Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Gaithersburg thirty years later

Some places where you live will haunt you. Some you will cherish nostalgically. Some places will leave only vague memories. Some places you will live in for a long time and still never feel attached to it. Gaithersburg, a city on the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Montgomery County was a place I called home for six years (1978-1984), five in the same apartment shared principally with a guy called Randy who kept his distance.

Gaithersburg was my transition place. It is where I transitioned from college graduate to someone with a career. It was a place where I pondered my single status and eventually left to live with the woman who would become my wife. It was a place that felt sort of comfortable because it was suburban and up north. It was also uncomfortable, because for a few years at least I was among the working poor there.

I had visited Gaithersburg briefly about ten years ago with my friend Tim. Tim and I had shared a year or so as retail drones at the local Montgomery Ward. Last Friday, I visited it again. As I toured the city and my old neighborhood, I had the not terribly upsetting feeling that I was visiting this “home” for the last time.

Maybe that’s the way it goes with places you live while in transition. By definition transition is transient, even if you stay there six years. Transition by its nature is also uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable in Gaithersburg. It was a largely lonely and friendless time. It would not last forever. My brother Mike moved in and out of the area as he tried to complete school without quite the resources to do so. DC’s strong job market allowed him to accumulate some cash to buy more semesters in Blacksburg, Virginia. Once I had moved to Reston, Virginia across the Potomac my sister Mary and her husband came to the area. Much later my parents would also arrive too. None of them chose to live anywhere near Gaithersburg.

It’s good not to get too attached to place, because the apartment I lived in is gone. Apartments are ephemeral housing. It got the wrecking ball to put in upscale apartments and condos along East Diamond Avenue instead. The new apartments look terrific, and something I would not have been able to afford back then. They are also mostly not rented yet, but doubtless will be rented in time. Across the street is a MARC commuter train station. Likely there are convenient buses that will take residents to the Shady Grove metro station a couple of miles away too. It’s thus gotten easier to live carless in Gaithersburg, but most residents will still want one. The Sam’s Club, next to what was my old Montgomery Ward store, is a couple of miles away. The nearest Giant is probably too far to walk to.

Downtown Gaithersburg is trying to blend the tired with the new urban chic. Historic building includes many of the storefronts along Diamond Avenue that I remember, including the Diamond Drugs at the corner of East Diamond and Summit Avenues. New urban chic includes many three or four story apartments/condos with brick facades, and small businesses like Subway on the street level that now are prominent in this “downtown”. It’s not quite like Paris, but it is something of a third-rate imitation. Missing for now are some of the other urban amenities typically found in these places: a theater and upscale dining. Perhaps they will come in time.

Patches of this new urban chic don’t really blend in well with the tired and fading suburban houses just blocks away. It’s probably a step in the right direction for keeping the city’s coffers full. It was not needed to color up the town. Thirty years ago of course it was principally white. Since then, Asians have discovered Montgomery County in large numbers, and they are much in evidence in Gaithersburg. It’s not just the well-educated Asians that also have discovered the city, but the less educated ones as well. I found them inside my old Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Perry Parkway and North Frederick Avenue, looking like they were probably mostly from Pakistan.

Returning to my old store, where I survived at just above the minimum wage, was not in the least bit nostalgic, just sad. Tim and I were newly minted college-educated men without better prospects at the time. We were appalled by the low pay, high turnover and bad working conditions. We surreptitiously sounded out fellow disgruntled employees about unionizing the place. We never got too far. Management kept an eye on us. Tim went for other opportunities and I eventually followed him. I’m not sure I would be a federal employee without Tim’s help. He figured out how to do it.

In any event the same haunted and basically impoverished faces were still there, just with no Montgomery Ward logo facing North Frederick Avenue and the faces of its employees were almost all colored now. The store is now mostly split between a Toys ‘R Us and a Burlington Coat Factory. A Ford Dealership is renting the old auto bay. At least that still retains its original use. And you can rent trucks there now too. The lot of retail workers looked as shoddy and ephemeral as they were thirty years earlier, if not worse. In real dollars, the minimum wage buys even less today.

I wandered both stores, remembering what was, not really mourning it (Wards had its demise coming) but sad that these new retailers were no better than the Montgomery Ward that preceded it. In one sense they were better: they had more customers on a Friday afternoon than I remembered. The interior of my old store was mostly unrecognizable. The snack bar windows had been bricked up. Only two things inside looked familiar: the creaky escalators and the dropped ceiling tiles, many absent, laid some forty years earlier and that the owners couldn’t bother to replace.

You would think some stores would have survived thirty years. Except for the Diamond Drugs, not much remained. Retail comes and goes. You would think that McDonald’s might still be across the street, but it was now a Boston Market. The McDonald’s relocated across the street. The People’s Drug Store had long ago been converted into the ubiquitous CVS. Suburban Bank, where I had an account, is now a Bank of America. Only at Lakeforest Mall to the east did I find two retailers that had survived thirty years largely intact: a JC Penny and Sears. Sears though isn’t doing too well. It may not be there in a couple more years.

The Sam’s Club just to the north of my old store was new to me, but simply made me feel more depressed. The chain is Walmart’s answer to Costco; it doubtless had most of its employees surviving on second or third jobs, plus likely food stamps too. Fortunately, Costco has also come to Gaithersburg, and could be found a bit past Montgomery Village Avenue to the north. Doubtless the dour faced employees in the Burlington Coat Factory I noted were hoping Costco would hire them. Costco pays employees a living wage.

But the cost of housing certainly had to be more in real dollars in Gaithersburg than I remembered. I could rent a cheap apartment for $380 a month in 1979, and shared with two people it was sort of affordable, even though it still took nearly two paychecks just to pay my half of the rent. I had no idea where these workers lived now. It was probably best not to know.

Gaithersburg still felt transient. I chose to live in Reston because it at least felt like a destination. There were bike paths, ponds, lakes and woods. Gaithersburg was just more unevenly dense, a city by charter, but a place lacking a soul. The city appears to be hoping it can build one downtown. Perhaps it will spread up and down North Frederick Avenue, but it seems unlikely. Route 355 seems destined to remain forever a forty-mile long strip mall.

Feeling melancholy, I decided not to dwell there too long. Soon I was high tailing it down the interstate and across the Potomac toward home.

 
The Thinker

R.I.P. Arthur Belvedere Dent, 2003-2014

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.

Valjean
“Bring them home”
From the musical Les Miserables

Eight years to the day after we put our cat Sprite to sleep, today our cat Arthur also went to that great big clover patch in the sky as well. It’s like the gods are trying to tell us something.

Arthur

Arthur

Like most of these feline-human relationships, the end, when it came, came rather abruptly, although not unexpectedly. Arthur Belvedere Dent (usually it was just “Arthur”) had been a kitty in decline for more than a year. Like most cats with a terminal condition, he soldiered on with life, likely in discomfort and pain but mostly without obvious complaint. It’s hard to know exactly what his condition was, but lots of cats die from tumors or inflammation of their digestive tracks, and it was likely he had at least one of those. The only surprise with Arthur was that he was taken from us while relatively young. We were told he was three years old when we got him in 2006, but likely that was just a wild estimate, as stray cats don’t come with birth certificates. Our cat Squeaky made it to seventeen; her brother Sprite nearly hit 20 before he passed on. Shorter lifespans is part of the problem with many strays, not to mention purebred cats. That seems to have been true with Arthur.

Sprite, as I expressed in a moving eulogy after he passed away (and which still usually gets a couple of hits a day) was an angel. I will never be as bonded to a cat as I was to Sprite. I don’t dance, but somehow Sprite and I could dance together. We understood each other intuitively and bonded in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Arthur, on the other hand, was my son.

It’s true that I called Sprite my son too, but Arthur earned the title. I don’t have a son in real life, so I look for substitutes. The only substitutes close at hand are male felines in the house. While I have never had a son, I understand what a father-son relationship should feel like. Sons generally respect their father, but they are still very much apart from their father. That’s the way it was with Arthur. We loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company, but we could not dance together. However, we could enjoy our time together and we did.

Strays are hard to socialize so unsurprisingly Arthur was too. It took a year, but he settled down. It finally occurred to him that this was his home, and we weren’t going to get rid of him so he could stop peeing in the vents and running away from strangers. One of our most memorable times with Arthur was when we brought him home after his first visit to the vet. He was totally floored. He was back to the same place and he told us all about it. He was not a particularly vocal cat, but that day he certainly was. If a cat could show joy, Arthur showed joy that day. Trips to the vet were never fun, but they got easier as he aged. He knew he would always come home. Well, at least until today.

Those of us who have cats love them because they are like fingerprints. They often look alike, particularly the ubiquitous tabbies like Arthur, but none are alike and each will project personalities that are distinct. If you find people interesting, it’s hard not to find cats interesting as well. While they cannot speak a word of English, somehow you know pretty well what they are feeling and what they are saying. Purrs usually give away how they are feeling.

As cats go though, Arthur was a simple kitty. He liked his humans (us), could warm to the occasional stranger but mostly kept his distance from them. He didn’t expect that much out of life except some amusement from his humans, a place to sit in the sun and when the weather was warmer, access to our screened in deck. There in safety he could bliss out in the sun, let the wind waft through his fur, or let the local birds and squirrels keep his attention. There was something about the tall tree next to our house that held his attention when he was on the deck.

He had to be taught to sit on laps but enjoyed it once he got the hang of it. Once the inflammation started in his tummy though, lap sits were too uncomfortable. Life became simpler: endless days on the top of the cushy chair behind the ottoman in our TV room, with a prime view of the outside including our comings and goings. It meant daily shots from my wife, which he hated and consequently meant that he grew to distrust her. It meant us finding ever more creative foods that he might actually eat; otherwise he was doomed to waste away. Toward the end we went through many variants of Fancy Feast, verboten to most cats whose owners listen to their vets, but for cats with a limited lifespan, why not? He mostly ate the Fancy Feast mixed with baby food (with meat) in it. He seemed to like the baby food part the best. It was gentler on his stomach. Still there was lots of diarrhea, an inability to sit comfortably due to the inflammation, and awkwardly stumbling up and down stairs to his kitty boxes with his legs abnormally splayed. Since he wasn’t absorbing much food, more food became very important. He would let us know about it when we came near the kitchen, and would wait patiently in the kitchen until someone fed him. The telltale sign of his health, his unusual tail that curved up behind him, disappeared some eighteen months ago and never returned. That was our first clue we had a sick kitty.

With the help of our vet we gave him a pretty good quality of life in spite of these issues. We probably got a year more of his company thanks to special foods and medicines. We knew it could not last forever. Today his life abruptly came to an end. After I went to work our daughter found him on the floor unable to move his front left leg, and howling in pain. This brought me home from work to assess the situation. It was clear that this was the end. He tried awkwardly to move with one good paw and two ineffectual back legs. It didn’t work. He twisted himself up like a pretzel. The time had come. All we could do is minimize his pain.

A quick assessment by the vet confirmed our diagnosis: there was no good quality of life left. It was time. They gave him a tranquilizer while we petted him. It definitely calmed him down to the point where he seemed dead. His eyes lost focus and the edges looked black. We said we loved him, stroked him continuously, made sure to watch him and then let them take him from us. It was not the ideal way for him to go, but it didn’t last that long. He went we believe knowing that he was loved.

Particularly during his decline I made a point of going by his spot behind the ottoman several times a day and spending time petting him and talking to him and assuring him that we loved him. And he always purred. My message was consistent and loving. All you can really do is love your pet to the extent you can. And then on one heartbreaking day, you have to let them go.

It’s the yin and yang of owning a pet. There is the joy of having a pet, and the sorrow of putting them down. It has to be this way, it’s not fair but it is what it is. I can’t read my son’s mind, but I do believe he knows he was loved, and he was, very dearly. This father sure has had his share of heartache today, putting down his adopted son.

Rest in peace, Arthur. And thank you for seven and a half years of gentle love and heartfelt genuineness. I told you a million times that I love you and will always hold you in my heart. I still do and I always will.

Love,

“Dad”

 
The Thinker

Dear deer

Dear deer,

It looks like I’ve spent a lot of money trying to make our lawn look nice so you can enjoy a nice salad bar at my expense. Chomp away, guys. That’s expensive grass that you are nibbling at, as evidenced by the hundreds of dollars I spent on lawn services last year. At the rate you are eating it, my expensive lawn is quickly moving from beautiful to looking like hell.

Oh, don’t deny it! The evidence is overwhelming. Remember that time when we unexpectedly arrived home around midnight after seeing a show? There were five of you on our front lawn, and not one of you was the least bit intimidated by our presence. It was our flowerbed, or what’s left of it, that you seem to have been concentrating on. You just looked at us with those Bambi eyes and seemed wholly unafraid. The only thing I picked up was, “Would you turn off the garage light? We can see fine without it. Thanks.” Eventually after many loud words you ambled across the drive to the pasture across the street.

Silly me, I was figuring the neighborhood dogs were to blame. The grass all along the sidewalks in particular look largely denuded. I figured it was due to too many dogs doing their business where they shouldn’t. The official dog walking area is across the street. But then I started to notice all sorts of places in our front yard far from the sidewalks were dirt, and the prints in the dirt were unmistakable. Those were not dog prints, but deer prints.

I hadn’t noticed you before because I am normally asleep when you are out. Oh sure, I take regular walks along Horsepen Run and occasionally I will see you guys among the trees. Mostly you hide real well, although on occasion I will see a family of you pass through the trees, sometimes oblivious to the human presence around you. I’m amazed that with all the development, that any of you can survive around here. The evidence though is that you are not only surviving, but you are flourishing. Exhibit Number One: my lawn. Those hoof prints are dead give away.

My wife saw you one the morning in our backyard, chomping away at the grass back there, grass that has been dormant since last fall. A split rail fence largely encloses our backyard. No matter. I can’t get over it without ripping my jeans, but it’s no problem for you. The whole lot of you simply bounded right over it into the next yard.

I don’t get into the backyard much, but I did today for my spring clean up. And clean up you did, with new bare spots back there that I cannot wholly attribute to growing trees along the property line. And then there are the hoof prints, more evidence that you guys love my backyard as much as my front yard.

I finally have a reason to own a gun. I certainly don’t need one to protect myself from thieves or other miscreants. But you deer, on the other hand, clearly are getting out of control. It’s just curious that in the twenty years I have occupied my house, you haven’t been a problem before. Now you are making a serious mess of my yard. It’s not just me. I take regular walks through the neighborhoods around here and I can see evidence on the other lawns as well. Seriously, if you think humans have a population control problem, if left to your own devices you guys will overrun the area!

In the past there were natural predators to keep you in check, but there are no coyotes or bears around here, so you just keep breeding and breeding. A gun though would provide plenty of free venison and considering how many of you there are, I doubt you’d miss Uncle Fred too much. There is, of course, the other minor problem in that I have never hunted in my life. Moreover, while I am sure many of my neighbors own guns, none of us are stupid enough to use them in the neighborhood. I mean, we have kids playing dodge ball in the streets around here.

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. The county government is well aware of the deer problem, and the local papers have articles about the problem. In some forested areas, licensed hunters are allowed to hunt deer, but it’s a very limited sort of culling. Being that we’re all so educated, humane and stuff, to the extent we try to control the deer population, it is to shoot them not with bullets but with tranquilizers. Mostly it’s the female deer that are shot, and they get a quick little operation, and then are allowed to rejoin the herd where presumably they do not procreate anymore. It does sound humane, but I get the sense that our deer population is simply too large for such a program to have much effect on your population growth.

Perhaps there is stuff I can spray on the grass and gardens to deter you. I have heard that bear urine works pretty well. I may have to find a local bear and ask him to express some for me, but it looks like I need a lot of it. And call me suspicious, but I don’t think it will stop you from munching on my property. It apparently is just too tasty. Your eating habits plus the harsh winter has left a lot of soil erosion, so the grass is disappearing along the slope to our backyard. I figure I need to work on replacing the grass, but what’s the point if you guys are just going to nibble at it again? I am planning to move in a year or so, and I want a lush looking lawn. Who’s going to want to buy my house the way you guys are noshing at it?

So this is just a warning. I’ve checked regulations and apparently while I can own a gun or guns, I can’t actually discharge one in a residential area. (I am surprised the NRA does not call this gun control.) Archery, however, is allowed as a method for controlling deer in residential areas. I could get into that. What I need is a good crossbow. I’ll try not to scare the children however, and wait to do this until it is very dark. I’ll slip onto my porch around midnight on the pretext of stargazing or something. I’ll wait until you arrive around midnight and then cull your herd a bit. Maybe that will learn you.

I’m not into venison but I’m sure there are homeless people in the area not as particular. I don’t care how cute you look, there are way too many of you. You know it and I know it and our lawns prove it. If you value your lives, I suggest you do your dining elsewhere, hopefully deep in the woods.

You have been warned.

Mark, the pissed off human

 
The Thinker

Perchance to dream, part two

Now that I’m dreaming again, I am noticing some recurring themes. Apparently, I stopped dreaming for many years, probably for decades, due to moderate sleep apnea. Sigmund Freud would probably have a field day analyzing these dreams. Most dreams tend to be ephemeral, thus hard to remember, but some keep recurring enough or have enough emotional impact that you remember them when you are awake. Here are four for your amusement. Loss of control or rather, fear of loss of control seems to be a recurring theme in my dreams, which suggests I project an aura of certainty, which would not surprise frequent readers of this blog.

Is there a bathroom in the house?

I bet this is a very common dream. Maybe it is a condition of middle age, when your bladder is more problematic and you want some assurance that a toilet is not too far away. The dream does not vary much but the thrust is always the same: I need to go really bad, but no matter which restroom I try, I cannot get relief. Curiously, I always need to go #1, not #2 in these dreams. And so I spend inordinate amounts of dream time searching desperately for a working toilet or urinal. But they are always full. There’s either a line of guys out the door waiting to use the urinals, or the toilets are cracked, broken, or so completely filthy that even a desperate human could not possibly use them. So I go in quest of another bathroom while the problem gets continuously more acute, and each subsequent restroom has the same issues, and is often worse.

Sometimes in desperation I look for a discreet spot outside to go, but just when I think I have found such a spot and am about to expose my privates, I find that someone is observing, so no relief is possible.

Eventually my conscious mind stumbles to wakefulness and I realize that I really do have to go, and this is my body’s imperfect way of telling me this. So I stumble into the bathroom, which us middle aged men do a couple of times a night anyhow, do my business and hope the dream will not recur.

The very high cliff

Here is another dream which I believe is very common. Some say it goes back to being “weightless” in utero. Basically it involves an oops moment. Somehow I stumble off a very high cliff and fall toward the ground. I am, of course, scared out of my mind and convinced I am moments from death. The curious thing is that in real life you probably would fall to your death and be dead a few seconds later. But in the dream you never actually make it to impact, you are just incredibly scared by this total loss of control and impending total destruction. The scariness builds on top of the scariness and just goes on and on until the rational part of my brain finally kicks in, wherein I groggily awake and then do what I often do when I awake in the middle of the night: shuffle off to the bathroom because my bladder wants me to go anyhow.

The seductress

This is my favorite dream. Its downside is it never lasts long enough. It involves intimate carnal knowledge of a woman, usually much younger, who is totally hot and totally wants my body for some unexplained and irrational reason because, trust me, I’m not anyone any hot and young babe is going to pursue, even if I didn’t have the wedding ring. Like most great seductions, it seems that the most enjoyable part comes before actual carnal knowledge, i.e. the anticipation of the carnal knowledge and some sort of magic charisma I don’t actually possess. Anyhow, usually she is not only totally hot, but she is exotic, typically Asian. I find Asian women in general attractive, so I’m not surprised they often appear in my erotic dreams. Suffice to say they are not pursing me in real life. Sometimes I actually proceed to sex acts with these women, but usually it ends about the time penetration or oral sex begins, darn it.

I wish I could stay in these dreams, but unlike others like the bathroom dream where I can’t seem to get out of them, my consciousness usually quickly wakes me up with an “Oh, get real!” It’s either my consciousness or I’m tuning into my wife’s gentle snoring. In short, there is no way to actually achieve satiety in this dream. The perfect sexual experience, impossible in real life, is impossible for me in dreamland as well.

The reluctant protector

This one happened last night around four a.m. It sure was strange, so strange that I actually remembered it. I have a lot of dreams on similar themes: I am in situations I don’t particularly want to be in, and I struggle to get free but can’t quite make it free. The more I struggle, the worse it gets. This one involved kids and youth, which was weird. They were drawn to be because (a) I’m an adult (b) they see me as something like a knight in armor, i.e. a good man in a bad world. Meanwhile, all around them all sorts of bad things are happening which put them, but not me, in jeopardy. I’m not sure what these bad things are exactly, but they are pretty nasty and they need protection. So they huddle around me, latching on tightly with hands, legs, fingers, anything they can desperately, because they think I will save them. They cry out to me and drill me with their desperate and panicky eyes. And it becomes too much from me. I must get free from them so I push them off me as fast as I can, to their wailing, consternation and my feelings of guilt. Yet for everyone I manage to push off, two more latch on, so eventually there are kids five or six layers deep surrounding me, needing me, and expecting me to protect them. I simply cannot because I don’t have a free hand. All I really want is to be free of the burden and go rest somewhere, alone, in the quiet.

If there are any armchair psychologists, real or wannabees out there, feel free to tell me what these dreams mean. They must mean something as they generally recur frequently. I wish I could dream of something more entertaining for a change.

 
The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

 
The Thinker

Passing through the retirement door

Deciding to retire so far has been all about getting our financial ducks in a row. I’ve been doing this for many years. The 401K seems to be large enough. The pension looks generous enough. Our liabilities are paired down: just $35,000 remains on the mortgage, our last debt. The daughter has graduated college and thanks to us does so debt free. Today she cemented a job that looks like it will at least be reasonably interesting, tangentially related to her degree, and which pays a decent wage (with benefits). Our financial adviser is pondering my last questions about whether to announce my early retirement. The gun is loaded and my thumb is on the trigger.

I had told my boss of the moment, Dane, that I planned to retire next year. I wanted to leave with everything neat and tidy, and I figured I needed about a year to do this. It’s the engineer and the professional in me. Now, I just don’t want to wait that long. It’s increasingly clear to me that leaving things neat and tidy can’t happen. There is too much organizational change going on. Still, it’s hard for me to put my finger on a primary reason I want to retire soon. There are lots of little reasons, though, even though I am only 57.

Unquestionably, I am tired of doing my current job. I realize I peaked a few years ago. Although I met my professional goals there was never a time to rest on my laurels. It’s just more of the often frustrating business of managing people and trying to do so with increasingly smaller resources. Management and supervision pay well, but the responsibility can be crushing and you rarely make people happy. That’s because if you are doing your job right, you are instituting change, and people naturally resist change. You have to coax them, and it works for a while, but not forever.

So you figure if you want to work, it would be nice to do something you enjoy more without losing your standard of living. With retirement of course, you don’t have to work, but if you do, you have the option of something that is more part time and pays less per hour. For me that probably means doing programming again because I sure don’t want to do more management. In any event, while I greatly admire everyone who works for me, we still often rub each other the wrong way. It’s too much time together. It’s thousands of conference calls and Webex sessions over ten years. Frankly, a lot of it is due to knowing people too well, and telecommuting often exacerbates it. I figure I’ll like them a whole lot better when I no longer have a power relationship with them, and see them a lot less, like at holiday parties. They might appreciate me more too. I am sure I wasn’t the most pleasant boss or leader at times. Distance may bring us both perspective.

It will be a pleasure to forget the details of my job. Every domain is full of domain details that only make sense to those who inhabit that world. My passion is information technology; my domain is hydrology. It’s the water domain with its myriad parameters and the thousands of electronic pathways and processes that we created to bring science to the public that feels overwhelming. It takes years to be proficient where I work, not because of the technology, but because the domain is so deep that gaining proficiency resembles a medieval apprenticeship. It will be a pleasure to unload the responsibility of worrying about release agreements. I won’t have to fret about people I manage who are also about my age also about ready to retire, full of domain knowledge, but with few coming through the ranks to replace them. Republicans have decreed that government must be smaller, and in the process they are cutting the legs out from the people who must carry the organization into the future. It is so penny-wise and so recklessly pound-foolish. But soon it will also be someone else’s problem: someone likely younger, with more energy, ready to make their mark on the world, and who will hopefully build on top of the infrastructure that my team and I spent ten years working on, but never fully completed.

A lot of people are retiring in my agency. The new leadership has come in with bold ideas for the future that may work or may not. One thing is for sure: it’s not the same place. The workforce is older and smaller; the offices are mostly vacant and quiet and the office feels more like a tomb than a workplace. It whispers to me: it’s time to leave.

Yet I still wonder if retirement will actually agree with me. There is no way to know until I try it. While I won’t have my somewhat lofty position and its status, I will have freedom again. I will move from something of a minor somebody to a nobody again: Joe Citizen with time on his hands.

It’s not too hard to see my future. The future most likely includes relocation, more my wife’s idea than mine, but now I feel vested in it. We hope it will be in 2015 and it will probably be the Pioneer Valley in central Massachusetts. It’s not hard to see many cruises in our future, and vacations in Europe and elsewhere. We tend to be cat people, but somehow I see a dog in my future. This is because I’ll want to get outside a lot, and I’ll want companionship, and it probably won’t be with my spouse due to her host of medical issues. I’ll also want it because I sense I’ll want some space. Just as coworkers, however nice, can be grating when they are so often in your face, a spouse in your face 24/7 can be grating as well. So I can see working part time, consulting probably in an office in my future residence, but perhaps teaching at a local community college, largely just to be somewhere else for a part of my day. I see daily hikes around Mount Tom near Northampton, Massachusetts. I imagine myself exercising at the local gym. I picture myself attending the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence Massachusetts.

But when? Likely formal retirement won’t wait until in May 2015, my original plan. Now I am thinking I will retire this summer. I won’t leave things neat and tidy for whoever fills my slot, but I will leave with our release agreement largely accomplished and with all software tested, released and stable. I feel some responsibility to bring to a close the major activities I started. But I can’t wait that much longer. I am restless. I want to walk through that retirement door, even if it means a slightly smaller pension. I’d rather buy a year of leisure instead. I will be grateful to be able to retire so early, and have what I hope are many good years ahead of me.

Because I know it’s going to be a one-way door. The last door is the one where you exit this life. This new room will have many chambers, but it really only has one exit. The challenge will be to make the most of the time ahead of me and to do so happily and with gratitude for having the time to enjoy more of life. I just need the courage to pull that trigger.

Soon. Very soon I expect to be filing the retirement paperwork. I first want to hear from my financial adviser.

 
The Thinker

Snow rules for Washington D.C.

It’s snowing outside at my home here in Northern Virginia. It’s hard to measure the current amount of snow given the drifts, but I am guessing it is about a foot of snow and more is still falling. This makes it a major snow event for our area. This will likely the biggest such event since Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon back in late 2009 and early 2010. With our power lines underground, we’re good.

Thanks to the polar vortex, snow has not been unknown this season, although it had not arrived in substantial quantities until last night. Mostly what we’ve known are well below freezing temperatures instead. I used to wear my parka a couple of times a year. For weeks I’ve worn nothing outside but my parka, and an insulated hat, and my warmest and thickest gloves and sometimes a scarf as well. In short, it’s been a real winter, of the sort I remember from my childhood in upstate New York. It shows no sign of leaving anytime soon. The polar vortex is quite happy where it is, thank you very much.

If these events and cold weather go on long enough, it may actually change the snow culture of the Washington area. It hasn’t happened yet. There are rules and a protocol for dealing with snow that are generally unique to our area. If you are thinking of relocating to the Washington D.C. area, here is what to expect:

  • If there is a rumor of snow in the forecast, even if it is a week away, it will be Topic A around the office water cooler. It will send the local meteorologist wannabee in your office to find the most crazy and outlandish forecast, which will spread like wildfire. A chance of snow next Friday will morph into a killer supercell snowstorm because of some odd European forecast model, which professional meteorologists scorn. Guess which forecast your office-mates will believe?
  • Because of the above (or sometimes just the rumor that there might be snow in the next month) you are required to immediately rush to the store to buy milk and toilet paper. Everyone will get the same bright idea at once, which will mean that parking lots will be jammed, store shelves will empty and toilet paper and milk won’t be able to be found which will also be true of the snow. A true Washingtonian knows that even if you have a couple of months supply of toilet paper, and an extra refrigerator stashed with gallons of milk, you are still required to go buy more milk and toilet paper. It’s the rule! You can never possibly have enough, because it could be weeks before a snowplow gets to your street.
  • The federal government is required to dither about whether it will close its offices or not, leaving great uncertainty and confusion because most local governments, institutions and businesses will follow whatever the government does. The poor director of the Office of Personnel Management will get squeezed from both sides trying to call it. Taxpayers don’t like federal employees getting a paid day off and federal employees don’t like getting stuck in snowdrifts going to and from the office or for that matter, working. So the OPM chief is bound to make someone unhappy and upset. Congress will conveniently gavel their sessions to an early close so they can get out of town, while conducting hurried interviews on their way to the airport about the outrage of giving federal workers another day off with pay. In any event, there is a 50% chance the OPM director will call it wrong and a 100% chance that someone will be mortally offended and call for his removal.
  • Some Republican congressman will say that the snowstorm is proof positive that global warming is not happening. Actually, a half dozen or more of them will, but only one will make the papers.
  • The plowing rules are straightforward: when you don’t particularly need your street to be plowed it will be plowed. When you really need it, it won’t be. Our last three-incher brought the plow down our street twice during the night. Getting out of my driveway in the morning was not a problem and my street was nicely sanded with mostly bare pavement. This snowstorm likely means a couple of days before a plow arrives. They are too busy plowing the main roads that no one can get to than to bother with places where actual people live. In general, particularly in Virginia, the snow removal budget will always be underfunded assuming the most optimistic forecast for the winter and there will be great consternation when lots of snow arrives and there isn’t the money to remove the snow quickly. It’s the price of limited government and keeping taxes low.
  • Your local school district works just the opposite of the director of OPM. They want schools to close and actively look for reasons to shut the school down. No one complains except those whiny parents who probably have to work and can’t get childcare. No one in the school system gives a crap about them. A rumor of snow or ice a week away is sufficient to close schools. A temperature in the single digits, and sometimes in the teens, is a reason to close schools. Principles, teachers and students all expect lots of bogus snow days. When the year draws to an end and enough instruction days were not delivered, someone will waive the requirement to extend the school year because, duh, parents have vacation plans already!
  • Here is what you do if you see a snowflake: panic. It’s required. You are driving down a clear street and one stray flake falls from the sky. You must immediately scream and cause an accident. This is because even if you have lived in the area thirty years, you are not allowed to retain the memory of how to drive safely in snow. Even if you did somehow remember, your fellow commuters won’t, because most are newbies and previously lived in tropical environments. In any event it only takes one person who has never driven in snow before to thoroughly shut down a major artery, and it’s guaranteed that you will have plenty of those, so traffic will quickly gridlock. It will be hard to say if it is due to snow, since this is the way traffic is most of the time anyhow, but it is guaranteed if there is just a single snowflake.
  • You will eventually end up with spouse and kids all home together, and you are required to drive each other nuts. This is because it’s not normal to be all at home together at the same time.  You keep your sanity by being physically removed from each other most of the time by being at work, school, or at friends. Suddenly you are together 24/7 and you quickly will discover that while you love your family, you don’t like them. In fact, you secretly hate them, including your spouse. The longer you are housebound the worse it will get.
  • The rule on shoveling sidewalks is: every other walk is shoveled. Some will dutifully shovel in the midst of a snowstorm; some never will, including their driveway. If pressed people will create all sorts of reasons for not shoveling, including school kids will get better traction in the snow instead of on a cleared sidewalk. The lazy ones simply wait for nature to “shovel” the snow for them. Some will hope a kind neighbor to do it for them. The really clever ones keep a broken shovel as a ready excuse and, gosh darn, all the stores are closed so there is no way to get a new one.

That will do it for a starter. I am hoping to retire this year or next and we are likely to move further north. So I expect to see more snow but I also expect the streets will be plowed regularly. It will take some time to forget the Washington snow culture, but it will have me chuckling during each snowfall in retirement. Washington is a city full of eggheads who become vacuous blondes the moment a snowflake arrives. If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be very humorous.

 
The Thinker

Aruba

I’d be lying if I said I saw much of Aruba. I’d also be lying if I said I saw much of its capital city Oranjestad, except in panorama from the observation deck of our cruise ship. I did experience the shopping areas within a few blocks of the cruise terminal. A true encounter with Aruba will require a second and extended visit, not one that starts with a submarine ride out in a reef in mid morning, an hour or two in a mall near the cruise terminal in the WiFi hotspot, plus some time shopping to prove you were somewhere exotic. As far as marketing is concerned, the Aruba Chamber of Commerce at least is consistent. Their motto is “Aruba: One Happy Island”. It is hard to argue otherwise. Its logo adorns almost all the T-shirts, hats, trinkets and other stuff that goes home with tourists.

Submarine tour of coral reef and shipwreck, Aruba

Submarine tour of coral reef and shipwreck, Aruba

Of the three adjacent Dutch “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) that hug the Venezuelan coast, Aruba definitely matches your mental image of what an Caribbean island should look like. It looks a lot like Miami Beach, at least in better times with its golden and sandy beaches, aquamarine water close to shore and blue water a bit further out, palm trees lining its popular beaches (probably planted there to draw tourist traffic) and a mixture of well-moneyed tourists and residents jamming its streets. For an island of about a hundred thousand people, Oranjestad itself looks like it has more residents than that. It comes across as a large city, certainly bigger than Willemstad on Curacao. Moreover it is a stylish city. It’s easy to tell the tourists from the residents. The tourists are largely Americans or Canadians, and we are in shorts and T-shirts and our bellies precede us by a significant amount. We are also largely Caucasian. The residents frankly look a whole lot better. They are stylish and for the most part slim, mostly mixed Caribbean in the darker hues. They are not just stylish but overall they are attractive and look very healthy. It must be due to the tropical fruits that they eat. I do my best not to lear at attractive women. I was having a hard time Friday. Sorry dear, if one of these slim dark brown goddesses in high heels and slit skirts gave me a come hither look, you’d be history.

If Willemstad on Curacao is the Caribbean’s nexus, Oranjestad is its Los Angeles, minus the air pollution. In fact, residents of LA sick of the pollution might want to move to Aruba instead. It’s just as dry and sunny, and it has all its fashion with fewer of its bums and winos. And frankly, the view in pretty much every direction is satisfying for lovers of the tropics. While it lacks a tropical rainforest and much in the way of rain, it makes up for in its beaches, water, general cleanliness and general prosperity.

The ABC islands do have their language in common: Papiamento. Unsurprisingly, English is widely used in the tourist areas. One difference in Aruba is that it has its own currency. The U.S. dollar is widely used too, but the official currency is the Arubian Florin. At our other ports of call, dollars were the official currency. Shops may not accept dollars, as we found out at a local Subway, but plastic seems to work instead.

Oranjestad, Aruba near port terminal

Oranjestad, Aruba near port terminal

Aruba is clearly growing, as evidenced by the new construction near the cruise port with luxury condos under construction. As in Curacao, Americans are likely to find their favorite brands here, including two Starbucks with a couple of blocks of each other. The local mall was definitely high end. Also conveniently available are port side casinos and slow traffic on roads near the cruise port.

Oranjestad, Aruba

Oranjestad, Aruba

With its dry climate, vegetation tends to be more bush-like than tree-like. There are no mountains, but there are hills that look like mountains, sometimes poking up in relatively flat areas.

I do expect to be back to Aruba someday. If you like tropical ports of call, you will feel quite at home.

 
The Thinker

Curacao

Just to the east of Bonaire is the island of Curacao (pronounced Kew-uh-so), the biggest island of these former Dutch colonies in the south Caribbean. It is about forty miles long and averages about five miles in width. It is also likely the most vibrant: populous (it has over a hundred thousand people), prosperous and probably the place to be down here. There are four languages spoken on Curacao: Dutch, English, Spanish and the native language, which is a mixture of all of the above plus Portuguese. They borrow words from each but over the course of time many have been been bastardized. That’s a lot of languages for the populace to learn, which is why people born here have to learn all of them except Portuguese. This has some great advantages. Residents are fluent in multiple languages, probably unlike any other country on the globe. Tourists can usually speak and be understood. All that linguistic fluency also facilitates commerce. A lot of commerce passes through Curacao. It makes a compelling destination not just for tourists but for anyone passing through the Caribbean. The Middle East has Dubai. Although smaller, arguably, Curacao is the Dubai of the Caribbean: it is its center of life, commerce and culture.

Willemstad, Curacao

Willemstad, Curacao

So it’s interesting to stand at a street corner in Curacao for a while and hear the various languages spoken around you. Most of the signs are in English, although many are in Dutch and some are in Spanish. English is a practical choice for most signs because it is the world’s de facto global language and also because the oversize presence of the United States in the Caribbean. As in Bonaire, the U.S. dollar is the currency in use and it is used to price everything.

American tourists will feel completely at home in Curacao. There is a Starbucks near the cruise terminal, but also McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut and many other American brands. And yet Curacao is still exotic. Take the Punda, a shopping district along a shipping canal in Willemstad, the chief city and the country’s capital. The canal and the area around it is just a neat place to hang out. All sorts of colorful merchant houses line the canal and the area. What makes it exotic is its waterfront and its large open air vegetable market. At the Punda, you can also walk onto boats that carry vegetables and other items from Venezuela, about sixty miles away. Need something exotic, perhaps an exotic snake? Ask one of the vendors from Venezuela and they will arrange to deliver it is a subsequent port call. This is the kind of capitalism Ayn Rand would definitely approve of.

There is a landmark of sorts in Curacao: the Queen Juliana Bridge that towers well above the canal, allowing large ships to get to the Parera, something of an inland bay but mostly the site of a huge oil refinery. The refinery is just enormous and you can’t possibly miss it. You can see its plumes of smoke from the refinery and bright gas flames from its vent stacks. These put out quite a bit of refinery smoke, most of which appears to drift out to sea. If there is a downside to Curacao, it is the refinery. It is like a bit of New Jersey was plopped down into the middle of the island. Still, the refinery is impressive to look at.

Otherwise, Curacao feels a lot like home, just very tropical. There is elegant housing here. If you are a drug lord you can make yourself a nice home on a hill around here without anyone caring. All it takes is money. While still part of a larger Dutch commonwealth, Curacao is its own independent country, so it feels free to allow drug lords and offshore banks to make its home there. It certainly doesn’t feel crime ridden. It feels safe and well managed. It also feels prosperous. It has poor residents too, but they at least they get treated decently, unlike in the United States. There is good subsidized housing available and if they stay there long enough they can buy the property for bargain rates of $6,000 to $10,000 from the government. I don’t think Ayn Rand would like this aspect of Curacao. Unlike the United States, which is just now catching up, national health insurance comes are part of being a citizen too. Any citizen of Curacao is lucky to live there.

Panera in Curacao

Punda in Curacao

One other unique aspect of Curacao impressed me: a pontoon bridge that spanned the canal. It’s a pedestrian-only bridge. Most bridges have a draw bridge to allow water traffic through. This one swings horizontally. It serves a vital purpose of connecting two banks of the Punda.

We had two activities to keep us busy and which also allowed us to see much of the eastern side of the island. In the morning we visited some caves inside limestone cliffs near the airport. We have toured many caves over the years and this one was no more impressive than the last one we toured in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. However, it was usual as you had to ascend to get into it. Curacao is the result millions of years of coral reefs compression. In short, it’s made of limestone, basically compressed coral, that was slowly pushed up over so many eons. The caves were once underwater but now are well above the water.

We also took in a sunset cruise, which involved a bus trip to Caracas Bai (Bay). That area of Curacao is where the well-moneyed people and tourists live. There are lots of opportunities to enjoy life on the water. We saw sailboats and windsurfers, restaurants along the bay and five-star resorts. It looked like a good life indeed if you can afford it and you like a tropical climate. Like Bonaire, because of the coral reefs around this island, diving opportunities exist here too. The climate is about the same as Bonaire as well: dry and hot, although brisk winds today made being outside quite pleasant, despite the heat. Perhaps I missed them on Bonaire, but on Curacao it’s hard to miss the many cacti on the island.

Sunset cruise in Curacao

Sunset cruise in Curacao

Our last stop is Aruba, just to Cucacao’s west, then a two and a half day non-stop cruise back to Fort Lauderdale, and then home where record cold and snow await our return. We might just refuse to get off the cruise ship.

 
The Thinker

Bonaire

It turned out that the island of Bonaire, relatively just a spitting distance from the northern coast of South America, is not quite the Hawaii of the Caribbean as I had heard. The Dominican Republic was definitely more tropical, in the sense that it was lusher. At least in this way Bonaire is more like Hawaii: it is more prosperous. This is probably due to it being settled by the Dutch instead of the Spaniards. The official language is Dutch, the unofficial language is English and is what most people speak and what most of the signs are in. Dollars are what are in the cash registers and listed as prices, at least among the tourist areas of the city next to the cruise port, Kralendijk. You can find modest traffic jams in Kralendijk, a factor of a surplus of yield and stop signs and a lack of traffic lights, but also due to a shortage of four lane roads. It’s just at thirteen degrees or so of northern latitude. I checked on an atlas on the cruise ship and Bonaire happens to be the furthest south I have ever been, beating out even a trip to Manila in 1987.

Kralendijk, Bonaire

Kralendijk, Bonaire

At least its port city Kralendijk (really more of a neighborhood) did not come with yet another Margaritaville. In fact, I heard no Jimmy Buffet music whatsoever from shops along the tourist district. This suggested a Caribbean island with some class. There are a few chain stores on this island like a KFC, but most of the businesses seem to be one of a kind. Its small downtown strip is mostly anchored around Kava Carlos A. Nicollas Street, and includes a modest number of restaurants and boutiques. The sun rides high in the sky here, even in winter, so for us pasty white Americans it meant putting on a heavy coat of sunscreen. (We did cackle a bit learning that the temperature at home hit seventeen today and there were three inches of new snow on the ground.) Geography keeps hurricanes and a lot of rain from falling in this part of the south Caribbean. Which means that the island is at least as brown as green and tropical trees are relatively few with scrub bushes more prevalent. There are no mountains on Bonaire, but there is a hill on the north side of the island that look mountain-like due to its jagged features and lack of deciduous vegetation. The island itself is about eighteen miles long, shaped like a boomerang, and about three miles wide on average. You would expect that such a relatively flat island would be surrounded by shallow seas, but that is not the case. The beaches quickly deepen as evidenced by the densely blue seas close to shore. Getting out of the surf, as we discovered, is a bit of a challenge unless you ascend on a relatively modestly sloped spit of beach. You must also be careful when snorkeling to avoid touching the coral reefs, unless you want lacerated skin.

So Bonaire is not Hawaii, but it is quite pretty. Perhaps due to its distance from the continental United States, it seems amazingly clean and natural. Its waters are crystal clear, aquamarine in the shallower areas and deep blue elsewhere. For divers, Bonaire is something of a paradise with many healthy coral reefs to explore, mostly on the leeward side of the island. If you like proximity to the ocean, it has much to offer.

Coral Reefs, Bonaire

Coral Reefs, Bonaire

Is there industry in Bonaire? If there was much beyond the tourist business it was not obvious. Offshore banking is a big feature of many Caribbean islands. It would not surprise me if there were a few on this island too, such as we found on Grand Turk. Overall the economy is good, as evidenced by its first world standards. But overall its population is modest. We were one of two cruise ships in port. By hosting us, we had temporarily doubled the island’s population. The only other industry I noted was its salt works on the south side of the island. Grand Turk had salt works as well but it wasn’t profitable enough to remain in business, and closed in 1967. Not so in Bonaire.

Those looking for a first world place in the Caribbean to retire to should consider Bonaire. We saw houses under construction near the airport, many with private docks for owner’s boats. Given the island’s absence of hurricanes, its tropical and generally dry climate, and the prevalence of English on the island, it would make a compelling retirement destination for many Americans who want some of the benefits of Hawaii without the long flying times and higher prices.

 

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