I wonder when my…

coastguard 1

…Coast Guard hitch will cease to be a standard frame of reference for me? Will it ever? I was discharged from the service almost eight years ago, and yet it doesn’t take much to send me straight back to those dark blue uniforms, those lonely nighttime bridge watches, those exhausting days at sea. Walking to work behind a Hopkins student running for the shuttle bus, a cloud of diesel exhaust washes over me. Suddenly I am back on the pier in Miami Beach, the patrol boat’s Caterpillar engines idling, the diesel stench churning my stomach like an appetizer for the main course, the day or so of seasickness that I’ll endure before I get used to the motion of the ocean again. Sometimes I miss the uniforms and the sense it all made. As the season starts to turn hot here in Baltimore, I have taken to walking to work in shorts and a t-shirt and changing into work clothes I leave hanging on a hook behind my office door. This was standard practice in the Guard as well, everyone trailing into work and disappearing into the berthing area in clothes so casual it was almost as if they were still wearing their pajamas, then emerging onto the mess deck for morning muster sharp and squared away in work uniforms. Then I have to remind myself that “the sense it all made” was simply that I hated being told what to wear and do (and somehow imagined that this would not be part of the civilian world); I was serving my time on out and counting down to freedom, which gave the days a certain kind of clarity but is not ultimately an existence I want to return to. I guess what I felt then — what I miss now, in a way, sometimes — was the freedom of not having a choice. You’re doing something you hate but your’re not responsible for whether you keep doing it. I suppose that’s not really freedom but it is liberating in a way. When I look back at all that with nostalgia, maybe I’m just feeling the discontents and unease of having free will. It’s a weighty thing to have to carry around.


Yesterday was a rare day of driving for me. (I borrowed my brother’s car for the occasion.) First I drove my boss and a co-worker to a meeting with a client. The route took us east through town to Essex, through the kind of industrial/retail environment — warehouses, long squat strip mall blocks — that is so stupefyingly unpleasant and inhospitable to humans that you wonder how the builders were ever allowed to proceed. Then, back in the side streets, a contrast: charming little one-story houses with chain link fences and yards kept with obvious pride. I sometimes catch myself in a reverie of a suburban existence (that’s where I spent my childhood), my kids playing with neighbors’ kids, me pitching in with neighbors to coach a Little League team or raise a barn. But then I’d have to fit in, have to accept the project of living and getting along with others on a quiet suburban street as a worthy end in and of itself, and I just don’t know if I have the temperament, or maybe I just haven’t found the right street yet.

On the way back to work, we were sitting at a traffic light next to a bus stop, up the hill from the elementary school that overlooks Lake Montebello. Two boys who looked like fifth graders suddenly fell to the ground in a swirling flurry of punches as the rest of the children crowded around with big smiles. After a few seconds I could see that it wasn’t a serious fight, and, a few seconds later, one of the boys was helping the other to his feet. But for an instant it had looked real, and I had wondered, as I often find myself doing, what to do in these situations. The casual abuse, physical and verbal, that children subject each other to (merely doing exactly what their own parents have done to them, from what I see) in this city is worrying to see. And what distresses me even more is my knowledge that my standards of acceptable behavior for children are different from most of the rest of the community’s. I wish I lived somewhere where I could feel comfortable holding kids like these to account, knowing that their parents would want me, in their absence, to help enforce the basic values we all hold in common. But, watching an impatient young mother in the grocery store pay attention to her clamoring three-year-old only long enough to give him a tooth-rattling, full-force swat on his behind and yelling shut up, or reading news accounts of a mother telling her daughter to go back and fight another girl who in some way “disrespected” her, it is clear that we hold very little in common, and this is a lonely feeling indeed.

After work I drove to Silver Spring to meet with a potential freelance client. Southbound on I-95, I encountered a serious slowdown about a half mile north of 695. I was in the left lane, which is the exit lane for eastbound 695, and I realized that I was positioned perfectly to abandon the mess I was in and cut over to 295, which would also get me to the Silver Spring area relatively efficiently. But was I in a slowdown with an acute cause or was this just the usual state of traffic on this part of I-95 at this time of day? If the latter, 295 might just be more of the same, I thought. I chanced it, and the view from the exit ramp confirmed me in my decision: the backup on 95 appeared to stretch for another mile at least. The traffic flowed relatively more smoothly on 295, though it slowed to a crawl at one point for about five minutes. Whenever I find myself caught in this kind of traffic, my first reaction is a kind of resentment and scorn. I wonder, Why do these people put up with this? As if they have any choice. But what an appalling vista of exhaust clouds and wasted time.

Given all of this, it was somehow a perfect coda to the day to find my brother watching Road Warrior when I returned home from Silver Spring at around 11:00 p.m. Road Warrior is, I think, the fun entry in the Mad Max series, offering as it does the perfect combination of silliness and believeability, the cowering clan in the makeshift fort showing just the right mix of cornered-animal selfishness and unwillingness to entirely cast off their pretensions of civilization. What always strikes me in these movies is the sexual ambiguity of the villains, who are presented as menacing and androgynous (or maybe just pansexual?), with a penchant for wearing mascara and strange tribal costumes involving leather pants, bare chests and feathers. Maybe this offers some insight into what really frightens Mel Gibson, although of course his character wears leather outfits as well.

It occurs to me that these entries don’t seem nearly as interesting when they don’t include a report from Bird Camp. Maybe I should make the Bird Camp reports a separate type of entry, except then I wouldn’t be able to fool myself into thinking that anyone is reading the rest of this stuff.