Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

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 including 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.

 
The Thinker

Doggone it

There are cat people and dog people. Is it possible to be both? If it’s possible with any dog, it should be possible with Parker. Parker is our guest dog this weekend, a dog in a house that has always been for cats only, thank you very much. Only, we’re sans cats at the moment as our cat Arthur passed away last month. It’s likely we’ll be petless until we resettle in retirement next year. My daughter agreed to watch our friends’ George and Joann’s dog Parker. Parker, like most dogs, is very sociable. It seemed cruel to keep him home alone with a hostile cat. In addition, my wife is still grieving over the loss of Arthur. I thought having an animal in the house would be therapeutic for her. So we invited Parker over for the weekend.

Parker the guest dog

Parker the guest dog

Parker, as you can see, is 100% dog. He’s an English Setter Spaniel, something I would not know, as I can’t identify more than a handful of breeds. As dogs go, he’s an eighty-pound bundle of love. As I am considering a dog for companionship in retirement, a weekend with Parker seemed mutually beneficial. For me, Parker’s presence would help me figure out if I want a dog in my life. For a dog that dotes on companionship, it was good for Parker.

For if Parker can’t sell me on owning a dog, no dog can. We were impressed with Parker during a holiday party. He was the life of the party, happily going from person to person for attention. When he got a modicum less of attention than he felt he deserved he flitted over to the next person. Parker is a happy dog that excels in companionship. Most dogs do that, of course, but generally dogs fall into two types: the loyal dog that bonds with one and only one person (or with the family) and the indiscriminately affectionate dog. Parker is definitely the latter type, perhaps because he was a rescue dog. He will push his snout between your arm and waist to make sure you know he deserves your undivided attention. And his big brown eyes will stare deep into yours, lovingly, patiently, until you just kind of give him a hug, pet him and praise him. And then he will plead for more.

So there’s not much not to like about Parker. Still, for cat people this constant companionship thing is a bit overwhelming. There is devotional, like always going to church on Sundays, and then there is dog-devotional which amounts to “If I am awake I must be at your side.” Parker scampers up the stairs ahead of me. He anticipates walkies I don’t intend to give him. And particularly when I am eating something, he is totally enrapt watching me put food into my mouth and examining my plate. It’s because — and granted I am new to this dog thing — he is hoping I will share. Surely anyone who loves him as much as he thinks I do will share their plate, or at least some morsels, right? He is prepared to look at me with those bright brown eyes of his indefinitely until I give in. He’s got plenty of time and nothing else to do.

His attention mania is not necessarily bad, although it can be hard to type on the computer with that nose nudging me. However, dogs not only need love, they need services. Specifically, they need the outdoors for both #1 and #2, and they need it several times a day. And they need regular brushings. And teeth cleaning. And in Parker’s case, their ears periodically need to be nipped. And they often need their paws wiped before coming indoors and, if they were outside in the rain, you probably want to wipe their coat of most of the rain. They need nails trimmed and they need a human to vacuum up their excess fur. And most dogs need a deodorant or at least regular baths. They unfortunately smell of dog, an acquired smell perhaps, but not one I particularly welcome.

Me and Parker

Me and Parker

To this cat person, dogs in general seem kind of peculiar. With noses thousands of times more sensitive than ours, they are more smell-focused than visually-focused. Smells are their passion. Every dog’s urine must smell subtly different, because they are particularly focused on smelling fire hydrants and mailbox posts. Finding just that right spot to wee wee seems to be vital to dogs. I am guessing they are looking for an unused spot. Also vital is acknowledging the presence of other dogs, through general yipping. I’m not sure what they are saying exactly but I think it’s, “Hey, you’re a dog!” and the other dog yips back, “Hey, you are a dog too!” I suspect the conversation then gets into an extensive discussion on the virtues of the smells at their specific spots, and how the other dog better not be peeing on their spot. For humans like me walking the dog also gives us close encounters with dog excrement. I can’t say it’s interesting. I changed my daughter’s diapers because it had to be done. Spending ten years picking up dog poop doesn’t sound like a reason to own a dog.

I also suspect dog owners develop enormous biceps. A dog like Parker has quite a will, and he will lead me more than I will lead him. Parker can literally dig in his heels when necessary when he has found a particularly interesting spot to sniff. He takes great force to move. And he will happily run around me, leaving the leash wrapped around my legs. I assume dog owners develop an instinct on when to shorten or lengthen a leash.

But perhaps all the attention dogs require makes the relationship balanced. I can’t say that about the many cats we have had over the years. When they need to go I don’t escort the cat to their litter box. I do brush them from time to time, but it’s easy to forget and they don’t seem to mind. Granted, cats aren’t usually quite as much gluttons for attention as Parker, but some can be. Some prefer you leave them the hell alone, but will give you hell if you don’t feed them on time.

Dogs are not one-dimensional either, although I can see how it can seem that way. Parker is a love dog, but there are also excessively protective dogs. There are dogs that bark at the slightest provocation, and that includes when a speck of dust going past their noses. Some dogs whimper and whine, some expect you to feed them at five a.m. and raise hell if you don’t. And some dogs like to chew the legs of your furniture, the same way some cats like to shred your furniture. Paper-training puppies is reputedly a huge hassle and I imagine it must be challenging for a dog to learn how to time excretion to mornings and afternoons.

So I’m not sure about this dog thing, although I am willing to host Parker a few more times to find out for sure. It may be that I will prefer to do most of my walking alone with a podcast in my ear rather than escort a dog.

Today was yard sale day in our neighborhood. We brought Parker outside for part of it. It was clear to me that he was good for business, as dogs seem to attract dog people. People-friendly dogs like Parker are the equivalent to pushing around a baby in a baby carriage. Happy, healthy and attractive dogs like Parker are especially in demand. John, my financial adviser, is also a cat person. He was in my home consulting with me yesterday when Parker arrived for his stay. Parker went immediately to John and wedged his nose into his hand. “That’s one friendly dog,” John said, clearly impressed.

Yes he is. Which means that if I can’t get into Parker, I’ll just have to accept the sad fact that I am not a dog person. My loss, I guess.

 
The Thinker

Retirement options

No gold watch upon my retirement, but likely an early afternoon party at work with sheet cake and punch in a conference room. This is sort of expected and it is nice. There is a lot of paperwork when you retire from the federal government, but perhaps the most onerous part of it is sifting through all the choices. Our retirement system has evolved over many years into a complex labyrinth. You almost need a degree in retirement management to handle the complexity of it all.

The hardest retirement decision is figuring out whether you can really afford to retire. That took many years of work with a financial adviser. Some part of the decision was made for me. Stocks did great last year, lessening my need to hang around. In any event, on August 1st I should be officially a retiree and a private citizen again, free to run for public office should I choose, and with no need to worry about accidentally investing in energy stocks.

Gone also will be certain benefits that come with being employed, like a health savings account. It allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. It’s not so much the tax savings that I’ll miss, but having some system automatically paying most of our voluminous deductibles. A lot of this will now have to be done personally, involving time and hassle. Well, I guess being retired I should have more of it.

Except like most retirees, I won’t be quite retired. To start, I’ll teach two courses at the local community college, and likely two more the following semester. Something work-like but not full time work will be good to feel engaged and part of the world. But I don’t just want to teach again. I also want to learn. On my list of things to do is take a couple of courses, including one on how to write apps. I don’t know what kind of apps I will write in retirement. With luck they will bring in some income. I’m hoping to find an underserved and specialty market. If you only sell a thousand copies of your app, does it matter if you can get a hundred dollars each? The popular apps have been pretty much been written, along with dozens of variants of each. In any event with a pension and investment income, I’ll have a roof over my head and food on the table, so whether I succeed or fail writing apps doesn’t matter much.

This blog has satisfied my itch for writing. I am trying to decide if retirement will be the excuse I need to write something more creative and enduring, i.e. a book. We all have a novel in us. I probably have a lot of them. I just hate to write something that won’t be marketed. Since my daughter has an agent, perhaps I could shamelessly use her connection with her agent to get my novel read.

For me, retirement probably won’t be a lot of leisure. Rather it will provide a financial floor to explore pursuits that time, energy and the grinding business of maintaining a standard of living largely did not allow me to pursue. So, yes, there will be work but I am hoping it will be more part time work. I hope it won’t be something I get too passionate about. Passionate work can become wholly consuming, which might mean sixteen hour days happily sitting in front of my computer banging out code. I will need more time outdoors instead. I will want to have the leisure to take daily walks, perhaps with a dog on the end of a leash. I will want companionship.

For the next year or so a lot of my time will be consumed by the business of relocation. I’ve run the numbers and not only does relocation agree with me in midlife in general, but it’s a financially savvy move as well. This is true if you end up somewhere with an overall lower cost of living and with enough things to do to feel engaged and part of the community. I feel the need to be closer to nature again, as I was in my youth. I imagine something I haven’t done regularly in forty years: walking outside my house, looking at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way visible and splayed across the sky.

We’ve been studying western Massachusetts for a year now and the Pioneer Valley (Amherst/Northampton area) in particular. It looks like it has all we are looking for, although finding the right house will be a challenge. It helps to have zillow.com as a resource and when surveying potential communities to use Google Street Maps to get a reality check. Right now the city of Easthampton, Massachusetts looks particularly inviting. It is close enough to Northampton to be close to its amenities, but it is not overrun with students. There are five colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and some like the University of Massachusetts in Amherst have a reputation for problems with boisterous and drunken students. Choose your neighborhood with care, we’ve been warned. In general though crime is not a problem. The crime index for the area is incredibly low.

Easthampton is a very small city. Some would characterize it as a town or even a village. It has around 16,000 residents. It sits next door to Mt. Tom which offers convenient nature trails and scenic views from about a thousand feet above sea level. Easthampton is picturesque, just not as snooty or expensive as nearby Northampton.

We’ll go back this summer to focus on specific neighborhoods, but our brief tour of Easthampton last year was encouraging. It’s an old fashioned city with a small but real downtown full of local businesses. It comes with beautiful parks and even city managed cemeteries. After I pass this world, I think my ashes would be happy at Brookside Cemetery (assuming there are any remaining plots), overlooking White Brook and Nashawannuk Pond.

Easthampton is big enough to be a distinctive community with its own character, but not big enough to have be overrun by national chains. The are no Applebees in Easthampton that I can find, although there is a nice little breakfast place, locally owned and managed called The Silver Spoon that looks inviting based on reviews. You actually have to go to Northampton if you want to shop at Wal-Mart. Should I take an interest in local politics, it would be easy enough. The area’s less attractive areas, the cities of Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, are conveniently on the other side of Mt. Tom.

As for homes built for us retirees, there are a couple of condo communities, but only a couple. One in particular on the south side of the city looks very upscale. These condos are basically single family houses with a common wall. The condo fee takes care of pesky chores like shoveling snow and mowing grass. 55+ communities typically come with a master bedroom on the main level and accessible facilities built in. They anticipate the day when you will need to live on one level. It’s called aging in place, which sounds much better than aging in a nursing home. But they often have other levels as well, where guests can sleep and where my office will be located. As for nature, it is literally in the backyard. A bike trail is just blocks away.

The logistics of buying and selling our house are pretty daunting, as I have not moved a household such distances before. It will have to be done professionally. Fortunately our house is largely in shape to market and I’ll have time to work on it being “retired”. It’s clear that we can buy with cash from the sale of our house pretty much any house on the market in Western Massachusetts. So we’ll pocket a lot of equity, add it to our portfolio and hopefully use it to do more traveling.

The grandparent joke is, “If I had known how much fun it was to be a grandparent, I would have started as one.” I suspect retirement will be a lot like this. If you are fortunate to retire, you may be able to do it right. We’ll find out.

 
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”

 

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