Let me begin with a little rhetorical throat-clearing. I haven't written a long piece in a long time, and this is pretty long. There are many details and ideas that want to crowd up to the front and make themselves heard, and I'm afraid that what follows will be a bit unruly. But it's important to say what needs to be said, even imperfectly, than to remain perfectly quiet. So I ask you to have a little patience and bear with me.

Everything about this story is true.

Right now, it's a little after midnight and it's raining. Ten years ago, I met a man named Larry in the woods.

When I met Larry in the woods, he was living in a hole in the ground, or rather a shallow depression, behind a small chemical plant in a light industrial district. He slept on a small platform made of loading pallets, covered with some blankets for softness and warmth, and topped with a tarp that he pulled over himself like another blanket. When it rained, he covered himself with the tarp and opened an umbrella over his head to stay dry.

When I met Larry in the woods, it wasn't some blind coincidence - I was looking for homeless people that day, looking for potential clients for the Housers. A team of volunteers that I led were exploring along a railroad when we came across him. It was likely the only way anyone would have ever found him - Larry stayed away from folks, and had been outside and isolated for so long that public places freaked him out. He'd gotten accustomed to being alone, but he never stopped being lonely. When we talked to him and show him a little kindness, he burst into tears. It was like discovering a castaway on a desert island.

Larry burst into tears several times in that initial interview; he was drunk. Larry was an alcoholic, and a schizophrenic, and had been homeless since the 80s, when Reagan shut down the mental hospitals. His campsite was near an imperfectly locked dumpster for a local wine wholesaler, where he could reach an arm in and pull out discarded bottles one by one. There were hundreds of empty wine bottles littering his campsite. Larry knew where all the local dumpsters were, and was able to keep himself fed and clothed - and drunk - off the castoffs of the community. Larry was very good at scavenging, but then again, Larry had had plenty of time to practice.

Larry was a sweet guy and in many ways an ideal client. His story - a physically and mentally abusive stepfather, his early mental illness, the kind doctors who were able to keep him from suicide but unable, in their limited time with him, to help him keep his life together - was touching, as was his obvious isolation and loneliness. His location made it difficult for us to build him one of our standard ten foot high huts, so he became the first person to receive one of our four foot high 'Low Rider' shelters, designed for the Larrys of the world - folks who need a shelter, but also need to remain hidden. He was very grateful, and that was gratifying. We like it when our work is appreciated; who doesn't?

Officially, all our clients are entitled to shelter regardless of how likable or unlikeable you are; one of our sayings is that "even assholes need a place to sleep." Unofficially, however, if we like you we'll try a harder to help you beyond just a shelter, and everybody liked Larry. A few volunteers took Larry under their wing, supplying him with little extras like phone cards and wind-up flashlights, purchased with their own money. My wife Tracy worked with Larry to get his ID and Social Security card back, starting with requests to the Navy for Larry's discharge papers and rebuilding his identity from there.

There were setbacks, of course, and all of this took years. But a few years back, we were able to find a psychiatrist who would go out into the field and meet with Larry, instead of having Larry come to her office, and that was the real beginning of the end. It's taken about three years, but Larry is now in a subsidized apartment, listening to the rain on a roof instead of on a tarp. He's been sober now for nearly a year, and talks of getting a job. We're all terribly proud of Larry. He's our biggest success story, a person whose life has been profoundly bettered by that chance meeting ten years ago.

But that's not the point of this story.

Larry isn't the only client that the Housers have had. He's not even the only success story; we've had a good number of people eventually leave the huts and reenter society. But it took an extraordinary amount of effort on the part of a few people to get Larry out of the woods, and those folks did it - we did it - because we liked Larry personally.

I'm not saying this in an attempt to belittle what these folks have done, they have every reason to be proud. It's just that, given the fact that we're an all volunteer group, every ounce of effort we spend comes from love. We have lives outside of the Housers - families, daytime jobs, friends and hobbies, and the time we spend on helping the homeless is, like the homeless themselves, only marginal to our lives. There's only so much effort we can spend. There's only so much love. And it doesn't cover everyone who needs it.

Like Larry. And now I'm not talking about the first Larry, the crazy man living in the woods next to the railroad tracks in a bad part of town. No, in one of those weird coincidences that crop up in everyone's life, this is a second man I know, also named Larry, who is crazy, in the woods, next to the railroad tracks, in a bad section of town.

This Larry lives closer to us than the other Larry, the "good" Larry. Talking to the "bad" Larry is terrifying - he'll look through you mumbling about how the President and the Generals want him to be out there, while mosquitos buzz around his bare feet. Larry had had a business in the neighborhood, but lost it after he got addicted to crack and descended into paranoid delusion. We got the psychiatrist out to talk with him briefly, and even she was disturbed by him and did not want to go out to talk with him unescorted. Frankly, I can't blame her.

Like Larry I, we built Larry II a Low Rider, and I checked up on him occasionally, but nobody really took him under their wing. And eventually, he disappeared. Like Larry I, Larry II is too damaged and too poor to seek out help on his own. If we had enough resources, we could assign a case worker to work with him and try to keep him on track, find professional help. But of course, we have no resources, and there's little love to be found for Larry.

I'm worried about Larry II. I'm worried about the community he lives in; folks there know him, but how safe is it to have him wandering around? How safe is he?

It's now 2am and it's still raining. Where is he?

Games without frontiers

So I've been playing a lot of "Race for the Galaxy" lately. RftG is a pretty addictive little card game where you build a galactic empire and score points by balancing construction, exploration, production and consumption. (If you're interested and have never played, the rules can be found at the Rio Grande Games website; an excellent, free, online version with bots that'll kick your ass is available at ).

One of the nice things about RftG is that it's quick - a game is over when someone fills out his empire's allotment of twelve cards or when all the loose points have been allocated. When playing against the AIs, the game is usually over in under 10 minutes. This is actually difficult for me, because it works against two of my personal weak points when playing games.

My first weak point is that I tend not to pay terribly much attention to what the other players are doing. This means that I find myself surprised when the game suddenly ends because an AI fills out its empire (which should be obvious, you can only expand your empire one or two cards max per turn), or that I'm waiting to get a card that another player already has played out in its empire.

My second weak point is that I'm a pretty good tactician, but a lousy strategist. The goal of playing a game is to win; since games don't play forever, in any reasonably complicated game your endgame tactics should differ from the your midgame tactics. For example, you shouldn't waste resources paying for a cost-reducing development at the end of the game anymore than you should tune up the engine of car that you're about to donate for scrap. I tend to think in terms of long-term improvements, which makes me a nice guy and a good designer, but a poor gamer. My gamer friends kick my ass regularly because they know that strategies are ultimately finite. They see the end and plan accordingly; I see a perpetual tomorrow and don't plan, but just build.

So one reason I play games like this is not only because I enjoy them, but also because they'll hopefully help me to think strategically, not just tactically. As I get older, I've gotten tired of simply reacting to my surroundings; you won't change the world playing defense. This is why, for instance, I became an architect at my job; it's often a hassle, and less enjoyable than straight-up development, but I'm responsible for shaping our environment and hopefully making it better for everyone involved. This is why I'm pushing the Housers to move beyond just building shelters and towards connecting our clients to other services afterwards - we don't want a hut to be someone's final destination in life!

Incidentally, this relates to a phenomenon I've noticed with some of our homeless clients. Occasionally, I'll run across a person that seems basically all right. But the first meeting's deceptive that way; it's after the third, the fifth, the tenth meeting that I realize that although this person appears rational and articulate, they have been saying the same things over and over again without actually making any progress. There may be lots of activity, and plenty of drama - but no movement.

I might have a hard time strategizing, but these folks cannot plan, period. My MUD friends referred me to 'executive function', which can be affected by brain trauma - concussions, drug abuse, microstrokes, etc. That sure sounds like the issue, all right. This implies that our fledgling efforts to try and help move our clients out of the huts may become significantly more involved; do we become involved in goal-setting? Or is there some other organization that'll do casework like this?

On names

I sent an email to friends announcing rosindust 's pregnancy, and in it I described how we choose names for our offspring. I don't think I've described it here, so here it is.

Nowadays, many modern couples don't want to have the wife change her surname to her husband's name. This leads to interesting contortions as they attempt to figure out naming conventions for the family and for the children.

The most common approach is the hyphenated name. This works, but only marginally. By 'marginally' I mean that if it were adopted by the public at large, it would quickly break down after the second generation. There are options to let the kids drop a name etc etc, but if the goal is to avoid making people change their names, this really falls short in my opinion.

You also occasionally hear of folks using a completely new last name or a compound name made from elements of the parent's previous surnames - for instance, since my last name is Hess and rosindust's is Woodard, we might become the Woods. This is a little avant-garde for my tastes, and once again, you're changing a name.

So we decided to simply not change anyone's name. Well, then what about the children? Here's what we came up with:

  • The first child's surname would be that of its same-sex parent. Subsequent children's surnames will alternate between the parents regardless of sex.
  • The parent who does not contribute the surname picks the first name.
  • Middle names are reached by agreement from both parents.
Our first kid is a boy, so he's a Hess. Tracy picked the name Karl to honor a great-uncle of hers, a very interesting and decent man by all accounts. We agreed on Arlen, my father's name, as a middle name. Karl Arlen Hess.

This next kid is a Woodard. I've decided to name it after my much-beloved maternal grandmother, Ada, so if it's a girl, she'll be Ada, and if it's a boy, Adam *. rosindust wants to give her middle name, Kathleen, to a girl child, which I'm fine with, and we're still going over options for a boy. So it's either going to be Ada Kathleen Woodard or Adam Woodard.

So with this convention, nobody needs to change a name and neither family 'loses' a name in a marriage (at least, not in a marriage with two or more kids). The only difficulty is explaining a single family with two surnames to the various powers-that-be, but in this age of remarriage and blended families, the PTB will simply have to cope.

* Technically, the closest male version to the name Ada is Adolf. Uh, no - some folks already give us funny looks for Karl with a K. I've tinkered with creating the name 'Ado', but that's a long shot. Adam is fine.


puzzling expectations

I've noticed some troubling changes with rosindust lately. I'm worried that perhaps she's undergoing some sort of seasonal something or other - I mean, she's been telling me that it's my fault that she's getting kind of plump, when all I can see is that she's sleeping and eating a lot more, even though she's also been complaining about tummy troubles. I tried to talk with her about losing weight, but she told me that she's going to gain weight until late springtime/early summer, but that then she'll lose somewhere between seven to ten pounds all at once. I dunno, that sounds like a pretty crazy diet to me.  Fortunately, she's also gone to a doctor - but get this - she's going to an Ob-Gyn instead of a regular doctor. I'm like, is this some sort of crazy chick hormonal thing? and she just looks at me like I'm retarded.   What gives?

Oh well. I'm sure this will all pass. At least her boobs are growing.
  • Current Music
    Talking Heads, 'Stay Up Late'

Too much, too little

(This post is going to be a little rambling and whiny, but I'm focusing more on getting it out than getting it perfect.)Collapse )

I think that there's some relief on the horizon. In the current crop of volunteers, I've got a few guys who seem to be interested in leading builds. I've pledged to cut back on builds and do more training next year, so that should hopefully free up time from hut building to organization building.  

Ultimately, I think that our fitful progress represents the awkwardness of growth. I do know that I, personally, need to work on delegating more often and learning how to (ugh) manage. I can lead teams, but managing is something different - on a team, you have a discrete, visible goal for your team (build that hut!), whereas managing is about shaping the growth and activities of your group to make it more capable. To condense into an epigram: team leadership is outwardly directed; management is inwardly directed.


Friends dying. Friends getting divorced. Friends breaking up. It's been a tough month for our social circle. KNOCK IT OFF!
  • Current Mood
    gloomy gloomy