Sandwiched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aging Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dual Income Trap

I like it when the little light bulb above my head goes off. It doesn’t happen as often these days, but it did the other day when I read this interview in Salon with Elizabeth Warren. She is professor at the Harvard Law School. Together with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi they wrote a recently published book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke.”

It’s a great interview and I’ll probably have go out and buy the book now. The book puts its finger on a nagging question: why more of us are going broke in America. The results were not what I expected. The McMansions popping up around my neighborhood do not mean that we are living better; in fact the study shows that people are living pretty much the same lifestyle our parents did. Yes, we have more toys like DVD players and computers, but we are not spending more on similar things than our parents did.

What has changed is that to live the lifestyle our parents lived it takes two incomes, not one. And because it takes two incomes, the loss of any one income is devastating and can lead rather rapidly to bankruptcy. Consequences range from homelessness to moving your husband, wife and children into the basement of your parent’s house, if you are that lucky.

I see it around me in this economic malaise, but in reality this is a 30 year phenomenon. A neighbor’s husband down the street lost his job about a year back and is still unemployed. They’ve burned through his 401-K and most of their other assets. He was another victim of the high tech implosion. Her income, which is pretty decent working as she does for Fannie Mae, is insufficient to maintain their fairly modest lifestyle.

They live in the same sort of house I had growing up: just another colonial in a decent neighborhood. But in the past if one parent became unemployed the other could probably get some work to help make ends meet. In a depressed economy finding two or three jobs to make ends meet is difficult. If they can be found they are unlikely to pay the bills.

Why? Because lots of bills have gone through the roof. As the authors document, things cost more — a lot more, in real terms, than they used to. Two big examples: mortgage payments and health insurance. It used to be that you did not need health insurance; if necessary you could pay for medical costs out of pocket. That’s not an option anymore. The mortgage payment phenomenon is more interesting. The problem seems to be that we are drawn to zip codes with good schools and will pay inflated prices for housing so that our children will benefit from good education. It’s quite possible to find more affordable housing elsewhere, it’s just that most of us have a fear of living in these neighborhoods. But, paradoxically, if we had the courage to live in these neighborhoods rather than “follow the crowd” there would be sufficient critical mass to likely improve the local schools to our liking.

A few of their observations I figured out a long time ago and implemented in my life but still could not quite articulate them. One was that kids are huge financial risk factors. In short kids not only increase the risk that you will go broke but are huge income drains on the family. Sensing this was one of the reasons I was comfortable with stopping at one child. My wife and I had talked about having a second child but thinking of how much money it would take to raise a second child and send him or her to college was one reason I wanted to stop at one: adding another child would be too risky to our family unit. Of course I was also aware that life would be a lot more manageable with one child. But on some level I understood that even though I came from a family of ten I would be lucky to maintain the same lifestyle my parents had, which was pretty Spartan, with two children.

The interview though made me realize why it’s almost impossible to elect a politician these days who will raise your taxes. It’s not that taxes are evil, as many Republicans assert, it is because families have no more money to throw at taxes. Their money is already committed and they are at enough risk with two incomes trying to navigate their family through life to pay more taxes. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s a matter of economic necessity. Metaphorically, parents are on their front porch with a loaded shotgun warily looking up and down the street. They know it won’t take much for their American Dream to vanish, and they are vigilant in an almost reflexive way.

The consequences of “me first” on society at large are very real. If my income were cut in half I probably would be neglecting a lot of basic maintenance. The house and yard would look pretty shabby. The same is true of our society. As our costs of living escalate, and with little ability or will to maintain the infrastructure, things suffer. That’s why our roads and schools are so crowded. Citizens are saying “Sorry, me first!”

You have seen this happen most recently in California in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger said he would repeal the tripling of car taxes. This is money that people can put in their pockets. Naturally it’s hard not to vote for someone like that. The consequence is to exacerbate California’s budget problems but citizens are saying “Too bad: me and my family first.” It’s not that Californians explicitly want their state to go to hell; it’s that they are living too close to the margin and are consequently too scared to pull together.

I’m not sure how this will play out but most likely we will continue to see a decline in our prosperity. Right now we don’t really see it because dual income families are providing the illusion that it is under control. But increasingly cracks are beginning to show and soon we may have a bellwether event. It may be that with the costs of health insurance becoming out of reach even for middle class Americans we will demand national health insurance. It may be that the engines that sustain our growth, like cheap land, will gradually disappear and there will be no real way to get out of this economic box.

Ultimately this “me first” approach is not sustainable. We are in this together. It’s all well and good to promote growth as President Bush is doing, but this is not going to solve these systemic problems. To some extent the Wal-mart-izing of American may be the last step. We are making it as cheap as possible to buy the stuff we need, but eventually all the cost savings from that supply chain will be realized. And then what?

The malaise that so many people are feeling is very palpable. The solution out of it is not.

Spam: Absolutely Not!

Every time I think I have exorcised spam from my life, spammers become yet a little cleverer. The latest twist: I am getting 2-3 “spam” comments a day to this weblog. Sometimes the comments include links to porn sites or just your run of the mill scams, sometimes there is an innocuous message with a link to a “homepage” which, of course, is a spam site. Today’s little outrage took me to a preteen sex site. Oh sure, I can’t wait to learn more about that. And my penis size suits me just fine, thank you very much.

I have a zero tolerance policy for spam. I simply won’t put up with it. I did for years because I had no choice. I looked at server-based solutions that would require a one-time authentication from someone unknown (not on my “white list” to use the terminology) who wanted to send me unsolicited email: such solutions typically require the user to type in an encrypted number or word embedded in an image in order to get the mail through. It’s a great idea except, of course, my ISP doesn’t offer it: I’ve got cox.net. Finally I stumbled on a PC based “white list” solution called ChoiceMail One that does the same thing. Essentially it creates a mailbox on my PC between my real mailbox, and only people on my white list get through. The rest have to go through the challenge and response system.

Yes, it was a pain for about six weeks. I had to go through my email and manually add lots of addresses, cutting and pasting from a text editor. (I use Eudora. It would not have been a problem had I used Outlook.) Then I constantly checked the spam trap to let those people in I forgot to add. There are lots of them you don’t think about: banks, very old friends, web sites you use a lot. But after six weeks I seem to get over the hump. I check the spam trap about once a week now, which is about how often ChoiceMail One shreds the stuff.

But spamming web logs … this hits a new low even for the spam industry, which has values lower than a ten-dollar whore. First of all I cannot figure out why they bother. Do they think this is DailyKOS? No, I don’t get a whole lot of comments, which his fine. I’d like my web log to be more popular but my self-esteem doesn’t depend on it. Most of you reading this will never bother to read my comments. I usually will since I have the software set up to send me an email when a comment is posted.

The Moveable Type software that runs this blog clearly wasn’t designed for this sort of attack. All I can do is ban IP addresses and that gets to be very time consuming.

But I won’t put up with my web log being spammed too. I figured there had to be a way around it and it seems like someone created a solution very recently. I went to Hotscripts.com and searched on “spam” and sure enough there was a free solution by a very nice fellow who put together a site called JunkEater.com just to protect web logs and guest books. I tried the solution and it works like a charm!

Is it perfect? No. But spammers are lazy. They have computers run canned scripts to post this spam on their behalf. They won’t actually be any humans sitting down and reading my web log and going through the steps manually. So it’s unlikely a computer will be able to read the image with the embedded number in it, and add it to the comment form for my weblog.

I now wait anxiously for the next form of attack from the spam community. I know they are planning their next moves. But I, or someone else, will find a technology that will foil the bastards.

Thank you very much, JunkEater.com for an elegant solution. All I had to do was register at their site, fill out a few forms and change the comment form on this site and I was done. I’ll be glad to give them some money occasionally to support this free site; we need to encourage people like this to give their best.

Enjoy what I hope will be my spam free web log.

On Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer’s Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report on my first Dean Meetup

I attended my first “meet up” for Howard Dean last night.

For an internet savvy person like myself I wonder why it took me so long. It’s not like I haven’t been working in electronic communities for nearly 20 years now. I’ve been contributing to the Dean campaign for several months now, listening to his speeches on line, haunting his Blog for America site and basically fascinated by what he seems to have started. I’ve come to the conclusion that with Dean it’s not so much what he says as how he says it. He has personality and he has attitude. I can’t say that any of the other candidates, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich. In many ways Dean is the Democratic Party’s response to John McCain.

Still these are worrying times even for Dean Supporters as a hitherto largely unknown, recently Republican, but highly respected Wesley Clark recently threw his hat into the Democratic nomination. In fundraising Dean still has “the big mo” with 14.8 million dollars contributed in the last quarter. But in polls he is not so much slipping as is Wesley Clark has filled in the undecided column. This puts Dean in a competitive position again.

Nonetheless I’ve been excited by the Dean phenomenon. At the meeting last night at the public library in Chantilly, Virginia we learned that the average contribution to the Dean campaign was $87. This is amazing. You can guess what the average contribution to the Bush campaign amounts to: thousands and thousands of dollars. The Dean Campaign is funded by the masses. The Bush campaign is funded by Republican fat cats. Even among the Democratic candidates, most of the remainder get their money the old fashioned way: via the rubber chicken circuit.

Dean supporters are the real deal: large numbers of average Americans giving part of their hard earned money and lots of their free time to a candidate they believe in. I don’t think this has been done before in modern history. Moreover, Dean, unlike all the other candidates, can concentrate largely on campaigning instead of raising money. Soliciting contributions over the Internet makes the cost of getting contributions very small. More money can be used to build the campaign, instead of being funneled into more fundraisers.

The Dean Campaign used an existing site, meetup.com, to arrange the logistics of putting otherwise disconnected strangers together. Volunteers agree to host a Dean gathering in their home or in some public space. The Chantilly library was a good choice because about 50 people showed up; most living rooms won’t accommodate crowds of this size. There might well have been more people except the meet up software seems to have been a bit confused, and suggested that our meet up had been moved to another location in Annandale.

The lady facilitating the meeting was a lady named Geri about my age or a little older. I volunteered to help her set up and she took me up on it. The meeting was at 7 PM but I arrived at 6:30 PM. A young guy named Sam was already there and he and I started setting up chairs. Geri arrived a bit late and had us rearrange the place. She needed tables because tonight was a letter writing night.

The Dean campaign seems savvy enough to send packets to meet up organizers. She had a box of brochures, bumper stickers, buttons and lots of writing paper and envelopes, with stamps already inside the envelopes. We lined up some tables near the door and made sure attendees put their names on the attendance sheets and wore name tags. Geri dragged in a TV set and VCR. Her packet came with a short video from the Dean campaign that she used to start the meeting. It was a good video. Howard Dean’s passion clearly came through, and many of us clapped or applauded certain lines. (I particularly like this often repeated observation that he simply tells the truth, and it scares the hell out of Republicans.)

The video followed with 45 minutes or so of general discussion. We had a few people who were just curious and not committed to any particular candidate. We shared our thoughts and opinions on the man and the campaign. I shared my experience working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee back in 1987-1988 and how disenfranchised I felt when I realized our government was truly up for sale. I said I was excited by the Dean movement because it was the antidote to this mess, and I hoped the decentralized, empowered Dean people would have the energy to take back not just the White House but the Congress as well. Virtually all of us wanted to roll back the Bush years. We want our old country and old values back. In that sense perhaps we were conservatives. Most of us were progressive, but we believed in balanced budgets and for the United States to be a full and equal partner in international affairs. We discussed some frequent myths about Howard Dean, such as that he is a liberal and that he is not electable. I think we opened a few minds that night.

Some people lobbied for particular causes. One person needed people to hand out flyers. Others wanted to staff a table at a Fairfax City parade. Another wanted help reaching out to the senior community. These efforts met with mixed success; not everyone had quite the energy to attack all these causes.

The last part of the meeting was a letter writing exercise. We were asked to compose two letters, in our own words. The first letter went to Al Gore, Jesse Jackson or Bill Bradley. I made mine to Al Gore and said that he should endorse Howard Dean, and I listed my reasons. The second letter depended on your congressional district. In my case it went to Virginia Governor Mark Warner and it followed a format similar to the one I wrote to Al Gore. We addressed, sealed and stamped them ourselves and turned them into Geri.

I was expecting a younger crowd, but it was truly a mixed crowd with the exception that there was not an African American in the room. (We did have some Oriental and Hispanic Americans.) There were a number of students from George Mason University, there were a number of senior citizens or retired folk, and there were lots of middle aged people like me. The common theme though was a feeling of disenfranchisement and horror with three years of George Bush as president and a dogged determination to take our country back.

In short is was a fun time, but it was also useful and meaningful. It felt very much like democracy in action, something we often talk about in theory but fail to carry out. Despite the fact that most of us had never met before, we felt bonded and started calling each other by first names. As the meeting wound up (the library closed promptly at 9) a number wanted to go out for drinks and unwind. I hadn’t anticipated that and declined but it might be fun to do it some time in the future.

I am sure I’ll be at the next meet up and probably at subsequent ones too. It was fun, I felt empowered and I felt connected. I felt that what we were doing was not wasted effort. I felt hopeful and a bit determined to do what I can to take my country back.

If you are a progressive I encourage you to go to deanlink.deanforamerica.com and sign up for the November meet up. Check out both deanforamerica.com and blogforamerica.com. I can tell you for sure now that this movement is very real. It’s a great way to do good for your country as well as to meet new friends. Don’t feel you have to be a Dean supporter to attend. Just go and observe. I think you will be impressed.

Crazy in California

I’m fortunate I don’t live in California.

To recap: in about two weeks a special election will be held. Voters will have the option of throwing out Gray Davis, the twice elected governor of the state. Davis has never been a very popular fellow. He’s about as smooth as sandpaper. Nonetheless, there would be no special election had not a disgruntled Republican with lots of spare cash organized a state wide voter effort to force a special election for his recall. They can do that in California. The rest of the states for some reason figure that if the guy was elected he should serve out his term, unless he committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

But anyhow in California with enough signatures you can force a special election about anything and dictate the terms. This one though is particularly egregious because you get to pick a replacement at the same time you are throwing the guy out. And no majority or run off election is required. Whoever gets the most votes gets in. Consequently a Republican who might well lose a general election in this Democratic state can get swept into office with 30% of the vote or less. This is democracy in action, California style.

Such is life in that peculiar state. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose career consisted of lifting enormous weights and starring in testosterone laden action movies, who has never run for public office, and whose sole claim to politics is being married into the Kennedy clan, figures he can do a good job as governor. And maybe he will win because the polls currently show he is leading, although I can’t figure out why. He looked foolish in the one debate he participated in, and he seems to have the same high opinion of women as his character had in the latest Terminator movie. Arnold even alluded to it when during the debate independent Arianna Huffington gave him a hard time. Arnold said he had a part for her in her next movie: presumably the next lady to have the terminator put her head into a toilet.

It’s quite a collection of gadflies and eccentrics in this election, with the exception of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who by rights should assume the office anyhow if Davis were removed. We have another Republican candidate Tom McClintock who is so far to the right he is likely to fall off the planet, porno publisher Larry Flint, columnist Arianna Huffington (whose voice makes you want to put your fingers in your ears), and Mary Carey, a porno star with great hooters who has no chance of winning but whose videos can’t stay on the shelves of adult video outlets. Them and 130 or so other candidates. I guess there is plenty of choice for voters.

Meanwhile, the legislature, controlled by the Democrats, can’t address a $35B budget deficit very well because a law requires any new taxes to pass by a two thirds majority, which they don’t have. That effectively leaves the Republicans in charge during fiscal emergencies and they won’t, god forbid, allow any new taxes to be incurred. Davis was able to triple car taxes only because of the way that law was written long ago. That extra money, plus borrowing billions of dollars, is how Davis balanced the budget this year. The Republicans couldn’t be bothered to even try because all they kept saying was “No new taxes.”

Meanwhile in flusher economic times California voters basically took away most of the discretionary spending from its legislature. Education, health care and prison spending are dictated by California voter referendum, state law and federal laws, leaving little money for the legislature to cut to fix $35B budget gap.

And yet of course all the candidates are denying this reality. Schwarzenegger is just one of many promising to balance the budget somehow, even though Republicans will slit their own wrists before they vote for a tax increase, and there is not enough money to do it while the economy remains sour in California. And of course by law California must also balance its budget.

In short voters have boxed politicians into a no win situation. They are saying we will have our cake (education, prison, health care spending) and eat it too (but they won’t pay for it when revenues go down). No one can win.

So take it all out on Gray Davis. Put someone else in charge. Just don’t expect the underlying problems to be solved.

A candidate with courage would be leveling with California voters. For example either the referendum which requires educational spending to be at certain levels has to be repealed, or the legislature have to vote to raise taxes, or the state must continue borrow billions of dollars at increasingly high interest rates. This will eventually bankrupt the state or cause California’s debt rating to go to junk bond status. At some point no creditor will lend the state any more money.

It is fitting that Fantasyland started in California. I suggest the capital of California move from Sacramento to Anaheim, and the legislature should meet there in Cinderella’s castle. Clearly Californians are comfortable living in a fiscal fantasy anyhow.

The joy of coding

I’m a software engineer and a project manager so I don’t do much in the way of coding software anymore. In truth most code writing and testing isn’t that much fun. I was kind of glad to be lead out of the programming hole I was stuck in some ten years back. I realized I was writing the same code over and over again. It was getting boring. How many times can one code variations on the same do/while loop without pulling your hair out? It was better to give the work to some programmer grunts and work at a higher lever of abstraction. Project management pays better anyhow and college tuitions will be coming due in a few years.

Programmers may dispute this assessment, but they are the blue collar people of the information age. We coders are software mechanics, really. At some point I was led out of the software garage and into the manager’s office because others thought I had bigger fish to fry. I try to keep a toe or two back in the garage though. It feels more real than project management. Programming feels tangible and something I can take to the bank. Being a project manager feels ephemeral. I’m not sure I will have enough work to keep me busy a year from now. But I can always hang out my sign “Will code for food” if need be. I doubt “Will manage projects for food” will have the same marketing appeal. So I try, but don’t always succeed, in keeping up my programming skills. This is a market that moves very quickly. I’ve done some programming in the Java language, for example, but need to do a lot more. I won’t be asked to code Java servlets in my job, however. I may need to assign people to do the work for me however.

I took up teaching web page design partially to force myself to keep up with new technology. It worked and I now can create validated XHTML, can write cascading style sheets without usually consulting a reference manual, code cross browser Javascript and have good working knowledge of some hot server side scripting languages like PHP and ASP.

This blog is one place I practice. The underlying software is Moveable Type, which is written in a programming language called Perl. If necessary I can go in and tweak the code, but it’s not necessary. Setting up this place was pretty straightforward. Fortunately I also get to play with the PHP server scripting language on my forum, The Potomac Tavern.

My forum is based on open source bulletin board software written in PHP called phpBB. About the time I installed it I also ordered some manuals so I could learn to write PHP. phpBB also requires a database. A database called MySQL comes free from my web host so I used that and ordered a book on MySQL. The combination of the server operating system (Linux), PHP and MySQL is a zero cost option for creating extremely robust and reliable web based systems. And it turns out you don’t have to be a programming guru to do serious stuff in this environment. Much like those at the start of the PC revolution who put together HeathKit personal computers in their garages, the hobbyist with decent understanding of programming languages can do it themselves and have some fun. No need to work on a car in your garage anymore for amusement. Program some scripts for the web instead!

A lot of programming is boring for me because it doesn’t mean that much. I’ve done a lot of patching and upgrading of systems written by others in my career, and it’s definitely not that interesting. It’s necessary work, just like the mechanic who has to replace your muffler, but it is boring. Most programmers would like to write something original and all their own. It gives them a feeling of ownership and that they have created something meaningful. Unfortunately unless you do it for your own amusement, such experiences tend to be fewer and further between. Sadly, much of this work can be outsourced to India instead of keeping Americans gainfully employed as programmers.

So it’s a joy to find such a coding project recently that was both creative for me and actually useful for a large number of people. Back in May I was looking at the phpBB forum software and thinking “Why can’t it have digests? It works for Yahoo! Groups!” I frankly expected someone to have done it before but no one had. So I began work on a “mod” or “modification” to the official blessed phpBB software. With my modification you don’t get sent every email to your group, as happens with Yahoo! Groups. Rather, this software allows you to fine tune the digest you get to pick particular forums of interest, and to set a fairly wide variety of options. It is customized for you. It was a great mod that I installed on my own forum. I learned a lot about the phpBB architecture and how to write good PHP code in the process. Eventually I packaged up the whole thing in a ZIP file and posted it on the phpBB web site. I figured it would get people excited.

But it didn’t. It just sat there and got ignored. I didn’t understand it because it was a great idea. But I guess its time hadn’t come then. A week or two back I started getting inquiries about my modification. Is it going to be finished? Will it be submitted as an official phpBB modification?

It’s time has come. Now it has garnered a lot of interest and my spare time has been kept increasingly busy making more modifications to it and getting feedback from the developer community. Shortly it will be submitted as an official modification and when it shows up on the list of approved phpBB software modifications, as I hope it will, I suspect it will be pretty popular.

No, there is no money in this work. When building on top of an open source platform you just give it away. But there is a vicarious thrill and pride in ownership of not only writing some very cool and efficient code optimized for this phpBB software, but to garner some fleeting low level fame among this community of people. These people are appreciative of my work. It reflects not only a needed enhancement to phpBB, but from the feedback I am getting it is also very well designed and thought out.

And that makes me feel happy and gives me a tangible feeling of accomplishment. Some people are jumping the gun and won’t wait for the final release. One guy from Brazil has been writing me with questions. I’ve been helping him out. When I took a look at his site though I realized that I was really helping out … a low level pornographer!

Well, why am I not surprised? Who were the pioneers on the internet? Not Bill Gates, that’s for sure. No, it was the smut merchants who figured out how to turn a profit on from the internet first. If a pornographer or two finds a way to use my software modification to push down adult content to some horny end users looking for some cheap thrills, that’s part of the deal. I’m sure it will find more legitimate uses in time.

It’s still a damn fine set of code. And I’m glad to know I still got the right stuff.

Thoughts on Dean vs. Clark

Wesley Clark’s campaign has rocketed out to the stratosphere, despite problems that should be crippling like a virtual lack of organization. I guess a lot of uncommitted Democrats were just hoping and waiting for him to say “yes”. Look at him go! He announces and the following week he is leading the pack, at least according to Gallup which did a poll for CNN and USA Today. This poll shows Clark leading the Democratic candidates for president by a large margin: 22% vs. 13% for Dean, his closest competitor. The same poll says that if the election were held today between Bush and Clark that Clark would win 48 percent to 46%. (Bush’s approval rating is down to a record low of 50%, according to this poll.)

It must be about image because it can’t be about substance. So far Wes has been pretty silent on substance beyond vague generalities. He’s actually stumbled a few times, suggesting in Tampa that if he had been in Congress he might have voted for the war with Iraq, then back tracking. I doubt those who were polled heard these little gaffes.

Dean, who was used to being in the limelight, is now back in the pack and playing the challenger role again. Meanwhile on his website he is challenging his supporters to contribute $5M over the next 10 days. It’s an audacious goal. Will he make it? If he doesn’t some will say he is losing momentum, perhaps at the expense of Clark. I did my part and gave Howard another $50.

I’m still trying to understand the Wesley Clark phenomenon. I understand the Dean phenomenon pretty well. Dean articulated a clear antiwar message and put together a savvy internet marketing team. He tapped the energy of those who wanted to change this country and empowered them by putting them together in MeetUps. He has to spend little of his time or attention on fundraising. This helps him concentrate on campaigning. The other candidates, except Clark, are still trying to figure out what hit them. They were operating under the old rules.

I think there is something in the American character that likes guys riding high in the saddle. Bush gave this illusion and perhaps that’s why he won a narrow victory in 2000. Democrats want to look up and admire someone too. Clark gives them the image of someone who is supremely capable and competent. It can be intoxicating. And we Democrats want to win so badly in 2004. Clark looks like the obvious choice, at least at the moment.

But Democrats also need to look rather seriously at this guy. He is a Johnny come lately Democrat. He candidly admits he voted for Reagan and Bush, both times. I certainly like his position on the war and the United Nations, but given that he has mostly worn conservative credentials it makes me wonder how sincere a Democrat and liberal he really is.

Those looking for vast right wing conspiracies might also consider vast Clinton conspiracies. Bill Clinton has let it slip that Wesley Clark is his man. Maybe it’s because he’s from Arkansas. Or maybe since Bill represents the moderate, centrist Democrat he thinks he has outfoxed Howard Dean by picking Wes. Clinton probably perceives Dean as unelectable and too liberal, and found a way to bring his perfect man into the running to ride the growing tide of disenchantment against Bush.

It remains to be seen if the Clark candidacy has wings. He may be smart, but he’s never run for office before and there is a steep learning curve. He is bound to say the wrong things from time to time, and come across as ill prepared. It may not matter if voters, as they seem to be, are more concerned with personality than they are with issues.

But it is way too early to rule out Howard Dean. This is the Democrat with the money and with the organizational skills that the others seem to lack. He can still collect money hand over fist via the Internet simply whenever his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, wants to. He just puts another Louisville Slugger bat on the web site and the money pours in. That money buys a lot of media attention. Moreover Dean, unlike any other candidate, has grass roots. He has people turbo charged, not so much because they think he is the ideal candidate, but because he has them believing they are empowered.

I am impressed far more with Dean’s supporters than I am with Dean himself. Most of the reason I give him money is because he can feed the energy of these people. This is one determined bunch of people, and they are talking to everyone they know. Don’t think they plan to stop with Howard Dean’s election. They want more. Much more. They want to take back the congress and the country. They want to reverse the last four years. They want to drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism. He has lots of supporters but most of them are 20 or 30 somethings. In other words he has energized the disenfranchised younger voters, got them to care, and got them to organize. And they will vote in much larger numbers in 2004.

This may well turn into a tsunami a year from now. If Clark is the better candidate so be it. But don’t dismiss the Dean phenomenon. It is much more real and it has legs. I’ve caught the wave too. I’ll be going to my first official meet up for Dean on October 1st at the Chantilly, Virginia regional library. I hope to see some of you there. I want to be part of this energy. I want to take back my country.