Category Archives: Family Stuff

General-interest stuff about our family

Quiet compassion

This fourth of July we were invited for a second year in a row to go with friends to their family reunion at the family’s farm/ranch outside Grants, New Mexico.  I have to say that this family represents the kind of accepting and down right Christian people I think the world needs more of.  Let me explain.

Many years ago, when the patriarch and matriarch were young veterinarians just out of school, they landed in this small town west of Albuquerque and set up shop – the husband dealing with large animals, and the wife handling the small ones.  As life progressed, kids joined the scene as they often tend to do.  If life weren’t already interesting enough for this small-town family, two of the brothers destined to join this family decided they couldn’t handle being separated, so they arrived together as twins.  Unfortunately, when he was very young, one of the brothers contracted a severe case of influenza that crossed the blood-brain barrier and caused severe encephalitis.  It was by no means certain that the twins would grow up together in this life, and the sick son’s future was precarious for quite some time.  After a long time in a coma, he recovered; but the sickness had destroyed the area in his brain that processes signals from the ears.  He was deaf.  Profoundly deaf.

For the next several years, the matriarch would pack the kids in the car every day and drive over an hour away to take her son to the deaf school in Albuquerque while the other kids played at parks or learned sign language along with their brother.  Our friend still remembers these almost daily trips and heroic efforts her Mom made.  It was a great sacrifice for all involved, but it was one they all made.

Over the course of the next several years, the son began attending in-residence school and only came home on the weekends.  It was a necessary evil as far as the family were concerned, but one that had to be endured none the less.  One side effect of this transition was that while he was at school, the deaf son made friends with several other students who’s families had effectively, if not explicitly, abandoned them.  Rather than leave them alone at the school, they were invited to join the family, and several began coming out to Grands on weekends rather than sit lonely at school.

I met several of these fine people last year when we first attended one of these family reunions.  They were all described to me as being “my son” by a rather proud adoptive father.  The family had opened their hearts and home to entire families who were otherwise marginalized or excluded from their rightful place in society.  What a neat bunch of people, and what a great experience at a time when I was struggling to see the good in the world.

As I talked with the family over this last trip, I was shocked to learn that many hearing families of deaf children refuse to learn sign language.  Even worse, they often completely abandon their deaf family members to social workers and deaf schools.  This family was a shining exception to this awful reality.  Everyone learned sign, and everyone (hearing and deaf) were made to feel important and a part of whatever was going on.  In fact, I was among the few outsiders there who needed an interpreter (they were happy to interpret for me when needed).  All around me there were animated silent conversations between friends and family.

I am impressed by the kindness and genuine love this family has for those who the rest of society have basically written off.  At a time when the world seems very self centered, unkind, and intolerant; I find hope in the quiet goodness of people like my friends and their family.  I hope they see in me a portion of what I see in them.

Family vacation

My family didn’t take a lot of what some would consider vacations when I was a kid. An annual trip camping for a few days in the nearby mountains was about all we managed most years.  There were also times when we packed up to go somewhere more exotic like a national park, or to visit relatives far away. Among the memories of these trips I have shadows of memories where my parents were stressing about them — both before and during.  I sometimes think a lot of the stress was financial, but the root cause is somewhat immaterial.  The bottom line is that I’m not sure vacations were all that fun for my parents.

Universally, the half dozen kids in our family would argue non-stop over petty little things, we’d complain about whatever it was that they had planned for the day, be unhappy with the food they prepared, whine about being tired, and generally do almost anything we could to be ungrateful little twits.  It wasn’t enough that we made ourselves miserable… We seemed to feel a need to make or parents miserable too.  As I look back, I’m convinced we met with a great deal of success.

As time passes I think I understand better what my siblings and I put our parents through.  Liz and I plan vacations and do our best to give the kids great opportunities and memories, but along the way it seems the best they can muster is to whine and complain about almost every aspect of the trip.  Take them to one of the greatest wonders on the planet, and the walks are too long, the food we packed isn’t what they wanted, they actively try to irritate each other at least every ten seconds, and just want to sit back in the room and watch mindless cable shows all day.  To ice the cake, I’m a stingy and unreasonable  jerk when I don’t want to waste money on gift shop trash that I’m likely going to get stuck carrying all day and will certainly be thrown away and forgotten in a few days.

Along the way, I have to keep a calm voice and try to keep the peace as one after another of the party decide it’s time to suck the oxygen out of the room and burn everything to the ground.  It’s exhausting, and has happened everywhere from Washington DC to Zion National Park.  The hardest part is not burning it down myself.

Now, I have several fond memories of the vacations we took as kids, and have only really understood the burden they were on my parents as I’ve grown older.  Because of this, I have hope that I’m not just wasting my time and even more limited energy.  However, it is often trying.  Pressing forward, hoping that we can keep it together just enough that the good memories float to the top and drown out the bad, is hard to do.  It’s a bad day when I’m ready to go back to a job I don’t really like just to wind down from vacation, and I’m just about there again.

Geeking Out

Since we moved back into a city and left behind a mostly rural life I’ve had to adjust my hobbies to the new environment.  I don’t spend much time planting fence posts, the only animal I take care of now is an old and grouchy dog, I don’t have old or worn out farm equipment to rebuild or repair, can mow my lawn with a weed whacker, and couldn’t fit a car in the garage to work on it if I had to.  This has been a hard transition, but it has given me an excuse to reengage with several hobbies that have lain dormant for quite a while.  One of the things I’ve restarted has been playing with electronics.

Back in high school I spent a lot of time in the electronics shop designing and building various projects that included a simple television jammer, an all electronic Christmas tree that could flash lights in various sequences, and a custom built clock that was crazy enough that it made airport security really uncomfortable when I took it to Kansas City for a national competition (after x-raying it, they  made me disassemble it and show them it wasn’t a bomb).  My brother Tolon and our neighbor Mike have tons of stories about the crazy stuff we did with electronics growing up, so needless to say, it was a big part of our adolescence.  However, once I left college and the part-time television repair job I had, electronics mostly fell by the wayside.   It wasn’t that the interest faded.  It was really just that I had a long list of competing priorities and interests.  Besides, I don’t have much use for the kinds of simple projects I could build at home.  While flashing lights are cool in some respects, it doesn’t do much for me once it’s built.  I have a higher standard of applicability for projects these days.

This last Christmas, however, I bought Isaac a robot car that used a raspberry pi for the controller.  Unfortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), the cheap Chinese version I bought came with code that was so bad that I spent my Christmas break learning Python and writing new code from scratch.  I hadn’t done much coding for a long time, and in the process of making a functional software set for the robot I remembered how much I like that kind of a puzzle and challenge.  Another thing working on Isaac’s robot did was get me back looking at electronics hardware design and thinking about the software/hardware interface in ways I hadn’t before.  I have been a Linux geek for over 20 years, and the possibilities of a super-cheap, super-small Linux-based computer with exposed low-level I/O ports really piqued my interest to the extent that I actually had a spell of insomnia while a whole host of ideas for things I could do with it flooded my mind.

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that the best way to get sleep would be to pick a project and get to work on it.  As I thought about it, I kept coming back to a project I’d built years ago and decided it was time to update it and build it again.  The original project was nothing more than a Mr Coffee that I stripped the electronics out of and repurposed to turn on a light at a given time every day.  This light woke me up every morning for several years, but it was bulky and ugly, and the way the light turned fully on instantaneously was rather jarring.   In an effort to fix this shortcoming, about five years ago I designed and built an analog circuit to gradually turn on a bright LED lamp.  Unfortunately, Liz hated the bright white color and couldn’t stand the fact that the LEDs weren’t diffuse enough.  They were rather blinding if you looked right at them.  I had to retire the light and Mr Coffee electronics.

In thinking about the possibilities of a super cheap computer with easy to use hardware interfaces, I came to the conclusion that I could easily build a control circuit to digitally dim a three color LED.  I decided to build a raspberry pi based project that would mimic both the brightness and color of a sunrise at any time I wanted to wake up.  Because it was software driven, I could tailor both the brightness and color to match a sunrise from start to finish.   I would also be able to set it up so that I could program different alarms for weekends or any other unusual day.  Not only that, but I could even program it to do any kind of goofy rainbow-colored light show if I ever got the inkling (but I have to admit that the odds of that are kind of low).

Now, I haven’t made custom circuit boards in almost 20 years, and I haven’t written much code since I left grad school.  A sane person might hesitate to jump into what amounts to two simultaneous complex projects, and you might think it would at least have given me pause.  But no, true to form I jumped in.  I scoured datasheets from several electronics vendors, ordered materials for etching circuit boards, and began learning Eagle CAD.  Before too long, I had a schematic complete.  Not long after that, I had a circuit board layout.  A few failed attempts later I had a complete board and was on my merry way writing code to see if it would all come together the way I intended it.

The top board is a Raspberry Pi Zero W. Beneath that board is the first completed controller board I built. The piece hanging off the right side is a real-time-clock module that keeps time when the power is off. The LEDs, and the circuit board with the LCD panel and input buttons aren’t connected in this picture.

After fumbling around with Python and learning some of it’s ‘features’ the hard way, I managed to make the LCD and buttons I bought work as a menu of sorts, and got it to start the sunrise sequence on-schedule.  Pretty stoked about my progress, I plugged it in near my bed and set it to go off the next morning.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I woke up a few minutes before the alarm and was watching it as the first blue-gray light started to come on.  Almost immediately, I realized my design wasn’t going to work.  At low brightness, the light flickered enough to really bother me.  I wanted to understand why, and what I could do about it.

As it turns out, one of my day-job responsibilities is setting design criteria for safety critical systems, and I had spent a good deal of time recently getting familiar with what are known as “real-time operating systems” and their role in safety-critical applications.  In any modern computer, multiple processes (programs) compete for processor time.  The operating system will hand control to a process, and how long that process has control before the next process gets to do it’s part is not tightly controlled.  For example, if you’ve ever been working on a computer that suddenly ‘hiccuped’ for a second and then caught up with you, you have been the victim of a non-real time system.

For routine applications, a slight hiccup that results from a process taking too much processor time isn’t all that important.  The process will eventually finish and the computer will catch up without any dramatic consequences.  However, if that computer were flying a plane or guiding a missile, even a slight hiccup could result in a crash.  For these situations, a special type of operating system is put in place to make sure that the important stuff always gets the processor time it needs, and only the unimportant stuff occasionally gets stuck with a hiccup (if at all).  Everything runs on a heartbeat, and important stuff gets done every heartbeat, every time.  When done properly, this kind of a system ensures that there aren’t any hiccups on things that matter.

So, how does this apply to my stupid little project?  First, it’s fundamentally difficult to efficiently dim an LED the way you would dim a conventional light bulb — especially using a digital controller.  Instead, to dim a high power LED you turn it on and off very rapidly, and our eyes average the intensity naturally.  To make the light brighter, you leave the light on for a longer percentage of the time.

Well, as it turns out, the code that determines how long the LED stays on works by deciding every few microseconds whether to turn the light on or off.   Because the ultra-bright LED’s I used are so bright, when I want them to be very dim the lights are only on for a few of these cycles before they turn back off again.  Even small changes in how long the lights are on in that case make a big difference in how bright the light looks.  The way this thing is set up, it turns the LED on and off 200 times a second (each cycle is 1/200th of a second) to make sure the human eye can’t see it flickering.  To make the sunrise work, I break that 1/200th of a second into 1024 chunks (why not just a round 1000 you ask… 1024 = 2^10, and computers do most things best with powers of 2).  When the light is at it’s dimmest, it’s on for 1 chunk (about 1/200,000th of a second) every cycle.  When the light is all the way on, it’s on for the full 1024 chunks and never turns off.

When the light is at it’s dimmest (where I start it in a sunrise sequence) even a five microsecond delay (about 100000 times faster than a blink of the eye) will cause the light to stay on twice as long as it should and change the brightness by a factor of two.  Small glitches make a big difference.  As the code runs through it’s loop deciding when to turn the light on or off, other processes randomly run a little long, and the decision to turn off the light is delayed just a bit.  Because the raspberry pi isn’t running a real-time operating system, there is competition for processor time, and that shows up as a flickering light that flickers worst when it’s on very low.  Because I’d just been through the wringer working through the real-time operating system stuff at work, I instantly recognized the situation for what it was.

Unfortunately, this realization meant that my design was fundamentally flawed.  I had relied on the pi for timing, and even using the most optimized code I could find to run the timing, the light still had a noticeable flicker.  Did that stop me?  If you are reading this, the odds are pretty good that you know a fair bit about me already, and could guess that I don’t quit that easily.  One solution would be to implement the code in a real-time operating system.  However, I’m not really an expert on those systems, and I don’t believe they’ve ported real-time linux to the pi.  The answer would have to be a hardware-based timer for the lights, and the best part is that I already knew where to go to find one.

Something I learned while working with Isaac’s robot car was how servos work (the small motors that steer the car and point the camera).  They work by generating a pulse with a very specific width proportional to the turn angle at regular intervals, just like the way I was trying to control the lights.  Robot designers don’t use the I/O pins on the pi to control servos for the same reason it didn’t work well for the lights — flickering, but in the case of servos, they don’t flicker, they jitter back and forth.  If you’re using the servo to control a remote-control plane for instance, that jitter would make the plane uncontrollable and result in a crash.  In Isaac’s car, the designers had actually re-purposed an LED controller with built-in timing to generate the servo pulses, and I was already familiar with how that controller worked and how to program it using the pi.  It would be an easy answer.

Frustrated, but unwilling to give up, I pulled open the schematic, deleted the control lines that I had been using, and added in the controller.  A few days of spare-time later, and I had a new board layout ready to process.  Thankfully, when I originally ordered parts for the first board, I had planned for the probability that I’d ruin several boards and had ordered plenty of extra resist film and copper-clad board.  I was also willing to bet I’d break something or need to re-build another board, so I had spares of all the parts.  I etched and solder-masked another board and built it out with everything but the new controller.  At this point, I’m waiting to order the new part and am looking forward to getting the code written and version 3 up and running (version 1 died before the first hardware met the real world).

Version 3 of the board. The new controller IC goes where the copper pads are. I’m pretty confident this one will work to my satisfaction.  The three big black things are the drivers for the red, green, and blue LEDs.  The cluster of components towards the bottom of the board are a 5V power supply to power the pi and all the other electronics.  I also added a real-time-clock module that keeps track of the time when the power is out, but that’s on the other side of the board.

At this point, if I were to add up the number of hours and the money spent on parts and processing stuff, this would definitively be the most expensive clock I’ve ever owned.  To make it worse, I’m looking at probably 20 more hours of coding to fix bugs in the current code and integrate the new controller (I’m not particularly efficient with Python).  Given my going labor rate, I can’t afford my own time.  But then again, it’s not really about either the cost or the time.

Camping with the boys

Isaac has become quite a good shot. I had to move the shooting position back from where Michael had been, and he still shattered all the little bits of clay pigeon Michael had left on the backstop.  Several cans suffered the same fate, but with the 22 pistol instead.
Michael hasn’t shoot much before, and didn’t really groove on it when he did (that probably had more to do with the chaos of shooting with a bunch of crazy cousins and uncles who are going Rambo all around him). This time he got all the time he wanted without a lot of distraction and had fun watching as clay pigeons shattered and jumped around on the backstop.
Dinner was a plate of rice and beanless chili. I only ever make this concoction when I’m camping — it’s become something of a tradition now.
Isaac snapped this while I was supervising Michael destroying a bunch of clay pigeons with the 22
We hiked up this mesa in the morning. The boys found several arrowheads and flakes left from people making arrowheads.

Isaac was preparing for a campout with the young men from church a couple of weeks ago when Michael asked when I could take him camping.  The weather has been mostly cooperating, so I told him we’d go in two weeks if the weather cooperated.  Two weeks went by and the weather was fine, so we packed up the truck and headed to an area just outside the Ojito wilderness.

We found a place just off the road and made a fine camp for the night.  After setting up camp, the boys and the dog explored a deep arroyo nearby while I made dinner and gathered firewood.  We spent the evening watching the fire and just hanging out until bed.

When we woke up the water was frozen solid, and Michael was none too happy about the cold.   However, a campfire, some hot chocolate, and a pancake breakfast make everything better… Even the cold of an early spring morning in the high desert.  I love the high desert in the morning.

After the sun came up, we put out the fire and hiked up a nearby mesa to explore.  Thornton had a blast sniffing around, and even managed to flush out a rabbit, but I don’t think he’d make a good coyote…  The rabbit got away with a large margin of safety.  Along the way, the boys each found several partially complete arrowheads along with a bunch of other interesting rocks.   After the hike, we set up targets and the boys spent about an hour shooting at clay pigeons they had found the day before.

One downside of BLM land is that there are always people who don’t seem to care what condition they leave it in.  The area we were camped in was littered with spent cases, beer cans, and all kinds of other trash.  Before we left, the boys and I policed up the area — filling a large (55ga) trashbag in the process (I take huge bags with me just for this reason).  I hope my boys understand how important it is to take good care of what God has given us.  I was proud of them for not complaining that the mess wasn’t theirs.  The area looked much better when we left.

A good weekend, all in all.

Check your id

Several years ago, I was at a three month professional development course that included intramural sports.  As we went through the first day orientation, the school director took a moment and asked each of us to pull out our IDs.  He then instructed is to look at the birthday printed on the card and ponder our age.  He then told us to repeat this exercise every time we entered the gym and keep that in mind as we competed with each other.  Apparently, students there had a track record of pushing too hard and getting hurt.  This was good advice, but advice that was rarely implemented.

I was reminded of this vignette when I was getting ready to go out on the gym floor with Isaac this last Tuesday.  Several of the other parents were commenting on the fact that I work out with the kids, and I mentioned this experience in passing as a way to laugh off the fact that I’m a whole lot older than anyone else who trains there.  That’s when karma struck.

After a brief warmup, I got ready to throw the first flip of the night.  However, the foam pit had a mat covering the foam.  I was doing well with many different flips, so I decided to just go for it.  Being over confident, I got a good run at it and launched into a side flip.  Now… I’ve had trouble getting enough vertical elevation of side flips, so I tend to stay in a tuck almost to the end.  But, this time, I got plenty of air and way over rotated.  I landed hard on my ankle, and was immediately aware that things weren’t normal.  The burning pain was all I needed to know that my night of training flips and flyaways was over.

It turned out to just be a sprain, but as I hobbled into work Wednesday morning on crutches my co-workers got no end of pleasure out of asking me how I got hurt.  A few only asked if I was with Isaac then laughed and walked away smirking knowingly.  Almost everyone knew the crux of the matter before they asked.  My track record of injuries resulting from me acting like a kid at the gym is almost a running joke.

Oh well… Another few days and I can start working my way back into training with Isaac.  It’ll be hard not to get hurt again given my tendency to recognize that something is risky and then promptly jump right in.   I guess I need to get better at following my own advice. Maybe this time will be different…  Or… Maybe not… But I’ll have fun either way.

Learning backflips

This year, I crossed the threshold of 40.  I understand that transition to be fairly traumatic for many people, but I must be in denial.  I don’t feel like 40 is much of a big deal.   I do, however, distinctly remember when 16 looked mature, 20 was fully fledged adult, 30 looked middle aged, and 40 was near death.  There didn’t seem to me much space for development between 40 and death.   Life and experience have taught me how warped my perspective was back then.

One thing I have loved about getting older is having kids who are old enough to have interests and hobbies I can share with them.  There is something pretty cool about having philosophical discussions about great books, or talking about some of the more interesting experiments from psychology with Sydney.  It’s a lot more rewarding than taking about fairies or random other “little girl” things I’ve never really understood or wanted to be a part of.  Those moments were precious, but I have to admit I like the more mature discussions better.

Lately, Isaac has started to cross that threshold where his interests and hobbies are more interesting and engaging for me.  For a little more than the last year, Isaac has been deliberately and diligently training in Par Kour (sp?).  True to form, I got tired of just watching, and for the last few months I’ve been training too.  Once a week Liz and I attend a class taught by Isaac’s trainer where we learn to do things like vault over obstacles, run up walls, and jump off of high things without hurting ourselves.  About half the class (Liz and I included) are parents of the kids who are in Isaac’s advanced class, so it’s almost comical watching a bunch of middle aged parents act like kids on a playground, but all of us old farts in the class LOVE acting like kids — even if we can’t jump as high or move as fast as the kids do.

One day several weeks ago as I was watching Isaac and his cohorts doing their weekly flips and areal training at a gymnastics gym, I got bored and asked Isaac if he would mind if I trained with them.  His smile said it all.  I informed him he was my coach for the night, and we walked out to the gym floor together.  Within a few minutes, he had me doing flips on the trampoline and into the foam pit.  By the time the night was over, I had tried my first backflip over solid (ish) ground.

Three weeks on, and I’m still working on consistently landing backflips.  They’re getting better, but it’ll be a while before I try one over concrete.  My body is old and broken enough that training sessions with Isaac or his coach sometimes get cut short.  But even when it hurts a little, it’s fun to see the look in Isaac’s eyes when I jump in and participate in something that he really enjoys.  He smiled as big as I did when I pulled off a flyaway (doing a backflip swinging off of an elevated bar) last Tuesday.

I have to say that I’m grateful I have the energy and strength to jump in and do these things.  I get a few odd looks from the younger crowd at the gym sometimes — I probably look like a dinosaur to them — but I’m well past the point where that will change my mind.  About the only thing that slows me down is when my neck, shoulders, or back get particularly angry about the renewed assaults on already worn out body parts.  For the most part, though, I’m amazed at the things I can do.  I’m also pretty stoked that my aggressiveness and stupidity haven’t made my broken body worse.  It helps to have a coach who learned how to do things right and do them without getting hurt.

I can’t say that I would have ever tried to do a backflip or vault a six foot wall had Isaac not started it all, but I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to spend time doing things with my kids for any of my self-motivated hobbies.  I only hope I’m still fit for enough to do the same with Michael – whatever hobbies he decides to get into.

It’s got to be common

It’s pretty clear to me at an academic level that many of the challenges I deal with on a regular basis are near universal.  Challenges with teenagers, dissatisfaction with work, being stuck for a season in the spiritual doldrums, health challenges, personal weaknesses, demands on my time that far exceed the time available, profound cognitive dissonance between what I want and the world I am stuck with, and many other challenges are surely common.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t generally make it feel any less lonely, any less troublesome, any less painful, or any less oppressive.   Failure, though common to everyone, is experienced on an individual basis.  The fact that failure is common doesn’t really make me feel any better about failing.  Sometimes I wish I cared less and were better at shaking it off.

Sunfounder Raspberry-Pi Camera Car

This Christmas, Isaac asked for a robot car.  We’d talked about giving him opportunities to begin experimenting with programming, and this seemed like a reasonable way to go.  Being the cheap guy I am, I trolled Amazon for the robot car that came with the most features for the least amount of money, knowing full well that it would probably be some cheap Chinese knockoff.  After looking at a wide range of offerings, I decided on a car marketed by Sunfounder knowing the instructions were probably crap, but confident in my ability to make it work without them.

Christmas day, Isaac and I sat down at the kitchen counter and went to work.  The kit assembled easily enough, but there were a few hiccups.

  1. The paper backing on the plastic is hard to get off.  I ended up sticking each of the parts to a piece of super-sticky duct-tape and tearing the tape off in order to get the backing off.  There is probably an easier way, but I didn’t bother looking for it.
  2. The plastic pieces that the front (steering) wheels screw into (the steering knuckle if it were a real car) is slightly too big.  If you tighten the screws all the way, the steering binds up.  I ended up filing down the top and bottom edges to open up some slack.
  3. There were a few missing screws.
  4. There is no power switch.  As soon as the batteries are installed, the entire car is powered up.  I didn’t like that approach, so I installed a small toggle switch I had in the workshop on the positive (red) wire between the battery pack and the power regulator board.
  5. There isn’t a way to cleanly shut down the pi unless you log in remotely and shut it down that way.  I’ll eventually add a pushbutton and write a code snippet to use that to trigger a soft shutdown on the pi — but that’s for later.

Otherwise, the hardware went together pretty well.  The design calls for screwing the Pi down on the chassis, but we opted to put the pi in a case, and used a rubber-band to hold it on the chassis.  We didn’t want to dedicate the Pi solely to the car.


A backup backup plan

If you ask my kids what I think about making plans for the future, they’re likely to say that I believe in having a plan, a backup plan, and a backup backup plan, then being ready to throw all of that away when the right thing comes along.  However, when it comes down to it, the plan and its backups seem to only really exist to make me feel a little bit better about the fact that I’m basically powerless when it comes to my future.  This point has once again been reinforced in my life.

When we lived in Texas, we made plans.  Plans that were cherished.  Plans that were detailed and intended for execution.  Some of those plans got put on hold when I got orders for New Mexico.  Some of those plans came crashing down in flames, destroyed forever.  The process of giving up on them was rather painful, and I made new plans in an attempt to fill the void.  Mostly, those plans involved getting back to Texas as quickly as possible and putting myself in a position where I could teach in a non tenure-track role and write without sinking my family finances.

As a part of those plans, I had made it clear to almost everyone within earshot that nothing could convince me to stay in the Air Force past my retirement eligibility date or take another assignment.  There wasn’t going to be anything that would entice me to move again unless it was to a place where I would be able to stay and start my post military life.  I also withdrew from a nearly complete professional development course to ensure I wasn’t going to be offered another promotion and put myself in a position where I might consider staying longer.  I was going to finish my time in my current job, retire, then go back to my place in Texas and learn to live the life of a civilian.  I had backup plans, and backup backup plans, but none of them included moving again with the military, promoting again, or staying longer than 20 years.

That changed a little over two weeks ago.  I was at work dealing with some admistrivia when an unsolicited email from someone at the Air Force Academy popped up in my inbox.  Attached to the message was a letter inviting me to apply for the position of  Permanent Professor and Department Head for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  The letter explained that this position should be viewed as starting a new career.  While the department head is still on active duty, they are not subject to many of the things I’ve grown tired of.  Whoever gets the position serves in the grade of Colonel, and never deploys or moves again until they die, voluntarily retire, or reach 64.

Now, this letter wasn’t uniquely targeting me, but rather it went out to everyone who was technically qualified.  However, it represents a scenario I hadn’t considered as even remotely feasible before.  I have always wanted to teach, but the options to do so were never viable.  Part of the drive to endure to retirement was so that I could afford to take a job teaching at a junior college or other institution more concerned with education than publications, grants, and prestige.  My best attempt to meet this need while on active duty meet with severe disappointment after finding out that AFIT (the Air Force graduate school) had fallen into the trap of publications and prestige at the expense of the students.  I was offered the position but had to refuse it, and I gave up on trying to teach while on active duty.

Unlike AFIT, the Academy understands that their reason for existence is to educate the upcoming generation of Air Force leaders.  They understand that the proper role of research in that environment is to enable the development of students.  They haven’t fallen prey to the siren song that has blurred the focus of almost every major university.  I truly believe the Academy represents an opportunity to teach, mentor, and focus on developing young men and women.  It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been putting together the materials for an application, and yesterday before leaving work I officially threw my hat in the ring.  My odds aren’t great, but I’d forever regret it if I didn’t try.  Is this the new and unexpected plan I tell my children to be ready for?  Maybe.  I hope so, but I still have my backup plans.



Story Time: First Kiss

I don’t remember if I heard it first-hand, or if it was passed down to me by others, but my Grandfather was credited with saying “kissing a woman you aren’t going to marry is like licking the butter off of someone else’s bread.”  I don’t generally lick butter off of my own bread, not to mention off of other’s bread, so this image seemed a bit odd to me.  However, I’m pretty sure what he really meant was that you should reserve that act for when a relationship is pretty serious.  It seems odd to me that this came from my grandfather who was also reported to have kissed his future wife on the first date and was so impressed with the result that he had to come back for more.  In that case, that first-date kiss ultimately resulted in nine kids and over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As a general rule, I disregarded this advice when I was young.  It rarely took long for me to finagle a goodnight kiss or two — sometimes following my grandpa’s example and accomplishing the feat on the first date.  However, somewhere along the line I stepped back, took stock, and decided I didn’t like where that trend was taking me.  I had experienced a series of bad breakups and relationships that had pushed to a place I wasn’t happy to go.  As a result, I basically swore off of dating and women with the intention of graduating college before allowing another girlfriend to get overly serious.  That intention didn’t last, though.  A few months after this I put this resolution into force, I met a striking young woman who captured my attention with a fierceness for which I was completely unprepared.  Swearing off of women all together was simply not an option with someone like her tantalizingly close.

This new development left me completely unable to stick to my initial resolution.  I was not about to pass up the opportunity represented by this amazing young lady, so the resolution to stay single had to go.  However, I was still motivated not to fall into the same trap I’d been in all too many times.  Since my original resolution wasn’t viable, I adjusted it to resolve to make this round different and be more careful about how I managed the relationship.  After the prior disasters I wanted to take things slower and better manage expectations on both sides.  Among other changes, there would be no first-date kisses.  After a few dates I was even more convinced than before that I wanted this relationship to progress differently.

Unlike many other plans of mine, this one seemed to work.  As time evolved, so did the relationship, and what started out as a fun date to keep the weekends from being boring quickly evolved to long evenings together as often as possible.  Frequently those evenings would close out with a long close stare into each others eyes, with me at least wanting badly to lean in and kiss those beautiful lips.  But I stuck to my guns, though, and would only squeeze her hand (or something along those lines) and walk to my car without giving in to those inclinations.  Sometimes our faces would be just inches apart for a very pregnant pause, but that’s where it stopped.  I didn’t want to ruin a good thing by moving too fast.

One evening Liz and I were talking in my driveway before she left to go home and I lost my will to resist.  She was amazingly beautiful in the moonlight and frankly irresistible, but rather than lean in and steal a kiss I did something I had never done before…  I asked.  She said yes, and I didn’t wait to give her any time to reconsider.  It was an amazing first kiss.  One that I’ll never forget.  However, my favorite part of this story happened later.

A few dates later Liz and I were talking and she smiled and almost started laughing.  She had something she wanted to tell me about that first kiss.  You see, there was a set of railroad tracks that crossed the road that connected her house with mine, and as a kid folks in my area used to have a tradition that if you touched a screw and made a wish while crossing the railroad tracks, your wish would come true.  Liz, wondering why I was taking so long to kiss her, touched a screw and wished for a good night kiss.  I suppose it worked, and I’m glad it did.  That kiss was the first of many, and set the course that would eventually lead to a very tender one across the altar.  To this day, I think about that story every time I cross a set of railroad tracks.