I am exhausted from an entire day of doing nothing but reading the news. With the Trump spectacle ramping up, these days watching the news is a bit like watching cartoons of goose-stepping ducks on LSD.
Today we have the resignation of Matt Flynn and leaked evidence that he lied to the FBI, a federal crime that will almost certainly be covered up by the Republican Party. Donald Trump also hacked up a 90 minute speech that was about as as subtle and convincing as Carrottop restaging Othello using gag props. I think we are in the midst of a civil war between various centers of power in the government, each side possessing moles in the other camp, with the battles being waged primarily in the media. Though virtual and bloodless, it is nothing other than an old-fashioned revolutionary power struggle between elites. This current struggle is in a new phase, as neither side now believes the other will strictly abide by the law.
I am beginning to wonder if Trump’s advisers aren't intentionally releasing him on stage to perform his drunken grandfather act because they’re starting to worry too. Not that I can tell a difference during my listless eight hour day in the city, but I suspect that behind closed doors some awkward cost/benefit analysis is being hashed out by people who supposedly benefit from his election. Or let's hope so.
But mostly it seems like the attention being accorded to this sad man is cannibalizing my mind like some sort of parasitic alien. How did such a sad and comical human being as Donald Trump end up with the ability to suck up this much of the globe's attention?
I was started working for a small DC firm on October 1st. Six weeks before a woman had called me up out of the blue. She said that she was writing a proposal for a contract at the SEC and asked if I could use my resume. Sure, I said. Fine. At that moment I was largely spending my days at work arguing with people about politics online and schlepping over an hour each to do so. So, yes, fine. List me as a “resource” on your “proposal.”
Then I asked her how much the gig would be paid. She told me a salary that was 30% more than I had been making. Now she had my attention. Apparently I had hung around at that dismal job at the FDIC long enough for someone to decide to slap “senior” before my title. Great. Then she said the magic words: “And it’s a work from home job. I hope that fits your work style.” I said something bland about “enjoying the flexibility of work from home opportunities” while I pumped my fists in the air like a frat boy at a strip club.
So on the first I came into the company’s little office to sign some paperwork, and then learned that the SEC was still figuring out the work tasks. I was advised to go home and “review the SEC website.” And for a day or two I dutifully read the website, writing down a list of acronyms that honestly leave me only slightly better informed about that the hell I would be doing.
And since then? Quite honestly: nothing. And I mean, NOTHING. OK, I’ve practiced banjo a little, did some sporadic reading. Took long lunches. Made nice healthy meals for my lady to come home too. I ran some errands. Tool long walks around the neighborhood. Puttered around the yard a bit. Today I finished reading A Moveable Feast for a book club I started, Hemingway’s take at the very end of his life on his experiences as a writer in Paris. It made me want to write more and drink more, and since life is a series of compromises I choose the drinking path—walking down to the fantastic restaurant/bar in Hyattsville called Franklins. But in terms of productive, useful work? Zilch.
I look at my calendar for next week and on Tuesday there is a meeting with the clients. The meeting is like an ugly birthmark on my unblemished calendar. I know these clients are going to be a pain and I know they’re going to want something for the money they’re paying me. My idyll is coming to an end. But my doing nothing at the FDIC was exhausting, and I feel like it was good to balance it with a different flavor of inertia.
I am sitting at my desk deep within the bowels of the United States Postal Service main headquarters, spending my day trying to look as busy as possible while I wait for approvals to various pieces of software needed to do at my new job. My desk is a dreary little cubical that’s actually in a walk way to another cubical. Yesterday the guy next to me stopped me and said, “When you leave your desk, could you please push your desk all the way in. I know it’s a little thing but it’s a pet peeve.” Almost every single time I leave my desk I forget to push my chair in, usually resulting in a wave of anxiety and regret 15 minutes later as I’m eating in the food court. I’m sure this guy thinks I am being passive-aggressive, but I’m not. I am simply not used to my desk being able to impede the flow of office foot traffic.
There are two pieces of consolation to the dreariness of this work arrangement. The first is that after a probationary period, I will be able to spend three days a week working from home. When my boss mentioned this at the interview, I was so delighted that I practically felt a tingling sensation in my loins. The second consolation is much less sanguine. It turns out that my terrible workspace is merely a temporary arrangement until I’ve learned enough about the job that they can lay off the current person doing it, an older woman named Sangeeta. As far as I can tell, Sangeeta is completely oblivious to her fate and seems absolutely delighted to be able have a partner to share in the commiserations of the job.
The fact that I was told on my first day on the job that my hiring meant Sangeeta’s firing is a sign that the social skills may not be so hot here. Today Sangeeta became teary-eyed as she talked about the death of her dog. No, she doesn’t seem like the brightest mind in the firmament—there is an undercurrent of dismissiveness and irritation in the reactions of other coworkers to here—but I couldn’t help but be moved to pity by this oblivious and doomed lady who had to take off three days to grieve when her dog died.
Then there was the “all hands” staffing meeting, led by a man named Danny whose retirement lunch poster is pasted on the walls. Danny is a loathsome bureaucrat, a 30 year postal employee, who seems to have taken for various TV shows and movies that the best way to motivate employees is to berate, belittle, mock, threaten and lecture them. He sat imperiously at the head of the table, the chairs at his end of the long conference table conspicuously empty, as he asked for status on various projects. He asked one project lead when a project would be done, and the guy said for technical reasons it would require another week. “You said it would be done by today last week!” pounced Danny. “How can I trust you today when last week you said it would be done today?” He then went on to say that if projects slip “some people probably won’t be here next year.” Every status report was like this. He’d either tell the contractor he was being foolish in his approach or would lecture the guy as if he were a child or he’d grill him on deadlines.
Occasionally he’d pepper his harangues with little snippets from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. “The reason you are confused,” he’d say, “Is because you violated the fifth habit: listen to be understood. You have to listen carefully before speaking, which you did not do.” An ironic observation for a manager who does 80% of the talking at meetings.
Supposedly this guy is retiring, but the rumor is he may take his government pension but then come back as a contractor, effectively doubling his income. I am still waiting on another job that is supposed to come through. The company is the sole bidder on a contract, so the odds are good that the job will materialize. It would pay more money and would also be work from home most of the time.
At this point, there’s very little doubt in my mind that I will take it if it comes through, even if that means quitting this job after five days. And if it does come through, I will make sure to give Sangeeta a subtle heads up on my way out.
For some inexplicable reason I started reading the Joe Hill book Horns, which is about a character named Ig who goes on a bender one year to the day that his girlfriend was brutally murdered and wakes up to discover a pair of devil horns growing out of his skull.
For 2014, I am considering a novel experiment: purposely trying to make more money.
A perverse inspiration for this is my officemate, DeWayne.
DeWayne moved to this country from Nigeria about 20 years ago and exemplified the classic American immigrant story of working crappy jobs while going to night school in order to provide a better life for his family. DeWayne fell into the world of software testing, and he is currently being paid a handsome sum as some sort of testing expert--but, in reality, he spends most of his day managing the string of gas stations he owns in Maryland. DeWayne takes his job easy because, truth be told, he doesn't need this job. He could quit tomorrow and just run his businesses.
And here's the kicker: DeWayne is terrible at IT. I had to work with him to put together some instructional materials and I was shocked at his inability to understand basic software concepts. We ended up working on multiple versions of the same files because he seemed to find the concepts of document versioning unfathomable. I then had to repeatedly (and never quite successfully) explain the process of importing audio from one piece of software and slides from another piece of software into a third piece of software that stitched them together.
But how stupid is he? He owns four gas stations and could retire from the 9 to 5 tomorrow--whereas I basically break even every pay day. So I am leaning towards buckling down and actually "taking my career or another level"... or whatever. I don't want to be rich: but I do want to not feel like I'm two paychecks from calamity...
Ever since we moved to Washington we have been crammed in tiny apartments while we decided if we wanted to stay in Washington, DC. Last summer we made the decision to buy a house and stay. Almost as soon as we started looking at homes, we found a house that we liked: an old Sears Bungalow-style house in the historic district of the racially and economically diverse town of Hyattsville, MD. That stars magically lined up, and a buyer who put in an offer just before we did dropped out, and suddenly the house was ours.
The process of buying the house was fraught with all sorts of anxiety. We moved in about a month ago. Today I bought a new faux-Oriential rug from Ikea for my office. The room is taking on a weirdly Moroccan look. I bought a dog bed so Buck can look up at me adoringly while I fuck around on the internet. It makes me realize just how much I miss having my own place and my own room. I am feeling more settled than I have in a long time. It's a feeling I've longed for.
We have known for a long time that my father’s heart was weak, but this summer he started sleeping a good portion of the day and complained of chronic fatigue. His doctors discovered that he had an infected gallbladder and we had high hopes that having it removed would help him feel better. It didn’t.
The gallbladder was removed two months ago but my father continued to deteriorate. Three weeks ago he passed out in his doctor’s office and was promptly rushed to the hospital. His legs had became so swollen that they were literally oozing water or “weeping” as the nurses put it. His heart had become so weak he could no longer pump out his body fluid. The Friday before last, the news had actually been good: my brother told me that he seemed to be rallying and there was talk of letting him go home soon. It seemed the medications we're starting to do their job. Then quickly things went south. On Saturday, he woke up confused in the middle of the night and ripped out a tube, spilling blood all over the floor.
On Sunday, he lost the ability to control his arms and legs, which twitched incessantly, and he could no longer keep food down. He was showing signs of multiple organ failure. In short, he had begun the process of dying. And even five years ago, that’s probably what would have happened. But the doctors performed emergency cardiac surgery, placing a temporary mechanical device that would assist his heart in pumping. It was the day of my parent’s 54th wedding anniversary.
The procedure bought him enough time to get him to the point where he could have the proper surgery, which installed a mechanical pump to assist his left ventricle.
But how much time is really left? I spent most of last weekend visiting with him in ICU. He is covered with tubes and monitors and still spends a good portion of the day sleeping. Though he is largely lucid, after he wakes up he often seem confused. The doctors say that "ICU psychosis" is a common and hopefully transient affect of this kind of surgery.
Each member of the family is dealing with my father's mortality in a different way. My mother, who has always been a tough cookie, adopts a very Midwestern attitude of "this is bad but I have certain responsibilities." My brother's is stoic in a different way: he bring his notebook and looks up every piece of jargon the doctors mention. My sister, however, is more fragile. Our father is, unfortunately, a large portion of her social world and prefers denial. She believes everything will soon be back to normal.
But I could see in my father's ideas that he is spooked by his brush with death. He said to me: "It's like I was visited by the grim reaper--and would have been taken away if four cardiologists hadn't been standing in my hospital room."
For myself, I know that my father's time is very limited. But more than that, the main thing that brought tears to my eyes as I spent time with him was the haunted look in his eyes. Though I am overjoyed he has been given this extra time, at moments I wonder if it's cruel to force my father to experience dying two times.
I couldn't help but dredge up those childhood memories of telling the other boys that my father was the strongest, smartest and wisest man in the world-- and it was infinitely sad to see how frail and gray and worn he had become in just three months. My father had always told me how much he hated hospitals because he and his brothers spent two year taking shifts besides the bed of my cancer-ridden grandfather. And with that hospital smell in my nostrils and the sound of monitors beeping in my ears, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by a sense that life was fundamentally sad.
Lately I have been plugging away at some books I should have read long ago. A full list of the books I’ve blown off is shameful, though the shame lessens every year. There was a time when reading great books seemed a moral enterprise to me, a kind of duty to civilization—and by that standard I was a hopeless moral defective. English majors, even lazy ones like me, are trained to think that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But you you grow up in this great country of ours and discover that the unacknowledged legislators of the world are really billionaire superpac funders—and that the poets of the world are more like the unacknowledged line cooks at the IHOP down by the Salvation Army.
When I say I am trying to catch up on the great books, of course, what I mean to say is I am catching up on respectable books that won’t bore me to tears. I doubt that my last dying regret will be that I never finished a Thomas Hardy novel or never got around to reading Look Homeward Angel. At this point in my life, I am seeking a sweet spot between duty and pleasure—which is also, incidentally, how most married people approach their sex lives. The most egregious oversight I think has been To Kill A Mockingbird, which I never read because it was never assigned--and then I plugged the gap with Gregory Peck.
That will come soon enough. But in the meantime, prepare yourself for the awesome might of some perfunctory reviews of some books you probably read when you were 14.
I don’t know if we’ll stay in DC but I must say that for the last six months the city has seemed especially beautiful. Some mornings I bike to work and my route takes me along the National Mall. Usually I am rushing to make the 8:15am shuttle, and at that hour the streets are empty and the air is frosty and clear. The rush of the wind and the rasp of my breathing contributes to the effect of passing through town in a slowly moving bubble.
As I creep along the Mall I never fail to be surprised by the succession of world-famous landmarks. There’s the Capitol Building, there’s that National Gallery of Art, and there’s the Smithsonian Castle. And as I get closer, I can see the Washington Monument and the White House and the Lincoln Memorial. Other times my path takes me along the Tidal Basin, where I can see both the Jefferson and Washington memorials reflected in the water. Even after all this time, I still frequently stop and stare at the reflection of the marble on the water for a few seconds before moving along. Sometimes I amuse myself with thought that I am biking through the back of various coins and bills.
Having grown up in suburban Pittsburgh--seemingly 10,000 miles away from anywhere important--Washington, DC seemed less an actual city than a media construct. It was where this mythical being known as “the president,” a man I knew to be imbued with superhuman powers, resided. The place seemed about as real to me as Oz. In my adult life, I've tended to live in the second banana: not Massachusetts but Connecticut, not Seattle but Portland, not Arizona but New Mexico, and not New York but Philadelphia. To live in a place of undeniable importance is fascinating and novel.
I suppose those inclined to DC are a different breed from those inclined to NYC. People drawn to New York are those drawn to extremes of experience. But for my taste, the archetype of the perfect city is not New York but London. I prefer grace and cultivated urban beauty to the endless hyperactive rush of Gotham. I have always held with Evelyn Waugh: “For in that city [New York] there is neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy.” New York always seemed like a place to visit to me. At the same time, I always assumed I would despise Washington. I assumed that the egotism and hassle and bureaucracy would irk me. I am surprised at how much I enjoy being able to dip into a museum on a whim (today I saw Michelangelo's Apollo-David sculpture at the National Gallery). I love that the boundary between Rock Creek park and the National Zoo is murky; you can just sort of stroll in and visit and elephant an stroll out. I like the Boston-like historic neighborhoods and the tracts of green that permeate the city. And, having moved back into the city, I like that the things I like are a just a few Metro stops away.
Yoko is still frustrated at her job and keeps threatening to find a gig elsewhere. But one of my goals for 2013 is to get whatever else I need to get out of DC so that if opportunities arise elsewhere I can say that I had the experience I was meant to have in DC.
Earlier this month Yoko and I visited Asheville, a small city nestled in the North Carolina mountains. After a long day's drive we drove into town not really knowing what to expect. I knew the town had a reputation as an artists' haven, but didn't know what this meant for a place situated right smack dab in the middle of Appalachia. One of the last acceptable stereotypes left in America is that Appalachian people are dangerous inbreds living in squalid conditions. For a variety of reasons--the mythology not least among them--I have become increasingly fascinated with Appalachia.
We finally made it into town only to discover that Asheville was a thriving--and marketedly bohemian--small city. Nearly every street corner in the central business district was occupied by musicians, mostly with a folk/Americana bent. Given the city's Appalachian heritage, I suppose this emphasis on the folk music isn't so surprising. Walking through downtime, we heard a rich variety of folk styles: rootsy old-timey stuff, country-influenced Austin City limits stuff, early 60s collegiate folk stuff, bluesy stuff, singer songwriter-ish stuff. Our little stroll felt like a recapitulation of the entire history of 20th century American folk music.
As we turned onto College Street, the city's main drag, we encountered a sextet that looked like it had stepped out of a 1963 hootenanny: