And the allegedly cruelest…

DSC 0103

…month draws to a close. (If I threw in something about bangs and whimpers here, I could have an almost perfectly pretentious and lazy opening. What would make it a trifecta? Something about a shape with lion body and the head of a man?)

As it turned out, I did get some work done this weekend, although not as much as I’d hoped. I spent most of Saturday morning procrastinating getting organized by checking out organizational and anti-procrastination tools online, and so I only managed an hour or two of paper-editing in the afternoon. Then, on Sunday morning, I was busy with the Notebook and with researching the situation in Estonia. I squeezed in another hour or two of paper-editing that afternoon, but then decided to head out and enjoy the perfectly cool, perfectly sunny, early-spring day. The leisurely drive I ended up taking — windows down, car clunking solidly over potholes in the reassuring way that only a large American car can, the sun warm on my arm where it rested on the windowsill, a classic rock station playing “rock blocks” on the radio — lasted longer than planned. I tried to work for a few more hours after The Simpsons, but hit the wall by eleven. At least I got up for a run this morning. That’s only about the fifth time this year, but I’ll take my victories where I can get them.

“What luxury!” my brother called from the kitchen yesterday afternoon. I was sitting at my computer at the dining room table. Of course. He was referring to the now gushing cold water available from the kitchen sink, where once — prior to the plumbers’ Saturday visit, that is — there was only a trickle. Strange, the difference a little improvement like this can make. And, frankly, it does feel like luxury to be able to fill a water bottle quickly, as he was doing, as well as to have a continually topped-off Brita pitcher. (Before, the prospect of waiting the 3-5 minutes necessary to refill it a glass’s worth was unpleasant enough that it often never happened, meaning that the pitcher was sometimes to be found empty in the refrigerator, just a well-chilled piece of clear plastic.) In other words, I’m glad, as A. kept predicting I would be, to have gotten the repair made while I will still be here for a while to enjoy it. Now if only the hot water in the bathroom would start working. To fix it would involve the $800-1,000 job I mentioned before. Jimmy the plumber did suggest that, if I turned the hot water on and off enough times, the fluctuating pressure might dislodge a chunk of whatever is clogging the pipe, although the emphasis seemed to be on might. Hope springs and all that, so I do find myself trying this at least a few times every time I’m in the bathroom, as silly as it feels. We all need our rituals.

Saturday, I made a rare grocery order through that was delivered on Sunday morning, which, if anything is going to make you feel like a solid citizen, that will: standing in the doorway of your villa, receiving provisions from the shop in town, lord of all you survey, jodphurs bulging out of your shiny boots. The spell is broken when you discover that the delivery driver won’t take a tip, even if you thwack your thigh with your riding crop and say “now see here!” Hard to feel superior to someone who won’t take your money, an idea politicians have trouble with.

When I’d placed the order, choosing the items based on names and descriptions and tiny postage-stamp-sized pictures on the web site, I had apparently selected a box of dry laundry detergent approximately the size of a large cinder block. In the evening, I started a load of colors, taking my time, doing everything meticulously, dare I say mindfully? Yes, it’s true, I was centered on the here and now (there and then?) like a Zen priest raking sand. I carefully separated the colors and the whites while I let the water fill most of the way up and form a good head of suds. Then I stirred in the laundry, distributing things evenly. I like taking my time doing little chores like this. It makes me feel grounded and attentive and grown up, good feelings to be able to fall back on when the weight of the months apart piles up and the black dog comes nudging.

(Yes, you just read about me doing my laundry. It’s not my fault, though. No one’s making you.)

A. checked in around 9:00 p.m. from outside of a bowling alley in Payson, about 50 miles from Happy Jack, which is to say right around the corner in Western terms. She and the core members of the field crew were there to celebrate a birthday. She reports that the camp is all set up — “neatly,” as she made sure to mention, or maybe she used the word “orderly.” The rest of the two dozen or so seasonal researchers will trickle in over the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile there are a few problems to attend to. Part of the research performed on this project takes place in fenced enclosures out in the wilds of the Coconino National Forest. The fences are intended to exclude large land animals, I suppose to protect the research (A.: what’s going on in the enclosures, anyway?); as such, no sources of water are enclosed, and so an animal that does get inside stands a good chance of thirsting to death. This almost happened last year when an elk found its way (probably by jumping; these things can grab a startling amount of air) into one of the enclosures. It was a several day project — eventually involving Forest Service law enforcement rangers — to coax the panicked, dying animal out to safety, with one of the rangers getting kicked in the process, I think.

Anyway, in an initial visit to one of the enclosures in the last few days, A. and her team found that a massive ponderosa had fallen on the fence. I believe she mentioned that there was at least one elk inside already, although our conversation got sidetracked and I didn’t hear any further details on this elk. The tree’s trunk is at least 1.5 meters thick, A. reports, making it unlikely that they will be able to cut it up with their own chainsaw. “We’ll probably have to hire a contractor,” she said, although I’m not sure if that will just be for the tree or for repairing the fence, too, fence-stringing being something of an art, from what I understand.

When I went up to bed, I discovered that the light in the bathroom wasn’t working. For some reason, my first instinct was to hit the test button on the ground-fault interrupting (GFI) socket, which is on the same line as the light fixture. The reset button popped out but wouldn’t go back in. I unscrewed the dome from the light fixture and discovered that the bulb was burned out; nothing to do with the GFI at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that the GFI still won’t reset, which means that the light fixture still won’t work, new bulb or no, not to mention that my electric shaver can’t recharge. The horror… The electrician is coming back this Thursday, so I think I’ll just tough it out until then (the skylight makes this easier than it would be otherwise). But what the hell? Is this some side-effect of the work that was just done, which included putting another GFI on the same line (in the hallway)? Does the presence of two GFIs mean that I need to reset them in some particular order? While standing on one foot and rubbing my stomach? Or is it just coincidence?

And, most importantly, how much fun will it be to get calls about stuff like this from our tenants, whoever they are, when we are 2,500 miles away in Montana? I’m leaning more and more toward hiring a local property manager, not least because of my reading of local law that it’s required for absentee landlords, with offenses punishable by a $500/day fine. (Incredible that no one we’ve talked to about doing this rental has yet mentioned this law, but I guess you would only know about it if you yourself had been an absentee landlord.)

Anyway, in a city with as byzantine and oft-ignored a set of landlording laws as Baltimore, I get the feeling that slapping a $500/day fine on this particular offense is their way of signalling that this is one regulation they’d really like you to pay attention to. I hear you, Baltimore City Housing Code, I hear you.

Things To Do In Baltimore

A correspondent answered my plea for “things I really must do in Baltimore before leaving” in considerable detail. I’ve crossed out the ones I’ve already accomplished.

biking through southwest baltimore
biking in brooklyn park and maybe even fishing there
stolen heart cabaret
the lithuanian dance hall
farmers market, waverly
farmers market, jones falls
as many diners as you can
upstairs at the ottobar
downstairs at charm city art space
the b&o railroad museum
and trains trains trains
greenmount cemetery
the roof of the copy cat building
the red room/normals books
a totally amatuer coffee house in charles village (in hopkins multi-denominational center)
the book thing
charm city roller girls
roller skating at skateland
duckpin bowling, belair road
watching “hamilton” and feeling akward about the akward dialogue by non-actors, but apreciating the beautiful camerawork.
skinny dipping at pretty boy and then get a park ranger drive a boat over to give you a ticket
tubing in the gunpowder
hiking at soldiers delight
haunted mental hospitals
riding the bus instead of driving
1.5th generation (korean karaoke) [closed down, unfortunately]
demetri’s in hampden
jazz at the new haven lounge
riding bikes in the jones falls festival when they close down 83 and you can bike on it
the high zero festival
the transmodern age festival
spending hours at the enoch pratt free library
lexington market
blacks in wax museum
building a sandcastle out of cigarette butts in ocean city
the bso
american visionary art museum

Looks like I’d better get cracking.

Headed West

DSC 0019

Ask after me this time next year, and you will find me a Montanan.

August, actually, is the projected move date. Eight years after I first moved to this city, six years after A. and I first moved in together in a little carriage house on Hunter Street, two and a half years after buying our first house, we will throw the last box in the truck and head west. We are moving because A. found a job doing exactly what she wants to do, and how many of us ever get a chance like that? It would certainly be unwise to count on the opportunity arising more than once, especially in A.’s field of wildlife biology, where full-time, permanent positions with liveable salaries are few and far between. As for me, I’ll freelance, although what exactly that will entail and what sort of mix of policy/commercial work and journalism will result is anyone’s guess, and, although I’m nervous, I’m looking forward to the change.

The “far” part is hard, though. Obviously, it would have been nicer all around if A.’s dream job had turned out to be right here in Maryland. Except… I can’t say I’m sorry for the disruption. It’s a frightening thing to quit a job that you otherwise have no particular reason to leave, but even more frightening is having no particular reason to leave. Inertia is strong. Before you know it, you’ve been somewhere ten years, and maybe you won’t ever leave then. I was telling a friend that I felt bad for A.’s having to leave this house she’s put so much work and care and love into, and I said something about wishing she’d had a few more years at it. My brother, who was listening, said, “Imagine how much harder it would be to leave after five years, though.” I was immediately chilled by the prospect of all of that sameness, stretching endlessly into the future, and I knew that we’d made the right decision. I’m not inherently opposed to sameness – I love the idea of a settled existence, but only someplace I really love, and Baltimore doesn’t seem to qualify. It’s too hot and there is too much particulate pollution and also too many murders. It’s not that I’m afraid of being murdered, exactly, but it gets harder and harder to ignore the pall of misery and death over this city, where vast swaths of the population are condemned to a worse-than-third-world existence, and I actually am sort of worried about what living here has already done to my lungs.

The decision to move to Montana seems to impress some people, in the same way people are impressed by plans to climb Everest or to make a round-the-world balloon trip. Could I do that? they wonder, momentarily, before concluding that they wouldn’t want to anyway and it takes all kinds. I confess that my early reaction to the whole idea was along these lines, too, as if we’d be cutting ties to the known universe and striking out into the blank sections of the map. Here be monsters, or at least grizzly bears.

Having recently returned from a visit to the area, I can report that the cafes offer wireless internet access and most people wear shoes and store-bought clothes, so the change probably won’t be too much of a shock to our systems. The buildings are short and there is a lot of sky, however. Waiting for the light at a downtown intersection, I saw a tumbleweed roll past. While I walked the streets I found my shoulders climbing up around my ears. I had the pronounced sensation of being a tiny, carbon-based life form clinging to a rock hurtling through space, continuing to exist only at the pleasure of a capricious and indifferent nature. But maybe this will help keep me humble.

While I was visiting, A. and I rented a cabin in the “town” of Conden, near Seely Lake in the Swan Valley, about two hours’ drive from Missoula. The cabin was on the grounds of a general store, and we checked in at the front counter, A. signing the credit card slip while I read the notice on the shelf behind the counter: “Rifle ammo, 18 and up; handgun ammo, must be 21.” One morning, we drove for 20 minutes down a well-kept gravel road and then made a one-hour hike along the shore of sapphire-blue Holland Lake to the waterfall that feeds it. From the trail, about 30 feet back from and 20 feet above the lake, I could clearly see logs and rocks under the water, to a depth of perhaps 10 feet. Majestic ponderosa pines loomed overhead, flexing and swaying almost imperceptibly in the wind, like underwater grasses ruffled by a gentle current. The horizon was edged with the blue and white peaks of the Mission Mountains. And all of this was simply too much to process. I couldn’t make myself believe it was real, as opposed to a painting in a gallery, which is where I’m used to seeing full-fledged, glorious nature, which is to say that I’m not really used to it at all.

Later, looking at the map for a town we could drive to from the cabin, we picked Polson, which looked close, before noticing that there weren’t any direct roads because the green smear between us and Polson was the Mission Mountains. As obstacles to human movement (or at least road building), the mountains suddenly seemed real enough, and I was startled to realize how startled I was at being forced to think about geography in this way, there being few remaining undefeated mountain ranges in the mid-Atlantic. We drove north to Big Fork instead, near Flathead Lake, one of the more settled, touristy areas in rural Montana, and even the dirt looked clean, not to mention the crystal clear lakes that we got used to seeing. I think I’ll have to spend some time in that landscape before it starts to feel real. Maybe it never will, or maybe I’ll never stop noticing it and marveling at it. I suppose there are worse things than constantly having to remind yourself that you are not in fact living in a painting.

As opposed to an episode of The Wire, David Simon’s brilliant depiction of Baltimore as an epitome of this country’s failed “war” on drugs. I know that I face nothing so terrible as what Simon’s characters – and so many of this city’s residents – face every day, except possibly being casually gunned down by some urchin with a $25 handgun and no plan for his life beyond ignoring it for the next six hours with a vial of ready rock and some malt liquor. Again, I’m not possessed by a fear of scenarios like this one, but awareness of their likelihood – awareness that, if it isn’t me, it could be a friend or a neighbor or someone I work with, and why should it have to be anyone at all – is part of the texture of life in this city, a texture further roughened by a school system that is essentially a crime against humanity, the shocking level of cronyism and machine tendencies in local politics, high homelessness (witness the tent-city refugee camp 1,000 yards from city hall), and the list goes on. At other points in my life, I wouldn’t have been talking about “ignoring” this stuff at all, as opposed to fixing it. The question is, how? My full-time job is devoted to mopping up one tiny droplet in the flood of horrors lapping at this city’s throat, but instead of giving me hope or making me feel better, my experiences make me wonder if we can ever hope to fix anything at all. Baltimore has come to represent for me human society gone utterly wrong. I’m hoping that perhaps living somewhere that is closer to being a functioning, healthy community will restore a little of my faith in humanity and in what we can manage if we all work together. I don’t really want to “ignore” Baltimore and what it represents: the failures of American policies and governance and also of our basic human responsibility to the weakest among us. In fact, I’m hoping that, with some distance, I’ll be able to think a little more clearly about these things. Certainly the strength of my desire to leave the city is yet another lesson for me in how truly awful it must be to grow up poor here, with a million more reasons to want to leave but even less chance of ever doing so.

And who knows? The city will probably be harder to shake than I expect, plus the plan now is to rent out our house, not sell it, so we’ll be connected (and we’ll still be paying our taxes). It will probably be easier to leave Baltimore than to forget it, but right now, I’m itching to see the place in my rearview mirror. When it’s time for leaving a place, my natural inclination is to get on with it. A giddiness comes over me at the thought of that moment of sundering, and the open road always looks like freedom for at least a minute or two.

Why Are They Desecrating Graves in Estonia?

“Disputed exhuming” caught my eye in the headline and I read, in this morning’s Sun‘s “World Digest,” a wire report concerning riots in Estonia, where government officials were enraging the country’s minority of ethnic Russian citizens by moving a memorial to the Soviet army that stood since 1947 until this past Friday in the center of the Estonian capital. Yesterday’s disturbances were low-key compared to the previous two nights’, when a Russian citizen was killed and over 100 people — including two dozen police — were hurt. There have been over 800 arrests so far. “Local news media reported that several graves of famous Estonians had been desecrated, as well as some belonging to Soviet soldiers and the Nazi troops they fought during World War II.”

What on earth? I wondered. One gets almost accustomed to these sorts of spasms, some old grievance rearing its head and mobs of bored and probably unemployed kids reenacting out their grandparents’ resentments — on some days it seems to be the defining activity of the human race — but the grave desecrations were too intriguing to just pass over. I wanted to understand what was really going on.

According to Wikipedia, Estonian history has been defined by struggles to get out from under Russian dominance since the abolition of serfdom in the 1800s. Estonians fought and won a war of independence 1918-20, but two decades later Hitler “gave” Estonia to the USSR in a secret amendment to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, the pact that was supposed to prevent aggression between Nazi German and the Soviet Union. We all know how that turned out, and, as the USSR consolidated its forces to meet the German assault, Estonia fell under Nazi control, 1941-1944.

But the Soviets now considered Estonia “theirs” and were back like a bad habit at the end of the war. Just as in so many other USSR-occupied countries over the years, tens of thousands fled; of those who remained, tens of thousands more were deported in 1949 “in response to slow progress in forming collective farms,” most dying, the rest not permitted to return for almost two decades. The Soviets were resisted by Estonian veterans of World War II, many of whom had been members of the German Wehrmacht and even the Waffen-SS. In the meantime, a policy of “Russification” moved hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians into the tiny country before Estonia took advantage of the coup attempt in Moscow during the sumer of 1991 to declare its own independence.

Given this history, it is a little easier to understand why a two-meter high bronze statue of a World War II Soviet soldier occupying a place of honor in a park in the center of Estonia’s capital might be a source of controversy. The Estonian nationalists consider the statue an offensive reminder of nearly five decades of Soviet occupation, and the Estonian government, ostensibly tired of nationalist demonstrations at the site but probably also well aware of which side its bread is buttered on, recently announced plans to relocate the thing. But the imported ethnic Russians, for whom Estonia is now home as much as it is for the ethnic Estonians, understandably start to feel a little tight in the collar when the government accedes to chanting crowds calling for the removal of a symbol in which they take pride. Soon there is pushing and shoving in the street, a Russian citizen is stabbed to death, and the riot police rumble in with armored trucks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.

The Russian was stabbed Thursday night and the Estonian authorities removed the statue Friday morning. “It was like spitting into people’s souls,” said a 65-year-old Estonian quoted by CNN. The man’s sentiment is especially understandable when you realize that the statue also marked the graves of what the Estonian Defense Ministry believes to number 14 Soviet soldiers. One person’s exhumation is another’s desecration, and now there are gangs of youths smashing windows and tit for tat grave-robbing.

And history shoulders its way out of the textbooks, cracks its knuckles, and asks, you hadn’t forgotten about me, had you?


Some of the coverage of this story suggests that the statue was removed because of the rioting, but the Reuters coverage offers a little more depth, if you’d like to read more.

The fact that it was Friday…

DSC 0060

…and half the staff is on vacation made me feel virtuous for doing anything at all. I put in earplugs, which for some reason help me concentrate whether it’s noisy or not, and finally finished reviewing a 140-page research paper I’ve been slogging away at for weeks now. Now I just have to make the corrections I’ve noted in ink, and, since I would really like to get this thing off my desk, I might even work on it this weekend, although I’m famous for saying that and not following through. Working on the weekend can sound good during the week, especially when I’m feeling virtuous and the end of a project is in sight. But then, on the weekend, it occurs to me that it’s, well, the weekend, and my strong leisure ethic kicks in. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

At 5:30, Kevin gave me a lift to our usual Friday happy hour at Dizzy Issie’s, and it was nice to find that Greg had already secured a couple of seats at the end of the bar. That place fills up so fast these days that, if we were just discovering it now, I probably wouldn’t come back after one evening of standing around awkwardly behind the bar stools, watching out for elbows and shuffling back and forth to accommodate through traffic. A seat changes everything, although my seat yesterday pointed me right at the television, where CNN was posing questions like “should a lobbyist be appointed to be in charge of our national safety standards?” It’s the kind of question you would have seen on The Simpsons six years ago, and the subtext of the joke would have been something like, “can you imagine if our government got so bad that questions like these could be posed with a straight face, as if such a thing were legitimately worth reflecting on?” But American society parodies itself these days, faster than the TV writers can keep up.

DSC 0091

After drinks and dinner, the three of us returned to my house, where we checked on the 12 strawberry plants Kevin planted in the garden plot a month or so back. He has no access to bare dirt at his Patterson Park-area house, and asked to use ours last summer, when A., the true gardener in the house, was going to be away. I agreed, since I would otherwise have let the thing lie fallow. This led to an enjoyable Sunday morning ritual of coffee, bagels, and puttering around in the dirt with a friend, and we decided to keep it going this year again. This time, as I mentioned, Kevin went the all-strawberries route, and there is talk of strawberry shortcake for a Fourth of July party.

DSC 0046

The plumbers were later than they said they’d be. I got up this morning at 6:20 a.m. to empty out under-sink cupboards and clear a path through the lumber pile to the main water cut-off valve, but the heavy knock on the door didn’t come until almost 9:00 a.m. After saying good morning, Jimmy, the head plumber, looked around uncomfortably for a second, then said, “well, I guess I’d better see where that main water cut-off is.” I told him I would take care of it, and did, and he and his younger assistant put down their gear buckets and set right to work.

The plan was for them to replace two sink-supply valves, the cold water in the kitchen and the hot in the upstairs bathroom, that were so choked with rust that water flow was slowed to a trickle. This meant it was extremely difficult to avoid scalding yourself in the kitchen and to get your hands really clean in the bathroom. There was also a hole in the pipe leading to the rear hose bib, a hole that has prevented us from being able to use a hose through two complete gardening seasons. And, finally, the big job: I had purchased a new water heater a few weeks back, and I wanted them to hook it up.

I sat at the dining room table while they worked, which meant that they were almost under my feet while they installed the water heater. The floor jumped underfoot as they clanged at pipes, their hacksaws singing through shiny new copper. After the water heater was done, the valve jobs and the pipe replacement didn’t take long at all, and by 12:30 I was waiting inside while Jimmy wrote out a bill in his truck. I was thinking, it couldn’t be more than $500, but if it is, how much more can we afford?, and I was also thinking I wish I had the slightest idea what a fair price for this really would be. As a homeowner, you must constantly work to rationalize yourself into feeling good about spending money. Sometimes this can go too far, like if your main criterion is expense, as in, it’s expensive but the guy’s a craftsman, but fortunately the price ended up sounding preeminently fair.[Edit: Reviewing this entry Sunday morning, I realize that I neglected to mention “the bad news,” which is that the surgery on the upstairs bathroom’s hot-water sink-supply valve was unsuccessful. Whereas the problem in the kitchen really had been the result of the valve alone, the problem with the bathroom sink must extend further down the pipes. Jimmy told me that he’d need to go in through the dining room ceiling, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that part of the ceiling needs replacing anyway (it’s stained from an old leak), but this would take the better part of a day and cost $800-$1,000 he told me, which is as bad as it sounds. I think we’ll have to do this, though, as you can’t really expect people to pay full price renting a house from you and not give them useable hot water in the bathroom sink.]

Strolling around on an inspection, I opened the hose spigot and watched the water splashing onto the concrete. Hadn’t we bought a hose, I was wondering. I could remember turning one over in my hands in the aisle of the outdoor plants area at the hardware store, hefting and comparing different pistol-grip nozzles. I looked around in the basement but nothing jumped out at me. I called A. but had to leave a message, as she is now in the phase of the summer where she will be on and off the grid. While Kevin was here for his strawberry inspection, I missed her return call. Joy of joy, we had bought a hose, I learned from her message; she advised me to look in “the serial killer room.” This was good news, for although the strawberries don’t need any water now, I can now look forward to standing self-satisfiedly over my garden, spraying it with water. I guess that doesn’t sound that dramatic now that I wrote it out. Do you at all understand the feeling I’m imagining? Omnipotent, the life-giver, my strawberry plants rustling in gratitude. It’ll be great.

DSC 0136

Sometimes I find myself tempted…

…to start driving to work again, so that I’ll have time to exercise, he said straightfaced. It’s nice to be able to walk to work, but it does mean that I spend about an hour per day commuting. I try to stick to a pretty strict schedule of rising sometime between 5 and 5:30 a.m. to get some writing in before leaving for work at 8:30. What with the challenges of actually rising at that hour, and subtracting time for showering, dressing, eating and the rest of the daily tasks that can make life so boring, that doesn’t leave all that much time for writing and exercising. Hence the temptation to drive to work instead of walking, but obviously this would be a foolish tradeoff to make.

This morning, I departed on a run only to find that I was rather underdressed. I hadn’t been able to hear any rain falling from inside, but as I emerged into the predawn darkness I discovered myself in a fairly drenching drizzle. I didn’t want to go back inside because my brother is sleeping on the couch these days, surrendering the guest room to my visiting father, and I worried that I had already made much too much noise considering that my brother was probably hoping to sleep at least a few hours more. So I toughed it out and ran slightly faster than I usually do at first, to get the blood moving. I had to stop periodically to mop the rain out of my eyes and off of my glasses, and my hands were a little frozen-feeling at first, but after a few minutes it felt good to be a little uncomfortable, to feel the rain on my face, and to push through anyway.

And speaking of not having time to exercise, I’m always taken aback by just how many people are waiting for buses at such an ungodly hour, which I suppose speaks to just how tortuous and uncoordinated the bus schedules are here. When I, dressed lightly in shorts and a t-shirt that are already soaked black with rain, run past a middle-aged woman in a raincoat and rain bonnet, huddled under a bus shelter or perched on a bench with her umbrella up, I can’t help but think about the different relationship we have to the weather: I’m the dabbler, for whom the rain is an invigorating challenge, while she must get herself to work in it, maintain a presentable appearance, prevail over the bus delays that are probably inevitable in any kind of inclement weather, even a spring rain, and all the while not think too much about the fact that she is standing all alone, in the dark, vulnerable to whomever happens by with unkind motives. I guess I don’t have it so bad.

Last night was the last of my father’s visit; this afternoon, my mother will pick him up on the way back to their West Virginia home, where she spends the weekends and he lives full time. Because there was company, we ate like human beings for a change, one meal prepared for everyone, salad, silverware. We even used place mats, a habit A. and I broke a while back when we discovered that Zuzu, the cat, was using them as nap mats during the day. Having once stuck them on a shelf, it was apparently too much to remember to break them out for each meal.

A. reports that she is glad to be back in the Flagstaff area. Yesterday afternoon she and some of her crew members were headed out to the field station in the Coconino National Forest, near a crossroads town called Happy Jack about two hours from Flagstaff, to begin setting up the camp. Over the next few days, she’ll be driving back and forth to collect the rest of the team as they trickle in on planes, buses, and presumably some other forms of transportation. Compared to her temporary living situations in Missoula over the last two months and the stress of learning new job duties, I think it must be nice to be back on familiar territory, i.e., the field station where she worked for four months last summer. Sure, she’ll be living in a tent and eating in another one — a dusty, chipmunk-infested one no less — but that’s normal, at least, and she’s done it and the accompanying work before.

Yesterday, I called the electrician and asked him to come back next Thursday to see if he could find anything else to charge me money for. “Go to the bank,” he said, “and I’ll see you at nine.”

Can’t wait.

Yesterday I had…

…one of the most disappointing, frustrating experiences of my young life. I had been invited to join a group of American Studies alumni from UMBC in talking to current students about job opportunities and career paths that are possible with a B.A. in this particular major. I prepared notes about my own time in the wilderness, casting about with what felt like no hope of ever getting paid to do anything remotely related to my skills and interests, and on the ways in which I think my degree helped me to finally carve out the niche I’m in today, such as it is, i.e., not bad. I took the day off, I ironed a shirt the night before, and I allowed myself 50 minutes to make the 25-minute drive to campus and find parking.

But for some reason, though the initial emailed invitation advertised the event for 12:00 p.m., I had at some point formed the impression that the event was scheduled for 1:00 p.m., and so I arrived just as it was ending and the students were heading off to class. Everyone was very gracious, with some of my old professors sharing stories about semesters when they had forgotten to come to the first meeting of a class, but I felt awful, and I kept feeling awful as I tried to make pleasant catching-up conversation with said professors, explaining about the move to Montana and smiling and nodding at campus news when really I wanted to sneak into the bathroom and throw up. I was invited along to the lunch that had been scheduled for us “guests of honor” in the University Center’s exclusive Skylight Room, and I went, although I must say it was very hard to enjoy my Arizona chicken sandwich with my stomach still roiling from shame and embarassment.

“Everyone makes these kinds of mistakes sometimes,” A. tried to console me later on the phone from Flagstaff, where she arrived yesterday after two days on the road. That’s when I realized that the embarassment I felt wasn’t even the half of it: what I was mainly affected by was a profound and aching sense of disappointment, and it’s interesting to me to think about why. Did I have some desire to bring things full circle before leaving for Montana? After all, I moved to Baltimore in the first place specifically to attend UMBC; after separating from the Coast Guard, I was still eligible for the in-state rate because Maryland had been my residence at the time of my enlistment. I had a lot of important intellectual experiences in American Studies classes and did a lot of thinking about my future there, so maybe I wanted to come back and make a small repayment to the department that did so much for me.

There’s also the affirmation inherent in being asked to talk to students about, essentially, what to do with their lives. I still have no idea what to do with mine, plus I’m, well, quitting my current job and moving to Montana, so perhaps I’m feeling a particularly strong need to be perceived as stable and accomplished these days, to make up for the fact that I so often feel aimless and unfocused.

At any rate, I’m pledged to write up the talk I would have given so that it can be posted on the department’s “council of majors” Facebook page, and any students who dream of a career in “policy analysis” (or, as I like to think of it, being paid fairly for your writing skills) can contact me via email.

In addition to thinking about why I was so disappointed, it’s also interesting to me to think about why I jumbled the time in the first place. One possibility is that, back when I was a student at UMBC, the campus “free hour” when no classes were scheduled and meetings such as this one could be held was 1-2:00 p.m., which has apparently been changed to 12-1:00 p.m. now. But that only explains why it was easy for me to keep believing that the event would start at 1:00 p.m., I think; why did my mind make the switch in the first place?

Perhaps it was the result of some sort of electromagnetic field, resulting in neuronic polarity reversal, that may have affected me early yesterday morning when I was leaning over my electrician’s shoulder, watching him probe the wall behind an upstairs outlet while he explained how fortunate I was that the house hadn’t burned down yet. The nice thing about having electrical work done is that the more expensive it is, the luckier you are that you’re still alive to pay for it, so as you’re counting out a tall stack of $20 bills you’re mostly feeling relief rather than regret. That’s about all I’ll say on the subject except that all of the house’s outlets are now grounded and some appallingly dangerous wiring mistakes have been corrected. I think I’m going to have the electrician back to assess the rest of the house, now that I think about it.

In the evening, my father treated my brother and me to dinner at Dionysus, chosen more for proximity to my brother’s yoga class than anything else, although my steak and my father’s swordfish were quite good. My brother’s garbonzo bean burger was only average, he thought. He’d chosen it on the recommendation of our waitress, who had earlier made a large claim for trustworthiness by badmouthing some of the menu items. Her “straight talk” schtick wore thin after a while, and she shared too much information, I think, when she came back to the table to explain why the lasagna my brother had ordered would take a half hour to come out. “Whoever made it didn’t cook it before they froze it,” she said, suggesting that the kitchen was run in a rather haphazard manner, not to mention the fact that — as practical and even normal as the practice may be — you don’t really want to hear that your $16 piece of lasagna is going to be fresh from a microwave defrosting. (New Yorkers, as usual, add about 50 percent to that price to feel the resentment bubble up.)

But we had a grand time, and I was finally able to shake a little of the depression I was still feeling from the alumni-event debacle earlier in the day. Conversation mostly concerned heist movies, and I felt like the three of us, sitting at a table in a sort of alcove in the mostly empty, white-tablecloth dining room, in some way resembled a team brought together to plan one of these operations: a distinguished-looking graybeard in a sportcoat, a shaven-headed fellow in an untucked blue oxford and earrings, and a vigorous young tough in a tight blue t-shirt with a little grease under his fingernails. The mastermind, the driver, and the safecracker, perhaps?

I forgot to mention that…

…on Sunday, just as I was wrapping up my grammar homework, my friend Sinker called and asked if I wanted to go sailing. This was good timing, since I’d been racing to finish that homework with the goal of making sure to get out and enjoy the beautiful, warm, sunny day, maybe take a walk or something. In fact, I’d been thinking so hard about this walk that, for a moment, the prospect of sailing seemed like a distraction. Then I remembered that it isn’t my boat anymore, and that made all the difference. Back when I bought the thing, I was the only person I knew who owned a boat, which meant that, whenever I went sailing, I was in charge and responsible for avoiding the death and destruction that always feels imminent when you are the captain. But Sinker bought my boat about a year and a half ago, and that makes all the difference. I took off my watch and emptied my pockets of anything that might be ruined if we sank and set off with my brother for the marina with a light heart.

On the drive downtown, I tried to judge the wind conditions by looking at trees and flags, and it looked like we were in for a pretty calm ride. But the breeze was stiffer than it looked, and we spent a lot of the two-hour trip heeled pretty far over. Farther over than I would have been comfortable with back when it was my boat (just because I never really knew what I was doing; Sinker, a professional sailor, had the situation well in hand), but a nice thrill now that I was just along for the ride. Sinker and Kristin’s new dog kept us company, a young golden-colored dog whose breed and name escape me now and who spent much of the ride slumped in the well of the cockpit, sliding limply from one side to the other as we tacked. We weren’t sure if she was seasick or exhausted from a ten-mile she’d taken earlier, accompanying Kristin, who is training for something or other.

I’m glad I got one more sail in before leaving Baltimore. The city is really meant to be seen from the water, and most of my best times here have been on boats.

Yesterday was an average work day, although a manic mood came over me in the morning, gloriously enough, and I was able to make serious progress on a paper I’m editing. At home, my father and I ate a leisurely dinner and talked as the shadows grew long. I moved furniture in preparation for the electrician’s visit today; he’s grounding the upstairs outlets. Then I finally figured out the computer problem that had been bedeviling me since Sunday night. I’d wanted to seize my financial destiny by the horns and so purchased a copy of the financial software Quicken, but then hadn’t been able to get the download to work properly. The Mac legend holds that Macs “just work,” and there isn’t supposed to be all of this messing around trying to get things to function and talk and be compatible the way there is supposed to be with PCs. I must admit that my experience on Sunday had me doubting the legend (forgive me, Steve). But after some exchanges with the support desk, I zeroed in on one thing they’d mentioned, which was turning off popup protection in Firefox. I didn’t bother messing with Firefox, but I opened Safari, which doesn’t have popup protection turned on, and ran the downloads with that.

And, as per the legend, it all “just worked.”

(As for seizing my financial destiny by the horns, I may need to take a class in order to understand exactly what Quicken can do for me. So far, it is very confusing.)

In Defense of Clive James

Not that Clive James needs my help, but I was almost all the way through his new book Cultural Amnesia when I read a review of the same by Gary Indiana in the Village Voice. Teachers of argumentative writing may wish to use the article for its myriad examples of sloppy reasoning and technique, but I might not even have given the situation a second thought (since the Village Voice is no longer a particularly serious newspaper) were it not for the fact that Indiana attempts what he thinks is a devastating indictment of the book on factual grounds, only to come off sounding like he never actually read the thing. I doubt that the Village Voice pays particularly well for a book review (although they probably pay the extensively published Indiana better than some), so I understand that there is incentive to dash these things off as quickly as possible, with a resulting risk of making some oversight or misreading something. But to see Indiana use his misread as an attempted coup-de-grace on a book I quite enjoyed… Well, let’s just say it irks me.

After a list of what he considers to be the book’s conceptual and ideological flaws (among these its appreciation of liberal democracy), Indiana draws his sword, hikes up his tights, and dances in close with the following:

“…if part of James’s project is to “destroy” people he considers malignant or less wonderful than other people think, as the jacket of this book asseverates, he should, at least, hire a fact-checker. It really is inexcusable to reproach the writer Karl Kraus for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria, if only because this event occurred in 1938. Kraus died in 1936.”

In case you’re wondering, “asseverates” means “says”; and what an interesting and perhaps telling critical practice, by the way, to rely so heavily on “the jacket of [a] book” rather than the book itself, but I digress.

I wonder where Indiana learned that Karl Kraus never lived to see the Anschluss? Perhaps it was in the first sentence of James’s chapter on the man, and, try as I might, I can’t seem to find the part where James “reproach[es]” him “for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria.” Maybe Indiana has a different edition from mine, or maybe he — or the Voice — should try to find out more about this whole “fact-checker” concept.

Indiana’s other complaints include being bothered by the fact that James is “slobbering over… names,” which seems to be a way of accusing him of some sort of hero worship, but then Indiana turns right around and sniffs at James’s excoriations of Sartre, who Indiana seems to feel should be off limits because he was “one of 20th-century France’s indispensable minds.” (James’s criticism of Sartre revolves around the small matter of this “indispensable mind” continuing to make excuses for the USSR long after that country’s crimes were well-known, a not insignificant misstep for a philosopher concerned with free will and morality.)

And let’s take another look at this “slobbering” business. The full quote, which echoes Indiana’s earlier characterization of the book’s “pedagogy” as “the worship of proper names,” is: “Slobbering over images and the names attached to them is one of the things that’s taken us to where we are today,” and “where we are today” is in a “collapsed… dead civilization” that has “regressed to barbarism” and is ruled over by a “totalitarian democracy,” and, by the way, James’s project will never succeed in “put[ing] any glacial shelf back together on [the] North Pole.” (I’m compressing but I really don’t think I’m being unfair. Should I just leave Indiana lying there, panting, or can I just quickly point out that James never takes on the restoration of the ice cap as a goal in this book? And what have Indiana’s books done for the polar bears lately? No, no, that would just be piling on.)

So I’ll leave most of that alone, as I think it speaks for itself, but I must ask: has it really been “slobbering over” names like Anna Akhmatova or Benedetto Croce or Raymond Aron or Tacitus or Montesquieu “that’s taken us to where we are today”? Really? Like, George Bush swept to power on the strength of his classical allusions? Our generals have been paying too much attention to Herodotus and too little to the facts on the ground? The American people can’t stop their obsessive rereading of Solzhenitsyn long enough to notice that we don’t really have a Constitution anymore?

I’d hate to see the ignorant, ahistorical society we’d be living in if we hadn’t been slobbering over such names, then. Oh, wait, I think I can.