Separation anxiety

Our dining room is stacked with purchases and things encased in plastic. Our truck rental reservation is made, although it’s unclear to me whether an actual truck will be available on Monday. With so many college students moving into dorms and apartments, rental trucks are in short supply. We have purchased most of the items needed for our daughter to move to Richmond, Virginia and emptied our bank account in the process. The university’s checklist still has some unchecked spots. The whole application process at Virginia Commonwealth University is confusing and convoluted, meaning that only yesterday was our daughter able to sign up for classes. Because of the incessant delays, most of the classes that she wanted were already filled. She has no appointed adviser yet to guide her, and all the orientation slots are now full. She could call the undergraduate advisor for her department, but this involves her waking up before the sun goes down, something she is loathe to do. In short, procrastination on both her part and on her university’s part is costing time, money and opportunity. It is making this nervous father fret.

Procrastination drives me nuts, which is why I feel like I live my life in constant turmoil. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter are both chronic procrastinators. My wife can quite easily enter into a mindless mode where time, space and pressing deadlines disappear for hours at a time. When she emerges, I often get a predictable, “My goodness! I lost track of time again! I meant to do X, Y and Z.” I cannot complain since she was this way when I married her, but I was sort of hoping my daughter would not pick up her habit. Alas, she has, although I was pleased that she took initiative on a few things in her life recently, like arranging with her doctor for the shots she needed to be admitted.  (Naturally, it happened at the very last moment.)

None of this should be a big deal since she will be twenty-one next month. Yet despite two years of community college, she still is challenged by logistics and life’s complexity in general. Perhaps I contributed to it through a process of learned dependence. Perhaps she needed to fail at things a few more times than she did. Instead, her left brained dad did a lot of her organizational thinking (and nagging) for her, with my wife adding her nervous worries periodically as well.

This all should change on Monday when we pack most of our daughter’s stuff along with a new bed, desk, printer, sheets and much of her other random detritus and move them (along, hopefully, with her) to a townhouse a couple blocks from VCU. She will wall off and inhabit much of the living room, while two young men will inhabit the upstairs bedrooms. All are quiet types. One of the young men is essentially a hermit, emerging only to go to classes. I suspect that she will fit in well with them, once she gets accustomed to her new urban abode. While lately her focus has been more on World of Warcraft than university, an event in her life this seismic is finally achieving a grudging priority. For the first time since she was about three years old she will sleep regularly somewhere else. Like it or not, life is changing for her.

It will be changing for my wife and me as well. The truth is that emptying the nest is both liberating and scary for all involved. I have been doing the parenting thing for two decades and it is now second nature to me. Come Tuesday morning, only silence will come from her bedroom. Our cat Arthur is likely to be puzzled and eventually pissed. When we are out, our daughter provides him with reliable amusement, at least when she is awake. In time, Arthur will likely half forget Rosie, and he will be more in our faces.

Some part of me will be glad for one less occupant in the house and the additional privacy. Some eighty percent of the reason things get disorderly in my house will suddenly disappear. Some other part of me will be concerned that something dreadful could be happening to our daughter. She has a cell phone but she is sporadic about carrying it around or keeping it charged. In addition, she will be two hours away. She could disappear and we might not be able to find her. It will be challenging not to call or text her just to see if she is okay. Since she is not mindful of things like cell phones, unanswered calls or text, contacting her may just cause unnecessary anxiety. Perhaps I need to adopt a policy of not trying. Even if I can resist temptation to call her up, I doubt that my wife can. It’s going to take a couple weeks before we relax.

Our daughter will likely go through similar feelings. Except for her new housemate, whom she met only once and the undergraduate advisor I introduced her to, she doesn’t know a soul in Richmond. As she is introverted by nature, it will probably prove challenging to make new friends. At first, she will probably feel lonely. I know I felt that way when I started at college. Fortunately, I got a very compatible roommate so it did not last long.

I am betting that her loneliness phase won’t last too long. Instead, it will soon be, Living here is a heck of a lot better than at home! There is no need to drive five miles or more to be anywhere of interest. Instead, walk a few blocks or less and community surrounds you: age twenty something people, most of them reasonably intelligent, with all the temptations and richness of a university around her.

I expect we will see her on some weekends, perhaps every weekend. Once I had a car, I tended to come home every other weekend. It worked out great. One weekend to enjoy the city as a single man, then one weekend home with family where my laundry was mysteriously was cleaned and all this wonderful and tasty food was plentiful and freely available. I found that institutional food (and later my own cooking) could only be ingested for so long before my body rebelled. My guess is that once our daughter finds a small group of friends she will be away more than at home on the weekends. Once our anxiety is lessened, we may think about her absence less and less too. At some point, it will seem normal.

On Monday, we have to get sweaty, pack her up, haul her stuff 120 miles south and then leave her in a strange city. Our bodies will course with a mixture of feelings. She will be back home for extended semester breaks and following graduation she will probably want to move back in full time. Nevertheless, she will also have had the experience of living apart from parents. Except for paying for that part of her life, I suspect she is going to like it, even if it means she has to wash her own dishes and bus her own table.

In the end, so likely will we.

Needed: a Department of Managed Growth

Freedom, bumper stickers often inform us, is not free. Freedom is not free but stupidity can be very expensive. For example, the Congressional Budget Office is suggesting that the eventual cost our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be end up costing taxpayers $2.4 trillion dollars. That is quite a bill to future taxpayers (since of course we will not increase taxes) for unnecessarily invading Iraq. The lesson of the Vietnam War should have informed us that our war would be folly. However, we let our paranoia and patriotism override our common sense. Speaking for future taxpayers: ouch!

Life tends to teach us useful personal lessons. It only takes one episode of being locked out of your home to always remember to bring your house key. However, collectively we often seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was repeating your mistakes expecting different results. Apparently, we prefer collective insanity. More than a thousand homes in Southern California were burned to the ground this week because of a fires fueled by a persistent drought and Santa Ana winds. Most likely, all these houses will be rebuilt where they used to stand, not with fireproof materials, but with combustible materials. Given that the geography of Southern California is unlikely to change, there are good odds that these same homes will be burned to the ground again. I would not be surprised if some of these thousand homes had been rebuilt once before because of previous fires. Logic would suggest that we require that houses built in these areas be fire resistant and have vegetation free buffers. Most likely, these houses will be rebuilt with little thought to future consequences. Moreover, to increase their houses’ sales values most homeowners will ensure they are landscaped with nice combustible trees and bushes.

Not as much in New Orleans itself, but certainly along much of the path of Hurricane Katrina, homes and businesses are being rebuilt. Here too the lure of those sandy beaches and warm climates seems to be overriding our common sense. Perhaps their building standards will be tightened a bit. Yet should another hurricane of Katrina’s size hit this area again it is likely that most of these homes and buildings will again be destroyed. Logic would dictate that if homes are to be rebuilt they should be rebuilt at least thirty miles inland, beyond the storm surge and the most dangerous winds. However, we insist on our freedom to live where we want, no matter how stupid and preventable our decision is.

Georgia and Alabama are suffering from record drought. As noted in a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Lake Lanier in Georgia, which feeds the water supply of three states, is disappearing. Atlanta has less than three months of water reserves. Have any of these inconvenient truths done anything to taper home construction around Atlanta? Not a chance!

The greater Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas are growing at phenomenal rates. Both cities are supporting populations far in excess of their natural water supply. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River is so over-tapped that in many months of the year it dries up before it hits the Pacific Ocean. Phoenix gets its public water from a hundreds mile long aqueduct. Consequently, much of Southwestern America is dependent on a water supply from a single source, which is already often over-utilized. Yet housing construction in these cities continues at a feverish pace.

Here in the Washington metropolitan area more and more housing goes up in ever more distant exurbs, none of which is accessible to public transportation. Should we have another oil embargo, or if we simply cannot afford to pay the jacked up prices for our petroleum-based lifestyle these communities will be financially wrecked. These communities are also going up with little thought about whether the electrical grid will be able to support all this new demand.

If freedom isn’t free, perhaps we should acknowledge that we are not paying the true costs of our recklessness. Currently we largely depend on state and local governments to sort out growth issues. In many cases, these governments are not really managing growth. Instead, they are reacting to it. Population growth seems unstoppable. People have to live somewhere. It is easier for government officials to acquiesce.

The United States urgently needs a new Department of Managed Growth. If we have to grow to support our burgeoning population then we should at least grow intelligently. We need clear standards that must be met before an area can be developed. What is the likelihood of a hurricane hitting a given portion of the coastline? How should this inform housing construction in these areas? Which areas of the country have plentiful and redundant public water supplies? For those that do not, how do we ensure they get the water they need from elsewhere? Perhaps we should offer incentives for growth to occur where the resources can meet the growth. Perhaps we need disincentives, if not outright prohibitions on growth occurring in areas where the water supply is in jeopardy.

Perhaps we need development penalties. Right now if you build in a hurricane-prone area, you may not be able to get private flood insurance, but you can get federal flood insurance. Maybe we need to stop extending federal flood insurance to new homes, or perhaps just get rid of the program altogether. The government should not be subsidizing the cost of making obviously stupid personal choices. For example, if you want to build that house on the Gulf shore, it should only be allowed if you can self-insure your property.

With growth comes concern about the availability of fresh water. In many areas, there are not enough rivers and lakes to provide water for public use. How much ground water is available in a given area? At what rate can it be tapped so that it is sustainable? Here my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, can help. In addition to its renowned work in the area of earthquakes, an even bigger portion of it (the part that I work for) measures and monitors the nation’s surface water, ground water and water quality. The system I manage has much of this information available free to the public. The USGS Climate Response Network compares levels in wells with historical averages. This information can inform land use planners. From my perspective (and I am speaking for myself, not in any official capacity) this is an un-sexy area that needs much more funding. I hope the government decides to move ahead with a water census for the nation. Sending humans to Mars may be a worthwhile endeavor, but arguably making sure we have aligned our public water supplies with our population is far more important.

This nation will thrive in the 21st century by applying intelligence to our inevitable growth. It is how we will stay ahead of other national like China. While overall we do a better job of managing growth than most nations, we are also far behind more enlightened countries like those in the European Union. This has given the EU a strong competitive advantage. The economic consequences and personal pain due to natural events, much of it preventable, simply wastes our resources and works to our competitive disadvantage.

To effect real change we need to change. We need new laws that recognize that the effects of population growth and global warming must be managed holistically. Unfortunately for Republicans, these sorts of issues cannot be wholly sorted out at the state and local levels. They require national and in some cases international management. That is why other efforts I am tangentially involved in, like systems of systems being developed to monitor the world’s oceans, are critical not just for our nation, but for the world.

First things first. We need to rethink how growth is managed in this country. Yes, it will tick off many people with short-term mindsets and dollar signs in their eyes. For our nation’s future, and for the benefit of future generations who will suffer due to our short-term thinking, we must manage growth much more intelligently.

The Price of Growth

Here in Northern Virginia, residents on its western edge are in a bit of a tizzy. These areas in Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with counties even further to the west hugging the Shenandoah Mountains, are Washington D.C.’s latest and fastest growing bedroom communities. Uppity blue-blooded towns like Middleburg, home to wineries, the well moneyed and fox hunting, who have taken the Virginia piedmont for granted are feeling the press of encroaching civilization. To their south, new bedroom communities like Gainesville are growing by leaps and bounds. For the moment, this land is relatively cheap. This means many of these pastoral areas are now sporting boxy McMansions instead of foxholes. Most of these residents take pride in their new homes and their unspoiled views. You can see the Shenandoah Mountain much more clearly from places like Warrenton and Gainesville than you can from where I live, in Fairfax County.

Along with growth of course come all the trappings of growth: strip malls, congested highways, overcrowded schools and power lines. The strip malls do not seem to bother these latest residents. No doubt, they grumble about the crowded schools. Those who commute regularly from these far-flung exurbs to Washington D.C. have to groan through nightmarish commutes that get them up long before dawn and deposit them home long after the dinner hour. However, it seems to be a price they are willing to pay for a relatively affordable home in the exurbs, the white picket fence and to not hear neighbors playing rock music at 2 a.m. In time, they expect their houses will become excellent investments, as my closer in house has become for me in the 13 years we have lived in closer-in Fairfax County. Nevertheless, there appears to be one adjustment they cannot tolerate: new fifteen story power lines courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power and Pennsylvania based Alleghany Power.

The Virginia Piedmont is without question gorgeous real estate. At least for now it consists of many miles of generally rolling hills, mostly deforested, which make a gradual incline as they approach the Shenandoah Mountains to the west. Perhaps it is the relative lack of trees in this part of Virginia that has these new residents so up in alarm. Without them, it is hard to obscure the ugliness of these new power lines set to run through their neighborhoods. Some are watching their hopes for a tidy fortune disappear with the power lines.

She bought her 100-acre Delaplane farm last year, when it was an overgrown slice of land anchored by a rundown old farmhouse just off Interstate 66. She plowed all her savings into it. To pay down her $1 million mortgage and build up her horse business, she planned to sell a five-acre chunk within a couple of years.

Then came what her neighbors have come to regard as “the black cloud.”

“I’m probably sunk by this,” said Eaton, 45, seated by the wood stove she uses to heat the farmhouse. “No one will buy that land if some ugly power line could run right over their house. I’m broken off at the knees.”

I am having a hard time summoning much sympathy for these property owners. That is not to say that I too would not be aghast if Virginia Power decided to put up fifteen story power lines in my neighborhood. However, that was never a problem. My community was settled before I bought my house. In fact, there are high voltage power lines about half a mile from my house. There is many a nice house as well as a McMansion close to these power lines too. I have not taken the time to assess their value compared to homes like mine that are further away, but I doubt those high tension power lines have affected their property values too much. At least here in Fairfax County, it is location, location, location. If you live in Fairfax County, you are within twenty miles of an incredible number of diverse and well paying jobs. Residents seem to agree: being closer to good schools and good jobs is worth the price of having a high power line as a next-door neighbor.

On the other hand, what are the people in these latest exurbs thinking? Did they think growth would not involve some messy choices? Virginia and Alleghany Power understand what is going on: these areas are growing like gangbusters. Eventually they will not be able to meet demand for electricity unless they build the infrastructure now to support these communities. Hence the need for fifteen story power lines. The only question is where to place them. For the most part, they are hoping to place them not too far from I-66, which is the major interstate heading west from Washington D.C. This seems reasonable to me. I-66 is a bit of an eyesore as an interstate anyhow. It would be hard to make things much worse by putting a power line next to it, unless, of course, you have property close to these power lines.

Most homeowners in these areas will make out very well. I expect their home values will rise steadily. The land may no longer be so pristine. They may be spending their days in new traffic jams far from the city. Nevertheless, more swatches of Virginia piedmont seemed doomed to succumb to humanity’s need for large living spaces.

While people have to live somewhere, in my mind the obscenity are not plans to put in these admittedly ugly power lines. The real obscenity is the way these pristine lands are being transformed into new oversized habitats for humanity. These newly traffic-clogged roads once ferried the likes of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of building in closer to cities like Washington, which already have large tracks of land that could be redeveloped, we have to push out further, destroying our environment, further reducing space needed for wild animals and exacerbating global warming in the process.

I understand why these people choose to live where they live. If I were a twenty something again it would probably seem like a logical choice to me. I probably could not afford to live closer in. However, I do not think I would be so naïve as to think my choice would not be without some necessary tradeoffs. Fifteen story power lines are part of the price of growth. These NIMBYies may be upset now, particularly if their property values are affected. Nevertheless, you can bet they would be much more upset if ten years from now their house suffered regular brownouts because the supply of power could not keep up with the demand.

They should swallow their misgiving and applaud Virginia and Alleghany Power for being proactive. If they do not like it, it is not too late to sell their estates in the exurbs, and move in to some smaller and more modest estate closer in. I suspect Mother Nature would prefer it if they made that kind of choice.

A Rant: Our Supersized Nation

When did we decide to become a supersized nation? Whom do I blame? I could perhaps begin with Ronald Reagan. Reagan made us believe that being an American was all about thinking and living large. He told us that it was okay to get obscenely wealthy; indeed it was a virtue. He was our Gordon Gekko: greed is good. And he said as much in such a convincing aw shucks Boy Scout sort of way that it was impossible not to believe him. In the 80s we began to think big again. Enough was okay but suggested you weren’t really trying. More was better. A lot more was fabulous!

But I can also blame Bill Clinton. Bill never met a millionaire or billionaire he didn’t like. During his tenure Americans reaped the rewards of being the world’s only superpower. Our 401Ks bulged with inflated stock values. Our home values went through the roof too. We leveraged our housing prices to trade up to larger houses. We used those low interest rates to buy bigger and better cars. It was during the Clinton years that the sports utility vehicle craze took hold in this country. It was during the Clinton years that a single-family house with a one-car garage on a modest lot became simply insufficient. For those with the resources an opulent estate surrounded by acres of ranch or forest became our dream house. For the rest of us we settled for boxy McMansions on postage stamp lots. Three or four bedroom houses were out. Why not six, or eight even? Why not have a deck that wraps around the house? Two-car garage? Why stop at two? Why not demand a three or even four car garage? Hey, you only live once baby! You and your wife and your 2.2 kids may not need all that space, but buy it anyhow! This was the time to live the American dream!

As for food: to heck with normal portions. Normal portions were for wusses. It’s not enough to buy a hamburger anymore. Go for the double cheeseburger instead, or the triple burger with the sesame seed bun. Forget the regular fries. For forty cents more you can supersize them! Let’s make the new fast food standard to get as many calories in one sitting as we used to consume in a whole day — all for five bucks or less. And let’s add a whole lot more salt, fat and cholesterol to the meal too! Supersize that Coke while you’re at it! Have two hot apples pies, not one.

Not surprisingly our waistlines expanded. Because all the lots were taken in town, our McMansions naturally were built out in the exurbia. So walking to work or even to the grocery store was out of the question. We’d better hop into our SUV and drag the 12-mpg behemoth a dozen miles to our local Costco. There we supersized our pantries with mega-sized cases of detergent and frozen hamburger patties by the gross.

Whatever happened to David Thoreau’s simple life? Are you a little bit mad to want the simple life in modern America?

I must be a little bit mad. But first I will confess that as a former townhouse brat I was glad to go single family when I finally had the option. I was tired of the teen next door sitting on my car hood to smoke his cigarettes. I did not enjoy his loud bass-centric music, particularly when I was trying to sleep. My mental health improved markedly when we moved into our house.

Our house, as houses go, is fairly modest. The garage fits only one car. It has three bedrooms, but only two of any consequence since the third is small enough that it was turned into a TV room. We have a guest bedroom in the basement that doesn’t really count since it is mostly below ground. There are only three of us though and it is big enough. Our lot is a third of an acre and way more than I really want to manage. We’ve been in the house ten years. Only now have we completed giving everything a first coat of paint. In short it’s too much already and I want to downsize my life.

I wonder about people who own McMansions. I wonder primarily why they do it. Maybe they are masochists. Or maybe they like spending every free moment keeping the house up. Maybe they don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to put furniture in all those empty rooms. I can spend a day just picking up and vacuuming in my modest house. I would think you would either need to be a full time housekeeper or hire a couple cleaning ladies to come by once a week to keep these houses presentable. When do they find the time to relax on that screen in deck with a mint julep?

And why is at least one SUV a compulsory item in the driveway? It’s not like there are any mountains with gravel roads that must be traversed on a daily basis around here. As best I can tell the primary purpose for an SUV in my neighborhood is to take the kid to Taekwando or to get through the drive-thru pharmacy lane. Most of these families are not large extended Mormon families. They are a mother, father and two kids. A Camry sedan would have been a much more sensible choice. Why did they supersize their car?

Are they mindful of the effects of their lifestyle choices on the rest of the world? Or do they simply not care if they drive something that spews twice the toxins into the environment as my modest sedan? I guess to them it’s not that big a deal. When the summer ozone levels become unhealthy they aren’t affected. They live their lives indoors anyhow. They can drive right into their three-car garage. No need to exercise outdoors either — get on the treadmill in the basement instead.

No point in thinking about the costs of our lifestyle choices on others or even on ourselves. Live for the moment baby! Those who die with the most toys win! Hey, if we tear down another forest to put up more McMansions and shopping centers, well, that’s just the price of progress! And we’re doing God’s will. Because the preacher tells us it’s right there in Genesis: God gave us the Earth to shape as we see fit. God is saying: it’s all right to supersize your life! Go for it!

Still, how quaint: those seven deadly sins proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the Sixth Century: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are all American virtues now baby! Let’s put the Bible back on the shelf. We paid lip service to it anyhow. We don’t need it anymore. We have a new American religion. It’s called Capitalism. Adam Smith is our new God and Ronald Reagan was his only begotten son.

We will live well and die well. We will fill up our lives with possessions. Our credit cards may be maxed out but our net worth will continue to soar. Let us stay focused on our lifestyle. If we get a twinge of remorse from time to time let us pay some therapists and pop antidepressants instead. Let us never, ever dwell on just how meaningless it all is.