The measure of

M.P.H. Highest degree earned. GS-level. Annual compensation. Party affiliation. Years to retirement. Number of overpriced caffeinated beverages consumed before noon. Washington, DC has specific metrics for success, for valuing one’s life, productivity, and family.

It was shortly after a friend moved from DC to Seattle, that Susanne received a call from him. He’d just come home from a party.

“You won’t believe it out here,” he said, almost breathless with excitement. “When someone asks, ‘what do you do,’ they don’t mean, ‘what is your occupation?’ They want to know your hobbies!”

Hobbies. Northwest hobbies happen largely outside. Hiking. Snowshoeing. Rafting or kayaking. They certainly have a lot of nouny verbs out here, that’s for sure. People, on average, seem willing and able not to string their identity and their vocation together, at least the way many folks do back on the east coast. “What do you do” there is met with, “I’m a contractor,” or “I’m at Census,” or “I’m an analyst,” which also wins the in-blog post prize for most vague job title ever, even worse than “project manager.” And these job titles are not transferrable outside the Beltway. Nobody in Walla Walla understands or gives a fig what I used to in DC, and I can try explaining it in a 25-50 word paragraph. It still isn’t comprehensible to normal people.

Out here, the vineyards and wheat fields and fish lifespan dictate that seasons still matter. Time isn’t gauged in project lifecycle terminology, it’s measured in the tiny center of the wheat chaff, or when the viticulturist-inclined farmer thinks it’s safe to remove the protective plastic sleeve from the 1- and 2-year-old grape vines. Or at the start and stop of the wine tourism season in Walla Walla, and the unofficial start and end dates of the summer, when people flock to western Idaho for good camping weather. There isn’t enough industry here to vie with the earth’s own grand calendar, to make people forget that once upon a time, it mattered to your livelihood that it was autumn or spring. Washington, DC only has one perpetual election season, after all. Even though the city is built on old farmland.

Spring, meanwhile, seems to have hit a little early, with the trees budding already and some very early greenness appearing in the wheat fields. Maybe soon the daffodils will come up, Stravinsky-like, with swooping wind instruments and a thunderous percussion. The ducks at the pond will start teaching very little babies to swim and jump into the water, only taking on flying in the mid-summer. People will talk about loving spring in the desert again. Bright’s chocolatiers will sell more ice cream than they have in months. Strolling down Main Street to get some will involve hearing a lot more people in the wine tasting rooms, and seeing many more cars from Seattle, but you still can’t call them traffic. You’ll be able to spot the visitors because as they walk they’ll talk about how quaint everything is. DC tourists marvel at the architecture and the monuments, but they usually still feel a bit wary, as if violence could break out next to them at any moment. Here in Walla Walla, it’s a pickpocket’s dream, because nobody, even the residents, ever has their guard up. And we’re only 3 miles from a maximum security prison.

A few years ago the soccer coach of the men’s team at the small liberal arts college here flippantly and quickly agreed to take the team to the prison for a game. It wasn’t until the bus of them rolled into the prison yard, the razor-lined gate locking behind them that he felt any degree of panic. There they were, 20 of them, on a dirt field, locked in with something like 100 hardened inmates. Guards with automatic rifles stood at a few towers. Maybe they were excited to watch a match, or maybe they were worried about how this could go horribly wrong. Or both.

The college team started playing what I can only imagine was the most surreal game of their lives. I’m not sure who refereed the game, or even if there were refs on the field. Kick, run, kick, run, collide. The prisoners had come to play. The college team practiced together every day, knew their teammates’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Kick, pass, advance, the clock ticking up the minutes played. The score started getting lopsided, favoring the college. The coach started worrying about them running up the score, something Bill Belichick has never done in his life. Second half, still scoring. He wanted to pull his hair out. At least slow down, men. Don’t, no, don’t score again! Oh geez! Soccer games are not supposed to have scores of 20-2, or anything near that number.

Game finished, finally, and everyone was ragged, exhausted. The prison players high-fived the other team. Good game, good game, they said, walking in orderly lines. The college athletes piled back onto the bus, riding for five minutes and a series of circumstances away from the prison. I wonder how they look back on the experience, which measuring devices they use to interpret what that game was about.

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Categories: ponderings, transplanted

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One Comment on “The measure of”

  1. Dusti
    February 10, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    This made me miss Walla Walla super bad. But, beautiful writing.

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