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The Thinker

Our snow event

The Northeast United States, as you may have heard, has been under a “snow event” lately. This blizzard dumped two feet of snow in my neighborhood and kept my family largely confined to our house for three days. Today we adults struggle back toward something called normalcy. Our daughter Rosie still has no school. Somehow I doubt (seeing the condition of the streets) that schools can possibly open tomorrow.

Our last major “snow event” (as the newspapers called it) was back in 1996. Happily this went a bit better than that event. That blizzard found me with a bad case of the flu and my daughter with a chronic ear infection and unable to see a doctor. That left my wife to do all the work, including the snow shoveling. One improvises at times like that. We reached a doctor on the telephone and found out it was okay to borrow some antibiotics from a friend down the street. The DEA wasn’t going to come after us.

This event allowed me to repay the karmic debt to my wife for not being available in 1996. It was my wife Terri’s turn this time to be miserable. Something triggered severe headaches and she was largely down for the count. That left me to tackle winter. My philosophy was “keep shoveling” so during the blizzard I was out three times clearing surfaces. Monday morning found the storm finally receding but four inches of heavy, crunchy new snow on the ground. The stuff weighed a ton and had to be broken up one square at a time. It was hard going and tedious work. However, the weight machines I have been using at the health club were a big benefit. My biceps and shoulder muscles were in great shape. They never got particularly sore.

With the driveway cleared we realized we were all dressed up but had no place to go. Tuesday morning arrived and we discovered a snowplow had opened a single lane to our subdivision. Unfortunately that was it, and there was an additional twelve feet of road I had to cut through until we could connect our driveway with the street. So like my neighbors I was out there basically shoveling the street! But at least the sun was shining. I took off my coat for a while.

There is something about a major snowstorm to both fear and admire. The fear was wondering what would happen if we got sick or injured. My wife Terri was convinced for a while she had a sinus infection. The wonder was how awesome Mother Nature can be when she wants to be, and how transformed and peaceful all can become during and after such a snowstorm.

For a while anyhow I didn’t have to worry about Code Orange. Life became a lot less complicated. Life was pretty much shoveling snow, listening to my wife complain about her headache, and in those few spare hours taking advantage of the extra time to prepare for the class I teach on Saturday. I could mostly tune out impending wars in Iraq as something surreal. This was how we survived most of human history: just getting through one day at a time using our wits. It was nice to know that through sheer human perseverance I could beat Mother Nature one more time. All I needed were a few snow shovels, a lot of time, and a huge amount of endurance.

You can find pictures of our “event” here.

Back to Code Orange.

 
The Thinker

Old Friends

They’re back: people I thought were out of my life years and years ago. In some cases I found them. In other cases they found me. In some cases they just showed up again.

I went and found Tom, my best friend from grades 4-9. It took the Internet for me to find him. We lost touch with each other a year or two after my family moved to Florida in 1972. Tom was a cool friend who loved the space program as much as I did, and together we collaborated on a number of things that made childhood really exciting and kept us from smoking dope or hanging out with loose women. We constructed model rockets and model spacecraft together (Tom was so good with the detailing!). We built interiors of simulated spacecraft and made pretend trips to the moon, or just went into a pretend orbit around the earth. We formed our own movie company and created Super 8 films that seemed brilliant to us. But there were tensions in our relationship. His family was pretty dysfunctional. Mine was dysfunctional too, but on a different sort of level. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found him many years later, living in Oregon, he had followed his creative bent and had done quite well for himself in the advertising business. But with the crash in the economy he was vastly underemployed and I believe he is still struggling. He now has two young sons and a lovely wife. But he is 3000 miles away. I’m hoping one day we will be able to share the same room again. It’s been 30 years! It’s so nice to find that when we email each other to find that we are still fundamentally the same people. We’re 15-year-old kids still on the inside. And his passion for the space program is undiminished, as is mine. Was it just coincidence that after so many years we would both be passionate liberals, even though we were faux Republicans in the early 70s?

Tim and I were young adults together. I was freshly relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. The year was 1980. It was recession in America. I had a degree in communications but no one wanted to hire me. I was working for not much more than dog food at a Montgomery Ward. Tim showed up one day and became one of our fence salesmen. Tim and I were ducks out of water in that place. We were both failures as salesmen. He had a wife and her income to fall back on, I had to eek out a living on wages averaging $4-$5 an hour. We conspired to turn the place into a union shop, but largely failed (retail workers are such weasels). I was drawn to Tim anyhow because he was a brilliant person. We were both so out of place at Wards, but we enjoyed analyzing the people who worked there. We had it all figured out. It was Tim who helped me get out of the retail business and into the federal government. Tim had somehow gotten a job doing clerical stuff at the Defense Mapping Agency. With his help I knew were to send applications. A GS-4 paid a lot better than a lawn and garden salesman. We worked together for DMA for a number of years, and even carpooled together. By the mid 80s though Tim had divorced his wife and had moved to Illinois to do graduate school. I was moving in with my live in girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. And he dropped off my radar until he found me last year on the Internet. Ah, the power of Google! Last year he was in town and we got together and looked at old haunts. The Wards store we worked at now as Toys R Us on the bottom floor and a Burlington Coat factory on the top floor. Tim worked a variety of jobs in the Midwest and recently completed a midlife PhD. Still brilliant he certainly could be doing better, but is home on the farm helping the family and his aging mother. He’s doing the right thing and stepping up to the plate where most sons wouldn’t. I hope the second half of his life allows him to put his considerable talents to more practical use. It’s funny how life turns out for people sometimes.

Stephanie was in my carpool during my early Pentagon days. She was there for six months, or maybe it was a year. I didn’t have too many fond feelings for Stephanie, but heck we were just riding a car together. It was a casual relationship. I liked the fact that she was young, and blonde, and had just gotten a degree, and was an environmentalist. But she didn’t know how to be on time. That drove the rest of us in the carpool crazy. So often we would wait for her to show up, or we would just leave without her. When it was her turn to drive we had no idea if she’d show up. Around 1993 she fell in love with an older man and was going to run off to Utah of all places to live with him while she did the grad school thing. She also wanted to be a Mom and envisioned herself carrying her kid in her knapsack while she did her field research. One lady in the carpool got a wedding invitation. I didn’t but I didn’t feel hurt. When she left I figured she was living happily every after somewhere, except I had a kind of gut instinct that her happily ever after marriage wouldn’t work. And I was right about that. It was over very quickly. Anyhow last year she shows up at the Unitarian Church I attend last year. Was I surprised when I got up to speak during Joys and Sorrows to see her face staring back at me. As I had suspected, real life had indeed wacked her around pretty hard. Her ideal marriage quickly crumbled, but she met the true love of her life on the rebound. She has three kids, all preschool age, and she plans to home school all of them. And we talk quite a bit after services. I like the new Stephanie much more than the old Stephanie. Whatever she has been through these last ten years it must have been tough. It’s taken a toll on her. I haven’t pried into her personal life. But she seems to be the model mother and Unitarian Universalist now. In a strange way I’m glad real life wacked her around a bit. Now she is imbued with a depth of character that I personally appreciate a lot more than the right out of college Stephanie.

It’s probably good that I am seeing people from my past. In particular both Tim and Tom are critical links to a past that seems increasingly distant. Yet both were essential characters in my story, and perhaps I am in their story as well.

 
The Thinker

20 Years in Club Fed: A Mixed Blessing

This week at a staff meeting my boss called me up to the front and presented me with a certificate and a pin. Apparently I’ve been employed with the federal government for twenty years. Instead of making me feel better, it just made me feel old and depressed.

Perhaps it’s not good to have these things happen so close to your birthday. I turn 46 tomorrow. But 20 years in anything is a long time. In actuality I left the federal government for about a year in 1987 and came back in early 1989. So while I started work in 1981 a few weeks before Ronald Reagan came into office, because I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a while my “service computation date” is 1981, plus fifteen months or so. Sometime last year, probably in May, I hit the 20-year mark. The government being what it is, it took this long for me to get the obligatory certificate and pin.

Perhaps it doesn’t feel like 20 years because I’ve moved around. I started out as a lowly clerk typist for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. In 1981 we were in recession and even a lowly clerk typist job was better than where I was at: selling lawn and garden stuff for Montgomery Ward. My friend Tim Bagwell from those Wards days who suggested I come to work for DMA. As miserly as the GS-4 wages were back then, they look liked a king’s ransom compared to my wages with Wards.

Things obviously improved since then. By the end of 1981 I was working as a production controller in the Graphic Arts Department as a GS-5. It was sort of related to my degree, which had been in communications;I had just never really studied printing. It was the Wang 2200T “calculator” (minicomputer) that we had the piqued my curiosity about all things computer related and I was soon using it and an Apple 2 Plus computer to manage my work. Every one else was using index cards. I had sort of liked the one programming course I had in college in the 70s, but it was such a pain to deal with punch cards and wait hours for jobs to be run that there was not much “fun” in the experience. A “real time” computer was a different story.

I took a COBOL course and used it to get an entry level programming job one floor up. I never looked back. My only deficiency was the lack of a degree in the field. I finally took care of that in the last half of the 90s when I went back to school and got a masters degree in software system engineering. Now I hardly ever touch a line of code, at least on the job. I do mostly project management stuff, which is not terribly inspiring. It does however pay well.

After being laid off by the Democrats and having scrambled on a contract for three months to make ends meet I ended back in Club Fed with the Air Force. I spent nine years toiling in the bowels (actually the third floor) of the Pentagon. I made minor and major changes to legacy budget systems written in PL/1 but eventually got put on a number of “cool” projects using something called a “client/server” architecture. And I guess I did well. In 1997 when that organization royally pissed me off and I shopped my resume within Club Fed, I was quickly picked up by HHS and here I am.

Things being what they are I wonder how much longer I will stay in Club Fed. The work is not terribly challenging, but at this point the benefits are good and the steady income stream is something I can appreciate after so many lean years. The biggest reason for me to stay though is not the money, but the time off. For the first time in my life I have the leisure to do things. I can take substantial chunks of time off and explore other areas of life, such as teaching. So I am grateful for the income (I am a GS-14) and I have often been proud of my accomplishments over the years too.

But the trend to replace federal workers with contractors seems to only be accelerating. There are really no cost savings to this contracting out business any more, but it is political anathema to suggest it. Politicians like the illusion that the government is shrinking when in fact it gets more and more bloated every year. So I may be offered an early out at some point, although 46 is probably way too early for such an offer. And then what will I do? I do know that by age 56 I could retire with a full pension should I so choose. And I probably will.

So the 20-year pin probably is just causing more denial of age feelings. I am sure I have plenty of company. I am sanguine now about the cost of completely following my heart. I work now not so much for the joy of having accomplished something significant, but to pay bills and provide for those I love. The current trends suggest that work for me will continue to be less and less interesting. But at some point, probably after I leave federal service, maybe work will become inspiring again.

 
The Thinker

A Neighbor in Hell

Does life have you down? Do you feel overwhelmed by circumstance and wish you could start over? I often feel that way, not because I really don’t like my life that much nor not love my family. But sometimes even when I think my own personal problems are overwhelming, I can take some comfort in knowing that for other people things can, and indeed often are, much worse. This is a perverse sort of comfort, but it does help me realize that in the grand scheme of things my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Latest case in point has to do with a 14-year-old friend of my daughter who must, of course, remain nameless. Our daughter (thankfully) has been confiding in us that this girl, who I shall call “B”, has been cutting herself. These are not the sort of cuts from someone trying to take her life. She’s not bleeding from an open wound in the bathtub. But she is doing this and Rosie caught her at it at school, where B was using tissues to catch the blood. Thankfully Rosie is not stupid and immediately brought it to the teacher’s attention. The teacher immediately sent B to see a student counselor. Things escalated from there. B is now in the children’s psychiatric wing of a local hospital and will likely be in there for some time.

Because, you see, B’s family is dysfunctional. Her mother C is trying to hold the family together but it seems to be a lost cause. Because C is married to D who lost his job some months back and who also a world-class alcoholic in complete denial. C and D spent lots of time having arguments. D doesn’t think he has a problem even though he is staggeringly drunk most of the time. C is embarrassed to be seen with him. Naturally all the yelling, not to mention having a drunk father 24/7 is freaking B out. Fortunately her younger brother E seems to be largely immune from all this.

C has been trying to keep the family together on the belief that it is best for the children. But it is becoming apparent that some marriages can be so toxic that it is not best for the kids. B’s latest cutting tendency is no doubt a response to the rage and pain that she feels in her life but can’t control. B is in many ways an exceptionally bright and pleasant girl.

C needs to escape from all this once in a while … who can blame her? So she took off for a retreat with some friends. B immediately stopped taking her medications and D was too drunk to notice or to care. C gets called home prematurely from her retreat when the school calls. B is still in the hospital. C comes to visit, but B spurns C. B probably blames C for her whole family situation, not realizing that it is C who is doing her best in impossible situations.

All this, of course, while the family income is cut in half. Painful financial decisions will have to be made, like downsizing their life and perhaps selling their house. But the most painful of all, but perhaps most necessary of all, if for C to separate and divorce D. D may well end up on the street, homeless. He doesn’t seem to have a true friend in the world. Maybe D will hit rock bottom and go into recovery. It doesn’t look likely though.

Man, I want to pour a stiff one from just hearing about this! I can’t imagine living this scenario 24/7! My heart really though goes out to all of them. C is doing her best under impossible conditions. B is a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had all this nasty stuff thrown at her at such a young age. And as much as I don’t like D being a drunk and wish he’d sober up, alcoholism is a disease, so I have sympathy for the guy and an addiction that is clouding his brain so much that rational thought is pretty much impossible.

We’ll see how this soap opera plays out. The good part is that C has now fully confided in my wife and my wife, bless her, wants to help out where she can. We might even host B in our house for a while. B might get better being in a normal family setting for a while.

As awful as this family’s situation is, there are other stories I know of personally that would make this one look like nothing. This is just the one I know about at the moment.

My life: I think I’ll keep it!

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The Thinker

Nervous Parents

It can be tough being a parent of a 13-year-old daughter. It can be even tougher actually being a 13-year old girl in 2003. So far though I think we are doing okay as parents. As an only child my daughter Rosie has certain advantages, including a lot more parental attention than most kids get. She’s also got two parents who while we are involved in her life, neither of us are obsessed over her life. We try to give her as much freedom as we think appropriate for her age and maturity level. But it’s hard to know where the sliding bar of parental control should be set on a particular day. I find myself sliding it back and forth between wanting to have more control and wanting to be hands off and to trust to her. Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I mess up badly. Part of this parenting business is learning how to deal with my feelings when I screw up. Letting go is new to me too, and it doesn’t come easily, nor is it fun.

While we have it pretty good I’m not naive enough to think it will be smooth sailing through the teenage years. I can watch my daughter’s friends and cringe for their parents. One friend of Rosie’s up the street has tried to commit suicide. She reputedly swallowed most of a bottle of Tylenol. Stomach got pumped, kid was back on the street knocking on our door a day later. We were aghast. If Rosie had done this she would be seeing shrinks and she certainly wouldn’t be allowed out of the house except for school for a very, very long time. This is a sign of a major crisis, not something to be swept under the rug. Here is a girl out of control with perhaps too much freedom who really doesn’t want the freedom she has. But her parents and nonplussed by it all. Somehow I suspect she will try something similar again.

Another of her friends, a very bright and energetic gal, is also subject to violent mood swings, takes a fist full of antidepressants every day and regularly sees a shrink. We hear rumors of long fights with her mother, who is kind and caring. But it doesn’t seem to matter. This girl runs on emotion and mood swings. When in a bad mood words aren’t taken to heart. I guess it doesn’t help that her father appears to be a drunk and is unemployed. I can see this kid in therapy for most of her life, if she is smart enough to stay in therapy.

Both of these two charming young ladies are friends bound together by some sort of complex toxic relationship they can’t get out of. They have run away from home once together already. Fortunately they were found a couple miles away a few hours later. We watched one get felt up by a boy in the park across the street (Terri called her Mom right quick), and have heard rumors of the other hanging out with dangerous boys. Both girls seem to have this notion that if they find a guy who likes them they will love them and be happy. They don’t see that their real anger and struggle is with their parents, and that boys are a balm they think will solve the parental problem, or at least make it easier to deal with. It doesn’t take an abacus to see pregnancy and venereal diseases in their future. Fortunately Rosie is something of a stabilizing influence on both of them. They hang out at our house so often I think just to have a semblance of a normal life. Whatever they want they don’t seem to be getting it at home.

And yet all is not well with my daughter. She’s feeling her oats. Chat room conversations get minimized when we approach the computer. I find links to online dating services in our browser. She has lots of web mail accounts. It would be easy to ban her from the Internet and we certainly could monitor everything she does online. But there are costs to this obsessive parental nosiness too. It can feed resentment and rebellion and make it hard to be heard on other issues. And we can’t keep the real world away from her forever. We can, and do, spend a lot of time talking about the consequences of her choices. She has a good a sex education as I can give her. Not only did she hear it from us (we talk about the emotional consequences of intimate relationships), and from school, but she has taken the official Unitarian Universalist Church sex ed course too. Ignorance will not be an issue for her, but will she have the grounding and good sense to take things slow? It is hard to ignore the call of hormones. And I don’t think they have quite kicked in yet. I expect from 14-16 things will be much wilder.

In the end the choices she makes must be hers to make. She should not be monitored 24/7. Trust must be placed in her, even if the trust is tentative and not wholly earned. She must learn through experience too. All the education in the world will not teach her how to deal with her feelings when a boy expresses affection for her for the first time, or pushes her intimacy buttons. We think we laid a good groundwork for her during her childhood by being open, communicative, discussing hard issues. Hopefully her failures will be few and she will learn her lessons quickly and move on. But fail she must because it is only through failure that the complexities of the real world are fully understood and properly processed.

Read the next chapter

 
The Thinker

Ruminations on community colleges

Schools out! I teach a class in Web Page Design at Northern Virginia Community College and I gave the final exam today. Just as well because we are off to Hawaii on the 20th.

This is the fifth time I’ve taught a course and the fourth time I’ve teached this particular course. My students are a mixture of folk from all walks of life and all ages. I’ve taught people pushing 60, and one 16 year old kid. There are a fair number of immigrant types, housewives, working people and a number of people who have all the degrees they need and just audit the course.

But the pattern is about the same every semester. Things always start off well but invariably over the course of a semester about a third of the class will withdraw or drop out. There are students who show up for maybe one class and then stop coming and don’t care if they get an F in the class. There are a lot of students who it would seem don’t understand that this is a college course. Some seem to think it is still high school, or even grade school, because they consider reading and homework optional. If they can’t gleem the information from the slides I present and labs in class then too bad … even if they pay a grade penalty.

When I first started teaching I thought community colleges had a reputation of being a place where you get an easy grade. My mentor assured me that was not the case and I had to stick to my standards. I do. But it is discouraging to see how many students just done seem to care, or don’t understand that a course requires time and commitment. Has it always been this way and I never noticed? I am discouraged about the future of our work force.

Not that teaching doesn’t have its good times, but there are a lot of discouraging times. Nonetheless I keep at it because, frankly, it’s fun and it’s much more interesting than the sort of stuff I do for my primary paycheck. And it forces me to keep up with technology I would probably not apply in practice at work where I do project management.

I don’t think my course is all that hard. It’s by no means easy but compared to the courses I took in college it’s about average. Nonetheless I have a reputation of being a “hard” instructor. A’s are not a given. I feel grades should mean something and usually an A in my class does mean something … students have a real good grasp of the content I was teaching.

I mean my class is not half as hard as the least difficult course I took in grad school. And I realize I know the material and it’s largely new to my class.

Many are called to try college, but fewer seemed to be willing to invest the time it takes to earn a grade that demonstrates you understand the topic. That’s discouraging.

 
The Thinker

My very own blog

I guess it’s time to share my opinions with the world. Not that I haven’t been doing that already. I share lots of opinions, mostly to captive audiences like family and members of my email lists, or people on my forum. But until now I had no way to reach the larger public out there … the sort of sit around in their underpants eating oatmeal while watching reruns of Barney … but now I have! And hopefully this is a good thing.

So it’s time I give this medium a try. If it works for my pal Lisa and she gets such joy out of it, maybe I will too.

Your guess as to what will appear here is as good as mine. I’m just a 45 year old guy living in suburbia, doing software engineering and project management for Club Fed (the federal government). But there should be enough to keep me stimulated and continue writing here because in many ways I live an out of place existence. I’m a liberal in a community up to its eyeballs in Republicans and people driving to get groceries in monster SUVs while living in huge McMansions with tiny little lawns. Yes, the dictotomy of my observations compared to the way things really work gives me plenty of things to post here to the world. I doubt you will be bored.

 

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