Is Mediocrity Okay?

The Thinker by Rodin

This is a discussion I’ve been having a lot with my daughter and my wife lately. What we’re trying to figure out is whether it is okay for our daughter Rosie to skate by through life or whether we should push her to excel. Rosie, by the way, is 13 years old and currently in the eighth grade. For years she has been “getting by” in school with a mixture of A’s, B’s and C’s, and the occasional D, but mostly she has been a high C sort of student. She came very close to going to summer school last summer.

It’s not that we haven’t been doing everything we could think of to motivate her. We’ve tried it all from bribes, threats, hands off, cajoling, networking, lengthy discussions with her teachers, punishments, incentives. She’s been tested for ADD (negative). Her teachers say over and over again what a bright, intelligent and interesting girl she is. But her pattern is the same. She starts off the year well then seems to lose interest in about half her subjects. We play the paper chase and try to keep on top of her homework but it’s impossible. She forgets to bring stuff home, or deliberately doesn’t do things. To her studying might be looking through her notes, if she has any, a few minutes before the class. But mostly she can’t stay organized so assignments aren’t turned in or are never even started.

Doubtless my wife and I are mirroring our own childhoods with Rosie. Terri was practically an only child, with a brother 8 years older than herself. She did well in school because she was naturally bright, but not necessarily naturally interested in everything she was taught. If the laziness gene is genetic, Rosie gets it from Terri. I mean no offense to my lovely wife but that’s just a fact. It was okay for her to be lazy. Her mother was too busy doing the single mom thing and just scraping by to care too much about her studies. Besides Terri was naturally bright. In a sea of mediocrity in the Flint Public Schools a naturally bright person working at half their ability is an A student.

I on the other hand was number five of eight siblings, and most of us were A students. I learned to compete against my brothers and sisters. My parents set high expectations. We were expected to be A students so we were, for the most part. Even so I was somewhere in the middle of my siblings. Certain siblings, Doris, Jim, Teri and Tom in particular excelled and zoomed to the top of the class. I had to work at it. I was ashamed to bring home any test that was less than a 90%; I knew I’d get a reproving look from my father. But mainly I was self-directed. I didn’t need anyone to pick up behind me. I kept up on my homework. I studied on my own. I knew life would not be handed to me. If I was going to go to college it would have to be done through hard work, both scholastically and through part time jobs. With all those siblings money for college was tight.

Fast forward to the present. I observe a lot of the characteristics of Terri and I in Rosie. She picks up on ideas and concepts very quickly. She has a unique and somewhat skewed perspective on life. She is an excellent writer, and both my wife Terri and I have considerable talent in that area. At her age I burned with writer’s fever, as does she. My writing at that age never came close to what she is producing right now. She also has considerable talents in singing and acting. Even though she doesn’t like math, she understands it.

I don’t understand why if the brass ring is right there in her grasp she won’t make the little effort to go up and grab it. But that’s continually the problem we face with Rosie. Yes she wants to go to college. Yes we explain to her that colleges are selective and if she wants to go to college now is the time to clean up her act and commit to serious studying. Yes, she knows the consequences of indulging her own apathy: “Do you want fries with that?” Even though graduation is four years away she doesn’t seem to grasp it. We try to explain that she starts high school next year, and that the pressure will double, and the kids are racing toward the finish line. Her fantasies revolve around private boarding schools far, far away where she gets to do things she likes in school all day, not tackle things that she finds boring like geometry or world history.

Is the problem too little adversity in her life? I’m not sure we spoiled her, but her life is certainly a lot easier and a lot fuller than my childhood. If there aren’t enough tough obstacles to climb over in your life, will you be conditioned not to climb over them in adulthood?

I’ve explained that growing up is all about mistakes and learning from your mistakes. I told her it is much, much easier to learn from your lessons now than to procrastinate and try to do the same as an adult. I try not to be myopic about her education, but I try to set a reasonable bar. Getting B’s or better in all her classes should be a minor matter. All she has to do is turn in all her homework. That’s it. And she is doing better than before, but she hasn’t gotten to the bar yet. She gets a couple C+ grades the last two grading periods, but the rest are an improvement on last year. But she feels under pressure, she says I in particular am obsessed with grades, and she tells me frequently there is more to life than a report card.

She is right of course. And she is wrong. It is both. One doesn’t need an abacus to figure out the consequences of her behavior. There is certainly nothing wrong with a life behind the French fry vat at McDonalds. But I also know her well enough to know she would not be happy there. That sort of life would make her miserable. She flows on the energy of music and writing and drama. She is a restless child who wants to suck the nectar out of life. She just hasn’t made the connection that it takes perseverance to get that nectar.

All this while at 13 she also needs to start making her own choices and my wife and I have to continually rethink her boundaries. Maybe she does have the right to be mediocre. Maybe she is one of these people whose greatest lessons have to be learned from failure. Maybe we have to take our hands off and let her fail before she can summon the inner strength to move persevere and grab the brass ring. Or maybe she’ll never grasp it at all, and spend her life getting by. Ultimately it is her choice.

Stopping the War in Iraq: There is always hope

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are a Tolkien-head like me you are probably enjoying the movies directed by Peter Jackson. One of the principle characters is Aragorn, a.k.a. Strider, a rightful future king of Middle Earth. Aragorn, in order to claim his throne, has to fight off and win against the evil forces of Lord Sauron. All hope is vested in poor Frodo and Sam, who somehow have to secretly get into the evil land of Mordor with the Ring of Power and destroy the ring, while not being corrupted by its evil influence and without Lord Sauron getting wise to their scheme. Meanwhile Aragorn has the dubious job of rallying discouraged forces to distract Sauron, who has armies many times larger than his. Finding hope in such circumstances is challenging to say the least. Many of the other characters, like Boromir, have long lost hope.

This is a similar time when it comes to our impending war on Iraq. In this case while Saddam Hussein is undeniably an unsavory fellow, we have the power of Lord Sauron to spread our dominion and forces as we see fit across the globe, largely unchecked. President Bush is gung ho to topple Saddam at any cost. Nearly 300,000 troops are massed around Kuwait waiting for Bush to say “go”. There is every indication that Bush will say go, no matter how much the rest of the world says don’t go, even if we have to go without any other support.

It’s a discouraging time for a peace activist like myself. Some of us feel strongly that such a use of power preemptively is deeply wrong for our country. In this case I believe it will actually make us far less secure by inflaming more Muslims against us. There has been a huge amount of opposition to this war. Tens of millions have demonstrated here and across the globe. Bush doesn’t seem to hear them, or if he does he just discounts them. He is convinced his morality is right and the rest of us are fools or are wrong.

Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I believe that this unnecessary war can still be stopped. I have hope.

Cases in point: A new resolution is to be submitted to the Security Council by the United Kingdom that would at least delay actions. Delay is good because it at least buys time. The war is deeply unpopular in Britain and it is not clear that if it started Tony Blair would survive as Prime Minister.

But there is more. Pope John Paul, and by inference the whole Catholic hierarchy, and the Catholic Church here in the United States is against the war. (Also, the National Council of Churches.) John Paul has met with lots of leaders including Tony Blair and Tarik Aziz and is forcefully (for an 82 year old guy) coming out against the war. His representative met with President Bush yesterday to push for peace, probably the only one with the moral clout to actually get in to the Oval Office and discuss it with Bush face to face. This is not a guy who welcomes discussions of opposing views.

And students across the country left class and went to antiwar rallies yesterday. We’re talking hundreds or thousands of students in college campuses, but also in high schools and other schools, all over this country. These students know that they will likely be the ones who will have to fight this war against evil that Bush has proclaimed. And they understandably are not anxious to be dragged into it, particularly when Iraq is well contained and has a fraction of its military strength prior to the first Gulf War.

There is also the recent success of MoveOn.org’s virtual protest. Virtually every congressional and senate office was flooded with anti-war calls. We are being here.

Don’t give up hope. Continue to express your feelings to your neighbors, friends, family, coworkers. Keep calling your congressmen and senators. Write your local newspapers! Call a talk radio show! Put a bumper sticker on your car. Together we can do this! And in doing so you will not only keep a lot of people from needlessly being killed, but you will actually improve our national security too. Do we really need to make a billion Muslims hate us even more? Do we really want to vindicate George Orwell’s Big Brother that “War is Peace” and “Ignorance is Strength”??

Hang in there brothers and sisters. We can do this. We just have to stand up to the plate, shoulder our responsibility as citizens in a democracy and keep yelling.

An update on “B”

The Thinker by Rodin

I guess people do read my blog, and not just people I know personally. Over the weekend I got an email from a lady who implored me to take in the girl “B” I referred to in this entry, and to get her away from the likely sexual abuse that was occurring in her home. She knows of wherefore she speaks, she informs me. From this I assume she was a victim of incest.

I don’t know whether her father has sexually abused the 14-year-old girl in question “B”. Her father is a drunk in denial, at least from the perspective of “C”, her mother. Anything is possible I suppose because B is a very attractive girl for her age. We know through her mother than B has been receiving sexually suggestive email from a teacher at her school. This particular teacher has apparently been put on administrative leave pending an investigation. And through our daughter we have learned that B claims to have been raped. B is somewhat fuzzy about who the person was, and it might well be a product of her imagination. It sounds like he was an older boy among her circle of friends.

But it gets stranger. Because as you may recall from this other entry, B has another friend, let’s call her M, that lives down the street and is just as messed up as she is, but in a different way. M tried to kill herself by ingesting a whole bottle of Tylenol. Now we get reports, again through our daughter, that M and B have engaged in promiscuous oral sex with other boys. Reputedly M has done it twice, and B has done it once.

All while both girls claim to be bisexual. In fact B is having a relationship with a girl about her age, let’s call her N, that is sexual. Whether B is a lesbian, a bisexual or a heterosexual using a relationship with a girl her own age as some way of expressing her feelings is unknown. My reports are all second hand.

So what has B been up to since she was caught cutting herself? She seems to be in the psychiatric hospital on an outpatient basis and she attends a special school for such emotionally disturbed youth. The academic demands must not be too hard. B sees it as third grade stuff. Have I mentioned that B is exceptionally bright and was in the Gifted and Talented program prior to all this starting?

B remains a presence in our life, but my daughter is finding she has to draw boundaries because between B and N she lives in a world increasingly inhabited by the seriously disturbed. The good news is that B often comes with my daughter to church (we attend a Unitarian church) where my daughter often sings in the choir. B then goes with Rosie to the religious education program. For those of you who don’t know much about Unitarian Universalism, it’s a very accepting religion full of people who don’t quite fit in conventional society. B feels a natural affinity for the place, perhaps because it seems wholesome while at the same time it is full of people from a different walk of life. I am glad to bring B to services as often as she wants to go, with or without my daughter. Last Sunday she came with us, and the cuttings she gave herself were there for all to see. She helped with the Mosaic project that was the theme of the particular service. She wanted to play with Rosie after the service, but apparently it was a bit more than Rosie could manage that particular weekend.

I don’t know if B was sexually abused by her father. I am sure I can rule her mother C out. I should also explain that C is a Wiccan, and a prominent member of a local coven, and has let B learn more about Wicca when she expressed an interest. My correspondent may be correct though that the behavior B has exhibited is an expression of one or more incidents of incest. It’s impossible to know, but certainly something like that would royally screw up any child.

B is being closely monitored by county social services, and probably a family judge. B sleeps at home every night now, gets lots and lots of therapy and continues to take lots of antidepressants. We are certainly willing to take her in for a while if it is needed. But we cannot do so unilaterally for the obvious reasons: we are not her parents and we have no permission to do so. And we would have to be mindful of how her 24/7 presence in our house would affect our daughter Rosie.

But it’s not like we haven’t been down this way before. In some future entry I will have to relate our experience as foster parents some 15 years ago, with a situation that had many parallels to this present situation.

Meanwhile we try to be as warm and accepting as we can. We offer our house as a refuge while she is here. We jokingly refer to her as “our other daughter” (since she spends so much of her time at our house, over the years) or “our emergency auxiliary daughter”. I think B feels that we care about her.

It will be interesting to see what happens to her over the years. B is so pretty and so incredibly bright and so full of spirit. She has the potential to soar very high indeed. The odds though are against her. But perhaps if we believe in her, and if all those of you out there in blog-land believe in her too, she will rise like that phoenix from the ashes. If anyone could I am sure she could.

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Snow what else is news?

The Thinker by Rodin

Just for the record, it’s back! That white stuff. You know, snow!

The foolish around here thought that maybe after the blizzard a couple weeks back we were done. Since that time we’ve actually had a couple more snowfalls. Blissfully the first two didn’t amount to very much. Then there was the last couple of days. Two inches, then another four or so in the last 24 hours. This morning looked pretty nasty actually but 6 inches DOT can deal with, 18 they can’t. So the street was reasonably well plowed (but of course they never pushed the snow to the curbs … too much bother) and the big adventure was getting out of our driveway. And the main roads were spotty in places but driveable.

But of COURSE the schools were closed the last two days. Yesterday they could well have been open but the storm moved slower than expected so the two inches or so we got would have only slowed an arthritic school bus. But Wednesday night they were thinking it would move faster than it was did, so they closed schools on an expectation. Today of course schools were closed again. Terri and I made it to work okay. On the way home the snow had stopped, the roads were mostly just wet and things were just melting in general. By this evening with the sidewalks shoveled it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about this morning.

So Rosie was out of school ALL of last week and two days this week. There have been 3 or 4 other snow days during the year. And Monday school started two hours late and they sent the kids home around noon on Wednesday due to fears about that white stuff. At this rate she may be in school in July. However, our school board consists of a bunch of weenies. They won’t let it cut much into summer vacation. They’ll petition the state and the state will say, sure, why not. Who cares if an education is cut a bit short … we want to send these kids to camp instead!

Anyhow we are weary of the stuff around here. We’re just not used to this much snow. We were getting used to global warming. Now we long for Spring the way a sailor six months at sea longs for a port and a loose woman. But I have a feeling it will arrive late. There is still a lot of snow to melt first.

Danger Will Robinson

The Thinker by Rodin

My wife has been part of a community of Slash writers and readers for about four years now.

In case you don’t know, Slash is a form of fan fiction that accentuates implied same sex longings of established characters in TV shows and movies. It started with the original Star Trek series. Kirk and Spock appeared to many people, women in particular, to be a bit more than good friends. Kirk/Spock, get it? Erotic fan fiction started appearing at Star Trek conventions everywhere in the form of “zines”. Zines are fan fiction stories loosely bound together, often sloppily assembled and edited and sold at cost. Based on early “Slash” zines it appeared that Kirk and Spock had deep feelings and sexual longings for each other, at least in the minds of a largely female population of fans. In numerous Slash stories there are many a tender and not so tender homosexual act between these principle characters where the full depth of their soul is endlessly plumbed. There are probably millions of Slash stories on Kirk/Spock alone out there.

From such humble beginnings a genre was spawned. My wife got into it as a result of watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” movie. She was a huge Star Wars fan from the beginning. She found some Phantom Menace fan fiction stories on the internet, enjoyed them, and started writing and corresponding with a number of fellow fans. Before long though it was the slash stories she was mostly reading and writing. In the movie Obi-Wan is an apprentice to Qui-Gon. The female fans of the Star War series went nuts imagining erotic power play between these two characters. There are numerous web sites, fan fiction archives and mailing lists just for this one erotic fandom alone. Yes, the Internet is a beautiful place where virtually any need can be gratified.

For fans of female erotica there is perhaps a lot to be admired about this genre. I always knew women were a lot more erotic than they often let on, even in private between the sheets. A lot of these stories would make sailors blush. Most male pornography is just graphic. These stories are not just graphic, but rife with deep emotions and conflicts as the relationships between these same sex pairings invariably gets deeper and deeper. It’s a shame, in a way, that it is an art form I can’t appreciate very much. Being a heterosexual male I find reading endless stories of two guys (and sometimes two gals, such as Xena/Gabrielle) get it on and having heavy relationship conversations just doesn’t do much to trip my trigger.

My wife Terri wrote a very successful series called “Wheel of If”, based on the Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon relationship. Just last week it was formally published and released to the Slash universe as a zine for those who want to part with thirty bucks or so. It was an effort of love for her and it generated a lot of comments and a lot of fan mail. And now finally it is in zine form, with many full color illustrations by talented artists. She is a published author, of a sort. She beat me to it. In that sense I am a bit jealous. But I’m also proud of her because she is a terrific writer.

This weekend she returned from a slash convention in California full of fellow slash writers and fans, many of which are into her two fandoms. Her other fandom is “The Sentinel”. These two fandoms alone so consumes her she has no energy to join another. I am grateful she stopped at two, but that doesn’t stop lots of other women. It would not be an exaggeration to say lots of slash writers and readers are addicted to this world they are in. I often feel like my wife is right on the borderline. I don’t feel capable of making an accurate assessment because I am not a clinical psychologist nor am I particularly unbiased in the matter.

She has naturally made lots of friends in this new world, to the point where most of her friends now come from her Slash world. I have enjoyed meeting a number of them. Back in 2000 my wife even sponsored a big party for her friends at our house. (I was wisely out of town that weekend). Most live far away, but a number live within commuting range. A couple of her friends make it to the house every month or two and have enjoyed dinner with us, or have camped out in our spare room.

The Slash world is populated with interesting, but often very troubled women. My wife is a bit strange in that she is quite heterosexual in a domain full of lesbian and bisexual women. As a general rule men don’t write or read much Slash. Those that do enjoy it tend to be homosexual men.

The good points about the women I have met into this universe are that they are very bright and creative people as a rule. My wife is certainly that way. She is also an excellent writer who could probably be a successful writer if she wanted to channel her energies in other directions. But these women are often very troubled. Some are in bad marriages. Some have no marriage prospects at all or even want to be married. Lots are into role playing, or would like to be in submissive-dominant relationships. Many are overweight. Many have large self-esteem issues. Many, probably most based on my observation, suffer from clinical depression. And it’s no surprise that many of these women are struggling with mixed feelings for their own sex. But there are also a fair number of otherwise ordinary women who just enjoy Slash as their hobby.

At four years this newest obsession of hers shows no signs of ebbing, so I am likely going to have to deal with it for the long term. It is not always easy because I often feel she loses herself in the genre, sometimes to the expense of her obligations as spouse and mother. It is my nature to be supportive and encouraging, so I try not to complain too much. In many ways she is a happier creature, having found an online home and a set of friends with similar interests I don’t think she has ever had before.

But I wonder how healthy it is. It seems to my myopic eyes to be an obsession. I see an addictive nature to it, just like gambling. It’s almost compulsive. Given any free time she will almost always choose to spend it in that universe.

I’m not sure what conclusions to make from all this. My initial impression was that Slash was pornography for women. But it’s more than that I think: it’s an expression for a longing for a sort of relationship that is probably impossible in real life.

Whatever she is getting from it, it is something I apparently cannot supply. But I still wonder what it is about the genre that draws so many women into it, and makes them so compulsive about spending so many of their free hours imbibed in it? I’d like to think it is harmless. Perhaps it is just another low level vice. But it brings out my inner robot:

Danger Will Robinson!

Our snow event

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find pictures of our “event” here.

Back to Code Orange.

Who Moved Our Cheese?

The Thinker by Rodin

I can’t seem to escape this talk of war, war, war. I try not to think about. But I am a federal employee and I work in DC. It’s hard not to think about it, particularly when less than two years ago I was here when a jet roared into the Pentagon. Now, pushed on by our Department of Homeland Insecurity, we can spend most of our days fretting about whether today is the day something catastrophic happens. I could use some plastic sheeting and duct tape here in the office. Shouldn’t someone issue me chemical warfare garments and a gas mask? How do we go about life as usual when talk of our demise is omnipresent?

Some people do get by. Every six weeks or so I do lunch with my friend Sokhama. She is from Cambodia and grew up there at a time when Pol Pot and his lunatics were running around, and when Nixon’s air force was dropping not so secret bombs on her fellow citizens. She managed to deal with it, although it helped that her father joined the diplomatic corps and she eventually spent much of her life overseas. On 9/11 she was quite calm, figured there was nothing she could do, worked as usual, took a late bus home figuring it was pointless to leave too early because it would be too jammed.

Lots of things are bothering me about of war on terrorism. But today what is bothering me is that no one realizes our cheese has been moved. Paradigms have shifted but we are still treating terrorism as if it is something we can win on the battlefield. We’re about to send over a hundred thousand troops into Iraq to make it safer for us. We will eliminate any biological, chemical and (unlikely) nuclear weapons we find. And we will be safer, right? Umm, no. The paradigm has shifted. We can’t ever be safe from these sorts of threats again through the application of military force. It’s like our pointless war on drugs: if we plug one place, it will pop up some place else.

There are two real problems here that our administration is working hard to ignore. Problem number one is that nuclear (as well as chemical and biological) non-proliferation is a failure. The price of entry into the nuclear club has gone way, way down. It’s a game any country not in the third world can play if they want to, and many of them feel they have to because their traditional enemy across the river is starting to play it. It is a fiction that we can contain the spread of WMD through the application of military force.

Problem number two is that conventional war is obsolete. That’s not to say it won’t crop up now and then. We’ve seen it in the Balkans, and might see it in regional fights like those between Pakistan and India. The whole nation metaphor is really obsolete. A lot of the reason we are being hated, loathed and targeted is because we insist we are a nation. But we’re not. We’re an interconnected world. As much as we declare we shall go it alone all nations are part of the same soup pot. We have no choice but to get along together or die together. The US Army can’t do much to protect us from some disgruntled Islamic extremist with visions of having a dozen virgins to himself in the hereafter. Borders are too porous. Weapons are easier to make miniaturize.

There are possible solutions to international terrorism but this administration doesn’t want to hear them. It the prism of its lens everything is in black and white. President Bush has said as much: “You are either for us or against us.” (I guess we can add France and Germany to our “Axis of Evil”, right?) It doesn’t want to hear that maybe having so many of our troops and airplanes in a region like the Middle East actually adds to the instability. It doesn’t want to hear that maybe the $6B plus we give Israel every year to oppress the Palestinians is one of the reasons so many people over there hate us. It doesn’t want to hear that although we claim to love democracy we support governments like Saudi Arabia, which runs a feudalistic, anti-feminist state, or Egypt, which we bribe to be our friend while it ruthlessly oppresses dissent. No wonder we are seen as the great Satan. We are keeping generations of Arabs from having normal lives, participating in the political process, and having much hope of a future. Naturally we are a tempting target.

I can see the future and it is not pretty. I can only hope that within six months after our invasion of Iraq, after enough Americans come home in body bags, after hundreds of guerilla attacks on our troops over there, we finally come to our senses, bring home our troops and scale back our presence over there. Maybe, if we haven’t had too many new terrorist attacks in the interim, we can let those people sort out their own problems. Maybe we can stop lecturing the world and throwing temper tantrums when nations don’t agree with us. Maybe we can act a whole lot more like Switzerland. Then maybe I will live to bounce a grandchild on my knee.

God had better bless America. We seem incapable of seeing the new world order. This war is about changing hearts and minds. Invading Iraq will not do that at all, it will only make us more vulnerable.

Where do we need to go as a planet? The solution is out there, but you can bet it is the last place the Bush Administration wants to go. But you can learn more about the World Federalist Society. It’s our only real hope.

Old Friends

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

The Thinker by Rodin

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.

20 Years in Club Fed: A Mixed Blessing

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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