing into urgently needed transportation projects. In addition Virginia schools were able to receive desperately needed additional aid to keep up with growing population and testing demands. His pragmatic approach found wide support across the state. Arguably Tim Kaine, the former Lieutenant Governor, rode on Warner’s coattails. He won the gubernatorial election by more than five percent against his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore. More astonishingly, solidly reliably counties like nearby Loudoun County voted solidly for Kaine. Kilgore’s antitax message rang hollow and seemed shrill. Virginians are returning toward embracing pragmatic government again. Apparently good schools and roads are more important than paying a half a cent more in sales taxes.

Kilgore found that being a Republican was no longer much of a selling card, even in Virginia. He avoided President Bush, who wanted to campaign with him in the state, until the very end. His one campaign appearance with Bush shortly before the election seemed to seal his defeat. Yes, even here in the reliably red state of Virginia, more people disapprove of Bush than approve of him. The result of these elections suggests Bush is now toxic. In addition Republicans are being viewed by voters with jaundiced eyes. Apparently even Republicans can interpret poll number and are sobering up. They realize they may be out of office next year if things don’t change. Consequently we are witnessing serious fractures of the Republican machine in Washington. Despite all the odds, the budget cuts proposed by fiscal conservatives, which targeted the poor by cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, could not win over moderate Republicans. The bill could not even pass by removing the requirement for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is an amazing denouement for a party that just a couple months ago believed it could ram through congress pretty much anything its leadership wanted.

I do not need to spend much time restating Bush’s problems because most of you keep up on current events. Bush has been carpet bombed since his reelection. From the deepening quagmire in Iraq (for which we have no realistic exit strategy), to his surreal and deadly mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, to skyrocketing gas prices, to fumbled Supreme Court nominations, to indictment against Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scotter” Libby, Bush is more than wounded. He has had limbs blown off.

Americans are in a surly mood. The economy is doing okay, but the benefits are not trickling down to them. For the average American, expenses keep exceeding income. The new expenses are costs we can do little to trim back. As a result the middle class continues to shrink. Many, like my wife who managed to find a new job recently, will work for much less than they made in their last job. While many find their income is down, necessary expenses like health care, gasoline and home heating oil keep skyrocketing. We wonder how much longer the American Dream will be available. And we wonder why we are allowing the dream to slip away. Why did we elect people who did not serve our interests, but instead slavishly served only the interests of those that funded their campaigns? This anxiety is reflected in rather disturbing consumer confidence statistics.

The voters are sobering up. Over the last five years our country has been raped and pillaged by Republicans. What we are witnessing is the intense anger, and even hatred, of those who were disenfranchised. We no longer have a government that even makes a pretense about serving the common good. It serves those who support Bush and the Republican Party and gleefully shafts the rest. Both the president and the Congress are drunk on power. More tax cuts for the rich in a time of soaring budget deficits? Until recently, this was not a problem. Weaken air pollution laws as a response to hurricane relief? Sure, why not? Cry over Terri Schiavo’s brain dead body, but let senior citizens drown to death in New Orleans’ nursing home? Not a problem either. After all, they couldn’t vote and beside they were not one of their kind.

I do not think this situation will improve. I think it will continue to get worse. I hear people say that at 37% approval ratings, Bush has reached his floor. I don’t think so. I think it will go even lower in the months ahead. Bush is now in the rapids and he is losing control of the ship of state. The time is ripe for a change in congressional power, and we should see it in the 2006 elections. It remains to be seen though whether Democrats are savvy enough to fully capitalize on the moment. As I suggested Democrats need a new Contract with America. It is painfully clear at this point what one party Republican rule has delivered misery for the average American. A clear vision for the future should turn the House of Representatives back to its traditional Democratic Majority. With only a third of the seats up for grabs in the Senate in 2006, it is less likely that Democrats can take that chamber too, but it is not outside the bounds of possibility. Bereft of the public trust, Americans have little choice but to embrace an alterative or to suffer through even more disastrous mismanagement of their government.

A stiff wind of pragmatism is beginning to sweep across America again. It will be good to feel it again. It has been sorely missed.

The Thinker

Eulogy for my mother

My mother’s memorial mass is tomorrow. I prepared the following eulogy when my turn comes to say something after the mass. This is a different perspective of my mother suitable for consumption by our immediate family.

Soon hopefully I will be focusing on other things again. For those of you who are wondering I find myself at peace over her passing. I think most of my grief occurred watching her decline. Now that this is behind us I think I can move on. However, I will certainly never forget my mother, and always hold her close to my heart.

First, I think we should all take a bow for the loving care we gave Mom. We all went beyond the call of duty. Even those of us who do not live locally came frequently. Mary’s tenacity and hard work throughout this whole time was overwhelming. She made Mom’s limited time at Riderwood a rich experience. She kept her mind engaged on projects like decorating the kitchen. She allowed Mom to sample the fullness of life as long as possible. When Mom fell or her conditions worsened, Mary jumped in with both feet and with little notice. She took on a big responsibility and she came through it with flying colors. Thank you, Mary. And thank you sister Teri, for the intensive care you gave Mom during her most critical times, including being with her at the end. Thank you all. A special thank you though also goes to my wife Terri. She visited Mom every Wednesday in Renaissance Gardens, almost without fail. The picture poster board was her idea. She gave Mom the deep, loving and focused attention that she craved. As a fellow Michigander, she was a critical bond to the home and culture that Mom loved. I believe not one wife in a thousand would do what Terri has done. Although I knew she had these traits when I married her, I still feel overwhelmed by her magnanimity and character. I am not sure I could give to my mother in law what she gave to hers. Clearly, I am a husband who is quite blessed. I love you dear.

My most persistent memory of Mom is of a woman always in motion. From before we were up (when she or Dad put on the first pot of Maxwell House coffee) until after we went to bed (when she could be found in the living room darning socks) her hands were usually busy. Even her sleep was restless. I do not know where her energy came from but I found it intimidating. She seemed to never stop doing things for us. She always kept our house immaculate. The furniture was always dusted and buffeted. Our sheets were changed like clockwork every Monday. I have memories of her in Endwell once a week waxing the kitchen floor whether it needed it or not. She never seemed to take a day off. She seemed to work as hard on Sundays as she did during the week.

Mom’s essence, I believe, was to be a doer. She was happy as long as she was doing something. She was usually miserable when she wasn’t doing anything. For example, she did not have to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. It could have easily come out of a jar. She knew what she could cook would be so much tastier than what could be purchased. She was right and we were her beneficiaries. From my perspective, the food she served was uniformly excellent. Often the aromas would fill the house for hours before the meal was served, making me all the hungrier when dinner arrived.

I also remember littler things that showed me that she cared. During my teenage years when I worked evenings at the Winn Dixie, I would get home hungry. But she had saved me a dinner plate, wrapped in aluminum foil, and would pop it in the oven. She knew I preferred her home cooking to anything I could buy so there was never a reason for me to miss an evening meal. Yet this was just one of numerous little things that she would do for me. When I came home from college for the weekend, she volunteered to do my dirty laundry. A few hours later, it arrived all neatly folded and ready for me to take back to the dorm. Little things like this spoke to her magnanimous character.

Mom was the sort of person who made a house a home. While Dad always struck me as the logical center of the family, Mom was its emotional heart. Mom was a woman very much in touch with her feelings. There was little in the way of ambiguity about Mom. You knew how she felt about things because she told you very explicitly and in a tone of voice that eliminated any ambiguity.

A few things about Mom will always puzzle me. One is why she discounted her own intelligence. Here was a woman who had earned a degree in nursing from Catholic University. Her degree was equivalent to Dad’s. She had loads of common sense. Like my wife Terri, she was a whiz at crossword puzzles. When we watched Jeopardy on TV together, I could rarely beat her to the answer. Nevertheless, for some reason she felt she was Dad’s intellectual inferior. She seemed to think that the person with more facts crammed into their brain must have better judgment. I have learned: it ain’t necessarily so.

As you know, shortly before I turned a teen I promoted myself as her favorite son. She would agree to it only in jest. I knew she was too evenhanded to actually pick a favorite. In retrospect, my attempt at humor answered to a deeper need within me. Mom herself has admitted that when I came along she was a bit frayed at the ends. She had three of us boys in diapers at the same time, plus a busy household to manage. Clearly, I wanted a whole lot more mother time than I actually got. A baby cannot understand the burdens of a full time mother with a plethora of children. But oh how I ached for more time with her. One way to get it was to play the favorite son game.

During the last years of her life, and the last couple of months in particular, I found that my mother had few distractions. She now lived close to me, so I could have as much of her attention as I wanted. Those of us who cared for Mom in the nursing home had a tough time of it. Yet it was not all bad. It was a bittersweet experience. To me it was right and appropriate for me to do intimate things like help her to the bathroom or feed her lunch, when she surely did far more for me in countless episodes throughout her life. While extremely difficult at the end, her last months were also a profound growth experience for me. Even in dying, she taught lessons.

From Mom, as well as Dad, I learned doggedness. For both of them marriage was for life, and for better or for worse. I think that perspective is something many of my siblings share. It contributes to so many long-standing marriages in our family.

One area of disagreement between Mom and myself was Catholicism. While it did not agree with me as an adult, I cannot help but have deep respect her profound feelings about her given faith. I know visits from priests and lay ministers comforted her enormously in her last months. Moreover, I am impressed in some ways with the Catholic Church as an institution. When she was in the hospital in Midland after her fall, members of the church stopped by to pray with her and give her Holy Communion. Although I suspect I will never be a Catholic again, I have inherited a feeling of reverence for the sacred from her as well as from Dad. Certainly, Jesus taught us to work toward being good people and to live by high values. She was dutiful in practicing her faith. I will cherish the memory of hearing her and Dad saying their prayers on their knees next to their beds before starting their busy days. I know her faith carried her through times that would have destroyed lesser women. I cannot help but respect that power.

Of course, right now the loss of Mom is too near and tender. It will take some time for me to gain some perspective on the meaning of not having her in my life. Right now, my mind is clouded with distressing images of her during her last few months. Yet I believe that as time passes these images will fade. Instead, I will remember the essence of my mother. The images that will persist will be those of my Mom humming to herself in the kitchen while she made another meal, or tending to her flowerbed on her knees. She took great pleasure in simple things. This is perhaps the most profound lesson that she taught me, and one I have yet to fully absorb.

While Mom is not here in the flesh, she is definitely here in spirit. She will always be in our hearts. So much of the person I became can be traced directly to Mom. So in a way I am the walking embodiment of Mom, as we all are. Because while we live, she still lives on. So I cannot grieve too much today because she is not just all around me, she is a part of me. She is not gone. She is in the air. She is in each breath I take. She is in every step I take. She is integrated inside me. Knowing this I can accept her passing. I am relieved that her suffering is at an end. I believe her spirit is still around, unfettered and free at last.

Update 6/26/2011. I continue to be surprised, more than five years after her death, how many page views this post received, usually several dozen or more a day. I assume many of you reading this have lost your mother as well, and perhaps are working on a eulogy for her too. Please feel free to use this as a template and change words as necessary to fit your own mother. Of course, something that comes straight from the heart will usually resonate the most. My heart goes out to anyone who is going through the loss of a parent. Please know that grief is a process you will get through, and that grieving is actually both good and necessary.

If you want to see a picture of my mother and learn more about her and how she raised us, click here.


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