Stepping through the retirement door

Should retirement be scary?

Presumably the answer is no, providing you have your ducks lined up. This generally includes having a decent pension (if you are lucky enough to have one), a well stocked 401-K, maybe an IRA or two and a house that is either paid off or close to being paid off. Ideally, you would retire on something like eighty percent (or more) of your pre-retirement income. Then it’s off to do what retired people are supposed to do, which is play golf and go on plenty of Elder Hostels.

The sad reality is that many Americans simply cannot afford to retire. Many others found that they have been thrust into an early and de-facto retirement. They are laid off and no one wants to hire them because they are fifty-plus and thus old. Maybe they got an involuntary retirement with a token “thank you for working for us” one time payment of $50,000. In any event, they are too young for Medicare (age 65), too young for social security (age 62), and too old to get any affordable health insurance. They are hoping they don’t have to move into a mobile home or, failing that, a cardboard box under the freeway.

Yet people still retire all the time, often before they would like to do so, but sometimes because their stars were properly aligned. I am eligible to retire next year a few months after I turn fifty-five. I always assumed that before I retired from my somewhat senior federal job that I would have some other job lined up. Playing golf does not appeal to me, but staying busy and productive does. One way to stay busy is not to retire from my federal career. The other way is to retire from a federal career I have known for thirty challenging years and start another one.

It’s a dilemma that should be a good one, but is one that for some reason fills me with trepidation. The reason I am considering it at all is because a full time faculty position is being created at the local community college, the same college I have taught at as an adjunct off and on for eleven years. They will be interviewing candidates in the spring and the new instructor will start in the fall. Presumably, I would have an excellent chance of getting the job. They already know me and know that I am a reliable commodity who knows the material. My credentials and experience would be difficult for other candidates to match, and since the job would pay about half what I make now, they will be unlikely to fill it with someone other than an eligible retiree like me. However, with my pension as a retiree, I could teach and maintain something like my current standard of living.

So accepting the job if it is offered should not be a hard decision. I would retire from one career and formally start the next. I wouldn’t feel the pressure to play golf or spend days sitting on park benches. I would stay gainfully employed, which is probably a good idea until the house is paid off. And I like teaching, at least a good part of the time, otherwise I would have not been doing it for so long.

But instead I feel this nervousness and trepidation. In fact, a whole host of feelings I did not expect are welling up inside me. I ask myself interminable questions. Like why should I leave a job I really like? It’s rewarding, pays great and my work has achieved some note. I do sometimes feel that I’ve contributed all that I can, so there is no compelling reason to hang around if other opportunities open up, like they are doing now.

Moreover, I have also learned that teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a noble profession because you have to be a bit crazy to do it. Students are often lazy and apathetic, and some of them cheat. I caught two cheating in my last class and had to flunk them, which was not a pleasant experience. Many of the classes are quite elementary, hence not too interesting to teach. And yet, there are rewards. There are always a couple of interesting and talented students in a class. Occasionally, you can make a real difference with a student. Last semester I taught a thirty something man with ADHD. I was his first attempt at college after a failure long ago. He succeeded in my class, mostly due to his hard work, but also with my help and encouragement. I may prove a pivotal transformative figure in his life. That’s neat.

Yet I expect that teaching full time would be a different experience than teaching a class or two a year in the evenings.  There are a lot of aspects of teaching that are not much fun. Lesson plans. Grading homework. Discipline. Students who blow off classes and then expect you to bend over backwards for them. In short, the job would likely be more of a challenge than the one I already have, a lot more tedious and with murky rewards. Watching a student or two in a class rise to true excellence is rewarding, but more rewarding than the work of the team I am leading? How do I top my career with the great things we have already done together? It’s a career that really excites me: watching the promise of information technology being delivered in ways that make the world a better place. Users of our system send tracking information to Google Analytics, which I can monitor in a control panel. Today I marveled watching the real-time usage of our site in Google Analytics, which reported 350-450 active visitors at one time, with five or more web pages being sent every second. That’s an accomplishment, certainly not something I can claim credit for, but which I certainly orchestrated.

And yet any meaning from my job is something I alone ascribe to it. Retiring from my federal job would be closing a thirty-year door on my life, but another door would open, different but potentially more rewarding. One thing I am reasonably certain about: when the door closes on my federal career, it closes for good. I would step into a much different and more challenging world, one that may piss me off more than please me. One that may ultimately say to me: what the hell were you thinking?

And while I might close a door behind me, there would be tendrils from that past that would follow and affect the rest of my life. A pension is as good as gold, at least until Congress in a fit of austerity decides it doesn’t want to pay it, or decides to reduce it. If history is a guide, it won’t happen, but you never know. There are no certainties in life, not even from Uncle Sam. In any event, drawing a good salary today guarantees more security than the promise of a pension at half pay once out of it.

I’ll figure my way through this bittersweet dilemma. Life is about living and life is defined by change. Life may be offering me a new opportunity, meaningful in new ways but still meaningful. If offered the job, the real dilemma will be finding the courage to step through that door.

A study in sleep

Over the years, I’ve slept in some strange places. A year or so back, I spent an uncomfortable night in a sleeping bag behind a partition in a church sanctuary. Last Friday night found me trying and mostly failing to fall asleep in a comfortable bed in a bedroom wedged inside a modern office building.

It can be tough to fall asleep when you are wired head to foot with sensors (including sensors on your eyelids), there is a belt around your chest and waist and air pressure sniffers are slipped inside your nostrils. How are you supposed to turn over comfortably in bed when all those wires are tethered to a device on the side of the bed? How are you supposed to even sleep with a video camera always watching you?

It’s unnatural, but maybe it will improve my health. All I knew is that my sleep for the last few decades has felt very restless. The problem was one I assumed was familiar to most middle-aged men: the need to pee in the middle of the night. My bladder wakes me up more times a night than our daughter ever did when she was an infant. There wasn’t much I could do about that so I learned coping mechanisms. It typically took me an hour or more to fall asleep. If I woke around four or five in the morning, I could likely count on the rest of my sleep being restless as well.

In fact, I felt like I hardly slept at all except on weekends. I’d hear my wife doze off fifteen minutes or so after the lights went out while I just lay there in the dark hoping for an elusive knock out sort of sleep. Not true, my wife told me. I was often snoring shortly after going to bed. That’s impossible, I told her, because I hear you snoring and I am not asleep. No, you are snoring, she said, and moreover you need to get checked. Sometimes at night you stop breathing altogether, then resume breathing with a start.

That’s how I ended up at the Comprehensive Sleep Care Center in Chantilly, Virginia last Friday night. I needed to be wired up and monitored while I slept, or didn’t sleep, so a doctor of sleep medicine could determine what if anything was going on with me. The likely cause is a rather common condition, particularly among the middle aged, called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous form of interrupted sleep characterized by abnormal breathing while sleeping. I have many of the classic symptoms including what I assumed was a natural condition of middle age: difficulty in staying awake in the afternoon, particularly in a conference rooms with bright overhead lights.

At any age you should be able to sleep well enough so you can get through the whole day without feeling sleepy. Granted, many Americans deliberately choose to deprive themselves of needed sleep. That was not my case. I usually spend eight hours a night in bed. I can only guess how much of that time is productive sleep. Lately, I guess it averages four to six hours a night.

In any event, I have a brother with sleep apnea, so with my wife’s prodding I reluctantly decided I should get tested, but punted until my annual physical. My primary care physician all too happily signed the referral form and within a couple weeks I found myself in a sleep lab mostly not sleeping. There is nothing natural about sleeping while tethered with dozens of wires. As unnatural as going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is, it’s even more unnatural when you have to summon help to do so, and carry your instrumentation with you.

I could not complain about the high platform bed, comfy mattress and pillows, but I could complain about my sleep study neighbors, one of who brought her mother with her. There was much nervous and frequently shrill laughing from the room next to me. I thought her mother would never leave and she would never shut up. The guy next to me was more polite. He dropped off right away and I soon heard his snores coming through the wall. Meanwhile, I lay there and tried desperately to sleep. Unsurprisingly, sleep seemed to elude me.

Sometime after midnight, feeling a bit desperate, I tried one of my recipes for insomnia. It doesn’t always work but it involves concentrating on a past memory and then concentrating on the random links my brain makes from it to other images. It must have worked for a few hours until around three a.m. when my ever-thoughtful bladder decided to wake me up. When I finally shuffled back to bed the trick would not work. Instead, my mind was counting the minutes until 5:30 a.m. when they woke you and sent you home.

After that interruption, I did not feel like I had slept at all, but the technician said I had, just not a deep sleep. He removed many sensors from my body, including some that snaked down my shirt and pants and attached to my legs. My scalp was covered in splotches of white sensor glue, glue the technician told me that would come out with a hot shower.

Shortly after 5:30 a.m. I was pulling out of my parking space and forcing extra vigilance on my drive home. The drive felt as surreal as the sleep study, with hardly a car on the road so early this Christmas Eve, but one perhaps insomniac runner dutifully running down the street. The cat greeted me on my arrival, but seemed puzzled as I headed to bed at 6 a.m. instead of coming out to greet him. I stumbled through a hot shower, and shortly thereafter crawled into my bed to the only real sleep I felt I got that night, which began right around dawn.

Tomorrow I get the verdict. It’s not hard to infer I have sleep apnea; the only question is to what degree and then what to do about it. Most likely I will be sleeping better soon, and won’t suffer the embarrassment of falling asleep during afternoon meetings. However, I will likely have to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device while I sleep, which itself means a machine will be needed to push air into my mouth all night. It sounds uncomfortable, but is probably better than the alternative of doing nothing. While relatively rare, complications from sleep apnea can be dangerous.

A place called Oak Hill

My memories of November are typically memories of darkness and dreariness. Here in Virginia it means minimal daylight, with the sun approaching the horizon around 4:30 in the afternoon. It’s generally not cold enough to snow, but the weather patterns usually blow in moist air, which fills the skies with dark cumulonimbus clouds. Rain, when it falls, comes softly, often as a mist, and rarely with the intensity of summer-driven thunderstorms. The ground is awash with decaying leaves made slippery and soggy from the rain and drizzle.

This year is the exception. 2011 is the November of my dreams. We’ve had some days of dreariness, to be sure, but more typically days of brilliant blue skies, gentle breezes, low humidity and delightfully cool but not cold temperatures. The air starts out crisp in the morning; often a sheen of frost will be found on the tops of the cars. Then it turns into a day of sunny autumn splendor with temperatures sometimes making it into the sixties. The trees have only recently passed their peaks colors. The air feels unnaturally pure. It is hard not to roll down the car windows and let it fill your nostrils, consume you lungs and let it give your cheeks a rosy autumn hue. Instead of being a downer, this November is an upper. It is invigorating and is encouraging me out of my cloisters and into the neighborhood.

Oak Hill, Virginia

I have been on many walks around the neighborhood this month and all of them have been welcome. Aside from reveling in a natural form of exercise there is also the peaceful and content feeling that comes from traversing well trod paths and streets, and to do so largely absent the mosquitoes of spring and the oppressive heat, humidity and shrieking cicadas of summer.

I live in Oak Hill, Virginia, which is an unincorporated place that got an official name when a post office with its name was built in the late 1990s. If your zip code is 20171, you live in Oak Hill. Many of its residents have no idea they live in Oak Hill. If pressed they will substitute Herndon as their location, although we live outside its town limits. Oak Hill is a bedroom community, with some apartments, a few condominiums and townhouses, but mostly single family houses, virtually all of which are part of some homeowners’ association. Fifty years ago the area was largely farms. Community life such as it was could be found around small nearby hamlets like Floris and Hattontown. There were considerable numbers of African Americans living in Oak Hill then, and the younger ones trekked to Floris to attend the colored school there. (The schools were not desegregated until 1964.) We didn’t mean to, but we upwardly mobile overwhelmingly white middle class people pushed them out, thoughtfully aided by well moneyed developers who made them offers they could not refuse. Their houses came down. Dense townhouse and McMansion communities went up in their place. The cows left for greener pastures and houses were plopped down on top of them. Oak Hill was made safe for an upwardly mobile middle class. No white flight here. It would more accurately be called black flight, but this is never newsworthy when that happens.

Horsepen Run
Horsepen Run

Most of the nature that was here was pushed out with development, but not all of it. Some of it can still be found along Horsepen Run, which flows next to my community. The path is not long, but it is bucolic, particularly when there are enough recent rains to make the run actually run. You can easily spot the nearby houses through the trees, but it is comforting to know that civilization is so close by. The trees rustle in the wind, but less so when there are fewer leaves to rustle. Occasionally you will spot a deer peeking through the foliage, and sometimes they will appear boldly on the path.

Oak Hill may contain what’s left of Norman Rockwell’s America. With the largess of the federal government nearby, and plenty of beltway bandits as well along the nearby Dulles corridor, us residents generally don’t have to worry about unemployment. There are doubtless foreclosed homes in the community somewhere, but I cannot find any. Thanksgiving finds many of the homes planted with an American flag on the porch. Some of the more creative homeowners have creative autumn decorations on their houses or trees. A few spent Thanksgiving hanging Christmas lights and sticking plastic candy canes into their lawns. My two and a half mile constitutional this afternoon found my community seemingly untouched by the economic downturn. One of the few signs is spotting an extra homeless man on the sidewalks next to the local CVS. On Black Friday, residents not in the malls were outside enjoying the weather. Friendly dogs bounded around the front lawns. Leaves were raked and stuffed into bags. A few kids played hopscotch on their driveway.

There is no place like home, I guess, but to us harried professionals home often seems more a place to sleep before trudging back to the office. Home and neighborhoods often get overlooked because they are seen so often. Thank goodness then for beautiful November days, a long four-day weekend, and the opportunities for long walks through the neighborhood. In reality, it would have been harder to pick a more perfect neighborhood. It feels like the comfy glove that it is. It is mostly an illusion, a result of the confluence of capital and the energy of homeowners. Yet it all its surreal-ness it remains the beloved place we call home.

The last exam

I like to blog but increasingly it is getting hard to find time to indulge. My plate is normally piled pretty high with life during any week. I like to keep busy. For example, I teach a class on Tuesday night. That takes time and preparation but I consider it fun, in spite of the fact that it chews up part of my weekend and makes Tuesdays a sixteen-hour day. And there are lots of other things that keep me busy, including the usual: a full time job, various onerous and not so onerous duties around the house, exercise and other volunteer activities.

Blogging requires leisure time, and at least this week it has been largely nonexistent. This is because in addition to teaching a class, I got to sit in the classroom this week. I got to be a student again, which in this case meant cramming a semester course into three days. Speaking for middle age people everywhere who encounter this: Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

The course in question is this one. I won’t identify the vendor except to say I got to take it locally in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, and the view from the 11th floor of this office building is impressive. Taking the course and hopefully passing the exam was challenging, in part because I am a middle aged dude, grad school is more than a decade in my past, and those old studying and cramming skills have atrophied. There is no denying it: I am just not the student I once was. Perhaps I have become a bit soft, or maybe it is just general laziness. I wish my mind were as supple and capable of absorbing knowledge as it used to be. Hunkering down at age 54 has become really hard to do.

“Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. The training was not required and I suggested it to my boss, in part because I had an employee take it and she found it useful. I am not required to get a certain number of continuing education credits every year, but when I had to in the past getting the course certificate was good enough. But certain courses demand more. They demand that they monopolize your life for the time you take them. This course was a three-day course, but it essentially packed in a semester course into three days. It came complete with a high stakes professional exam at the end that had to be shipped to Great Britain for official scoring. I won’t know for a week if I passed. I can say that it was one of the hardest exams I have ever had to take, and that includes the SAT. Some of my classmates were sweating bullets. Their jobs literally depended on passing the test.

Fortunately, the instructor coached us heavily. When you have a course book with more than three hundred pages, there is no way to read it in three days. She knew what to have us focus on and what could safely be ignored. She had us bookmark certain pages and underline key phrases. Even so the course was incredibly briskly paced. Moreover, it came with plenty of homework. Except for some few hours of poor sleep, the course consumed your life for three days.

I was lucky because my boss did not demand that I take the exam. But once in the class my darned sense of professionalism and pride kicked in. How could I shamefully audit the class when everyone else was sweating it? And who knows, maybe I would put the material to use, in spite of the fact that I am rapidly approaching retirement age. Mainly the peer pressure got to me. So I jumped in headfirst and hoped I would make it to the other side of the pool, which looked so far away.

It all felt and was quite daunting, but I know twenty years earlier it would have felt much less so. The course’s pace made my heart beat faster. My hand raced to keep up with the notes I was taking. Very soon my head started throbbing because the fire hose of information just kept coming at me. At the end of the day I staggered home only to find a stack of homework that had to be done, notes to be reviewed, highlighted and terms committed to memory, and my mind fatigued and numb. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but I started to develop cold symptoms. They were really stress symptoms. I was like a Ford with 200,000 miles on it, rarely driven faster than sixty miles an hour suddenly being asked to drive at 120 miles an hour for a hundred miles.

Even with all that preparation and coaching, when I took the practice exam I managed to squeak by with only one point. We quickly reviewed it and our mistakes, and then were given the real exam that was considerably harder than the practice exam. I won’t know for a week or so if I passed. I’m guessing I probably passed, but likely just barely. If I were twenty years younger I might have scored twenty points higher. But those days are sadly behind me. The CPUs in my brain have slowed down over the years. Indexing all that material left some broken links and filing the material was a slow process. The more supple minds around me, principally brilliant students from India and China, seemed to handle it with equanimity.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the last exam I have to take in my life. If I have to take another, I should get some sort of handicap for age. Perhaps I needed the same class to be a day longer and not quite so hurried and harried.

For now much of my week remains a cloud of intensity and mental pain that has passed, I hope for good.

Processing Petrina

I found myself sleeping poorly on Monday night. I tossed and turned for hours and when I stumbled into sleep I returned to the same dream I could not escape. My name was Pete and I was coming out, not as a homosexual, but as a transgender. I was going to become Petrina.

This would be a strange dream for me to have, since I am quite comfortable being a male. I have from time to time acknowledged my feminine side, but it has never manifested itself as an obsession or even a mild concern. I don’t read Vogue. I don’t secretly (or overtly) dress up in my wife’s clothes. I don’t dress in a subtle or not so subtle feminine manner. The only reason I was dreaming I was Pete becoming Petrina is because earlier that day the real life Pete (not his real name) in my life told me confidentially he was divorcing his wife, moving into an apartment, and was planning to spend the rest of his life as a woman. He would soon announce himself as a she, and she would be Petrina. In fact, he already had his name legally changed.

I do what I often do when confronted with one of these minor shocks in life. I breathed in sharply. I found myself blinking rapidly. I also found myself a little slack jawed. It was one of those few times in life I was truly at a loss for adequate words. It was hard to know what to say. I could not give empathy because it was outside my experience. I could not offer a handshake or a hug, in part because I see Pete only a couple of times a year and the news came via instant message with details in a private email. “Congratulations,” seemed a bit weak, as he was in the process of renting an apartment and divorcing a wife of more than thirty years, a woman who was presumably completely blameless in this matter. “I’m sorry,” seemed weak too because Pete had been struggling with being a woman in a man’s body all his life but like so many in the transgender community had kept it deep under wraps. Yet there was potential great good about moving to a healthy space where he could openly be a she.

In retrospect, there were signs that if I were paying more attention to them might have triggered the thought that Pete might really be Petrina. There is his long and clean hair that went halfway the waist. There is the soft voice, the gentle nature and the nearly flawless complexion for someone in their sixties. No wonder I liked him because I am gentle by nature and about as far away as you can get from the masculine, beer-drinking NASCAR-watching male stereotype.

Then there were the months he spent off the job for reasons that were not explained but were at least partially spent in a hospital. I thought he had been battling some terrible disease, like cancer, that he wanted to keep private. It sounds like he spent his whole life suppressing his feelings and confiding them in no one, knowing that doing so would only breach unbelievable pain for others, a problem a woman seems better able to understand. The conflict apparently came to a boil after many decades where the choice became quite simple: he would either become a she or he would end his life. After so much time he simply had to be publicly the she he was on the inside.

That’s why I was sleeping poorly. Because I really liked Pete, it was easy to imagine myself inhabiting his world, now that I knew he harbored this private pain for so many decades. As my brain wrestled trying to live inside his body, I could feel nothing but an overwhelming and relentlessly painful disconnect of the soul and spirit. How could anyone endure this pain for even a day, let alone decades? And yet even with the burden of such pain, where did he find the strength come out? He doubtless has many friends and a social and familial circle that extends into the hundreds. He is asking all of them to make a big leap of the psyche, and see him as a her, not to estrange themselves from her and knowing that probably most of them will anyhow. The vast majority of us simply cannot look much beyond our sexual orientation. It frames so much of our lives and the assumptions we make interacting with someone. How can we not resent in some way a man who falsely presented himself as a man? How can we not feel some level of visceral distrust?

What Pete has done has changed everything in his life. It is like a neutron bomb exploding, leaving everything living dead but structures still standing. At the price of estranging himself from almost everyone who he has known and loved, what he receives is only the ability to openly be the gender he is on the inside, not the sex he is on the outside. To reconcile the difference in the months and years ahead there will be hormone treatment, lots of psychotherapy and sex change surgery. Peter will be Petrina, but will Petrina find the acceptance of herself in society that she also craves? Or will society mostly look, if not run, the other way?

Petrina will be the third openly transgender person I have come across in the workplace. My first experience back in the 1987 left me completely flummoxed and tongue-tied. I feel ashamed now of how badly I reacted back then. I did my best to avoid her, although she apparently never underwent the surgery. The second occurred in the early 2000s when John became Georgina. I did not handle that change very well either. In part this was because Georgina looked ridiculous as a woman, perhaps because she was six foot two inches tall and retained the shape and stock of a male.  I thought of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H. In her case though I simply could not make the mental transition. In my eyes, John became John in a dress, not Georgina. The Georgina rendition seemed false. Again, I dealt with Georgina probably like lots of us ordinary people do, by minimizing my contact with her simply because I could not process the feelings and felt intensely awkward about the whole transition.

With Petrina, my relationship is far closer than it was with Georgina. Because it was, I think, some part of me could empathize. I could feel some of the pain that she felt. It both overwhelmed me and made me feel deeply sad. This time though I could process it better. I could feel for the person. And I knew that this time, at last, I could handle it without shirking Petrina and without smirking. At last I could reach out in sympathy and friendship. And I vowed that at least this time I would not be one of those who when she came down the hall ran in the other direction. In fact, I have vowed to treat Petrina no less well than I treated Pete, and to reach out to her in kindness and compassion, as one human heart who has known his share of turmoil to another.

I ended our IM conversation with, “I am so glad you told me about this, Petrina.”

Life among the landlocked

I wonder how many workers in Los Angeles who live on one side of the sprawling metropolis would book a room in a hotel on the other side for three nights to attend a conference because they didn’t want to deal with the traffic.

I’m guessing not many LA’ers would consider this possibility, even if they could do it on their employer’s dime. Perhaps they would have done so in the past, but move over LA. Your city no longer holds the title for having the worst traffic in the United States. Perhaps due in part to malaise from the Great Recession, the Washington D.C. area now holds the dubious title of having the nation’s worst traffic. And here in the D.C. area, considering the hassle of getting from my house near Dulles International Airport to my place of business for the week near Baltimore-Washington International Airport (a distance of about fifty-five miles) the answer was clear: better book a hotel room.

That’s how bad the traffic is around here. Unlike Los Angeles, which at least has plenty of ways to get from point A to point B, in the Washington area if you need to get from, say, suburban Virginia to suburban Maryland you are largely limited to the Capital Beltway.  This usually means getting in a frequently congested queue of slow moving cars many miles long.

I drove to the conference from my house on Monday morning, leaving about 7:30 AM. I arrived ninety minutes later. This is actually a pretty good commuting time, considering it was in the thick of rush hour. I was helped in part because the bulk of the commuter traffic in the morning is from Maryland into Virginia. This is because Virginia has more jobs than Maryland, so Marylanders queue up on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway and on I-270 to get to Virginia. Many of those Maryland commuters were commuting to Tysons Corner in Virginia, so there were the usual clogs of cars on this road to tediously slog through. For me, because there were no accidents on the inner loop, the beltway was not a bad bottleneck, although it was slow in spots between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This is what you do if you are a Washingtonian with a car. You are on a road that was designed to be an expressway. Instead, you stop. You go a little. You stop. You go some more. Sometimes you creep for miles at five to 20 miles an hour. Then you stop some more again. And you go some more again. Many of the spots where this will happen are predictable, but on any given commute you know there are guaranteed to be a few gotchas, i.e. bozos involved in wholly preventable traffic accidents. Often Type A drivers cause these accidents. We are overrun with Type A drivers in this area because we are all here to make our mark on the world. We live on overly caffeinated coffee and work crazy hours. One in ten of us are lawyers.

So traffic is just another battle we must win. So we dodge and weave crazily in traffic and then crunch someone’s fender. Since the traffic is already bumper-to-bumper, this just causes a huge queue of cars to stop for miles behind the accident. The service vehicle often becomes a victim too. Crazy Washington drivers being who they are, they have few qualms about driving on the shoulder when convenient, in the process blocking the service vehicles.

So of course I opted to stay in the hotel. While most of the congestion and/or mayhem happen during rush hours, there is no accounting for the time of day for these events. Tuesday I witnessed a ten-mile backup on I-95 approaching Baltimore from the south. Fortunately I was going the opposite way. (I had to teach a class in Virginia that evening, so I left the conference early.) Some jackknifed tractor-trailer was responsible for blocking four lanes of traffic. The usual. And speaking of “the usual”, as I made my way from Baltimore back to Virginia there was the usual creeping traffic on the outer loop near New Hampshire Avenue and approaching the American Legion Bridge, then more in Virginia. In Virginia the beltway is being “modernized” to put in HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes and this construction is squeezing the already squeezed commuters on the road. These HOT lanes are basically expressways for the obscenely rich. But that’s okay in Virginia because the rich are basically in charge anyhow and god forbid we spend public money to make the beltway faster for the 99%. The very idea!

Spending three nights in a hotel fifty miles from home actually made a great deal of sense. I saved huge amounts of time (at least three hours a day) by not commuting even if it meant being deprived of the company of spouse and feline. Yet the experience seemed so ridiculous, to be so close to home and yet to sleep in a hotel. It was the only practical alternative because taxpayers around here apparently are masochists. Instead, we regularly pave over what we have, and very occasionally adding a lane or two. In general traffic moves much better in Maryland than in Virginia because they spend much more on transportation. You can see it on Route 29 with all the new interchanges. Even so these modest improvements are not enough, and in Maryland they just result in less gridlock than in Virginia.

Today, at the conclusion of our conference, I contemplated yet another stop and go largely unpredictable commute home on the Capital Beltway and decided I just couldn’t endure it again. Instead, even though it was further and probably a half an hour longer, I drove to Frederick, Maryland and then across the Potomac River at the far north Point of Rocks Bridge. At least I could move. At least, except for some congestion on I-695 (Baltimore’s beltway) I could move at highway speeds. At least there was some predictability of when I would get home. Had I tried the beltway, there was probably a five percent chance I would still be sitting in traffic somewhere. I just didn’t want to deal with the possibility.

I do hope that when I retire I can retire somewhere with much better traffic. You know, some place like Los Angeles.

Free and clear

Protestors on Wall Street and elsewhere are occupying spots in major cities, trying to make the top one percent acknowledge the ninety nine percent. Many are without jobs. Those with jobs may have taken pay cuts, or were forced to go part time, or were required to contribute more toward health care or retirement. Many of those protestors also carry the burden of underwater mortgages. Others are saddled with burdensome student debt.

They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the over leveraged, the disenfranchised and the generally pissed off. If you are one of them, at a certain point you might as well pitch a tent in Zucotti Park. The weather may be too hot or too cold. You may have to wait in a line at McDonalds at 3 AM to use a toilet. You may suffer from insomnia from the din of a city that never sleeps and smell like a bus depot. But at least you are in the presence of fellow compatriots. You have known relentless misery, you are knowing more misery but at least you can talk with someone who really understands. And once a day or so you can shout out your lungs at the largely tone-deaf moneyed class who might, if the weather is nice, toast you with champagne from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange.

Mortgage rates are at record lows, but little good this does someone who is underwater on their mortgage. Because they had the flawed judgment to misjudge the future, they are no longer credit worthy, so certainly no respectable lender is going to let them renegotiate their mortgage. The Sword of Damocles shall always be pressed against their chests. No, only good people, really special people, i.e. those with actual equity in their house and good jobs get to refinance their mortgages at crazy low interest rates. In that sense, maybe I am one of the one percent.

No, not really. Our income is not that lofty. We’d need $343,927 in adjusted gross income to fall into that bracket. We’re not quite in the top five percent either. We’d need $154,653 in AGI to qualify. We come close though, so we are definitely in the top ten percent, which is good enough for many of us with mortgages to get one of those sweet refinance deals. Unlike those with underwater mortgages, our property had about twenty years to mostly appreciate, so that when prices finally fell we still had plenty of equity. Plus, over nearly two decades we have chipped away at our house’s principle. The current balance on our mortgage is $64,211.24. We paid $191,000 for the house in 1993 and took a mortgage for $171,900 of the amount. It was not until two years ago that we managed to get the balance below $100,000.

Despite our current 6.875% interest rate, our credit union is still happy to refinance the balance of our mortgage, if we don’t mind giving them $2581 in various fees for the privilege. In exchange they will pay off our 30-year mortgage and give us a new 10-year mortgage at 2.875%. We should save $372 a month in interest, once we pay off the fees, which will take about seven months.

As for those of you with underwater mortgages, sorry, you are largely out of luck. I’d like to say we possessed some sort of genius, buying low in good neighborhoods but the truth was we were just lucky. My wife and I could easily have been underwater on our mortgage too. By chance and perhaps date of birth we rolled double sixes.

Please don’t be angry with us. Yet there must be some sort of element of unfairness here. Someone must be getting shafted when we start accumulating $372 more a month. Rest assured that just like the brokers on Wall Street this extra income will be unearned. I did not have to take a part time job at a Wal-Mart to bring home this extra bacon. I just had to fill out some papers, tidy up the house for the real estate appraiser and endure yet another loan closing ceremony. This will be our fourth, since we first owned a townhouse and already refinanced once. The only deficiency to our refinanced loan is that I will have less mortgage interest to write off on my taxes. Still, I would rather pay more taxes than pay a lender extra interest. Perhaps some of it will trickle down to some of you. I would not hold your breath. I don’t plan to hire a gardener, and I already got a service that mows the grass.

Granted, owning a house comes with all sorts of other expenses not factored into the principle, interest and escrow. The entire outside of our house with the exception of three doors has been replaced. Every appliance has been replaced, sometimes more than once. Still, I can remember the days when I was living on a marginal income and rented. Once a year like clockwork you could count on the rent being raised, generally well above the cost of living. Soon we will be paying less per month in principle and interest than we paid thirty years ago per month when we lived in an apartment. It makes no sense. Meanwhile, as the downsized give up houses and end up back in apartments, extra demand is making rents go up. This crazy disparity makes no sense to me. It probably does to a Republican like Herman Cain. After all, they are loooosers.

The day is not that far off (I am hoping less than five years) when we will make that final mortgage payment. Then there will be no more mortgage payments ever. We will own the house, not to mention our cars, free and clear. Moreover, for the first time since I was age twenty or so I will be able to honestly say that I won’t owe anyone a dime. I can lay down the heavy burden of debt from my shoulders at last. I plan a party on that day, and drinking a lot of expensive champagne. I might even get drunk.

Being free of debt won’t mean our lives will be free, of course. I don’t know what I will do with all that extra money every month. Perhaps with my decent pension and retirement saving I will truly retire and never work another day in my life. Perhaps it will get eaten up in ever more egregious health care premiums or long-term care insurance. For a while though I hope I can at least revel in being free from the burden of debt.

Perhaps I will pitch a tent in Zucotti Park.

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

Shake, rattle and roll

I like things stable. One of the reasons I have concerns about retiring on the west coast is because I don’t want to find the ceiling on top of me at three a.m. That could hurt. So I live on the east coast instead where earthquakes are not entirely unknown, but they are so infrequent and mild that when they occur most people don’t even notice. People assume a garbage truck came down the street instead.

It’s ironic that when the magnitude 5.8 earthquake occurred today, I was in my office at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. The USGS of course monitors earthquakes as one of its main missions. For a change, the USGS national headquarters was near the quake’s epicenter, if 72 miles is “near”. The quake’s number on the Richter scale meant it was a significant event, but not enough to cause more than minor damage. Having never noticed an earthquake before, I didn’t know how to compare it. My guess was it was a 4.0.

At first I thought someone was coming down the hall with an unusually large and heavy cart, because the quake’s rumble resembled a cart on wheels. The rumbling kept getting longer and louder. “Are you going to pass already?” I was thinking when the shaking got so noticeable I realized it could not be a cart, or garbage truck or even a cement mixer. It had to be an earthquake. It was enough to get our attention, but not enough for me to feel panic, just concern.

One of the few things I remembered about surviving an earthquake was to stand under a solid structure. My doorframe was as solid and ready a place as I could find. So I stood there and noticed most of my office neighbors were doing the same or wandering the hall.

The whole thing lasted maybe a minute, with twenty seconds or so where the quake seemed to slowly settle down and felt like it might recur. The shaking seemed more horizontal than vertical. Fortunately, nothing fell. The electricity stayed on.

Your would think after an earthquake the USGS of all places would know what to do next, but mostly people stood around wondering what to do. The event, which occurred about 1:53 PM Eastern Time, was one we had never practiced for. We had the occasional fire drill, of course, as well as tornado drills where we went to a designated shelter in place position. Once there was a tornado warning in our neighborhood and we actually moved to our shelter in place. But earthquakes? Since no quake of this magnitude has happened on the east coast since 1944, we had no idea what to do. I suspect that will change.

It took about ten minutes before someone in a position of authority decided we should evacuate the building. I took the elevator. No one warned me not to do so and I did so automatically; it never occurred to me to use the staircase because there was no fire. Fortunately, the elevators were unimpaired. Employees milled around outside for a while, then were allowed back in just to get their stuff. I just went home, fearing some pipe was broken.

Whatever kind of earthquake we got, it was the type that did little damage. My cat was a bit freaked out when I returned home, but a careful inspection of my property determined no problems. Some sirens wailed for a while, traffic was backed up prematurely in spots, but the only impact most of us noticed was that our cell phones could not connect to the network. Instant message and email turned out to be more reliable than phones or text messages. Part of this is due to the Internet’s architecture, which is highly fault tolerant. Way to go, engineers!

My experience at last with an earthquake does not particularly have me rethinking living in an earthquake zone. Earthquakes are one of these natural hazards that you cannot assume will never happen to you, but by living in the right places you can reduce your chances of experiencing them or, if they happen, that they will cause destruction or injury. It is likely that I will never feel another earthquake. In a way we were fortunate. It would not have taken a much more powerful earthquake, or one where the dynamics of motion were different, for it to be a much more painful and expensive accident.

Still, while not overly powerful, the earthquake was still widely felt, reaching from Canada into Northern Florida. I expect the experience in those states was much different than here near the epicenter. Had the quake gone on much longer, I probably would have moved from a concerned to a panicked state instead.

Backtalk, Part 3

Time for more belated replies to dated comments.

  • To C.R. Lea on Thoughts on Buddhism, Part One. My study of Buddhism is somewhat superficial, but I don’t believe that Buddha claimed God had told him to tell others about his thoughts. Buddha likely did believe in reincarnation, as did the Hindus whose community he inhabited. I am guessing that living in 500 B.C. was more strife than sorrow, and thus the thought of endless reincarnation on earth was not necessarily a pleasant one. In any event, as best we can tell Buddha never wrote any of his teachings down, so anything we do know about him is shrouded in mist at best. It is likely that we lost many of Buddha’s teachings and picked up other things that he never said, but were inventions of those building on his philosophy. Just as most Christians would not recognize Jesus if he walked among them, it is likely that the real Buddha bears scant resemblance to his legend.
  • To tag1555 on Greater national dysfunction dead ahead. I will grant you that our national economic recovery is painfully slow, particularly when it comes to regaining the jobs we lost, but I just don’t accept that by cutting the size of government and thus our economy we will make things better in the short run. Something transformational is underway in this country, and I doubt we will emerge a heartier and healthier country. As for divided government, if it leads to political accommodation it might be good. I see little evidence of that happening at present.
  • To deanna on Will my daughter be gay? And does it matter? Over the last two weeks, we hosted a newlywed lesbian couple for a few days. Now that I’ve observed it close up for a period of time, I really cannot tell the difference between romantic homosexual and heterosexual love. I see exactly the same needs, the same relationship problems, the same strengths and the same weaknesses as in heterosexual relationships. I wish them well but I am confident their odds at maintaining a long-term marriage are no better nor worse than mine. (And yes they are legally married, not here in Virginia of course, but in Germany.) As for your daughter, I wouldn’t worry too much. People take relationships at different rates, and not all feel the pull toward higher degrees of intimacy. As for my daughter, as best I can tell she is more heterosexual than lesbian. Only time will tell. Like your daughter, she may opt to be “none of the above” and avoid intimate (i.e. soul baring) relationships altogether.
  • To Elli D. on Moving day. What a difference ten months makes! For a couple of months I was pretty disturbed with my daughter being far away from home in a strange city with a reasonably high crime rate. Now I hardly give it a thought, in part because I so often see her online and that helps me relax. I enjoy seeing her when she comes for visits, but I rarely worry about her anymore. More and more I am as happy to see her go when her visit is over as joyful when she arrives. Separation is not only necessary for both parent and child, at a certain point it is healthy.
  • To Kara and Rage on Michael Jackson: Pedophile. I am sorry Michael Jackson met a premature end, and I agree that he is not legally guilty of pedophilia. I still feel he engaged in it, given there is so much evidence anecdotal and otherwise that he was drawn to close relationships with children. No child of mine would have come close to the man, no matter how much charm and money he threw our way. He was clearly addicted to various drugs before he died, and I have to wonder if his chronic insomnia might have something to do with a guilt that gnawed at his soul. I hope I am wrong but my gut instinct suggests I probably was not. In the past, it’s been a reliable barometer.
  • To Michelle on Real Life 101, Lesson 13: Great sex is not pornography come to life. Thank you belatedly for your complement. Pornography in whatever form is like a sugar high for the libido, but it is a poor guide to having a meaningful sex life and may actually retard the likelihood of having a good one. Unfortunately, when modeling how a sex life should be, most youth model what is readily available, and pornography tends to be readily available.
  • To homeimprovementninja on The dangers of deficit fever. Is it possible we both live in our own delusions? Why are your reference sources any inherently more trustworthy than mine are?
  • To Jonathan on Kindling in search of a spark. Let me assure you, I have no interest in ruling your life. I believe the Civil War answered the question of whether states’ rights triumph over federal rights, and such rulings that have been reaffirmed many times by many conservative justices. Ironically, in a unanimous ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court, the court reaffirmed that the EPA can determine acceptable greenhouse gas emissions, not the states.