Tag Archives: washington dc

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.

The 2010 Tour of Babies

Leaving or entering Walla Walla from anywhere more than 350 miles away entails, as previously documented on this blog, a minimum of 14 hours and multiple modes/legs of transportation. Our longest trip was our original relocation, which took seven days, and our shortest one occurred a few days ago, when we left for the airport at 9:15AM Eastern Standard Time and rolled into our garage at 8PM Pacific. Most of our commutes have run somewhere around 17 hours, which I suppose was mind-alteringly fast at some point in history. Lewis and Clark, for example, took 3+ years to reach the West Coast after leaving Philadelphia. And they didn’t even have Delta’s complimentary biscotti cookies, noted by me as the only high point of traveling on their airline.

Taking our three flights to Michigan, then spending 10 days at the inlaws, during which it snowed 7 times, and then gritting our teeth for what we hoped wouldn’t be an awful Detroit airport experience—seeing as the “underwear bomber” had been Motor City-bound—we made it to BWI Airport, found our luggage, took the shuttle to the car rental building, drove to have lunch with some friends, drove for an hour to our first host family’s house, and walked in the door. We were met, three inches past the threshold, by our 3-year-old friend.

“Would you like to play Candy Land with me? Would you like to play Candy Land with me? Would you like to play Candy Land with me,” she asked, sounding like Cameron Diaz after sucking down a couple of helium balloons.

I presumed she really wanted to get her inquiry across to us.

Her mother attempted to wave her away, saying that good hosts don’t accost their guests the nanosecond they arrive, but she would not be daunted.

“Come play Candy Land with me,” she said, switching to the declarative. I sensed we weren’t getting out of a game, and I grinned. One had to admire her panache.

We sat on the floor and played, and luckily, I remembered the rules from when last I played, in 1974. There seem to be some additional characters on the board, mostly in the form of princesses, that I don’t specifically recall, but I stumbled through with the whole card picking thing. If our friend selected any of the “princess cards,” the ones that send players to the gingerbread man, candy cane, ice cream cone, and so forth, she would begin a dance, which I quickly learned must be part of the new 21st Century version of Candy Land. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to recreate the exact dance moves, so I crossed my fingers that I’d only get the one or two gumdrop cards, slowly creeping forward through the Land that Candy Made.

And then we were done.

“Let’s play Candy Land,” she chirped, as if this were a new idea.

Occasionally she would start telling a story about people whom nobody in the room knew, including her parents. Were these people real or imagined? It didn’t help that in every retelling names and details would change, like watching Fox News discuss numbers of people attending a DC rally. She literally was a whirlwind of energy, doing impromptu impressions of the Tazmanian devil. We adored it.

A few nights later we visited some other friends who had a baby in September. This baby was cute and mellow, looking around the room, slowly twiddling his fingers and feet, enjoying his bouncy chair with a love he won’t see ever again, not that he’s focused on any element of nihilism at the moment. But he of course didn’t talk, was just past figuring out how to hold his head up. And it was in the showing off all the things he can’t do yet that we had our first taste on this trip of the plethora of baby-related products that one could buy if one was:

1. besmitten with copious amounts of spare time

2. an impulse buyer

3. a hoarder

4. disturbed enough to think that they needed even a quarter of these things

For they plopped the little guy into this irregularly shaped piece of plastic called a Bumbo, and there he was, sitting up. Their baby looked much like the one in the link—totally uninterested in this angle. But he really had no say in the matter.

The parents, for their part, wouldn’t put him in anything that he wasn’t enjoying, and he did seem pleased to be in the molded chair. Of course, he was so laid back he also enjoyed his bouncy seat, his parents’ arms, heck, it’s only a matter of time before he starts riding the German shepherd like a horse. I just couldn’t help wondering if I’m going to plunk down $40 for a Bumbo when I have a 3-month-old. Will I give my baby head hold up lessons so we can advance to the Bumbo faster? Will it be seen someday as an indicator for which day care kids can attend?

The next day we moved our temporary housing location to a new set of friends and their 21-month-old son. He is in the midst of his language explosion, so he has a lot more room to grow to get to our Candy Land aficionado’s vocabulary level, but these things come in time, or so I’m told. I arrived to his home and he was quiet, trying to remember me from somewhere, not sure if speaking would give anything away to me. Give this kid a job with the NSA.

Or maybe not. After only about 15 minutes, he was interacting with me. I won him over with blocks, apparently, in that I would make towers and he would knock them down, a blue-eyed version of Godzilla, and their IKEA table downtown Tokyo. Boom, went the blocks. Giggling, went the baby. At one point he picked up a bright red shovel and used that as an extension of his terrible power.

“Shuffle,” he squealed. “Fun!”

His words, more limited, sometimes bordered on incoherent, and we would all do our best to interpret them. This then made me understand that parents everywhere sometimes don’t have a clue what their kids are saying.

“Me go MILK fishy chol-nuff,” he said at one point.

“Ohhhh,” I said, not comprehending. Perhaps context would help me out, like when I was a high school sophomore in French 2. “And then what happened,” I asked.

“Fishy chol-NUFF!”

Clearly I wasn’t getting any closer. Although “nuff” was obviously important to the concept.

On Saturday we met up with yet another couple who have two children, a 4-year-old (well, really 4 and a half, she tells me) and a 6-month-old, who is a spitting image of the fat Buddha, with some wispy curly hair on top. If this child doesn’t grow up to be a Sumo wrestler, we will all be a little worse off. His father, it should be noted, is something like a 6-foot-5 rugby player. That he told me to come practice sometime with his team, when I still lived in DC, I can see in retrospect is truly laughable. By “come to practice,” he must have meant, “I’d like to bench press you.” And somehow I suppose I would be honored, though I bet I’m lighter than what what he can press, even with my 32 BMI.

Rugby player, 4 and a half year old and I wandered through Eastern Market, one of my favorite places on the entire East Coast, if I were asked to hierarchize it. The little girl is stunning to look at, clever, and is more than a little bit aware of both. One older woman recognized the two of them, and told him to watch out for her as she gets older, because she is going to bring the boys home. He declared that he wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned. And he shouldn’t be, for this kid has a wicked smart brain in her head, already.

We stopped in a children’s clothing and goods store, which he told me he calls “Bougie Baby.” The name is appropriate. They sell personalized crib covers for $90 and pacifier holders for $10. They had stocked strollers that had more options than my Honda CR-V. That the DC sidewalks are often made of very uneven bricks, well, that’s why they make strollers with shocks and struts. And in a full line of earth-friendly colors.

All week everyone wanted to know how our own baby making plans were coming along. I wondered idly if it wasn’t because they are more than ready to hand off all of the crap they’ve picked up since bringing their children into the world. Hopefully the shipping rates to Walla Walla will be cost-prohibitive, though secretly, I wonder if I can’t find a use for a dozen Boppies, or at least use one as a pillow on my next 15-hour journey out of town.

White people’s wants

During the last mayoral election cycle in Washington, DC, I couldn’t walk ten feet before some campaigner would come up and accost me. Shopping at Eastern Market. Walking down H Street in Northeast to catch a bus. Drinking coffee at the tax-thieving, now-defunct Murky Coffee on 7th Street SE. It was at this last location that one of the candidates herself, Linda Cropp, came up to me to stump, one-on-one.

“I’m here today because I want to tell people that this is everyone’s city,” she said, a bright red baseball cap sporting her name perched lightly on her head, presumably so as not to mess her hair too much.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by everyone’s city. Back in 2006, home prices were skyrocketing and “everyone” was getting priced out of living in the expensive District.

“It’s a great time to live in DC,” she went on, explaining that city residents have a median income of $82,000.

“Actually,” I said, “that’s the median income for the DC metropolitan area, including Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia. The DC-only median income is under $30,000. And I disagree with your vote on the ballpark last year—that thing is going to cost us taxpayers way more than  $800 million.” I smiled, like tacking on a gold star to the end of a painful root canal.

She smiled thinly, thanked me for my time, and moved on. But I wondered about the catering I’d just had. Cropp, an African-American woman from Georgia, many years in DC politics, and she was reading me as another white gentrifier of a historically black city. And how could I argue with that? Wasn’t I white (as per the US Census), and wasn’t I making my home in a refurbished (well, kind of) 1930’s-era apartment building? Why shouldn’t she stump to my perceived interests?

Except they weren’t my interests, even as I called 13th Street NE my home. And I’d overheard plenty of entitled conversations from new DCists who thought that their mere presence was bettering the city around them in something like a 5-block radius. “I just got a raise, I’m so glad DC will have a quarter of it in taxes,” “This is my city now,” and other comments not worthy of the time it takes to type them.

Watching the racial demographics of the city shift, other conflicts began to rise up in the late Williams-era/early Fenty years. Let’s put microphones in “residential” areas so police can pinpoint where gun shots have been fired. Let’s crack down on kids lighting fireworks on the 4th of July—hoodlums! Let’s crack down on prostitutes, because Giulliani had the right idea. Let’s reassess homes, because a lot of people seem to own their houses outright and they shouldn’t get to skirt their contributions to the city.

Fifteen years ago the city was 70 percent African-American. Today it is barely above 50 percent. Twenty thousand people of color left the city last year, and approximately 40,000 white people moved in. With them have come the Harris Teeter groceries, a Target store, loads more coffee houses (still no Pacific Northwest-style drive through espressos, though), and plenty more overpriced little bistros and eateries. During our vacation last week we shared one salad and each had a tea and a small dessert. $45, no kidding. I’d plunked money down like that before, but my salary was strong, so I didn’t flinch too much at it, even as a nagging doubt that I was getting ripped off could be heard in the recesses of my retail-addled brain.

Is this the city for everyone? Is this anyone’s vision? The gay strip bars of Southeast are gone, having been displaced for the brand-new, immediately awful Washington Nationals baseball team. Loads of condo building are still in some state of erection, all around the stadium. Where they’ve knocked down historic row houses they’re now putting up old-looking, new townhomes, a Rockwell version of DC. The people who staff services in the city—the hotel housekeepers, the baristas, the employees at that gleaming Harris Teeter—can’t afford to live in the city anymore, so they find 60s-era apartments in neighboring counties and ride into town, where they used to live. Crosstown buses aren’t as crowded anymore, with the white folk driving in carpools or biking. Whatever it takes to feel Grrrreat! about taking up city space.

If there were ever a bill that expressed the dire financial condition of a DC and the revised alignment of its politic, it’s got to be the nickel surcharge for all plastic and paper bags that went into effect this year. Doesn’t everyone have three or four Whole Foods canvas bags for their groceries? They’re only $10 each! Don’t we all love our planet enough to get rid of plastic bags? As for paper, well, you’re too far gone if you like those, or you’re trying to hide your 40-ounce malt. Those people should have to pay more, anyway.

Hey, DC’s H Street commission banned buying one 40-ounce a few years ago, even as they didn’t ban buying a six-pack of microbrew hefeweisen. I could see where things were going even then. Interest-only mortgages were the hot item, and the new owners didn’t like seeing drunk guys in Carhart jackets standing around on the sidewalks. It ruined their views of the other new apartment buildings. I’d moved into the neighborhood myself, a bit north of Lincoln Park, a couple blocks south of the H Street corridor.

“It’s up and coming,” one lady on the sidewalk told me as I was moving in. She was standing next to a woodpile. I found this odd because it was early September.

“Is it? That’s nice,” I said, sweating. September in DC is akin to the fourth circle of Hell, for those of you who have never experienced either. I can’t really recommend it.

I asked her why she had so much hardwood on her front lawn. Her brown brick house looked tiny compared to the apartment building that abetted it.

She explained that she’d thought she was paying for it to be stacked next to her house, but that the deliverymen had just dumped it and left. So I stacked the cord for her, and split several—okay many—of the bigger logs for her. Unbeknown to me, all the little old ladies of the street watched me, probably with one eyebrow raised in question as to my integrity. I passed the test, and I noticed that they—I was told to refer to them as old-timers for their age and longevity on the block—would always give me a head nod or hello when I saw them. I wasn’t sure I was very different from any other neighborhood newbie, but I tried to be respectful and appreciative of the history they had here. I was probably going to be just a blip in the time span of this place, and as it turned out, 5 years does equate to blip status. When I needed help a few months later getting a new mattress into my 3rd floor walkup, one of the old timers sent her grandson out to help me. He did look a little perturbed at first, especially upon seeing the narrow stairwells, but he and I got the mattress to the top and I gave him 10 bucks for his trouble. And two brownies, one of which I told him to give to his grandmother.

I miss having a neighborhood. I’m certain parts of Walla Walla have them, with their little give-and-take agreements: your kid can play on my lawn, do you mind if I park my car here this week, how about going into building a fence with me. But living right next to the campus recycling center, and a student building, we are not primed for friendly neighbors. So I wonder what has happened to 12th and 13th Streets NE, where I lived by myself and then with Susanne. I wonder who lives in my old apartments, and if they’re as tentative about the space they occupy as I was. I wonder when it will be when I have real neighbors again. And I wonder what is happening to DC, and if it is losing itself as it loses the people who have held its history for so long.

Potholes never move

On Tuesday I met an old friend for lunch. She’s also a life coach, and extremely new age, if one can say that spirituality comes in degrees. She’s said more than once that there’s a reason I found myself in a little town as isolated as Walla Walla, since my writing wasn’t really happening in the busy bustle of DC. Well, I have oodles of time to write now.

She’s from Nebraska, which I can only imagine, having never set foot in the state. In my mind it’s somewhere between the musicality of Oklahoma and whirling dervishes of Kansas, a state for whom I can only name three places: Omaha, Lincoln, and Platte, because my grandmother had relatives there. All the people I know from Nebraska, who also happen to number three, know farm life well, remember it fondly, and are the kind of folks who proudly announce, when they first meet someone, “I’m from Nebraska,” as if we’ll all have the same reference point. I’m quite sure none of us do. For easterners who only seldom cross the Mississippi, Nebraska is part of the “other” United States. We figure they’re flying the same Stars & Stripes, as us, but beyond that, it may as well be the surface of Mercury. Now that I live westward of ole Miss, I know this isn’t true. They’re just like easterners except quieter, often working with fewer resources, and ruggedly independent. They don’t need the east like we think they do.

What I’ve gathered from my friend is that she is a 21st Century person born nearer to the start of the 20th. She’s never more than nine inches from her PDA, and she handles it with an ease that I, a Generation Xer, never seem to manage, always cursing at a typo on my texting screen and feeling the urgent need to press BACK sixteen times to fix my mistake. She just hammers through on her iPod or whatever new device has just hit the market. She’ll have an Android sometime in the next hour, I’m sure. And for her it’s more than simple, or even amazing technology;  it’s the universe helping us feel more connected to each other, because there’s a positive force that comes with being proximate to our fellow life travelers.

She’s helped me beyond measure, as she helps everyone around her with her warm smiles, booming laughter, and occasional quick frowns that pop up when she wishes you’d behave differently. She tells me that I have one of the loudest interior critics she’s ever met, and that the next time it hovers over me I should just tell it to go away and retire. Such silliness, I have thought, at these kinds of declarations from her. And then the next time I think about writing and I castigate myself for thinking I have the right to waste my time like this, I hear her:

Oh, you again? You know, I am really so sick of you. It’s time for you to retire.

Could it really be that simple?

I look around. Nobody but me is in earshot. I speak her words into the air.

And then I start a new short piece. One that’s been kicking around for eight years or so, and that I’m positive I started writing a long time back. I can find no evidence of it, but I have sharp visions in my brain, scenes and characters and a plot surprise at the end of 3,500 words. I hate starting something all over when I know there’s even a piece out there, my wounded Marine on the battlefield that I’ve promised to retrieve.

I give up the ghost and start over, figuring that at least this way I won’t be burdened by past efforts.

I thank my friend for helping me with a sageless exorcism.

This trip has been good for pieces of me I’ve neglected since moving out west—the ones with unbridled optimism, the sanctuary for my bones by the old and familiar, the joy that comes with knowing how to avoid every pothole on a certain road you haven’t traveled in a long while. It shows me what I’m missing from Walla Walla, even though there are many things I enjoy and even love about that place. I’m missing the fullness of a boisterous life. I don’t know as many opinionated, brash people, have as many options, or have to tune out much noise. Even the frequent wailing of firetruck sirens has heartened me since we returned to the nation’s capitol, the only time Susanne has been here since President Obama took office. Walla Walla doesn’t have enough noise for me, although its springs come close to meeting my requirements for color, with the bright green, baby wheat, bold blue skies, and rainbow-infused balloons during the annual hot air stampede. I can relish Walla Walla for the quiet and agree with my Nebraskan friend that it’s given me—forced me, even, into—writing time, pushing me to reconsider what success means and who I am capable of being in this lifetime.

But while I’m here in DC, I can at least try to unite these selves—past and present—a little, and enjoy all of the good things in my life, which starting with Susanne, are plentiful.

The beltway is no cause for alarm

My life working for the Federal Government as an IT person wasn’t far removed from your average Dilbert comic strip.

Web Developer: Hey Ev, please take a look at this one screenshot and tell us what we should change with this very complex information system.

Me: Uhhhhh, just from one screenshot?

WD: It’s all we could do on the color printer.

Me: Why?

WD: Our office manager is making budget cutbacks.

Me: Ah. (Stares at printout close to face) Well, it looks like you’re calling the system three different things.

WD: Just pretend they’re all the same.

Me: Okaaaaay. Which is the actual name?

WD: EKS.

Me: Can we spell out the name for new users?

WD: Just new users?

Me: No, spell out the name at the top here, so that even new users will know what system they’re working in.

WD: Oh, I don’t think we can do that.

Me: Why not?

WD: Because it’s an image.

Me: You could just put text there.

WD: Oh, but then it might look a little different on people’s screens.

Me: Well, not very different.

WD: The communications director wants it to look the same on everyone’s computers.

Me: That’s not actually possible, you know.

WD: Don’t tell her that.

Me: Okay, okay. How about we just change the color of this black font?

WD: Okay, why?

Me: Because against this dark blue background, it’s a little hard to read, is all.

WD: Well, but it matches a paper brochure.

Me: I’ve never seen a paper brochure for this.

WD: It came out in 1987.

Me: Uh. So we need to match it why?

(Pause)

WD and Me in unison: Communications Director.

Me: I don’t think I have any recommendations, then.

WD: Okay, great! Thanks!

Coming back to visit DC has been unexpectedly revealing; I almost instantly reverted back to my aggressive-is-defensive driving skill set, weaving and bobbling a tiny Hyundai Accent on the BW Parkway on the drive in from the airport. I feel like I’m getting out of a clown car every time I park, and like I’m entering a parallel Universe of Small Things each time I climb inside, folding into myself like an origami swan. Or maybe it’s like a beam of light being crushed into nothingness, since the interior is small enough to be black hole-sized.

I cavorted through the streets of the city, not stopping to take in the things I’ve seen many times, like the Washington Monument, Union Station, the semi-empty used car lot on Bladensburg Road. But I could feel the energy from them, remembering who I’ve been before, and enjoying their proximity once again. I certainly have a fondness for the Colville Street Patisserie in Walla Walla, as I’ve remarked before, but I don’t feel any sense of being when I’m walking down Main Street like I do on the grimy marble curbs of the District, and I’m not sure yet why that is.

I lunched with some of my old Social Security coworkers in a tavern yesterday that was all Baltimore: framed posters of Ravens glory, hard-looking women with over-styled hair, “limited” drink refills, and a certain filmy substance on all of the wood surfaces that gave you the impression they cared as much about you here as if you were a guest in their homes. I was back. We chatted about things, and although I wanted to hear how they were doing, they kept asking me about Walla Walla, so I coughed up all the funny stories I could recall. It helped that I was in a company of people who presumed, first and foremost, that I have competence; sitting around on my ass at home has almost erased my sense that I am good at some things other than sitting on my ass and memorizing lines from NCIS, just in case I have the opportunity to throw them into conversation. I was hoping for but didn’t get pictures of new spouses or children, but we caught up nonetheless. With them having to get back to work, a concept with which I was suddenly reminded, I hopped back on the freeway and battled the self-important traffic of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, feeling a little sleepy from my chicken salad and kaiser roll. My “limited” drink refill apparently equated to no refill at all, and I needed a nap. I could have taken in the cityscape, the Potomac, the Pentagon, as I sped back to my host’s house in Arlington, spitting distance from where I used to live, but instead I got a song from Ladytron stuck in my head that used to play during my long commutes home. Apparently my brain saw it fit to replay for me.

Crystal ball persuasion

Back at the beginning of the year, I posted 5 predictions for 2009. I’ll just note that I was unequivocally correct on numbers 1 and 5. Number 4 is kind of right, in that I think Mrs. Obama has been putting herself out there as a champion for children, especially children of color and in the working class. She’s not sticking to uncontroversial events like book expos on the Mall (much as I appreciated having the chance to get my Sandman #1 signed by Neil Gaiman himself, so thank you, Laura). I still think Jon Stewart might leave the Daily Show, since there are other big gaps in the late night time slots now—can anyone argue that 5 nights of Jay Leno at 10 o’clock aren’t 5 nights too many? As for number 3, well, I think the health care bill in Congress is testimony to the forces against abortion, but I wouldn’t call them quiet, and I wouldn’t say they rise—yet—to the level of vitriol we’ve seen against getting gay married.

What I absolutely failed to understand last January was how ridiculously insane and ludicrous everything would get. It was one thing to blame sub-prime borrowers for the housing market failure. Who doesn’t like to pick on people with bad credit, after all? But really, death panels? “You lie!” shouted in the chamber during the freaking State of the Nation address? The entire Fox News staff schlocking gold as an investment for the masses? Hannity’s time-lapse magic to exaggerate the tea baggers’ crowds at a rally in DC? And hell, the Tea Baggers? I couldn’t dream this crap up!

Or could I? Okay, I’ll take a stab at it. I’ll try and springboard off of some of the more outlandish headlines from 2009. Feel free to chime in with your own flash forwarding stories for next year.

1. Glenn Beck, Tom O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh officially begin a new third political party, called the Gold Fox Party getting Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney to agree to run again in 2012. All kinds of donations come in, most in the form of gold, which drives the Federal Election Commission nuts as the price of gold keeps climbing and putting donors over the maximum donation limit. After 6 months, the party collapses when Glenn and Rush are discovered receiving kickbacks and prescription painkillers from a laid-off worker of ACORN.

2. Sarah Palin’s own political career is finally dismantled when the public learns that Trig is the offspring of her and Levi Johnson, Bristol’s now-ex-boyfriend.

3. The US media goes crazy with tons of stories about the new “green economy,” even though the GDP is only up 0.4 percent and there’s only one new factory for producing solar panels that because of NAFTA, has opened in Mexico. The Mexican government is dismayed to find out that all of the physical barriers we’ve erected in the last 5 years aren’t any good at keeping illegal US citizens out of Mexico.

4. An independent study comes out revealing that 72.4 percent of people previously detained at Gitmo know nothing about al Qaeda’s operations from 2001, much less anything that could help counter-terrorism officials now. They have, however, secretly formed a support group with tips on making their prison lives better, including  how to make a lovely bisque from ephemera, though they can’t find any in the middle of Illinois. They turn to Martha Stewart for advice on working with dandelion greens.

5. The CEOs of AIG, JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers, and Countrywide Mortgage take their latest year salaries, pool them together, and buy an island in the Carribean, setting up a new government with so many tax shelters for the rich that they make a fortune in taking other people’s money at their new banks. They also send out a message to Roman Polanski that he should find a way to get out of Switzerland and come to Moneytopia so that he can direct a film about their story. It wins 8 Golden Globes and 2 Academy Awards and is hailed by critics as an “opus of epochal storytelling, delivered by the master storyteller himself.”

Baby showers grow no flowers

Last February Susanne and I hosted a baby shower for our good friends who, obviously, were having a baby. There are a lot of parties in and around DC, I suppose, on a daily basis, and not just because two and a half million people live there. I think parties of all sorts — showers, cocktail parties, work happy hours, holiday get-togethers, poker nights — are part and parcel of the culture there. It’s something that after living there for more than a decade, I now take for granted. I presume that everyone knows all of the etiquette around hosting, attending, and being made the spotlight of social occasions. And that’s not to say that I think every party is like the parties of DC. I certainly don’t think it’s standard for to see people from the Department of State and Department of Commerce to get into an argument about which of their jobs is more important. Although on the other hand, I suppose that fight happens in some form at many parties no matter where they’re held.

But DCists do have a protocol for these things. If it’s informal, an evite goes out to a few or everyone the host has ever met, so you look down these long, multi-page lists of names and email abbreviations trying to figure out who’s been invited, and it soon starts to look like the streaming green nonsense characters in the Matrix movies. If it’s formal, you’ll get an invitation in the mail — in which case you have no idea who else may be coming, but depending on the event, you can guess. 

The emphasis on knowing who else will be there isn’t to determine whether you yourself should show up, it’s to ascertain the annoyance and idiosyncrasy factor of the event. Will there be a lot of really cool “kids” (and by kids, I mean mid-to-late 30-somethings who still shop at Abercrombie & Fitch) there? If so, bring your Foucault references and general disdain for establishment.* Expect a crowd mainly of the host’s coworkers? Get ready for a support group masquerading as soiree. A bunch of folks from Baltimore? Don’t be surprised if you see people putting ice cubes in their pinot grigio glasses, hon. I don’t know why, it’s just a thing I’ve noticed.

All of these differences, of course, are important because they help you meet the expectations for the event and have fun.

In Walla Walla, it is different. Forget evites — I’ve sent out two so far and only about 25% of the people who come to the event have RSVP’d on the Web. Forget even having a distinct idea of who to invite or who may wind up arriving on one’s doorstep. Instead of the East Coast “it’s my birthday and here’s who I want to see” mentality, it’s more of a “oh, don’t do anything for little ole me” sense. But friends, being who they are by definition, affectionate for their pals, say, “oh no no no, we need to do something, so let’s have a party.” And then each friend runs off to his or her own corner to plan a fete of the grandest proportions. Thus, the more friends one has, the more parties that may be taking place, on the same night, with the same people, same themes, and potentially, same bag of chips.

Again, DC has its own issues. Our baby shower last year, for example, was marked by an older couple — longtime family friends of one of the new parent’s parents — who were spirited, to say the least. The gentleman walked in, asked if we had free long-distance, and when we said we did, asked to use the phone. In fact, he asked Susanne to dial it for him, and then proceeded, during the entire shower, to talk on the phone in an attempt to get Dubai Airlines to hook him up with a cheaper flight to Uzbekistan. His wife, meanwhile, refused to eat anything we’d prepared because apparently she only eats once a day, and only at salad bars, so Ruby Tuesday is kind of a way of life for her. Everyone else, for their parts, seemed to enjoy themselves, despite the occasional holler from the husband, who had made his way upstairs to our bedroom, where he’d sat on the bed to argue with the airline.

In this context, we are again going to a baby shower this weekend. Actually, we’re the site of a baby shower and we’re attending another. For the same person, and for the reasons I listed before — that friends have gone off and made plans without conferring with each other. I’m not sure if we’ll have the kind of personalities one finds out in the east, but we may have a Baby Shower Meets Groundhog Day. Only time will tell.

 

*Now that Barack Obama has been elected President, these folks have a lot more conversation time on their hands, since there is no evil Bush/Cheney administration to bash. It seems to have been upsetting for them.

Blue light special, DC style

I was looking at the throngs of people who mashed into DC’s 69 square miles for the inauguration yesterday, getting wistful for a time, and then it hit me that they were in, in fact, the District of Columbia. Those long lines of portable restrooms were there because there aren’t a lot of places to use the bathroom; you wind up buying some diet peach Snapple product that expired in 2003 just so you can be called a “customer” and get a grimy key to a suspicious-looking toilet. I thought about the clusters of RVs that sell fake FBI shirts and crappy plaster Capitol buildings on far more average tourist days than this. They must have done some big time product procurement in advance of the millions of folks visiting. 

 

In reality, there is no such thing as clean coal banner

In reality, there is no such thing as clean coal banner

DC in general, though, tends toward the dodgy business practices. Consider the following:

1. A woman walking home from work one day is approached by two rough-looking men who have a deal for her: a brand-new Culligan water machine, complete with 6 or 7 10-gallon water jugs. One had been leaning up against a white, unmarked truck, while the other, just to add a little something special to the business exchange, looked nervously around the intersection, presumably to identify any other potential customers. The entire kit and kaboodle was rather undervalued at something like $40. The woman’s inquiry about how to continue water service was met with an “uh, you can just call the company, or something.” Or something indeed.

2. A friend of ours was offered free cable from some random cable guy if only she’d perform her own service on him. “Cable guy” in DC, just to clarify, amounts to a guy in a beat-up Toyota pickup truck with a “No Fear” sticker on the crooked back bumper. This particular cable guy did his very best to live up to the standard, even though the standard is about 2 inches off the ground.

3. Leaving a parking garage one evening, the cashier told us she didn’t have any change. This could have meant that A) she didn’t have any change, B) she didn’t care to give us the change she did have, C) she was saving up for a new iPod. Of course it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility that she round down our ticket cost until she could give us the next bill she did have. We just had to overpay. Okay, that’s not really an example of “discounted” services, but it does show that sometimes in the nation’s capitol, the lines get a little blurred.

4. A popular coffee shop, Murky Coffee, just off the Eastern Market Metro stop, was shut down by the city for not paying its sales tax. By the time officials shuttered the doors, the owner owed more than $400,000. For coffee sales. Didn’t exactly take overnight to rack up that much back tax debt. As one friend put it, “all those times I paid an extra $2 because I had to go to the ATM since they would only take cash? That really pisses me off.” So much for cheap coffee.

5. In response to the revelation, previously covered up by the city, that DC water was laden with lead, city officials started giving out free Brita filters to households. That they didn’t plan much in the way of redoing the plumbing infrastructure — well, let’s not pay attention to that. People got something for nothing. Lead poisoning! Fast forward about 8 years or so and the city stopped short of replacing all of the bad pipe — if you guessed that African-American dense area of Anacostia, you win a prize. The prize is a cheap Culligan water system.

I sure hope the tourists enjoyed DC!

All around the Hannukah bush, the Hannukah bush, the Hannukah bush

Boxing Day was our pretend Christmas, and I started off by stuffing a 22-pound turkey with my mother’s recipe for dressing goodness. Such an enormous bird was a bit beyond the needs of a 7-person group with one vegetarian and two minors, but as it was a free gift from Shop Rite, how could my sister refuse? So four days after coming out of the freezer to thaw, it was still solid ice inside. Susanne and I ran some warm water from the tap in it for about 45 minutes (sorry, Connecticut water resources staff), and considered it good enough to get started. My surgically repaired sister made it to the table long enough to enjoy the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed spinach, and salad, and I later brought her a slice of the cheesecake her friend Sherri and I had made. I wondered vaguely how cheesecake must taste when you’re drugged on Oxycodone and butter shots. I suppose I should ask Rush Limbaugh, since that guy has clearly had his fill of sweetened cheese.

We went for a visit to the mall with the girls so they could use their gift cards, and I was astonished to see that there is now a vendor selling cutesy underwear to teenage girls. My nieces came out of the Aerie store with peace symbol thongs, because how better to support world peace than by wearing a small strip of fabric that cost $20?

Afterward we went duck pin bowling which I can handle with my bad knee, since the balls are the size of my palms. Duck pin bowling is a treat — the tiny pins crackling like snapped twigs, and the girls cheering each point. We came back and made some turkey soup and dumplings and then retreated to the solace of the hot tub, which was a fine way to mark the end of each day there.

Monday morning we kissed the gang goodbye and road down to DC to see our old pals and their families. With each day, the frustration of the snowy fortress back in Walla Walla receded and we visibly exhaled into the places we visited back in our old stomping grounds.

Don’t let the door hit you

This time last year, Susanne was mulling a job offer to move out to what we thought at the time was the West Coast. And what we thought at the time would be a cute little house in a quaint little town with lots of promise of new adventure and experiences. Also last year around now I was finally starting to recover from a surgery and a subsequent major infection. I was itching to get back to the office and sink my teeth into some projects.

 

our xmas eve abode

our xmas eve abode

 

 

We received, in fact, all of our wishes. Susanne took the job, the house sure is cute from the outside, the town is indeed quaint, and we’ve had the new experience of purchasing and installing snow chains. We’ve also sampled some local wines and cuisine, met some new people, had a fun trip cross-country, and seen a major natural wonder up front and close.

Before we left DC, Susanne defended her dissertation and earned her Ph.D., we introduced our families to each other, we got married (twice, in fact), and hosted a whole slew of memorable parties and get-togethers with friends. I at least felt like a successful person loved by many and complete with two ACLs in my knees.

To say this past fall has been a let down would be a large understatement. It’s hard to move anywhere, let alone on the other side of a continent. It’s challenging to walk away from a very secure, well paying job and try to plant stakes with people who don’t know you or your reputation. It’s even more difficult to establish a new home on one good leg, and then you notice that all of these frustrations are combining with each other in this minestrone soup way and you can’t tell which flavor is which anymore, or what is really bugging you. Susanne had to get up to speed on the school, the climate of the college, the students, the new digs, and the increasingly grumpy partner. We have been stressed. We have been searching for the things that can sustain us — getting to know people, exploring our new environment, reveling in the nice things about our new town — but we do get tired and weary.

Spring holds promise. I know now that any such promise will come attached to things I’d rather not have to encounter, but it will be there nonetheless. Nothing so far in this life of mine has gone according to any sort of plan. I’ve learned more by trying to adapt or meet a challenge than I have in attempting to set things up a certain way and ticking off my lists item by item. So I adapt.

I remember the evening of my wedding, dancing with my darling, and thinking about all of what was ahead of us. Not just for 2008, but for 2018, and 28 and 38. There will be so much, and a lot of it won’t be easy, and I know that is tritely put. I am ready for the good things in 2009. They don’t have to come to me, necessarily, I’ll try to make them happen. I do seem to love a good struggle. There must be a fulfilling, good job out there for me. There must be a way to make our circumstances work — if not for 20 years, then maybe a few, in this town of many waters. I resolve to be positive-focused and forward-looking. But those things I thought of last July that I thought I would experience this fall — they haven’t happened, and either I adjust to new expectations, or I push harder to make things happen. In any case, I’m going to approach Spring 2009 differently than I did this fall. With the sense of adventure I felt on my wedding evening. Because life is what it is, and I might as well find a way to enjoy it.

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