Howard Dean for President

No, Dean is not my ideal Democratic presidential candidate. He doesn’t even come close. The current crop of candidates, frankly, offers pretty poor choosing. I’m not a big fan of Al Gore but even old boring Al would be a better choice than any of those running for president. Someone like Hilary Clinton would be ideal but she won’t run, and has ruled out 2008 as well. So we Democrats will have to pick from one of the announced candidates, and a fairly sorry lot they are overall.

Democrats always have a few “you have GOT to be joking” sorts of candidates. Al Sharpton wins this one hands down. But many of the rest aren’t much better.

Sadly also in this category is Dennis Kucinich, a former mayor and now Congressman representing the Cleveland area. Dennis has a real problem: mainly he comes across as a very annoying, the sort of person you would never invite to a party. Unless American voters have a real sense of humor he can’t get elected and he is so far to the left he’d be lucky to win his own district.

Then there is the inside the beltway crowd, trying to distinguish themselves but in general being spineless standing up to President Bush.

There is Dick Gephardt, under whose sterling leadership the House of Representatives actually lost Democratic seats in 2000 and 2002. As a consequence (although he won’t admit it) he resigned as House Democratic Minority Leader. No one is really sure why he is running or what he figures his appeal is, but it’s not the first time he threw his hat into the ring. Sorry Dick but your record speaks for itself and you are as exciting as milquetoast. Next!

John Kerry is hoping that some of the Kennedy mystique will rub off on him because he knows Ted personally and hails from Massachusetts. Besides, he is tall and square jawed. But he voted for war with Iraq even though he should have known better, although he now claims the Administration fed him bad information.

John Edwards is, like Kerry, a junior senator. He hails from North Carolina which is good politically because a Democrat who can’t carry some southern states is unlikely to win the White House. But he also voted for the war in Iraq and he really hasn’t distinguished himself very much. Most of his money comes from trial lawyers. Maybe he’s hoping a close resemblance to John Ritter will win him some votes.

Joe Lieberman ran, and lost, with Al Gore. Joe voted for the war, of course, but has a much larger problem: in many respects he is a closet Republican. Arguably that might be an asset in this election but he doesn’t offer much in the way of vision. If the Democrats were to be pragmatic and look for a centrist candidate he would be an obvious choice. That may not be the way to win the White House this time though. One strong point with Joe is that he is an excellent debater. He wrapped rings around Dick Cheney; consider what he could do with George W.

Bob Graham is my #2 choice. He voted against the Iraq war and understands the real terrorism problem, i.e. it’s Al Qaeda, stupid, not Saddam. As a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee he knows just how badly this war has been portrayed. Arguably he could win his own state (he has never lost an election) and he is a strong centrist candidate. But he comes across as more than a little goofy.

Carol Moseley Braun lost her last election to a Republican. It’s unclear why she is running. It’s nice to have a woman and a black running and she is reasonably liberal, but she really has nothing to distinguish herself and generates no discernable passion from voters.

That leaves Howard Dean. I would like to be more passionate about the guy. Hopefully in time I will be. I tend to like what I see but I also see some warning flags. He is a moderate Democrat who appears to the liberal wing. He has balanced state budgets many times, even during challenging economic times. He made universal health insurance available to virtually all residents of his state. His singular claim to fame (and perhaps his downfall) was pushing for a civil union bill in Vermont. Doubtless the Republicans will make hay of it if he is the nominee. He was passionately against the war in Iraq and is very passionate about engaging this country again in the international community, and ending our one sided isolationist approach toward the rest of the world. What I think will happen if he is the nominee is that people will discover a fiery but determined centrist democrat who leans enough to the left to bring in those people who are passionate on those causes. But he is a guy who speaks his mind very plainly and sometimes says inappropriate things.

I’ve actually given his campaign some of my money. We’ll see how he does. If he picks up steam I will probably give him more money. I like what I know of him, but he has yet to make me an enthusiastic supporter. He just seems to be the best of a rather poor crowd of candidates.

Criswell Predicts…

I can see the future. My amazing ability happens to be limited to our war in Iraq, our war on terrorism and the 2004 elections but I see it nonetheless. I’d like to think my ability is remarkable and soon I’d have a TV show on the SciFi Channel next to John Edward but there is no magic about it. It’s not hard in the least. All you have to do is look at facts on the ground, look at our history, look at geopolitics and it becomes a no brainer. I am disturbed (but not surprised) that what is obvious to me is not obvious to what passes for leadership in this country.

My first prediction is easy: our occupation of Iraq will turn into a quagmire. Some of you might be saying, well, it’s already a quagmire: duh! Quite right but I had predicted this before we invaded in the first place. I never doubted we would win a military victory, but I never believed we could win the peace. The only question now is how long we hang in there before we throw in the towel. The reality will be a lot like Somalia, only over a much longer time. Our troops will continue to die from sniper fire in a long war of attrition. Our desire to enforce a peace will mean little freedom of movement for Iraqis who consequently will continue to be unemployed and suffer greatly. It will resemble more and more the West Bank with endless checkpoints and military patrols. This will in turn build resentment that will feed on itself, resulting in more attacks, more resentment, more skirmishes. If we had used our brains instead of our brawn we’d be trying to get the United Nations to come in and take over for us. But that won’t happen of course because it might mean we’d have to admit we can’t take on the world unilaterally. Eventually, probably about a year after Bush loses the 2004 election, we’ll withdraw. The Pundits will call it “Iraqization” but effectively we will slowly withdraw and let the country return to the anarchy it effectively has right now. But hey, Saddam won’t reimerge, or will he?

Why is this prediction so easy to make? Just go a thousand miles to the east and look at what we are doing in Afghanistan. At least there we effectively limited our occupation to Kabul and got mostly foreign troops to do the police work. But there simply wasn’t the will to really make a genuine peace and there won’t be the same will in Iraq.

Next prediction: the roadmap to peace will fail. Again this is an absurdly easy prediction to make. I wish it would succeed but it can’t. There are lots of reasons but perhaps the biggest reason of all is that the Palestinians have no means other than persuasion to get groups like Hamas to stop terrorism. The Israelis, of course, insist that the Palestinian police force can go in and root out these terrorists. But of course there are a zillion Israeli checkpoints so what little remains of a Palestinian police force cannot get from place to place. But effectively there IS no Palestinian police force. Virtually all their police stations have been destroyed by the Israelis. The Israelis are the only real power on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have the best trained police force in the world and they can’t stop all these acts of terror either. And yet Israel and in fact our own government says, with a straight face, that Palestinians themselves can stop the terrorism.

Not going to happen. Because even if Palestinians were armed to the teeth like the Israelis they would still have the same problem. You can’t make a terrorist stop being a terrorist through force of arms. The best you can do is through a police state limit the damage. But of course there is something in the human nature that the more you oppress a group the more determined they are to show they still have power. Suicide bombings didn’t just happen. They were a direct result of all other forms of resistance not working. Peace marches didn’t faze the Israelis in the least. They just kept building more settlements and bulldozing more Palestinian dwellings. So nice try Bush and Powell; and I’m glad that Bush at least came out for the idea of a Palestinian state in principle. Unfortunately that’s all it will be because the dynamics of the conflict will not change. To truly change the situation Israel would have to end the occupation and remove its settlers, and then it would have to endure years of terrorism anyhow. It would have to give up other things it doesn’t want to give up, like 80% of the water it takes from the Jordan River. But eventually with a lot of international aid the problem would grow less severe over time. This is not a tradeoff that will ever be made in my lifetime. One cannot get Israelis to accept the notion of withdrawal and continued, though declining terrorism. It would be seen as defeat. But over ten years or so it would largely solve the problem.

Prediction Number Three. Bush loses in 2004. Yeah, I see the poll numbers. But he isn’t doing as well as his father did at the same point in his presidency. Reuters has him at 57%, so he is approaching levels of popularity he had before the war started. For some of the factors that will cause him to lose, see above. But the real reason he will lose will be the economy. Yes, it might improve but two million lost jobs cannot be erased between now and Election Day. Iraq will continue to be a quagmire that will slowly sap his popularity. The budget deficit will demonstrate he is utterly lacking in financial management skills. People are scared at the unaffordability of health insurance and want it, but he doesn’t have a clue and it is anathema to his ideology. On Election Day 2004 it will be a no brainer. Will we better off than we were in 2000? Not a chance. Do we feel more secure and safe in spite of 9/11? Nope. Is our country headed in the right direction? Not with historically high deficits, lack of national health insurance, obscene giveaways to the richest people, and a continued degradation of our environment. I’d like to think that in addition to losing reelection we’ll get a Democratic congress again but that is much less likely. The $200M war chest Bush is creating for his reelection will narrow the margins. But four years will be enough and we’ll be fed up enough to vote in numbers large enough to throw him out; it’s not like he came into office with a mandate in the first place. Enjoy clearing brush on your ranch in Texas, George. That seems to be something you can do well.

Morning in America (Again): How the Democrats Won in 2004

I’m old enough to remember the election of 1980. It wasn’t a great time in our country. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment were high. At age 23 I eeked out a living a little above the minimum wage at a Montgomery Ward. We had hostages in Iran that looked like they would never be released. This was an inescapable news story even bigger than O.J.’s trial. It turned Ted Koppel into something of a celebrity. Every night at 11:30 after the late news he hosted yet another special report: “Day 333: American Held Hostage”. A bungled raid by our military to liberate the hostages failed spectacularly. The national morale was near rock bottom.

In the midst of all this a presidential election was held that put a genial B movie actor and former California governor into the Oval Office. In the midst of a sour national mood Ronald Reagan had a message that fell on receptive ears: it’s morning again in America. Let’s shake off the national gloom. It was a great message that connected with the voters. It won him an overwhelming victory in 1984 despite the fact that the economy wasn’t really doing all that much better. Reagan was about attitude and spirit. We latched on to that spirit. Arguably it began the ascendancy of the Republican Party after decades of being in the political basement. Americans don’t seem to like to be in a gloomy mood for very long.

If it worked in 1980, it can work in 2004 but this time for the Democrats. A lot of the same factors are present. We have no hostages in Iran, but we do feel fearful. In spite of our overwhelming military and economic power, we don’t feel all that more secure and we feel vulnerable to forces we’re not sure we can control: such as one crazed fanatic or a suitcase bomb. We don’t have sky-high interest rates, we have rock bottom interest rates, yet we have learned that either extreme brings its own dangers. We now fear the deflation demon as much as we feared 18% mortgage rates in the early 1980s. Unemployment is statistically lower than in 1980 but many of us know the statistics are lying. The unemployment rate has been recalibrated to be more politically correct. We know that the true unemployment rate is much higher and that huge numbers of “discouraged” workers aren’t counted but would be employed if they could just find a job. We know that the length of time people spend unemployed has roughly doubled, and that to survive thousands of people are taking large wage cuts. Others cannot find employment in their field anymore and are working at relatively unskilled jobs at half or less than what they used to earn. We have all this plus a grinding war in Iraq that increasingly looks like a pointless quagmire.

Let’s face it: our national mood is depressed. Having our tanks roll into Baghdad had a short cathartic effect but, like a cup of coffee, the buzz soon wore off. Because our nation feels depressed our economy is in the doldrums too. Even tax cuts don’t seem to cheer us up.

Bush will have little to run on in 2004 but the fear factor. He’ll run on it because he and Carl Rove ran the Republican Party on it in 2002 and they will hope it will work again. But 9/11 is a receding memory, and Bush’s chickens have come home to roost. The economy is unlikely to turn around markedly before the next election. Even if it does it is unlikely we’ll come close to regaining the number of jobs lost during this administration. Poll after poll suggests that national red ink scares voters. Weapons of mass destruction turn into weapons of mass deception; Iraq shows all the signs of being our next Vietnam.

A Democrat with a positive message can win using Ronald Reagan’s approach. Here’s how.

First state the obvious: our fears of terrorism are vastly overblown. That’s not to say they aren’t there, but the likelihood of any individual American being a victim of an act of terrorism is virtually nil. Even on 9/11 when we lost 3,000 souls, that was 3,000 out of 300 million. We lose many magnitudes more citizens every year in automobile accidents. One is more likely to be a victim of terrorism, small as it is, if you live in Washington or a major city. For most Americans neither your life nor the lives of anyone you love is not in jeopardy from terrorism. If you are living in small town America you are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to die from terrorism.

Second, point out where the real problems lie with national security. It’s not in Iraq, it’s in organizations like al Qaeda, and it’s in vulnerable nuclear research laboratories in the former USSR and in Eastern Europe. For the tens of billions of dollars we spent trying to obliterate Iraq we could have secured a lot of Russian nuclear facilities and made our country a whole lot safer. Point out that Bush has done hardly anything in this area; in fact he has cut this funding.

Third, advocate positive changes that can reduce the likelihood of terrorism. Advocate a Marshall plan for the Middle East where we work to improve the standard of living of the people. What if we rebuilt every destroyed Palestinian home crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as a starter? Don’t you think that would be very positive toward America, show true retribution and genuine concern for a people? Don’t you think it would sap a lot of the energy that creates terrorists in the first place? Wouldn’t this in effect buy us a lot of long-term national security? It’s cheaper than another Iraq-like war.

On the economy advocate what Americans already believe: that deficits are bad and the latest tax cuts have been reckless and unnecessary. Americans now believe in national health insurance. Too many people are uninsured and costs continue to spiral out of control. People will pay for it because with it they will have peace of mind.

But mainly what Democrats need is a message of moderation and hope. We need to say loudly and clearly: we refuse to live in fear any longer. We will take pragmatic steps to ensure our national security but we will not be slaves to our fears. We will not let this country become a victim of 9/11. We will not let terrorists destroy our spirit. We will be a party about pragmatic, progressive policies that uniformly helps all Americans, not just the richest.

That is how to win the White House and how to take back Congress in 2004.

Weight Loss = Hard Work

It’s not easy being lean. I’m thinking it is unlikely I will ever be lean again.

Something happened to me over the years. I think I ate too much and didn’t exercise enough. I joined the majority of Americans who are overweight or obese. I didn’t intend it to be that way, of course; it just sort of snuck up on me.

I first discovered that I could gain weight in my early 20s. A couple times a week I bought milk at the local High’s store in downtown Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Entemann’s pastries were right there and they sure tasted good. So I’d bring one home. And one day I weighed myself and was shocked to find I had put on some weight. I exited my teenage years a healthy 180 pounds (I am 6’2″). And suddenly I was 200 pounds.

Solution: eat less and exercise more. Basically I wasn’t exercising. I never got in the habit. So I took up running, starting with mile runs around the local high school track and working up to mile and a half runs four to six times a week. I was really out of shape and it took a long time before I could run and not feel winded. But I did lose weight and got back to 185 pounds or so, and I was more careful about what I was eating. Mostly though I was more concerned about exercising more than eating less.

And for more than 20 years I have been running and exercising regularly. So why am I not a skinny thing?

Those of you have met me would probably not call me overweight or obese. And yet technically I am. I should not get above 190 pounds, and I’m probably somewhere around 195 pounds. And I’m having a hell of a time staying where I’m at. It’s been hard work. It continues to be hard work. It’s a continual war I fight with myself. Emotionally I want the satisfaction of those lovely high fat foods. But my forebrain says I don’t want to in my 50s and having coronary artery disease. Every day is another skirmish with the Mr. Hyde lurking inside of me.

Back in 2001 I hit a new high: I was at 223. Bill Clinton and I had something in common. I had been overweight for years and years and though I still exercised I must have been packing on the calories. But I figured I was still running and thus healthy.

To some extent I think my overeating was facilitated by the excellent and cheap lunches conveniently available at the Ford House Office Building cafeteria. Those steak and cheese subs were hard to resist, and I would often throw on a chocolate chip muffin for dessert. I rationalized it by having a light dinner. It didn’t help that my personal life was in a great deal of stress in the late 90s. Eating became one of the few pleasurable things in life. It was agony to pass a Dunkins and not grab a donut or two.

Nonetheless I lost the weight at least twice before. In the early 90s I got to around 205 and brought myself down to 190, mostly through a lot more exercise. But then slowly, incrementally, the weight came back on.

It took me years to summon the energy to do anything serious again about weight loss. But my joints were beginning to notice the effects of my weight. My knees were hurting and the tendons in my foot were often inflamed. But one day, perhaps as a result of being on antidepressants, I suddenly had the will again.

Like most dieters I looked for a recipe for weight loss. For a while diet and exercise worked fine. I was losing a pound a week by eating salads for lunch and a bowl of cereal for breakfast, plus putting in a lot of time on the elliptical machines at the health club at work. I got below 200 and felt like cheering. And then I stopped losing weight. For weeks I hoped things would improve and I didn’t change strategies. I continued eating sensibly, and I still peddled the metal machines hard and burned off those calories. What the hell was going on?

I stumbled on the Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet and tried that. Carbohydrates, according to the book, can be evil because they boost blood sugar and make you hungry for more food. So eggs or Egg Beaters for breakfast, a lean salad for lunch, and a modest (sometimes more than modest) dinner with carbs in my “reward meal”.

It worked, sort of. I lost maybe half a pound a week. But it was tough. I weighed myself every day to a tenth of a pound. I kept meticulous records. And I did it. I got to 190. One day I weighed myself and I was 188.8.

It’s been all up since then. My goal was to get to 180, the weight I had when I was married. But it wouldn’t work. This diet wasn’t working anymore.

My pal Lisa told me about her trainer Jason and his emphasis on building muscle mass. I went to see him and tried that approach for a while. But … I hovered between 190 and 195. Using all those weight machines helped I am sure, and maybe I have become more lean. I just wasn’t losing weight.

I finally went to see my doctor. What was going on? Why couldn’t I lose more weight? He didn’t have an answer but when he did say that where I was at, 195, was on the high but acceptable level. Maybe that’s where my body wants me to be because it is the right weight for me now.

So I’ve been maintaining it through a LOT of exercise and a LOT of modest eating. I’d like to lose more but I don’t know how.

Oh wait, I do know how. I’m sure I could do it. But it’s a question of how much pain I want to endure. I could increase aerobics to maybe 60 minutes at a time. But in the process I have to give up something: more time. And that’s the crux of the matter at the moment. Time is a limited quantity. I am fortunate I can exercise at work; it would be much tougher to do it in the evenings with all the distractions going on then. My days start at 5:20 and it is over 12 hours later before I stagger home.

What am I doing now? I exercise, with aerobics, 4-6 times a week. Most of the time I am on the elliptical machine, but I still run periodically. Every other day at the health club I add on weight training. In a week I can go through pretty much every machine they have. I do weight levels that would astound most people. I leg press 150 pounds, for example, and I do 125 pounds on abdominal machine.

Eating? A bowl of cereal for breakfast (all those eggs worried me), and usually something fairly lean but tasty for lunch. I like the broccoli and beef down in our cafeteria: a small portion, no rice. And for my midday treat, one or two Special K treats (90 calories each). Then a fairly large, but not obscene dinner.

All this diet and exercise though and here I am: 195.

Yes, I am sure my evening meals could be better. But they are not obscene calorie fests, and they usually start with a big salad.

On weekends my strategy is two meals a day: a large breakfast and a medium to large dinner. If I get hungry I’ll have a slice or two of cheese. I work out at least one day on the weekend too.

It’s something about being middle aged, I think. It doesn’t help that I sit at a desk most of the day, but the midday break at the health club burns a lot of calories. I am sure I could add more exercise on weekends: bike trips, walks etc. Mostly I just do the standard routine.

The good news is that my weight is stable and while technically overweight I am just barely overweight. Still, it’s discouraging. It’s quite a bit of work for me just to maintain my present weight. I must burn calories much more efficiently now. My health is excellent: I pass physicals with flying colors.

But if I set a goal why can’t I make it? It is discouraging. I watch what I eat very carefully now. Some days I do really good, some days I feast more than I should, but I am conscious of every mouthful and the consequences. If I eat more than I should one day I usually eat less the next day.

I’m lucky I have something that works, and I am glad I got rid of the gut and my love handles are largely gone. But I don’t understand why my body won’t let me be lean again.

What strategies have you used that have worked, particularly in the long term, at keeping weight off?

Will my daughter be gay? And does it matter?

My daughter Rosie is a very unique child. I guess parents could say that about every child; every person has a unique set of chromosomes. But she is still very unique and to some extent I plead guilty (as does her mother) for encouraging these influences. Neither of us are homophobes even though I can’t claim to have known a whole lot of openly gay and lesbian people. Since age 7 or so she’s been going to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston and met a number of gay and bisexual people there, including our last minister, Gretchen Woods, who is lesbian and has a life partner. Some of her girlfriends appear to be bisexual or lesbians, although at age 13-14 one must take such assertions with a grain of salt. She often seems more comfortable around the GLBTG (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) crowd than the future mothers and fathers of America crowd, which is most of her middle school. She isn’t in high school yet but she has already joined the Westfield High School Gay-Straight Alliance. That’s my girl!

Rosie is 13 and claims she doesn’t know if she is heterosexual, bisexual or lesbian. That is a sensible approach I guess: keeping her options open. Her mother seems heterosexual enough, although over the last few years Terri has hung out rather heavily among a crowd of women who are largely gay or bisexual as part of her adventures into the Slash Fan Fiction universe. Through her Rosie has come in contact with many an adult role model, and many a dysfunctional adult from this community.

It must be tough to sort it out but I image by the time she is off to college she’ll have figured out exactly where she fits on the Kinsey scale. I have never believed that one can become gay through environmental influences. It is possible that environmental influences are stimulating thoughts in that area that might not be stimulated, or might occur later in life.

Lately though I’ve been wondering if I might have a gay or bisexual child on my hands and if so how I would react to it.

Unquestionably I love Rosie and would support any healthy relationships she forms. Most likely at her age she is likely to have a healthier relationship with her own gender than with a boy anyhow. I’m not that anxious to have her start dating boys and she seems to be in no hurry either. Her one “boy” friend that I have met is a geeky, awkward young lad about her age who seems as much in a club of one as Rosie. I am completely comfortable around Eric, perhaps because he reminds me so much of myself at that age: a bit brazen and unorthodox but generally not the most popular guy on campus.

Intellectually if she were to announce tomorrow “Mom and Dad, I’m a lesbian” I don’t think I would have a problem with it. I would know that there is nothing I can do about it; I might as well argue that her hair color isn’t brown. I know and respect the person she is and sexual orientation is such a minor part of the whole person.

Emotionally though I would have some issues to work through. Trying to understand myself, I think it has something to do with genetics. The notion of someday having a grandchild bouncing on my lap seems appealing. But also there is the notion of dynasty: I’d like some part of me to be passed on to future generations. I realize of course that in a genetic sense Rosie is only half me, so the whole notion is somewhat fallacious and outdated. Some of my siblings have chosen not to have children, and they seem comfortable with it. I would probably grow comfortable with never being a grandparent in time too.

It may be pointless and selfish to wish for things like this. Having gone through the child rearing experience I know it is a difficult road in the best of circumstances. Rosie might well turn out to be heterosexual, choose to get married and still choose not to have children. It might also be possible, given the rapid advances in human reproductive technologies, that she could have a genetic offspring even if she married another woman.

I’m not sure where these phantom worries come from. Frankly I didn’t give them hardly any thought at all until a few weeks ago. And I’d like to put them way into the background where they belong. But they have come out of the closet, so to speak. And it appears I will have to wrestle with them even though really there is nothing I can do to change Rosie from the person she will be. I will have to deal with my feelings regardless.

And regardless I will always love Rosie from the depth of my soul and appreciate the full human being she is, and the unique adult she will soon become. If I’m enjoying her this much as a teenager I will enjoy her even more as an independent adult.

Uh oh, I’m not living up to my own expectations

What does it mean to be a grown up? Is it a place you arrive at? Or is it a state of mind? Can we be both grown up and child-like at the same time?

I think I have the grown up thing fairly well down at age 46 but often it doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve learned generally to be a responsible person, but I don’t always like it. I know plenty of adults who don’t strike me as terribly responsible. They drive like maniacs, can’t pay their bills on time, go days without taking baths, neglect their kids schoolwork, don’t believe in exercise and buy lots of boxes of donuts at the local Krispy Kreme.

I, on the other hand, drive fairly soberly, never have a late bill, bathe regularly, try to keep up on my daughter’s schoolwork (this often feels like a second job), work out at least four times a week and generally stay away from overdosing on high fat and high caloric food.

But on the other hand this sort of life isn’t too much fun. Maybe my strategy will see me alive into my 90s, but I will have missed many opportunities to gorge myself on my favorite foods. I will never know the pleasure of a nicotine high. I’ve never been drunk nor am I ever likely to be drunk. I’ve never puffed a joint or tried an illegal narcotic. I’ve had some vices but they have been few and far between. I’d like to be more free spirited and spontaneous but I can’t seem to be that way.

I do have a goofy side and I am not afraid to show it, at least among family. But during the days and out in public I play the good citizen role. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. I have a friend who unashamedly sings wherever she goes. That’s the way she is. She can’t suppress it. She must have been a songbird in her previous life. Anyone who doesn’t like it can kiss her grits, not that she could ever utter a bad thing about anyone (Catholic don’t you know). “Here I am. Take me as I am and if it bothers you it sure as heck doesn’t bother me.” There’s a lot to admire about that attitude. I consider myself self-confident but I don’t have that kind of self-confidence. I probably never will. It is hard sometimes to put on a controversial bumper sticker on my car wondering what the neighbors will think.

In short being a grown up, or acting grown up, isn’t much fun. It’s kind of like swallowing that glass of Metamucil ever day, or having regular rectal exams.

It is hard for me to turn off that part of my brain that says do what I should be doing. The list of “shoulds” never stops. I should wash and wax the car. I should trim the hedges or clean the bathrooms. I always feel a little guilty when I take days or hours off just to smell the roses a bit. Not that I haunt flower gardens in my spare time. More likely I am on the computer, in a forum discussing politics, or playing the PHP server side scripting.

I don’t know why I do this. There is not much good reason for it. Perhaps it comes from growing up Catholic. When you see life in the prism of sin vs. non-sin and you hear daily what God expects of you, you tend to bring that orientation into life. But I thought I gave up the Catholicism gig years ago. Why if I’ve given up the theology should its overarching outlook on life still chain me? Why can’t I let it go completely?

Even the messiest person ends up dead in a box, just like me. Only they were able to enjoy more of their lives doing things that mattered more to them. Me, I get to go to heaven and report to God that I had clean toilets.

Somehow I don’t think that’s what life is about.

What sort of person are you? If you found a way toward your own personal liberation how did you do it? How did you draw figure out the line between being reasonably grown up but not too grown up? What were the factors that allowed you to achieve this liberation?

Happily ever after

It’s been a busy three-day weekend but at least I wasn’t at work. Work has not been terribly inspiring lately, but the last time it has truly inspiring was about three years ago so no surprise there.

Still it was weekend with the chance to catch up with friends. As Lisa reported on her blog we finally managed to get together at our usual spot, the Barnes & Noble halfway between our respective houses, and spent 90 minutes or so just chatting about life. We are not as accessible to each other as we used to be. Her new job means she no longer has much time to chat on the job. She has actual work to do all the time now. Mine never allowed much time for chat and after my desktop gets converted to Windows 2000 minus chat clients there will be no opportunity for that either. But now that I know she’s usually off work at 2 PM, I plan to snare her some Friday afternoon when I am off too. Weekends always seem busy: she and hubby are running off somewhere and my wife, daughter and I have a fairly extensive laundry list of things to do. Anyhow it was great to catch up with Lisa. Now I have a list of FDA unapproved “supplements” to try to add more pep to my life and help me sleep better. The “natural” sleeping pill I had Terri try last night had her barfing up the contents of her stomach two hours later. So I don’t think she’ll be trying that one again. But I slept well with one tablet of GABA I picked up at the GNC store. But I was tired anyhow.

But Lisa wasn’t the only old friend I caught up with this weekend. On Friday I ventured into the wilds of the Virginia Piedmont to locate Cyndi at her new location seven or so miles past Warrenton. I haven’t mentioned Cyndi before so an explanation is in order. Cyndi came briefly into our lives in 1987-1988 when Terri and I, married but childless, thought foster parenting might be something to try. I was 30 at the time and Terri was 27. We had been touched by a news story on TV about Vietnamese boat people and had in mind to be a foster parent to one of these orphaned children. We were surprised to find out after we had gotten training that instead of a Vietnamese boy or girl we were offered Cyndi instead. She was 13, appeared to be sexually active, and came with had a very bad case of juvenile diabetes and bad parenting issues up the wazoo. She was instantly popular because of her good looks. She projected a come-hither attitude that reached the radar of every older boy of dubious character within five miles. What self worth she had at the time appeared to be vested in her ability to attract men.

We had her for five months before we had to ask her to leave. She was 13 when she arrived, wasn’t used to following rules and I wasn’t used to coming home to find boys camped out all over my house. I felt like a failure in the foster parenting business. Cyndi got shuffled from one group home to another group home and consequently one school to another school. While her personal life appeared to be a wreck from my perspective, we kept in touch. I occasionally would meet her at a McDonalds to see how she was doing and leave feeling disheartened. She had frequent problems managing her diabetes. She turned an adult with no health insurance. I recall once coming to her rescue to buy some high priced medicine she couldn’t afford but needed for some sort of infection. Although far behind in her school work she did manage to graduate on time with her class, which surprised both Terri and I. We attended her graduation and felt hopeful for a time.

But then it was more of the same. She’d meet some man of dubious moral character, live with him for a while and get dumped. She’d pop into our lives, usually with a phone call, at bad moments in her life. I recall two phone calls while she was in the hospital. If I remember correctly the last one was when she was pregnant (out of wedlock) with her daughter Kelsey and going through some sort of diabetic shock. Through it all I tried to be loving and supportive and told her that I loved her. On the inside though I was appalled. Getting off the phone I felt depressed and wanted to cry. Cyndi meanwhile kept going through men and kept bouncing from job to job. Among her mini careers included work in real estate and sitting behind the counter of a tanning salon.

One day her Fairy Godmother must have paid a long overdue visit. Either while she was pregnant with Kelsey, or shortly thereafter, she met Chris, who subsequently married her and adopted her daughter. Unlike the other men Chris seemed to be a man of character who genuinely loved her. They’ve been living happily every after since then. Until a year ago they were living in a townhouse in Centreville. We saw Cyndi very infrequently: every 3 to 5 years. In 2000 they all came out to the house for a Memorial Day cookout. And Cyndi and I traded sporadic emails that were of the Christmas card type.

Cyndi is now 30. Chris must be doing very well indeed in the plumbing and landscaping business because I was surprised when I finally found her house in the Virginia Piedmont. It’s in a new development in the middle of nowhere but which, given the inexorable growth of the population and Virginia’s wholesale lack of any land use planning, will doubtless turn into a large community of people. Within years there will be traffic jams just driving into nearby Warrenton.

I don’t know what they paid for their new house but it would be considered a McMansion in our neighborhood, except she has a real lawn, not one of these postage stamp lawns you see around here. It would be a $750,000 house in my neighborhood. Cyndi is a stay at home Mom and has a more than full time job maintaining the property and looking after her daughter. The downside is that husband Chris, who works in Northern Virginia has long commutes, long days and often works on the weekends.

While the house is new it is clean an impeccably furnished. While I have little appreciation for interior decorating I was pretty wowed: I bet Martha Stewart would have given it her seal of approval. There was a large SUV in the driveway, next to which my comparatively puny and 12 year old Toyota Camry looked out of place.

So she seems to be doing quite well. We chatted for a couple hours, I inspected almost every part of her house, and we talked about her daughter, husband and life in general. I’m hoping that since I am out that way about twice a year anyhow that I can keep in more regular touch with her. From all appearances she is living the “happily ever after” lifestyle now. And while as a teen her morals left much to be desired now she clearly has her head together. I find much to admire about Cyndi now as an adult. Her stubbornness that I observed as a teenager is now something of a virtue. She has the time, energy and determination to turn her house in the middle of nowhere into a showcase home. Her diabetes is under control. She’s an American success story. No Las Vegas gambler would have bet a nickel on her in 1987. She seemed destined for an express ticket to Hell.

My challenge seeing her again was to respect and appreciate her as a fully-grown adult and to not appear condescending. Much of our relationship has been has been me in the father figure role, and I see her infrequently enough where I tend to see her in the prism of her teenage years and not as a fully matured and capable adult. Thankfully I think I succeeded. It was a meeting of equals. And I hope our two families can continue to enjoy each other’s company for many years to come.

Wanted: Democrats with Spine

Where have they gone? I’ve looked everywhere for them but they are like hunting for that four leaf clover. Not that they are completely gone, but the ones with spine seem to be isolated to what some would call the lunatic fringe of the Democratic party. There is, for example, Al Sharpton, whom no one considers a serious presidential candidate. There is also Dennis Kucinich, another marginal Democratic presidential candidate with almost zero chance of winning even the primary in his own state. Lastly there is Vermont Governor Howard Dean whose spine is somewhat flexible because he has a serious plan to address the health care crisis but at best gives halfhearted criticism of our unwise war against Iraq.

Love them or hate them the Republicans have spine. They don’t wait for the ball to be served and if they do get the ball they wham it back at their opponents. Today’s Democrats mostly try to avoid hitting the ball back. They are always looking over their shoulders and checking their polling numbers, afraid to say something that will lose them any points and afraid to offer a clear and compelling vision to the current Republican madness.

Case in point: in the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They supposedly followed Bush into war against Iraq because they believed Bush when he said Iraq had these weapons and they could easily be targeted against the United States. Never mind that the evidence wasn’t there and the whole idea was preposterous. They were too intimidated to do much other than shut up and raise a limp hand when the war vote came up. But one would expect that after the fact when no weapons were found that they would be holding Bush accountable. But no. Weeks go by, months go by and a few brave Democrats say maybe we should hold a hearing or so but most blithely assume we’ll eventually find them. Could there be any doubt what would happen if the situation had been reversed? Suppose just for a moment Gore had gotten into office and had waged the same sort of war against Iraq on such flimsy pretenses. Is there any doubt that Republicans would be calling for special hearings, task forces and perhaps even special prosecutors to get to the bottom of what they would characterize as a scandal? Hell, there would be impeachment hearings.

But on the economy the Democrats have also been mostly silent and ineffective. The role of the Democratic Party seems to be mostly in staying together so that the latest obscene tax cut is merely in the troposphere instead of the stratosphere. $330B, as reported in today’s Salon, would have paid for health coverage for every uninsured person in America and for millions of teachers and child-care workers. This would have increased our productivity and put people back to work immediately. Instead the bulk of the money goes to the richest Americans. If this were the first time maybe it would be excusable, but this is tax cut #3 from Bush where the rich people are laughing all the way to the bank.

One would have hoped after the 2002 mid term elections that the Democrats would have gotten a clue. There was no reason why we could not have taken back control of the House and the Senate. Instead, we got a Republican congress. What have the Democrats done to hold its leaders accountable? Not a thing. The first to go should have been Terry McAuliffe, head of the DNC. Hey, he said he would bring us a Democratic Congress again. He didn’t. He should have been so out of there. Someone with more leadership should have taken his place. Bill Clinton would have been ideal for the job. Although it is unlikely he would have taken the job, he would know the right people who could do it. No changes in the DNC though. No changes in Senate leadership. Nancy Pelosi took over for Dick Gephardt as House Minority Leader when he decided to run for president. That was hopeful but yes there was Nancy saying how proud she was of our president on Iraq and how she supports our troops. Nancy of all people has become politically correct.

All this and polls suggest only one in four Americans believe that Bush’s tax cuts will do anything to stimulate the economy. A majority of Americans also believe we should get the hell out of Iraq and let the Iraqis solve their own problems. There are natural opportunities here to rally Americans around a Democratic base. But don’t hold your breath.

The good news is that Republicans are their own worst enemies and are, as usual, vastly overreaching. Their chickens are coming home to roost too: the economy sucks, the war was won quickly but the peace in Iraq is illusionary, Afghanistan is still a vast anarchy as is most of Iraq and the war on terrorism is going fitfully at best. Our foreign adventures will doubtless become quagmires. The federal government’s fiscal house is a mess. We’ve managed to piss off most of the international community.

The opportunities are everywhere. A centrist Democrat stressing compassion, moderation, fiscal responsibility and a realistic health care plan for all Americans should have every advantage in 2004. But they won’t do it running behind Bush. He or she must stand tall, be unafraid, and simply tell the people the obvious truth about Bush and his disastrous administration.

Outsourcing Madness

News item: 150 federal workers rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D. C. to protest zealous efforts to “outsource” their jobs to the private sector.

I had no idea about this rally. I suspect if the word had gotten around there would have been a lot more people at the rally. But hey, it’s a start.

It’s the same everywhere in here in Fed World. Today in my vanpool those who work in the Department of Agriculture were noting their “All Hands” meeting today. The primary discussion of course is outsourcing. How many of these good and hard working federal employees, many of whom have been employed for dozens of years, will still have a job in a year? How high do you think their morale is while this process is underway?

Maybe the way to keep their job in this economy is to surrender and to find out what contracting agency will fill their jobs and apply to them. At least they’ll have the requisite experience for the job. Anyhow, if airline employees can be continually downsized why not federal employees? What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander after all. Umm, all this IS good, right? Taxpayers are going to get a great return for their tax dollar right? Think again.

In the process of moving from federal employee to contractor they may give up some of those little fringe benefits they took for granted, like more than a week or two of vacation a year, or health insurance, or a 401-K plan. But at least maybe they will be employed, although for likely far less than they make now. These new contracting executives will need their Mercedes Benz and their cushy offices. That will require the usual deal: charge the government more than the true cost of federal employees but caveat it with “Hey, if you don’t need them they can be easily terminated”, take 50% of the margin for “overhead” and give the rest, or less, to the employee. Federal employee numbers go down. Bush can claim he has reduced the size of the government and made the government more lean and efficient.

Now I’m certainly not saying that some contracting doesn’t make sense. It would make no sense to have civil servants build B-1 bombers. It didn’t make much sense 20 years ago when I started working in the government to have civil servants cleaning restrooms or maintaining an agency’s fleet of automobiles. There are jobs that are so generic that there is nothing the least bit “federal” about them. The crux of the matter is whether a job is “inherently governmental”. Over the years as the politically inspired outsourcing pressure has increased the line between what is inherently governmental has gone from dubious at best to outright silly.

The latest example that I read about is this attempt by the Department of the Interior to outsource grants management specialists. What does a grants management specialist do? Their job is to ensure that when the federal government doles out the dollars to accomplish some mission on behalf of the federal government that the money is used according to law. But apparently the Department of the Interior thinks “Hey, we can hire a contractor to see if our contractors are doing the job correctly.” This is lunacy. What the hell is more inherently governmental than this?

But outsourcing is just one example of dubious management in the federal government. The Bush Administration, like those before it, is convinced there are too many supervisors in the federal government. The solution is to reduce middle management and “flatten hierarchies”. In my agency we’ve become so flattened that management has basically no idea what I actually do and no time to monitor my work.

No, I am not kidding. I wish I were. We were reorganized recently. Of course we’re not going to get any new people to replace those who left because in addition to flatting hierarchies we want to give the appearance that the federal government is not growing too. My new supervisor is a GS-15 who was given the job in addition to his previous job of being the information technology security officer for the agency. What is he actually doing day to day? Think he’s managing the people below him? Think again. Mostly what he does is spend 80% of his time working on some departmental security initiative that keeps him out of the office or unavailable to manage during that time. This is what his bosses are telling him. So he has almost no time to know what any of us are doing.

In short the hierarchy has been flattened so much that accountability has been squeezed out! There is no time to manage people and balance the resources and work among us. But in reality my boss, through no fault of his own but simply through circumstances, really has no idea what I do beyond “project management”. When it comes time to do my employee evaluation, assuming he actually has time to read my accomplishments, he will find out what I did for him last year. Hopefully it will be in line with what he would have wanted me to do in the first place, if he had the time to tell me, which he won’t. He won’t have time to even think through the problem in the first place.

In reality there is no accountability in my organization. I come to work and do my job but I could just as easily sit at my desk and play solitaire all day because it is unlikely anyone would notice. In fact I do come to work and put in a solid day’s work, but even so I have no idea whether I am doing good or bad. My performance evaluation criteria are so generic it bears little or no resemblance to my effort. There is no clear expectation of what I am supposed to be doing in the first place. I just keep doing what I’ve been doing and perhaps naively volunteer to take on new tasks from time to time feeling I should be a “team player”. These new tasks generally show up as a result of talking with people or from phone calls.

One would hope that our executives would understand the dichotomy of what they expect from their managers. In short they expect the impossible. If you tell my manager to spend 80% of his time doing something other than his job, which has supervisor in the title, then he is not going to be able to manage us. If in addition you flatten hierarchies so much that even if he had the time he wouldn’t be able to manage our time effectively then the obvious conclusion is that you need more managers, not less. If a manager can’t manage the people under them then they can’t hold them accountable and employees’ productivity is likely being squandered.

It is time to acknowledge the obvious: you get the government you pay for. We’ve collapsed hierarchies too much; we need to add managers, not subtract them. We need not just figurehead managers, but real managers, trained in actual management who read books by Jack Welch. And our executives need to set their managers free so they can actually manage their people in alignment with organizational goals.

And as for outsourcing, it based on the notion that just about any task can be neatly packaged and handed off and doesn’t require any real governmental oversight except for remembering to renew the contract when it comes up. No one will admit that, of course, but that’s the naked reality.

That’s not management, folks.

Why Didn’t We First Secure Iraq’s Nuclear Sites?

At the moment at least Americans seem to be giving President Bush a pass for his little oversight of sending in our armed forces to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that aren’t there. According to this article in Saturday’s Washington Post, Americans seem to be inclined to overlook the whole reason why we went to war with Iraq in the first place because, well, we found lots of mass graves and Saddam Hussein turned out to be a really bad guy — like we didn’t know that already.

You know, of course, that had something similar had happened when Bill Clinton was in office there would be investigation upon investigation about how our intelligence failed and why we went to war when our facts were wrong. With Republicans in control of all branches of government don’t hold your breath. But it is very discouraging that even my fellow Democrats can’t be bothered to hold Bush accountable for what is at best faulty intelligence and what is at worst a bold faced lie to Congress and the American people about the essential facts about Iraq.

I suspect in time as our occupation continues to falter this will resurface as an issue but for now there is no political traction to it. What is more compelling to me at the moment though is how the United States dawdled and failed to protect known nuclear sites in Iraq. By the time these sites were investigated their contents was largely looted and carried off. If weapons of mass destruction was truly the issue, why didn’t we first go in and protect these sites? It is pretty clear that while Saddam was in charge these sites were at least secured and given the enmity between Saddam and al Qaeda there was zero chance that any nuclear materials would fall into the hands of terrorists. But during the anarchy unleashed at the start of the war these sites were quickly pilfered. If I were a terrorist organization I’d be looking for an opportunity like this to easily acquire these materials. It now appears that through bungling the United States may have facilitated a process by which terrorists could easily get their hands on nuclear materials.

This excerpt from today’s Washington Post tracks a WMD team for a week and includes this harrowing account:

On April 10, the day after Hussein’s statue tumbled out of its boots on Firdaus Square in Baghdad, Allison was dispatched to two of Iraq’s most important nuclear sites. One was called the Tuwaitha Yellowcake Storage Facility, where the International Atomic Energy Agency keeps track of tons of natural and partially enriched uranium. Close by stood the forbidding berm walls of the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, where Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 and the United States bombed a Russian-built reactor 10 years later. Between them, the two facilities entombed most of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program.

Just that morning, according to U.S. and U.N. sources, the Vienna-based IAEA had sent an urgent message to Washington. The twin complexes at Tuwaitha, the message said, were “at the top of the list” of nuclear sites requiring protection of U.S. and British forces.

A Marine engineering company had found the sites abandoned a few days earlier. The captain in command reported looters to be roaming the compounds. Allison’s task was to measure the radiation hazard.

“We couldn’t get close because we were receiving too high a dose” of radiation, Allison recalled. But the team found disturbing signs, even from a distance. The door to a major storage building, one of three known jointly as Location C, stood wide open.

Deal’s personal dosimeter warned him to leave the scene, but first he shot a few seconds of videotape, by reaching his hand with the camera around the doorframe. The jerky images showed office debris strewn alongside scores of buried drums. Those drums, and others nearby, were supposed to contain 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium and more than 94 tons of yellowcake, or natural ore.

Looters had plainly been inside. At a minimum, they had exposed themselves and their families to grave health risks. More ominously, they might have taken some nuclear materials with them.

“There were also containers of what looked like medical isotopes on the ground,” Allison said. “We backed off because we didn’t have the capability to deal with radiation that high.”

Before Team 3 could complete its survey, Allison received a “frago” — a fragmentary order — to leave at once. Tuwaitha was at the center of an unresolved dispute between the Bush administration and the IAEA, which monitors compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Bush’s advisers were divided among themselves. Until it had clear instructions, the headquarters for U.S. ground forces in Iraq wanted nothing to do with the site.

Standing under the desert sun with an Iridium satellite telephone at his ear, Allison raised his voice in angry protest at orders to leave the nuclear center unprotected. Eventually his superiors agreed to allow Marines to stay. Allison’s report later that day said that even so “the maneuver commander did not have sufficient forces to secure both sites.”

“I hope somebody has done something,” Allison said, recounting the story some time afterward, “because a lot of that [material] is just laying around.”

Tuwaitha was not Team 3’s last brush with nuclear chaos. On April 24, two weeks later, Allison received orders to survey a warehouse holding the disabled machinery of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program. The Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility was a kind of boneyard for bombed reactor parts, broken vacuum pumps and heat exchangers and gas centrifuges rendered inoperable by U.N. inspectors.

Allison’s assignment was to focus on an underground facility at the site. Whatever U.S. intelligence suspected there, sources in Washington said it was enough to place Ash Shaykhili in 11th place on the priority list of Iraqi weapons sites to be surveyed.

When Team 3 arrived, it found a nightmare unfolding.

The warehouses already had been “completely destroyed by looters, all burned up,” Allison recalled. He saw charred pieces of what looked like equipment for electromagnetic isotope separation. A damaged glove box had been tossed in a scrap metal pile.

And the looters were not finished. Scores of civilians still swarmed the site, wrenching and cutting prizes away and loading them onto wheelbarrows, cars and trucks. They paid almost no attention to Allison’s small team.

“There was no security anywhere to be seen,” the team reported later that day. “Local civilians were in the process of looting and dismantling the facility when the team arrived, and remained during the entire exploitation. Site Survey Team 3 only had adequate security for force protection for team members.”

Seated on a folding canvas chair, recalling the scene in an interview eight days afterward, Allison raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

“If there was something there” to reveal an undeclared Iraqi weapons program, he said, “it was long gone.”

One would hope that such accounts would trigger a congressional investigation. But don’t hold your breath. I guess we just have to wait and see. If terrorists got this material and turn it into a radiological weapon we’ll probably eventually find out, to our sorrow. Whatever material is there appears to be gone, and no one can find it. Before the war it was at least centrally stored and guarded. Now it is scattered about Iraq and it will be dumb luck if none of it ends up in the hands of terrorists.