It takes a rich, greedy capitalist to grind the poor into the dust, right? Certainly over the years many have done a very good job of that. Our recent viewing of the documentary, Queen Victoria's Empire, drove home the disastrous consequences of both imperialism in Africa and the Industrial Revolution back home in Britain.
However, the same video also revealed the devastation that can be wrought by someone with good intentions, even against his will (e.g. David Livingstone), and especially when combined with the above-mentioned greed (e.g. Cecil Rhodes).
Which brings me to the point. I cannot count the hours and hours of struggle Porter has put into getting us health insurance in these post-retirement times. Without a doubt, I am personally grateful for the choices the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) offers us, as much as I philosophically fear its negative consequences. Some of those negative consequences are personal, too: e.g. the colonoscopies that had been covered by our insurance in the past no longer qualify for coverage because of new rules instituted by the ACA. And we can't afford to get sick until after the end of January, because the "helpful" phone contact assigned us the wrong Primary Care Provider, and the fix won't go into effect till February 1. However, I admit to no longer hoping for repeal of the ACA, because the damage has been done. Too many people, including us, are now dependent on it. I doubt we can put the genie back in the bottle.
While I freely acknowledge that the passage of the ACA had at its heart noble ideals and good intentions, I'm not convinced it's really helping the poor, or at least not as much as it's helping people who get rich off the needs of the poor. Porter, being retired, has the time to put into navigating the complex and exceedingly frustrating waters. He also has a degree in economics and a mind well-suited to financial calculations. Which convinces me that the truly impoverished will (1) throw up their hands and settle for a much less than optimal health care plan, or (2) fall prey to those who would profit from doing the paperwork for them, while charging inordinate fees and still coming up with a less than optimal plan.
Nonetheless, the purpose of this post is neither to start a political discussion nor to depress you. It's to honor my husband, for whom Sunday's Animal Crackers comic could have been created:
No doubt about it: I married the right man.
Leon? Who or what is Leon?
Leon was my boss a few eons ago, back at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He was a good boss, but one thing about him frustrated me. Day after day I'd work steadily, creating algorithms and developing computer programs for our laboratory. To all appearances, this did not impress him; it was simply what he was paying me to do. What made him light up with pleasure and praise, however, was when I'd take the extra time to create a computer display related to my work. Although I learned to produce these displays periodically, mostly to please him, it drove me crazy that I was being recognized for the "flash," and not for the bulk of the work, the more important work, that was behind it. However much he might have trusted me to do good work (he chose to hire me, after all), he also needed the occasional, tangible reminder that I was worthy of his trust. As it turned out, so did I.
Fast forward to every homemaker's frustration, every mother's least favorite question: What do you do all day? We know how long and how hard we work, and how critically important our labors are. All too often, however, the people we meet at parties, our friends in paid employment, and even those closest to us seem sincerely puzzled as to why our jobs take up so much time. That is frustrating to no end, but in fact it's true of most professions. No one from the outside can truly appreciate what it takes to do another's job, particularly since the hallmark of the best in a profession is the ability to make the work look easy.
I've discovered over time that Leon was not alone in his need for tangible measures of the value of our work. Maybe there's no purpose in sharing the details with people we meet at parties, but bosses, co-workers, spouses, fellow-strugglers, and even (no, especially) we ourselves need occasional reassurance that we are making progress. We are all Leon.
Why, then, do some of us find it so difficult to provide measurable documentation of our work? I've come up with a few suggestions, based on my own experience and on what I've learned from others.
- It takes time away from more important work. Who needs to add yet another camel-straw to the crushing burden of work undone versus sand slipping through the hourglass? As I learned in the computer biz, however, documentation is essential, however much it feels like a waste of precious time. Without documentation, others can't step in when we have to step back. What's more, putting what we do into words brings clarity to our own vision. If we don't know something well enough to explain it, we don't know it well enough.
- We don't like to make our work public until it's in final form. This is perfectionism, and Don Aslett would not approve. In fact, he insists that telling others about our work while it's still in progress is a good way to get help. It's also a good way to get kibitzers and critics, however.
- Our goals have long paths and far horizons. How do you quantify a happy child? A valued relationship? Growth and development? How can we help people appreciate our work without making their eyes glaze over? A journalist can point on a regular basis to articles published, a doctor to patients cured, and a trash collector to clean streets, but in many professions success, when it comes, is preceded by thousands of failed experiments, research lines that didn't pan out, apparently fruitless counseling sessions, and draft pages ripped from typewriters, crumpled and tossed away. It's all part of the process, but not conducive to marking milestones and erecting ebenezers ("hither by Thy help I'm come"). The employed can at least point to a paycheck, but unpaid work lacks even that.
- We're not "announcers" by nature. Some people like to chat about all the details of their lives, no matter how intimate or trivial. These are good people to have around, as they take the greater share of the conversation burden. But some of us don't see the point of such loquaciousness, or are simply uncomfortable with the idea. This is another good reason for developing a documentation strategy: we take control over what and how we share.
- We want to be trusted with our own work. We are not employees, and don't like the feeling that we are being supervised. As it turns out, however, this is not as significant a factor as I had once thought. We're not employees? Well, the self-employed have the hardest taskmaster of all, one who knows best all our weaknesses, struggles and failures. That boss needs the comfort of tangible markers more than anyone.
In light of these meditations, I've developed The Leon Project. Call it a New Year's resolution if you wish. I have hundreds of ongoing projects in various stages of completion, including not-yet-started and not-in-this-lifetime (genealogy is never finished!). This year I'm making an effort to document where I am, what I'm doing, and where I want to go, with hopes of developing a better road map, complete with milestones to which I can look back and say, "thus far have I come."
A large part of this effort will involve partnering with my sister-in-law in her "101 Things in 1001 Days" project. I have approximately two and a half years until my 65th birthday, which falls a bit short of 1001 days, so I'm calling my version, "95 by 65." (That will become a link when I publish its own post.) She started her project last year, but has graciously adjusted her schedule so that we both will finish on my 65th birthday. We are hoping that by doing our projects together we can encourage each other to keep going and reach our goals—which range from the trivial to the highly ambitious.
I've created two new post categories, The Leon Project and 95 by 65, in expectation of keeping some of the anticipated documentation here. I look forward to the adventure with both enthusiasm and trepidation.
Aside: This is not the first Leon Project post I have written. A few days ago the first one was nearly ready to post, but somehow overnight the bulk of the long essay disappeared. (Note to self: never assume that something you thought you saved actually succeeded in that process.) It took a while before I got to the point of being able to rewrite, and of course the two are quite different. Which is better we'll never know. This one, at least, has made it to the finish line.
But pleasantly so. After all, it's a sunny 39 degrees. In contrast, my weather stickers report the following:
- Downingtown, PA: 7 degrees
- Emmen, Switzerland: 8 degrees (6 hours later in the day)
- Granby, CT: 1 degree
- Old Saybrook, CT: 1 degree
- Salem, CT: 1 degree
and the winner is...
- Hillsboro, NH: -10 degrees!
I hope you all had a very merry Christmas. Ours began with a live cello carol concert and included the opportunity to serve Christmas dinner at the community kitchen where my nephew volunteers. Although the church was packed, there were actually more hands than work to do, so after a while Porter and I found ourselves part of the entertainment: singing Christmas carols for an appreciative audience. That was great fun, though pehaps a litte too much of a workout for my throat. Now we're enjoying the peace and rest of a Christmas evening at home.
But on to the business at hand.
I may have to amend this if I finish another book before the end of the year, but since I made my 52-book goal and have lots of other things going on this week, I'm going to go ahead and publish my 2014 reading list post now.
It's amazing that I can read at a pace of a book a week and still make so little progress on the shelves and shelves of unread books lining our walls. Some are gifts, some are books I bought because they looked promising, and most are from the many boxes of books I brought here when my father moved out of his large home into a small apartment. All of the books are ones I want to read, eventually. But a book a week is only 52 books read in a year, and what with all the new (to me) interesting books that come to my attention, plus books that are so good I want to reread them on a regular basis, the "unread" stack is growing rather than diminishing. Yet I keep on keeping on.
One particular feature of 2014 was the beginning of my determination to read all of the books written by Scottish author George MacDonald, in chronological order of their publication. This is an ongoing project, as there are nearly 50 books on that list. I didn't make this decision until April, which resulted in my reading a one of the books twice—once early in the year, and once when it came up in its chronological ranking. I have no problem with that.
I own beautiful hardcover copies of all these books, a wonderful gift from my father, collected over many years. I would prefer to be reading them book-in-hand, with my family all reading around me, enjoying a toasty fire in the fireplace or cool back-porch breezes. But in reality, this year I have read most of the MacDonald books on my Kindle (or the Kindle app on my phone), in spare minutes snatched here and there from a busy life, or in the few minutes between crawling into bed and falling asleep. George MacDonald's books are public domain and thus free on the Kindle, and are very good material with which to end the day on an uplifting note. This also liberates other time for reading books that I only have in physical form.
Here's the list from 2014, sorted alphabetically. A chronological listing, with rankings, warnings, and review links, is here. I enjoyed most of the books, and regret none. Titles in bold I found particularly worthwhile.
- 2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut
- Adela Cathcart by George MacDonald
- Alec Forbes of Howglen by George MacDonald
- Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood by George MacDonald
- At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (read twice)
- The Blue Ghost Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #15 by John Blaine
- The Brainy Bunch by Kip and Mona Lisa Harding
- The Caves of Fear: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #8 by John Blaine
- David Elginbrod by George MacDonald
- The Egyptian Cat Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #16 by John Blaine
- The Flaming Mountain: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #17 by John Blaine
- The Flying Stingaree: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #18 by John Blaine
- The Golden Skull: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #10 by John Blaine
- Guild Court by George MacDonald
- Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People by Calvin R. Stapert, audio book read by James Adams
- Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
- Life of Fred: Australia by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Cats by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Dogs by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Edgewood by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Farming by Stanley F. Schmidt (all the Life of Fred books are worthwhile, but I particularly enjoyed Edgewood and Farming)
- The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens
- The Locust Effect by Gary A. Huagen and Victor Boutros
- Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robingson
- The Miracles of Our Lord by George MacDonald
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
- Not Exactly Normal by Devin Brown
- The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
- Phantastes by George MacDonald
- The Pirates of Shan: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #14 by John Blaine
- The Portent and Other Stories by George MacDonald
- The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
- The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
- Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood by George MacDonald
- Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
- The Scarlet Lake Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #13 by John Blaine
- The Seaboard Parish by George MacDonald
- The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
- The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R. Lawhead
- The Silent Swan by Lex Keating
- Smuggler's Reef: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #7 by John Blaine
- Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler
- Sometimes God Has a Kid's Face by Sister Mary Rose McGeady
- Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets by Michael Smith
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- Unspoken Sermons Volume I by George MacDonald
- The Vicar's Daughter by George MacDonald
- The Wailing Octopus: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #11 by John Blaine
- Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey (Wool 1 - Wool 5)
- Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley
Onward to next year!
I was making Thanksgiving candy in the kitchen. Porter was flipping channels in the family room. He settled on a documentary talking about someone named Birdseye who for reasons I didn't catch took his family to live in the frozen wilderness of Labrador. "I wonder if he's the guy behind Birdseye frozen food," he mused.
I am the family looker-upper. I didn't ask for the job, but my family quickly learned that asking Mom was better than using the dictionary or the encyclopedia, because I couldn't rest till I knew the answer. So if they lack dictionary skills, it's my fault. I also drive people nuts: we'll be in the middle of playing a game and someone will casually comment, "I wonder how high the Aswan Dam is," and you guessed it, much to their consternation I leave the game and look up the answer. (The Internet has only made my compulsion easier to indulge in.) It turns out they aren't really curious enough to want to interrupt the game. To which I reply, if you don't want to know, why ask!
So, Porter will flip through channels, and when I ask what he's watching, he'll reply, "I have no idea." At that point I have to grab my phone and check the TV listings, because even though I have no interest in the show, I can't stand not knowing the answer. In this case, I determined that the show was How We Got to Now: Cold, and Porter's hunch was good: the Labrador traveller was indeed Clarence Birdseye, who (eventually) brought us the world of frozen food.
The answer found, I went back to my fudge—only to be drawn away again by a subsequent part of the show: the invention of air conditioning. This I actually sat down and watched, because Porter is not the only one with good hunches: I doubted they would say much about Willis Carrier without interviewing the author of Weathermakers to the World. Sure enough, I hadn't watched for long before I was able to turn to Porter and remark, "You know Eric who sometimes comments on my blog? That's him." (Ungrammatical, I know.)
Anyway, that was fun.
I've written about Porter's Uncle Harry here before, but this article from the Cypress Cemetery website just came to my attention, so it seems appropriate to post it for family members this Veterans Day.
One veteran in particular was noted enough so as to be commemorated with a park and a National Honor Roll Memorial Tree, the large oak located in the northern part of the Annex. His name was Harry Gilbert Faulk and of the 28 veterans in Cypress who fought in World War I, he was the only Saybrook resident actually killed in action - in France on July 25, 1918 at 20 years of age. Company C of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, to which Harry was attached, was heavily shelled while sleeping on the edge of some woods north of Chateau Thierry on the morning of the 25th which resulted in significant casualties. Harry, who was mortally wounded, was one of the casualties.
It's a good article, though it implies that the store was owned by Harry's parents, and Porter's sure it belonged to Harry's brother, Fred. It was always referred to as "Uncle Fred's store." Any family members remember differently?
Harry was the youngest of six children of Frederick Olaf and Hilma Justina Faulk, who were both born in Sweden. The Faulks were well known in Old Saybrook and on Saybrook Point in part because they owned a small store at the corner of Bridge Street and College Street that also included a post office (photo at left). The location is now occupied by one of the condominium buildings of the Saybrook Point Hotel complex. One can imagine that young Harry spent a lot of time at the family store.
Happy Veterans Day to all, and thanks to all who who serve today or have served in the past.
I'm not a big fan of going to the dentist, but yesterday's visit paid an unexpected benefit: the hygienist, a former neighbor of ours, shared this video with me.
Heather, this is especially for you, but I think Janet will appreciate it as well, despite her memories being less happy than yours. I enjoyed it a lot despite my own mixed feelings. There are plenty of good memories for Porter as well. :)
This video is just the trailer for a documentary project promoting music education, Marching Beyond Halftime. As such, it has relevance to many outside of our immediate family. Enjoy!
Recently, I have become wise and venerable, by virtue of celebrating my 62nd birthday. Now I qualify for some more senior discounts! That's a good thing, because this was a very expensive birthday.
The first gift was a two-week trip to Switzerland, which ought to be enough of a present for anyone. But the trip's primary purpose was to assist Janet and the kids in coming to the U.S. for an extended stay, including a month living with us. On top of that, for eight days of that month Heather and her kids joined us, giving us all children and grandchildren here for a while, including Father's Day. Grateful as I am for Skype and other modern means of communication, there is nothing like physical presence and shared activities for building bonds, and I'm especially happy that the cousins had that time together. Living an ocean apart is tough. Overseas (or cross-country) travel with children drains the spirit, body, and pocketbook—but the rewards are incalulable. Yes, it would be better for all concerned if we lived in the same town and could see each other regularly on a more casual basis, but we make the best of what we have, and the cross-cultural diversity (family, state, country) is an important blessing, too. These visits are the most important to document, but such a post requires much more time—and organization of photos—so it will have to wait. At least now you know why this blog has been so silent recently.
Then there's the gift that deserves a post of its own, but for practical reasons will only get bold lettering here: Thanks to Heather (and Jon), we're expecting a ninth grandchild next Februay! Or maybe early March. For Father's Day I'd given Porter this mug, commemorating the visit of the cousins. Heather made their announcement by telling him it was nice, but out of date. :)
My most expensive birthday present—ever—was the "gift" of a new HVAC system for our house. The old one gave up the ghost in the middle of a Florida summer, and our used-to-colder-Switzerland guests were even more grateful than I was that Porter dove into the project and had us enjoying cool air again in record time. (We had known this was coming eventually; the system was 40 years old.) Let's just say that it's times like this that make me really appreciate having a pool. Kids get a lot less cranky in the heat if you let them swim as much as they want. We won't get to test the heating part of the system for several months.
Skipping the more affordable but none the less valued birthday presents, we come to a life-changing gift: we have finally joined the ranks of the smartphone users. Technically, Porter was one before, having a Blackberry, but that had belonged to IBM, which made the really interesting stuff off limits. I knew we would love smartphones when we finally broke down and got them, but was very reluctant to increase our phone spending by more than an order of magnitude. (Porter's was provided and mine—which works just fine for talk and text—cost $100 per year.)
But change comes to us all, even (especially?) those over 60. Being myself one hundred percent occupied with grandchild-related activities, I left the decision (like that about the HVAC) in Porter's capable hands. After much research, he chose AT&T (we've always had AT&T, except for when IBM forced him to use Verizon with his Blackberry, an unpleasant experience) as the provider, and Samsung/Android for the phones. He has a Note 3 and I a Galaxy s5, and we're both very happy with the choices. I find mine a little too big for comfort, especially in its OtterBox case (which I like a lot), but I do appreciate the screen real estate. I just have to figure out a decent way to carry it.
There's a lot I have to figure out. The phone itself is amazingly intuitive. Say what you like about us old folks, this is certainly no harder to figure out than PDP-12 assembly language and learning to follow a program's progress by turning up the volume on the speaker and listening to the changes in the accumulator register. It's the lifestyle changes that require more careful thought. I am determined to make my new phone a servant, not a master, which I acknowledge is a non-trivial endeavour. I'll probably be blogging more about that for a while than about the good stuff that requires organizing my photos, another non-trivial endeavour. Especially since I now have phone pictures as well as camera pictures.
Speaking of life-changing events, the impetus for our plunge into the smartphone world came when the higher-powers-that-be at IBM decided that Porter could do without his Blackberry—because they could do without his services. I have no doubt he could find another job, but what would be the fun in that? So as of June, Porter is officially retired! He expects to continue to do occasional consulting work; even now, the less-than-higher-powers-that-be at IBM—the ones who really know how good Porter is at what he does—are working hard to get approval to hire him back as a consultant. But for now we are greatly enjoying having him available to the family full time.
Janet was clipping Joseph's fingernails. When one of them suddenly spun into the distance, Joseph burst into song: The burden of my nail flew away ... I am happy all the day!
There are a thousand things I could write about related to my trip to Switzerland, but time is short and people at least want to hear something, so to appease both them and L'il Writer Guy, I'll mention one thing that has struck me while observing Joseph's and Vivienne's speech patterns.
Joseph, who is less now than a month from his fourth birthday, was clearly delayed in his speech when I was last here, nine months ago. Maybe, as I wrote then, "different" is a better descriptor, but in any case he was not as verbal as the majority of children his age.
Today is a different story. Where he is in terms of "average" I don't know, but his speaking ability has clearly exploded, from understanding pronouns (saying "it is mine" rather than "it is Joseph's," for example) to being able to answer questions about the past and the future. It reminds me again of how tricky it is to decide when a problem is best solved by intervention (and the earlier, the better) and when it is best simply to let the child develop in his own way, at his own pace. We'd heard a variety of advice, from simple exercises to a radical diet; no doubt each would be appropriate for some situations, but in this case, trusting and waiting were the best medicine.
There's no doubt that Vivienne is developing differently. At 29 months she is nearly as verbally competent as Joseph. She has a good grasp of pronouns, speaks fluently, and works with determination and persistence to correct her own vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.
All this is hardly news; even within a single family, children develop differently. What makes it especially fascinating for me is that all this development is taking place in two (or more) different languages, and that, too, differs from one child to another. Joseph was slow to speak each language (though he clearly understood both English and Swiss German extremely well), but now is fluent in both and never mixes them up. He can translate from one to another (a very different skill from just speaking) and to some extent from French and High German as well. Vivienne, on the other hand, mixes the languages freely and with enthusiasm, chattering one moment in Swiss German and the next in English, pulling words from the other language as the spirit moves her, a happy experimenter.
I'm reminded of the two types of computer programmers I've observed: one who meticulously plans every detail, "measures twice, cuts once," and whose programs often work the first time; and the other, who works iteratively, putting forth one version after another and converging on the solution. Both approaches work, though each kind of programmer frustrates the other kind no end. Not that Vivienne and Joseph experience any of that sort of frustration in their speaking. But it's a good analogy of how it seems to be working for them.
Enough. It's past bedtime again—but L'il Writer Guy is happier.
They don't come any more enthusiastic about public transportation than us, so we were thrilled when SunRail brought a commuter train to Central Florida. There were many disappointments, such as learning that the engines are diesel instead of electric, and most especially with the schedule: the trains do not run on the weekend. During the week, the best frequency is every 30 minutes during rush hour, and midday the trains are one, two, or even three hours apart. What's more, the last train leaves downtown Orlando at 9:30 at night, making it completely useless for anyone planning an evening in town. This is not the way to win a very skeptical population to mass transit. But, we figured, it's a start. If SunRail can prove itself useful for commuters, perhaps it can grow into a real train for the rest of us.
On Friday we decided to check it out. I adore train travel. My life is full of positive emotional associations with trains, from commuting to my first job on the Philadelphia Main Line run, to a luxurious ride from Rochester, New York to Springfield, Massachusetts early in our marriage, to my unplanned "rest and recovery" trip from Florida to Connecticut on September 13, 2001, to the easy and relaxing tourist travel in cities at home and abroad. I planned to love the experience, sitting with Porter and a friend at one of the table seats, watching the world pass by out the window. It was a glorious day, too: sunny and dry, with temperatures in the low 70's.
Alas, it was not to be. Porter described our experience in his subsequent e-mail to SunRail: (More)
The Space Shuttle may no longer be flying, but yesterday we saw a perfect Delta IV rocket launch grace the sky to the east. What a lovely sight!
The weather was beautiful, too, with temperatures that kept our doors and windows open all day. I realize that for most of you such a statement means the weather was finally warm enough, but no: we've been enjoying a two-day respite from high humidity and temperatures in the 90's. At this very moment it is 67 degrees on our back porch. Heaven!
At about 4:30 Friday afternoon, I became aware of some rustling in the bushes outside my office window. Normally this is just the grey squirrels, but our resident armadillo occasionally pokes around, so I got up to look. It was neither.