One Year of Blogging

My first blog entry was a little over a year ago: December 14, 2002. Since that time I have posted 103 entries. 57 people out there left comments for me to ponder. (Actually there were more than that, but I had to get rid of a lot of spam comments.)

My friend Lisa who still keeps her own active blog inspired me to create my own blog. It was not a difficult thing for me to do because I had already helped her set up her blog, or at least helped her move it from Greymatter to Moveable Type. Setting my blog up was easy; but it did take a few days to purchase a domain name and to park it in my real domain. In actuality this blog rests inside my domain. It’s cheaper that way.

Every blog has a style and it took me a while for me to develop mine. Most blogs I read are streams of consciousness blogs. In these blogs entries are posted daily, sometimes many times a day, and contain a lot of the random thoughts and minutia that daily happen to a person. Such detail about my life would put me to sleep; on a daily basis my life is not all that interesting. I suspect it would put my readers to sleep too, so I’ve largely avoided it. Rather I’ve focused my blog on content. My mind often races with thoughts and perspectives on issues that I consider profound and different, but I also believe are usually dead on. I often feel like I am a pretty good prognosticator of future events from present day patterns, and just putting them out there makes me feel better. I feel good, for example, about predicting our country’s debacle in Iraq before it happened. Now I have a place to put these thoughts. They exist not so much to share it with the world as to act as a sort of living memory.

Most blog have limits. I sometimes wish I had a blog where my real identity was not out there for all to see. Like everyone I struggle with issues that I don’t necessarily want people to tie directly to me. It would be nice to capture these issues and insecurities somewhere, but I won’t do it here. I doubt my wife would like our lives quite that exposed, and I don’t want to expose voyeuristic details of my life to the world at large anyhow. I’ve already gotten some feedback that this journal is a little too personal. I’ve written about my daughter’s sexuality and the problems of neighbors on the street. I skirt boundaries of propriety from time to time, but so far I do not feel ashamed or think any of the content here is inappropriate. Life as we all know is messy from time to time, so why not expose some of that mess to the rest of the world? Readers can infer the rest. My personal life is messy too; so is yours.

I started this journal hoping that perhaps it would be more widely read. I fancy myself something of a writer. I’m no Sinclair Lewis but I am probably a better writer than most out here in blogland. If I were to judge by comments left here, not a whole lot of people read this blog. But I also can look at statistics provided by my web host and I do get hits on this site. Of those who bother to rate me on, over half rate my site as either “Good” or “Love It!” 31% don’t like this site and rate it as “Sucks” and “Hate it”. Well, there’s no accounting for taste and I don’t lose sleep if it turns some people off. But blogging is very “in” at the moment and it seems like it has moved from the avant garde to the masses. Because there are so many blogs out there mine won’t draw any special attention. Unlike, say, DailyKOS there is no theme to my blog to suck in a particular community, although I tend to dwell on politics quite a bit.

I have found that I can’t write briefly. I find if something is worth saying, it is worth saying well and fully. I compose my entries in Microsoft Word and carefully edit them; nonetheless it is a rare entry that is less than two pages long. I sometimes wonder how many people make it to the end of an entry.

I also blog, I think, because some part of me misses writing. I did so much of it in my youth and it energized me. Since then I haven’t really had the time. A blog gives me an excuse to focus on my thoughts and feelings by writing about them, and it gives me a place to share them with the world. Occasionally though I write on something that piques the interest of a number of strangers. A good political entry will usually generate a comment or two. The most passionate comments came from my entry about how I have lost interest in Star Trek. I was also surprised to find some passionate comments when I discussed the situation of a neighbor of ours.

There is something existential about my blog. It seems to mean as much as I wish it to mean. No one would miss it if I dropped it tomorrow. I wouldn’t miss it that much either. I sometimes force myself to sit down a couple times a week and write about something even though my life is already plenty busy. If nothing else it provides a means for me to reflect on my life and this world I inhabit. Actually writing about some of these things requires me to put my thoughts done concretely and to think through my own opinions and issues.

So I intend to keep the blog going. It is getting harder to think of fresh things to post here. However I have surprised myself so far. This blog is a lot denser and more alive with meaningful content than I expected. And it is good to know that people I care about actually read my blog from time to time. I know my wife stops here occasionally, and some of her friends have stumbled on my blog through her and read it. My two favorite Toms, my brother Tom and my long time friend Tom Cheevers read my blog. And hopefully the lady who turned me onto blogging, Lisa is still coming here regularly. If nothing else I will show up. If I keep conversation with no one but myself, at least it is a sign that I am alive, I am thinking through issues and I am marking the passages in my life.

My nemesis the cat

I must be a very bad pet owner.

We have two rather geriatric cats. They recently turned seventeen years old. They were purchased in early 1987 as something of a house warming present for ourselves. We had purchased our town house six months earlier and weren’t planning children any time soon.

We had managed to find another home for a rather neurotic cat left over from my wife’s single days and were petless. Dixie, the previous cat, was a very large, extremely beautiful but very neurotic cat. She insisted on sleeping with us (because my wife let him), in the process usually taking up most of my side of the bed. I’ve noticed extremely beautiful people tend to be self centered and neurotic but was surprised that the same seemed to be true of gorgeous cats. This was a cat who was either asleep or licking itself. No one could see Dixie without being immediately drawn to him. This factor worked in our favor when we wanted to find him a new home: he was snapped up by the first person who came over to check him out.

But my wife was used to having furry things around the house and after a couple months she was desperate to have another cat. How could I tell? Perhaps it was because she was wandering around the house saying “Got to have a cat!” all the time. I got the message. This time though she wanted to start with a kitten. The only problem was there were no kittens available and she couldn’t wait. We eventually found some kittens at a Doctors Pet Center in Tysons Corner: three kittens from the same litter. It was pretty much take it or leave it.

Sprite, the good cat
I noticed Sprite right away: a lovely grey and white cat that even at 10 weeks old had a sweet and mellow disposition. Terri noticed Squeaky, the girl cat in the litter. I wasn’t wild about Squeaky but I naively thought two cats from the same litter could become playmates and they would be happier that way.

Clearly I didn’t have much experience with cats! Except for a parakeet, I came from a petless household. I have since learned to never project this feeling on a cat: cats don’t particularly want other cats around. In retrospect we all agreed it would have been better to have gone home with just Sprite. I think Squeaky too would have been much happier. But we were young and foolish so both of them came home.

Squeaky was originally named Pixel. Pixel and Sprite were both computer graphics terms, and I owned a Commodore 64 at the time, so it seemed appropriate. Squeaky’s true personality asserted itself immediately. She is a “never shut up” sort of cat, and she sounded exactly like a door pivoting on a rusty hinge. So Squeaky she became. She answered to it; she never responded to Pixel.

During those brief weeks when they actually seemed like kittens it was Squeaky who was aloof. She wanted nothing to do with us humans. So I kept picking up and playing with Sprite instead and Squeaky went into the corner and ignored us, except at dinner time, or when she wanted to bellow, which was most of the time. We’re not sure why she bellowed. She bellowed at the moon. She bellowed at a fleck of dust. She bellowed I believe because she missed the sound of her own bellowing. After we brought our baby Rosie home from the hospital Squeaky decided that getting up four times a night was simply not enough, and made sure to bellow outside our bedroom door the rest of the time. (We agreed not to let them sleep with us. We still throw them out at night.) Sprite however turned into a sweet, lovey-dovey cat who liked nothing more than to sit forever on your lap while you gently stroked him and he dug his claws into your legs. (I learned to wear heavy jeans most of the time.)

Squeaky, the act from Hell

After a year or two though Squeaky began to figure out that being aloof wasn’t quite what she wanted. She wasn’t the center of attention. So she inserted herself into our lives. We tried our hardest to be nice to her and to pet her and to give her positive attention. But she has always been a nervous Nellie. She was incapable of relaxing. If you put her on your lap she would immediately shift, and shift, and shift, and get up, and yell in your face, and shift … you get the idea. She had to be IN YOUR FACE. Eventually we couldn’t take it anymore so we threw her off our laps. No matter. She’d immediately jump up on our laps again. We’d throw her off. On and off. So it went on this endless round robin and eventually we were yelling at her and she was yelling at us and we entered into classic dysfunctional relationship. It seemed unlikely Squeaky would be amenable to therapy.

Squeaky cannot be satisfied. Ten minutes of lap sitting and she wants twenty. Twenty and she wants forty. Two hours and she won’t be satisfied by four. I have repeatedly tried to figure out if there was any end to the amount of attention she craved. All my experiments have demonstrated it is bottomless. And now it is all these years later and she is still the same way, except she is much older and is now thin as a rail and bulimic. Much of her life, when she isn’t yelling at us, involves eating food and immediately throwing up. I’d think she had some sort of terrible condition, but she’s been doing this for many years.

I make sporadic attempts to be nice to her hoping that maybe her brain will finally reprogram itself. I don’t want to have two to four incidents of daily cat gorp to clean up. I try to put her on my lap and I won’t let her move hoping she’d figure out she needs to sit still if she wants to be on my lap. Immediately she starts moving around and twitching. Sometimes it works for a little while, but thirty minutes later old patterns reassert themselves and she is howling and demanding attention again.

Squeaky has become our nemesis. I open the front door and she is there at the crack yelling at me. Invited or not she follows me around the house. I only feed her in the morning but no matter if I am in the kitchen she figures I must be getting ready to feed her and will follow me around yelling at me seemingly upset that I’m not dishing out kitty caviar. She is always underfoot. We’ve all tripped over her innumerable times. We don’t know how she has survived this long. We don’t know how we have managed to restrain ourselves from kitty homicide. We’ve offered her to all our friends and even strangers. No one will take this cat. She is psycho-kitty.

The stress is too much for Squeaky. She engages in nervous habits. She repeatedly licks her fur near her tail and manages to lick most of it off. She won’t take care of herself. She looks awful. I know I must be a bad pet owner but I can’t think of what else I am supposed to do about her. At this point I think just letting her live is a supreme gesture of humanity on my part, but maybe she’d actually prefer to be put down. I doubt most pet owners would last a year with this cat.

Sprite meanwhile remains the perfect cat. He never demands attention, he only gently inquires. He is content to sit on my lap for hours and gently be stroked. Squeaky observes us with great jealousy but never figures out it that if she were to emulate her brother’s behavior she would be treated the same way.

If ever there were a case for putting a cat on Prozac, Squeaky would be it. So far we haven’t gone that route but even her vet has suggested it as a possibility. Maybe it has come to that. This is a cat that deserves some peace. Apparently no one can give it to her, so keeping her medicated all the time may be a blessing to all of us.

It is now many years later that I realize both cats were misnamed. If I had to do it over again Sprite, the good lap kitty would be named Jeckyl. Squeaky of course would be Hyde.

Over the intervening years Terri has learned that she allergic to cats. We don’t have the heart to get rid of them so she takes lots of antihistamines to deal with it. Both cats are strictly indoor cats, but they must be reaching the end of their natural lifespans. I’ll miss Sprite dreadfully when he dies. I never bonded so well with an animal before. But try as I might I’ll never forget Squeaky. She is one of these unforgettable characters who should be written up in Readers’ Digest. I’ll probably just be relieved when she passes into kitty heaven. I might even sing “Ding, dong the wicked witch is dead!”

A Neighbor in Hell, Part Three

I have written three entries (here, here and here) about a neighbor down the street and her personal hell. I haven’t written about her situation since March. I wish I could report that she is at least ascending into a higher level of Dante’s Hell, but that is not the case. Things have gone from really, really bad to even worse. After last night I feel I simply must write about it again, hopefully to purge it from my system. I hope no one in the neighborhood reads this weblog because it will be pretty obvious who I am writing about.

When last we left C and her daughter B, B was in and out of psychiatric institutions and making sporadic efforts to return to her middle school. After months of work C managed to get her daughter admitted to a full time mental health facility and boarding school for emotionally disturbed children near Leesburg, Virginia. She detailed this whole journey for us a few months back when we invited her over for dinner. Needless to say everyone in the approval process went out of their way to keep this child, who desperately needed help, from getting it. C’s husband D has been unemployed for over a year so they are living off her income but apparently it was too much for her to get public mental health services, even though of course they were exhausting savings and 401-K’s right and left. Keeping up their house payments seemed increasingly doubtful. Anyhow, B finally got admitted and has been in this institution for more than six months now. It is only recently that she has been allowed to come home for a few hours for very well chaperoned visits. How much longer she will stay in this institution is unknown, but thank goodness she is getting full time psychiatric care at last. B is making progress.

Little details about B’s life keep leaking out from time to time. As you may recall C’s husband D is a drunk. I should not have been surprised to learn that B had been hitting Daddy’s hooch. I never had a clue, but I’ve heard that alcoholics are really good at hiding their habit. B told our daughter Rosie that she recently had been clean and sober for a whole year. This is also good news. I hope she can always be that way. This makes me wonder what other bad stuff she had been getting into. We have heard rumors that she had been using marijuana, but now I’m wondering if she got to harder stuff. Perhaps I will find out in time.

No, the real problem is no longer B but husband D. Since his unemployment it has been all downhill. To start off with, he’s had knee surgery to correct some major problems. Apparently he had a lot of pain from it and he’s been on pain killers. Somehow, and I doubt it was something given to him in the hospital, he found a doctor to write him prescriptions for Oxycontin. So he’s been mainlining Oxycontin, along with of course continuing to drink almost all the time. The doctor, we learned, had no idea he was also an alcoholic, although how he could miss it we don’t understand. The rest of us could tell he was a drunk from a hundred paces.

D of course remains in denial about his drinking. C eventually figured out that she had to get him out of the house. He and his drinking gave B opportunities for her steady and disastrous decline. Apparently if two people are married one can’t force the other to get out of the house and he wasn’t leaving. He had no place to go and no money to live anywhere anyhow. He lived off C’s salary. That left C with few alternatives. One was to find an apartment and move there with her son E. The other was to find D an apartment and convince him to move there.

She eventually succeeded in the latter and found him an apartment with a six month lease a few miles away. (Naturally, she has to pay his rent.) Of course D didn’t seem to like the new situation and petitioned to get back in to the house. And C, for reasons I don’t understand, didn’t bother to change the locks.

So a few weeks ago B came home for a supervised visit and there was her drunk father, who she should not see. C talks him into going into the basement, but it isn’t long before reputedly he is cussing up a blue streak at her daughter and blaming her for all of his problems. But there is more. For weeks the man is growing more and more psychotic. He’s had my wife come over to check his computer because he believes that agents are breaking into his computer. Later, it’s not just agents; it’s none other than al Qaeda itself! Yes, Osama bin Laden apparently is targeting D’s computer! Terri, of course, finds nothing wrong with his computer. She should know; she does this stuff for a living but D is not convinced.

We go as a family to see a movie and were to run Rosie by B’s house for a brief visit afterwards before B had to go back to the institution. Rosie and my wife Terri knock on their door. No one answers, but B should not have left yet and the light is on in her bedroom. My wife calls from their driveway using her cell phone. D picks up the phone and goes into a rambling and high pitched dialog about people trying to get him and then the phone goes dead. She tries again; the phone is picked up but there is no answer.

She comes back to our house and we call the police. They come by and ask us questions. We try to reach B’s institution to find out if she arrived back there early. They can’t tell us. We try to reach C but don’t have her cell phone number. Eventually the police go to his house and knock on the door. We don’t know what happened but a little while later an ambulance quietly goes down our street and silently exits some time later.

Much later in the evening we get a call from C. Thankfully B was safe and C had taken her back earlier than we expected. But there is no one at home, the police won’t tell us what happened and C has no idea where her husband is. Later in the week we learn that D was taken to Fairfax Hospital. Apparently he had a massive infection in his knees. He’s been in the hospital since that time. Two weeks of intravenous antibiotics seem to have finally brought the infection under control. We learn that the infection was very advanced and that D was actually pretty close to death. My wife’s concern and our calling the police may well have saved his life!

Now apparently D is close to being released from the hospital. Why we’re not sure, because he still thinks al Qaeda is out to get him. But of course he wants to return home, not go back to his apartment. C, of course, does not want him home. D says there is no bed in his apartment. C decides she will move the futon into his apartment so he can’t use that excuse. I volunteer to help her.

So last night we struggle to get the thing into her minivan and I, and her son E (who is in fourth grade) go to his apartment to deliver it. C brings cleaning supplies with her because the management is upset about the condition of the place.

We enter but can barely get in the door because of all the crap all over the place. I have never seen such a god-awful mess, and believe me I’ve seen a few. I can only begin to describe it. Furniture is tipped over. Birdseed is all over the place. The refrigerator is open and unplugged. The burners on the stove have been removed. The washing machine and dryer have been pulled out. Aluminum foil is strung out everywhere and taped across walls (to confuse al Qaeda apparently). I find a whole mess of pills in the pantry of unknown type and lots of alcohol swabs in the bathroom. How long had he been in the apartment? Only two weeks! Oh. My. God.

We eventually clear a path so we can bring in the futon and we furiously begin picking up crap, vacuuming, sweeping and cleaning counters and floors. Eventually though I have to leave C to finish, but I take her son E back to our place, help him with his homework and let him zone out on video games. C keeps cleaning and doesn’t come by until nearly 11 PM. She had no choice. She has to get the management to get the heat back on tomorrow in case D comes home, and they won’t do it until the place is cleaned.

D has family in New Mexico who sound like they can be arm twisted to let him “come home”. C is hoping that will happen soon. Then perhaps she can get that divorce and reorder her life. Her daughter B would be more than enough of a problem for any parent. Just managing her, if she can get rid of hubby, will be an enormous relief.

We’ll see. I hope this is their nadir as a family, but so far every time I think things can’t possibly get worse they do. To whatever God or gods are out their directing their fate: enough! No one deserves his level of hell. It’s time for this family to heal and move on.

In trying to build a more perfect child, some mistakes were made

This parenting business is turning out a lot differently than I expected.

I thought I had an enlightened approach. I recognized what I thought were critical mistakes my parents made raising me, and tried to mitigate those mistakes in raising my own daughter. I also acknowledged the things my parents did right with me, and tried to emulate those. The result, I thought, would be a better human being: kinder, gentler, more grounded, lacking most of the fears and foibles I experiences growing up.

I was naive. I think I set my expectations a bit too high.

This is not to say that my 14 year old daughter Rosie doesn’t knock the socks off of me. She continues to wow me, impress me, and at times infuriate me. But what scares me is just how much she is like her mother and I.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I took, I thought, very reasonable steps to make sure this outcome didn’t happen. In my parents’ universe the perfect child would have been very devoutly Catholic, devoted, loving, intelligent, made their way successfully in the world, and confidently overcame obstacles. (Of course their answer may be different; I am projecting here.) Mainly we succeeded, except in the Catholic part. My goal was to let my daughter Rosie come to her own judgments and decisions and to be her own unique person, and certainly not a clone of either my wife Terri or I. To some extent I would measure my success by how much she wasn’t like me.

Maybe I should have raised her Catholic. Instead I raised her as a Unitarian Universalist. I felt around 1997 that she needed to be in touch with a religious community. UUs were about as far away from Catholicism as I could get and it was a religion that spoke to me. Rosie fussed about the Sunday school but over time she grew to really like that particular church experience, made friends inside the church, sang in the choir, and even participated in some plays put on by the church. By exposing her at a tender age to somewhat controversial things, like our minister who happened to be a lesbian, I hoped to broaden her perspective a bit.

One of my complaints about the way I was raised was the near complete lack of sexual education that I received. The little we got was, of course, filtered through the bizarre thinking of the Catholic Church. I grew up somewhat relationship impaired. I hadn’t a clue about human sexuality and was too scared and shy to do much to change the situation. What sex education I got was from the public library (goodness, I would have never had the audacity to bring those books home!) But that was hardly a substitute for understanding the intricacies of close, intimate human relationships. Reading a driver’s manual is no substitute for driving experience. So I enrolled my daughter in the UU’s “Our Whole Lives” sexual education course, which filled in all the gaps missing in my sex education and, for that matter, the highly sanitized version served up by our politically correct public school system. Yes, she got to explore feelings about sexuality, discuss relationship issues, look at condoms, learn about homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people. I wanted her to be sexually enlightened.

I was of course projecting my adolescent experiences upon her. As a result some things happened that I did not expect. One is that I may have thrown too much complexity about the world at her too soon. As a consequence I suspect she wanted to dawdle in childhood and disclaim a lot of the responsibilities that come with age. But mostly I didn’t want her to have the same fears and phobias my wife and I had growing up. I wanted her to be different.

But in so many ways she strikes me as the perfect union between my wife and me, carrying forward both the best parts of us and (gulp) the worst parts too. It’s like her emotional radar subconsciously picked up a lot of our worst stuff and brought it forward into her life as things to work on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter is very much of an internalizer. If she were a poker player she’d be one of these types who keeps their cards very close to their chest, and waits until the optimal moment to reveal her hand. Unquestionably I am that way and I’ve been working hard to change that aspect of myself. But I sure didn’t want her to be that way. But I guess I must have been projecting that aspect of myself all along, and she picked it up. I guess we can’t really hide our fundamental selves, and the subconscious sifts through the facade and gloms onto it.

Both my wife and I are intelligent and creative types, so it is not surprising that she is also very intelligent and creative. She sings, she writes incredible prose for her age, she acts (she has a part in the local production of “Scrooge” next month), she even has a lot of talent as an illustrator.

I have from time to time discussed my feelings about life, about our country, about politics and she seems to have picked it all up, wrapped her core values around them, and now is convinced that anything foreign is good and anything American is bad. She wants to study and live overseas. She thinks Virginia is a backward state full of bigots and people who can’t see beyond their noses. Okay she may be right there, but the reason is because she picked it up from me, not because she independently arrived there by her own reasoning process. At least that’s what I suspect. So she was listening to me and taking me serious all along. What a surprise!

Neither my wife nor I are the most organized people in the world. I tend to be the more organized of us and get the bills paid on time and remember to put money away for her college education. But I still have problems confronting many of the things that need to be confronted. Hedges go untrimmed too long. I tend to let small problems become big problems before I tackle them. My wife strikes me a lot more disorganized than I am. But to be fair, she’s not nearly as bad as some people I’ve met. Our house is reasonably clean and there is not usually a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. But she is very much the one day at a time sort of person. She rarely looks or worries too much beyond next week. Rosie seems to have picked up that side of my wife. Homework done at the last minute, even if it is of poor quality, is perfectly acceptable in Rosie’s universe. I have tried to get her to see that in four years, if she can pull good grades, she has the privilege of going to college. It is only now that she understands this reality. But trying to engage her gears to actually make it happen is a difficult process that she is still working on.

I project my desire to see her in a career that she loves, and hopefully not living from pay check to pay check or homeless on the street. This comes from having lived the Bohemian life for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. It wasn’t any fun. The national unemployment rate hovered above 8 percent and there were few jobs for recent college graduates, particularly for us liberal arts majors. It was a stressful way to greet adulthood. I’d like her to avoid all that.

But I also know that the most meaningful lessons often come from adversity and failure. So I have to steel myself and let her fail from time to time, so she can learn those lessons too. And I also know that if I make things too comfortable for her then she is likely to be dysfunctional as an adult; and won’t be able to cope with real life when real adversity does strike.

I’m certainly not declaring failure. Overall Rosie is doing quite well and I am pleased with her, and love her more than works can express. Rosie will I am sure in time make her own unique way in the world, and her mother and I will have a few moments, or perhaps a few years, of nervousness and heartache in the process. I certainly had good intentions to try to keep her from enduring unnecessarily misery. I often wonder if because her life is so well provided for by us, if that is in itself some sort of handicap.

She is an adult in the making, but at this instant she seems more like a weird conglomeration of my wife and me, both the good and the bad aspects, than some sort of 21st century model citizen I was hoping for. Perhaps I need to give her another 14 years. In some ways she is an improvement. She doesn’t seem to have that innate shyness that her mother and I have, although she has picked up quite a bit of our introversion.

But I feel somewhat chagrined that my master plan for her seems in such tatters. I can take pride in knowing that she has successfully avoided many of the major pitfalls in life that trip up kids her age, such as smoking, drugs and (I hope) sex. I just hope I haven’t made life too confusing a morass for her. It’s a complicated business and getting more complex every day. I’ll try not to judge my value by how well my daughter does, but some part of me wishes I could turn back the clock and try a few different strategies. But I have to deal with who she is now, and much of her personality and character was formed long ago. I now need to hold my breath, project confidence in her ability to navigate through life, and wait to see what pops out of the oven.


I have officially joined the Sandwich Generation. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means middle-aged people like me who have children, aging parents (not to mention a full time job) and have some responsibilities to care for both. It became official when I arrived in Michigan eight days ago to help care for my mother, age 83, who was in the hospital recovering from a bad fall.

Prior to this trip I had only gone to visit them for vacation. It is true about a year ago I went to visit them alone for most of a week, both to touch base but also to assess how they were doing. That was a worrying trip because it was clear that my mother was on the margin of not being able to fend for herself. Now, while she made it back home from the hospital after a 15-day stay, she needs constant care and attention. Since I returned home, the burden is now on my Dad, who is reasonably healthy, but is still 77 years old (my Mom is 83). My mother now has to walk with a walker and needs assistance getting up and down stairs. She needs assistance for most things, including intimate things like going to the bathroom and taking a shower. In general she should not be left alone when she is up or mobile. It’s going to be tough on my father, who has never had to do this level of intense care before, and I worry that caretaker fatigue may get too much for him. As one example of his new duties, my mother must be escorted to and from the bathroom. This would not be so onerous if it was just during the day, but she also goes a couple times a night. So my Dad bought a baby monitor and rises with her 2-3 times a night to assist in that too.

My mother is a feisty woman and used to being independent so this is a difficult transition for her. If balance control were not enough she also has other conditions including Parkinsoniasm, i.e. symptoms consistent with Parkinson’s disease. Her mother died of Parkinson’s disease. In my mother these symptoms are manifested in a shakiness of her hands. She cannot type any more. She really shouldn’t be anywhere near a knife either. She can do some things for herself but these are shrinking rapidly.

Most of my week in Michigan was spent with my mother in the rehabilitation section of Mid-Michigan Medical Center in Midland. She was kept busy with morning and afternoon physical therapy sessions where she painfully and tediously relearned elementary things like ascending stairs (with a walker), sitting down, getting up safely and even opening a can of soup. Perhaps what was most remarkable was that even though my Mom struck me as fairly impaired she was in the top ten percent of the people undergoing rehabilitation therapy. She was in a good hospital, but spending so much time around people in such bad situations was awkward and difficult for me. If one were to judge the end of life from seeing the aged and infirmed in the hospital, it would be something to dread. I would prefer to die suddenly. I would not fault my daughter if she did what the Eskimos did for their parents: put me on an ice flow, and kick me adrift in the Arctic Ocean. It seems more humane than the extraordinary steps I witnessed to keep people who are barely functional alive. Some images, like the woman who spent most of her time staring ahead in a blank gaze, will haunt me for some time.

My mother gave so much of herself to us when we were young it seemed more than appropriate for me, even though I was six hundred miles away, to free my schedule and spend time helping her out. It was an awkward change of roles. I escorted her back and forth to the bathroom numerous times, wheeled her places in her wheelchair, and tended to a thousand little tasks that were beyond the time and patience of her busy nurses. It’s important for her when she sleeps to have a pillow between her legs, and to have the lights adjusted just so, and to have a blanket laid in a certain way so she can easily put it on or throw it off. In addition we spent a lot of time talking about things. She was sometimes in a fog but the conversations were generally good and meaningful. She hasn’t lost her marbles quite yet.

What I found most difficult to endure was simply watching her in bed. My mother has always been so vigorous and here she was reduced to near immobility. Even worse we knew that things would not get appreciably better. Her days doing things she enjoys, like cooking and gardening, are pretty much over. There were also hosts of medical issues to sort through. She wasn’t sleeping more than an hour or two a night, and hadn’t for months. I had to help work through medication issues, and sort through the problems by talking to lots of doctors and nurses. I became her primary patient advocate.

If all this wasn’t enough there were also major lifestyle issues that had to be addressed. Until now the roles in her marriage had been very clear-cut. She did cooking and laundry, for example. Now the tables were turned. My father had fortunately got some training from my mother in doing laundry, but I had to reinforce some basic and simplified cooking techniques since this was something my father really never had to do in 77 years! Anything beyond making a sandwich was complex for him. Since their marriage was based on roles that had been reinforced for over fifty years, they had to radically change things. In addition to caretaker fatigue in my Dad, I was very concerned that the emotional aspects of their marriage would get all out of kilter. Between my sister Mary and I we were able to get them to agree to get some joint counseling.

I have always suspected that it was difficult for my father to see life through my mother’s eyes. The same is also true in reverse. Both are really such quite different people it’s hard for us children to understand how they came together and married in the first place. I doubt they are unique in having long-term communication problems, although it is clear they both love each other very much. As the roles change in their relationship I now realize it may be possible for my father to develop true empathy for my mother. For the first time he will have to walk in a nurse’s and mother’s shoes. We children can only hope that they do so in a way that will eventually strengthen their bond of love, rather than causes more disharmony and friction. These patterns are long set and it’s hard to imagine how they could both turn more pliable at their ages.

What goes around comes around in time. It almost seems like God was saying, “I’m going to put these two together and give them numerous opportunities to work on their differences. But just in case they don’t do it, when Lee is old she will develop problems that will force a change in perspective for both of them.” In short I sometimes wonder if their relationship was stuck in concrete for fifty years because both found the patterns generally comfortable, if occasionally irritating. Now they have no choice: these fundamental problems in their relationship must be fixed. Either each gets the perspective of the other, or some sort of disaster looms. I can see my father breaking down emotionally from the strain of taking care of her. But hopefully he will find the resources and the therapy he needs to make this transition. I did my best to point him in the right direction.

In case you are wondering, we, their offspring, are beside ourselves and deeply worried about this new arrangement. While my mother is doing well under the circumstances the likelihood of another fall, from my perspective, is quite high. Her physical therapists recommend that they live in a one story house, condominium or apartment. We, their children, don’t want them hundreds of miles away. We feel the obligation to be there for them, but so far neither seems inclined to relocate and it would be impractical for us to relocate to Midland. I am hoping that after a few months of struggling through their current situation the logic of relocation will become clear. And when that decision arrives, assuming my mother hasn’t further injured herself and ended up in a nursing home (the logical next step), we are aware of the huge logistical issues involved in finding them a new home and relocating them.

We are sandwiched. But I don’t mind, for my siblings and I must also grow further too. We have to take responsibility for their care and ensure for their safety. And we all want to do this now. For the moment though we can only pause, hold our breath and hope our parents choose to make the choice to relocate and simplify their lives.

I feel like I have put on another coat of responsibility. Before I left for Michigan I could think of my parents’ problems in rather abstract terms. Now that I have been there, have seen my mother through some intense times, and dealt with the situation on the ground I feel vested in the solution. The emotional heartstrings I’ve always had for those who gave me life have proven to resilient, and their pull is still strong.

I am not a praying man, but I am inclined to pray for them now in what is likely the most difficult time of their lives.

Aging Parents

As much as I dislike thinking about my own aging I like thinking about my parents’ aging even less. I know mortality is the price we pay for life but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, particularly when it happens to people you love so intimately.

Some say that God gives life, but it is the parents of a child who fill the child with the structure, aspirations and some suggest the phobias that will form the core of the adult to be. I am truly a product of my parents, in both the biological and the spiritual sense, and I constantly find aspects of each running around inside me. Since to some extent they are an extension of me, and I of them, naturally the thought of their deaths fills me with anxiety and apprehension.

From my father I have learned many valuable life lessons. I have learned the values of hard work, of patience, of quiet love and of sticking to my decisions. Foremost I have learned to how to be an excellent father. Because, for example, he read to me as a child, I could do nothing less than do the same for my daughter. Although there were eight of us he managed to make me feel special and unique. This was no small accomplishment because in many ways my father is also acerbic and very much the linear-thinking engineer. For better or worse, because I am his son I cannot not be safe about anything. I cannot drive to the store without a safety belt. I cannot cross the street without making a risk based assessment of the probability of reaching the other side unhurt. I have always felt more bonded to my father than my mother for reasons I don’t wholly understand.

My mother is a far different creature than my father. But in many ways she is far more interesting. It is only in the last ten years or so, as my mother wrote her biography, that I began to understand her. She grew up in a large Catholic family in about the most impoverished circumstances imaginable in the midst of the Great Depression. It is clear this experience in poverty shaped who she is. It didn’t help that her mother was a mental case and would frequently walk out on her own children when the stress level got too high. I am convinced she did not get the quality of attention she needed from her mother and to some extent this shaped a self esteem problem she has always had. Somewhere along the way she developed a shyness that has kept her from having most of the close relationships, outside of family, one would expect for a woman. And yet in many ways she triumphed over adversity. Somehow she not only graduated high school, something pretty unusual in the 1930s for a woman, but completed a degree in Nursing at Catholic University where she met my father. She managed a mentally ill mother while pregnant and morning sick with my first sister, Lee Ann. Her mother died around the time her first child was born.

From my mother I learned to appreciate good cooking, a clean house, and the value of having an ex-nurse when we got sick. I could do nothing but marvel at the endless energy with which she attacked motherhood and raising a large family. She never stopped. There was no vacation for her, even on vacation. She was busy from before we got up until after we bent to bed. Evenings were quieter when we were in bed but she was still there, working on the sewing machine or darning socks. But it was also clear that it exacted a heavy price. I strongly feel that as much as she loved all of us, eight of us was at least four more than she could comfortably handle. Perhaps because she grew up in a loud and emotional household, she was a loud, emotional and controlling mother. From our perspective she was the general and we were the privates. It took me much longer to understand that she was also emotionally vulnerable, and that while my Dad is a terrific person she glorified aspects of him and denigrated aspects of herself. On some level she has never felt worthy of being married to him, and that she should be subservient to him and give him the final say on all matters. My Mom seems to equate high intelligence with being able to make the right choice, an opinion at odds with my life experiences.

The dynamics of each marriage are unique and as they aged they have evolved patterns that seem to be comfortable for both of them. The raising children pattern worked for much of their marriage, until we had all left the house. In 1989 my father retired from engineering and they moved to Midland, Michigan. It is clear then that a new relationship pattern emerged. This is not too surprising because my Dad was now a 24/7 inhabitor of the house, rather than someone who spent nights and weekends. The resulting retrofitting relationship seems to have been hard to reengineer but eventually they developed patterns that seemed to work for them, although it was clear that it was often grating to both of them to have each other around so much.

Now that pattern is coming to an end. Neither is in the best of health but my mother, perhaps from being 6 years older, has the more chronic health problems. She is currently in the hospital, having fallen repeatedly. It looks like when she comes home she will be using a walker, and it’s not clear whether she can move from level to level anymore. Her health is “in decline” and is unlikely to improve.

It’s clear to my siblings and I that the retirement phase of their lives is over and all of us are struggling to figure out where to go from here. Three of my sisters have been to Midland recently to help out. It is likely that I will leave this weekend to do my part to provide logistical and mental support, staying about a week.

I know the situation is scary and frustrating to both my parents. How could it be otherwise? As if death weren’t scary enough, the business of dying seems perhaps scarier. My Dad seems overwhelmed with his caretaker responsibilities and is probably holding a lot of feelings about my Mom’s decline. My Mom, of course, wants the independence she cannot have. The old relationship patterns are not working so well in the context of the new situation. We all hope of course that they will find a new pattern that works for them. But it seems likely that something will have to change soon. We don’t know if this means my mother will have to go into some sort of assisted living, or whether a nurse’s aide will be needed, or perhaps they could be persuaded both move in with one of us. Clearly my Mom will need a lot of attention, as will my Dad who has to cope with the decline of a woman he has been married to for 53 years.

What is clear is that we are all at a role reversal stage. It’s always been my parents who have catered to us. That paradigm will no longer work. Rather my siblings and I must struggle into a caretaker role for them. We will have to step in and help them make choices. My sisters report a new willingness to listen to us and to allow us to help out.

It’s a tough phase in life. But I am struck by an observation that in every phase of life, including the ending phase, there is a chance for personal growth. The role reversal is an entirely natural phase for this time in their lives and needs to be accepted with as much grace and dignity as possible. It is now our duty, our obligation but also in some ways our great privilege to be there for our parents, even in such a limited way, when they were there for us for so very long.

I likely leave for Michigan more than a little upset about the situation, but also determined to do my part to help out and to provide my parents with the physical and emotional support they need to navigate through this stage of life. In a way it is a privilege that they have made it to this stage. My siblings and I are feeling our way gingerly through this process, but somehow we are determined to make it work and to be there for our parents despite our families and our hectic lives.

On Marriage

Tomorrow is my 18th wedding anniversary. So it seemed an auspicious moment for me to jot down some of my thoughts on marriage and married life in general. Actually this is not the first time I visited this topic. Some of you may recall my suggestion for term limited marriages. To fully put down all my thoughts on marriage would require many entries. Today I give only a glimpse of what I have learned in 18 years.

My wife Terri and I were married in 1985 at the Reston Community Church (now the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston) by the late Rev. John Wells. 18 years later finds me a member of this church; in 1985 we were just renting a hall and a minister. A UU church seemed a safe place to get married. We felt pressure from both sides of the family to have some sort of religious ceremony, even though I wasn’t religious, and this was the best this militant agnostic could come up with under the circumstances.

Rev. Wells suggested we drink from both a red and a white wine during the ceremony. The white wine was sweet and symbolized the sweetness of the marital commitment. The red wine had a slightly bitter taste and symbolized the bitter aspects that are part of any marriage. Clearly we weren’t too focused on any bitter aspects of our marriage but we understood the point: marriage wasn’t going to always be a bed of roses.

I was 28, which seemed plenty old enough to settle down. I had about ten years on my own and it was enough. Terri and I had lived together for about a year and a half prior to marriage and had known each other over two years before marriage, so I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into.

Our wedding was very unique. Ask anyone who attended; it was one they will never forget. (We still get comments on it, after all these years!) It had the usual disasters (one of Terri’s bridesmaids showed up in an off color dress) and a couple of surprises. Terri’s friend Paul came down from Michigan partly to move out of Michigan and partly to cater our wedding. Paul is a fabulous cook and for the first three months of our marriage he lived with us. Many years later I discovered that Paul, also one of my best men, was gay. The wedding was small with just immediate family, but people don’t remember the wedding. They only remember the reception. One of the things that attracted Terri and I to each other was our love for Grade Z movies. One of the lowest rated Grade Z movies of all time was a flick called “Robot Monster”, which adorned our engagement announcement cards. The surprise was our wedding cake was not a pasty white wedding cake with a bride and groom on it, a notion Terri despised, but a full size carrot cake with cream cheese frosting adorned with a gorilla clutching a groom in its hands. Except for Terri’s Mom (whom I suspect still hasn’t forgiven us) everyone laughed silly and had a great time. (My niece Cheryl actually had to bring in a picture to show and tell when her teacher accused her of making things up!)

So I was more than a little surprised to find out that once we were “legal” (to the great relief of both our mothers, who were more than a little scandalized by our “living in sin” arrangement) that being married actually changed things quite a bit. Right up until we were married I assumed and planned for us having separate accounts. Once I was married I didn’t see the point in it. Either our lives were tied together or they weren’t. So we created joint accounts and have happily pooled our money since that time.

We started our marriage financially challenged. We had one car (mine, a 81 Chevette), an apartment, an inherited cat, two sets of furniture that didn’t match and two jobs that didn’t pay very much. Terri worked as a receptionist; I worked as a production controller for the Defense Mapping Agency. Our combined income didn’t top $30,000 a year.

The road to prosperity was a challenging one. I accepted a demotion to get into a computer programmer slot and learned COBOL. Terri went through lots of jobs before settling down, about the time our daughter Rosie was born, to a secretarial job at USAA. I’m not sure how we did it (an FHA loan helped) but within a year of marriage we had enough money to buy a cheap and very run down townhouse. Fortunately my skills at computer programming were good. Once working for the Air Force I continued to rise steadily and was steadily promoted to what seemed at the time an impossible quest: a GS-13 position. Once in that position we had the money and opportunity to do the unimaginable: buy a single-family house.

I was perhaps a bit move naive than I should have been about marriage. I did not expect it to be a bed of roses for I had seen my parents struggle through their own marriage and had the notion that it was a lot more about work and struggling through things together than it was about romance and frequent sex. Our marriage is probably pretty typical. Let’s just say it’s been frequently challenging, had lovely euphoric moments and more pits of deep despair than I care to remember. I have avoided roller coasters at amusement parks yet the longer I stayed married the more it felt like an endless roller coaster ride. I liked predictability but there is nothing predictable about an institution that tries to keep two people together while life around them is undergoing constant change. Not surprisingly these factors affect the dynamics of the marriage, and consequently there were lots of relationship issues between us that did not appear prior to marriage that had to be haggled and negotiated.

And if this were not enough there were also major financial challenges, like a house that was falling apart, and our daughter arriving somewhat unexpectedly and before we felt we were quite ready. Through it all we wrestled with tough medical issues and a lot of angst. For both of us the angst was centered around wanting more from life, and we found balm in going back to school. Terri completed a B.S. degree at night over six years. I completed a M.S. degree over three years. Our education overlapped for a couple years, and that made life very hectic with a child just starting elementary school. But somehow we got through those days.

We’ve grown and changed as people too. We are not the same people we were when we were married. Our interests have changed quite a bit (I hardly ever watch a bad movie anymore). Sometimes it seems like we were married so long ago that 18 years later I am married to a different woman.

Marriage is thought of by society as a permanent relationship, but it is not. A piece of paper carries some legal weight but little beyond that. A marriage is only real as long as both parties consent to it. If they don’t then the piece of paper may say they are married, but the marriage is over. Consequently to truly be married it is critically important to keep the lines of communications open and to work hard through problems. Marriages that depend on the law to work are built on sand. I know a couple cases of people who are technically married but live apart and haven’t seen their spouses in years. They keep filing “Married, Filing Separate Returns” to the government each year. Perhaps if one dies and the other finds out about it, they can collect some insurance money or government benefits. But this is not a marriage. It’s a legal agreement both parties walked away from.

Another observation is that every marriage is unique because each spouse is unique. There are principles for a successful marriage but no guarantees in this business. Each couple has to work things out for themselves. Whatever agreements they come to about the boundaries of their marriage is fine. Those who want to pledge monogamy: more power to you. Those who want open marriages, I give you A’s for honesty, courage and bravery.

For myself I keep hanging in there. I find a lot to love and admire about my wife, and I also find things that are troubling. Sometimes the troubling things end up pointing back to me and I realize that what troubles me are often inadequacies in myself.

I know I have learned a lot about myself by being married. I have grown in unexpected directions and taken many paths unanticipated. I traded in comfort and security of singleness for the wild jungle that is marriage. I take some comfort in knowing that I have survived 18 years in the jungle. My heart is still racing at times, sometimes in terror, sometimes in overwhelming love and euphoria: this is the yin and yang that is marriage.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been drawing a blank lately in the insight department. Life seems to be keeping me pretty busy.

Here’s a snapshot of what I am doing and thinking about the last week or so.

I’ve been trying to help Lisa and the many people who host their blogs off her site get moving again, without much success. Lisa is the one who turned me on to blogging and we’re both using this Moveable Type software. Unfortunately she went first and configured her blog to use DBM for a database, whereas I put mine in a MySQL database. She is experiencing weird DBM problems and can’t seem to fix them — no surprise since she is not a techie. I tried to move her entries into MySQL but even that failed due to an error somewhere in her DBM database. She’s working on the problem but the prognosis doesn’t look great. As a last resort I can blow away her installation of Moveable Type and reinstall into a MySQL database but a lot of the people hanging off her web space might lose their content. I can’t export a number of her user’s entries.

My email digest modification for phpBB forum software continues to gather a lot of interest. As I mentioned I use phpBB to power my forum, The Potomac Tavern. So I keep making modifications to my modification, some done by other users, then testing and republishing my modification. The digest is being well received. It’s hard to know how many people out there in Internet-land are getting daily digests of messages, but if I were to guess the numbers would now be in the hundreds or thousands. Ah, the power of clever code. I wish there was money in this.

I’m also reworking my other domain, This is a domain I created a couple years ago but which has remained rather dormant, mainly because I don’t have the energy to market it. It is for the people in the community I live, zip code 20171, otherwise known as “Oak Hill” due to the name of our post office (we are not incorporated.) However, I discovered I was collecting email from folks and it wasn’t getting forwarded. Now that I’ve read it I realize there is some interest in my domain, but people want interactivity. So I blew away the PostNuke content management system and replaced it with phpBB forum software instead, and I am customizing it to add dynamic features that I prototyped on The Potomac Tavern. I plan to integrate an online business directory soon and other dynamic features, and this time I hope I can actually find the energy to market the site. This may require me digging into my pocket to pay for a little advertising. The long-term prognosis for making any profit off the site is slim, but anything is possible. I live in a new community and this is a new market so it might take off.

This week finds me in training. I am taking a course in Oracle Application Server, mainly because we use it at work and I figure I need to know a lot more about it if I am to do my job adequately. It’s a good course but it’s all the way over in Rockville and traffic is a bear. Meanwhile I find I am increasingly bored and unchallenged in my job and I am thinking of applying for some other jobs in Club Fed. Another one of these ideal jobs opened up in nearby Reston that I will apply for. It’s at the U.S. Geological Survey. I’ve done this before though and I don’t have much hope. I have excellent qualifications but it hasn’t seemed to matter in the past. Usually I don’t hear anything and when I do it’s just a report that I wasn’t selected. I strongly suspect most jobs at USGS go to insiders and I’m doomed to spend the rest of my federal career on long commutes into D.C. So I’m looking at other jobs; some in Arlington for the Transportation Security Administration look interesting primarily because there are a lot of openings and I suspect TSA, being a new agency, hasn’t developed the bureaucracy that kills the sole of creative types like me. Anyhow, I am increasingly disenfranchised with my agency. The people are good but the management doesn’t manage. They have no idea whether I am optimized or not, and currently I am not. My attempts to garner more work for myself largely fall on deaf ears or involve weeks of waiting for people’s schedules to clear to work through the issues.

And I’m doing the youth counselor thing for the Unitarian Church I attend in Reston. I don’t know whether we will be able to get a critical mass of youth together to do UU stuff, but I will try again like we did last year. Youth these days are so darn busy, but it would be nice to help these kids in a positive way through the teenage years. We’ll see.

As Atomic Tom would say today is a day to “empty the desk drawer of my mind.”