Misleader

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s important that you take a look at my extended entry today folks. My thanks to The Whiskey Bar for compiling this list of quotes on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction claims by Bush Administration officials.

These are not ambiguous quotes. These are quotes full of complete certainty. Then how can it be that just the other day our chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay contradicted all that we’ve been told by this administration? His conclusion:

“My summary view, based on what I’ve seen, is that we’re very unlikely to find large stockpiles of weapons. I don’t think they exist.”

So how did this happen? I see three, and only three possibilities here.

The first is that the intelligence given to the president was conclusive. It said that Iraq currently possessed weapons of mass destruction and was targeting the United States. But that’s not what the intelligence summaries said based on information known and published even before the war started. They were clear that the information was partial and sketchy, and that the findings should not be used to draw any definitive conclusions. Intelligence agencies actually disputed each other on numerous point. The State Department was in particular skeptical of claims made by other intelligence agencies.

The second possibility is that the American people and our Congress were lied to by our Administration. This is possible but unlikely. Although this is one very arrogant administration, it’s hard to imagine if the administration knew that intelligence this poor it would still make these pronouncements as fact when it knew them to be wrong.

The third and most likely reason was that intelligence was read selectively. Evidence supporting Bush’s predisposition to invade Iraq was deemed credible. That which offered a different point of view was dismissed. This is quite plausible former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, in his recent book, made it clear that the administration had plans to topple Saddam Hussein even before 9/11. It was also the entire point of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s personal intelligence office. It was instructed to find the evidence that supported toppling Saddam, and to ignore the rest.

Ultimately though the reason doesn’t matter. In the first case simply did not happen. The intelligence summaries provided to the press prove it. In the second case we have clear grounds for Bush’s impeachment and removal from office. In the last case we have the most egregious case of misleadership imaginable.

Thus far over 500 American soldiers have died in our preemptive and unnecessary war in Iraq. We already have over $150B either spent or allocated to fighting and occupying Iraq, and doubtless the number will continue to climb in the years ahead. Conservatively at least 9000 people, mostly Iraqis have died in this war. Over five thousand of our soldiers have been wounded. Our armed forces are spread thin and occupy a country that had no connection with 9/11.

We fought the wrong war at the wrong time. We actually made our country more vulnerable to terrorism because we diverted forces away from those responsible for 9/11: al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And if that were not enough we managed to squander most of our good will with other countries.

I can think of nothing a president can do that is worse than sending off our armed forces to start and fight the wrong war. For such widespread misleadership alone George W. Bush must not be reelected.

Continue reading “Misleader”

People I’ll Remember at Work

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve noticed that there are lots of people in my agency who seem to be married to the agency. I have yet to feel that degree of loyalty or attachment to my employer. If the job isn’t working for me, or if there is a more interesting job elsewhere then I am gone to greener pastures.

Nonetheless as I leave ACF I realize there are people there that I will genuinely miss. Some of the people I will miss have already gone. That was true of Joe, who left 18 months or so ago. Joe is in his mid fifties and worked for us as a contractor for many years before he was arm-twisted into being a federal employee. He was an odd choice because he was quite the office gadfly. This is an accomplishment in itself because my division is full of gadflies. For years I worked tangentially with Joe. As a result of an office relocation we were forced to share an office for a couple months. As a consequence we were in each other’s faces constantly.

Joe had a flair for being outrageous and speaking his mind, even when foolish and dangerous. My boss at the time I think admired that trait, but he also admired the fact that Joe was used to doing the less glamorous assignments (like the Year 2000 Migration) and actually getting them done on time. That’s a great skill to have. Joe was irreverent, an atheist, and a divorcee from a very bad marriage. I learned he was shacked up with a girl friend that seemed to love him but whom he refused to marry. He won’t marry again, he said. “I won’t make that mistake again.” Joe survived by his wits. Life was never boring when I worked with Joe. We could go weeks without talking to each other then I’d stop by his desk and we’d get into these long philosophical discussions on the meaning of life and all work would stop. I miss Joe. I gave him my email address before he left for another agency. He never dropped me a line and I forgot to look him up. Too bad. I’d like to reconnect with Joe.

The man who hired me, Jim was a strange bird too. He was very intimidating but also unforgettable. He was at that stage of his career (early 60s) when he was trying very hard to prove himself. He was hankering for a senior executive service (SES) position for which he was never selected. He was amazingly aloof and remote, at least to me. He hired me and then didn’t talk to me for weeks on end, letting me fend for myself by reading manuals and walking around the office looking for work. He basically saw himself as too busy working on higher-level things than to give me much time-share. He seemed to like to build empires, which often existed more in his mind than in reality. He could be very intimidating. I often felt scared to even talk to him. Nonetheless he was a great schmoozer with his chain of command. As a result he somehow managed to become the office director. I believed he would get his SES some day but I was wrong. Instead we got a new SES who took an instant disliking to him. They were apparently oil and water. Jim’s dream of separating his office from the SES’s was quickly shot down. Jim retired abruptly under circumstances that looked more like he was being fired. It was weird: I spent most of a week visiting parents in Michigan, came back, and he was gone. No farewell luncheon. He wasn’t around long enough to even say goodbye to anyone. Jim may have been aloof, but I know he must have been crushed. He must be still licking his wounds somewhere. While I didn’t like Jim that much, I did respect him. When I heard the news of his sudden retirement I actually felt sorry for the guy. I loathed the SES who cut him loose and still do. One of the reasons I’ll be glad to leave ACF is to be away from that man.

And speaking of gadflies, there is Deb. She is our database administrator. We had offices next to each other for years. It was always easy to know when she was around. Her piercing voice could be heard at least 100 feet in all directions. Deb is one of these women who cannot not share her mind. She is extremely good at what she does, which is manage a very large enterprise Oracle database. After about a year of knowing her I discovered she was a fellow Unitarian Universalist. Suddenly her behavior made a lot of sense because I have found UU churches to be full of gadflies. Deb may be a gadfly, but she is also very funny, sharp as a tack, dedicated as hell, persistent and worth three times what they pay her. She is so good no one can succeed in tempering her tongue. She may be opinionated but Deb speaks the truth. I’ll carry that aspect of her into my next job. Since she’s a UU, maybe we won’t lose complete touch with each other. Perhaps I’ll see her at a UU conference or at General Assembly.

Of all the people at ACF, the one I admire the most is Diana. When I started she was the project manager for a large enterprise grants system under development. I was really in awe of how good a job she did managing the construction and deployment of that system. This is a system used across the country by nearly 2000 people. It replaced dozens of legacy and stove-piped systems. Overall it was an amazingly smoothly run project that she directed with unbelievable competence. Her firm direction and fearlessness triumphed over incessant requirements creep, network infrastructure problems and constant changes in the development team. She still works for us now but on an intermittent status. In fact I’m giving her some of my most critical work. I am doing this deliberately because I know if I give it to her it will get done, and with the highest degree of professionalism. If she wanted to she could soar to the top of the organization. But she is happy doing what she does best and happy with her intermittent status because it gives her lots of time to travel with her husband.

Then there is Dave, one of our team leaders. Dave was a contractor, who became a Fed (federal employee), who got fed up being a Fed, left, then came back as a contractor, then became a Fed again. Dave is ten years my senior and jumps into everything thrown at him. I can’t fault him for his desire to be superman, but he always takes on way more work than he can really handle. At a recent meeting with my bosses we discussed who would get my work. Dave happily and perhaps foolishly volunteered to take 80% of it. I know he’ll have to farm it out at some point, and much of it will get delayed. He can’t do it all. But Dave is always sincere about meaning to get it all done and on time. And that counts a lot in my book. Dave inspires me to step up to the plate too and volunteer to juggle perhaps a few more projects than I should. It eases the guilt feelings.

Dave has a technical equivalent: James. James is Chinese and runs all of our development servers and development infrastructure. James is the most brilliant technical person I have ever met. He probably clocks twice the hours he bills; he never seems to stop to do anything other than smoke. He has become our indispensable man. He does the impossible to keep the development people going. James is unassuming but clearly ambitious. He’s another one of these people I can go weeks or months without talking to, but with whom I can have amazing conversations. Our conversations are not deep philosophical ones like I had with Joe. They are technical conversations. Our last conversation was an involved discussion on web services architectural strategies. It was the sort of conversation only James and I could have. I am quite confident that in the whole Office of Information Serives he and I were the only one who would speak coherently on such a complex matter. We know and respect each other. He knows I am in awe of his technical skills, and he quietly acknowledges my mastery of understanding how information technology works.

If there is one person at ACF though I really feel attached to it is Lynnette. She’s a contractor working on our web team. I’ve given her a lot of work over the last couple years. Because she is a contractor I was wary of opening up to her at all. But the more we interacted the closer we became. And the more we interacted the more I realized that we were very much alike. It’s a pretty rare experience to really know someone I work with, but I learned a lot more about Lynnette than I ever expected. She drove me back to work from an offsite meeting once and we had a long “this is my life in summary discussion” that blew me away. It was one of these unbelievable stories of triumph over adversity that sounded too amazing to be real, but was clearly fact. In spite of her adversity though she hadn’t lost her humanity or this innate sense of optimism. I watched her roll down her window and give money to a homeless man. We often discussed politics and usually found agreement. She came to my church once to attend a Palestinian fundraiser I helped put together. Lynnette is exquisitely poised, professional and deep. I’ll likely miss her the most.

I will miss my daily interactions with these people but I also know this is the proper time for me to move on. But I will always remember Joe, Jim, Deb, Diana, Dave and Lynnette. I learned something from each of them. I won’t remember all with fondness, but I will remember them. And I’m grateful that I tarried six years at ACF just so I could encounter them at a close and persistent range.

Caucuses are Undemocratic

The Thinker by Rodin

I realize not many people watch C-SPAN. Perhaps they should. It can be an eye opener. Not only do you get to see politicians live and unfiltered, but occasionally I see something very disturbing. This happened Monday night when C-SPAN broadcast live from one of the Iowa Democratic caucus precincts. It was enough to convince me that the caucus system has to go.

The way the caucus system works is that on caucus night you visit your local caucus and find others like yourself who support your candidate. You essentially declare your support for a candidate openly. You then have to listen briefly to statements from groups supporting each candidate. You then might choose to move from your candidate’s group to another candidate’s group. This might be the one virtue of the caucus system. This differs from, say, the Chicago political machine where your local alderman’s friend gets you down to the polling place and gives you a suggested list of people to vote for. At a caucus you are required to hear a differing point of view. I assume this dates back to an agrarian time when newspapers were hard to come by and many voters might go to a caucus having little or no knowledge about the candidates. Clearly this is not an issue in the 21st century.

But here is where the caucus system breaks down. In Iowa (and I assume many other caucus states) only “viable” candidates count. You know your candidate counts if your candidate is actually awarded delegates from your precinct. In Iowa if your candidate (say Dennis Kucinich) doesn’t make a 15 percent threshold, sorry, he gets zero delegates. You are effectively disenfranchised. Across Iowa it is possible that a candidate could get 14 percent of the vote but won’t get a single delegate. This is not democracy. It’s a variation of Animal Farm where “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Oh, but it’s not over. Since the 15 percent don’t count, they have the opportunity to throw their allegiance to some other candidate who is viable. Heck, anyone can change their mind up until the final count and move from candidate group to candidate group. Eventually though a final count is called. Those who were marginalized out of the process may have picked an alternate candidate. Or they may have given up in disgust and gone home.

Delegates are broken down proportionately based on the final count of viable candidates. The candidate coming in second for a particular caucus though may get awarded an extra delegate. In Iowa the rules say that if the delegate count doesn’t break down proportionately, the highest candidate drawing less than 50% gets the extra delegate. So strike another blow against democracy.

The caucus system is really a delegate selection process that disenfranchises marginal candidates, inflates delegate counts for the “viable” candidates and may award a special silver medal for the second place candidate for a particular precinct. You have no secret vote, and your can change your candidate affiliation as many times as you want before the final vote, perhaps wending some personal favors for your vote.

It’s a stinky process. It needs to go. Thank goodness next Tuesday the voters in New Hampshire have the opportunity to vote in a real primary. Those who choose to vote for Dennis Kucinich will know that their votes actually mattered. Voters won’t effectively be tapped on their shoulders and offered advice in the voting booth. They can make their choices secretly and anonymously.

The caucus system may have made a certain amount of sense at one time in very rural states where people are few and far between. But those days are long gone. We have cars. We have modern telecommunications. We know how to do a secret ballot. Abolish these absurd and undemocratic caucuses!

South Beached

The Thinker by Rodin

Last June I wrote about my adventures losing weight. Well they weren’t really adventures. Those who claim losing weight is fun are fooling themselves. It’s never fun to diet. I looked forward to the “adventure” as much as a root canal. Still I knew I was putting on more weight. It wasn’t anything dangerous but I was afraid to get near a scale and learn the awful truth. The awful truth turned out to be 198.8 pounds. For the record that’s 8.8 pounds more than I should weigh to avoid the stigma of being “overweight”.

Now I certainly didn’t look overweight. I get complements all the time about how trim I look. I’ve never been one to neglect exercise either. For two years my exercise has included not just aerobic, but weight training too. I’ve probably converted quite a bit of fat into muscle. I have been conscious for years about what I eat. I can’t eat anything anymore without thinking about the tradeoffs. Even so food is apparently an enormous pleasure to me. When opportunities present themselves (like Christmas cookies arrive from friends) I find it impossible to just say no. So mostly I try to keep these foods out of my house.

Clearly eating less and exercising more was a great weight loss strategy while it lasted. I lost weight regularly, but it was a hard thing to sustain indefinitely. The body resisted. My last attempt at a formal diet was The Carbohydrate Addicts Diet. It didn’t work for me. I stayed pretty much where I was. This was due to the fine print: you can have carbohydrates at one meal a day, but you have to limit them to about a third of your total calories for the meal. I went overboard. I found I couldn’t limit them that rigorously. But more importantly, the diet did nothing to solve my craving for carbohydrates. I still had thate underlying addiction.

So now it is about a year later and I’m trying the South Beach Diet. Much to my surprise here I am two weeks later and I’m still on it! And I was also surprised to find that I dropped four pounds in one week! I have never lost that much weight that quickly before. But I had never tried a carbohydrate free diet before either. The first two weeks of the South Beach Diet are a lot like any day on the Atkins Diet, except the meals are supposed to be low fat. Carbs: just avoid them. And I have. No bread. No milk. No jellies. No fruits. I really crave fruits at the moment.

No, it wasn’t always easy. The first couple days were the roughest. After a few days I found myself at the CVS buying sugar free candies and making a lot of sugar free Jello. The mornings and afternoons weren’t difficult. Substituting eggs for cereal in the morning was easy. For lunch I chose salads or lean meats. String cheese worked for my midmorning snack. A hand full of peanuts was often my afternoon snack. Dinners were heavy on low fat meats, and lots of steamed vegetables. My broccoli and cauliflower consumption has gone way up.

I found sugar free Crystal Lite hard candies and have been eating them as dessert. They taste good thanks to the Splenda in them, but eating more than four or five made my stomach upset. My indulgence lately has been these protein bars. Some of them are excellent. I may be cheating a bit because they while they have only 3g of impact carbohydrates (the type that make you crave more) they have more of the non-addictive type. But mostly they contain protein, so it is balanced. They taste really good, but they are expensive. They remind me of a Snickers bar.

The South Beach diet emphasizes restoring a good blood chemistry. It does this by turning off the craving for carbohydrates. I find my physiological craving is gone but it is still there on the mental level. Tomorrow I will begin phase two. I can’t wait to introduce some carbohydrates back into my diet. Perhaps that is not a good sign, but right now the taste of a fresh apple, or even a bowl of Raisin bran in low fat milk sounds delightful. During phase two of the diet I am supposed to reintroduce carbohydrates slowly. That will be a tough test for me. Even though it could have been much worse I feel like I have been suffering. But I can’t deny the results of this diet so far.

I have learned a lot from this diet. I didn’t understand how addictive processed carbohydrate foods were. I didn’t understand what it was about being “processed” that made them bad for me. Dr. Agatston’s clear writing was an eye opener. I never made the connection that a processed food was essentially a partially digested food. This means the carbohydrates in them are readily absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar. And this raises your insulin level quickly and makes you physically crave more processed carbohydrates. So now I am wiser at last. I will be more selective about not just how much carbohydrates I eat, but how likely they are to make me crave more of them. I am armed with my book giving the glycemic index for various foods. I think with care I can add to my diet decent tasting carbohydrate foods that won’t make me want more.

I have noticed what people on the Atkins diet have told me: they often feel lethargic. I get winded easily. I still maintained my exercise routine, but at the health club peddling away on the elliptical machines I found that it actually hurt to keep up the pace. The blood sugar that I normally would have had running around my blood stream was not there, so it had to be drawn from my fat. It was weird; it was like I could feel the fat actually being burned off!

The rest of this dieting is monitoring what I eat and regular exercise. I will check my weight once a week to measure how I am doing. I will do my best to adjust my eating habits accordingly based on what the scale is telling me. I don’t ever want to be overweight again. I hope this time I am armed with the right information and the right attitude to fully accomplish my goal. I figure if Bill Clinton can lose 25 pounds on this diet, I can do something similar. There are no sure things in this life. But as I look at the numerous obese people around me, I know I don’t want to spend my fifties with cardiac or adult diabetes problems. I have a lot of life ahead of me and I want my good health to last as long as possible.

Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Presidential Primaries and the Election

The Thinker by Rodin

The presidential primary season is about to begin in earnest on Monday. That is the day when Democrats in Iowa will caucus. Eight days later New Hampshire voters will go to the polls to select their favorite candidate. Whoever wins these primaries will doubtless hope to ride these early victories all the way to the nomination. However, if history is any guide many of those now campaigning like mad in both states might have been better off skipping these states altogether. That’s because neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a great track record picking the candidate who ultimately will win the nomination. So Wesley Clark may be smart to avoid Iowa. Let the others throw money at each other while he conserves his cash, organizes the key southern states, then hits them big on February 3rd and on Super Tuesday. It’s a smart strategy.

I found online results of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary going back to 1972. I excluded those years when an incumbent was running, and looked only at the Democratic primaries in these states. Both states are batting .500 in picking the eventually nominee. In baseball terms this is a great score, but not here. The best that can be said for winning in these early primaries is that the name recognition may improve a candidate’s odds. But that’s about all that can be said for it. It costs a hell of a lot of time and money to even compete in these states. Part of this is because there are a plethora of candidates for the party out of office in these early caucuses and primaries. If Iowa and New Hampshire have a job, it’s to winnow the candidates’ list down.

The primaries on Feb 3rd should be far more telling. Why? Because the states participating are more moderate states than either New Hampshire or Iowa. On that date Democrats in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina will vote. If I had to pick a bell weather state among these, I’d pick Arizona. Traditionally a fairly conservative state, it has been trending Democratic more and more these days. This is due to a very fast growing population, many of whom migrated from northern states. If I had to bet money (and of course I am rooting for Howard Dean) I’d say the Democrat that wins Arizona will win the nomination.

I proclaim no special prognostication skills when it comes to the primaries and the general election. The tightness of the race in Iowa, according to polls, indicates it is up for grabs. My sense is that Howard Dean will win Iowa. I suspect he will win it by about 5%. I believe it because he has a fanatical youth following. They will turn out for him and work for him in droves. My sense from attending four Dean Meetups is that this will be the real big surprise of the 2004 election. Both parties will wake up and discover that a critical mass of younger adults (those under 30) is now politically engaged. It’s about time Generations X and Y woke up from their lethargy. Maybe they were too young to remember Reagan, and took the wonderful and prosperous 90s for granted. Perhaps now they have woken up to what Republicanism has done to our country. It appears that they don’t find it very agreeable.

In the longer term the odds will still favor Dean simply because he has a network in place and he has the money (and can get a lot more when needed). Dean’s biggest problem will be his mouth. The campaign in Iowa suggests that going negative against his fellow Democrats is turning away voters. He will have to tone down those remarks in the future and direct his anger at the Republicans instead.

I’ve thought for about a month now that the Democratic nomination will eventually be fought out between Dean and Clark. I don’t think we will get run of the mill Capitol Hill politician as the nominee this time around. Voters seem to be saying they want someone different and unconventional. If I have been surprised lately it is how quickly Wes Clark is catching up in the polls after having been drubbed down to near the back of the pack after his initial fast start. His campaign has finally come together. He is generating serious money from a large network of supporters. This is causing the Dean campaign to look over its shoulders in worry. Although Dean is still ahead in New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Clark ultimately wins in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a history of loving mavericks, as it did in 2000 when it picked John McCain over George W. Bush. But it likes conservative mavericks more than liberal mavericks. Although Dean is really a centrist, Clark is perceived as a centrist and that may be the critical factor in New Hampshire.

Once the nominee is decided then the real battle for the general election begins. It will be a tough campaign for Democrats to win, but it could easily swing either way based on a number of topical issues, such as the ever-present U.S. economy or happenings in Iraq. As much as I like Dean, I tend to agree with the Clark people that Clark has better odds of fairing better against Bush on national security issues in the general election. So if Clark wins the nomination I won’t shed too many tears for Dean. I could back Clark enthusiastically. He just seems a bit suspicious to me because he only recently became a Democrat. I don’t know where his heart really lies.

Clearly the election will be fought over two issues: national security and the economy. On the national security issue Bush will appear to have the advantage, but either Clark or Dean are smart enough to know how to expose the fraud that is our war in Iraq. Clark is more likely to pick off Southern states for the Democrats. But I am dubious that the Democrats need the South to win this time. Based on the popular vote in 2000 we didn’t need the south, except Florida. If we can hold what we won in 2000 and pick up a couple states we can win the election. Bush is beatable. So don’t give too much credence to polls this far out from the election. The vast majority of Americans can’t yet name a single Democratic candidate for president.

The best issue for the Democrats on the economy will be the large net job loss (likely to exceed two million jobs) during Bush’s term. He will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have a net job loss in his term, and it’s hard to see how that will work to his advantage. Numbers like the December employment statistics (where jobs grew by only 1000 jobs) must make Karl Rove nervous. This appears to be a jobless recovery. The result is a lot of unemployed people competing for the same number of jobs, playing a dispiriting game of musical chairs with each other. Democrats will need to get them to the polls.

I tend to agree with my friend Frank Pierce that the Democrats need to play up the issue of outsourcing. We’ve been outsourcing blue-collar jobs for decades, but outsourcing white-collar jobs is a new phenomenon and troubling for many of us who felt secure with our college degrees. Those who have been outsourced more often than not find themselves making half of their previous income. Democrats need to paint the vision of a nation of clerks working at Wal-Mart if the Republicans stay in charge.

It is a shame the voters won’t focus as much on the federal deficits (which are the largest in history) or Bush’s exorbitant tax cuts for the rich, or the way he is wrecking our environment. Voters as a class seem to care more about short-term than long-term issues. Doubtless the Democrats will leverage them if they can. Of all these issues the federal deficit is the most compelling. Traditionally voters have agreed that the government should live within its means. It is ironic that the Democrats can make the better claim of being the party with a track record on financially responsibility.

Ultimately the Democratic nominee must simply promise more pragmatic and progressive stewardship like Bill Clinton delivered. His was a legacy of real prosperity unmatched in over lives. It should make the difference in many swing states. An appeal to a return to the “Great 90s” might swing the election.

Transitions

The Thinker by Rodin

Life is full of transitions of varying degrees. I have begun a transition that will culminate in about a month when I leave my current job with The Administration for Children and Families and begin a new job with the U.S. Geological Survey. After a week and a half of nervous reference checking, USGS finally made a decision. Somewhat to my surprise they chose me to fill this job. It involves the collection and presentation of large volumes of real time water statistics. I’m not entirely clear where the boundaries of my job will begin and end, but you can see part of it at the USGS Water Web Site.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The vibes in my interview felt great. My new boss is not the caustic, aloof and somewhat pompous man who hired me at ACF. She feels comfortable. I’ve been told a good marriage feels like slipping into an old shoe. A good boss should give the same feeling. My new boss Susan evoked this feeling. During our ninety minute interview (which had been scheduled for half an hour) we talked candidly and freely. I realized that we were two of a kind. We’re dedicated but pragmatic, involved in our jobs but not owned by them.

Many of my job transitions have been traumatic. The most traumatic was when I abruptly was laid off from my job with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1988. I found unemployment a new and very unwelcome experience. I scrambled and found temporary work that kept me from missing mortgage payments. I eventually wended my way back into the civil service (elapsed time, about 3 months, perhaps a record breaker.) In the long run I lost no money but it was a nerve wracking experience. It felt good to be back in “Club Fed” after a brief experience in the private sector, even if it did mean returning to the Department of Defense and working at my least favorite federal building in the whole world: The Pentagon.

But my move out of the Pentagon to ACF was not without trauma either. I was working for the Air Force at the time as a technical leader. Mostly I managed a large client/server development project. My project manager abruptly turned on me and kicked me off her project in a display of temper that still shocks me to this day. I was wholly pissed to be thrown off this prestigious project that I had nurtured and work hard on for years, to a lot of great acclaim. I felt I didn’t deserve it. From her perspective I wasn’t as liked as well as I should be by the members of the team, and that was a fatal flaw. Perhaps she had a point. What really annoyed me is I could not get either my immediate supervisor or his supervisor to even hear me out. So I decided the organization must be dysfunctional and I should not be part of it anymore. I put myself on the federal job market again.

It turned out that what my project manager saw as a fatal flaw was exactly what my new boss at ACF was looking for. Literally the day after I interviewed he had hired me. I felt more than a little vindicated but figured it was all for the best in the long run. I was sick of working for the Department of Defense anyhow. Working for an agency whose mission didn’t usually involve killing people or snooping into their private lives seemed very appealing.

So one goal for this latest transition is to do it right. I want to leave this job with my coworkers actually feeling some sense of loss. Both my boss and team leader have been supportive. They gave me glowing references when they could have sabotaged the whole deal.

Overall I have enjoyed working at ACF. It was the most fun early in my tenure when I was putting together our agency’s first extranet. This project was very fun, heart stopping at times, but quite successful. It won me a lot of recognition. It’s been less fun the last few years as the sexy projects have been few and far between. I have a lot of talent and sometimes I felt management has been too busy to notice it or to use me properly. But it wasn’t enough for me to look for jobs actively. The USGS has an email job announcement list. I subscribed to it, saw this job, and applied. I had applied there before and even had one interview. In many cases I never heard a word, or positions mysteriously vanished. Lots of USGS jobs are only open to those who are already working there, which limited opportunities even further. I’ve been told by a number of people that I was very lucky to get this job.

Now I move to a job where I don’t necessarily have to rise out of bed before the cows wake up. For the first time in my twenty year career work will be three miles away instead of twenty plus miles. I can revel in the luxury of meeting my wife for lunch any day I want to. I can even bike to work. If emergencies happen I can be available on short notice, rather than ninety minutes away or more.

And perhaps I will feel less physically vulnerable. Since 9/11 I have been uneasy working in D.C. Perhaps no dirty bombs will explode here. Perhaps no truck full of plastic explosions will level my building. Perhaps the first suitcase nuclear weapon won’t explode on the Mall. But if it does, I likely won’t be a casualty. I will survive.

My expectations of my new position may be false. But I don’t think so. This has the earmarks of a job I will happily keep until I retire. The USGS is a gorgeous campus surrounded by trees and populated, I hope, by friendly and good people. I want it to be my ideal federal job. I hope it turns out that way.

Club Fed is a good place to work most of the time because you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same job of agency for your entire career. The trick though is that you have to be quite a bit above average, or at least perceived that way, to move from agency to agency. Performance appraisals are routinely inflated in the federal government. Most of us get Excellent or Outstanding Ratings, and not all of us deserve them. Some get them as a result of being some boss’s favorite employee; others because managers are afraid if they give Satisfactory or Fully Satisfactory they will lose the employee and the position won’t be coming back.

Many managers I’ve worked for have little idea what I did for them because they were too busy responding to their managers. I’ve been writing my own performance appraisals for years. I’m not even sure if most of the time my boss even reads them; he doesn’t seem to have the time. But I figured since I was writing my own appraisal it was up to me to make them shine, and I worked hard to have some significant and difficult accomplishments I could show each year. This was not always easy because I was not always given sexy projects, and my projects often spanned years.

During the last performance cycle I was a bit miffed because I went from an “Outstanding” employee to an “Excellent” employee. I realize not everyone can be outstanding, but I was working as hard as I always had and doing all the same things, if not more, that I did in previous years. Perhaps because I was more than a little pissed, I pressed my boss for an explanation. The explanation was very revealing.

What it came down to was that the benchmarks had been raised and we hadn’t been told. Essentially he was being told to score everyone lower. While that wasn’t the catalyst for me looking for another job, it certainly was one of the factors. It was unilateral and unfair. But our Deputy Assistant Secretary was simply implementing Bush Administration policy, and the Bushies hold us rank and file civil servants with more than a little contempt.

In fact, let’s be truthful here: the Bushies basically loath us. They wish they could unilaterally fire about half of us and they don’t care how badly our mission would be hampered as a result. And they think we are vastly overpaid. There must be something contemptible about us because we haven’t run large corporations and don’t come from privilege. That we manage year after year to do the impossible on shrinking budgets and with fewer personnel, all while policy makers keep changing the rules on the fly, doesn’t mean squat to them. We’re not from their social class so we must be held at arm’s length.

Healthy Love and Mental Health

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on mental health issues over the last year or so. Maybe my life is unusual in that I believe I come in contact with more people with mental health problems than most people. Or perhaps I am overly sensitized to mental health issues. But the more I learn about mental health the more I believe that the majority of us have persistent or chronic mental health issues.

A lot of us don’t seek treatment. The usual coping mechanism seems to be to ignore mental illness or just chalk up its miseries as part of the price of being alive. Some of us develop coping techniques so we can keep these issues contained in some relatively safe spot. Occasionally they pop out, often during periods of stress, to show us they are still around. Clearly for others mental health issues are so chronic and debilitating that their whole lives are filtered through the suffering and pain of their mental illnesses.

I went through a period of mild depression a couple years back. Unlike lots of people I sought treatment. For months I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even recognize the symptoms within myself. But eventually I figured out that crying at my desk for no logical reason and enduring persistent low level headaches for weeks at a time meant something was out of kilter. It seemed strange to find myself in a psychiatrist’s office, and stranger still to be spilling my guts to a therapist. But it seemed to work for me. Within six months I was off the drugs and felt relatively back to normal. In that sense I was fortunate. My depression appears to have been situational and limited in time and scope. But I had enough of a taste of it to develop empathy for those with much more chronic mental illnesses. It also made me realize that the scope of the problem is huge and our response to it as a society is less than adequate.

It is clear from my reading that the causes of mental illness are still hard to pin down. There appears to be a genetic predisposition toward depression for many people. But it is not clear if it takes events for depression to be manifested, or whether people can get depressed solely due to a predisposition. I do believe that a lot of depression has its roots in how we coped with difficult times in our lives. And I am increasingly convinced that much of these stresses have their roots in early childhood. But they have receded so far in memory that we have no recollection of them.

I have been curious of late why good people stay with people who are toxic to them. Why on earth would a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband cling to him and say that she can’t live without him? My reading suggests that it may be a result of addictive attachment hunger issues from our early childhood.

I think this is true with me and might be one of the reasons I suffered from depression. It is also one of the reasons I have been either so naive or idealistic when it comes to romantic love. I want to believe there is someone out there who is so in tune with me that we play off against each other perfectly. This ideal person (presumably a woman) can play me like a piano, and I can play her the same way, and life is somehow a continuously pleasant buzz instead of a series of challenges and harsh realities that it often is.

I know that when I was born I was one of three boys in diapers that my mother was shuffling at the same time. As a parent who struggled through nurturing one child I know how difficult child rearing can be. I can’t imagine doing it for three young and active boys at the same time, not to mention two older girls that my mother also was mothering in 1957. In her biography my mother fessed up. I came along at a time when she was mentally and physically exhausted, and quite likely depressed (although she has never admitted to being depressed). While she loved me as any mother would love a child, she was overwhelmed with work, stress and motherhood. I was very much a “time-shared” baby. I know I didn’t get the amount of mother time that children typically get. I probably picked that up even as an infant and it affected me in some powerful ways. Although adolescence is a natural time to pull away from the parents, I pulled away particularly from my mother. The issues were I thought overly excessive Catholicism and conformity, but I now suspect that these were but catalyst issues. The likely real issue was simply that I had not gotten the quality time from my mother than I wanted as an infant or growing up and I resented it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I could do something about it. And unfortunately when I struck back I did it in a mean and vindictive way.

Part of my coping process until that time had been to play the “good son” role. I endeavored to be the peacemaker in a family of 10. A large family is, by its nature, a boisterous, sometimes rowdy, and always loud place. When the noise and the perceived mayhem got too bad I withdrew to my room and tried to shut it out. I latched onto my father, whom I perceived as calm and gentle mannered, unlike my rather temperamental mother. But my father also got to work with civilized people in clean and modern office environments eight hours a day. My mother was a housewife. Mothering and parenting was a 24/7/365 occupation.

As an adult I suspect I seek that which I felt I was sufficiently denied as an infant. Growing up I likely wanted to feel like I was one with my mother, and I wanted to feel special and utterly cared for by her. An inevitable part of growing up is learning to detach from the mother and confront the world alone. I was probably detached way too soon for my liking. Missing that attachment I seek it now in my marriage. But the reality is that marriage is not a supplicant relationship where I get the love I need from an authority figure. It is a relationship of equals where my responsibilities to provide love are as necessary as my wife’s obligations to me.

So my notions of how romantic love should be (shared perhaps by the majority of people in my country) are probably naive also. It is probably counterproductive and unhealthy for me to seek that sort of bonding in a marital relationship. We need to realize that we are seeking the unattainable. More importantly, if it were attainable, it would be unhealthy.

Still, for many of us adults this lingering attachment disorder echoes through our adult lives. My hope is that I have channeled these longings in appropriate ways. I have tried to have a consistent loving and nurturing relationship with my daughter. And yet sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in the nurturing the relationship as a reaction to my attachment disorder. Since my daughter is now fourteen she is going through a natural and necessary process of pulling away from me. I wonder if I was perhaps too much of a micromanager of her life. I wonder whether I should have trusted and empowered her more earlier. If I had, would she be a more functional young adult? I don’t really know but my gut says “yes”.

It would have been smarter to know and understand this before she was born. I would have changed my parenting strategies a bit, I think. I will be upset to learn if in spite of my best efforts my daughter spends her adulthood affected by similar attachment disorders.

If so Rosie, please forgive me as I forgive my mother. I did the best I could.

Report on my January Dean Meetup

The Thinker by Rodin

It felt as cold as January in Iowa last night. We lack the snow, but we certainly have the bitterly cold weather here in the Washington area. That didn’t stop me from bundling myself up in my woolies and heading out to the Reston Regional Library for my fourth Dean Meetup, even though a large part of me wanted to stay somewhere nice and warm and vegetate.

Of the four Dean meetups I have attended, this one was probably the best. About forty people showed up, many arriving very late. There were no donuts this time and for that I was grateful (since I am trying the South Beach diet, and don’t need the temptation). A lady named Jennifer was our host again. Faces are starting to look familiar. I saw Diane, a lady who lives about a mile away from me and who I met at two other meetups. She reported her birthday bash for Howard back in November was a success and she raised over $700 for the campaign.

The attendees this time though were especially sharp and politically astute. Maybe that’s a factor of being in Reston, a community that is relatively liberal by Virginia standards. We had two people there who described themselves as ex-Republicans. The guy at my table spoke eloquently about how the Republican party has moved away from the one he knew. He said it has morphed into the party of big business. He is shocked that traditional values like fiscal constraint were thrown away in a desire to push corporate and religious values at all costs. And he is mad as hell that Bush went to war with Iraq, because in the campaign he marketed himself as an isolationist. If Dean is attracting thinking Republicans, this is very good news. I hope there are a lot more like these two men.

About seventy percent of attendees were at their first meetup. One couple (who recently arrived from Florida) wowed us with their tale of attending a Dean meetup last March.

The big topic for discussion this month was what happened to the Democratic Party. We largely agreed that the Democratic Party had slipped under Bill Clinton into being a quasi-Republican party. We doubted that Hubert Humphrey would have been pressing for NAFTA or would have gone quite as far with welfare reform as Bill Clinton. Don’t get me wrong; I admire Bill Clinton. But he was a very corporate friendly president. In general attendees at the meetup were both appalled and more than a little scared by how far we have gone toward becoming a corporate-ocracy.

We generally agreed that the Democratic establishment saw Dean as a populist and therefore a threat to them remaining in power. We like that Dean is invigorating and bringing new blood into the party, seems to cowtow to no one, and distances himself from the inner beltway Democrats. We see that as Dean’s key ace in the hole. He speaks from his heart, sometimes to his regret, but his passion is real as is his determination. It is that passion that is contagious and keeps his campaign growing, I believe.

The video showed the staff at Dean’s Iowa campaign headquarters. It was good to see a lot of ordinary people, many of whom are much younger than I am, working passionately for the man. It was followed by a couple minute speech from Howard to us. I don’t know how Howard does it, but he connects with me. When he spoke it was like I could feel the empowerment flowing out of the video screen and into me. He told us we would take back our country. And I believed him.

We know a lot depends on the next month in these early primaries and caucuses. Dean is ahead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but Clark is taking the number two spot in New Hampshire, even though he is not campaigning there. Dean’s margin of victory in Iowa, according to the polls, is pretty slim. So we spent the last part of the meeting writing letters to Democrats in Iowa and New Mexico.

I wrote my letter. (I would have written two, but we ran out of addresses. I’ll write the other one tonight after I get it from his web site.) The theme of my letter was that Dean represented the one person who would truly take our country back to where we were. Elect any of the others, I wrote, and we will effectively have the status quo. The Republicans and Bush have taken us so far to the right that we cannot continue in that direction. We must now stand up for our values and move the United States toward the international mainstream again.

It’s a daunting task. The Republicans have so much more money, and the primaries will drain time, energy and money. Then we must marshal these resources to win the general election. But it will be tough to come close to matching the fundraising by the Republicans. But after watching Dean last night, I believed we could do it. He makes me believe the impossible. He makes me feel empowered and hopeful.

Underlying all of it is a nervousness about Dean himself. Will he implode? Will he make that one fatal gaff that brings him down? His assertiveness is a double edge sword. It gets him attention and draws people too him, but he is often rash and doesn’t think before saying things. In that sense he is the opposite of Bill Clinton, who carefully measured whatever he said. Unlike Clinton though there is no confusion on what Howard Dean feels and believes. His passion and determination is unmistakable and wholly sincere.

It was an exciting meetup and this is an exciting time. In truth if Wesley Clark upstages Dean I can be happily support him as a candidate. Clark might well be more electable. But Dean has my heart and brings out my passion. I feel nothing for Clark. Our task ahead is daunting, but the victory will be all more joyous when we triumph over the odds. And we will triumph!

Shameless Republicans

The Thinker by Rodin

If you know you are right then the ends justify the means. Every week it seems we get a more egregious example out of Washington, but this latest example I learned about takes the cake.

Last Friday another Texas Democrat went Republican. That in itself is not terribly unusual in a state that has been trending GOP for some time, but what makes this especially repugnant is that very conservative Democratic representative Ralph Hall was effectively told the only way he could bring any earmarked money back to his district would be to switch to the GOP. So Hall, who apparently his linguini for a spine, switched.

“I’ve always said that if being a Democrat hurt my district I would switch or I would resign,” Hall said in an interview with The Associated Press. He said GOP leaders had recently refused to place money for his district in a spending bill and “the only reason I was given was I was a Democrat.”

The sad truth is that in the U.S. House of Representatives most Democrats might as well stay in their offices and never even bother to vote. As far as the Republican majority is concerned, the Democrats do not exist. In some committees they aren’t even allowed time to offer an opinion or have a chance to read a proposed bill before a vote is taken. In conference committees they are routinely excluded from deliberation. The Democrats are under no illusions that they will win votes or influence minds. But thanks to the Dennis Hastert House, they often aren’t even given the opportunity to bring up their concerns where it really matters: in committee. The message is clear and unmistakable. You are in the wrong party. Shut up. Don’t even bother opening your mouth. And if you do we’ll throw you out. You may be grudgingly allowed to sit at the committee table, but you’re often not permitted the opportunity to say anything.

This is an amazing perversion of American democracy. In a democracy everyone has the right to free speech. In a legislature, you are elected to speak on behalf of your constituents. You are supposed to speak! You are supposed to press your cases and your causes! But more and more the Republicans in Congress, but particularly in the House, won’t even allow that from the minority. If you feel a need to speak, then complain to the press, or speak to an empty House chamber on C-SPAN, or write your constituents. Just don’t expect them to be heard if you are a Democrat. The new standard seems to be “We won’t cut you any slack and we sure as hell won’t allow you to earmark one dollar of federal funds to your district.”

These Republicans are not just partisan; they are shameless, vile and unspeakably nasty people for whom the end clearly justifies the means. See it happen in Texas and Colorado where the state legislatures decide to redistrict their congressional seats again, instead of on the results of the last census, just to add to their majority. Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, is the knight leading the charge on the Texas redistricting issue, which is now in the courts. Meanwhile, in California, if you don’t like the elected governor, find a rich Republican millionaire to hire enough flunkies to hang around shopping malls so you can get enough Republican signatures to initiate a recall of the governor.

I tend to focus my anger on President Bush but it is clear that he is typical of the modern day Republican. The end clearly justifies the means with these folks, and if they can affect their end with the equivalent of sticking a knife into someone and twisting while laughing cruelly, all the better.

I don’t know why anyone would choose someone like this as a friend and I can’t imagine why any thinking Republican would vote to put someone like this into office. Until recently this country has always respected the right of the minority to speak its mind and to be heard. It’s clear that if your opinion in not in the majority these folks will find every means available to not even allow it to be expressed. In that sense they model their new hero George W. Bush. Bush doesn’t want to hear criticism either. He goes out of his way to make sure he can’t hear it. He has John Ashcroft set up “free speech zones” far away from wherever he is speaking, so protestors cannot be heard and effectively ignored.

I wouldn’t blame a Democratic congressman or woman for spending most of their day in their offices answering constituent mail. It certainly would be a more effective use of their time than actually hanging around the House chambers and committee rooms.

2003 in Review, 2004 in Preview

The Thinker by Rodin

The year 2003 ended the right way and the year 2004 started off great. This was in marked contrast to 2003 in general, which left a lot to be desired. Both my wife Terri and I struggled with family issues. My wife’s father in law has been through major operations and as you know things haven’t been great for my mother either this year (although it ended on a hopeful note).

But as the year ended we at least got a respite from a frantic and often angst filled year. Terri and I had eleven days free from work and responsibility and I reveled in each one of them. We found hobbies to keep us busy. Mostly I worked on programming my other domain so it could be more interactive. I hope that I can market it and launch it early this year. For most computer types, programming would be considered a chore. But as I am a project manager I don’t get to program so it was fun to code for a change. But I also helped others on their journeys into cyberspace. My brother Tom is getting into the blogging business, and I helped him put up his domain which at least initially I will host for him. And arguably we did do some needed housekeeping. The house got thoroughly cleaned for the first time in years. We threw out lots of old books, magazines and assorted crap that have been cluttering up our rooms for the eleven years we’ve been in the house. I wouldn’t be surprised if our trash men got hernias after hauling away all our excess stuff.

For New Years we were invited to a party two doors down the street. We had an excellent time eating and partying with neighbors and friends. Aside from the terrific company I felt good about being reasonably physically fit. Although I could always stand to lose more weight, my weight is under reasonable control. Not so of the other men at the party about my age, many of who were approaching the seriously overweight stage. I wonder how long it will be before I hear of their first heart attacks.

New Years morning found us up around 8:30 and packing. We left Union Station around 11:30 a.m. for a two-day trip to New York City to see a few shows. Between shows we hung out in our room on the 21st floor of the Milford Plaza hotel in the heart of New York’s Theater District. We spent too much money but enjoyed the two shows we saw on the same day, starting with Hairspray and ending with Gypsy. Now we are back and have to contemplate going back to work and school in the morning.

As a political prognosticator I tend to stink. But at least in 2003 I was largely right on the money. Although millions like me did our best to stop our war in Iraq, we did not succeed because our president is tone deaf to criticism. However I feel I was at least vindicated in my position. I was skeptical that Iraq was at all tied to our national security, or that it harbored weapons of mass destruction, and I was right. And I was excited to see around midyear that Howard Dean caught fire as a presidential candidate. He excited the Democratic base as it hasn’t been excited in years. I never contributed a dime to a politician before 2003, but last year I dumped a surprising amount of money into political candidates and political causes. My contributions were many and small but they added up to quite a piece of change. MoveOn.org got $300, Howard Dean got $400 and I was proud to make the first contribution to my friend Tim Bagwell’s campaign for congress. I can’t match the donation levels of fat cat Republicans, made faster by more obscene tax cuts passed last year for the rich, but perhaps those of us somewhere in the upper middle class can make up in volume what Republicans make up in contribution sizes. In addition to contributing money, I also contributed time. I was one of many letter writers back in October writing Al Gore asking him to endorse Howard Dean for president. In December Gore did just that; I’d like to think it was my letter that made him change his mind. In any event 2003 ended on a hopeful note that Democrats can retake the presidency in 2004 and perhaps even a house or two of Congress.

Looking to 2004 I know I will be busy contributing more money and more time on political causes. I’m not quite as optimistic as I was a few months ago that Democrats will win back the presidency in 2004. So much depends on factors outside our control. The economy is definitely improving and that will work largely in Bush’s favor, unless the Democrats can frame the issue as one of jobs. Most of those three million jobs lost during the Bush tenure won’t be coming back. Iraq is likely to remain a quagmire, and that will work in the Democrats’ favor. But there is reason to be hopeful. This time 12 years ago George H.W. Bush led Bill Clinton by 20 points in the polls, but Clinton won the election. A recent CNN poll shows the gap between Bush and Dean (assuming he is the Democratic nominee) at 5%. As Americans continue to die even though Saddam Hussein has been captured, Bush’s political bounce from the capture begins to fade and disillusionment creeps in again. The biggest risk factor for the Democrats is probably whether we get another 9/11-type attack here in the United States. A rally around the flag effect keeps Bush in office. It’s ironic but the more successful Osama bin Laden is in terrorizing us, the more likely Bush is to get reelected.

Personally I may be switching jobs this year. Over the break I interviewed for a job at the U.S. Geological Survey in nearby Reston. If I get it I will not only get supervisory responsibilities, but will put a couple more hours a day into my life. That is because my commute will go from 25 miles in each direction to 3 miles. My interview was very positive and I got very good vibes, but only time will tell if I get the position. Although I could be happier at ACF, it is not a bad place to work and I often enjoy my work. I would feel less personally vulnerable to terrorism out in Reston than I do every day working in D.C.

I think it is likely that my parents will continue to struggle with medical issues this year. They are not getting any younger. We hope they will choose to relocate closer to one of us, but it doesn’t look like they are in any hurry to do so, in spite of the risks they are taking in their own safety. I just hope 2004 ends with both of them alive; I am quite fortunate to have both of them alive. My mother will turn 84 this year, and my father will turn 78.

My daughter Rosie will turn 15 late in the year and doubtless will begin petitioning me to teach her how to drive. We expect her to continue to direct her life toward the arts. Perhaps she will be in another play or two, like her December performance in the musical Scrooge. Hopefully her grades will begin to reflect her natural talent. At this point we can do little beyond encouraging her to make these choices. Like most teenagers she has developed some tone deafness toward her parents. We hope that life’s hard lessons about life will be experienced early rather than late. Perhaps a part time job will help her focus on her choices and the reality of life in this world.