Goodbye Marie

Not everyone can say they’ve buried three mothers.

Okay, technically I didn’t bury any of them except my real mom. As she was cremated, it meant handing a box of her ashes to a cemetery worker who put them underground. The second “mom” to go was my mother in law in 2012. That should have been the end of it, but in a surprise wedding in 2010 my eighty one year old father married Marie, and suddenly I had a stepmom.

Marie passed away recently at age 89. A year or two back she had a stroke. She was not quite the same since then. I did see her one last time last October. I had a feeling it would be my last visit. She was barely mobile and needed help several times a day to do basic stuff. The stroke made her hard to understand. Mostly she spent her days alone in a one bedroom apartment in Riderwood, a huge retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland.

She went quite quickly in the end. She fell, was diagnosed with a failing heart too old to bother to repair, and spent just two days in Riderwood’s version of a nursing home, the same place my mother died. She was having trouble eating breakfast, was suddenly uncommunicative and a couple of minutes later pronounced dead.

She lived pretty much as long as my father, who died at 89 and a few months in 2016. They had five years of marriage, four of them pretty good before my father’s pulmonary disease became apparent and eventually killed him. Generally stepmothers are quickly forgotten after your parent passes away. Thankfully, our family was the exception. All eight of us made a point to keep Marie in our lives, calling her and visiting her when we were in the D.C. area.

I felt especially blessed because I convinced her to come and visit us in our new Massachusetts digs. She arrived on the Amtrak along with my sister for a weeklong stay. Marie was a good egg, but the spicey kind. Like my dad, she was a dopily devoted Catholic. Unsurprisingly, she first ran into my widower Dad at church. Riderwood has a chapel and a priest comes by on Sundays to perform Mass. It took my father enrolling in a square dancing class at Riderwood for the relationship to bloom in earnest.

The whole having-a-stepmother thing threw me for a loop. I knew my father wasn’t happy as a widower. His five years as a bachelor were awkward and strange. I knew he was chasing a few women. Despite there being few widowers and plenty of widows there, few were interested in remarriage. But that’s how it had to be for my father. He was born to be married. It took time, perseverance and bit of stealth but he managed it.

He flew cross country to introduce Marie to his sister, all on the QT. I had no idea until we learned that he had been hospitalized in Los Angeles with the flu, apparently acquired at 40,000 feet. I remember actually reaming my dad out: how could he do this and not let us know? I guess it wasn’t technically my business, but as my sister and me were the only two local members of the family, we expected to know. But Dad wanted to do some courting his way.

Marie turned out to be a good match, and I believe a better match for him than my mother. Marie was all about family, but sharp and could have an acid tongue at times. No one could roll over her and she would be no one’s patsy. She was also quite conservative, which was very much unlike my dad. She raised ten kids of her own, and helped raise a number of grandchildren. She ended up at Riderwood after her husband died and quickly and happily enmeshed herself in its vast and complex social scene.

Hosting Marie for a week turned out to be easy and fun. We got to know her much better. I walked her around the local park, took her to the local art museum and we all went out for ice cream. Marie, we discovered, was incredibly competitive. Scrabble was her passion. We had a Scrabble board. Not a day went by when we did not play at least one game, and she won most of them.

Once I visited her at Riderwood when my brother Tom was visiting. Tom is also extremely competitive. Watching the two of them play Scrabble was like watching a Jeopardy! championship. The air was thick with tension. The rest of us felt outclassed.

Marie also had a ton of energy, which only slowed a bit in retirement. She was social in ways my father was not. My father was good at glad handing and remembering names, but forgot details. Marie remembered details and the small stuff too, like calling friends just to say hello or sending cards on special occasions.

So I drove to Maryland to attend her funeral. Only three of us on my side of the family eventually made it. Two more wanted to but the logistics got too complicated. Suddenly twelve years later I was amidst her extended family again. I could greet most by name as I had met most of them many times over the years.

We commiserated with them at her wake and sat in the second row at her funeral mass. Afterward, we attended her reception. We helped move some property of my dad’s from her apartment. There were handshakes and hugs with her family, but we all implicitly knew it’s unlikely that we would see each other again. She will eventually be cremated and her remains placed next to her first husband’s in upstate New York.

I grew to love Marie, which is why I made the long drive to be at her funeral. I cried a bit during it, even as it seemed familiar as the soloist and songs sounded likely the same as at my mom and dad’s funerals. She lived a long life and largely on her terms. Life threw a lot at her but she seemed to handle it all with determination, faith and gusto. Adversity seemed to only make her stronger.

Only one relative from my parents’ generation now remain: an aunt who just turned ninety. We visited her some years back. So Marie’s death feels like pretty much the end of a chapter in life. In a way though it was a good kind of grief to experience. I’m a better person for not only having a stepmother in my life, but for having Marie in particular in my life.

A woman of substance

They say that circumstance makes heroes out of many of us. Risking your life to rescue someone who is injured or wounded would frighten many of us, comfortable as we are in the cocoon of our civilian lives. For a soldier in battle rescuing a fellow wounded soldier is just doing your duty. The medals for bravery come afterward.

There are many quiet heroes among us. I would like to introduce you to one you will not find in the history book: my wife’s paternal grandmother, Lillian Savannah Bowden. I will not use her married name, which she carried for most of her life. However, I will honor her by using her maiden name: Bowden. Like a soldier rescuing a comrade in battle, Lillian’s story is remarkable too. At the same time, it was not that remarkable at the time, given the poverty that wrapped up much of America in the midst of the Great Depression and the many lives such extensive poverty warped.

Lillian Savannah Bowden

Here is a picture of Lillian in her prime. Born in 1896, she appears to be a young woman age sixteen or so. I imagine this picture was taken shortly before the start of the First World War. She is strikingly attractive so I have little doubt she had many suitors. If she made a big mistake in her life, it was marrying her husband Robert. Their family, consisting of five daughters and one son, lived a respectable life in Flint, Michigan. Prior to the Great Depression, her husband had a contract with the city to put in sidewalks. When the Great Depression struck, he was out of a job. He ended up drunk and abusive much of the time. In a time when virtually no one got divorced, Lillian and Robert divorced. Robert left Lillian holding the bag, trying to support six children with minimal job skills in the midst of the Great Depression.

Many people in this situation would collapse. Maybe people were made of sterner stuff, or maybe motherly love triumphed all. Regardless, Lillian suddenly had to become the breadwinner as well as play the role of both mother and father. Her solution involved a lot of working from home doing sewing and laundry, which except for sleep meant working virtually all the time at Depression wages. Like many during the Great Depression, she occasionally needed a little charity to get by. She raised her six children, but at best, they were one step ahead of poverty. Despite her extreme circumstances, she raised her children in love. She never remarried.

She realized that her children needed both education and a faith. Flint, Michigan came complete with an Adventist school. It was there that her three youngest children were educated as well as learned a faith. (The other children were already in high school by that time.) One of those children is named Patricia Adelaide. She is the fifth of the six children. The sixth child, the only boy, Robert grew up to be the father to my wife. His sad story is chronicled in this recent entry. While Robert grew up acting out his father’s vices, the rest of the family grew up poor but with good values. The younger children embraced the Adventist faith. Patricia, or Aunt Pat as my wife and I know her, remains a devout Adventist to this day. Much of her career was spent working for the Adventist Church.

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Aunt Pat and her husband Paul, whom we had not seen in more than a dozen years. Now 78, half crippled and with five stints inside her, Pat has clearly seen her better days. Yet the faith she learned in the Adventist school in the 1930s still fills her with joy, certainty and solace. At their house on a reservoir in Pennsylvania, we were pleased to meet four generations of their family, most of whom we had never met. Many of these grown up children came complete with spouses. There were two adopted children in the brood.

I had exchanged emails with Pat and in the process learned more about her family and her mother. The family does not have much in the way of historical pictures of their family, but during our visit, Pat shared what she had. The husband of one of her grandchildren was kind enough to scan these pictures and provide them on disk to us before we left. I have printed a number of them out. Soon the following picture of Lillian Savannah Bowden will be gracing our family portrait gallery.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, as a grandmother

My wife’s father was the exception that proved the rule. There are certainly medical issues in that side of my wife’s family. I know now where my wife’s problems with arthritis and weight come from. Breast cancer also runs in her father’s side of the family. Pat lost a daughter to breast cancer fourteen years ago. Another daughter has had two breasts and part of her colon removed due to cancer. Despite these misfortunes, Pat, her offspring and extended family are a remarkable bunch, at peace with themselves and imbibed in a faith that gives their lives meaning and living prosperous American lives. They are good and kindhearted people. Now I also know (a bit to my surprise) where this side of my wife comes from.

Lillian Savannah Bowden, may she rest in peace, deserves full credit for the remarkable children that she raised. She stood by her six children when circumstance threw the worst at her. Somehow, she filled them with love, faith, spirit, reverence and generosity. Her daughter Pat, many years later, even added a PhD to her name.

Outside of my little entry about her, her life will likely only be a fading memory for the family. She deserves more. So here is my small attempt to immortalize Lillian Savannah Bowden. Lillian was not alone in triumphing over great adversity, but her work was remarkable nonetheless. I wish I had had the pleasure of knowing her. However, in a way I feel I do know her from her remarkable daughter and the four generations we met this weekend.

Lillian, you done good.


Las Vegas attracts many of life’s losers. If people are going to gamble on living then why not die here in this neon filled city that epitomized the extremes of American living? In 1998, my wife’s father, a man who I never met, died indigent and homeless here in Las Vegas.

His death was suspected for many years but for a long time could not be confirmed. He had a habit of disappearing for a few years then reappearing. When he reappeared, it was usually not a joyful experience. Generally, he was petitioning his siblings for two things: money and shelter. He must have been something of a smooth talker because over many years he talked them out of thousands of dollars. They wanted to believe in his rehabilitation. He promoted cockamamie business schemes involving their money, all of which eventually failed. At about this time that he crept out of town.

Around the year 2000 after many years of no one hearing from Bob, one of my wife’s aunts entered his name into the Social Security Death Index. When his name and social security number came up positive, some basic facts about his death were gleaned. Date of death: September 14th, 1998. Age: 67.

Earlier this year I happened to speak to one of his sisters, my wife’s Aunt Pat. I informed her that her brother had died. She expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. However, she did take the time to get a copy of the death certificate, and she sent me a copy.

The death certificate filled in a few holes about his last days. He died at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a town just outside of Las Vegas. His place of residence did not list a street address, but Searchlight, Nevada was listed on the death certificate. Searchlight is a town of about 500 people an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. There is not much in Searchlight, but it is the birthplace of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Bob must have died indigent because the Clark County Social Services Department was listed on the death certificate where his parents’ names would normally be. The certificate showed he was never married but here too the facts were incorrect. He was married to my mother in law for many years. In addition, he sired not only my wife but also my brother in law. He died of “end stage cardiac and pulmonary failure”. In other words, his heart stopped, but he was likely suffering from some form of congestive heart failure. He was reputedly quite obese as well as an alcoholic.

Among his entire family, including his former wife (my mother in law) there has been a noted absence of curiosity about Bob. When I broached the subject with them, what I usually heard was that he was just a bad man. The less said about him the better. Yet I found myself wanting to know more about Bob. For better or for worse he help shaped the woman I married.

My wife essentially grew up without a father. In the first six years of her life, her father did live in the household. However, he was not the nurturing type. My wife does not remember much about him in part because she was so young. What she does remember is not flattering. He was loud. He and her mother argued a lot. Perhaps that is how she acquired her introversion. Perhaps it was safer to be alone in a room reading a book than to deal with the ugly reality of two parents yelling at each other.

By early grade school, her mother and father were divorced. Her mother had custody, but her father had informal visitation rights. Her father’s idea of daughter-father time was to take her to bars to meet his friends. Since her brother was nearly ten years older than she was, she spent much of her formative years living with only her mother. There was no June Cleaver mother waiting for her after school with milk and cookies; she had to work. In the mid 1960s, she was the only child of divorce in her entire class and felt its stigma.

Trying to know her father so many years later is a challenge. Bob apparently was loud. He argued a lot in front of the children. At times, he had trouble maintaining a job. He was obsessed with his son excelling in sports, but not enough to bother to attend any of his games. My mother in law claims that he never physically abused her, but her son remembers differently. He recalls one episode when he was so angry that he put his fist through a wall. For a day or two, my wife was an innocent six-year-old girl embroiled in a nasty marital dispute. Her father essentially abducted her for a few days. Her brother, then sixteen at the time, threatened to kill their father if he ever showed up in their lives again. Apparently, he took his threat seriously and disappeared. He reappeared only to sympathetic siblings that hoped for his rehabilitation.

I had this image of Bob as fat, a drunkard, coarse and abusive. However, a discussion about Bob with my mother in law this week (we were in Phoenix, Arizona) portrays a somewhat different man. He did not always drink to excess, but when he drove a beer truck, he had more opportunities to imbibe, so that may have started his addiction. That and perhaps his loveless marriage seemed to tip the balance toward dysfunction. I imagined him running around with other women but that was not the case. He wanted to desperately to save their marriage. My mother in law wanted it to end because she was not in love with him. Much of his emotional abuse was manifested as reckless attempts to keep their marriage together. He had a hard time coping with the reality that there was no way he could win back her love. Moreover, my mother in law was doing quite well in the workplace by the standards of Flint, Michigan. She could provide for her children on her own income. She was eventually able to purchase her own home and even furnish is with brand new furniture. As she entered her teens, my wife had a home in the suburbs at last with her own bedroom and supportive neighbors. My mother in law made the best life she could for her daughter.

Nor was Bob a bad provider. He managed to stay employed in decent blue-collar jobs throughout his marriage. It appears that the divorce and his messy abduction of my wife triggered a long descent. He lived in Denver for a while, close to one of his sisters. I have heard that he probably had adult diabetes. He may have lost a leg because of his drinking. He sounds like a man who was probably clinically depressed for much of his life. Like most people born in the 1930s, he chain-smoked.

Talking with Aunt Pat I learned something of his family of birth. He was raised in a poor North Carolina household. The family eventually moved to California. He grew up in a family full of marital strife and high drama. Perhaps I assumed he was a philanderer because he had the opportunity to learn it from his father. His father and mother eventually divorced. Bob became the family’s black sheep. Aunt Pat was pulled toward the other extreme. She embraced religion. Now in her early eighties she remains a devout Adventist who despite her background managed to add a PhD to her name. Pat also sponsored my wife for several months when she moved to the Washington area. Were it not for Pat’s loving heart, I would never have met my wife.

Only my mother in law offers a different perspective of Bob from the other stories I heard. He was a good provider when they were married to each other. He only actually hit her once, and he just pushed her. She was not physically injured. She just did not love him. She wanted to be free of him. In particular, she wanted to follow her infatuation with the man who was her boss.

It appears that their divorce instigated Bob’s long, slow and painful downhill spiral. Eventually he ended up homeless in Searchlight, Nevada. He ended up sick but made it to a hospital in Henderson, Nevada. He died there ignobly and most likely alone. With no one to claim his body, the Clark County Social Services Department took up the slack. They paid for his cremation. His remains are now deep in a county crypt somewhere in here in Las Vegas. They can be released to the family if sufficient documentation is provided and for a $200 fee.

While I am forwarding these details to Aunt Pat, I doubt anyone will claim his remains. No one mourned his passing. In fact, everyone seems glad to know that he has exited this world. With Bob gone, their lives became just a little less stressful too.

We arrived in Las Vegas today, where my wife and daughter will attend a convention. I was going to try to track them down along with any records maintained by the county that may exist. However, after a couple phone calls I know not to bother. There is no place to go to see what is left of my father in law. There is no county crypt with his name on it that I can photograph. They will not even release his records, not even to family. It is prohibited by HIPAA regulations. There is a possibility that I could retrieve his hospital records, if a local probate court grants the writ, but it is unlikely it would shed much information about the last years of his life.

Therefore, I fill in what I can with sketchy information, anecdotes and a certain amount of reasonable conjecture. I should be angry with my father in law too. I should be angry at his abduction of his own daughter. I should be angry at how he used her, a vulnerable child, as a pawn in a larger personal war. Nevertheless, I am also now aware that in many ways Bob was acting out the behavior he witnessed inside his own dysfunctional family.

I do not know how long Clark County in Nevada will hold his remains. They will likely not stay in county custody forever. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in a hundred, Bob’s remains, like the many of indigent homeless men and women who have the misfortune of dying out here in the desert, will be unceremoniously dumped into a county landfill. After all, there are plenty of new desperate and homeless people in Las Vegas. Others wandering the streets here tonight are doomed to also share his fate.

Everyone just wants to forget about Bob. Perhaps I should too. Perhaps instead of keeping his death certificate, I should throw it out with the garbage. “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,” the poet John Donne once wrote. My Unitarian Universalist values call me to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every human being including less than stellar humans like my wife’s father.

It is nice to know that Bob was not entirely a bad man. Most likely, he was just a lost man, who never knew love and consequently did not know how to show it. It is good to know that he loved my mother in law in his own inept way, even if she did not feel the same way. It is good to know that even though he never paid child support, he helped support his family for a number of years. It is also sad and a bit pathetic that his life devolved the way it did.

This leaves only me, lamenting only not knowing the man who sired the woman I love. I wish I could have a conversation or two with him and hear about life from his perspective. It may be that after such a conversation, like his son, I would want to kill him. Instead, I feel an unrequited mild curiosity. It might be the hardest thing I would ever do, but if he were alive here in front of me, I would try to give him a hug. Somehow, I do not think he ever received one.

There is just a cardboard urn of his ashes somewhere here in the Clark County crypt. There they are likely to remain forever unclaimed.

Bah! Humbug!

I hope none of my relatives is reading this.

Well, okay, I do not mind if my immediate family is reading this. I make this assumption with every blog entry, even though I suspect only one or two of them bother to check out this blog on even a semi regular basis. I do not diss my siblings and father. I love them in all their uniqueness, brilliance and quirkiness. No, I mean I hope that all those other relatives out there are not reading this. You know, the ones who are tangentially family but you hardly ever go out of your way to meet. In other words, the kind to whom you feel obligated to send Christmas cards.

Our stack of sixty or so Christmas cards went out in today’s mail. In most of them was our obligatory Christmas newsletter. In years past, we attempted to write little notes in each of them. Those days are gone. The list has gotten too large. So to those friends from yesterday that we rarely visit along with the numerous aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and in laws out there, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but we really do not care about you or your life. However, we feel just enough attached to you through a blood, a legal relationship or a distant past association to send you our Christmas newsletter anyhow. It assuages the feeling of guilt that we have essentially abandoned you from our lives.

We do not write you. Moreover, you do not write us either. We both seem to like it that way. There was a time when email was new, we garnered your email address, and you got ours. We traded a couple emails. Then we both discovered that we really had nothing to say to each other. Maybe it was not quite that. We had things to say, we just could not be bothered to take the time to actually write them down to you personally. Since that time, you have disappeared from our email address list. We still have, however, your snail mail address. As long as we get a card from you, we feel obligated to send one back. We are strange that way.

This means that you will get our holiday newsletter. We will nest it inside our funny but by now expected and somewhat irreverent holiday card. (Of course, we think a card with a cartoon on the card of Santa’s butt crack on it is funny, and so should you.) If we are really organized, which we have not been for about a decade now, we will have had a family picture taken in November and enclose a recent snapshot too. Those days are gone. They are not going to happen again.

However, I do have this blog. Most likely in some previous newsletter along with putting our email address in it, I put the URL to my blog. Perhaps one or two of my relatives took the time to read it. Nevertheless, I bet they did not bookmark it. Leave me a comment if you did. Just as I really do not want to know the intimate little details of your life by reading your blog (which you probably do not have) you do not want to know mine. Not that Occam’s Razor is really a personal blog. It has delusions of grandeur. Regardless, I do not really matter to you so my blog does not matter to you. Unless you are a lot like me, it will not tickle your fancy.

There was a time when our expectations around Christmas were much higher. There were years when we sent presents to our many nieces and nephews. (My siblings were smart enough to know I would not bother to give them anything, since they do not send me anything.) Gradually the nieces and nephews grew old enough where we stopped buying them presents too. We had no idea what they needed and only got clues from pestering their parents. Thank goodness, that phase is behind us.

Yet certain holiday traditions remain sacrosanct. I do not know why we still feel this burden of sending out holiday cards. Our newsletters are dumbed down and happied up too, just like the ones we get. I do not want to hear about their prostate exams so I will not tell them about mine. They do not want to know how much we spend on therapists the last year either. So it is “distill a year into 400 words or less” and keep it rather generic and upbeat. This year was an exception. With an event like my mother’s death there was no way I could not mention it. Next year it will be back to all happy talk.

Of course, if we cared about our distant relations we would probably visit them. Most of them are in Arizona, which is where my wife’s side of the family is located. We were there in 2000 and only went out because my mother in law had come to visit us the year before. We felt guilty about not visiting more often. Since 2000, we have not received any guilt rays from Arizona, perhaps because our presence meant so little the last time. Therefore, we remain happily nested on the east coast, more than a little grateful there are 2500 miles between us.

They are fading away into increasingly distant memories. They are also aging. Little nieces and nephews that were at one time bouncing on our laps or playing with Transformers on the bedroom floors are graduating college. Aunts and in-laws are suffering from the affects of being sixty or seventy something. I find it hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my own mind. Just who is my brother in law married to now? Should I care?

In fact, I do not. These distant relations are consequences of marriage. They are important only in the sense that my wife feels some love or obligation to them. My relationships with them have been largely superficial. If I heard tomorrow that they were run over by a bus, I would not even shed a tear.

Yet somehow, they warrant a holiday card. Others that I spend a whole lot more time with will probably get nothing. I will likely forget to send holiday greetings to the people I work with. My many numerous electronic friends might get an electronic card (very appropriate) if I remember. I probably will not send them any because there are many other holiday activities on my checklist. This year, like every year, they will fall into the second tier that I will not get around to accomplishing. I still have major holiday tasks like buying presents for my own family. Although the holiday lights now adorn parts of our exterior, other time consuming tasks like setting up and decorating the Christmas tree remain to be done. They come with deadlines and firm sanctions for missing them.

I tell myself when it comes to the holidays that I am something of a traditionalist. I do take some pleasure in these holiday traditions. However, I am also a bit put out by them. It is nice to have the house decorated, presents under the tree and freshly baking cookies in the oven. Yet it remains a lot of work. Perhaps I do them out of habit, or of guilt.

I can tell that once our daughter is an adult I will get the pressure from my wife to just skip Christmas altogether. For whatever reason, she does not associate Christmas with pleasurable feelings. Perhaps she has repressed childhood memories of her father saying hurtful things to her. On the other hand, perhaps she remembers many years of meager presents under the tree. For me, the holidays are beginning to feel like a record played one too many times. They are losing their luster.

Perhaps someday, I will celebrate the holidays the way that they are supposed to be celebrated in theory, but so rarely are. Perhaps I will spend them feeding the homeless, helping run a soup kitchen, or visiting old folks in nursing homes. Then perhaps like Charlie Brown I will feel the true spirit of the holidays again.

For now, the psychological pressure to conform to these de facto holiday traditions is too large. However because I care, but also for pragmatic tax reasons, I will make sure some of my favorite charities get sizeable donations before January 1st. It is easier than volunteering.

Inheriting the baggage too

For those who are wondering, my mother’s funeral was quite lovely. While it would not be accurate to say everyone had a good time, it went about as good as a funeral could go. The music was lovely and touching. The priest gave a simple but heartfelt sermon that hit all the right notes. After the funeral mass, many stayed for the eulogies. Most of us children had words to say publicly; you may have read mine already. Tears were shed, but the tears were as much from laughter as of sorrow. When we remembered my mother’s little eccentricities, we could not help but laugh. Afterwards we repaired to one of the restaurants in Riderwood for a nice luncheon reception. My Mom must have been disappointed that she had not prepared the food.

My friend Courtney attended and saw my family at its full size for the first time. She remarked how much my family looks alike. She is right. You would be hard pressed to find any family where the siblings looked so much the same. Perhaps it was her remark that had me watching my own family, small though it may be. Before the service, my wife and daughter largely sat by themselves on a bench. There were plenty of people to talk to, but they preferred to stay quiet and silent rather than seek out conversation. I found myself greeting arrivals at the door to the chapel. I am learning to be gregarious, but it does not come naturally. Part of me wanted to be sitting on the bench with them.

The patter continued during the luncheon after the service. My nieces were at a table together laughing and sharing memories. And there was my wife and daughter, at a table by themselves. I joined them, but eventually mingled. This was, after all, family. Many I had not seen in years. The time I have with them is precious because we are so geographically separated. Why would I want to distance myself from them, particularly at such a turning point in our lives? Why would my wife and daughter? It is not as if they have not had plenty of time over the years with my side of the family and feel comfortable with everyone.

One thing is for sure: neither my wife nor I are extraverts. We tend to prefer the pleasure of a good book to a social gathering. If I must engage socially, I prefer small groups of people that I know. Still, there was a time when my daughter was popular. From ages 6-9, she was definitely the popular girl on the block. She was our amazing social butterfly. Girls were constantly knocking on our door, streaming into her bedroom or wanting them to come to their house. She was the nexus of a complex social, preteen network. It seemed more normal to send her to a sleepover on a weekend then not. She changed, but I do not know why. Now my daughter seems more like a cloistered nun than a social butterfly. Yes, she does have her friends, principally the “losers” (social outcasts) at school. Mostly they share her ambiguous sexual feelings and aversion to all things trendy. However, it is a small group of genuinely good teens. They meet irregularly in person. Most of their conversations are on IM, not in person.

Having twenty family members in the house for the wake was a bit much for her. She said a few polite words and then scurried out of sight into her room. The door remained closed until they were gone. Like her mother and I she likes to write. Still, it seemed more than a bit odd that she would disappear like this. She does this quite often. This girl, once so popular and the block extrovert, has morphed into the block introvert.

What happened? I am sure there were many factors. She had friends who got weird on her. They experimented tragically with drugs and sex, things that were not her scene. Yet on another level, I think she was also just modeling her parents. It is unfair to say we never host parties, but the last real party in our house was in 1999. My wife and I do attend parties once or twice a year. Yet invariably we don’t stay too long. Usually an hour or so before anyone else is even thinking of leaving my wife is tugging at my sleeve: let’s go. It usually does not take much persuading for me to leave either. Especially if it is a large group of people I do not know I find myself fumble mouthed and fumble footed. Somehow, I missed the class on successful social navigation. Few things terrify me more than having to go to a party full of strangers then have to make casual conversation. Therefore, I generally avoid it. Give me home. Give me peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I am starting to come out. It may be a modest midlife renaissance, but it is a start. My new job has its social aspects. I have learned to swim in it. I do this a lot on business trips. I am usually with a group of 8-12 people. We spend the day in meetings and the evenings at restaurants. Most of these people I now know a bit more than casually. I do not find it too burdensome. In fact, I am finding it kind of fun. It used to be that as soon as business was over I was anxious to run to my hotel room. Now half the time I find I want the conversation to linger. Perhaps that is a good sign.

However, most likely my engrained habit toward introversion will never wholly recede. It is too comfortable. Likely one of the reasons I fell in love with my wife was that she was a shy introvert like me. There would be no need to worry about having to fend for myself in big parties if I married her! Now I am starting to understand that my daughter has modeled our behavior. I do not think that she intended to model us, but she did nonetheless. Just like Mom and Dad, her most comfortable times seem to be in her room, alone.

If it were just her introversion, perhaps this would be no more than coincidence. She is currently half way through her teenage years. What I am now seeing is more like a perfect meld of my wife and myself, rather than the free and independent spirit I had hoped to raise. I find it spooky sometimes. Neither my wife nor I were first in line in the dating business. Maybe we had self-image problems, or we carried from childhood a latent shyness. While I wanted to be dating but seemed to lack the courage, my daughter explicitly chooses to shy away from intimate relationships. Perhaps it comes from witnessing some of her friends self-destruct in these relationships. In addition, I think that she picked up that this was an area of tenderness in her parents, so she was supposed to model it.

I am beginning to perceive something that should have been blazingly obvious. While children are not intellectually sophisticated, they are excellent readers of other people. Perhaps since they learn to talk through learning to read emotions, they become very adept at understanding people’s body languages and the complex subtext to daily living. Most of this emotional intelligence I think is buried in their subconscious, so they are not explicitly aware of it. Since we parents are a constant presence in their lives, we model a version of reality that for them, after a while, seems entirely natural. It is more than religion that our children pick up from us parents. It seems to be pretty much everything. Even in areas where our children seem to be a contrast to their parents, it appears that (in my daughter’s case) it is picked to deliberately highlight the contrast.

My shyness is her shyness. My self-image problems are also hers. My feelings of toxic shame she also seems to carry forward in her life. And it goes on and on.

Perhaps all this comes from genetics. I am skeptical about this line of reasoning. Had foster parents raised her, I suspect she would have modeled them, instead of us. I do not know whether to be flattered or to be upset. Overall, I probably lean more toward the upset side. I raised her to be an independent thinker: so why is she as a liberal as I am? If she has to inherit attributes of me, why could she not pick just my good attributes and not the bad ones? Why would I want traits like my feelings of guilt to be carried over to another generation?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently to change any of it? I really do not know. Perhaps if I had been less a presence in her life, she might have turned into someone quite different. Instead, I played the dutiful and loving father role. I am sure it has many positive aspects. Somehow, my lesser aspects came along for the ride, as did my wife’s.

On the plus side, my daughter inherits our creative instincts and strong intelligence. These characteristics will serve her well in the future. She will have to work through a few issues though. I suspect my self-esteem is higher than my wife’s is. Which will she carry into adulthood? My wife is much more the bookworm than I am. Will she pick up my wife’s love of literature and always have a book in her hands? On the other hand, will she be like dear old Dad, read newspapers, and skim the media for content? Does it matter?

Time will tell. She is rapidly moving toward adulthood. Nevertheless, I do not think what my daughter went through is at all unique. I strongly suspect her friends are engaging in similar and mostly largely unconscious behavior emulation of their parents too. As I ponder my own mother’s death and try to understand the gifts she left me, I also realize some baggage came with her gifts. I hope that when my turn comes to leave this planet I will have left her with more gifts than baggage.


Business travel has its ups and downs. The location may change but the script does not change much. In my case, I spend my days in meeting rooms. My lunches and evenings are spent hanging out with the same people with whom I am meeting. Not surprisingly over time, I learn much more about the people I am traveling with than I expected. Familiarity and much conversation yield intimate insights into someone you would never otherwise have. Perhaps the mere fact that we see each other so rarely yields a safe space where we feel freer to disclose intimate facts about ourselves.

Because I have not done a great job of it, I tend to admire people who overcome great adversity. Hearing how they surmounted their problems puts my own personal challenges in perspective. I have occasionally written an intimate entry or two about other people’s personal hells that I have stumbled across during my life’s journey. This story involves a woman with two daughters. Her husband was an alcoholic, deeply depressed and very suicidal. As you might expect his behavior was deeply toxic. Her two daughters were deeply affected by their father’s behaviors. I was not surprised to learn that as a result both her girls developed suicidal feelings too. The job of straightening out this situation fell squarely on her lap because no one else would deal with it.

As a result, she and her husband are now separated, likely forever. Her husband as well as her daughters are now in a much better space. Her husband is no longer suicidal but because his behavior was so toxic, she will not allow him to live with the girls again. Both girls have been in therapy. They are currently enmeshed in their chaotic and hormone laden teenage years. However, they both still have suicidal impulses from time to time. To cope she has spent years working part time to make sure she was around for her daughters when she was needed. Much of her free time is involved not just in making sure they successfully navigate through middle and high schools, but tending to their complex physical, emotional and mental needs. In short, she is a mother in the best sense of the world dealing adroitly with a complex situation for which she had no training.

I can relate. Mental health issues are out of the closet these days. I have had to deal with mental health issues in my family too, and I was often clueless about what to do in these circumstances too. I felt like I was probably the least capable person on the planet to deal with them. Fortunately, no one in my family has ever seriously considered suicide, let alone tried to act on them. This was fortunate for all of us because dealing with their issues I found extremely challenging. The effort largely consumed me. I was barely keeping up with their issues as they came forward.

Perhaps, like this woman, had my family had suicidal issues I too would have risen to the occasion. I like to think so. The reality for me was that hanging in there during challenging years exacted a heavy personal toll. At one point, I became depressed too. I had many days when I felt like I could just not deal with it for yet another day. Thoughts of escape became omnipresent. It no longer sounded so bad to be married to a Stepford wife. Humans tend to be such complex and multifaceted creatures. Moreover, each person that I knew intimately seemed to be a Pandora’s box of complex problems. I coped with by projecting a calm demeanor and a lot of bravado. On the inside, I was eaten up by these problems. Underlying it all was a heaping dose of guilt. I had promised in my marriage vows to support my wife. As a father, I was legally and morally bound to care for my daughter too.

The reality is that those with mental illnesses rarely recover completely. Fortunately, my family and I are in a better mental and emotional state now. I take some pride in hanging in there for them when they needed me. I hope my doggedness resulted in their recoveries. Seeing your intimates in a better space becomes the only reward. No one comes by to award medals for personal valor or to place a gold star on your forehead.

Therefore, I coped, as did the woman with whom I am traveling. There is one crucial difference between us though. She is resilient. While I hung in there because I had to, my life flirted with mental and physical exhaustion. She hung in there too but like a thoroughbred, she seems not quite so winded or exhausted by her experiences as I was by mine. And this makes me wonder where this inner strength comes from. It also makes me one of her secret admirers.

If you have seen pictures of the Dalia Lama, the spiritual head of Buddhism, you can get some idea of what it is like to see someone wholly at peace with themselves. The cares and concerns of the world buffet them too. Yet, the Dalia Lama is filled with a sense of peace, happiness and inner serenity that is unmistakable. The same is true with this woman. Her fundamental nature has not changed. She radiates an inner contentment and a serene joy in simply being alive. Life has both changed her yet somehow left her fundamentally the same. She exudes serenity, an inner personal happiness and a joy of living that is intoxicating. Being around her you cannot help but feel in the presence of a wholly positive spirit. Her smiles are genuinely beatific.

I wonder about the wellspring for this uncorrupted joy of life. Wherever it comes from, I need to drink from that well.

New Thinking Needed on Child Support

A comment left on my Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality entry a couple weeks ago got me thinking. Our child support laws and procedures need a major overhaul. They are not working very well.

Scofflaws aside, pretty much all of us would agree that those who choose to have sex that results in a birth should pay for the child’s expenses until their child reaches adulthood. Unfortunately, as the commenter pointed out, things in the child rearing business are rarely simple. It is as easy for a woman to get pregnant through a one-night stand with a man whose name she might not even know as it is to become pregnant by her husband. For some men, thirty seconds between a woman’s thighs may be all it takes to cause another human being to come into existence. In some cases (gang rapes come to mind) it may be impossible to identify the father.

It is very clear that a child should do better on two parents’ income than on one. No question about it: in these United States, it takes a heap of money to raise a child to be a productive member of society. I have one daughter, now age 16. For most of her life, I have been tracking her expenses. Anything I spend on her directly goes into a “Childcare” category in Quicken. To date the total of her expenses is about $50,000. This does not include a variety of investments for her college education. By the time college is finally behind her, the total of her expenses is likely to exceed $150,000. Moreover, these are just the direct costs. I did not include food, shelter, movies, transportation and hosts of other miscellaneous costs.

Luckily, my wife and I are solidly in the upper middle class. I am not sure how I would have provided for her if, say, I had been a minimum wage worker trying to eke out a living working at a Wal-Mart. The current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is clearly far below the poverty line. (For reasons wholly ideological, Congress does not seem inclined to increase it.) Mere subsistence, let alone child support payments, is problematical for parents earning these wages. The situation is likely not much better at $10 or $15 an hour.

Undoubtedly, there are enormous numbers of deadbeat dads out there. (Likely, there are deadbeat moms too, but they are probably the exception.) Some, like my wife’s father, simply disappeared after the divorce. He never sent my mother in law any child support payments. She effectively raised my wife by herself, which was daunting since she scraped by from one poorly paid job to the next. My wife’s childhood was full of the unwelcome memories of moving frequently from one rented place to another.

Had there been regular child support coming in then her situation should have been quite different. It is hard to say how it would be different, but it is likely she would have had more continuity in her life. She might have had access to some of enriching experiences that were beyond their means, like piano lessons. Fortunately, her mother was resourceful and made the best of a bad situation. She should have done much worse than she did. Needless to say her mother had no money saved for her to go to college. While she was bright enough to get a college scholarship, she never learned the discipline needed to succeed in a real collegiate environment. I am proud to say that she eventually succeeded, just many years later. She was a working adult and mother when, at age 39, she proudly received her bachelor’s degree.

The government does recognize the seriousness of the problem. In my last job, I worked tangentially with the Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. OCSE had the job to assist the states with tracking down deadbeat parents. By comparing withholding forms submitted by employers with the social security database there was the expectation that the government could find these people and get them to pay up.

Despite this, for a scofflaw parent, the odds are only one in five (in 1996) that they will be tracked down and pony up the money. If they are tracked down, it is easy enough for the deadbeat parent move to another state. A national ID card would certainly help, but the idea is anathema to many civil libertarians. Even a national ID card is no guarantee, as many jobs (such as day laborers) pay cash wages.

Fortunately, there are still social programs out there that provide basic aid to needy children. However, since welfare reform became law, assistance has become limited in both amount and duration. The CHIPS program helps children who get the health care that they need. All this government aid, while helpful, still does not address the larger needs of children. Subsidized housing is difficult to acquire and seems to be something that Republicans want to abolish. Day care costs shouldered by working mothers make it difficult for them to also pay the rent, let alone put food on their tables. Our assumption is that working mothers, with some temporary help, will develop the wherewithal to provide for their children. The burden is on them to pressure child support enforcement agencies to find deadbeat fathers.

What more can be done? While everyone seems to want taxes to be as low as possible, I do not think it should be at the expense of our children. If deadbeat parents cannot be found or cannot pay child support, then the government needs to step in and make the payments in lieu of the deadbeat parent. That is not to say that the deadbeat parent should get off the hook. It does mean that no child should be put at a financial disadvantage because of an absentee parent. The government should keep ledger under the deadbeat parent’s name for these payments. The government, when it finds these absentee parents, should press for the collection of back due child support. Tax refunds are already garnished for child support, and wages are garnished too if the parent can be identified. However, other sources of income for the deadbeat parent should also be fair game.

Of course, you cannot get blood out of a stone. If the father simply does not have the money to pay his child support, then the amount may need to eventually be excused. Another possibility is that the government should weigh the costs of helping the parent acquire better paying job skills. If the deadbeat parents had better job skills, perhaps the child support payments could eventually be collected.

Mothers also need to understand that they too bear responsibility. While most assume the parenting duties, which are quite burdensome, they also have a responsibility to behave responsibly in their sex lives. It may sound impractical, but they should have the names and address of anyone they have sex with, not just in case of pregnancy, but in case they contract a sexually transmitted disease. Women who habitually do not do these things must understand the consequences. Perhaps they should be required to use Norplant birth control until they are legally married, or can prove they can financially take care of an additional child.

The bottom line is that the child must be financially insulated from the reality of a deadbeat parent. Society needs to rewrite its rules so that the needs of the child come first. We owe our children nothing less.

Seize the day

For those of you wondering about my dying mother, she is still alive and unfortunately she is not improving. I do my best to visit her once a week. I try to visit on Saturdays around lunchtime. This usually works best for my schedule. I arrive about forty-five minutes before lunch. By this time, her long morning nap is over and she is often reasonably coherent. This gives me a chance to talk to her for a bit before lunch. Lunch is served promptly at noon in the dining room, so I make a point to have her there on time. She can no longer feed herself, so I feed her. I can tell she resents my help but she also accepts that this is the way things are. As miserable as she feels she is not yet ready to check out of this life.

I have to check myself when I feed her. I find myself unconsciously opening my mouth, as I did with my daughter as an infant when I fed her. It would be insulting to say, “Open up the barn door and let the horsies in.” Yet the words want to form on my lips. Forkfuls of food go lackadaisically into her mouth. She chews but swallowing is increasingly difficult. It can lead to coughing fits. This is just one of the effects of her disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. There is this, along with her difficulty in moving her eyes from straight ahead. Focusing is also difficult for her. At this point, her muscles are atrophied. A couple months ago, she could usually sit up on the side of the bed by herself. Now this is beyond her. Her one remaining act of self-care was to brush her teeth. Now this is becoming impossible for her too. I gave her an electric toothbrush and had to turn it on for her; she does not have the agility to press its on button. She can no longer seem to reach beyond her front teeth. Therefore, I do most of the work. She may be dying, but I will not let my mother suffer the indignity of dirty teeth and bad breath. She would not want this either.

Now she must be carried to and from her bed, dragging a catheter bag with her. She can still move her arms and legs a bit. Nevertheless, you can tell she is still overwhelmingly frustrated. The only good part of her dying process is that she spends much of her life asleep or dozing. I woke her up last Saturday about 11:15 a.m. I put her to bed for her nap at 1:15 p.m. She was more than ready for sleep.

I do not know how typical her dying process is. I get the feeling that hers is a lot more benign than most. She can still think clearly. Her speech is often soft or garbled but she can tell us how she feels. She is not like the sixty something woman with Alzheimer’s endlessly walking up and down the halls calling out, “Mother? Where are you mother?” Nor is she like the woman who sits next to her in the dining room, who had a stroke, who grunts instead of talks, and can only use the left side of her body. Nor as best I can tell, is she in any pain, other than perhaps mental anguish. My father visits her twice a day but this is not enough for her. She hates it when he leaves. She feels abandoned and unloved. She does not understand why she cannot go and live in their apartment. She believes we could take care of her there. If she cannot have full use of her limbs, she at least wants the dignity of dying in her own bed in her own home. Why can we not give her at least this?

Maybe at the very end of life that will be possible. If we were certain she had a week or two left perhaps nurses or loved ones could be there with her around the clock. Not yet. Perhaps in time she could go to a hospice. At least in a hospice she could get more of the focused attention that she wants. For she can no longer play card games. She cannot focus on the television. She cannot read a book. There is just the frustration of an active mind trapped in a body that mostly refuses to respond.

When I can pull myself away from her situation, I can observe the dying process as it actually is rather than in the abstract. It is not quite what I expected. Although she has only been in the nursing home about four months, it seems inordinately long to me. I do not know how much longer she has. Typically, it takes one to two years before this disease kills. Her kind of dying seems to be like death from a thousand small cuts. Each time I see her she is slightly for the worse. It is hard to know which one will cause the final collapse of her fragile system. Nevertheless, with certainty one of them will cause her death.

Last week I brought pictures of my wedding to share with her. It did help cheer her up a bit. She liked looking at pictures of herself when she was still so young and vigorous. She was 65 when I was married but looked closer to 45. With each picture was a story and a memory. One picture was of my wife’s grandmother. She passed away about five years after our wedding. “Everyone dies in time,” my mother said sadly, yet in a matter of fact way.

To the dying and to those who love the dying, death is not fair. Dying is a slow motion horror movie that is not make believe. Its certainty and finality are both inescapable and crushing. It is also, at some point, simply accepted. I think that is where my mother is now. That is also to some degree where I am too. There are few things in life that are absolutely certain. Death is one of them. Death will consume us all in time. Whether we devolve into nothingness or, like chrysalides, are transformed into another form of being, no one can say with certainty. Nevertheless, death is final. No matter what divides us from each other, dying is our one common experience.

Through much of my twenties, thirties, and even into my forties my mortality stalked me. I had no answer for it other than to try to ignore it. That was futile. It was like trying to ignore an axe murderer you know is outside your door. However, through observing my mother’s dying process I now find an odd sort of catharsis. Seeing the reality of what will happen to me in time (although my exact experience will likely be different), I am no longer quite so afraid of age, dying and death as I used to be. Now, for some reason, I feel an odd sort of peace with my mortality.

In a way, though I still in midlife, I feel almost reborn. It took neither a savior nor a holy book to make me feel this way. I just had to grapple first hand with my fear. Now dying is not so mysterious. I do not like to see my mother this way, of course. I feel sad and frustrated for her too. I feel more than a bit helpless that I cannot do more for her. Now dying is not an unknown. It is tangible. It feels like silly putty. I can shape somewhat to my own ends, though it always remains the same stuff.

Death is hard to look at but is no longer quite the horror movie of my worst imagination. It was not Freddy Kruger outside my door. It is more like an old, miserable, hungry and abandoned dog wailing out its misery. It turns out, for me, that the way toward acceptance is to open the door and pet the dog. While I cannot make the dog happy, I can give it some comfort. I can hold it to my bosom and I can experience its pain. Moreover, maybe if I shed a tear then my sympathy will turn into empathy. Then maybe I have brought some form of solace to the dying during this distressing time, and some comfort for myself too.

Now I feel what I heard in so many words but could not emotionally grasp. Life is finite. So squeeze. Squeeze every drop of vitality out of this limited mystery we call life. Live life fully so you can leave it with as few regrets as possible. As Gandalf (the wizard from The Lord of the Rings books and movies) put it, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

Seize the day.

Better Living through Unemployment

My wife has been out of a job since the end of October 2004. When she was fully employed she worked on a help desk, solved mysterious Windows problems and made around $50K a year. Then her employer decided to outsource her department. She got a very nice severance check and was let go.

Fortunately there was my income to fall back on. Since I made about twice what she was making there was no looming financial catastrophe. The last six months have proven that our lifestyle has not changed much. We’ve avoided a regular trip to New York City and we also eat out a bit less. But otherwise our lifestyle seems largely unchanged. Still, it seems counterintuitive to me that our income could be cut by a third and we’d not notice it that much.

It helps to be fairly liquid. We have never been people to live beyond our means. Our house is modest. We have two cars, one paid for, the other half paid for. Our only other real debt is our mortgage. Since our house was purchased twelve years ago for less than half what it is now worth, and the principle is about $130,000 or so, our mortgage payment is easily doable. It’s about what most people pay for decent two bedroom apartments in our zip code today.

And technically my wife is not unemployed. She is now “self employed”. She is very self employed. This is to say she picks up a few greenbacks here and there fixing and building computers for friends and for clients. She does not market herself. She will also teach a class at a local community college starting next month. Adjunct teaching pays slave wages. From the 12-week course she will likely bring home about $1300. I expect that by the end of the year she will have earned at most one tenth of what she made in 2004.

Whatever time she has left over is hers to use as she wishes. She is having no problem keeping busy. She loves writing and now has the time to immerse herself into it. She has submitted one story and will be submitting others. She also critiques others stories in an online writer’s workshop. She occasionally meets friends for lunch. She has projects around the house she can pick up or leave as whim dictates. And she can sleep in late most mornings. She is not a morning person, so she now usually crawls into bed sometime after midnight when I have been asleep for a few hours. Her unemployment seems ideally timed. For example she was able to transport my father for some outpatient surgery while I worked a full day. She can also transport our daughter to her various activities without me leaving early from work to do it, which was often the case in the past.

While I am still a bit skittish about how this loss of income will work out in the long run, I am a lot less skittish than I was. One reason is that I’ve discovered that living on one income can pay a dividend. Last year with our dual incomes, even after healthy deductions and credits, we paid close to $19,000 in federal income taxes. This year I project we’ll pay about $8300 in federal income taxes. The change in our job situations caused me to look at my withholding. At my old withholding rate (Married – 0 dependents) I was withholding about $13,800 annually from my wages. Now I need to withhold $5500 less. Since I am paid biweekly this effectively means I can take home $211 more every two weeks. This can pay a few bills. But we’re already paying all the bills, still going out to dinner regularly and not going in the hole. So in a way this money feels like a windfall.

I realize that most families in this situation would not be as fortunate. My job also comes with good benefits, like health insurance. I also realize that there are some other costs to my wife’s unemployment. She is not racking up social security credits, and must pay the employer’s portion of her Social Security and Medicare taxes for her meager self-employment earnings. She is not putting money into a 401-K, so those potential earnings will not be accruing in the future. Since we are doing fine perhaps the best use of the extra $211 a pay period be to put the money into an IRA.

Still, our situation seems counterintuitive to me. Until recently living on one income was out of the question. It seems odd that we can reduce our income by a third and feel so little pain. This was simply not an option before. Unemployment for any sustained period of time would have meant major changes in our lifestyle. We would have been looking for the next job the day we knew our job was ending. My steadily advancing career explains part of our good fortune. Part of it is also explained by not living beyond our means. But part of it is also due to our progressive income tax system.

Our tax system is often maligned but now it is a blessing. The flat rate tax favored by some people would have worked to our disadvantage. Instead we paid proportionately more as we made more income. The flip side is we pay proportionately less when we earn less. If you ask me this is a very sweet system. Each according to his means may strike some as socialism, but to me it seems eminently fair. I didn’t begrudge the $19,000 we paid in income tax last year. I felt fortunate that we were in a position where we could contribute so bountifully to the commonwealth and still live so expansively. Of course since we were doing so well we should be asked to contribute more toward the cost of society’s upkeep.

At 45 my wife is probably too young to retire permanently. But it seems like if she wanted to take the rest of her life off from the grind of a 9-5 job she could. I just hope that I don’t find myself on the receiving end of a pink slip before I retire.

Obesity: A Modern American Value

Obesity is becoming as American as apple pie. This should not surprise us. Have you looked at how many calories are consumed in a slice of apple pie? To use one of the more egregious but ready examples: McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie has 250 calories, including 34 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of fat. And remember, the apple pie is dessert. It comes after the meal. The Big Mac has 560 calories and 30 grams of fat. Their large French fries: 520 calories and 25 grams of fat. That medium chocolate shake: 580 calories and 14 grams of fat. So there you have it: a typical fast food lunch at our most patronized fast food restaurant has 1910 calories and 80 grams of fat. If you are a woman who is 5’5″ tall, weighs 130 pounds, is 25 years old and who exercises lightly you have just consumed all but 13 of the calories you need for the day. If you are a guy, same age, six feet tall, 175 pounds you can consume 703 more calories later in the day and not gain weight. And let’s not even get into the percent of calories from fat.

To help us out the USDA has come out with a revised pyramid that is supposed to guide the average American on their dietary choices. New for 2005 is the notion that you should incorporate exercise into your daily life. In fact the new improved pyramid calls for at least thirty minutes a day of moderate or vigorous physical activity. So, if you follow their guidelines will this keep you from getting fat? Not necessarily. Buried in the fine print is this interesting statement:

About 60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity may be needed to prevent weight gain. For those who have lost weight, at least 60 to 90 minutes a day may be needed to maintain the weight loss. At the same time, calorie needs should not be exceeded. Children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day, or most days.

What wonderful advice. But difficult to follow. Because the reality is that our society conspires to keep us physically inactive and obese. To me it’s a wonder we are not all Fat Alberts. Reading between the lines in this culture unless you have developed and sustained habits by eating healthy and exercising all your life, you are basically screwed. You are going to be overweight. If you succeed in taking off the pounds from your sedentary lifestyle you will still have to exercise moderately for 60-90 minutes a day to keep it off. Forever.

It’s certainly not impossible to get this amount of exercise a day, but it is impractical for most of us. It’s kind of like saying that you could spend 60-90 minutes a day fishing. Consider the typical dual income parents with two children. They are likely up before dawn getting the children ready and out the door. Then they are off in their car to work to spend another exciting day sitting at a desk, vigorously challenging their keyboard with aggressive calorie intensive finger strokes while cursing energetically at their monitors. Most likely they don’t have a health club at work so they can’t go for a mid afternoon jog. And even if they had the time, which they don’t, they have to rush home to pick up the kids before the day care center closes. Once home they then have to make a family dinner, help the children with their homework and take care of the numerous other odd chores that consume their day.

So working parent, what’s it going to be? Your family or your health? Choose one of the two because unless you can survive on a few hours sleep or have an iron will you must choose. Naturally we choose family values. And so we gain weight. And if we’re lucky we steal a couple hours on the odd day off or on the weekend for some exercise. This is family values in action in modern America. Survival of the fittest means you must survive by being unfit.

Of course we want to eat right but since we’re not exercising and our life often feels scripted we find it easier to succumb to temptation. We need something positive to happen during our days. Food is cheap, readily available and extremely convenient. We’re running late and the Wendy’s is right on the corner. So just this once (although it is the third time this week) we’ll do the drive through for dinner. A couple days a week some well meaning but evil employee will bring donuts into the office. We can’t resist. All that fat and sugar sure tastes good and it is more interesting than our boring, sedentary work. Email is easier to read with the taste of sugar in our mouths.

Why are we gaining weight? It’s because unless we are childless, work outdoors, or have a beneficent employer who doesn’t mind two hour lunches so we can get to the health club it is virtually impossible for the average willed human being to consistently make the time to get the exercise needed.

I look at my own habits and realize I still don’t get enough exercise. I bike to and from work, about three miles each way, when weather permits. I frequently climb four flights of stairs to my office in the morning. But this is only forty minutes of vigorous exercise a day. It’s not enough. I need more. I should be doing this and another half hour or so working out on the elliptical machine when I get home from work. And I should be doing vigorous exercise on the weekends too. When time and weather permit I take off on long bike rides or long walks but time doesn’t often permit. To truly get the exercise I need I should give up one of my other activities, like adjunct teaching or blogging.

If we want Americans to be fit and healthy we need is a culture that supports these choices. Instead we have just the opposite. We have employers who want us to work lots of unpaid overtime because it’s good for their bottom line. We have families that require two incomes in order to maintain the standard of living we knew growing up. We have advertising everywhere and much of it encourages us to eat exactly what we don’t need. And if the advertising were not enough it’s virtually impossible to travel down any major thoroughfare without encountering multiple fast food restaurants on both sides of the block. We can’t get affordable housing near our jobs so we end up letting our cars push us where we need to go. As compensation for the 90-minute hellish commute we sip our Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffee from the Starbucks drive through on our way to work (460 calories, 60 grams of fat).

Because only supermen have the willpower to consistently endure the new recommended USDA lifestyle we get fat. The rest of us are just human. But we feel the guilt anyway. The guilt makes us feel bad. Since we’re already doomed, why not eat something else? There seems nothing else to do but surrender to the reality and stifle our anxieties with inactivity and more food. With our bellies full of the Papa John’s pizza that we picked up because we had to work late again, all the energy we can muster in the evening is to sink into the La-Z-Boy and tune out our feelings of shame. Let’s watch Survivor and see who will get thrown off the island today.