Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Ten years later

One of the benefits of writing a blog that’s been around a really long time (this one started in December 2002) is that you occasionally get to go back and look at posts made a long time ago and compare it to where you are in the present. In July 2005 I tried imagining my life in 2015, then ten years in the future. I did it as part of a topic discussed by my covenant group. At the time, the exercise had me breaking out in a cold sweat. Then, at age 48, the idea of being 58 seemed pretty scary.

It’s not quite ten years later but it is more than nine years later. So it’s time to see how good a prognosticator I was back then.

  • I wanted to be in good health at age 58. I have subsequently learned that good health is relative. In some ways I was in worse health in 2005. I did not know I had sleep apnea back then, and even back then my sciatica was starting to make my life miserable. I’m surely no younger; in fact I am about a decade older. I take medications I never took then, but overall I am in less pain and healthier, much of it due to modern medicine. However, most of my chronic problems, like sciatica and sleep apnea, were problems that I had to figure out. No physician had diagnosed them. I had to persist and keep trying. So you can be in better health as you age, but you have to take ownership of your health and you must make it a priority. Don’t assume doctors can figure it all out for you. At best they see your problems through a gauzy curtain.
  • I wondered if I would be retired. The answer is yes; I retired in August. Back then retirement seemed very scary. How could I feel good about myself if I wasn’t doing something I felt was important to society? It turns out at least so far it’s not an issue. I am just as busy, if not more so, being retired and I have much less stress. Jobs can kill you particularly those jobs that come with lots of responsibility. A well-planned retirement where you keep engaged in stuff you like is a great blessing. I am fortunate to have started mine comfortably and long before most people do.
  • I thought if I were retired I might take up something like golf. I still have no desire to do so, in part because age has not made me more agile. But this is also because I did not expect to be so busy in retirement. That may change after we relocate. I still have goals to do more physical activity. So far in retirement that hasn’t been the case, but I have been actively fixing my house. I don’t sit in a chair as much and move around. As for golf, I’d prefer to take up mini-golf instead.
  • Would my Mr. Hyde come out? Would I do something perverted or weird like exposing myself on street corners? I’m not sure where this fear came from. The answer of course is no. In many ways the lower testosterone levels that come with age in men is a blessing. It makes it easier to stay rational and stay out of newspapers and jail cells.
  • I was worried about losing my youth. Well, you either lose it or you die. Given the alternative, losing your youth is pretty good. I didn’t have youth at 48 and I have less of it at 57. The funny thing about aging, at least for me, is you age so slowly that it doesn’t bother you very much. I still think I look pretty youthful, at least for my age. I realize it is part self-deception, or maybe even total self-deception, but as long as you think it’s true you can get through life more happily. I obviously am not attracting any younger babes, but I wasn’t at age 48 either.
  • I thought both my parents would be deceased. Thankfully, my father is still alive. My mother, however, died some months after I wrote the original post. My dad is 88. He might make it to 98. I know he wants to. Both of us aren’t counting on it. But life will go on, assuming I survive to 67, even with the passing of my father. Death is not so scary anymore; it is a path I am becoming familiar with.
  • I wondered if at 25 my daughter would be out of the house. The answer is (as of today) no. As of tomorrow: yes. The movers come tomorrow and we’ll be official empty nesters. More about that, probably, in a subsequent post.
  • I figured there was a good probability that some sort of calamity would affect me. This was in part due to witnessing 9/11 as I worked in Washington when it happened. No nuclear bombs have gone off unexpectedly near me. I may be unduly paranoid, but I still think Washington will suffer something like this in my lifetime. But experience with real life suggests I worry too much. Overall society works, just imperfectly much of the time. Bad stuff happens but a lot of good stuff that doesn’t make the press often does too. More good stuff than bad stuff must be happening, because we are still here, the money is still green and I am in a retirement zone.
  • I was worried I’d end up hating my job. That did not happen, but it did wear me out. I felt like a juggler with one too many balls in the air wondering how long it would be before I dropped one. Things changed, it got increasingly stressful and I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. Today, I am glad I retired and happy that someone likely younger and more agile will pick up the work and probably do a better job than I did. I also realize I did quite a good job overall considering the minimal resources I was given.
  • I was worried about insolvency. It’s curious what happens when we worry about the things that bug us the most. I took a lot of steps to make sure it didn’t happen, and mitigated a lot of risk through various insurance policies, including an umbrella insurance policy. It also helped to move into my peak earning years. When my daughter got out of college, I could finally save gobs of money. I can’t see insolvency happening unless there is some widespread breakdown of society. And if it happens, we’ll do better than most.

Overall, there was value in thinking about things that made me break out in a cold sweat back in 2005. Instead of fearing them, I was drawn to grapple with them. Fears and reflecting on them made me think through what is really important to me. In that sense, the exercise was valuable and it succeeded.

Life at 57 for me is quite sweet. Life at 58 I expect will be even sweeter.

 
The Thinker

Not a saint, but saintly

When I entered his hospital room, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu.

It was not so surprising. I had been here before, but it was in 2004 when my mother was in intensive care. I even blogged about it. And here it was ten years later and I was back wandering the halls of Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, Maryland. In September 2004, I was there to witness the shocking decline of my mother. She had congestive heart failure at the time and was delusional.

Ten years later it was my father in a bed at Holy Cross Hospital. At least he wasn’t delusional, as congestive heart failure is not his issue. No, it was simple pneumonia that put my father in the hospital this time, simple except he is almost 88 years old and is suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is slowly eating away his lungs. I blogged about that just two posts ago. Two posts ago my Dad was healthy, and just about ready to take a cross-country trip on an airplane to see his mentally slipping sister. I worried he’d catch pneumonia but he came back a week ago all upbeat and chipper. I congratulated him for not catching anything and reveled in having him in such high spirits in my living room at his age. My congratulations were premature.

Who knows where he got the infection that caused this pneumonia? The airplane is a likely suspect, as they are known for nasty viruses they carry including, most recently, the Ebola Virus. If so he likely had caught it on the way back east because it took a few days before symptoms appeared. It wasn’t until last night that he finally went into the hospital. It took my sister talking to him on the phone to figure out something major was going on. Words were slurred. Thoughts were expressed incoherently. There was that and that he could barely walk. The paramedics thought he’d be okay overnight. By Monday though he was wheeled by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital and by evening he was in a room, oxygen tubes up his nose, IVs in his arms and periodic masks placed over his face forcing a vaporous mist of medicine into his lungs. The last thing his diminished lungs needed was to be clogged with more mucus. No wonder: he wasn’t getting enough oxygen and making so little sense.

Last night another sister paid a visit to him in the hospital. She reported he made sense only about half the time. He was confusing dates and facts. And it being pneumonia, he was coughing and eating very little. The good son (me) was elsewhere. I was teaching last night. It was hard to assess these events from afar but I made the calculated decision that my students should not skip class for an emergency visit from me. It worked out last night, but one of these days I feel my luck will run out.

What I did not expect when I saw him this morning was the wispy ghost of a man I found in the hospital bed. He looked half mummified. He was gaunt with a face was so white it was hard to distinguish it from his hair, or what was left of it, which was also snow white. He seemed shriveled.

It was shocking because a week earlier after returning from the west coast I enjoyed a lively conversation with a far different man. He now seemed fundamentally changed, not just a senior citizen, but elderly. No, not elderly, but ancient with skin that was no longer elastic and full of large and reddened age spots over his arms and legs. The image that came to my mind was that of the last days of my mother nine years ago. It was an image that recalled someone not just on the precipice of death, but someone who had teetered off the precipice and had begun the fall. In 2005 my mother looked much like my father did today: ghostly white, and with her dark hair all a sickly greyish white. Given this is at least my father’s third bout with pneumonia, it was hard not to project that maybe his time had come too.

To my great relief, he was at least rested and back to his usual mental sharpness. The more time I spent with him, be more color returned to his pallid face. Still, there was no masking his gauntness or his disinterest in the food in front of him. I even brought brownies. Chocolate is his primary weakness but today he expressed no particular interest in the brownies. Most of his breakfast had been left untouched.

Health care professionals shuffled in and out as did clergy. The first clergy member was actually a Methodist minister, not quite what the spiritual doctor would order for this devout Catholic. A few hours later a priest showed up and prayed with him and gave him a blessing for the sick, which he surely was.

My father could look more ghostly than human but his personality was still there. He likes to hand out complements lavishly and started handing them to me. He is such a gentle and good man, but not all complements he hands out are necessarily correct. He may be shriveled, but I am but a shadow of the man that he is. My father instinctively finds some good in everyone, something I have a hard time doing. He believes we are all kind and loving people by nature, despite obvious indications that we are not. He may not be a saint. I have not seen him perform any miracles. But he is saintly, and a near perfect role model of a human being, even in the hospital with tubes running in and out of him, even with his body a mess and his lungs slowly deteriorating. My father’s essence shines out no matter how bleak the circumstances.

In a few days he will likely be released. There is physical therapy in his future, and something new: a walker with wheels. The physicians are worried he might fall although he has no history of falling. I have not heard that his COPD has reached the stage where he needs supplemental oxygen, but if I were his physician I would order it. It was his incoherence and blue fingernails that cued us into the severity of the problem. It was this and that he could barely make it between his bed and his water closet.

So maybe his 88th birthday party will go on as scheduled on Saturday. We can only wait and see. I do hope his appetite has returned by then. There were signs that it was coming back to him when I left today. And if my stepmother is as perceptive as I expect her to be, the party will end with a birthday cake. I t better have plenty of chocolate in it.

 
The Thinker

It’s not easy being clean

I am becoming convinced that only sociopaths truly need to have everything in their house clean and orderly.

Last month I lamented that I am busy turning my home into a house. That process is well underway with no end in sight. It is, frankly, a bit overwhelming. It feels overwhelming despite the evidence that our house was in pretty good shape to sell even before I retired. Most of our rooms are recently painted. There are no major construction projects still needing to be done. Mechanically, things are in working order and seem to be working optimally. After twenty-one years of living in our home, it was finally the sort of house we wanted to live in. So of course we must put it on the market, move somewhere else and start the whole process again!

Since last month there have been all sorts of changes, mostly superficial. It’s mostly superficial because mostly what we have been doing is cleaning, sorting and disposing. The guy at Goodwill receiving is starting to recognize my face. Our trashcan typically overflows on collection day.

But there have been other changes of a more substantive nature. The bathroom in the basement has a new floor, and the sink was ripped out and a new pedestal sink was put in its place. The project included disposing of a dead mouse found in the old vanity and adding new baseboards, not to mention spending about a thousand dollars for a floor guy, plumber and various materials. The exterior of our house, which included significant dirt and mildew, is freshly power washed and shiny. It’s the first time I sprung for such a luxury, and I probably never would have done it had we not planned to sell the house. There is mulch around the trees and bushes for the first time in years. The garden is weeded and mulched as well. We’re creating curb appeal.

As for the inside, much work remains. The ugly carpet in the basement, dirty in spite of a recent professional cleaning and impossible to get out rust stains, will form the pad for the new carpet when it gets installed in during November. First our daughter has to vacate. Her college furniture takes up the family room in the basement, so new carpet must wait. However, the estimator warned us that the new carpet wouldn’t fit under the doors in our basement. Suddenly there was a new project: shaving the underside of ten doors in the basement. This was very daunting without the circular saw I didn’t have. Fortunately, my ex-boss came to the rescue and loaned me her circular saw. Over five hours, with the smoke detector frequently chirping because of all the sawdust in the air, I cleanly trimmed three quarters of an inch off the bottoms of all of them.

All the above though is easy compared with the cleaning kitchen project. We’ve been plugging away at it off and on and every time we thought it was done there turns out to be more to do. I also realized to my embarrassment that in the fifteen years since it was remodeled, we had never really cleaned it, although the floor has been replaced twice.

Oh, the floors, cabinets and countertops have been swept, washed and sanitized many times. But the cabinets were stuffed with crap that had been shoved in them over the years. The refrigerator was rarely cleaned and the coils on the back even more rarely dusted. Our goal was to have a truly clean and decluttered kitchen. After about four weeks of work, it’s nearing that stage. Some touch up items like painting the windowsills will have to wait.

Cleaning the kitchen was at times a truly disgusting experience. Waste goes into a hidden kitchen trashcan you pull out, but of course stuff spills out. Fluids leach down the inside of the cabinet and all sort of crumbs and crap make their way to the back of the cabinet which are hard to see even with the kitchen lights on. There are shelves of stained plastic ware, most that don’t match anything. In them we found sipper cups our daughter used more than twenty years ago and a plate celebrating the bicentennial in 1976.

Cleaning out the pantry was another archeological expedition. It’s amazing how much shelf space you have if you take the time to read the box to see if the product expired. There were items purchased in 2000 still sitting in the pantry! And when was the last time we had cleaned the pantry shelves themselves? That would be never, not once in twenty-one years. Everything came out, was inspected and much of it was discarded. Heavy detergents attempted to clean the shelves and walls. There were ten-year-old ant traps in the corners and small blocks of drywall where someone had snaked telephone wire.

We recently acquired a probably illegal recording of the first episode of the new season of Downton Abbey. Much of life in the abbey centers on the kitchen where the cooking and cleaning never stop. That’s pretty much the way it has to be if you want a truly clean kitchen. Someone could be in our kitchen twenty-four hours a day endlessly sweeping, cleaning, disinfecting and sorting and it would never actually be clean and orderly. At best you create the illusion.

The kitchen is the most egregious example, but each room is similar to it, just smaller in magnitude of effort. It all must be made to look, well, unlived in, so we can present it to some prospects and convince them to take out a thirty-year mortgage to acquire it. That’s so we can pocket the equity in the house and use much of it to buy another one. I can say from experience that whoever cares for this house after we leave will definitely find it both a second job and like having a second child. Keeping it clean, or even just picked up, will be a never-ending task. Good luck with that.

All these years we squirreled away stuff to give our house the appearance of looking reasonably orderly, but it was all just a façade. The engineer in me though likes the idea of complete cleanliness and orderliness. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. In retirement, I thought, I’d finally have the time!

It was my delusion. I hope our house sells quickly and I hope our new home quickly acquires that lived in, somewhat cluttered look quickly. While I dislike the idea it’s apparently what I am capable of. Only the very rich with a large full time staff like those on Downton Abbey can actually live this reality. For the rest of us, it’s best to face it: there is not the time in the day, even in retirement, to maintain this level of orderliness.

 
The Thinker

Gasping for breath

Age is catching up with my father. At nearly age 88, his mind is willing but his body is not always capable of keeping up. This was obvious to me when we visited him a few weeks ago. We shuffled off to one of the local dining establishments in his oversize retirement community, and shuffle we did, well to the rear of other pedestrians. My father can no longer run. He can still walk, but he is limited to shuffling. To not find myself bounding ahead of him, I slowed my walk to an unnaturally slow gate. I am hardly moving yet I heard him panting and gasping for breath next to me. He’s not on oxygen but it’s easy to imagine a time not too distant when there are oxygen tubes going up his nostrils and he is carrying an oxygen supply with him wherever he goes.

Dad has COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a fancy way of saying his lungs are slowly dying and so, by extension is he. For men who make it to his advanced age (and most of his peers have long been planted six feet under) COPD is rife. It’s not hard to find people wheeling oxygen canisters down the hallways at Riderwood. COPD is the third largest cause of death in the United States. It’s hard to say exactly how my father developed it, but there were decades when he spent much of his day coughing, hacking and incessantly clearing his throat. Fortunately, he never smoked, but COPD has a lot in common with smokers’ diseases like emphysema. It destroys or plugs with mucus the linings of the lung where blood and air meet, where oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide gets vented. This means you breathe less deeply, and even if you can breathe more deeply, less oxygen will get into the bloodstream.

Dad walks not just slowly, but is also stooped. He does not require a cane or walker, but those may come in time. He can bound up steps first thing in the morning but he tires easily. He and my stepmother spent a night with us recently. Both had issues going down thirteen steps to our guest room. In my stepmother’s case, it was due to her knee replacement, which lets the knee bear weight but without the agility she is used to. And the joint does hurt. Steps need to have firm handrails and not be too high. In my father’s case, it’s due to shortness of breath. Movement is done slowly when it is done at all.

My father has always been blessed with an unquestioning faith and an ability to accept fate without sinking into depression. He accepts that he has COPD, but until I looked up the details I was unaware that it was progressive and (assuming something else does not kill you first) will literally be the death of him. He takes each day as it comes, but you can tell he is struggling. Some part of his happiness is for show. He has always imparted life lessons and as he nears his nineties he is still providing some. The latest one seems to be to not look too far ahead and to take each day for the blessing that it is.

He doesn’t require a wheelchair at airports but seems to accept that it is a good thing to ask for one. The walks to gates and between concourses are long. And travel he must, at least he feels he has to. His only sibling, a younger sister, is losing her memory. She is currently in assisted living with her husband in northern California. He and my stepmother spent the night with us because they still drive, but not at night, and we live close to the airport. They will navigate the Capital Beltway, but only during non rush hours. And it’s my stepmother who usually does the driving, being six years his junior. They can do things the rest of us can do, but just barely. Every week makes their expansive life look like it will shrink a bit. It is likely not too long before they will give up cars altogether and except for rare and chaperoned trips out, retired life will be lived wholly within Riderwood. At some point, my father is likely to die there, or at a nearby hospital.

So an airline trip to San Francisco, then a commuter flight to the city where his sister is at, is a major logistical challenge. My stepmother is there for an important reason: to keep my father safe. She still has her wits about her and unlike my father is not likely to nod off repeatedly during games of Scrabble. With a sound sleep my father can navigate life. Add the stress of flying across the country, shuttling between airplanes and carrying suitcases and it becomes problematic. Also problematic: the chance of contracting something while traveling. A few years ago while visiting his sister he ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. He arrived home a week later than planned. Even then he was fortunate to have my stepmother, then just his girlfriend, to be there and to make sure he received appropriate care.

I keep my fingers crossed for him. Although not a praying man, I feel the need to pray for him. My father has always been such a gentle soul, with series of caretakers like my mother around to support him when life might cause his to slip on the sidewalk cracks. There are far worse ways to die than from COPD, so perhaps it is something of a blessing. He’s unlikely to lose his mind to dementia like his sister. He is unlikely to find his body a neurological mess like my late mother. He probably won’t have to suffer from chronic pain, like my wife spends much of her life. He deserves to keep his mind intact until the end, and it still is intact, although it seems to be running at a slower clock speed.

Meanwhile, with every labored breath I can’t help but reflect on how much time he has left with us and how much I will miss my gentle role model of a man and a father when he is irretrievably gone from us.

 
The Thinker

Readying for another adventure

So how is the retirement thing going, Mark? It’s been about a month since I retired. Is retirement boring? Stressful? Did it feel like jumping out of an aircraft without a parachute? Does it feel surreal? Am I ready to divorce my wife because we are sharing the days, nights and the same house pretty much all the time? I may have all of these feelings in time, but at least so far it’s going great and as for my wife, she’s proving surprisingly companionable.

Starting retirement off with a vacation was probably a smart move. It put a bookend on one part of my life and another bookend on another part of it. Coming home proved that while we may be retired, it’s not like our lives still don’t have their struggles. There was a refrigerator that died on us while we vacationed, which meant more days eating out of a cooler and cleaning out a super stinky refrigerator. Trust me, you’d prefer to change baby’s diapers for a year. And our house was broken into as well during our absence. It helps to be on beta-blockers. You can take the news like this without skipping a heartbeat or feeling the hair raise on the back of your head. Yet all this seems minor compared to the pleasure of waking up every day pretty much when I want to and knowing I won’t have a high pressure job to deal with everyday. That’s now SEP: someone else’s problem.

Our schedule is hardly blank. There are doctors’ appointments, meetings with realtors, events related to the church that I attend and the big one: fixing up the house. Yet despite these things, the main thing I notice is the absence of much in the way of stress. The first Friday back from vacation I had to go to the grocery store to buy some essential foodstuffs for the cooler. I was a bit bleary eyed at 8 AM because the cops were in our house until about midnight asking questions about the break in and gathering evidence. Sitting in my car at the entrance to our main thoroughfare I observed a long parade of cars coming down the street. It’s a Friday morning and likely all but a handful were on their way to work. However, I was on a short trip to the Food Lion. It seemed surreal that I could slip out to the store instead of dashing off to work. I’d read my email that morning, but it would be my personal email, not the fifty or so emails that a few weeks earlier would have waited me at work, all of which would have to be read carefully and some of which would require careful diplomatic responses.

Someone else’s problem.

No leave requests to approve. No employees to give me grief. No major milestones a year or two out to try to shoot at with the usual inadequate resources. No problematic management to deal with. Yet there were a few downsides. No more soup and salad from the cafeteria at lunch, and no view of the Shenandoah Mountains from my fifth floor office. Instead, I have a nice view of my backyard and the mostly empty looking houses of my cluster, empty because the occupants are out earning a living and I am on a pension.

For the first time in many months, I am home when the lawn crew comes by. I hear the mail carrier arrive. In the morning as I ingest breakfast I hear the cicadas, and even with the windows shut the sound is nearly deafening.

There are plenty of things to do, but we take them mostly on our own schedule. It includes teaching one class on Tuesday nights, a “job” I don’t need but I am happy to do and look forward to. Some of them I outlined a few posts back. I used to time appointments for my alternate Friday off, or late and early in the day. Now I time them for the middle of the day, when there is no rush hour to deal with. During rush hour it can take half an hour just to drive five miles. Without the rush hour, it’s about five minutes.

Instead of seeing the inside of the U.S. Geological Survey most weekdays, I’m about as likely to see the inside of the Lowes instead. Because when you are fixing up a house to sell it, you often need some of this and some of that, and it’s generally readily available at Lowes or Home Depot, and the Lowes is closer. The salespeople and cashiers are starting to look familiar, and despite its super size I am starting to find stuff on the first try, instead of wandering haphazardly up and down the aisles.

I like to think I’m a great software engineer, or at least a great manager of software engineers. Over ten years with the energy of the terrific team I led, we increased traffic on the web site I managed 615%, and put up a new site that got 190M page requests last year. Absent a large seismic event, these sites got more traffic than the USGS Earthquake site and at least anecdotally more traffic than any U.S. Department of Interior web site. Now, I am trying to master my new role of home handyman. Putting up a new screen door showed me that I’m not very good at it. When I discovered that replacing the floor to a bathroom would require removing our toilet, I decided to leave that to a professional. Still, most of these tasks are just challenging enough to give me some modest feeling of satisfaction. They can be done in a day or a couple of days, instead of the years it takes to put up a new highly trafficked real-time web site.

Instead of creating project plans with Microsoft Project, my new planning tool is a Google Docs document, a bunch of indented bullets all pointing to the goal of selling a house and moving into a new one. I strike through tasks as I finish them, and constantly add tasks I hadn’t thought of. With luck in six to nine months they will all be checked off, our life will be fundamentally rearranged and we’ll be relocated somewhere near Easthampton, Massachusetts.

One task on the list is to relocate our 24-year-old daughter first, currently camped in the bedroom she has inhabited for most of the last 21 years. Her apartment is leased and she will move in October. Tonight, she and my wife are sorting through stuff in her bedroom, for she has accumulated her own hordes of stuff over the years. She too has to reassemble her life. She has to start real life, and that involves charting her own life no longer tethered to the financial floor that we have provided.

Life is about change. Retirement should feel scary. It triggers image of old guys in shorts and white socks halfway to their knees holding on to walkers with tennis balls on the front. But it’s not about that at all. I am 57 and these days I am still considered middle age. This first stage of my retirement is about moving on and changing the scenery of my life. It’s about growing again, somewhere new, somewhere nice. It’s about a new journey.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I feel like I am ready for another adventure.

 
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

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.

 
The Thinker

The countdown

I haven’t been counting. Really.

Counting down days until I retire, that is. It’s sort of expected, like you are chomping at the bit to begin a life of leisure. It’s the natural question from colleagues at work, all of who know I am retiring at close of business on August 1st. “How many days is it?” I hear regularly. It’s either that or “Where’s your countdown clock?” Some people get so anal about it they have one on their desktop computers telling them precisely how many days, hours, minutes and seconds they have left.

That’s not to say I’m not thinking about it. I certainly am. In a lot of conversations where I voice an opinion, I chime in, “but of course it won’t matter to me after August 1st.” A colleague in another office messaged me today. “Sixteen days,” she told me. Really? I hadn’t known. But since I was forced to run the numbers I realized she was off. Since I work a 5/4/9 schedule, I have tomorrow off, and two weeks hence I’ll have that Friday off as well. Which means fourteen workdays left.

I’m keeping busy trying to check out. I’m in middle management and run a national system, this one and that one to be specific (two different aspects of the same system, really), but only through August 1. Disgruntled employees of retirement age can simply retire abruptly and let those behind clean up the mess. That’s not my style. The engineer in me would not permit it, but this engineer is also pragmatic. I realize I can’t leave everything neat and tidy. In the ten years I have been working for USGS, a great place to work, by the way, my job has never been neat and tidy. Middle management never is. It’s about managing the chaos and herding the cats, and I have quite a team of talented but peculiar cats to herd. Mostly, at least in my case, it’s more about triaging the chaos and trying, however incrementally, to make systems and processes work in a more ordered manner. There is so much stuff to do that neither you nor your staff can possibly do it all. After a year or so on the job I realized that while I could be ambitious, I had to be realistic. My accomplishments, such as they were, could not be done on a fixed schedule, but would be spread out over many years. And being a manager, they would be accomplished by others. Mostly what I did was herd the cats. It’s that part of my job that I will gleefully give up. I love them all, but herding cats is hard work and arguably someone with better people skills can do a better job of it.

I certainly have an appreciation for middle management now. In many ways it’s where the real work gets done. Executives get to set goals. Those in the trenches get to dig them. Middle managers have to sweat through the murky business of turning goals into reality, as they are entrusted with resources (people and money) to make real things happen in the real world, but never close to enough of them. It’s challenging and pretty good paying work, but it is also draining. When earlier this year I realized I could retire this year with essentially no loss in income over my planned retirement in 2015, it became easier to say yes to retirement. I could another year wading through the middle management slosh, but there was little point.

So this is Entry #1 in a retirement journal of sorts, a prequel perhaps to set the stage. I know what I have to do before I retire. I have to give my employees a final performance appraisal. That’s always challenging since many employees take an assessment of how they do against some business goals as a certification of self worth, when it’s really just business and has nothing to do with how I think about them as people or professionals. It is tempting upon retirement to give them with a higher rating than they deserve. But that would simply make things more challenging for my successor. I don’t plan to do that. It’s also unethical. My last boss Susan trained me well on that.

Beyond that, any effort I give toward my job is in some ways optional, because getting fired at this point is pretty much impossible, short of downloading child porn at work or something. Yet I plug away as if I will be doing this work forever, trying to maintain all my old habits, enjoy my work and revel in these last weeks of life in the office. We have a release to get out in a few weeks, hopefully before I officially retire, which was one reason I chose August 1st to retire. So with luck and hard work my team and I can check off that one. As for the stuff this team will have to do next year, which is supposed to be planned this year, I managed to jump through all the daunting travel hurdles to get one last meeting of my team last month to do the planning. This involved multitasking because I had another team of testers from out of town in an adjacent conference room testing.

There were other larger issues I did not want to leave to my successor, and for a while they will have “acting” in their titles. I brainstormed with my boss on who will act for me when I retire. We pondered the usual candidates inside the team and outside it. I was noncommittal on my preference. Their pick was from inside my team, but it only occurred after many meetings and nagging them like I was a henpecked wife, something that does not come naturally to me but which I learned was necessary skill for a middle manager who actually wanted to get things done. The other major problem was the looming crisis in project management, with one project manager about to retire and the official team lead detailed elsewhere for about three years. I found a logical candidate inside my team who I had mentored. Between them and the operations leader they will have to steer the ship until the next captain comes aboard.

I’ve also been working on transition notes. They will help those acting for me, but will be more useful for my permanent replacement, assuming he or she gets them. I won’t officially care once I am off the payroll, but I’ll make sure my boss gets them while I am on the payroll. He can figure out what to do with them, if anything.

It’s been a great ride steering this national system for ten years, but it’s past time to move on. Upon my actual retirement there will first be an eleven-day vacation. When I get back, I won’t be wholly unemployed. I have some consulting I can do as clients demand and interest allows. I won’t be starving in any event, so it’s something I can mostly pick up or put down as fancy takes me. I don’t want to become socially disengaged. I will teach one course on Tuesday nights at the local community college.

When not doing that, there are things to do to our house to prepare it to sell next spring. And daily walks and/or bike rides to accomplish. And I hope to see movies on discount days. I am not eligible for most senior citizen discounts, being just 57, but I can get a discount on coffee at McDonalds (a perk when you turn 55). Perhaps I will make that a weekly habit, as my parents did for many years, just to get out of the house.

Keep reading in the weeks, months and years ahead to learn how this goes. I should have a lot more time to blog in general, and it certainly won’t all be about retirement. I am hoping with the bulk of my professional life behind me, I’ll have time to breathe and blog more.

 
The Thinker

Revel in this perfect day

I posted on Facebook yesterday that there is a God because he/she/it gave us the perfect day yesterday. My crazy cousin Ken chimed in, “What about the crap days? Does that mean there is a Satan?” My response: “Either that or God is a schizophrenic.”

Whatever. When a perfect day comes along, you have to be outside so by midmorning I found my excuse to stop working (I was working from home) and walk through the neighborhood. The humidity was low. The skies were nearly clear with a deep shade of blue. There were pockets of puffed cumulus clouds here and there. The winds were moderate but not brisk allowing sweat, if there were to be any, to swiftly disappear. This has been a late spring for us, with a winter that seemed to refuse to quit. Usually by the end of May it feels pretty much like summer here in Northern Virginia. But yesterday and today as well, it feels very much like the perfect spring day I’ve always wanted but so rarely get around here.

The leaves are all out now, largely untouched by acid rain. There has been so much rain these last six weeks that the grass is thick and lush. The lawnmowers have been kept very busy. The highway department simply can’t keep up with the mowing. Most medians have grass nearly two feet high, in some cases blocking the views of incoming traffic. Many of the streambeds are eroded from all the rain, but the rain has subsided enough where nearby Horsepen Run Stream Valley Park was down to running gently, with just a ripple of current on its surface. Strangers on the path smiled and nodded as I passed them. Walking was invigorating. It was one of those days that you realize that makes up for all those other sub-optimal days. If every day could be like yesterday, I would be a happy man. In fact, it would be paradise.

Except, as I suggested on Facebook, God has a schizophrenic nature. Most days in Los Angeles are sunny and clear, perhaps with a heaping of haze and ozone, so how could they be that special? Here in Northern Virginia we tend to get real weather, in that it tends to change a lot. Summer is generally the exception. During the summer it tends to stay unremittingly hot and humid, sometimes dangerously so. Some weeks you don’t care venture outside because the air quality is so poor. There are times during July that you want to move to Miami to escape the heat. You wonder why we don’t have palm trees. Fortunately that season tends to last roughly two months: July and August. May and June tend to feel on the edge of summer, with many days drifting into summer. Our unusual winter though also produced an unusual spring that started later and reminded me of springs I knew when I lived in upstate New York. If the weather could reliably be like this during the spring I’d be happy not to move to more northern latitudes.

Perfect days are ephemeral and thus must be appreciated, and I certainly appreciated it yesterday. Even the pollen count was down, with just a tiny sheen of pollen on my windshield in the morning. It was a day to open the windows and feel connected to the planet. It meant hearing the wind for a change, the feet of the bird scampering across the roof of our deck as well as more manmade noises like airplanes taking flight from Dulles Airport a few miles to our west. It meant smelling the air, and the air was laced with a mixed floral scent that was intoxicating.

Yes, God probably is a schizophrenic, as our weather is such a mixed bag, much of it not optimal and most of it downright annoying. No wonder we tend to prefer to be inside. We get it all from 104 degree heat with killer air pollution to -1 degree bone chilling extreme winter days. We get tornadoes, regular thunderstorms (often severe) from spring through the fall, and sometimes in the winter. We even get hurricanes although by the time they make it this far inland they are usually downgraded to tropical storms, and the damage is usually from water instead of wind. God tends to be most destructive by hurling lines of thunderstorms at us, occasionally with a tornado or two thrown in. It brings down power lines, puts people in the dark and shuts off their air conditioning. God likes to tease us with snowstorms that usually devolve into snow showers that don’t even stick to the pavement. For humor every few years he will throw a massive snowstorm at us that will bury us in two or more feet of snow, sometimes back to back. If you live in the mid Atlantic area, change is likely to be your only constant weather pattern. The weather rarely stays the same for long, except in July and August, which simply must be endured, largely indoors. The more sanguine of us, particularly in neighborhoods where power lines are not buried underground, keep generators and ten gallons of gasoline in reserve to get through power outages. We Washingtonians really resent being uncomfortable.

But happily there are still days like yesterday when God gives you a delicious respite and reveals his majesty. You must take these days when they are given and spend them to the extent you can outside. You must give into its sensuality, knowing it will be short-lived. Find a shady spot under a tree facing into the wind, close your eyes and feel the steady wind course through your nostrils. Feel such an intimate tactile, olfactory and aural connection with your planet. Feel it, hold it in your memory and come back to it often on those days when nature is not so beneficent. It’s why it is good to be alive.

 

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