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The Thinker

Obama’s lack of a strategy so far is a pretty good strategy

Yikes! It’s almost the end of August and I haven’t written anything about politics this month! I thought retirement would give me all this extra time to blog, but so far it has not been the case. About half of the month has been spent on vacation, which I blogged about, and the other half of this first month of “retirement” has been acting as Mr. Handyman and general property manager as we stumble through the process of getting our house ready for sale.

Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about. President Obama tried to take a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard while events were (literally) exploding in Syria and Iraq, the Ukraine, Libya, the Gaza Strip and Ferguson, Missouri. Obama got bad press for going golfing right after making statements and for not being in Washington during all of this, as if a President is not trailing three hundred plus people with him on vacation to allow him to work remotely, or he couldn’t be back in the White House in an hour if needed. (Curious that these same people don’t criticize him for taking foreign trips, unless there is some domestic crisis underway.) Most lately, he is criticized for wearing a tan suit at a press conference.

All this is piffle of course. It’s probably not a good photo op to show the president swinging golf clubs after making serious statements about the Islamic State. Perhaps the most serious charge laid recently against the president is his self confessed lack of a strategy dealing with the Islamic State, which lately has been imitating our waterboarding during the occupation of Iraq, not to mention grisly beheading an American journalist.

While Obama supposedly dithers, most of the Republicans already have a strategy. Typical of the proposed strategies is one opined by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who wants us to bomb the Islamic State “back into the Stone Age”. This strategy is not surprising from a party that exercises power principally through bullying. If your weapon of choice is the club, it becomes your solution to everything.

Let’s rewind here. When we invaded Iraq, we exercised a “shock and awe” strategy that proved our mighty ability to scare people, destroyed their government, and resulted in a real al Qaeda in Iraq, which had no presence in the country prior to our invasion. Why did they rush in? Because we were there and because there was a power vacuum. Their presence helped energize groups like ISIS/ISIL. We could try to bomb the Islamic State into the Stone Age, but it’s kind of hard when they are using a lot of our leftover munitions and armored personnel carriers. Unless the quality of our munitions and equipment is more inferior than believed, this is probably not a great strategy. So naturally, according to Republicans anyhow, the way to get rid of the Islamic State is to do more of what failed us before!

The United States is not the only country in the region suffering from this cognitive dissonance. There is also Israel, which of course we provide with plenty of lethal munitions, mostly at our expense, which has been used to kill over two thousand Gazans in their latest war with Hamas, many of them innocent children. There now appears to be a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which left the political situation pretty much the same as after their previous war in 2009. One thing though has not changed: all that murder from the skies and from Israeli soldiers has simply fueled more hatred that will ensure more wars like this in the years ahead. Hamas is hardly wiped out and predictably both Hamas and Israel are claiming victories that did not in fact occur. Hamas was not wiped out because it is driven by an ideology that is compelling to many in that region. Being around to fight another day against a vastly superior military force is victory enough for Hamas.

There is no lasting peace possible through strength in our modern world, not that Republicans will ever understand this. Sane people of course are intimidated by the application of overwhelming force, but if there are enough people that put ideology over sanity, the conflict will continue. Probably ninety percent of Gazans would be happy if Hamas were overthrown, but it doesn’t matter if ten percent don’t and are willing to put their lives at risk to continue the conflict.

Bombing the Islamic State into the Stone Age may degrade its ability to wage war, but it will only fuel the mindset that will ensure future wars like this. Obama’s lack of a strategy is simply a timeout to figure out a strategy that might actually help solve the larger problem. The problem in a nutshell: how to cool the ideological fever that is causing the conflict in this region.

I suspect that Obama’s emerging strategy is a lot like mine. The main thing to understand is that most of the chaos in the Middle East is a result of our tinkering with the power structures that were already in place. Doing more of the same is unlikely to make things better but based on experience is almost guaranteed to make things worse, which it has. It fueled the breakup of Iraq and brought the Islamic State into existence.

It’s a bad chessboard for trying to make a move. In my humble opinion, the best strategy may be not quite benign neglect, but minimal involvement and using proxies where they exist, such as moderate forces battling in Syria. Which is kind of what we are already doing, albeit not to great effect so far. We can certainly work hard to cut off the source of funding for the Islamic State. We can try to keep their oil off the market, and we can try to influence states like Qatar that are helping to keep the state in business not to do so. It makes all the sense in the world to keep Americans far away from the Islamic State and to warn Americans who do go there that their lives are in jeopardy and their lives will not be ransomed.

Another exercise in feel good muscular diplomacy will have the same predictable consequences it had in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. It was a strategy that worked in World War One and World War Two, because we were working with well-defined nation-states. Because this was effective, wars are now mainly waged through paramilitary proxies that are ideologically driven. They are much harder to win because the enemy is so diffuse. You can’t kill an idea, but you can sap its energy.

Winning is a generational game, and it begins by not emulating tactics that have proven disastrous in the past. We will win these wars probably 80% through diplomacy, 20% through force of arms, and through proxies of our own that we nurture and support. That sounds like a strategy that might actually work, but it will be hard to sell. There are no instant results but if anything is likely to actually eventually work, it will.

I hope our very intelligent president and I are on the same page, which I think we are. In a way, Obama is blessed with a term limit because he can do what is right without worrying about the political consequence. I hope he does.

 
The Thinker

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

 
The Thinker

Stranger in my own home

What is the greatest appeal of owning your own home? It took me twenty-one years to figure it out. It was not appealing principally because I hated having noisy neighbors above and/or below or next me, although some of them annoyed me a lot. It was not that I did not like what felt like arbitrary and capricious rent increases. It turns out the real reason I wanted to own my own home was having someplace to park my stuff more or less permanently.

The reason it took so long to figure it out is because it’s been that long since some of the stuff I am now sorting through has even been looked at. Of course, in the intervening twenty-one years that we have been in our house, we’ve also added considerably to our troves.  We did it because we assumed we would never move.

The day of reckoning has arrived. It’s not that we are particularly pack rats but we had plenty of space so why not use it? Things got bought or picked up then shuffled to other spaces, to maybe be periodically shuffled somewhere else. The shuffling process is still underway. However, now the intent is to shuffle of a lot of it permanently out of the house. That’s because my wife and I are both retired now and we intend to move, which means we have to sell the house. And that means we really must declutter the place. Oh, and fix it up and stuff.

Those of you that own a home know that fixing up a house is a never-ending experience. The fixing up part, not to mention the actual living in the house part, has consumed much of our twenty-one years in this house. With the exception of the doors, the entire exterior of the house has been replaced. Inside, the sump pump is the only appliance here when we bought the house and presumably is still in working order. The deck has been replaced and screened in. The kitchen has been enlarged and its floor propped up with a support beam because it was sagging. Carpets have been torn out and hardwood floors put in, but in other places carpets have been replaced, sometimes more than once. Walls have been moved, a bathtub replaced and even the basement windows are new and energy efficient. The kitchen floor has been replaced twice, the cabinets once, and the countertops twice, most recently with granite. There was no time or energy left to do much in the way of decluttering.

But now it simply must be done. Wherever we end up, it will be smaller than where we are now. And we won’t need a lot of the stuff we have now. We won’t need to cut the grass so we have got to dispose of a lawn mower, as well as an edger, grass seed, fertilizer and various insecticides and herbicides. We probably won’t need a tall ladder, but we may keep that in case we have cathedral ceilings. Some condominium association will handle the outside. We won’t need our huge workbench, and probably one of our bedroom sets can go as well. There are books out the wazoo, most of which we’ll never read again, magazines in some cases twenty years old, thousands of pictures stuffed into envelopes that were never filed or indexed, small appliances we never use, and various pet stuff. We’ll keep the cat condo, but I can’t see us having a hamster in our lives again, although we still have the cage and the shavings for the inside.

There is a freezer full of stuff in the basement, some of it that has been in there more than five years, that needs to be half as full as it is and maybe actually defrosted. The only good thing about our refrigerator dying over vacation is that it forced us to throw out a lot of food that we should have thrown out anyhow. It also made us clean the refrigerator top to bottom, the first time we did it in the five years we have had the appliance, and it would have been disgusting to clean even if it hadn’t died.

It all must be looked at and then we have to decide what to do with it. At least it falls into discrete categories: keep it, trash it, donate it or sell it. The natural tendency is to trash it. This is easy to do with small stuff. It’s the larger stuff that gets hard to dispose, like a mattress we slept on for fifteen years. Only once a year does our cluster have a large trash pickup, and ironically you can get in trouble for putting too much stuff on the curb. Which suggests at some point we’ll have to stage all this large sized stuff to trash in the garage, and hire some firm to haul it to the dump.

It helps to be ruthless when you declutter, especially with your personal stuff. I saved printouts and floppy disks of software I wrote in the 1980s. It meant a lot to me at the time, but yesterday I sent the printouts to recycling and put the five and a quarter inch diskettes with my impressive 1980s dBase III Plus and Dataflex code in the trash. Our file cabinets were busting at the seams. No wonder, there was ten years of Explanations of Benefits crammed in there, not to mention owners manuals for appliances in some cases two generations gone. Anything that looked the least bit sensitive went into a pile to be shredded, the rest went into general paper recycling boxes. Recyclables are collected weekly at the curb, but this was different. Every day I fill up a box or two of paper, cardboard or paperbacks that no one will want to read. Later that day or the next I drive three miles to the county recycling center and unceremoniously throw them in the recycling dumpsters.

Freecycle is a good place to get rid of stuff that is usable, but even those who are glad to take very used stuff for free won’t necessarily take boxes full of empty binders. Excess clothes including shoes are easily donated at Goodwill boxes at nearby shopping centers, but the better stuff should go to a consignment shop. Sometimes we’ll give away for free something that we might get some cash for if we had the energy to do a proper garage sale or a car big enough to haul something larger, like a used office chair. Mainly we are happy to give these to a good home if someone will just haul it away. Whether you give something away or sell it, it takes time to describe it, photograph it, respond to requests, and to actually hand it over.

My 2008 iMac went quickly for $75 on Craigslist. I underpriced it, so the next item I post there will be set more at a market price. The workbench needs to go but really can’t leave the house until our daughter does. That’s because it took two big guys to haul it in (it’s in one piece), and it only fit through the back door just barely. Her stuff from her college apartment is blocking the path to the backdoor, which is perhaps the reason why my wife has been needling our daughter to move out already. It’s time to empty the nest permanently, and just in time. Her room is very lived in, will need repainting and the carpet may need to be replaced as well.

We’ve kept up with painting reasonably well over the years, but there is more painting to do, and more things that must be caulked or patched. There is an original basement carpet coated in a lot of cat vomit that even the best carpet cleaners could not remove, so it has to be replaced. We have to decide how much to renovate the downstairs bathroom, if at all.

Which means we need to start interviewing realtors. We interviewed the first one today. Our house will need to be staged, she told us, which means at some point it will cease to become our home while we are still living in it. They’ll bring in some furniture and potted plants and ask us to replace some carpets and put in certain do-dads so that it shows right when the public is finally allowed in. We’re not so much selling a house as creating something that would not be too embarrassing to show on HGTV. In short, our house will be transformed into a surreal living space until it is inevitably sold, probably to some starry eyed couple with a couple of kids. Then all that staged furniture will be hauled out, we’ll move out, and the new owners will take possession. Doubtless it will soon devolve back into rooms full of clutter again.

We won’t see it then, of course, but I’ll be happy to hear about it when it happens. Because you don’t really have a home until the clutter arrives and it settles into storage bins and closets. For when the clutter goes, so goes the soul of your home. Any day now as we transform our home into a surreal space it will cease to be my home too, and I will be a stranger in my own home.

 
The Thinker

Wherefore art thou ROMEOs?

The ROMEOs this morning are at the Virginia Kitchen on Elden Street, in Herndon, Virginia. This morning they are actually outside the restaurant, facing the strangely quiet Elden Street, which is at something of a commuter lull during mid August. We are sitting at metal tables under an occluded morning sky. It’s 8 AM. Even though I have been getting up at 6:30 AM for years, now that I am retired getting up at 7:30 AM to make this date with the ROMEOs seems somewhat onerous. But here I am because part of the art of retirement (so I understand) is to get away from your otherwise lovely spouse now and then and engage in something resembling real life.

So I’m trying out the ROMEOs: a bunch of guys who are also retired and seemingly have not much else compelling to do on a Tuesday morning except to get together for some fellowship and fattening breakfast food. ROMEO in this case stands for “Retired Older Men Eating Out”, and we make a congenial bunch, as we are all members of the local Unitarian Universalist church, so we are likely to agree on most stuff anyhow. Our wives (those of us who have wives) are grateful to get rid of us for a while; in fact, they have formed their own happy hour club called the JULIETs (Just Us Ladies Imbibing, Eating and Talking) that also meet once a week. Occasionally, aside from socializing, we’ll do something tangible for the church that suggests ours is not entirely just a social club.

Among the ROMEOs I am the newbie and appear to be considerably younger than everyone else at the table. The whole retirement thing, somewhat unusual for me at age 57, is still quite new to me. I’ve been at it less than a month, and much of it so far has been on vacation. But I’m usually up for a greasy breakfast, with or without companionship. The guys around the table though look like they are pros at it. They are Tuesday morning regulars at the Virginia Kitchen. The waitress knows them, if not by name, then by what they are likely to order and how much they are likely to tip. The menus, napkins and silverware are already outside on the tables anticipating our arrival when I arrive promptly at 8 AM. Apparently, I am late and the last to arrive. The banter is already well underway. The topic of the day, as is true most everywhere else in America is the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri over what looks like the unjustified homicide of an African American, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white officer. There was no particular disagreement among us on the outrage there. I’ll likely provide my thoughts on this in a future post.

The nature of fellowship though is to just flow with the conversation, and being UUs it got kind of strange at some times, such as a discussion on how citizen science took off (too many pastors in England on pensions with too much time to kill). One of the attendees is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who had much to contribute when we discussed issues in the Middle East. But along with the political discussion, which is a given when you put a bunch of UUs around a table with coffee, our conversation veered into many other areas.

It didn’t matter so much what we talked about. What mattered is that we had someone else to talk about stuff. It’s about having something to do, something to occupy our brain and somewhere else to see other than our four walls at home. For some of these men around the table, filling their days is a challenge. So far for me it has not been a challenge at all.

Many of the men around this table have a couple of decades on me. Behind their faces are hints of sadness and loss. Some have lost spouses. All have lost loved ones. Some have spouses with serious problems. One has a spouse with cancer. Some have serious health issues of their own, some that they will share and some that they will not. These occupy a lot of their time and thought, while they give the appearance of being men without care. Tuesday breakfast with the ROMEOs is something of an escape, not from their lives, but from weighty issues that come with moving from senior citizen to elderly citizen. For a while anyhow, they can allow themselves to be distracted from it, and engage in general banter like they used when they were younger and healthier.

Retirement for me is turning out to be a lot of work. As I mentioned in my last post, things went awry at home during our vacation: a burglary and a busted refrigerator. The locks are changed and the refrigerator is being repaired as I write. But then there is all this other stuff to do. It appears that I needed to retire just to make time for all this stuff. There is a class I’ll be teaching on Tuesday nights. Preparing for that meant that after breakfast I was off to the community college to make sure the Oracle database server was working correctly and could be accessed in the classroom. There is the huge general task of decluttering our house in preparation for moving next year, and doing whatever else a realtor recommends to make it stand out when it goes on the market. We meet with a realtor on Friday. Then there is my consulting, which resulted in a queue of work waiting for me when I got home. Most of that backlog is now clear. And there is a lot of stuff that falls into the “I always meant to do this”, like make doctors appointment for non-critical health issues and get my car detailed. The stuff I planned to do every day in retirement, like daily walks and trips to the gym, won’t happen for a while.

But there will be time, I hope, for fellowship on Tuesday mornings at the Virginia Kitchen, where the Chantilly Combination breakfast is likely to be my breakfast of choice.

 
The Thinker

Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard

Sorry for the delay in posting. It takes time to travel places when on vacation, time to visit them, time to drive back home, time to unpack and time to reestablish some normalcy at home. The latter won’t happen until Tuesday when our refrigerator will be repaired. It died on us during our 12-day vacation.

In 2009, I got a free business trip to Cape Cod, more specifically to Woods Hole on the cape’s south end. I liked what I saw of Woods Hole and Falmouth to its north. My wife had never been to the cape, so it seemed like a good way station on our way back home. We drove from the Acadia National Park in Maine to Falmouth on Tuesday, a rather monotonous drive mostly along I-95. The most direct way to the cape for us was through Boston. The Big Dig under Boston Harbor was supposedly to relieve the traffic congestion. Considering what we endured about 3 PM on a Tuesday, it must have been even more hellish before the Big Dig. Congestion in downtown Boston added about an hour to our trip.

Falmouth though remains charming, just less so in the height of tourist season. Parking downtown is hard to find this time of year but we managed to find some parking not too far from The Quarterdeck, a restaurant like most in the area specializing in seafood. The Quarterdeck is built to look a bit like an old sailing ship, although you won’t mistake it for a real quarterdeck. Some of the wood used in construction though reputedly came from ships constructed in the 16th century. So in that sense it’s historic, and the food was as good and pricey as I remembered it. What were missing were the regulars at the bar. I guess there were too many tourists this time of year for them to bother. So perhaps Falmouth is best enjoyed outside the tourist season.

Our Wednesday destination was Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as the playground for the rich and famous. In fact, it was very much in the news on Wednesday because President Obama was vacationing on the island. In addition, Hillary Clinton was visiting. This plus frequent squalls and high winds kept the skies cloudy, the winds brisk and the pavement mostly dancing with raindrops. It was the only mostly rainy day of our vacation, so we didn’t complain much.

Getting to the island though is a hassle. You can’t just drive to Woods Hole and catch a ferry. There is virtually no place to park there, so you park in lots near and around Falmouth instead, and pay $13 a day for the privilege, plus you purchase ferry tickets modestly priced at $8 a trip. It is technically possible to take your car to the island, but this time of year it requires making reservations months in advance. It didn’t bother us too much because the bus system is decent and it costs only $7 for a day pass anywhere on the island.

What did bother us were the weather and the traffic congestion it caused. Ferries normally dock at three different ports, but due to high seas from the rain and wind they all went into Vineyard Haven instead, which clogged the roads as people had to redirect to it. Having the president and former secretary of state on the island probably didn’t help either. So we spent much of the afternoon in the rain on a bus stuck in traffic, or waiting at a bus shelter in Edgartown. We needed our stiff umbrellas but there was not much we could do or see in Edgartown. Buses were not arriving on time. It looked like we should just head back to Vineyard Haven and go back to our hotel.

For a change though my wife was the one with more wanderlust, so she persuaded me to wait for the series of buses that took us to the far western side of the island, known as Aquinnah. Near the tip is Gay Head and its “painted” cliffs which were breathtaking. We also got a break from the rain by the time we arrived around 4 PM. It was more than the cliffs that was invigorating: it was also the stiff, moist breeze and the shimmer of a partially obscured sun on the water.

Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard

Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard

As for the Vineyard itself, if you go through the hassle of getting there you can understand its appeal. First, it is viney. I did not see any grape vines, but it is a lushly green island with many bumps in elevation that don’t quite qualify as hills. Second, it’s an island so it is not easily accessible, thus it feels both cut off and safe. Third, it’s obvious that mostly those with money live on the island. Towns like Edgartown are full of Gingerbread houses, most of which look rented out, surrounded by downtowns full of mostly one of a kind stores and curiosity shops. And of course there are pricey houses, many on bluffs with huge yards that resemble plantations, and President Obama and family were likely on one of them. Prices were roughly fifty percent higher than on the mainland as well. We didn’t even try to rent a hotel room there. We might have been able to rent one if we had $300 or more a night to drop there. It was less than half of that for our hotel on Falmouth. The island also has beaches, but also lakes, seawalls and an airport. So in spite of the weather, it was worth going to. Simply the view of the sea from Gay Head justified the time and expense.

And that was pretty much our vacation, sans a very long, traffic-clogged trip home on Thursday and the discovery that someone had broken into our house while we were gone, someone who clearly had a house key, which made the burglary more curious as only three people we trust have a house key. No doors were busted in. Only some jewelry was taken which had more sentimental than monetary value, but it was a loss nonetheless. It must have happened in the late evening after my daughter had done to work (she works nights). Police were called, dust prints from a hand were found on our comforter and our dresser drawers were ruffled through. We’ve never had an incident like this before, and it’s more than a little creepy. The locks will be changed on Monday.

Now my retirement starts in earnest. On Friday morning, I had to go to the store to pick up a few essentials for breakfast. I watched a long parade of cars go by our street, likely mostly working people off to a 9 to 5 job. Not me. Now I am just a guy with a busted refrigerator, a looted house and a lot of bills to pay. But hey, I’m retired!

 
The Thinker

New Brunswick and Maine

As in Nova Scotia, the weather in the province of New Brunswick kept us guessing. Approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia we were caught in torrential rains and the same thing happened as we approached St. John, New Brunswick’s capital. Nature’s fury was followed by periods of bright sunshine, then another round would arrive. We happened to read the Canadian news on Sunday, only to learn that a tornado touched down in the northern province of Newfoundland of all places. Such an event is virtually unheard of.

Otherwise New Brunswick looked a lot like Nova Scotia, at least its eastern parts as we wended our way south to St. John: gently rolling hills with mixtures of coniferous and deciduous trees with many picturesque lakes to enjoy. New Brunswick must have a sizeable French community because sign were typically in both English and French, not too surprising as it sits east of the French province of Quebec.

Caves on Fundy Bay (low tide), St. Martins, New Brunswick

Caves on Fundy Bay (low tide), St. Martins, New Brunswick

Fundy Bay sits between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It’s likely its shape which gives it extraordinary tides. We saw these for ourselves when we ventured off the major road to a back road, that took us into the city of St. Martin. It sits about thirty miles north of St. John. Aside from the variety of small businesses mostly oriented around the tourist trade, its principal attraction is the Fundy Trail, where the effects of tidal forces are quite spectacular. There we found a tidal beach at low tide. Tourists walked over the rocks into enormously tall caves in the cliffs. Six hours later these cliffs would mostly filled with water and be accessible only by adventurous kayakers. Tides along Fundy Bay can be up to forty feet. We also found a lighthouse on a back road that was approachable. The coasts of New Brunswick are quite spectacular for the many dramatic cliffs and the effects of tides on these surfaces. There water and coastline meet in spectacular and timeless drama.

The capital city of St. John proved itself as interesting and ethnically diverse as Halifax, just somewhat smaller. One impressive feature of the city is its hills, not so much for their height as for their steepness. Having seen the hills of cities like Seattle, Tacoma and San Francisco, St. John was at least a peer. Otherwise St. John was mostly a place to spend a night before venturing back into the United States through Maine. We wished we had scheduled more time for a proper visit.

We reentered the United States through the border crossing at St. Stephen then drove west passing through Bangor before arriving at Waterville, to spend some hours with friends. Our final destination for the night was Ellsworth along the southeast coast, something of a gateway city to Bar Harbor and the Acadia National Park. We did our best to endure a musty smelling but otherwise clean room at the local Ramada Inn.

This is our third trip to Maine, but our first to this premier national park. It’s hard to get to, but it is a treasure once you arrive. Arguably the park has more diversity than any other national park, not in its citizenry, but in the variety of geological and natural formations at the park in what is a fairly small space. It’s unique in other ways too. Land for the park was largely ceded by landowners to the federal government, principally to ensure that its natural treasures would always be available. This leaves half of the island still in private hands, including the city of Bar Harbor, and lots of townships on the island with all sorts of small businesses, hotels and B&Bs for tourists to enjoy. Mostly the island is a natural wonderland.

View from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

View from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

We did our best to see everything, but there was no way to do it in one day. Cadillac Mountain, its highest point, provided a full vista of the island. It is one of eleven mountains on this island, and the mountain’s 1500 feet turns out to be the highest mountain on the east coast. The view at 1500 feet though is spectacular, with the mainland, the Atlantic, Bar Harbor and other nearby islands easily visible. We were fortunate to tour the island on a picture perfect day, with temperatures in the low 70s. Every few miles down the road brought a new spectacular wonder: a rare sandy beach on the Maine coast, a thunderhole driven by the relentless sea on rocks, picturesque marshes, a clear lake with its own sandy beach, multiple picturesque marinas, and a natural seawall. We saw perhaps thirty percent of the prominent features on the island, and wished we had scheduled a couple of extra days to see the rest.

Our vacation though is wending toward its end. Only one destination remains before returning home: Cape Cod. A report is forthcoming.

 
The Thinker

Hello Nova Scotia

It’s still sometimes startling to go to Canada and realize it’s its own country and not part of the United States. You wonder why you have to go through this tedious customs process when our nations are so alike. Well, maybe not that alike. Canada is hardly a perfect country, since it is ripping up its west to extract oil from tar sands, and arguably it treats its native Americans about as shabbily as we do ours. For all the success of Obamacare, their national health insurance system wraps rings around ours, and for a lot less of their GDP. Still, they do have the dollar (although it is not green) and except for in Quebec they speak English. Canada is far more a white country than the USA. Overall, it seems much more civilized and less partisan. It’s a comfortable place to visit once you make a few mental changes. In particular, you need to think of distance in kilometers, volume in liters and have to excuse the national and regional value added taxes. Their socialism does not come cheap, but it has many advantages.

Nova Scotia sits northeast of Maine and is basically an island as well as a province. It’s not quite the furthest part of Canada to the east, but it is the most accessible to us in the United States. Most Americans never get to Nova Scotia, but fewer journey to Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, places more remote yet still accessible. What I knew of Nova Scotia was minimal: great and dramatic seascapes, hub of a lot of maritime commerce, short winter days with dramatic snowfalls and long summer days. I assume I can throw in moose too, although I did not see any.

Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

I still don’t know much about the place, having arrived via ferry from Portland, Maine this morning. Perhaps the reason it is bypassed by Americans is that it is hard to get to. You can in theory drive to it, but it’s a major hassle. Flying to it is the ideal way to get here. There is also this new option: take Nova Star Cruiselines out of Portland for an overnight passage. Your car goes in the hold either on Decks 3 or 5. Deck 7 acts as something of a traditional cruise ship with lounges and gambling. And you sleep in tiny cabins (assuming you rent a cabin) on Deck 8. Only it’s not quite a cruise. For one thing, it lasts about twelve hours. And although the ship is new and quite attractive, it’s obviously not Royal Caribbean. And there is no lounging around when you get to Yarmouth. You are woken before 7 AM Eastern Time. There is time for breakfast in their cafeteria ($12 a person) but soon you and your car are being hustled off the ship, only to wait in long lines to get through customs.

We were hardly outside of Yarmouth heading along the island’s southeast coast when civilization quickly receded. Our destination was Anapolis Royal, where AAA had listed the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens there as a diamond attraction. And the gardens are quite nice, spread out over fifteen acres, even with a sky that constantly shifted from pelting rain to sunshine. Still, as impressive as it was, it was no Longwood Gardens, something of the gold standard for gardens in North America. For the mostly unpopulated province of Nova Scotia, however, it was quite impressive. Getting there though meant two hours of driving over gentle hills, wholly undeveloped with mostly coniferous pine trees to look at. There are no services along these roads, but they were well maintained and lightly traveled. Occasionally you would get a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy to the west, or an estuary or river, but mostly it was vistas of fields and pine trees to enjoy.

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

It was much the same on the two plus hour trip from the gardens to Halifax. There is the occasional small town, but little in the way of civilization. Nova Scotia’s hills can be impressive at times while not quite qualifying as mountains. Of course there are towns and cities other than Halifax in Nova Scotia, they are just generally small and remote from one another. Halifax is the island’s metropolis, and while not quite Montreal it won’t disappoint. It is quite ethnically diverse with plenty to do.

As we are just zipping through Nova Scotia, and will be moving on to New Brunswick tomorrow, we had time for only one attraction in Halifax: the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic along the wharf. It’s too bad. We need to spend a week or more hear to really appreciate this province. I particularly wish we had time to see the northern half of the island, where arguably its most spendid natural treasures await.

I can say that this taste of Nova Scotia has left me yearning for a proper vacation here. Next time I hope it will be a leisurely tour of the island, lasting at least a week. And I’ll make sure we fly in.

 
The Thinker

Scouting neighborhoods

When you haven’t moved in 21 years, moving becomes a big deal. It becomes a bigger deal when you are selling a house, moving out of state, moving into a new home and moving for pleasure all at the same time.

Essentially my wife and I have been planning to move for about a decade now. That’s how long we’ve been examining communities we’ve traveled to for retirement potential. It turns out that the more communities you look at, the larger the possibilities and permutations become. There are plenty of communities that would suit us, plenty even when we considered that we could not afford to live in all of them. There were plenty that she liked and that I did not, and visa versa. Eventually we either had to choose something or stay where we were at for the rest of our lives.

We chose the western Massachusetts area last year, sort of tentatively. This week we are back in the Northampton area of western Massachusetts, this time for scouting neighborhoods. Last year we checked out four candidates sites including Watertown MA, Ithaca NY and Burlington VT, and the Northampton area won. Deciding to spend four nights here by the banks of the Connecticut River shows our intent and seriousness. Our base of operations is a place called the D. Hotel, close to the River, technically in nearby Holyoke but essentially in Northampton. It’s a great hotel, and probably the nicest in this area, with two quality restaurants literally next door.

Among our first investments now that we are here is a street map. Yes, it’s also available in Google Maps, but a street map is still essential for this sort of analysis. It takes a lot of work to find candidate neighborhoods and study how it all connects into a larger infrastructure. Finding housing that we were interested in was facilitated principally by zillow.com, the real estate web site, which showed us potential neighborhoods that had what we were looking for: essentially very large condominiums. Most of these are marketed for people our age: 55+.

We have more than two decades caring for a single-family house, and we’re sick of it. Sick of cutting grass, repairing roofs and shoveling snow. With a condominium, a condominium fee handles all the exterior maintenance. Interior changes would still be our responsibility, but that is more manageable. Here in snowy western Massachusetts, these sorts of houses can be found, but they are a tiny share of the total market. The ideal condo though should have some extras. I wanted a mancave, or more specifically a man room, something with a window and that was reasonably private where I could concentrate on writing and programming. The ideal condo would also have all the essentials on one level, anticipating the day when age would make it difficult to traverse stairs. It would also come with bathrooms accessible to us if we ended up in wheelchairs. These units are out there, even in this area. We are not the only seniors tapping into this market. It’s just not a huge market, but a profitable enough market to attract some developers.

The ideal community is more than a bunch of aging adults sitting in condos, but would be connected to a larger and vibrant community. There would be things to do nearby, interesting restaurants reasonably close and various cultural events to enjoy as well as feel close to nature. The Northampton area seemed to have all of these: five colleges nearby, more ethnic restaurants than you could ever want, and a good local arts scene not to mention artists all over the place with studio space. They are often found in refurbished buildings with brick exteriors that used to hum with machinery of an earlier industrial age.

And so we focused on communities. Northampton itself was an obvious choice, except for its downtown, where it has become a victim of its own success. There is not quite the housing we were looking for there, and parking is problematic given all the trendy stores and restaurants downtown. There are possibilities further out from the center of town, but it looked like we would have to trade walkability for space, green space and quiet.

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

Easthampton though is now calling us. This small city, south rather than east of Northampton, called me from afar as I studied it. Now it is calling me strongly as I spent a good part of the day in the city. It seems to be calling my wife as well. First, we found two condominium complexes in Easthampton that seem to meet most if not all of our needs in a condo. Second, Easthampton is a city, and thus a coherent place. We have spent our lives in largely unincorporated suburbs, with some basic services like police and fire controlled by the county, but much of the rest effectively controlled by the homeowner’s association.

A city, even a small one like Easthampton, is a contiguous area that is centrally managed. That means something to us at this stage in our lives. It means you can drive for a couple of miles and the zoning does not change. It means that you pay taxes to an entity that manages all this. It means the city is responsible for the water, sewage, trash pickup, parks and should you choose to use it, a burial site for your remains. When done right, and Easthampton seems to be doing it right, it offers a consistent experience as well as a set of implicit shared values tailored for the area you live. And if you don’t like the way the management is running the place, you can try to elect people who will do a better job, or run for office yourself.

Easthampton though is also connected to the rest of Hampshire County, not just through roads but also through common biking trails, as well as much in the way of a shared values. Throughout Hampshire County, there is an appreciation for the environment and for preserving the past. Historic districts maintain the look from a hundred years ago. Common space and community gardens with deeds ensuring they will never be developed, along with many nature sanctuaries, preserve natural space. It is also politically liberal. Rachel Maddow cut her broadcasting teeth in Northampton, and clusters of same sex couples are as common as rain out here. No one thinks this is the least bit weird, which is as it should be.

Beyond Hampshire County is more concentrated civilization. Springfield turns out to be a major city, definitely the largest in western Massachusetts and not as run down as I feared. Holyoke too looks much better than I thought it would, with beautiful estates in the northern part of the city. We still need to check out Chicopee to its south. We traveled through Hartford, Connecticut on our way up, about an hour away. Hartford is substantially bigger than Springfield, and is quite modern. More importantly, it has a major airport and a Southwest Airlines hub. New York City is two and a half hours away by car. Boston is ninety minutes away. And trains can take us both places with reasonable ease while we enjoy a home very much in the midst of nature.

The result is that we are finding not just the neighborhoods, but the towns and small cities that align with this phase of our lives. We won’t find the perfect community. There is not the time or the resources to find such a place, if it exists. You can however be pragmatic. Hampshire County and Easthampton in particular is coming together into a frame, and under the frame is its title: our new home.

 

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: August 2014 edition

I’m about to spend eleven days on the road, so to the extent I blog it will be a travelogue. This means I best try to put to bed (so to speak) my monthly critique of Craigslist Casual Encounters (Northern Virginia edition).

I start out with the obligatory statistics. According to Google Analytics, I had at least 322 page views for my Craigslist posts in July, plus views in my feed that are hard to measure. That’s about 15% of my browser traffic, and the numbers are up from June. As for the postings, on the first page of posts I find 35 men looking for women, 44 men looking for men, 2 men looking for a transsexual or transvestite, and 1 man looking for multiple men. Women are underrepresented, of course. 4 women are looking for men; just 1 woman is looking for another woman. 3 couples are looking for other couples. 4 couples are looking for women. 4 transsexuals/transvestites are looking for men and no other combination.

The amazing thing about the posts this month is that I found all these posts in the first half of the web page. Usually I have to dig to find the kinky stuff, at least those posted by women. So the kinky hormones are hitting a crescendo this month, which suggests a baby boomlet nine months from now. The winter doldrums of mediocre posts are clearly behind, so to speak. I am confident I could fill another couple of pages with other highly peculiar posts tonight. I’ll let you explore those for yourself.

  • Today is my lucky day for finding weird posts. Second from the top of the page, here’s a 30-year-old woman somewhere in Northern Virginia who wants a man to take a dump on her. This just goes to prove that no matter how disgusting you think some sexual act is, someone is into it. She prefers men like me: in their 40s and 50s, as well as someone with experience doing this. I would imagine in the latter category, even in a populous area like Northern Virginia, at best you will find only a handful of gentlemen (and I am being tongue in cheek) with experience in something this weird, but who knows? I don’t hang around fetlife.com. The good news is that if you want to do this, she claims to be a hottie: “I am a pretty woman, sincere, easy going who is in great shape – I work hard for it.” At least in one way she is normal: “No one would know I was into this.” Lord, I hope not! If this still doesn’t raise your eyebrows, go read the full ad, because exactly where you do #2 is open to negotiation. As for me, I’m trying to imagine how one times something like this. It would challenge even Harry Houdini. I’m guessing a bottle of Ex-Lax helps.
  • Women’s kinks are definitely coming out this month. Here’s a woman looking for a woman who is into breast play. It sounds like she wants to do the playing. From her photo she is probably modestly endowed in that area, but she is looking to play with breasts that are beyond enormous and from an African American woman only: “When I say very large breasts, I mean G, H, J cup and so on……the bigger the better ;-)” I hope she can keep us abreast on the matter. We’ll be waiting for a “full” report.
  • A 44-year-old, 170-pound white male near Dulles Airport who claims to be a coach is looking for men for his team. He’s in an attractive spandex jockstrap that doesn’t suggest he necessarily can make his own team. “Show coach you have what it takes,” he demands.
  • Most of us in the grocery store have heard announcements like “Cleanup on Aisle 3”. Here’s what I hope is an unusual guy who likes cleaning up the aftereffects of intercourse. But, of course, he is not the least bit weird. “I’m not a pervert In public. I have a professional lifestyle and I keep my sexual lifestyle discreet,” he says. And he plays very safe. He has papers he says, and you need them too. Hopefully the papers he is talking about is not for his dog’s spaying, so check them out couples. Warning: explicit picture.
  • Guys, has your head spun lately while getting a blowjob? Here’s the problem: you are getting head from women, who don’t know exactly how to give perfect head. Gay men know much better, and this guy apparently believes he can make your head spin more than Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. If for some reason you are not into guy-on-guy sex, she’s a transsexual with real breasts. It’s unclear if you can verify this since “she” will be using “her” gloryhole only. No charge. “She” is not a pro because “my time is free.” “She” could be 99 for all you know because she won’t give her age, just her location: North Arlington. I am betting it is better when you take out the dentures first.
  • I still don’t understand the whole gloryhole fascination on Craigslist. I figure the person (almost always a man) on the other end must be hideous to look at otherwise they wouldn’t bother to go through the trouble of not being seen. Based on my experience as a heterosexual man being on the receiving side, all things being equal, oral sex is much better when your partner is good looking, although your partner’s enthusiasm has a lot to do with satisfaction too. Anyhow, this 35-year-old man has a side-by-side, dual gloryhole. It’s impossible for one person to do this from two gloryholes at the same time, so I’m not sure what the advantage is here, other than perhaps to watch the guy next to you at the same time. Anyhow, this is pretty weird. Is there such competition in gloryhole spots that you have to offer something unique? Warning: explicit picture.
  • This is almost as weird as the first post: here’s a virulently nonsmoking guy who wants to give a smoking woman oral sex, while she is smoking of course. I’m trying really hard but I can’t for the life of me figure out why this would be a turn on.
  • Speaking of cleanups on aisle 3, here’s the reverse of that previous poster: a 32-year-old guy from Ashburn who claims he has not had an orgasm in weeks is looking for a couple to suck him off. It’s not that he’s particularly bisexual, he’s just a realist and knows Craigslist well enough to figure out that two women won’t respond. So he’s willing to compromise. I still doubt he will get any replies except from two guys maybe.
  • Here’s a guy in Culpeper with an explicit photo of his penis. No big deal there, of course, but this 29-year-old man wants to prove just how much manhood he has, so he as a ruler next to it. Only it’s a fuzzy picture so you really can’t tell how well he “measures up”. He just wants to plunge into you right now and no, he won’t host, which most likely means that he is married — or that he lives in a pigsty. Of course, the married thing is rarely an issue with Craigslist casual encounters readers. While the ruler can’t hurt, his is one of so many similar posts it will simply get lost in the pile, and not a whole lot of women in Culpeper are likely to be reading Craigslist on a Saturday night anyhow. Sorry dude, but you’ll find it necessary to take this problem into your own hands for a solution tonight.

Anyhow, in my mind the first poster wins this month’s award for the most bizarre and/or disturbing post. Congrats, or something.

 
The Thinker

Synopsis of a career

Tomorrow I retire. I don’t plan to stop working entirely. But I will end a federal career of 32 years and most likely I will never work full time again. It’s unlikely that I will need wages to survive again, so what paid work I do will likely be for my own amusement and to keep engaged in the community. Retiring is okay, so the experts say, just make it an active retirement. Do stuff; preferably stuff that engages both mind and body. Don’t sit in hammocks and sip mint juleps. Among other things, it increases your risk of developing Alzheimers.

Information technology turned out to be my accidental career. My bachelor’s degree was in communications; which is about as marketable as a degree in art history. My parents did warn me but I didn’t listen much. I sort of envisioned myself in the 1970s having a career in media. The closest I came to using my degree was some part time work editing 16mm film, and that only lasted a week or so. Like a lot of recent college graduates today, I struggled out of college. My parents weren’t thrilled with me coming home. I wasn’t thrilled about living in Daytona Beach. I ended up in the Washington D.C. region because my brother lived here at the time. I lived in a group house, and then in an apartment with a roommate. I worked a crappy retail job at a Montgomery Ward selling shoes then lawn and garden equipment. This was not a career. It was keeping alive, barely.

Those who remember the early 1980s remember high unemployment and high inflation. I was caught in that cycle. Just about anything was better than what I was doing. I joined the federal government because my friend Tim at Wards had gotten a job there. It was nothing fancy. I did typing and filing. It was a foot in the door. It paid modestly but better than Wards and had benefits. It only took a few months, now that I was on the inside working at what was then the Defense Mapping Agency, to find a job more suited to me. It turned out to be across the street in another building, which was principally the printing plant for DMA at the time. I did more clerical work there, but it was more interesting. I tracked the production of mostly classified maps and charts, but also these things called “service requests” which allowed people in DMA to get graphic arts related work done, like images resized. It was late 1981.

It was also the beginning of the personal computer revolution. There was a lot of need for people that could make these computers do useful stuff, but not a whole lot of people who had the talent. Universities barely taught computer science, and programming back then meant mainframe computers and punch cards. It was not the least bit appealing. The Wang 2200T mini-computer in the next room though was interesting, and accessible. I hung out with a guy named Warren who programmed it in BASIC, discovered it was much more fun than the Fortran course I had in college, and the feedback was instantaneous. I eventually leveraged my learning there (and on an Apple computer also in the office) into a job one floor up, as a COBOL programmer. The year was 1986 and I had just started my first professional job, just one that had nothing to do with communications. Like many of us in IT at the time, we just picked it up. A degree in IT did not matter much, in part because doing IT right was poorly understood. We were making things up as we went along and if it worked everyone was happy. Agility in spinning up systems was more important than their endurance. I could do that.

I was a mediocre COBOL programmer, but I was a great programmer for the PC. I inherited and enhanced a map and chart inventory system created by a chief warrant officer who had retired, written in something called DataFlex. Maps in those days were ordered electronically by sending military telegrams formatted in a specific way. I wrote a BASIC program to make it easy to create these orders. I got some recognition and I got a way cool business trip: two weeks, one in Japan followed by one in the Philippines where I taught military people to track their inventory using microcomputers.

Even so, I was restless. Information technology was blooming all over the place, but I didn’t want to keep programming in COBOL. I did like this DataFlex stuff though, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee needed someone who knew it. So I resigned and worked downtown, just south of the Capitol. A year later I was unceremoniously laid off. It wasn’t anything personal, but a budget thing they do right before elections when they are trying to give more money to candidates. But it left me scrambling. I found three months of work as a subcontractor for the Department of Labor. I created a system using dBase for them to track their audiovisual requests for service. But I really needed a steady paycheck again, which took me back into the civil service. There I stayed, until tomorrow.

The Air Force 7th Communications Group was hiring. They did unsexy things in the Pentagon to make the Air Force staff happy, mainly maintain and extend in-house applications written in PL/1. Working in the Pentagon was a mixed blessing. There were all these blue suits and people saluting, not to mention very important people with buzz cuts and stars on their shoulders. There was also a cast of characters there straight out of The Office, including a guy who never bathed, a guy with sleep apnea who kept falling asleep in his chair, and hosts of junior officers running in and out of the organization trying to quickly advance their careers. There were also some incredibly brilliant people and sizable chunks of money. They were very worried about doing software engineering, which was not fully defined back then. On the Pentagon’s dime I got all sorts of training in this and other things, including tuition reimbursement as I started my graduate degree in Software System Engineering. While there, I helped move a massive system from a Multics machine to an IBM mainframe, and cemented an understanding of relational databases on IBM’s DB2 and the Multics MRDS database. I also got to work on this newfangled thing called “client/server” systems, written in this cool but proprietary language called Powerbuilder. If you were doing this stuff in the mid-1990s, Powerbuilder was hot and so by extension was my career. I also got promoted to what then seemed an unattainable grade, a GS-13. Within a year we had sold the townhouse and bought our single family house. I also became a technical leader for a number of systems.

And then it went awry. Maybe I was too arrogant, maybe I wasn’t, but I for sure ticked off my project manager who basically bullied her management to take me off her team. I realized I had been in the Pentagon too long, nine years, and I didn’t like doing defense work anyhow. So much paranoia, so many clearances needed plus they were in the business of killing people. So I let fly applications and in a couple of months I was in a completely different universe within the federal government. I was working at 3rd and Independence Avenue S.W. for the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. They saw a lot of talent in me where my previous project manager saw someone difficult to work with. And I knew Powerbuilder. Their grants management system was written in Powerbuilder.

My career peaked early there. Working with a team of mostly contractors, I created their first extranet. An extranet is basically a secure internet application. People out in the states typed structured information into web forms, it was centrally collected in our database and the whole process of collecting mounds of paper from fifty states became wholly electronic. I don’t recall getting an award for it, but it was the first of its kind there. I was promoted in less than a year to a GS-14, which I still am today. Even rarer, I was promoted to a technical GS-14. I managed no one. My system quickly became institutionalized, but the remaining work there was far less sexy: lots of boring project management.

And then 9-11 happened. I was caught up in all that working downtown. I thanked my lucky stars I had gotten out of the Pentagon. About a year later, we were abruptly moved to another building near L’Enfant Plaza overlooking the railroad tracks. All day I watched trains going into and out of Union Station and I wondered what would happen if one of those trains was wired with explosives, a reasonable scenario I thought. I’d be, like, dead, and that was a depressing thought. But I also wondered why I was still enduring these long commutes every day. Maybe I could stay employed as a fed and work close to home instead? So in part to assuage my 9-11 anxieties, I applied for jobs near me. I was either lucky or talented because it was only a few months before I was hired by the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Here I have worked happily for more than ten years, until tomorrow when my federal career ends.

I won’t repeat myself too much about my career at USGS, except to say it’s a terrific place to work. I inherited an excellent and top-notch team, all federal employees, all gung ho, which made it possible for me to give my best and do work that had the sort of impact I wanted to have during a career. I would like to say I am terrifically talented and that accounts for my success these last ten years. I hope that is true but I don’t feel qualified to judge myself. I do feel fulfilled, and I feel I have met all my career goals.

I also feel it is time to let others walk in my shoes. As a system manager as well as a supervisor, I had the privilege of making a lot of managerial and technical decisions of fairly significant impact. I also had the burdens of management, probably not as bad as in many places, but challenging situations and people. I learned that even I have human limitations. You can only herd the cats for so long.

My financial planner said I could retire, which I had planned at age 57 anyhow, my current age. So I will be glad to retire tomorrow and see what the next stage of my life brings.

 

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