Soule family update 11 November

I still accompany Pamela to her radiation therapy treatments every morning when I am in town and not attending a work meeting. Her treatment regimen is 6.5 weeks and she is on the second and last phase now. We think the bigger radiation doses are harder on Pam (she slept for three hours yesterday after her first big dose) because she can feel the effects right away (some dizziness, lightheadedness and fatigue), but the nurses in the unit say it is equally likely that Pam is now feeling the cumulative effects of enough radiation to kill Godzilla. Pamela says that, post treatment sessions, she feels a little like one of those people that puts their head on a baseball bat and spins around forty times before running to first base so she feels like she is veering left as she heads out the clinic (with Ralph there to keep her from getting into someone else’s car). We have plenty of friends that think having Pamela “veer left” is  good thing, especially since Ralph is so politically conservative. Pam has a deep tan where she has been radiated, which she refers to as her breast having gone to the Bahamas without her. There are still no signs of big side effects, except for the extra eye growing in the back of her head, but the doctor assures us this is normal and Pamela thinks this would be a future aid in keeping an extra eye on me. I think the bigger danger is the long term risk to me from being exposed to even short doses of Good Morning America while I wait for Pamela to come back from her sessions with the Gamma-blast-atron. Even though I try to concentrate on doing email and downloading Wall Street Journal updates, it is hard not to be affected by stories of breast implantation gone awry (single boob syndrome) and new uses for Botox (such as cleavage restoration). I don’t know how people can watch shows like that every day. It feels like you are watching cheerleaders do “cheers” nonstop.

Pamela found a new “friend” at the radiation clinic: an older gentleman who’s zap time is just after hers so she sees him every day in the patients only waiting area. Former Reactor Officers that ask pesky questions about emergency procedures and beam alignment are not allowed here. The man swears he knows her (I’ll bet he says this to all the pretty girls) and loves to hold forth on all his personal activities since Pamela has the kind of face and demeanor that instantly conveys to complete strangers that she would be enthralled by all the details of a person’s bowel surgery and the struggles they have with their colostomy bag. My strategy for people like this is to either feign narcolepsy or point over their shoulder and say, “Excuse me, but isn’t that a mushroom cloud? I have to go to the local fallout shelter.” Pamela had the bright idea to introduce me to her loquacious acquaintance (she thought I might be able to get a waiver to the “No former Reactor Officers allowed” policy for the waiting room because even the nurses would be happy to have this person talking to someone else) until I made it very clear that my activities in the waiting room were focused solely on the internet and the screens of my electronic appliances and anything that might require me to look up from one of the screens would be a problem.
Early in Pamela's treatment regimen, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. I may be the only one that gets slightly (okay, a lot) annoyed when I yield to a pedestrian and they refuse to accept the right away, but I suspect I have some company. First, just from a general pedestrian safety point of view and the military base practice of yielding to people trying to cross in cross walks, granting the right of way to pedestrians in parking lots and at intersections has been bred into me. Second, it strikes me as impolite to refuse someone's courtesy when offered, which I never do when I am on foot. Something I have always wanted to do when someone on foot won't cross when I yield to them is to stop the car and get out, perhaps sitting down next to the car, until the pedestrian crosses. I got to do this when I was parking in the hospital parking lot before one of Pamela's early radiation treatments and I enjoyed every second of it. I have always thought stopping the car, getting out, and refusing to drive (which you can seldom do because there are cars behind you), and clearly demonstrating, "No, darn it, YOU go" would be deliciously satisfying and, by golly, it was. There was no traffic in the parking lot when I was taking Pamela to her appointment and the older gentleman who tried to yield to me laughed when I got out of the car and told him I was not going any further until he crossed.
Pamela says our trip to Europe is still “on.” She feels like she would be able to do the travel as long as I keep the pace below that of a NASCAR race between sites and she has the opportunity to rest if she needs it Our current travel plan is to depart just before Thanksgiving as soon as we can catch a military flight and return right after Christmas. I will post our updated itinerary with this post, but the big picture is: fly to Rota, Spain (SW corner of the country), Madrid, Barcelona, Paris by overnight train from Barcelona, Normandy beaches, London, Wales, and Berlin. There is lots of flexibility in our plan and the pace is slow enough that we do not expect it will be hard on Pamela after her radiation therapy. There is lots of time for her to rest, if she needs to do so. The plan has us in Berlin on Christmas day. Poor Beau keeps looking for an “exit plan” that is not materializing. I have told him that I am happy to continue paying for his food and shelter, but the food and shelter are going to Europe. Beau’s latest scare tactic is to tell us that he might get mad at us and “split the scene” in some lesser known part of Europe. I am not too worried that he will get very far because he does not know how to say, “Where is the nearest KFC?” in any language besides English.
I officially retired 1 November. I planned to commit the entire afternoon to getting any remaining paperwork completed and identification cards for Pamela, Beau, and I. It was far easier than I expected because all my retirement paperwork was complete so all we had to do was get ID cards and the clerk in the ID lab took us 20 minutes early. The highlight of the experience, aside from getting my white active duty card replaced by a light blue retired ID card and having the clerk say "You are officially retired" when he handed it to me, was listening to Beau complain and fret that his entire afternoon was going to be ruined by having to go through the procedure to get ID cards as we walked in to the facility. The building happens to be near officer housing on the base, which prompted Beau to ask if retired personnel were allowed to live in base housing. After I told him no, there were too many retired people to do that, he concluded, "Gee, then there really is no benefit to retiring, is there?" After I explained to Beau that Commissary/Exchange privileges, health care, and a retirement salary (which Beau already knows about) might be considered appropriate benefits, it occurred to me that this one of Beau's strengths: seeing a situation from a completely different angle than most human beings would. I like to refer to this as the Martian view.
On the night of my retirement, Pamela insisted that we go out to dinner to celebrate. She invited our good friends, Debbie and Jerry Wojcik to come with us to Outback Steakhouse. Unbeknownst to me ("little did he know"), she asked Jerry to tell stories about our time serving together. Despite his normally low key personality, Jerry can be quite the showman so he brought ship ball caps (we served on two ships together) and told embarrassing/laudatory (sometimes, I cannot tell the difference) stories about me from our time serving on ships (he wore each ball cap as he told the stories) and at Newport News (he works for the shipbuilder and I worked at Supship Newport News twice). Debbie and Jerry certainly made it a celebration to remember and I really appreciated the touch.
My job search is over (finally). I have selected a position with a company called Spatial Integrated Systems ( I thought at first the name conveyed some kind of association with satellites (that kind of space), but it really has to do with one of their major “product lines” being scanners that scan ship compartments (also known as “spaces”) and produce integrated solutions to specific problems. It is a small firm, 40-50 people, and last year did about $100M in business (total revenue). The CEO hired me to help him manage existing and get new business (through a combination of my contacts and experience) in Navy ship modernization (what homeowners call “remodeling” and just as painful) and repair. The Navy has some big changes on the horizon for converting their paper-based repair/installation instruction to all electronic forms and provide iPad-like devices to all the tradesmen that do the real work. This strikes the skeptic in me as something of a “hail Mary” pass to reduce costs (through having less people doing the work) since we cannot make the vast majority of ships in service any less complicated or easier to support. I believe the idea has merit, but where these sorts of efforts tend to run afoul of reality is there is never enough training on the “new way” (leading to much frustration and lower cost savings than forecast as people try to force fit the new approaches and technology into the old ways of business that they know best) and the Navy does not try to reengineer its frightfully cumbersome, if reliable and predictable, processes while it tries automate them. I believe this is a mistake. As an example, think of designing a robot to wash dishes just like a human does (not much savings there) versus a metal box that immerses dishes in sprays of soapy water without human intervention, a big savings in labor, but a completely different process than humans use to wash dishes. These two effects (there are more, like the unintended consequences of the new processes that could not be imagined or understood in advance) are the main reasons why “reinventing government” never works they way people think it will. As a test a potential employer’s willingness to put up with me, one of my negotiating ploys was to ask each one of them if they would have a problem letting me go on a six week vacation to Europe right after hiring me. Amazingly enough, they all said, “No problem.” What a sap I was! I should have asked if they would have paid for it too!

I have already taken my first business trip (to Bremerton, WA) with SIS to learn about several projects, chief among them a way to reduce the amount of time engineers and planners that write work instructions for the USS JIMMY CARTER (last of the Sea Wolf class of three submarines, curtailed in the 90s because they were too expensive) have to spend searching manually through scores of scanned electronic documents describing all the changes to the ship’s components. It really is a tedious process. It felt weird going on a trip without a Navy uniform, but I have done that once or twice in my career and I am sure I will get used to it as I do it more. The members of the SIS and Siemens Product Line Management team (all U.S. citizens) that are part of the project are very personable and we work well together. The meetings were Monday (necessitating a Sunday flight to Seattle) and Tuesday in downtown Bremerton, which has been significantly “cleaned up” since Pamela and I were stationed there in 1997. I was on the same Wednesday am flight to Newport News with the three members of the Siemens team so we took the ferry to Seattle from Bremerton Tuesday evening and stayed at the Seattle Hilton. I could tell these three guys were a lively crew when they ordered a second round of drinks at a bar in Bremerton next to the ferry terminal just ten minutes before departure (they downed them faster than I would be able to drink a soda). Three of us walked on the ferry (no charge for pedestrians going to Seattle), but we hung out in the cafe so long that cars were just about to drive off the ferry when we headed to the car deck. At this point, taking an emergent bathroom break was a tactical error because two of us (I was one of the two) got separated from the driver who knew where the car was. The two of us ran down to the car deck trying to spot the car, a black Ford Expedition (hard to miss in the small ferry thus instilling a rising sense of panic when we did not see it right away and car engines were revving to debark). The deck hands seemed amused by the confusion and frenetic activity on our part (I expected something more like a “You IDIOTS” tongue lashing), which suggests that people getting lost trying to find their cars in the ferry might be a frequent occurrence. My partner made a quick cell call to the driver (I was surprised the call could be completed in the ferry cargo area) and found out the car was on the second deck. With cars roaring off the ferry, we ran up to the second deck, but did not see the car. My contribution to reducing the craziness was reminding the team lead that the reason he could not find the car on the port side, second deck was the driver told him during the preceding frantic cell phone call that the car was on the STARBOARD side. After debarking the ferry, we had some challenges finding the hotel so we spent 30 minutes driving up and down 6th and 4th streets and asking random pedestrians and drivers stopped at stop lights how to find it. The Siemens team appears to eschew GPS and my iPad was in the back of the Ford Expedition so  I could not reach it. Of course, no one we asked knew where the Hilton was and this is another reason why some males (for all you ladies reading this) refuse to lose time by stopping to ask for directions, but I believe we maintained solidarity with the males of the race because technically we did not stop specifically to get directions, we just asked people when we were stopped at traffic lights (thus losing no time while we were driving around in circles).

I attended a meeting of the Virginia chapter of the American Nuclear Society with my friend Gerry Wojcik (“wo-chak”). I almost missed riding to the event with Gerry because I waited for 45 minutes outside the wrong house (one digit off on his street address in my contacts list). I figured out something was amiss when a neighbor of the house where I was waiting eyed me very suspiciously a couple of times as he walked around his porch and garage. I stepped out of the car to let him know I was waiting for Gerry. He replied that “Dave wasn’t home.” A few more verbal exchanges clued me into the fact that no one named Gerry lived there and the neighbor had no idea who Gerry was. Since I did not think it likely Gerry and his wife Debbie had moved right after Gerry invited me to accompany him to the meeting, I started driving up and down the street trying to recognize Debbie’s car, which I have seen many times when Debbie came to visit Pam. That did not work (Debbie was out) so I briefly considered peeking into back yards looking for yard play furniture I remember the Wojcik’s having from a visit years ago. Since Virginia has very liberal concealed firearm carry laws, I decided this might be a bad idea so I entertained the idea that maybe I was just a digit off in the address. I saw an SUV with a military sticker parked just a few houses down so I parked my car in front of the house and knocked on the door, rehearsing in my mind what to say if the person that answered the door did not look like Gerry and was carrying a firearm. Being dressed in a jacket and tie probably worked in my favor, but you never know if someone has it out for classily dressed encyclopedia salesmen. Fortunately for me, Gerry answered the door. We drove to Richmond, which gave me a chance to introduce Gerry to the REI store there (he did not even know what REI was). The post-dinner presentation was about a training video Dominion Power had made documenting lessons learned from a steam line rupture that occurred at the Surrey nuclear power plant in 1986. While I thought the video was well done and enjoyed the meeting, I think I really benefited from learning during the pre-presentation safety brief (yes, this is just as anal retentive as it sounds) that escalators are not stairs and attendees were warned not to walk up the escalators as they exited the building at the end of the evening to avoid incurring the wrath of Dominion Energy’s safety professionals that just might analyze post meeting videos of attendees exiting the building. If it has been determined that is not safe to walk up escalator steps when you are moving at the same speed they are, one wonders how it could ever be safe to walk up or down stairs, since the relative motion between you and the steps is exactly the same. Sigh.

We had a meeting with Beau’s caseworker at the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services, Matt Luther, on 28 October. There is funding now to provide Beau job training and placement assistance, but we cannot really start Beau in a program (of his choosing, of course) until after we get back from Europe. This is a very good sign. The next step is for Beau to motivate himself to actually choose a program and stick with it. Both will be challenges for Beau since he is about 4-5 years (by my rough estimate) behind his peers in maturity level. He is very high functioning in many circumstances, but lacks a range of skills needed to be successful in just about any job. Pamela and I are optimistic that he can learn those skills over time, however.

We have moved back to Yorktown temporarily to be closer to the hospital in Hampton where Pamela gets her radiation blasts. It is right around the corner from where we used to live on Bugle Court. We really enjoyed staying at the house of our dear friends, the Creedes, in Norfolk (thanks Sherryl and Jon), but this location makes the travel time to/from the hospital much shorter, which is easier on Pamela. We are staying in a small, two bedroom  extended stay hotel room with a kitchen (that includes stove and large refrigerator) and *three* TVs (one in each bedroom and one in the living room). Beau really liked the change at first, but now he is getting bored, as one might expect. He does not have many interests outside of video games. His attitude deteriorates even further when he does not take his medications, which is a frequent occurrence unfortunately. The biggest change for Pam and me is the size of the bed (don’t worry, the rest of this paragraph is G-rated). Sherryl and Jon had a wonderful King-sized bed, but our bed is a Full and we are not used to a bed that large. We like being closer to each other despite the blanket wars that ensue when Pamela (also known as “Burrito Woman” when she wraps herself in the covers) goes into “attack” mode and starts rolling around. With a King-size bed, we cannot even tell when the other person is *in* bed (it feels like they are over the horizon). The bed in the hotel is a Full so it is a much better “fit” for us.

For me, the most interesting part of the move from Norfolk to Yorktown on 30 October was the mystery of my missing running shoes. I had a pair of running shoes that I use as general purpose footwear by the door the day before we left, but I noticed they were missing as we collected our stuff to load it into the car. Jon and Sherryl had left the previous day (their return to the ahead overlapped with our stay by a week, which sure was nice) and I did notice that Jon had left a pair of running shoes by the door, which was very suggestive of someone literally “walking off” with my shoes. The mystery was solved a few days later when Jon called Pamela to ask if she knew who might have sneaked the wrong shoes onto his feet since he would have never failed to notice he was wearing shoes of a completely different color that had laces that were much shorter than the laces of his normal shoes. As you can imagine, I got the blame (for making it easy for Jon to confuse my shoes with his) again by Pamela. I had a similar problem with missing shoes years ago when Rich, his wife Valerie, Pamela, and I were cleaning out Pamela’s father’s house in Sacramento after her dad died. I stationed a pair of loafers near the door (as is my custom since I don’t wear shoes inside living spaces) and Rich threw them in the dumpster as he was in the process of cleaning out the closet by the front door. Later in the evening, Rich made disparaging remarks about my choice of footwear while the four of us were out at a restaurant. Pamela was not sympathetic then either ("What did you expect leaving your shoes where my brother could throw them away?"). Sigh.

I bought new iPhones for Pamela and my father when they became available for Sprint last month. Pamela really likes hers and how well it integrates with her Mac. My dad keeps saying things like, "This phone does so many things, I am not sure if I am dialing people or sending missile codes to someone." It is a good thing for him that the iPhone 4S has the ability to take audio you speak into it and convert it to text because my father is struggling with the virtual keyboard. He tried to type "We're at Red Lobster for my birthday" and between his typos and Apple's automatic corrections (that changes things like Pamela's ending emails to me with "your wife" to  "your Eiffel" when she enters "eife" instead of "wife") to "Where st Lovster fur mt both day". Beau felt compelled to remind me that I was wasting money purchasing such sophisticated smart phones for people that could not take advantages of their features as effectively as he could. I reminded him in turn that my father and Pamela were not likely to damage their phones as often has he did. I was fired by the phone insurance company with his last phone because we exceeded their limit for replacements in a year, 3. I have never been fired by an insurance company before, but I cannot say that I really blame them. I don't think their policy (and their ability to make money) is really geared for people like Beau.
I could not attend Pamela's weekly appointment with the doctor this week due to a meeting I had to attend for my new job. The brief meeting with doctor Kang follows Pamela's radiation blasting and it gives him an opportunity to evaluate how her skin is responding to the equivalent of laying on the beach on her back in a suit of armor for weeks with just her right upper frontal area exposed. He asked, "Where is your husband today?" because I like to accompany her to each of these appointments and ask lots of probing questions. I don't ask Dr. Kang about how the machine works since I already know he only has a basic knowledge of that, but I usually have plenty of questions to ask about dosage and geometry of the beam. Pamela responded to his question by saying, "He is at a work event this morning so you get a break from his ridiculously anal retentive questions this week" (or words to that effect. Pamela says he smiled, paused briefly to think, and said, "Oh, his questions are not that bad." I think the reason why he paused was to translate what probably first came into his head, something like "Good grief. You are so right. He is such a pain." I guess he thought better of saying that.

Pamela bought electronic cigarettes for Beau last month. We like the fact that he does not have to inhale smoke to satisfy his nicotine addiction (which he is going to have for a long time given his susceptibility to tics and compulsive behavior). Beau does not like the fact that we won’t let him use them in the car or inside with us. I know the “smoke” is just water vapor, but I cannot stand to watch him smoke.

We hope you have a great Thanksgiving. Check this blog in the weeks ahead to see how our trip is progressing. I guarantee that the updates will not be very long while we are traveling, but I will give brief updates about what we are doing and seeing and will be taking notes to support more detailed accounts of our (mis)adventures after we get back.

Love, Ralph, Pamela, and Beau


Soule Family Christmas Letter 2012

Soule family Update 13 October