All the lonely offices

In February I will celebrate my tenth year of working at my agency. As I near that milestone, it’s hard not to see that a lot has changed.  Some things have not changed at all. My building is still the same. The view out my window of the parking lot and (on clear days) the Shenandoah Mountains is still there. What’s missing is a whole lot of people. It’s like something out of a Beatles song:

All the lonely offices
Where did they all come from?

Ten years ago, my office was a bustling place. It was not completely full, but it mostly was. It was even fuller ten years earlier when I hear the cubicles put up in the hallway outside my office were also full. Today it is mostly silent. It feels more like a tomb than an office building. In an office, people are supposed to scurry past each other regularly and chitchat over the office water cooler. That was then.

The other day I had my annual physical. I sent a note to the only two people on my floor that might conceivably wonder where I was. “I’ll be in by 9:30. I doubt anyone will notice.” Of course they did not. One works from home most mornings until the traffic abates. The other takes advantage of telecommuting, so she often works from home. But when she does come in, I’ve been at work for a couple of hours already. And I’ve been there working in silence, with pretty much only the drone of the heating unit near my window for company. I figure I could arrive at work at 9:30 and say I’ve been working since 7:30, and absolutely no one would figure it out. I could play hooky pretty much every morning, but I am still up at 6:30 anyhow, and slogging into the office.

A few weeks ago, around 8 AM someone actually showed up at my office. She works in Denver and was visiting on business and making the rounds to say hi. It was good to see her but she was expecting, like, people to be around. I was pretty much the people.

What’s going on? Why are my days at work so empty? Part of it is incremental retirements. It’s one of these things you don’t notice because it is happening so slowly over many years. One day you look around and hardly anyone is there. Some offices still have names on the door. Many of these names are from people who are retired, in many cases years ago. Many often have official occupants, but they are part-time occupants at best. They prefer the convenience of working from home because there is no commute. And here in Northern Virginia, commuting is often a slow and painful hassle. It’s not so much for me, since I am only three miles away. I don’t mind having a place to go to during the day. I’m much more productive there, even when it was bustling, than I am at home with a whiny cat and noise leaching from my daughter’s bedroom.

The office is disappearing, and I for one am sad. It’s not that the work has gone away. It still gets done, but much of it is done via telecommuting, usually from home. They are easy enough to chat with via instant message or telephone, but they simply aren’t in the office with me. They are becoming disembodied voices on the phone. Many of them feel about telecommuting the way NRA members feel about their guns: they’ll give it up when I pry them out of their cushy home office.

What’s missing is the social life, hitherto an important part of working in an organization, and I believe a key reason why work became meaningful. It’s nice to chat with a colleague on the phone, but it’s not the same as having them down the hall for a random chat. Talking to someone face to face is a high fidelity experience. An instant message is like a telegram. Without interacting with them face to face regularly, I’m less likely to learn about their hobbies and their struggles. They become dispassionate people, almost abstract. This makes it hard to know when there are things bothering them. They might be seething about something but it won’t be obvious from a text message. Even a phone call won’t necessarily tell me. However, while they may be seething, they often think that I am picking it up when I am usually clueless.

It’s the new virtual office and it has its benefits and its downsides. But I also miss, how shall I say, the dearly departed. I miss most of those now retired people who I interacted with regularly. They are pretty much gone and permanently disconnected. It’s a shame because for the most part they were interesting people who I enjoyed getting to know. But they’ve moved on. For the most part I have no idea what’s going on with them unless they happen to show up for a holiday party or when someone else in the office decides to retire and they come to celebrate, and maybe not even then. These people who were once so passionately vested in their work, full of creativity and doggedness, have moved on. I hope it’s to a happier place, but for those of us left behind the emptiness is sad and getting sadder.

A space consolidation is underway. New people are supposed to move in and fill these empty offices but they have been saying this for years. It will be good to have more people around, but they will largely remain strangers even if I see them regularly, because their work and mine simply won’t intersect.

I have eighteen months or so before I join the retirees club. Maybe when I do I’ll find out where they all went. I am hoping that there is a party underway, and they invite me inside.

Interview with a porn star

I am a sinner, apparently. I am making money from porn.

Granted I am not producing porn. Viewing the stuff is not that interesting either, mostly because so little of it is actually worth viewing. You might say I am tangentially facilitating porn. For extra income and to keep one toe out of IT management and actually in IT programming, I have a very small business on the side wherein I help users install, modify and upgrade forums on their websites. Occasionally one of these sites happens to be a porn site. In the eyes of some I am contributing to the moral degradation not just of the United States, but the entire world since about half of my clients are from outside the United States.

Facilitating porn raises an interesting ethical dilemma: should I care? Porn supposedly degrades both women and men. That is in the eye of the beholder, I believe. There are probably some women who get into porn unwillingly, courtesy of a domineering significant other and who are probably quite damaged from the experience, mentally if not physically. I doubt this is true of most women in porn, although I can’t claim to have read studies on the subject. As for men, supposedly it teaches us that women are objects, although I have seen plenty of porn and I still think of women as complex and multifaceted human beings. I am quite certain though that my not working on porn sites will not reduce the volume of porn streaming across our steamy Internet. So for me the only real question is whether I want to make some money from facilitating porn. And that depends.

When I get these porn requests, I always take a look at the site. It would take a lot to shock me but frankly the majority of porn sites aren’t that shocking anymore. They basically consist of a lot of mostly naked people putting body parts in or near other people, and often acting rather dreadfully. Us old married folk have seen plenty of nudity and the naked human body isn’t anything special, although attractive naked human bodies tend to be more interesting. Curiously, on many of these sites the porn actors practice safe, well at least safer sex. It’s almost as frequent to see guys with condoms on than without. And while there are plenty of amateur sites out there, any site that is even tangentially “professional” is hiring “talent” that has been cleared by a local testing facility before they allow actors put their body part near any other actor’s body parts.

So I find most porn sites I do work for not objectionable at all. In fact, usually their stuff is pretty standard in our hardcore world. I will happily pass on helping any site with a theme that I find personally objectionable, such as a site that emphasizes underage people who actually are not, or where the sadomasochism moves beyond leather and riding crops what appears to be actual injury to someone, even when they consent to it. I haven’t been asked to work on a gay site yet, but that is probably coming (no pun intended). I also won’t do any work that could potentially get me in legal trouble in the United States, and I tend to err on the side of caution. If I don’t feel comfortable, I simply won’t do it. But if I do feel comfortable, I am happy enough to take someone’s money. Someone else would anyhow.

Most of my very limited work with porn sites has involved working with guys managing these sites, who are often acting as content webmasters for dozens of adult sites. It’s just business for both of us. I do a few hours of work and they drop a hundred dollars or so in my PayPal account. So when someone called Gen contacted me to install a forum on their site, I assumed it was some guy about half my age, probably with a beer belly, too busy mastering airbrush techniques in Photoshop and editing explicit videos than to hassle with my technical domain. I asked the usual questions, checked out the site and got assurances there was nothing that could be construed as child porn.

Proof of my ignorance of porn stars emerged when she said, well, she was a she. That’s interesting, I said in an otherwise business-like email. To my knowledge you are the first woman I’ve encountered running a porn site. Oh, she said, I don’t just run the site; I am also the porn “star”. Now that was truly interesting. It was my first encounter with stardom, or at least porn stardom.

“Gen” happens to be this lady. It feels indelicate to broadcast too much more about her website, but Wikipedia has the link to her site where I did my work if you are curious. There you can see plenty of pictures of her in her birthday suit and where members can see plenty more behind a pay wall. And that was the basic issue: how to put a forum behind her pay wall. I hadn’t done that before but I was not intimidated. It took a couple of days and required some back and forth with her web host, but I figured it out. Now she and her paid members can discuss whatever it is that paying customers do behind pay walls in forums. Maybe they discuss which one of her numerous porn films they like the best.

Gen is 32 and curiously looks more than a little bit like my lust object, who is one year younger. That began a curious email exchange wherein she said I was not the first person to make the comparison, but not until recently. I expected that a porn star would not be very eloquent via email, at least not with non-paying members like me, but Gen turned out to be quite expressive and volunteered information I had not solicited. Her husband supports the way she supports herself, but he is never in front of the camera. Yeah, she likes making porn, but mostly got out of the business because even with all the STD testing it was too dangerous. But it sounds like she still makes new porn from time to time, but presumably only with people she feels safe with. And she doesn’t mind managing the web site. She has it pretty much figured out but needs a consultant from time to time. And yes, making porn is something she enjoys. So at least in her case, being in porn is not degrading.

And Gen tips well. In fact, the tip was more than what I billed her for my services. Moreover, she needs an IT guy like me from time to time, so I suspect I’ll be hearing from her again. Given the way she tips, I’m more than inclined to do more work for her.

Now here’s the curious thing about my business. I use the income basically for little indulgences. It bought my wife and I a nice weekend at a resort a few years back. It will pay for most if not all of the shore excursions on our cruise of the southern Caribbean in January. A fair amount of this income is actually given away, often to Democrats running for office, and often to charities. And one of my favorite charities is House of Ruth, a shelter for abused women and children based locally in Washington, D.C. I’ve been giving to the shelter for nearly three decades. I became sensitive to the problem of spousal abuse when I helped make a documentary on the subject in college. In part due to Gen’s money and her healthy tip, House of Ruth got a healthy donation from me.

So in a way I’ve proven that porn can be good. Gen seems like a normal, healthy, sexually active woman who figured out a way to make money from porn because she was blessed with an attractive body. (According to Wikipedia, she also teaches Pilates, yoga and is a licensed massage therapist.) Gen makes a living doing something she enjoys, horny men (and maybe some women) get off, I make some income doing work I usually like to do, and this money goes to help abused women and children.

I figure I’m doing good facilitating porn. And now I have something of a new email friend and client: Gen the porn star.

A short walk on Fairfax County’s Cross-County Trail

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s known for having a million people, being nestled up to the capital beltway (and partly inside it), beltway bandits, clean industries, great schools and well-moneyed people. One thing that doesn’t come to mind when you think about Fairfax County is nature. It’s not that nature is wholly absent, it’s just that nature consists mostly of modest county parks and little asphalt trails winding their way through patches of woods that are overseen by hulking single family houses. Some communities in the county try to celebrate nature. Reston does a good job of it, or at least did before they put the downtown in. Mostly though Fairfax County is about nice houses, annoying traffic, lawns, keeping up with the Joneses and people who think they are more important than they actually are.

In general, if you want nature you go west. The Shenandoah Mountains is about an hour away. Many people from Fairfax County consider a trip to nature to be climbing Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs. (It has a granite face so you can take in a view.)

It turns out that Fairfax County has a trail that almost no one knows about. I walked part of it last weekend. It’s the Cross County Trail and it literally crosses the entire length of the county, from the Potomac River in the North to Woodbridge in the South. It does touch civilization in spots but mostly it cuts its way through remnants of forests and along local streambeds. I had known about the trail for a couple of years and had ignored it. Most Fairfax County residents don’t even know it’s there. But if you are a hiker, it’s right here and a great way to get some exercise. You just have to find the darn thing. At least that was my experience last Sunday walking a stretch of it between Vale and Lawyers roads.

The trail may not be well known because it is not well marked. I had to drive to it and it took me a while to find it. There was no place to park my car, so I pulled off and parked by the side of the road. The entrance to the trail at first escaped me, as all I could see was a gravel road into Camp Crowell, the local Girl Scout camp. There was a hard to see dirt path off on the side, and this happened to be the trail. I was expecting something grander and wasn’t even sure I was on it at all until I saw a small trail marker. Water bottle and camera in hand I headed north. Slowly the noise from cars on Vale Road disappeared behind me.

Horse at Camp Crowell
Horse at Camp Crowell

What appeared ahead of me was pasture, and then another pasture, this one bounded by fences. Inside were two horses for the girls of Camp Crowell looking very bored in the distance. There were prominent no trespassing signs, so I didn’t. I did however come up to the fence just to get a better look at the horses, a rare sight in Fairfax County. The two horses, including one foal, were frisky, playful and curious and came right up to me. “How you doing, fellas,” I said, stroking their heads, affection that they were very happy to receive. I could not recall how long it had been since I had the pleasure of touching a horse. It was likely more than a decade, but it was a welcome, almost sensuous experience. I regretted not having packed a couple of apples, but I had no idea I would be encountering horse on my little four-mile hike.

I wandered past the pastures and soon found myself in the woods, somewhat past their autumn peak. To my right was the sound of gently flowing water, a stream called Difficult Run to be precise. I knew of it not because I have lived in Fairfax County for nearly thirty years but because I manage a web site for the USGS that serves data for thousands of water monitoring sites, including one on Difficult Run. I wasn’t sure whether I would encounter our gaging station or not, but water flow was gentle so it couldn’t be flowing more than a few cubic feet per second. The creek’s banks, covered with sand and gravel, attested to the power of the stream after storms. Today it was moving at a languid pace. I breathed deeply. How wonderful: invigorating autumn air, temperatures in the lower 60s, mostly dry ground to walk across, a mixture of hazy sunshine filtering through the canopy and a gently winding trail to traverse.

And yet it was not wholly unmaintained. I crossed a few bridges the county had put in. I also found one volunteer about my age, with his aging dog sporting a large benign tumor on his right side, maintaining the trail of sorts. He had a little rake and was engaged in the thankless task of sweeping leaves off the trail, but only in spots where they masked hidden roots. I stopped and we chatted for a bit. He spoke of the trail as a hidden gem and said he walked it regularly, but usually alone and sometimes in the evening when the deer came out. It was both sad and nice to hear about its little use. Today, I didn’t mind so much the lack of human company. Instead I hungered for a little nature. I got it with the rustling of leaves, mostly wind driven but occasionally caused by a squirrel in the bush. I heard it in the birds overhead and the occasional call of a crow.

It was not quite just me, this man and his dog on the trail. A little further I found a mother with two daughters and two dogs. Dog lovers know what happens if you put dogs near a stream: they were in it, lapping it, walking in it, prancing through it from time to time, and mostly making a happy but soggy mess of themselves. It’s a natural things for dogs to do, except you don’t see it much in Fairfax County, where leash laws are in effect and where nature like this tends to be far away. Here, hidden in the woods, dogs could be dogs.

Difficult Run
Difficult Run

“Follow the signs carefully,” the trail guide with the broom told me. “Cross the creek to the path on the other side and you can end up on private property. Nothing should happen to you, but it’s best avoided.” Instead he pointed me to the trail marker pointing to the left. It moved me away from Difficult Run and up a small hill. Up the hill I found some tents in the woods, which I first mistook for tents of homeless people. On further inspection I realized that they were there to keep cords of firewood dry. Nearby were some large estates for rich people. Their chimneys would use that that wood when the weather turned colder. I was more than a little envious. I wished I could purchase an opportunity to be so close to nature.

Up to Lawyers Road then back again. My pace back was brisker as rain looked like it might threaten. The horses were nowhere to be found when I past their pasture again. There was no sign of an outhouse, but plenty of nature. When privacy allowed, I let nature be my outhouse.

Finally the distant sound of cars on Vale Road, and suddenly the magic was over. But now that I know the Cross County Trail is so close and often so unused, it is likely that I will be back again soon, and exploring other parts of this largely unknown gem secretly nestled in the heart of Fairfax County. Walking the trail I can renew both body and spirit. And I don’t have to go too far. Call me selfish, but I hope it stays our little hidden natural gem.

Furlough Diary, Day 13

I’m running out of places inside my house to paint and patch. The lower level is now completely repainted. I finished that project last week when I repainted the back of one door that I had neglected in the spring. The walls consisting of our master bedroom closets and vanity have been repainted. The master bedroom itself still looks good enough where it doesn’t seem worth my effort. Last time I painted it, it involved bringing in the ladder I use to get to the roof to paint the room’s vaulted ceilings, a tedious process that I will be glad to leave to the next owners. Last year we had a contractor paint the vaulted ceilings in our living room and hallways, so that’s all done.

So I’m been reduced to painting parts of the kitchen. The planter box that extends over the kitchen sink and out into the yard needed a new coat of semigloss, as did the door to the pantry which still had its original coat of paint. There are a few more doors that need painting but that’s it, aside from my daughter’s bedroom. She is occupying it, so I’ll paint it when she moves out. It’s an odd feeling to be virtually caught up on painting chores, likely for the first time in my life. All this is thanks to dysfunction in Congress.

Which means if this continues, and it looks likely at least for a few more days, outdoor chores will be next on my agenda. Four days of often-unrelenting rain from a Nor’easter has kept me indoors with the paintbrush. Staining the deck again, a chore I have ignored for years, is obviously next up when the weather decides to cooperate. According to the non-furloughed staff at the National Weather Service, we should finally see the sun tomorrow.

Painting has kept me too busy to feel cabin fever set in, but even thirteen days later it still feels unnatural to be home so much. I wisely brought home my plant at the office before leaving on October 1st. I found comfort going to the office most days and find that I miss that routine, not to mention the excellent view of the Shenandoah Mountains on clear days. Except for one trip to Starbucks, I have had no coffee. I keep my coffeemaker at work, and I routinely have two cups of decaf at my desk with lunch. My diet has changed since the furlough. I am less likely to have a salad with lunch, simply because my house has no salad bar, unlike the cafeteria at work. Aside from the cat who usually just wants to be fed, my companion is now WAMU, the public radio station in Washington D.C. that has mostly NPR public affairs content. My portable radio tuned to WAMU follows me as I move from room to room with my paintbrush. It’s a welcome distraction but of course it is mostly shutdown politics and I rarely learn anything new. But unlike my employer at the moment, at least it is something of a new constant in my life. The Diane Rehm Show, the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Talk of the Nation and of course Morning Edition and All Things Considered now follow me through the course of my day. This week will be a trial because it’s membership week. I give the station money every year but I simply cannot deal with the drivel that is membership week. Which means it will be WSCP (C-SPAN radio) next week, when I can tolerate that or, more likely, the sounds of silence.

I am not panicking over money but sometimes I feel like I should proceed with more financial caution. We are going through a cash flow challenge of sorts, which means I will probably have to start drawing from savings soon. My wife is more than gainfully employed, but she is subcontracting, and only gets paid once a month. This means all expenses are paid from my checking account, which consists of my last paycheck plus a few hundred dollars. And boy the expenses have been coming in! A lot of these are routine expenses but there continues to be large numbers of copays, mostly related to my wife and her accident in April, as we continue to chase down the cause of her seizure. There are initial consult fees, test fees, fees to tell you what the test said, random statements in the mail demanding more money, etc. Since October 1st, there has been about $350 in copays and more in prescription medications. Arguably all are necessary.

My next paycheck will be about half of my regular amount, for whatever period is covered through September 30 and that will be it for me until the furlough is over. It looks like we will be paid for the furloughed time. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate, basically on their back burner, but likely to get approved at some point. Still, there are no guarantees. Like Mr. Spock I am trying to stay logical. It makes all the sense in the world to keep hitting the Lowes for paint and other home improvement supplies, even with no money coming in. I keep an account for home improvements, so these expenses will come out of this account, but for the short term it just makes the balance in my checkbook creep toward zero.

Trying to read the tealeaves across the Potomac River continues to be something of a black art. When or if I get to go back to work is unclear. Some days it looks promising and other days less so. The only obvious thing is that Republicans are getting seriously pummeled on the shutdown. I started out skeptical that the shutdown would mean that Democrats would retake the House in elections next year. Now I think it is more likely than not, despite the gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republican incumbents. Some part of me is rooting for the shutdown to continue if it makes this outcome all the more probable. Even Republicans, or at least the sane ones still around, are figuring out they need to cut their losses. When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declares it will support Republican moderates and campaign against Tea Party affiliated candidates, you know something has changed.

What the country needs the most are not necessarily more Democrats, although they are certainly preferable to Republicans, but more moderates. The long-term consequence of this shutdown may be the return of moderates of both political stripes. This shutdown is likely to validate the thesis that a country cannot be governed with extremes on both sides holding power. We need more Mark Warners and (yes, hard to hear me say this) Chris Christies so that they can keep either extreme from getting too far away from the sensible center. We need pragmatists. We need horse traders for politicians again. God help us, we need the earmark. We are starting to see the value of the earmark, which is not so much to put plums in Congressional districts but as the oil that imperfectly moves the gears of government. If these are outcomes of the shutdown, I will welcome then.

In the meantime, I have not yet exhausted my list of home improvement chores, so I will continue to work on them doggedly while the shutdown lasts.

Furlough Diary, Day 3

Our bathtub is looking real nice after its caulking yesterday. With time to spare and prohibited from even touching a government-owned device, this currently “non-excepted” i.e. furloughed federal employee has time to play Tooltime Tim. Unfortunately, I’m not terribly skilled at home improvement, given how I messed up my last three attempts to caulk our bathtub. It always comes out looking amateurish. Thanks to being furloughed, I had time to approach this problem in a more systematic way, which meant the innovation of going to YouTube and finding a video to see how professionals do it. Of course! I should have used masking tape! My new caulking now looks professionally done.

We’re not supposed to be doing any government business because the government doesn’t want to compensate us for it when no money is appropriated. Most federal employees I know simply don’t have an off switch. We are vested our work. Yeah, I know that goes against the stereotype of a federal employee as a lazy, unmotivated, obese grade C student. The truth is just the opposite. While I cannot do any work, I can, as a taxpayer, check the web sites I managed (well used to manage) to make sure they are still up. They are, probably thanks to Greg, the one “excepted” employee still at work, just forty-two elect in an agency with over 8000 employees. There are no employees in the field to calibrate any of the gauges reporting our real-time information, so it’s mostly running on autopilot, as is most of the “non-essential” federal government, despite that this data is needed for flood forecasting and all sorts of public safety needs. Maybe if it were our job to kill people instead of help save them then we would be excepted.

It’s a strange business being furloughed. It’s sort of like living in limbo. In past furloughs we were retroactively paid, but that is less likely this time with our ornery congress critters, who already forced many of us to take unpaid furloughs during the spring and summer, and are probably not in a mood to compensate us for their inability to simply do their jobs. While prohibited from doing actual work under penalty of law (but it’s hard to see how it can be enforced, with the enforcers likely furloughed as well), being furloughed also means you can be recalled at any time and if called in you must report. Which means looking for other work to fill the gap is not really an option, unless it is work that you can quit it at a moment’s notice.

Do you know any employers with these kinds of options? I don’t. I think panhandling qualifies, as long as you carry your cell phone with you so your boss can reach you. Moreover, if you feel so fed up with the whole furlough situation that you just decide to quit, well, good luck with that. The HR department is non-essential too, which means they are also furloughed.

Lincoln freed the slaves, but apparently an exception was left for furloughed federal employees who really cannot find employment elsewhere and thus cannot earn a living. Ironically, I have found a way to earn some money while furloughed. I have a small business as an IT consultant that I do on evenings and weekends. I can now do this work during the day and feel guiltless about it, providing I have some work to do. I do have some. One client wants to hire me to do some changes to their user interface, but is busy with a product release, thus I don’t have a good set of requirements to start work. My wife’s boss may give me some programming work, which is fine although I don’t know Python (I’m sure I can pick it up) but I can only do it if I can drop the work at a moment’s notice when and if I am called back to work. It looks like it’s going to be a long wait.

It’s a shame because I have plenty of time during the day which means while furloughed I could get this consulting work done immediately. Instead I am caulking the bathtub. And installing a new toilet seat. And buying cat food, hitting the BJs and the Wegmans. And blogging. In general, I am tackling all the chores I would do before we hope to put the house on the market in 2015. So there will be more caulking, painting, cleaning the deck and pulling weeds in the days, weeks and maybe even months ahead.

What is missing for me is the sense of dread I felt in 1995 and 1996, the last time federal employees were furloughed. Granted if this extends long enough, my feelings may morph to concern and then panic. I don’t feel the need to tighten my financial belts at the moment. We will keep spending as we always have and really I have no idea how to turn it off. How do I tell my wife not to go see the specialist she needs to see? How do I tell the credit union I don’t think it’s advisable for me to make my mortgage payment for a while that I am contractually required to make? Fortunately, my wife brings in some income and we have enough in savings to tie us over.

So my concern is not so much for me but for those much further down the federal civil service ladder, not to mention the huge array of contractors and businesses dependent on federal spending. Many of these GS-5 through GS-12 employees are living at the margins. It may not be popular to hear it but they generally earn considerably less than those in the private sector doing equivalent jobs. They work for the government in part because they like their work, are excited about their missions and in part because of the benefits, which are pretty good, particularly if they make it to retirement. But they are getting squeezed and they have been kicked around a lot already. Many were furloughed for days and weeks earlier in this year due to sequestration.  There have been no cost of living raises for over three years, but their rents have gone up. And then there is the morale problem, kicked around by a Congress that treats them with contempt. These employees are simply scared, living paycheck-to-paycheck, convenient piñatas for mostly men in Congress with no sense of empathy to smash at.

Many of them are professionals in the best sense of the world. This includes people like my brother, a NOAA meteorologist, who is chomping at the bit to go back to work. He knows his research has a real world impact. He cannot work, at least not legally. I suspect a fair number of my employees, particularly those doing software development, are still busy at home coding away on their personal computers, wholly uncompensated, waiting for the day when they will get paid again and can do their small part to make our troubled world a better place.

If only Congress would let us.

Ducks in a row

The government may be shutting down on Tuesday, but this near retiree is still not too panicked. Shutdowns don’t last forever, although this latest group of Tea Party Republicans doesn’t seem very amenable to reason, so it could last weeks or longer. I’m not too panicked because not only is retirement on the horizon, my retirement now has a date, sort of: May 2015.

That’s what I told my management chain recently. “Eighty percent certainty.” Watching our dysfunctional Congress at work makes me want to speed that up to an immediate retirement, technically possible but not entirely advisable. The message from Republicans in Congress to us toiling in the federal civil service is kind of hard not to hear: we hate you. There are the constant threats of shutdowns; and this one looks like it is actually going to happen. To make sure you get the message that you are loathed, Republicans don’t seem inclined to compensate us for shutdowns they caused.

Then there are all the other signs, like the lack of anything like a cost of living raise these last four years. For four years inflation has eroded the value of my salary without even a penny in cost of living increases. And of course, there were furloughs. My agency was fortunate enough to escape them this year, but not without much anxiety. “Retire if you can and don’t mind us if we kick you in the pants on your way out the door. We don’t give a shit about all your hard work during your career. Just get the hell out. If we make your life miserable enough, maybe you will just quit and do the taxpayers a favor.”

Message received. But retirement, if you can even afford to retire, is not something to do on impulse. You have to have some confidence that you can actually afford to retire. There are so many factors to consider. In our case, there’s the remaining debt on our house, which ideally should not be carried into retirement. There is also the pension amount. The longer you wait, the higher the pension. Since my pension is based on my highest annual salaries, the lack of a cost of living raise for four years has effectively cut my pension. Thanks, Republicans!

Then there is the larger question of what the heck I am going to do in retirement. The research shows not doing anything cuts your mortality significantly. It also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, the brain is something like a muscle. If you don’t challenge it by giving it obstacles, it tends to atrophy. Anyhow, there are lots of puzzle pieces to consider. There is also our daughter, now age 24, who presumably should move out and be able to support herself independently before we retire. But I must say that being retired is looking quite appealing, if for no other reason that I don’t have to feel like a piñata anymore. Instead of Congress giving me the finger, I can give them one back.

My boss’s retirement in June had the effect of making me more than a little jealous. At least she is out of the mess. I am still in it. My glide slope to retirement though seems a little sad. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, is such a terrific employer. It’s doing everything it can possibly do to maintain morale and let employees know their work matters. But it can’t keep us from being furloughed except for the handful whose work is deemed “excepted” from furlough. That depends on a Congress that actually cares about the laws on the books and values its mission, rather than the anarchistic boobs we have instead.

So May 2015 is about right. My service computation date cranks into another year, which increases the pension to a marginally more satisfying amount. And I still have twenty months to keep putting income into retirement accounts. I do care enough about my job and the people who work for and with me to make my transition out as reasonably painless as possible for those who will pick up my slack. I’d like to have most of my projects complete and to do whatever mentoring I can to those who might assume my position. Twenty more months should allow all this to happen.

I am hopeful that Democrats will regain the House in the 2014 elections and that sanity will return to Congress then. It would be nice to retire with a government that again values rather than scorns its employees. It will be an uphill fight with House districts so crazily gerrymandered, but it is potentially doable. A shutdown that lasts for more than a week might be the animus that tells voters it’s time to escort these bulls out of our national china shop.

I can thank Republicans for one thing: giving me the animus to call John, our financial adviser, and run through the scenario where I would retire earlier and, if necessary, take the rest of my life off. What would our retirement parachute look like? We ran through all sorts of scenarios based on pension estimates, investment income, savings and probable expenses. I asked him to project all sorts of unlikely scenarios, including a cut in my pension and mediocre stock market returns on our portfolio over the thirty or so more years I hope to be alive. It all looks doable if I stay on the plan. It is made better by relocating to a less expensive area of the country, which is part of our animus at looking at retirement areas. Our financial adviser, like most, likes to use Monte Carlo simulations to make portfolio projections. It is sort of like throwing random die on a table over thirty years, and using those numbers to project investment returns. Even in the most unlikely scenarios, we should do fine. We can maintain our standard of living without needing to earn a dime after retirement.

Retirement, if you can do it, can be more of a door opening than one shutting behind you. I will be glad to put the federal rat race behind me. I don’t know what my future will look like beyond inevitable aging and death. But I do know I am up to the challenge.

Twenty months to go.

Leap of faith

This blog scratches my writing itch, but most of us writers would rather be published than place our writings in a blog. Being published still means something. Today it means one or more authorities singled you out as worthy of being published, usually on paper. Publishers are not in the business of wasting money. They only publish content they believe will earn them a profit. Coincidentally, published authors earn actual money.

Being a published writer is hard and breaking into the ranks is the hardest part, which is probably why I blog. I may be a good writer, but I am not a great writer and probably will never be. I write because I must. In retirement I may have the leisure to pick up electronic pen and try writing a great novel. But I have little illusions that after it is done that it will be published.

This is because potential authors are a dime a dozen. Publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, many of them quite good, but most of them trash. At best, an author’s unsolicited manuscript will get a cursory read of the first couple pages by some low level staffer and if it doesn’t meet a niche or market or a quality standard, it is quickly rejected. Even if it meets all of these criteria, the odds are still that it will get rejected, mainly just because. Authors send out their manuscripts anyhow. A few rejection letters will crush the egos of most authors. They will assume they don’t have the “write” stuff and shuffle along disheartened toward more productive but less enthralling careers.

Writers that take the time to research what it takes to get published usually discover it’s a waste of time to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Instead, they try to find a literary agent to represent them. It’s the difference between getting an automated response from a firm and talking to a human being. A literary agent is a trusted broker. If a true literary agent accepts you as a client then your manuscript is virtually certain to get published.

This means that both book publishers and literary agents get inundated with manuscripts. In both venues there are the flakes out there. Vanity publishers are glad to print your book as long as you are willing to pay for it and market it yourself. Similarly, there are literary agents that probably don’t deserve the title but may be interested in critiquing your work, for a fee, or passing it on to an editor who, for a fee, will be glad to edit it, but with little likelihood that it can actually be marketed. A real literary agent is on a first name basis with editors at key publishers and knows what they are looking for. You are not charged any fees at all until a work is published. The agent typically collects fifteen percent of the royalties.

So getting a real agent is a hard bar to reach. I did have a literary agent briefly out of college. I set my expectations low for breaking into the field. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was on the air in the 1970s. I asked an agent to submit a couple of scripts for them. She agreed but they were quickly bounced back. Apparently staff wrote all their scripts. I gave up the idea of writing a great novel or screenplay and went to work instead because I was broke.

My wife, actually a better writer than I am, also wrote all sorts of stories in the science fiction, children and fantasy genres. She sent them out to various publications to see if they might publish them. Her heart was broken time and again. She too gave up. When she chooses to write today, it is for a genre called slash that appeals to the fan fiction community. Needless to say there is no money in it, but there is the occasional fan mail and recognition at a convention.

Our daughter (almost 24 years old) took up the pen naturally. Arguably, if a budding writer had to be born anywhere, she picked good parents. We provided a nutrient-rich literary soup for her. Our house is full of books. There is a newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, and various magazines to read. In addition, we exposed her early to the arts. Just last night we took her to see Miss Saigon at Signature Theater (review to come). She saw her first musical at age six but by now has seen more theater than most people do in several lifetimes. We encouraged her writing but warned her that, like us, she probably couldn’t earn a living at it. I encouraged her toward journalism, which at least pays something resembling a living wage. But no, she set her mark impossibly high. She wanted to write fiction. Worse, she chose fantasy novels, which with the exception of J.K. Rowling is a pretty limited market. We warned her that she had set herself up for a bigger failure because it was a highly saturated but limited market. It was best, we counseled, to do it on nights and weekends. You are going to need a full time job at a desk somewhere to get by.

But still she plugged away, while we fretted over her grades and her slow but measured progress in college. She did earn her bachelor’s degree in English this spring. She is still looking for a job. We did give her credit for doggedness. She finished her book, first of a trilogy, and kept shopping it around to literary agents that seemed interested in this stuff. She endured lots of rejection, crushed spirits but also occasional notes of encouragement. And somehow she kept plunging ahead. We cheered her on while grimacing privately at the probability of the brick wall she was about to hit. It was our experience that life was unfair, and no matter how good you were, most of us writers were fated to be unpublished. We certainly were. We just gave up.

Spring turned to summer, summer headed toward autumn. She seemed doomed to the fate of Sisyphus. It hurt to watch and it felt counterproductive sometimes to encourage her perseverance but gosh, she sure was good. Both my wife and I agree her writing was far better than anything we ever wrote. Meanwhile she went on job interviews far beneath her talents and wrote into the wee hours.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein Associates, a New York literary agency, sent her a contract to sign. Look for her book, Godbinder, first part of a trilogy to be published by some lucky publisher in 2014 under the pen name of J. M. Saint.

J.K. Rowling had better watch out.

In a comic frame of mind

Since retirement is on my mind, what to do next is also on my mind. Here’s what I won’t be doing:

  • Playing golf. I never tried, but it’s expensive and since it requires agility then I am likely to do as well at it as I dance. (I have little sense of rhythm or balance.) So I figure I would prove to be spectacularly bad at it.
  • Ski. See playing golf. Plus I imagine myself in casts and walking around for weeks in crutches.
  • Sitting around the house all day. I get cabin fever after a few days. I figure I need a dog in retirement. They always want to go outside. And while I love my spouse, too much togetherness is not good. I saw what it did to my parent’s marriage. They would have been much happier if they spent much of their days apart.
  • Not working. I don’t want to work full time, but I want to do something productive at least part time. Teaching at a community college, which I have done off and on for many years, is doable but it doesn’t pay much. I’ll want to supplement my retirement income by more than teaching at an adjunct’s salary.

Ideally you spend your retirement doing things you like to do, but doing it on a schedule that suits you and hopefully making some money at it. I’ve done IT management for fifteen years or so. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but it could be worse and it pays great. In retirement I’ll be glad to put that behind me. It seems a shame to waste my IT skills, because I still think IT is fascinating. So I am thinking of writing some mobile apps, once I learn how to do it. It’s not an easy market though. You have to find a niche plus everyone and his brother is doing the same thing and selling them for ninety-nine cents on Google Play. The vast majority of apps have no buzz and languish in obscurity.

I am obviously a political creature, given the nature of this blog. So combining social action with something I enjoy sounds like a good way to spend my time. If it can be profitable, it is even better. So I am thinking of creating a comic strip.

I have noticed that being able to draw doesn’t matter much anymore. Dilbert is a great example. Scott Adams is a millionaire and he cannot draw worth a damn. What he had was a clever idea and he was fortunate enough to work it until it took off. Dilbert is an example of a comic strip that is minimalistic and this type seems to be more popular these days. The online strip xkcd is a better example. If you are creative enough and hit a new and emerging market then the ability to draw is irrelevant.

Based on my research, creating a comic is a lot like selling a first novel. Many try but few succeed. Also, the market is declining, at least for comics on newsprint. Still, there is something about being a creative force behind a comic that appeals to me. I like that, when successful, you can get paid a lot of money for doing so very little. (At least that’s the way I perceive it.) I’ve come up with two comic ideas and curiously both arrived in the middle of the night.

Going with the existential, minimalist, “I don’t need to actually be an artist to write a comic” theme, my first idea for a strip was “A Pile of Ants”. Three frames for every strip during the week of course. All you see is a pile of ants represented by a lot of dots on a surface. One ant talks to the other. It’s an ill-formed idea, but it occurred to me that ants could articulate things that humans cannot and get away with it. Like Monty Python, most people would not “get” it, but those who did would find it hilarious. That you actually never see any of the characters would make it singularly unique, sort of like radio was when you had to picture the action and characters in your mind. However, after a few days I realized I doubted I could sustain this idea for very long, and it was unlikely to be marketable. And it probably wouldn’t do much for social action.

The second idea, and one I am considering pursuing with a friend that can at least draw, is a strip about life in the retail world. It has the virtue of never being done before. Most of us have had the retail experience in our careers, and found that it sucked. So it would be a strip that most could relate to, which might make it marketable. Of course, it would be all about life in retail, probably a fictional big box chain that seems like some amalgamation of Walmart and Target. In my days it was a Montgomery Ward, now defunct. The experience though does not change much from decade to decade. Clerks and salespeople are used, more often abused and occasionally recycled. Customers frequently act pissy, managers thrive on exploitation and staff turns over so frequently you can’t keep up with who is supposed to be working on a given day. In general, in the retail business every effort is made to keep costs low primarily through the infliction of pain on retail employees. At least, that was my experience in about two years working retail after college but before landing a government job. And from reading sites like Not Always Right, which documents customer abuse in the retail world, stupid customer syndrome has not abated.

I don’t have a working title for the strip yet. I want to keep details private until I find out if this thing can fly, and given the odds it probably won’t. But I am a decent writer, and I can write good characters. While artwork is less important than it used to be, I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I am hoping I can find an artist who might take it on. My friend Tom from childhood gets first dibs, if he has time for the project. We worked on comics together as teens and he has a lot of natural talent plus he works in advertising. If I need inspiration there are plenty of places online to find it, but also plenty of material to dreg up from thirty years ago as well.

The main task right now is to flesh out the strip, sort of the way screenplays are done: with a treatment. I need to set up the whole thing, the main characters, the big box, the staff, the managers, how they interact, etc. When I find an artist, we’ll prototype the characters until we have a set that we both like. We’ll then create a month or so of strips and shop them around to various syndicates. There they will likely get ignored, but you never can tell. And if I find it doesn’t seem marketable in print but is still interesting enough to spend time on, like xkcd it may be an entirely on-line thing. Any income generated from publishing it solely online is likely to be marginal at best, with most income coming from merchandising.

In any event, the strip will be there to entertain but like M*A*S*H on TV it will have a surreptitious purpose. For the first several years the idea is to keep it light. Have characters interact and generate a lot of humor. Once it is established, or when I get to the point where there is not much to lose, I’ll give it more of a social action focus. I’ll highlight just how marginal life in the retail world actually is. I imagine a character that sleeps in his car and runs his social life from sitting in a McDonalds parking lot. He has with a flaky laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter and accesses the Internet using their free WiFi.

Dilbert has sort of plumbed this material for the tech world through characters like Asok and Tina the Tech Writer. However, their pain does not begin to match those who inhabit the retail world. We are getting a glimpse of it from the scattered strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmarts across the country. It’s clear to me that these employees have their backs to the wall and simply cannot endure it anymore. It is actually even harder today than it was when I worked retail, and it was soul crushing then, just paid marginally more. The right comic can help broadcast the injustices faced by these vital but abused workers. If I can market it, the timing seems right as well because the subject is topical.

We’ll see if I can get it together. Wish me luck.

Planning for the best time in life

New retirees seem to be flocking to cheap retirement communities like rednecks to a Waffle House. For a long time retirees moved to Florida, but not so much anymore. The Sunshine State has a malodorous stench to it these days. Something is broken in Florida and government seems clueless on how to fix it, but apparently cutting taxes and social services is enticing people to leave, not to stay. The whole state may be on the way of becoming the new Detroit.

For a couple of decades now Arizona has been the preferred destination for retirees. The Phoenix area is now a huge valley of sprawling concrete block and faux-adobe houses, many of them occupied by retirees. As retirees’ income and savings decrease, retirement options are becoming more interesting. The late writer Joe Bageant found it convenient to spend much of his retirement years in a Mexican village. There was not much in the way of air conditioning but it was cheap. In fact, Americans have migrated south of the border in sufficient quantities to create their own retirement communities. We saw some of these on the Yucatan peninsula in early 2012 on our way to visit some Mayan ruins. Some of the more interesting and exotic (but cheap) countries for retirement include the Philippines and Panama. The general thrust seems to be to a K-mart blue light special. Doing so involves moving somewhere where the people earn a lot less than you do, so they don’t charge you much to live there, but where there are some amenities, like palm trees. If the crime rate is too high, in many cases you just stay safely inside your gated community, often to be waited on by maids who by American standards earn a pittance.

Retirement is definitely on my mind. If you are a regular reader you have traveled with me to places like Ithaca, New York and Northampton, Massachusetts to assess these places for retirement. After paying off their houses many people find the best place to retire is to retire in place. This is fine if you are happy at home. However, our house is now too big and like many people our age we are wearied with the hassle of maintaining a house. In addition, the cost of living in Northern Virginia has always been near astronomical, the air quality index is often marginal and for much of the year it is either too hot or too sticky to want to venture outside. I can say that living in Northern Virginia has been good for us. Its steady growth and clean industries have made finding white collar employment easy. There is never a lack of things you could do, but actually getting there in our gridlocked traffic is not worth the effort.

If saving money in retirement were our only focus, I’d move to Tallahassee, Florida. Housing is ridiculously cheap. You rarely have to walk more than a block before bumping into at least one fast food joint. It’s so cheap that after moving there I would probably spend most of the year actually living somewhere else, because I’d have plenty of money in my travel budget. I’d see my house in Tallahassee as something like a storage unit – a place to store a lifetime of accumulated crap. Many of those houses can be rented for less than you pay for a storage unit in my area. It’s a good idea to have bars on your windows, however.

Of course, retiring should not just be about cost. It’s about value. Cost is typically a significant part of deciding where to live, but there are many intangible factors as well. Can you find a specialist nearby if you need one? Is the air healthy to breathe most days? Is the tap water safe to drink? Does the community offer opportunities to engage your mind? Can you easily meet people you will enjoy spending time with? Can you find meaningful work, assuming you want to work full or part time in your golden years?

To help sort it out there are all sorts of books and web sites out there. I have found two web sites most useful. Sperling’s Best Places is not so much a retirement resource as a quick snapshot of a place which fills in a lot of question marks. It does this by aggregating a lot of information, mostly from government sources. Its cost of living index is particularly useful when you compare it with the cost of living index where you live now. Some of the statistics from this site that I am finding useful to winnow in on acceptable communities:

  • Median home price
  • Air Quality Index
  • Number of physicians per 100,000 people
  • Unemployment rate
  • Violent crime rate
  • Annual snowfall
  • Sunny days per year

Retirees tend to be obsessed about taxes, which is understandable if you are on a fixed income. However, nothing comes free so low taxes by itself are hardly indicative of a community’s quality. Low taxes tend to lead people toward gated communities where a whole lot of misery exists just beyond the gate. What I find more interesting is to see what a community chooses to tax. Washington State, for example, does not tax income at all. That’s a big savings if you are used to a lot in state income taxes. On the other hand, it has a high unemployment rate, and the sales tax is a killer. Tacoma, for example, has a 9.5% total sales tax (including local sales tax). The property taxes on a middle range home can easily run $6,000 a year, which is actually not too bad, but probably higher than most communities. Gas taxes can also add up. New York State, which we are considering, taxes gas at a staggering 69.7 cents a gallon.

Ultimately, you have to ask who is paying the bulk of the tax burden. If it is mostly from sales taxes, the cost is disproportionately on those who spend. If it is on property, it is disproportionately on those with assets. If it is on incomes, it is mostly on wage earners, and if the income tax is progressive, disproportionately on high wage earners. In general, I believe that taxing property and income is better because it reduces taxes on those of modest means, allowing their money to be used more productively and letting them enjoy a better standard of living. This I believe helps create a wealth effect that enriches a whole community. is another great resource to help sort through these various issues, but it discusses all these aspects from the perspective of a retiree. Many states don’t tax pensions, or put some cap on taxable pension income, which can help considerably with managing disposable income. Others have caps on withdrawals from 401-Ks and IRAs. Most won’t tax social security income. Their helpful taxes by state reports help sort through a lot of these issues. However, its information is not necessarily current. It hasn’t picked up that Virginia, for example, no longer has a retail gas tax, although it does tax gasoline at the wholesale level. When you get down to the county and local level, you basically have to do your own research. There it can become quickly confusing. Some states allow county sales, property and personal property taxes and some don’t. You generally have to scour local government web sites for this information. The most valuable source of information is from a local realtor.

Taxes are hardly the only costs in retirement. How much does food cost, in general, compared with other areas, like your own? The Best Places site has a food index that can help. How much are utilities? The utilities index can help. Is sewage and trash pickup provided by the town or city in your taxes or is that paid for separately? Most likely you will have to research this yourself, along with some of these other questions. How is water usage billed? What are the water rates? It’s best to save those detailed questions for when you have zeroed in on a couple of communities, because researching this information is time consuming. Even after all this research, you will still have to take something of a leap of faith. You won’t know everything until you are settled in your house and pay bills for a year or so.

Like everything else in living, retirement living is a set of tradeoffs based on your priorities. There is no best place to retire, but there are places that will work well for you. Our approach of asking friends and family with similar interests and values, as well as seeing many communities over years of vacations, have helped us limit our frame to a dozen or so communities, and to winnow them down to just a couple.

For us, it will be a decision of how close to nature we want to be. Currently Ithaca, New York and Northampton, Massachusetts are the two areas we are seriously pondering. Although sources like Kiplinger Finance says New York State is a bad place (tax-wise) to retire, when we run community against community Ithaca comes out less expensive than Northampton, mainly because property is significantly cheaper. In addition, the air quality is far superior. What we would get in Ithaca is a more rural area and considerably more snow. What we will lose is a larger community, faster access to a major city and the ability to cheaply travel by air.

These issues will be the topic of numerous discussions in the months and maybe years ahead. Spending more time in both places will help us sift through intangibles like community versus the cost of living. While all this sounds like a hassle, it’s actually fun and quite interesting. It sets the frame for the next and perhaps the last phase of life, which with luck and good research can also be the best time of life.

Keeping off the weight

I officially start the maintenance phase of my diet tomorrow. Thirty pounds of my body has been converted, principally from fat to energy. Curiously, in the process of losing those thirty pounds, I have avoided regular exercise. Whereas, when I was gaining weight I was in the gym three times a week or so doing aerobics and lifting weights, all to stay “healthy”. Exercise was probably good for my cardiovascular system as opposed to doing nothing. However, exercise was a bad way to think I could lose weight. To the extent it made me hungry and caused me to gain weight, exercise was bad.

For me, the value of exercise came from reading Jim Fixx’s book on aerobics. Aerobics opens more blood vessels, and that means you require more energy for the same amount of body mass, which means you need more calories. The exercise pros know to have that protein bar before starting exercise, so you don’t tend to crave food afterward. However, I saw eating food in general as “bad” as it was “calories” so I avoided eating before exercise. Sometime after the exercise was over my body noticed my blood sugar was low, so it sent me eating. Unsurprisingly, this often meant eating more in calories than I had just burned off. This silly strategy of mine recalls the legend of Sisyphus, who was doomed to repeatedly push a rock up a mountain knowing that at some point it would tumble back and he’d have to do it again. Using exercise to lose weight is a lot like that.

I’m not suggesting that exercise is unimportant. Doctors recommend regular exercise because it promotes cardiovascular health and body integrity. However, it’s based on the assumption that you are already at a normal weight. It’s not a bad thing to have muscle mass. It came in handy recently when I had to haul my daughter’s crap from Richmond back home (she finally got her degree!) and never once panted. Yet most of us are not laborers, farm hands or professional movers so we probably don’t need a lot of well-toned muscles. Mind you looking like one is not bad, if that’s your thing. I find it is curious that the weight lifters I mostly see at the local Gold’s Gym are obese. Yes, they have a lot of muscles but they also have large rolls of fat.

My takeaway from this weight loss experience is that to lose weight you should avoid exercise. Losing weight is really about calorie reduction. You don’t want to give into temptation, and exercise is likely to make you hungry, and thus you are likely to cheat. Moreover, diet marketing is mostly full of bullshit in an attempt to sooth your anxieties by parting you from your money. Any diet will take off the weight if you have the constitution to stick with it. Few though will work with your body rather than against it. Almost all of them will set you up to put the weight back on. Having just taken off thirty pounds, I remain skeptical about the long term success of the Ideal Protein Diet I used to take off the weight, particularly as I add back into my diet fats and carbohydrates. But at least their maintenance strategy makes sense. It helped me cut through a lot of the dieting bullshit.

Most of us Americans have gotten the message that the Western diet is bad. We know we should not eat a lot of junk food, and that stuff we do eat like pizza generally is not good for you. What almost no diet will tell you though is that a calorie is not a calorie. All calories are not created equal. Your body needs both fats and carbohydrates to maintain a healthy weight. You are doomed to fail if in your maintenance phase you do not get some of both, like the Atkins Diet. You just need to keep them apart. Put them together and you are asking for a heap of trouble. Basically, you are back on the Western Diet.

There are so many zillions of diet strategies and ideas out there it’s really hard for anyone to tell the good ones from the bad ones. From painful experience I can now recommend an article, one of the one percent or less of diet articles that actually imparts some useful information. Go read it. This is what happens when you eat carbs and fats together, at least in significant quantities. This is why it wasn’t a problem in the past. Most importantly, once you take off the weight, this is how you keep it off. Don’t mix the carbs and fats. You need both, just don’t put them together. Enjoy a nice Caesar salad for lunch but easy on the croutons. At dinner, have a plate of spaghetti but go easy on the cheese. Your liver will be much happier. It will be very confused if you throw them together, and it will attach the byproducts to your waist.

Americans like knowing that they should eat fats and carbohydrates. The part we overlook though is that the body also needs proteins and vegetables. What you need is a healthy balance of all four food groups. Every meal except maybe breakfast should include a vegetable or two. Every meal should also have a protein. These foods are essential to maintaining a healthy body, plus since they are relatively low in calories they will make you feel fuller.

So pick the diet of your choice to take off the weight. But to keep it off:

  • Protein at every meal
  • Vegetables at every meal but perhaps breakfast
  • Make one meal fat heavy and carbohydrate light
  • Make one meal carbohydrate heavy and fat light
  • Preferably, eat vegetables and proteins first
  • Watch your portions
  • One to three small snacks during the day will keep you from getting cravings

Resume exercise after you have lost the weight. Aspire to be an athlete or weight lifter only if that is your passion. Otherwise low impact aerobics like walking is fine. Lifting weights once a week or so is probably a good way to keep the muscles tuned as well.

If you have struggled keeping weight off before, I hope that I have saved you thousands of dollars and a lifetime of misery.