Archive for the ‘Life 2007’ Category

The Thinker

Interview with a cat

Our current cat Arthur is sweet, a bit dumb but quite lovable. He was obviously traumatized at an early age. Brought home from a shelter, even after having been with us more than a year, he remains skittish. If we rise from our chair, he moves immediately toward safety. He would make a good military planner; he always has an exit strategy. I have been working to coax him into be a lap kitty like my late lamented cat Sprite. Perhaps he will chill out in time. I occasionally put him on my lap but he quakes with nervousness. If I scratch him lightly while he is on my lap, he will hang around for a few minutes. Eventually his panic button takes over and he jumps off my lap. Only once has he actually sat on my lap and only very nervously.

My wife knew I missed having a lap kitty since Sprite went to his well-deserved feline reward. Since she has friends into animal rescue, she pitched the idea of another cat to me. I was amenable to the right cat. Through her friends, she learned of Tuxi, a 4-year-old female cat who is very much the lap kitty type. If you have a lap, she will be there. Tuxi is a large cat, with short charcoal black fur and white paws. Her markings make her look like she is wearing a tuxedo. From her modest girth, she obviously eats too much. She apparently spent many of her early years outside. This might explain her attraction to laps: they are warm and frequently the outdoors is cold.

Things looked promising at first. We kept Tuxi confined to the TV room with a litter box, water and plenty of food. We lavished attention on her. Tuxi though quickly wanted out of the room and that was a problem. She whined and complained when we were not there. When finally given the opportunity to get outside the room she bounded around our rooms putting her nose literally into places where they did not belong, like the blinds. She was not intimidated by our nearness or heights.

Arthur watched her curiously and looked desperately like he wanted her to be his friend. However, Tuxi wanted nothing to do with him. She hissed whenever he came near. One evening she mysteriously escaped from her room. She spent the night and the subsequent day under the living room couch howling, often at ear piercing volumes, refusing to go use her litter box or even be moved. From the smell, we knew she had peed on the carpet under the couch. When Arthur plaintively approached she would hiss some more and growl until we could feel tremors in the floorboards. Her yowls reached all corners of the house. She refused to shut up until 4 a.m.

She has scratched me once when I needed to get up. However, when I sit down, she is on my lap in an instant. If I need to get up before she has received her quota of lap time, she can hiss and bite. Her bite though does not leave an impression.

What to do with a desperately affectionate kitty obviously carrying the baggage of a less than stellar kittenhood? It is hard to say no, but she is just not working out. Her loud yowls are even louder than our former cat Squeaky’s. Yet I realize Tuxi is just being herself. She is a product of her environment. She would work out right in the right home, just not here.

Maybe we need to leave well enough alone. Arthur may not be much of a lap kitty and he often seems bored, since he does not quite understand the concept of play. Nevertheless, he is generally quiet, friendly and predictable. The most evil thing he has done was pee in our vents after we first got him. That cost several hundred dollars in duct cleaning, which we needed to do anyhow. Since then he has been amazingly sweet and innocent. He may never get over his skittishness but that is okay. Our bonding time will be on the bed when I am under the covers. There he languidly stretches out on his back and allows me to scratch his tummy. He purrs obscenely as I (generally unsuccessfully) read a book.

I hope Tuxi finds a home worthy of her. It will need to be a place where she is the only cat. She will want access to the great outdoors. She will want plentiful access to laps. She will need a home where her loud yowls will go unnoticed. I think she will find such a place in time. It breaks my heart that our home is not the place.

If you can offer her such a place, never abuse a cat and live in Northern Virginia, send me some email. (Please put Occam’s Razor in the subject line to bypass my spam filter.) She may still be up for adoption. She has had all her shots, is neutered and has tested negative for feline leukemia. She is a delight to have on your lap. In the right home, she would be a terrific cat.

 
The Thinker

The Blog Turns Six

It was exactly five years ago today, on December 13, 2002 that I penned this short blog post. Thus began my blogging adventure. Back then, I had little idea why I wanted to blog or where Occam’s Razor would go. In fact, I had no idea whether I would even keep the blog. I did know that my friend Lisa already had her blog. She seemed to be having fun with it and it looked like the cool new thing to do. In addition, since I work in the IT field, it seemed like a good way to understand and emerging technology. Therefore, rather haltingly at first, I began scribing my little posts and wondered if I would be both its writer and its sole reader.

It took a few months for the blog to get its moorings. Eventually I discovered that in many ways my blog would be the anti-blog. Those few blogs that existed in 2002 tended to consist of short posts. They contained frequent misspellings and were often rife with grammatical mistakes. Moreover, blog posts were more likely typed streams of consciousness optimized for the web than examples of structured thought. I could see their usefulness in allowing the common person to share his thoughts with those outside of his regular communities. I could also see their advantage as a way to promote the timely sharing of new information. Even then, I was not sure, given that blogs were likely to expand exponentially whether my little blog would garner any attention at all. I was just one tree in a very big forest. Fortunately, I was one of the first planted trees. I hoped that in time it might make a difference.

I got the writing bug in my youth. I let my interest lapse due to the painful necessity of being both a parent and breadwinner. Blogging allowed me to reengage my inner writer. Yet I found it hard to write blog posts that were mere streams of consciousness. Soon, I found myself editing my posts. Eventually one edit would not suffice. I wanted them polished. Soon I had discovered a pattern that worked for me. Each post would be an essay on a particular topic. I would take the time to write something thoughtful and well crafted. Moreover, I would endeavor to offer perspectives or insights that I felt was largely lacking in other blogs.

Once I finally got around to metering my blog in 2004, I was happy to get thirty page views a day, and giddy when I hit fifty a day. As the years rolled by, I kept raising my expectations. Over time, my blog’s traffic did pick up. By the standards of the more popular blogs, mine was a speck of sand on the beach. Over the years, as more of my content became searchable, my traffic picked up in a generally linear fashion. Fifty page views seemed lame. I wanted a hundred page views. It was not until this October that I caught some lucky breaks. The editor of Washington Monthly noticed my post on their blog and mentioned it on their site. In one day, I had more than one thousand page views. Moreover, for reasons I do not wholly understand, moving my blog out of Movable Type and into WordPress doubled my traffic. A recent posting on YouPorn also has driven a lot of new traffic this way. Lately I have come to expect between 400 and 500 page views per day.

Yet it was just a year ago that my blog was deep in the doldrums after being mysteriously and unceremoniously yanked from Google’s search engine. I had no clear idea who to petition. Eventually though I solved that problem. The following SiteMeter chart gives you some idea of how bad things were. Last December I eked out a mere 1078 page views. Now I can sometimes generate this traffic in two days. Throughout 2007, I saw a steady progression in my traffic. October became something of a turning point. November was a record month with almost 14,000 page views and over 10,000 visits. Any animosity I might have felt toward Google a year ago has vanished. It continues to bring in the majority of my new traffic.

Occam’s Razor SiteMeter Statistics Dec 2006-Nov 2007

So here I am five years and 757 posts later. I have published nearly 850,000 carefully edited words these last five years. How large is that? To use one metric, the English version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is approximately 560,000 words. I expect by the time this blog reaches its seventh birthday that I will have passed one million words. How many bloggers can truthfully say they have published so much original content? My guess is I am one of a hundred or less.

Whether this blog means anything is hard to say. It obviously means a lot to me, given the amount of time I spend writing and editing posts. I only know when a post was well received when the reader leaves a laudatory comment. While certain posts (principally on topics like pornography) regularly bring in about a quarter of my traffic, the bulk of my readers are reading other posts. Some posts that I am particularly proud of (which can be found in my Best of Occam’s Razor category) may only average one page view a day. Still, multiply that over the life of this blog. I can conclude that many of my best blog posts are read thousands of times. The typical author sells only a few thousand copies of his book. Yet I can get as many readers from a single blog post. At this point, it is likely that some of my blog posts have been read over a hundred thousand times.

When I was young, I aspired to be a published writer. It seemed like it would be much more fun than being a hard hat or an office drone and it appealed to my sense of vanity. I still have that aspiration. Yet in many ways, my blog has validated the concept that an author can be self-published wholly online. Sadly, it does not pay the light bills. Aside from marginal Google Adsense revenue, I get no royalties. Yet at least I have the satisfaction that I am being read. While I am unlikely to ever generate the volume of a highly trafficked blog, by writing quality posts about enduring topics I have found a way to exist below the radar of the popular blogs yet feel like the blog is succeeding in its mission.

With the blog at age six, it is harder to find novel topics. However, I still take considerable satisfaction from blogging. I will endeavor to maintain my standards and your interests in the years ahead. Happy reading!

 
The Thinker

The Wegmans Effect

Last year I wrote about the Wegmans grocery chain, which opened two stores within ten miles of me. Shopping at Wegmans, a grocery chain that is just now starting to expand out of its northeastern roots was a real eye opener. Mainly, I had not realized that I had settled for grocery mediocrity for so long.

We continue to visit Wegmans regularly, even though it is hardly our closest grocery store. No other grocer in our area comes close to delivering its variety of products. The quality of its store brands often exceeds those of the national brands. For example, their Country Wheat bread is a staple in our house. My wife will only reluctantly eat something else. Since I do not necessarily visit Wegmans once a week, when I do go I make sure to stock up on their Country Wheat bread. I typically buy a half a dozen loaves at a time, much of which ends up in our freezer. In addition to superior store brands like their excellent strawberry jam, their meat, much of it served by actual butchers from behind a butcher counter, is truly a cut above the competition. Add their excellent store layout, their friendly clerks always happy to serve you, their bountiful and fresh produce, their in store food courts (which amounts to being a restaurant in a store) and the fact that they actually pay their employees a living wage then Wegmans is your logical grocery shopping destination. It seems counterintuitive that their prices should be competitive with the discount grocers, but they are.

In the Washington metropolitan area where I live, communities are clamoring Wegmans to open stores near them. Largo, Maryland recently became the first predominantly African American community to get a Wegmans. (It presumably got this honor because it is likely also the most prosperous African American community in the country.) Baltimore wants a store. Frederick, Maryland wants one too. In addition, rich, upscale Montgomery County Maryland has been petitioning Wegmans for a store too. Why, they wonder, does Fairfax County, Virginia across the Potomac River get one and we have none?

As for the rest of the grocery business, they are belatedly playing catch up. With a few exceptions, traditional grocery stores are trying to turn themselves into something that resembles Wegmans. Our local Giant Food was one of the first to sense they needed to look like Wegmans. They apparently convinced the owners of their shopping center to move the renters next to them somewhere else. The wall came down and the store was expanded and remodeled. Now our local Giant bears a more than passing resemblance to a Wegmans. (The Giant also has a Starbucks inside, even though there is a Starbucks literally less than a hundred feet away in the same shopping center.)

I really knew that the times were really a changin’ when the Wegmans effect struck our local Food Lion. Food Lion is perhaps the stodgiest grocery brand out there and its least exciting. The Food Lion in our prosperous neighborhood always seemed out of place, as demonstrated by their parking lots that never came close to being full. Over the course of a couple months, the Food Lion turned into a Bloom. Bloom is apparently Food Lion’s new and trendier grocery store designed for higher income areas. There is however a wee problem. It is only about one-third the size of a Wegmans. Even after all that remodeling it still feels like a Food Lion. They have more of the gourmet foods but its harsh industrial fluorescent lighting remains. Moreover, rather than having a customer friendly staff like you expect at Wegmans, they staff it with mostly minimum wage high school kids. No wonder I cannot stop calling it Food Lion. Bloom is merely putting lipstick on the Food Lion pig.

Change is also coming to the discount grocer Shoppers Food Warehouse. Apparently, its management concluded that its stores, in addition to having such limited selection (which is presumably how they keep their prices low) are seriously ugly. The result is an improvement but it too is no Wegmans. Shoppers Food Warehouse is now where Giant was before it upgraded its stores.

Other smaller and newer grocers seem less affected. Wegmans may have studied Whole Foods or visa versa because their layouts seem similar. I found a Whole Foods in Denver that was so huge it was nearly indistinguishable from a Wegmans. Out here in the Washington metropolitan area, the Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller. Trader Joes continues to market itself as a less expensive version of Whole Foods, emphasizing natural foods but with a more limited selection.

Will all this catch up help these traditional grocers retain their customers? It remains to be seen if this will be the case. Many of us will always prefer convenience to variety. A Wegmans requires a lot of real estate, so they tend to build in emerging upscale communities. I doubt the District of Columbia residents will ever see a Wegmans even though if any community needs a top-notch grocery chain, DC does. Many of its residents depend on substandard produce from liquor stores.

It is clear who is leading the grocery business and who is following. Wegmans is a leader. It is a shame they expand so slowly, but it may be for the best. It could be impossible for Wegmans to replicate its success across the country too quickly. In any event, if you are fortunate enough to get a Wegmans in your community, you will be wondering why you put up with substandard grocers all these years.

 
The Thinker

Two years later

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.

 
The Thinker

Thanks for all the hits

Thanks, Google! Thanks, Washington Monthly! Thanks, WordPress! Thanks, all those of you interested in satisfying your prurient interests! Thanks, casual surfers! I have all of you to thank, as well as my loyal regular readers, for visiting my blog.

For most of us bloggers, our blogs are at least in part an expression of our vanity. In real life, we may be too young, or too old, or too ugly, or too fat, or have too many annoying habits for you to want to have anything to do with us. Of course, on the Internet none of this matters because you cannot tell what I look like or how I sound. (Actually, I do have a small picture of myself on the About page, and you can see the back side of me here.) Here on my humble blog I can be judged, if not for who I am, then at least for what I write. Here is where I reveal at least a little part of myself: the part that I am proud of and I feel worthy of your time and attention.

For me, how many pseudo-friends I have on Facebook is meaningless. A significant part of what is meaningful to me you will find here. For I enjoy writing. I also like to analyze events and issues and provide my perspective on them. What I was missing prior to December 2002 was an audience. Thank goodness then for the Internet. I do not need the hassle of trying to market a book in order to find readers. The Internet has removed the middleman and well as given me many more readers than I could get writing a book. You are my audience. Moreover, in some ways, I am not just the writer, but also the performer.

A year ago, I mysteriously dropped out of Google’s search index. For about two months, I struggled without much success to rectify the situation. During November 2006, I eked out a mere 2000 or so page views. For October 2007, I had 9170 page views and 6430 visits. That averages to 295 page views a day.

Obviously, this is a mere pittance compared to many more popular blogs. I will likely never be a major blog. Yet I still am vain enough to aspire to someday be elevated into to the middle tier. For most of this year, I was averaging 100-150 page views per day. Currently I am averaging a bit over 400 page views per day and 300 or so visits per day. Moreover, these are just my SiteMeter statistics. I also have an unknown number of readers who are reading my blog with newsreaders. There are likely a few others reading via email or who are smart enough to configure their browsers so SiteMeter cannot track them.

I would like to assert that my content has gotten so much better and that is why my web traffic is picking up. I do not think this is the reason. Rather, my new traffic is a result of marketing decisions that I made, the volume of material accumulated here after nearly five years and finally a wee bit of luck.

Thanks to WordPress. You would not think that switching to new blogging software would make much of a difference in finding new readers, but it did for me. I should have gotten off Movable Type years ago. Perhaps Google has an easier time indexing content in WordPress. My traffic picked up by about a third as soon as I made the switch. Looking at my SiteMeter log, part of it also is that my tags are easier to find. Anyhow, to me it is clear that the WordPress effect is real. If you want to increase your blog’s traffic, try moving to WordPress.

Thanks to Google, which traditionally accounts for 75% of my new visitors. Since moving to WordPress, it has re-searched my site. Perhaps by having more links inside my pages it now judges that I am more worthy of additional traffic. A year ago, it took me two months to figure out why Google had dropped my blog from its search index. It upset me so much that I almost gave up blogging. A year later, all is forgiven.

Thanks to Washington Monthly. Its editor, Paul Glastris, noticed my little post praising their blog, which is authored by Kevin Drum. I said that in my opinion it was currently the best blog on American politics. As a result of his short post, I received nearly 1200 page views on October 25th . I received over 800 more page views the following day, most from Washington Monthly. Since his post, I have average more than 400 page views per day. I am hoping that a substantial number of those visitors found the site sufficiently good to come back and visit regularly.

Thanks to all you normal human beings with active sex drives. I do not often write about topics like pornography or sexuality. However, when I find something to say on these topics it usually drives up my page views. I certainly do not want my blog to turn into a digital red light zone. However, sexuality and pornography are undeniably popular topics that interest people. Bloggers who ignore these topics just drive away potential new readers. Consequently, I feel no shame writing about these subjects from time to time. My latest post on YouPorn.com seems to have been well received by the Internet community. Since it was published, about twenty-five percent of my traffic is from people wanting to read that post. Meanwhile, my April 2004 post about ex-porn star Sharon Mitchell still routinely accounts for between 5-15% of my daily traffic.

I have been blogging for nearly five years. It has occupied much of my free time. I average a dozen or so blog posts a month. Each post is usually 1500 or more laboriously edited words. I sweat over this blog because I think a blog should be worthy of your time. If it is worthy of your time, it should be both interesting and well written. A good blog post should be written so well that it is like a hot knife going through butter. The best ones should carry you from first word through the last like a roller coaster ride. I am not sure how many of my posts meet this goal, but I always keep this goal in mind. (The posts I am most proud of are in my Best of Occam’s Razor category.)

I started to blog before the word had even become generally known. For most of this time, I have dwelled in some back corner of the Internet. It has been a long slog. I may still be in the Internet wilderness, but the sky is looking brighter. I think there is a clearing ahead.

Thank you all for reading and visiting Occam’s Razor. Occasionally, particularly when the search engines do not seem interested, I wonder why I bother to blog at all. My motivation may be pure vanity, but readers provide the fuel that keeps me going. I will do my best not to disappoint you and to make this blog worthy of returning here regularly.

 
The Thinker

A new look

As you may have noticed, the blog has undergone something of a facelift. After a couple weeks of struggling, I moved my blog from proprietary Movable Type software to open source GPL WordPress software. While not all the features of the old blog are in place it is 95% there. It is good enough to switch while I tackle the remaining features that still need work.What is still missing? I have not yet succeeded in moving over the post tags. I tried to write a program to do it for me, but it is complex. It may be easier to copy and paste the tags for all 700+ posts piecemeal over the next several weeks than to finish debugging the program I wrote.

I have not yet found a WordPress plug in or widget that will show all tags on a master tag page. Instead, for now I have a “tag cloud” which you can see in the second column. The tag cloud lists popular tags, but not all of them. In addition, since I have tagged recent posts only, the tag cloud does not accurately represent all the post tags.

Email notifications are also incomplete. Notifications in WordPress are fancier than what I had in Movable Type. To receive an email when a post is made, simply enter your email address in the box in the second column and press the Send button. You can unsubscribe the same way.

If you take the time to create an account on this site, then you can subscribe to notifications for certain categories only. By creating an account (look for the link under the Meta section in the right hand column), you can also tweak your notification settings to request either an excerpt or the full post. In addition, you can request the post be formatted as HTML or as text.

Other features not installed: a Google Search box and disabling ads on the main index page. In addition, some utilities I wrote (such as one that lists all my posts with word counts) need to be rewritten. Perhaps these will come with time.

Overall, with a fair amount of research, ingenuity and elbow grease I was able to replicate virtually all of the features I had on Movable Type.

I hope you enjoy the new look. I believe that by using WordPress I will be able to offer more features for readers. I will also have an easier job of maintaining this place. In a future entry, I will get into my lessons learned from this rather major move.

 
The Thinker

A birth experience (1989)

This blog entry was written before there were blogs, or even a web browser. In fact, the Internet was largely unknown when this was written. Its closest equivalent at the time was an entity called Compuserve. It was written in January 1990, approximately four months after my daughter Rosie was born, when I was still very sleep deprived from all her midnight feedings. Somehow, I found the time to write down the story of her birth, with the intention of making sure she finally read it by the time she became an adult. It existed on my home page but like most children, she never bothered to look at my home page, so she never read it. I wanted to make sure that she did read it eventually, so I slightly revised it and presented it to her last Friday on the occasion of her entry into adulthood, her 18th birthday. Here it is.

Our daughter Rosalind was born on Thursday, September 28th, 1989. I wanted to capture my own memories of her birth while the images were still fresh in my mind. I am doing this as a gift for Rosie. I hope someday when Rosie is old enough she will appreciate reading about her birth. So, Rosie, this is my gift to you, though it may not be read for fifteen or twenty years.

Pregnancy

First, I want to tell you how I felt about you, your mother and the whole pregnancy process. You were conceived, we think, on January 9th, 1989. You were certainly conceived in love. Our original plans for 1989 were to consider having you sometime the following year. Your mother did not want to be pregnant during a typical hot Washington summer. We wanted a final memorable year as a couple. We had plans for a driving tour of New England for the summer. Neither of us regrets having you. We both were ready to have you. I was 32. Your mother was 29. We had been together for more than five years, and had been married for more than three years.

We discovered your mother was pregnant in late January. A home pregnancy test kit showed that she was not just a little pregnant with you, but very pregnant. Any shade of blue in the test tube would have indicated pregnancy. Your presence was a deep, dark shade of blue.

For your mother pregnancy was a nuisance, a pain, a joy and more, all at once. I managed to stay fairly cerebral through the entire pregnancy. I found myself treating your arrival in rather abstract terms. My main concerns were financial. I was not sure how we were ever going to be able to afford you and a house at the same time. I had just changed jobs a few weeks before you were conceived and I was not at all sure I liked the job. Now suddenly my wife was pregnant and I had to make sure we had the resources to afford you when you came. We did without a lot of our usual luxuries in 1989. We saved our money. A lot of pet projects never got done. The built in bookcases in the library never materialized. A new vanity in our bathroom also suffered under the budget ax. But by the time you were born we had several thousand dollars in a baby fund to make sure we did have the money we needed to care for you.

We also busied ourselves lining up childcare for you. There was never much of a question of whether or not we would have to send you to day care. Your mother would have to go back to work since it took two salaries just to keep up payments on the house and car. In the Washington area at that time the general wisdom was it was never too early to sign up for childcare. Childcare was difficult to find, and very expensive if it could be found at all. And it was particularly hard to find someone who would take an infant. After a babysitter across the street moved out of town, we decided to put you in PALS Early Learning Center, where you started in day care. To give you some idea of how difficult it was to find day care we had to put a deposit for you at PALS back in May, more than 4 months before you were born.

We also both were careful to monitor your mother’s diet. I nagged your mother constantly to eat healthier foods and I made sure she got several large glasses of milk a day. It worked. You came out a big, healthy baby. In a way, we were busy parenting you long before you were born.

You should also know that while you were in the womb you were a very active baby. Many times during the day, you would continue kicking spells that would drive your mother to distraction. She enjoyed entertaining her friends by showing them the ripples from your kicks on her belly.

Toward the end of her pregnancy, things became very difficult. Your mother was hospitalized twice before you were born. The first time was in late August. She was sent to Fairfax Hospital to be monitored because she was contracting every two minutes. She had to take medicine every six hours for several weeks to stop the contractions. Although only in the hospital for several hours, it was a fright to both of us. Because of the rest, the doctor ordered for your mother, she was forced to stay home from work from that point on.

On another occasion, about two and a half weeks before you were born, the doctors were so concerned about your mother’s swelled ankles (an indication of possible toxemia) that they sent her to the hospital again. This time she spent a whole weekend there. For a while, it looked like she was in labor. The labor turned out to be false. A sonogram did reveal that you were a girl. Both of us were pleased at the thought.

Labor

Your mother’s labor did not start in earnest until shortly before three in the morning on your birthday. The night before your mother said she felt “funny”. I was very skeptical that this was the real thing, even while she sat in the bathroom passing large amounts of cervical mucus. You were still a week early and we had been through false labors before. And your mother had passed mucus before too. But your mother had little doubt. The contractions she was feeling were not only powerful, but painful, radiating down the sides of her body.

By four a.m. we were both concerned enough to call our Health Maintenance Organization, Kaiser Permanente. Your mother was experiencing contractions three to four minutes apart, but their duration did not usually exceed 45 seconds. Kaiser told us to call back when the duration lasted a minute. They never got that long. By the time they reached 50 seconds I called Kaiser again. Fifteen minutes later, they called back and told us to get her to the hospital. We were both feeling scared and relieved. Both of us were anxious for you to come into the world. Nine months seemed like forever; it was hard to believe that you would shortly be in our arms and we would have a family.

We left the house around 5:25 in the morning. There was a hint of the winter to come in the air. The windows to the Sprint were covered in a cold, heavy dew. A couple of more degrees and I would have had to scrape off a layer of ice off the car windows. We had little packing to do. The labor kit and hospital clothes were in separate bags. With the car primed with quarters for the toll plaza, we hurried down the beltway to Fairfax Hospital, where you were born. I remember being surprised to find so much traffic well before six in the morning.

We arrived at the hospital’s Emergency entrance just before six a.m. It was a fairly quiet at the hospital. I had imagined things were always hopping in Fairfax Hospital’s emergency room, but there were only a couple of people there. Leaving the car your mother discovered that her waters really had broken; her jeans were soaked. By six a.m., the wheelchair had arrived and she had been moved to the Maternity Ward. She was placed in Labor Room 2. Our excitement was tempered by having been through this twice before. Your mother joked with the nurses that this time she was really here to deliver a baby.

In the labor room, your mother was quickly immobilized. A fetal heart monitor was placed over her abdomen to monitor your heartbeat. But it seemed impossible for Fairfax Hospital to leave it at that. All sorts of tubes and needles went in and out of her body. There was an IV in one arm to keep up her blood sugar. A catheter. A strap across her abdomen to measure uterine contractions. An armband to automatically measure her blood pressure.

Your mother’s contractions became more difficult and closer together. Every hour a physician or nurse would come by to see how dilated she was. This is a measure of how wide her cervix was open. For a while, things went very well. Your mother was three centimeters dilated when she came in, and by noon had made it to five centimeters.

Around ten in the morning, the contractions got to be very hard and very painful. Your mother really wanted to have you using natural childbirth techniques we learned in Lamaze class. As her coach, it was my responsibility to work her through a series of breathing exercises that were supposed to lessen the pain. Even with all the practice, it was tough to use these techniques during actual labor. Contractions continued every three to four minutes. It was hard for her to sustain that level, especially since she had not been allowed to eat at all. Her obstetrician, Dr. Henry Grimm, recommended that she be given an anesthesia and your mother finally agreed. She was given an epidural. This is administered with a needle that was placed near the bottom of the spine. The relief was nearly instantly apparent. Instead of an exhausted wife with a pained look on her face, your mother seemed very normal, almost as if she wasn’t it labor. I was glad to see her out of pain. She read the paper and worked on crossword puzzles.

Still, there was reason for concern. As the afternoon began, Dr. Grimm became concerned because your mother was “stalling”. Thanks to a new internal fetal monitor (attached directly to your head through the birth canal) and internal uterine contraction device we discovered that labor was no longer progressing. Your mother had stalled at 5 centimeters dilation and her contractions didn’t look like they were going to be powerful enough to push you out. To complicate matters your temperature and heart rate were going up too, since you had lost all the amniotic fluid when your mother’s waters broke. By three p.m., it became clear that labor would have to be induced. We conferred with Dr. Grimm who recommended that you be delivered by Cesarean Section. This meant that you would be delivered through the abdomen rather than the birth canal. We were both upset with the idea because we both wanted you to be born naturally. By four p.m., we agreed that a C-section was the way that you would have to come into the world. In one way, I was relieved. I knew that this long pregnancy process would soon be over, and that we would have you in our arms. At that point I think even your mother was relieved that labor would come to an end.

Delivery

It didn’t take too long to prepare. There was a short wait since someone else was ahead of your mother in the operating room. I was instructed to get my “scrubs” from the nursing station. I ran back to the Father’s dressing room and put on my outfit. The mask seemed to fog up my glasses every time I exhaled. By five p.m. your mother was being wheeled into the delivery room.

I had to sit out in the cold hallway for some time while your mother was prepared. She had to be given more anesthesia. Now she could feel no sensation at all below her waist. After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only ten minutes, I was allowed into the operating room. I found her just about ready to be opened, and in good spirits. Your mother was joking with the nurses and anesthetist.

It turned out that I had a much better view of your birth than your mother did. They put up a little border that kept her from seeing pretty much of anything. I took my station by her head and gave running commentary. I expected to perhaps be a little sick but never even got lightheaded.

The room was bright, but cold. The air conditioner was down way too low. It felt like it was sixty degrees. There was a machine that made an annoying squeak every couple of seconds. The doctors and nurses worked quickly. I made a point of not trying to see too much, but I watched as they cut into your mother, first on her outer skin, and then into the uterine muscle itself. They used a clamp to pull her skin apart. I remember being surprised at how tough her skin was. They were pulling her apart with the force of two people having a taffy pull. There followed more cutting and more pulling and more clamping and more annoying sounds from the squawking machine. The nurse called out your heart rate and your mother’s blood pressure.

For a moment, they could not even find you. “She’s much further down than I expected,” I remember Doctor Grimm saying and I watched his gloved hand go deep into your mother’s abdomen. I tried to report what I saw to your mother but there wasn’t much to see. The hand went in and out a few times and I could see blood on the doctor’s glove. The machine with the squawk still made its annoying sound.

“She’s a big kid,” the doctor said and he now worked rather quickly. He pulled up with both his hands suddenly and there you were, or rather, your head. All I could see was a head covered with a lot of hair. So far, you were silent, but you seemed very pissed.

“I can see the head,” I told your mother. “Black hair.”

And then, quickly, with a loud squish and you were out. You almost seemed like an albino you were so white, which made your black hair all the more starting. “The baby’s out,” I told your mother. My own heart was racing and I found myself suddenly on the edge of tears.

I watched as they clamped the umbilical cord and then severed it. You spoke; you cried. “You have a little girl,” the nurse said. Somehow, I snapped a picture. In an instant before even your mother could see you they had pulled you over to a side table. They gave you an APGAR test (to measure your physical strength) and put you on the scale. Somehow, I took another picture as they weighed you. “Nine pounds and one ounce the nurse said.” You were crying. Your irregular but persistent little shrieks filled the room. Instantly a lump formed in my throat and I found tears in my eyes.

It’s hard to describe the power of those few minutes. Nothing really prepared me. Perhaps it is so powerful because it is nature’s way of preparing the father for the considerable work ahead. There is this overwhelming feeling of joy, such as I’ve never known and have never experienced since. At the same time I felt such a pity for you, being newborn, and the pain and difficult times that were ahead. And I felt more than a little terror, for neither of us were certain we were up to the challenge of parenthood. From a biological point of view, this was a climax, for we had succeeded in reproducing ourselves. Maybe it was this primal release I felt. All I wanted to do was to hold you in my arms and tell you I love you. But for the moment I could not do that. Instead, they wrapped you tightly in a receiving blanket and you were brought down next to your mother. There were tears in her eyes too as she saw you for the first time. “Oh, she is so beautiful,” your mother kept saying. And then, it could hardly have been a moment, mother and baby were moved away from each other.

The doctors were already working hard stitching your mother back together. There were certain things that had to be done first, such as removing the placenta and any remaining amniotic fluid. There was no place for your mother to go, but they were about ready to take you into the post labor room. “I’ve got to go with the child.” I told your mother. “One of us should be with her.” Your mother understood and I hurried as I followed you into the nursery just down the hall. You cried all the way.

Recovery

A nurse immediately took over. You were not happy at all about what was happening to you, but they took excellent care of you. There was so much that you needed to have done so quickly. You were cleaned up, not well enough to remove all of the cheesy material that was on you, but enough to get the amniotic fluid off. They put a vitamin cream in your eyes. Using a razor blade, they made a small cut in the heel of your right foot and got some blood samples. They also put a thin tube down your windpipe and removed an impressive amount of fluids from your lungs. You could hardly breathe without coughing. You screamed at the indignity of it, but within minutes, you seemed far better.

Finally, gratefully, you calmed down. You had the warmth of a heat lamp above you to bring your body temperature up to normal. And your eyes were open, but just a sliver. Perhaps you could tell there was light out there; I doubt you could see much else even if all that cream hadn’t been in your eyes.

Me? I was making a blathering idiot out of myself. After being instructed to wash my hands with a special soap, I was allowed to touch you. I touched your hand, gingerly at first and you instinctively grabbed it. I kept saying, through my tears, “It’s all right, Rosie” and “There’s nothing to worry about. Daddy’s here and Daddy love’s you.” The nurse asked if I was all right. I told her I would eventually calm down.

After being stitched up, your mother was moved into the recovery room, which was just across the hall from the nursery. I kept running back and forth between you and her, hoping that your body temperature would get high enough so that you could come across the hall and be with your mother. Eventually they wheeled you across the hall for a visit. You were very quiet and taking in your new environment with a very intense look on your face. Your mother got to see you for a good long time. We could not believe how beautiful and small you were. Your mother made some phone calls: collect to her Mom, to Jane, to Aunt Sharon. The word went out that we had a new Rosie in the family.

Your First Days

You were born on a Thursday but your mother was not released from the hospital until Monday morning. You spent most each day next to your mother in her hospital room, and spent the night in the nursery down the hall. We learned how to feed you and how to change you. Your mother offered you her breast, which you took, but it was still too soon for her to produce milk. Within a day, a flush had come over your face; for about a day you looked like a sunburned Indian. But by Sunday the flush was gone and you were a happy, healthy pink little baby again. You came home from the hospital Monday morning. Grandpa and Busia arrived that night and stayed for a week while we settled into our new roles as parents.

That is your story, as I recall it. It is now nearly four months after your birth. You have kept us so incredibly busy that I have tried to finish this many times and have not been able to. But you are growing sweeter and more gentle every day. You see the world with exploratory eyes now, and you smile and love as if it were instinctive. We have endured many sleepless nights, but you are worth it. Now you are becoming a bit more controllable. You feel a part of the family. It makes me feel so happy that you feel this way. We love you Rosie. Happy birthday!

Love,

Dad

 
The Thinker

The transition

Some adolescents are eager to sample adult life long before they are physically and emotionally ready to do so. Others prefer to have little to do with growing up and might not grow up at all without firm parental involvement. My daughter is likely in the latter category. After she graduated in June, my wife and I set the firm expectation that she had to get a job.

Our daughter Rosie is part of an emerging trend: the gap year. A gap year is a year “off” (at least from education) between the end of high school and the start of college. My wife and I supported her decision. For a young woman for whom most life changes are a challenge, a year dealing with a regular job should help her clarify her choices. It was our hope that if nothing else this job would show her what life might be like if she did not go to college.

Rosie had managed to graduate high school without working a real job. The summary of her job experience was occasional babysitting and volunteer work. Both my wife and I held part time jobs in high school. Both of us needed the money. As one of eight children in a middle class household, I knew that if I wanted a college education, I would have to pay for most of it myself. I started working as soon as I was legally allowed. My parents chipped in a few thousand bucks toward my college education. I had saved about $7000 from working part time. Student loans and a cheap public university filled the rest of the gap.

Frankly, it irked me that Rosie had managed to get through high school without having had a real job. As I remarked in another entry an entry-level job, aside from providing a source of money was an invaluable education in life. High school has its stresses but it is surreal. Mopping floors at 10 PM or listening to surly customers bitch about their woes while maintaining a pleasant smile was real. Perhaps sensing that real life was not much fun, she seemed content to be a slacker.

There is no lack of entry-level jobs in our area of Northern Virginia. Yet many of them were simply unacceptable to our daughter. With threats of pain and suffering, we could have forced her to apply at a McDonalds or a Target. That tack seemed counterproductive. Since she would have to navigate her own way through real life, we felt it better to work with her than against her. My wife and I became her coaches. Still there was a big gap between our expectations and hers. Ours were that as soon as graduation was over she would be pounding the pavement. Hers was that a couple of times a week, and only if we nagged her and drove her around, she would apply at places where she wanted to work. After applying at a few places, she preferred to wait to see if they would call her. They did not.

To make a long story short she mostly managed to slack off all summer, sleeping in past noon and staying up nearly until dawn. She applied with lackluster enthusiasm at places like the local drug store, but really wanted to work in a bookstore. An interview with a Barnes & Noble though never resulted in a call back. She was this close to being forced to apply for a job at Target when, after a second interview the local Books-a-Million finally offered her a job. If she was relieved, it was hard to tell. My wife and I felt like popping the champagne. It had been an aggravating summer.

We are still nervous. For a young woman who spent most of her summer in a comfy chair with her laptop computer, a real job was going to be a big change. Could our daughter go from slacker to productive retail drone overnight? The answer appears to be yes. She has only finished four days on the job but we are amazed by the transition. While we wait to pick her up in the parking lot after her shift, we can watch her through the large open windows, scurrying from place to place. Her legs hurt, she says. This is not surprising, since they were little used all summer. Already she navigates around the store as if it were a second home, working with intensity and energy that astounds us. She often finds the working at the store interesting. She likes her coworkers, finds many of her chores boring but is too busy running from one task to another to care too much.

I guess underneath that slacker young woman was a woman ready to engage life, but scared by the transition. Now much of that fear is behind her. She has learned to apply for jobs and to interview. She did not like it, but she has acquired a life skill all of us but Paris Hilton must learn. Our job was to encourage first then coax and cajole when necessary. While the process took longer than we expected it is gratifying to see the fruit of her efforts at last. From navigating the buses, (they run only during rush hours) to vacuuming the store after it closes, she has moved from inertia into full engagement. She is learning to leave work at 12:15 in the morning and be back at 10 the same morning for another eight-hour shift. Moreover, she is doing so with both grace and a pragmatic attitude.

While I am still wondering if the other shoe will drop, I am beginning to relax. I know there is much more to this parenting business but I am also seeing that it does eventually end. Flush with her own money (she still must pay us $200 a month in rent, since she is not going to school) she is beginning to make her own choices in the real world. At the end of the month, she turns eighteen. Our joint account will become her own private account. Her checks have arrived. Her check card is already in use.

She still has some catching up to do with her peers. She has expressed little interest in getting her driver’s license. The State of Virginia requires anyone under 19 to go to a driving school, even though my wife and I have taught her how to drive. She will decide if she wants to accelerate the process or wait until she is 19 to take her driving test. The hassle of taking the bus to work (when it runs) or depending on her parents to drop her off and pick her up (when they are not running) may force her to rethink her lackadaisical attitude.

Over the next year, her hazy plans for becoming an English teacher may well change. She understands that public school teachers do not make much money. Working for modest wages may put this choice into context for her. I would not be surprised if her career plans take a new and unexpected path over the next year. For now, she keeps her goal modest: she wants to save up enough money to buy a Vespa. Unlike my wife and me, she will probably not have to worry about how she will afford college. We can give that one gift. She can graduate college and likely start debt free.

This coaching business is challenging for me. I certainly know what I would do if I were in her shoes. Yet I will never be in her shoes. She has treaded a different path in life than mine. My job is to express confidence, provide unconditional love, give an unvarnished picture of the road ahead and, if she asks, help her think through some tough choices. I am sure that she will have some stumbles along life’s path. Perhaps her cautious attitude is now something of an asset. Modern life is incredibly complicated, so caution is warranted, provided it does not amount to dysfunction. Yet life cannot be avoided forever. At some point, it must be engaged. It is heartening to see her engage it at last with a surprising spirit of determination and vigor.

 
The Thinker

Unlamented

Las Vegas attracts many of life’s losers. If people are going to gamble on living then why not die here in this neon filled city that epitomized the extremes of American living? In 1998, my wife’s father, a man who I never met, died indigent and homeless here in Las Vegas.

His death was suspected for many years but for a long time could not be confirmed. He had a habit of disappearing for a few years then reappearing. When he reappeared, it was usually not a joyful experience. Generally, he was petitioning his siblings for two things: money and shelter. He must have been something of a smooth talker because over many years he talked them out of thousands of dollars. They wanted to believe in his rehabilitation. He promoted cockamamie business schemes involving their money, all of which eventually failed. At about this time that he crept out of town.

Around the year 2000 after many years of no one hearing from Bob, one of my wife’s aunts entered his name into the Social Security Death Index. When his name and social security number came up positive, some basic facts about his death were gleaned. Date of death: September 14th, 1998. Age: 67.

Earlier this year I happened to speak to one of his sisters, my wife’s Aunt Pat. I informed her that her brother had died. She expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. However, she did take the time to get a copy of the death certificate, and she sent me a copy.

The death certificate filled in a few holes about his last days. He died at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a town just outside of Las Vegas. His place of residence did not list a street address, but Searchlight, Nevada was listed on the death certificate. Searchlight is a town of about 500 people an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. There is not much in Searchlight, but it is the birthplace of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Bob must have died indigent because the Clark County Social Services Department was listed on the death certificate where his parents’ names would normally be. The certificate showed he was never married but here too the facts were incorrect. He was married to my mother in law for many years. In addition, he sired not only my wife but also my brother in law. He died of “end stage cardiac and pulmonary failure”. In other words, his heart stopped, but he was likely suffering from some form of congestive heart failure. He was reputedly quite obese as well as an alcoholic.

Among his entire family, including his former wife (my mother in law) there has been a noted absence of curiosity about Bob. When I broached the subject with them, what I usually heard was that he was just a bad man. The less said about him the better. Yet I found myself wanting to know more about Bob. For better or for worse he help shaped the woman I married.

My wife essentially grew up without a father. In the first six years of her life, her father did live in the household. However, he was not the nurturing type. My wife does not remember much about him in part because she was so young. What she does remember is not flattering. He was loud. He and her mother argued a lot. Perhaps that is how she acquired her introversion. Perhaps it was safer to be alone in a room reading a book than to deal with the ugly reality of two parents yelling at each other.

By early grade school, her mother and father were divorced. Her mother had custody, but her father had informal visitation rights. Her father’s idea of daughter-father time was to take her to bars to meet his friends. Since her brother was nearly ten years older than she was, she spent much of her formative years living with only her mother. There was no June Cleaver mother waiting for her after school with milk and cookies; she had to work. In the mid 1960s, she was the only child of divorce in her entire class and felt its stigma.

Trying to know her father so many years later is a challenge. Bob apparently was loud. He argued a lot in front of the children. At times, he had trouble maintaining a job. He was obsessed with his son excelling in sports, but not enough to bother to attend any of his games. My mother in law claims that he never physically abused her, but her son remembers differently. He recalls one episode when he was so angry that he put his fist through a wall. For a day or two, my wife was an innocent six-year-old girl embroiled in a nasty marital dispute. Her father essentially abducted her for a few days. Her brother, then sixteen at the time, threatened to kill their father if he ever showed up in their lives again. Apparently, he took his threat seriously and disappeared. He reappeared only to sympathetic siblings that hoped for his rehabilitation.

I had this image of Bob as fat, a drunkard, coarse and abusive. However, a discussion about Bob with my mother in law this week (we were in Phoenix, Arizona) portrays a somewhat different man. He did not always drink to excess, but when he drove a beer truck, he had more opportunities to imbibe, so that may have started his addiction. That and perhaps his loveless marriage seemed to tip the balance toward dysfunction. I imagined him running around with other women but that was not the case. He wanted to desperately to save their marriage. My mother in law wanted it to end because she was not in love with him. Much of his emotional abuse was manifested as reckless attempts to keep their marriage together. He had a hard time coping with the reality that there was no way he could win back her love. Moreover, my mother in law was doing quite well in the workplace by the standards of Flint, Michigan. She could provide for her children on her own income. She was eventually able to purchase her own home and even furnish is with brand new furniture. As she entered her teens, my wife had a home in the suburbs at last with her own bedroom and supportive neighbors. My mother in law made the best life she could for her daughter.

Nor was Bob a bad provider. He managed to stay employed in decent blue-collar jobs throughout his marriage. It appears that the divorce and his messy abduction of my wife triggered a long descent. He lived in Denver for a while, close to one of his sisters. I have heard that he probably had adult diabetes. He may have lost a leg because of his drinking. He sounds like a man who was probably clinically depressed for much of his life. Like most people born in the 1930s, he chain-smoked.

Talking with Aunt Pat I learned something of his family of birth. He was raised in a poor North Carolina household. The family eventually moved to California. He grew up in a family full of marital strife and high drama. Perhaps I assumed he was a philanderer because he had the opportunity to learn it from his father. His father and mother eventually divorced. Bob became the family’s black sheep. Aunt Pat was pulled toward the other extreme. She embraced religion. Now in her early eighties she remains a devout Adventist who despite her background managed to add a PhD to her name. Pat also sponsored my wife for several months when she moved to the Washington area. Were it not for Pat’s loving heart, I would never have met my wife.

Only my mother in law offers a different perspective of Bob from the other stories I heard. He was a good provider when they were married to each other. He only actually hit her once, and he just pushed her. She was not physically injured. She just did not love him. She wanted to be free of him. In particular, she wanted to follow her infatuation with the man who was her boss.

It appears that their divorce instigated Bob’s long, slow and painful downhill spiral. Eventually he ended up homeless in Searchlight, Nevada. He ended up sick but made it to a hospital in Henderson, Nevada. He died there ignobly and most likely alone. With no one to claim his body, the Clark County Social Services Department took up the slack. They paid for his cremation. His remains are now deep in a county crypt somewhere in here in Las Vegas. They can be released to the family if sufficient documentation is provided and for a $200 fee.

While I am forwarding these details to Aunt Pat, I doubt anyone will claim his remains. No one mourned his passing. In fact, everyone seems glad to know that he has exited this world. With Bob gone, their lives became just a little less stressful too.

We arrived in Las Vegas today, where my wife and daughter will attend a convention. I was going to try to track them down along with any records maintained by the county that may exist. However, after a couple phone calls I know not to bother. There is no place to go to see what is left of my father in law. There is no county crypt with his name on it that I can photograph. They will not even release his records, not even to family. It is prohibited by HIPAA regulations. There is a possibility that I could retrieve his hospital records, if a local probate court grants the writ, but it is unlikely it would shed much information about the last years of his life.

Therefore, I fill in what I can with sketchy information, anecdotes and a certain amount of reasonable conjecture. I should be angry with my father in law too. I should be angry at his abduction of his own daughter. I should be angry at how he used her, a vulnerable child, as a pawn in a larger personal war. Nevertheless, I am also now aware that in many ways Bob was acting out the behavior he witnessed inside his own dysfunctional family.

I do not know how long Clark County in Nevada will hold his remains. They will likely not stay in county custody forever. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in a hundred, Bob’s remains, like the many of indigent homeless men and women who have the misfortune of dying out here in the desert, will be unceremoniously dumped into a county landfill. After all, there are plenty of new desperate and homeless people in Las Vegas. Others wandering the streets here tonight are doomed to also share his fate.

Everyone just wants to forget about Bob. Perhaps I should too. Perhaps instead of keeping his death certificate, I should throw it out with the garbage. “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,” the poet John Donne once wrote. My Unitarian Universalist values call me to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every human being including less than stellar humans like my wife’s father.

It is nice to know that Bob was not entirely a bad man. Most likely, he was just a lost man, who never knew love and consequently did not know how to show it. It is good to know that he loved my mother in law in his own inept way, even if she did not feel the same way. It is good to know that even though he never paid child support, he helped support his family for a number of years. It is also sad and a bit pathetic that his life devolved the way it did.

This leaves only me, lamenting only not knowing the man who sired the woman I love. I wish I could have a conversation or two with him and hear about life from his perspective. It may be that after such a conversation, like his son, I would want to kill him. Instead, I feel an unrequited mild curiosity. It might be the hardest thing I would ever do, but if he were alive here in front of me, I would try to give him a hug. Somehow, I do not think he ever received one.

There is just a cardboard urn of his ashes somewhere here in the Clark County crypt. There they are likely to remain forever unclaimed.

 
The Thinker

The Graduate

Time sneaks up on you when you are a parent. One day you are changing your daughter’s diaper and the next she is on a stage being handed a diploma. You stand there applauding, tears streaming down your face and hoarsely shouting her name to ten thousand attendees. The principle shakes her hand with his right hand while giving her her diploma with his left hand.

It is strange and surreal. You would feel like singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof except you are too choked up to sing. Also, there is the constant drone of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” from the school orchestra. Still, you would sing it if you could, for you are filled with a powerful and bittersweet feeling. Your heart just aches for the love you feel for your child, now a woman.

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he get to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small?

Your heart also aches in sorrow, for the bridges of dependency you know you must slowly burn as your daughter to transitions into an adult. You want her to stay at home forever, playing video games, attending sleepovers and going to Girl Scout meetings. Instead, you realize that part of the parenting experience is behind you. You now express your love by letting her go. Now comes a time when love will look a little sterner and at times a little heartless. Every bird reaches an age when the parent unceremoniously kicks the hatchling out of the nest. So too do you realize that it is your solemn parental duty to do the same, perhaps not by suddenly changing the locks, but by sending your daughter out to get a real job, and to learn to do things like paying rent. Since she has elected to take a year off before going to college, she has to get a job to stay at home. After she turns eighteen, our daughter will start paying us rent, $200 a month to start.

When not overcome by emotion you sit there in the George Mason University Patriot Center, one of ten thousand attendees and are a bit mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the enormous Class of 2007. For our daughter Rosie is a graduate of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia. To say she is one of many is to put it mildly. There are over seven hundred students in her graduating class. It will take a full hour for all the graduates to get their diplomas. Principle Tim Thomas’ arms will be sore for a week.

The number of graduates may be huge, but I am feeling wistful anyhow. This is the sort of high school graduation that I wanted but I never received. Instead of a huge auditorium, my class graduated at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Unlike my graduation, where a thunderstorm took out the lights for ninety minutes, this graduation proceeded like clockwork. And unlike my graduation where a fair number of graduating seniors smoked reefers in the darkness while they waited for the lights to come back on, at this graduation the mere failure of the men to wear black pants or the girls to wear a black dress and heels was sufficient grounds to be thrown out of the ceremony.

Yes, it may be corny, but an orchestra has to play “Pomp and Circumstance”. Of course, there has to be brief speeches by the principle, the class historian, the class president and the class valedictorian, none of which really inspires anyone, particularly the graduates. They are more focused on the all night party at the school that will follow graduation. Still, these things are necessary. It is how the reality of graduation sinks in. Anything less and the ceremony is stripped of its meaning and dignity. Still, these graduates are not without a sense of humor. Despite stern admonitions and a pat down of students before graduation, two inflatable beach balls were tossed among the graduates while diplomas were handed out. In addition, despite stern warnings not to do so, a few yahoos in the audience used their air horns anyhow. No graduation is complete without it turning into something of a popularity contest; you can judge a graduate’s popularity by the volume of cheers he or she gets when their name is announced.

Nonetheless, my daughter’s graduation was still deeply satisfying for this parent. I found myself crying at strange times, like when the orchestra struck up a tune from West Side Story but the graduates had not yet filed in. Perhaps it was the jet lag (I had arrived home from Denver, at 1 AM, and was up at 6:30 AM). Perhaps it was the wedding I attended the day before. (I was crying through that too.) On the other hand, perhaps through my daughter’s graduation I was vicariously experiencing the graduation I wanted, but was denied.

It was likely all these things, but mostly I was feeling obnoxious pride at my daughter’s accomplishment. She may not have been class valedictorian, but that was an unattainable goal among 700 plus students anyhow. For now, her proud father was simply awed that she had survived high school and eked out a better than B average. That is no small accomplishment in the 21st century and in a high school ranked 128th in the country. Despite her inexperience, my daughter adroitly dodged all the teenage minefields in front of her. She could have become drug addicted, hooked on tobacco, pregnant, in a car wrapped around a telephone poll or acquired some social disease. She rebelled by truly being different, even among her peers. Not many freshmen would join the Gay-Straight Alliance, or go on to be its vice president. While mostly she navigated below the radar of the preppy and popular, when she stood up, she did so for things she believed in: like civil rights for those whose lifestyle offended the majority of Virginians. How could I not feel pride in a young woman whose values are that well grounded?

As one of the speakers said, graduation is really the end of the beginning, as in the end of childhood. Now our daughter begins a strange and much different chapter of her life, where she navigates regularly to a job, does things she does not want to do for eight hours at a time, smiles when she does not want to, pays rent and learns to live within her means. Perhaps she will learn some other lessons, like what it feels like to be fired, laid off or to make a catastrophically bad choice that eluded her in high school. She will have that right in September when she turns 18. She tells me that one of the first things she plans do when she turns 18 will be to register to vote.

That is how we all learn, of course: by making choices and observing their results in the often nebulous minefield called reality. She is bound to stumble and she will have to learn how to recover by herself. Perhaps this year off from education will be the best education she will ever get. For the one course they cannot teach you in high school is how to navigate real life. Some things cannot be taught; they can only be experienced.

I expressed my confidence that she will make these choices wisely. I too must learn some new skills. I must learn to keep my lips buttoned and to give advice only when asked, and maybe not even then. Our daughter remains leery and cautious about engaging life, but she is not dysfunctional. She remains a nerdy, eclectic but sweet young woman, much like her parents. Her sense of caution will serve her well. She will sort it out in her own way. Her choices may surprise us and occasionally disagree with us. However, those choices will be authentically her own.

We have released the tether and she is unmoored. She is trying out the oars of her life tentatively. Ever so slowly, she will recede from our view.

 

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