That fire I mentioned yesterday was a horrific one indeed, one of the deadliest in Baltimore history, with only one less charred corpse than in the arson murders of the Dawsons. But this doesn’t seem to have been an intentional fire, just a simple “accident,” the kind of accident that happens when crowds of people pack into an illicit, unregistered rental. Who knows if a smoke detector would have made a difference, but I note that the house was not equipped with one, a shocking oversight in this day and age when they are to be had for ten dollars or even free from the firemen who are always coming around offering the things. And so: six lives wasted on a Tuesday morning, including wheelchair-bound Tashon Thomas (16) and his brother, Davonte Witherspoon (13); Davonte, whose daily task it was to carry Tashon up and down the stairs of the rowhouse, had escaped from the fire but reentered the house when he learned that his brother was still inside. I wonder if I’m even half the man that this young boy proved himself to be in the last minutes of his life. I hope like hell that I never have to find out.

I’d record a little more about each of the other victims here, but it’s hard to type through the tears I can’t hold back reading about this tragedy. You can find out more about the victims in this Sun article if you want, but be warned that it’s rough going. I also recommend this article about the firefighters who fought the fire and managed to save one or two lives. A compendium of all the coverage is here.

The Big Easy Wedding, pt. 1

The big day at last. I cut my hair (off), put on my straw traveling hat and drove myself to work with my luggage, including the huge hard-sided thing once purchased for a long trip to Germany. It was the “smallest” suitcase I had that would fit everything I needed for the New Orleans trip; I didn’t technically “need” all of that space, but, since I had the space, I filled it, naturally. This is human or at least American nature. Just look at our suburbs.

I reviewed my data work and couldn’t find any more problems, and, in the last minutes before Kevin arrived to give me a lift to the airport, I managed to turn in the tables of results that have been something of a Holy Grail in their elusiveness until now. This was a nice high point to hit before leaving on vacation.

I had tried to check in for my flight online, but the Air Tran system didn’t like me, so I had to wait in line in the airport. I checked my bag with a surly, tight-lipped clerk who neglected to tell me what gate I was heading for. When I glanced at my boarding passes to find out, I read the gate for my Atlanta connection by mistake and ended up waiting in the wrong line, only to be ridiculed by a TSA agent and directed to the right one. I found myself thinking that the security lines didn’t seem as long as they sometimes do, only to realize that “seems” is the operative word. Unless I miss my guess, the actual screening checkpoints have been moved further into the concourse, leaving a larger no-man’s land for the line to snake back and forth through before it has to spill into the side hallways. So just an optical illusion. Meanwhile, as we waited and shuffled patiently along, a large crowd of people who were running late for flights was allowed into line ahead of us. An irate man behind me must never have been late for anything in his life, because he was huffing and snorting indignantly in the universal mating cry of the self-righteous, looking for validation from another of his kind. “Guess next time I’ll be disorganized and get here late and then just jump in line… Hey! There’s a line here!” In his mind, these people need to be punished or they’ll never learn to be as good a citizen as he is. These people.

Once through security, I saw that I had about a half hour to kill before boarding and stopped for a beer at one of the concourse bars. There were no seats, so I found myself standing around near the bar but really in the traffic lanes of the concourse, sipping my beer and watching the people. Two small girls walking by grew silent when they saw me. Maybe it was the straw hat. Over by my gate, I sit down to make a few notes and can’t help but jot down some of the conversation between a portly middle-aged middle-American type, his neck spilling over the back of his collar, and a primly dressed black man I take for an African or Caribbean islander, due to the unfashionableness of his gold-rimmed aviator frames and close-cut suit.

The white man talks and the black man listens, and it goes something like this: “He’s a liberal Republican, which isn’t a bad thing to be… Mistakes were made, but mistakes have always been made… I don’t know what the answer is… I’m not a prude, but I just don’t want that picture put in my head… The problem is that a lot of people on both sides are talking out of their asses… I can’t say I’m a conservative all the way down the line, I mean, I have a wife and daughters… I’m independent, I could vote for whoever I want to… We need intellectual thought more than anything right now, but we just have idiots instead.”

Our pilot seemed to be feeling his oats. He began to accelerate for take-off before completing his turn onto the runway, throwing everyone to the right as if in a car taking a corner at speed, and then, once we bounced aloft, it seemed to me that we climbed at a much steeper angle than usual. Once we gained some altitude, we spent almost a full minute making a tight turn to the south, banked at least 25 degrees from horizontal the whole time. This was a little unnerving at first, but, since I had time to get used to it, I found myself enjoying the view (I was on the downward tilting side).

Once we were at a cruising altitude, with no more ground to look at, I cracked open my new Cormac McCarthy book, No Country for Old Men. I’d started this on Monday night and had found it such fast going that I had to put it aside through force of will to make sure I’d have a good portion left for the flight. One of the reviewers’ glosses on the back calls it “McCarthy’s most accessible book,” and this seems accurate. I haven’t read everything by the guy, but – for what I have read – I’ve usually needed to keep a dictionary close to hand, preferably one detailed enough to offer fifth and sixth level definitions for words, since his usage tends to rely on obscure, archaic meanings, which is sometimes enjoyable and other times feels like he’s bonking you over the head with his vocabulary. But this book is simply written and wound tight with tension and dread, and the subject seems perfect for McCarthy, a real poet of violence and the bad things men do. The book might even answer my father’s criticism of McCarthy, which is that he never seems to write about likeable characters. He’s largely right: the first three McCarthy books I read featured an incestuous relationship between the main characters (and the tastes of one of them may eventually have turned to corpses, although it’s been a while and my memory is dim on this), a drunken wastrel living on a houseboat, and a homicidal (and possibly supernatural) polymathic man wandering and killing in the American desert of the early 1800s. In No Country…, there is more likeability, although, with the end in sight, I am beginning to fear that there may not be much in the way of catharsis, since McCarthy likes to paint the world as a random place where the scales of justice might be balanced in the end but it’s just luck if they are and nothing that we mere mortals should count on. Catharsis is important to my father, who currently claims to have to force himself to keep watching the HBO series Deadwood, which he isn’t really enjoying anymore but can’t abandon until he sees some particularly vile character meet an appropriately vile end. My father, a rule-of-law man through and through, would rather see this end delivered by a man from the government with a rope, but he tells me that a knife in the belly would be acceptable, too, if that’s what it takes. This is my father’s sense of cosmic/dramatic justice speaking, of course; as a practical matter, he’s a hardcore anti-death penalty advocate dating back to the 1950s, when he joined the unsuccessful efforts to petition against the execution of Caryl Chessman.

I was so absorbed in McCarthy that I didn’t even look out the window next to me for almost the first hour and a half of the flight. When I did I found myself gazing at a dramatic snowfield of clouds, the ripples and moguls cast in relief, sidelit by the setting sun. There was a thin, flat layer of clouds with a storm head bursting through it, looking for all the world like the contents of some mad scientist’s beaker, frozen in mid-bubble. We banked and made another turn and I could see off of the edge of the flat plain of clouds, as if from an observation platform at the edge of a cliff, with yet more foamy storm heads ranged in the distance like mountain peaks.

On the ground, as we pulled into the gate, three dozen cell phones sang their various start-up songs, like a tinny little orchestra announcing our arrival, the clack of unbuckling seatbelts providing a counterpoint. Detailed updates were delivered. “Yeah, they’re letting people out, but we’re all the way at the back, so it’s going to be a while.” We are an inquisitive species, I guess: create the possibility of knowing this kind of information, and you have created the need. Air Tran has the most cramped airplanes I’ve ever flow on; in the window seat, if I had stood, I would have had had to bend almost double, so I waited and watched out the window until the aisle cleared out. A ground-crew member at the next plane over was trying to drag a fuel hose into position and was having some trouble. While I watched, he adjusted his grip on the fixture at the end of the hose and hurled the full weight of his body backward, trying to get the hose to move the last few inches needed to make the connection. The fixture tore out of the hose and he staggered backwards before dashing the fixture to the ground, obviously swearing out loud. Just the kind of professionalism you like to see as you are about to board a connecting flight. Can I please get on that guy’s plane?

In Atlanta, waiting for my connecting flight, I went into a newsstand for a bottle of water. The clerk warned me that she had no other coins but nickels, in a tone that suggested she believed I might actually decide against making my purchase. “So as long as you’re okay with a lot of nickels…” I cut her off and ask for aspirin, so she knew I meant business. I think my headache may have come from chugging that 16 ounce beer before takeoff. You see, kids, there are no shortcuts. You can face the takeoff terrrors head-on or not, but there is always a price to be paid. I’ll still take the beer, though.

[I’m typing this in our hotel room and daylight is burning, so I’ll just transcribe some unprocessed notes to get you up to the moment.]

9 p.m. – Louis Armstrong International Airport. “We’re jazzed you’re here.” Indeed, real jazz is playing over the loudspeakers, in between the recurring advisories that “the threat level is orange.” Whatever that means. Safer than red, more dangerous than green, blue and yellow. Glad we have that figured out.

Can’t find baggage carousel. Was so buried in my book I don’t recognize anyone from my flight.

Long cab ride into town. Road signs evoke Lucinda Williams lyrics (“I”m going to go to Slidell and look for my joy…”) The ominous Superdome, monument to our nation’s shame. First glimpses of the French Quarter’s narrow streets and iron balconies. Every third car seems to be police, and a gang of them loitering on the corner near the hotel. A uniformed bell hop takes our bags and puts them on a cart. Hotel seems nicer than any I’ve stayed in recently. Real glass water glasses. Waffle-knit bathrobes on hangers in the bathroom. Balcony, third floor so we can see across the rooftops and get a breeze. We order pasta delivered from Angeli’s; it comes in the little buckets Chinese food comes in. I walk down to the bar for some beers, first asking the bartender if I can take them up to the room.

“Honey, you’re in New Orleans. Put ’em in a plastic cup and you can walk right outside with them.”


Tuesday, 0835 – I am sitting in my brother’s Ford Taurus on Frisby Street, at the 33rd Street stoplight. Three helicopters hover in a tight group in the direction of downtown. This can’t be a good sign, I think. Later research suggests they might have been hovering over a rowhouse fire near Greenmount Cemetery in which 6 people died sometime between 7 and 8 a.m. Three of the dead were children. At least 13 people lived in the house, according to the Sun, including a boy in a wheelchair. One woman survived by jumping from a second-story window. Just another example of why being born poor matters, makes it less likely that you’ll live a long life. I’m terrified of being burned and can’t help but think that the children who died in this fire may have been luckier than some of the survivors, but that’s easy to say. There’s something about being alive, no matter in what condition, that tends to make you want to stay that way. Or, as Joker put it in Full Metal Jacket:

“The dead know only one thing. It is better to be alive.”

I spent the morning running my Filemaker scripts: find the matching records, save a copy, delete the unneeded records. Wash, rinse, repeat. Twelve times over. Aside from time spent entering and double-checking multi-layered search requests, I estimate that I spent a good hour or hour and a half of the morning watching a little blue progress bar creep across the screen, over and over, my computer too occupied with this task to handle anything else except its periodic automatic email checks. My computer seems to prioritize email checking over everything else, the whole machine freezing, ignoring key strokes even in other applications, waiting, almost straining as if against some sort of digital constipation, before – ah! – release: the “waterfall” new-messages sound, the bold-face message subjects stacking up in my inbox like the lumps of coal they are. (There’s hardly ever anything worth opening: 90 percent of my email consists of the same dozen or so forwards per day, sent along by multiple parties with “FYI” in the subject.)

But I eventually tamed my database and was at the point where I could move on to analysis. I was just updating my documentation (a description of which searches constituted each of the data subsets I’d been making) when Microsoft Word started doing that fun thing where it won’t let me make some change without freezing and crashing; in other words, the document had become corrupted. I recently learned the trick of saving a wonky Word document in rich text format (.rtf) instead of as a Word document (.doc), but apparently you need to do this while you can still open the document without the program instantly freezing, and I waited too long. It is such a deflating moment when you realize that a Word document you’ve been working on is now just digital trash. You come to work, proud to have licked one problem, ready – eager, even – to roll from one task to the next and get things done, only to find yourself set back by an hour or two as you retype a document from memory and rough notes. Fortunately it was a mere 14-pager, and mostly tables at that. In the early spring, I started having this problem with that 140-page policy report I’ve mentioned. That’s when I researched the .doc to .rtf conversion, which worked beautifully. I’m not sure if there is any reason to save a document as .doc at this point, come to think of it: RTF keeps your formatting, your tables, your styles (which, involving macros in the .doc format, are often the source of the problem). I shudder to think of how that could have turned out.

Ah, Microsoft. Not only do you leave our computers with gaping security holes but you don’t even work. There’s the power of the free market for you: I guess we all “want” substandard, confusing, poorly made trash on our computers. If only some other program were as universal, I’d move along in a second. Then there would be only one way Microsoft could keep me: a feature where a Microsoft engineer (preferably an important one, the one who made all the stupid decisions in developing Word) is kept tied to a chair, and, with a toolbar button, users can shock him at will. Or maybe just deliver a blow with a big boxing glove on a spring. Come to think of it, the button would need to be on my keyboard or external to the computer, so that I could use it during the long, frequent periods when I’m restarting the machine after Word “quits unexpectedly” and the whole thing freezes up.

After work I drove to Towson Town Center, a mall on the northern edge of the city. I had it in mind to pick up a new pair of jeans for the New Orleans trip. The drive was not so bad. I was expecting terrible traffic but it was moving, if heavy, and the drivers displayed no more than the default mild surliness. At the mall, I tried the Gap first, which I hope you realize takes some guts to admit. Yes, I have for the last few years usually purchased my jeans at the Gap. A few years back I discovered their “standard” fit jeans, which seemed to be just the ticket for my particular body shape, and I’ve probably bought four or five pairs. This is not to say that I always got exactly the same pair of jeans, because, even from one season to the next, the “standard” seemed to fluctuate, the cuffs widening, the “relaxed”-ness of the fit tending more or less toward bagginess, a definition of the word “standard” with which I’m not familiar. I guess they meant “standard” for the next twenty minutes. Still, on average, they did the trick. But there is no “standard” anymore. Standing in the Gap, the stench of dye and sweatshops washing over me, I couldn’t find “standard” fit (and I couldn’t locate it on their web site just now, either); the closest seemed to be “straight” (website: “easily pulls off the belt and blazer look”; despite that not infrequently being my look, it is somehow shaming to see it described on the Gap web site) but I never even made it to the fitting room to find out because the colors on offer were so hideous. I assume that some of the variations on “faded” jeans that are on offer these days are actually created with the use of faded-looking dyes; these particular pants seemed to have had the dye painted on while the jeans were crumpled up in a ball, so that the variations and gradations in the dye looked like wrinkles. Suggested tag line: “Gap straight fit, for when you want to look like you found a pair of jeans wadded in the back corner of your closet.” Disgusted, I walked out. How gullible do they think we are?

Pretty gullible, I guess. Isn’t that what the fashion industry depends on? Just look at women’s clothes, especially the extra-long, pointy shoes and those “formal” shorts that appeared sometime in the last year. I wonder if the women who wear these realize that they don’t make you look good as much as they make you look like someone who does what she’s told by strangers who make magazines – someone who’s willing to go along with anything. This is a quality some people probably find attractive, but probably not the kind of people you’d actually want to meet.

I walked down to the Macy’s and immediately saw a nice-looking pair of jeans in the Polo display, only to turn over the price tag and read “$115.” Not that gullible. On to the Levi’s section with its fine distinctions: straight fit? tapered leg or no? sit at waist, or just below? Actually, relatively few of these choices were available, they were just frustratingly implied by the label copy. I picked out a couple of pairs and headed for the dressing rooms. As I entered the hallway, a young man appeared in stocking feet to model a pair of plaid shorts for a young woman sitting in a chair near the entryway.

“Omigod!” she said. “You love them, don’t you?”

“You do, too, right?” he asked.

“They are the perfect length!” she said. “I do I love them. You are going to rock those!”

The Levi’s didn’t work out, and neither did the Calvin Kleins I tried next, and I ended up leaving empty-handed after a moping stroll through the Dockers section. A Macy’s credit card poster asked me “why not have it all?” Have what? A bunch of bizarre, low-quality crap, priced as if it were woven from threads of gold? It’s difficult to see the power of the market here, too. You can’t tell me it’s everyone’s first choice to pay out the nose for the privilege of dressing in clown clothes. Or maybe I’ve just outgrown jeans or maybe clothes shopping in general. I’m tired of never being able to find the same style of pants twice. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a tailor who knew my basic look, the silhouette that suits me, and simply fabricated my clothes accordingly. “Luigi, I need a new pair of chinos. Do you need to measure me?” “No, no, I remember your size. I’ll send a boy around with them Tuesday.”

I was all set to leave the mall when I remembered that I wanted to buy a CD. I prefer to make such purchases at Soundgarden in Fells Point, but since that store was a good half hour’s drive from the mall and I still had to pack for New Orleans, I decided to duck into the mall music store. I was too hungry to concentrate, though, and stopped first for a slice of pizza in the food court, surrounded by tween girls in flip-flops and pink skirts and also by nascent gang members showing off their shoulder tattoos and back acne in white tanktop undershirts (I’d call them “wifebeaters” except I’m wearing one right now). My belly full, I checked a directory for the location of the music store. Would it be under “electronics and entertainment”? “Specialty stores?” Nothing jumped out at me, but I’m not necessarily current on the names of chain music stores. I asked a sullen young woman marooned in the Sprint cell phone kiosk.

“This mall doesn’t have a music store,” she said. I was surprised and must have looked it. “I know, it’s retarded, isn’t it?” she commiserated.

So forget the music store, I thought. I drove south on York to Greenmount and cut over toward my house through the side streets, since you can’t turn left at 33rd. This brought me through the crowd that always takes over a portion of a street just around the corner from my house, clustered around a portable basketball hoop that someone in the end house sets up at the head of the alley, turning the street into a half court. When I remember, I try not to use that street, but last night there I was and there they were and it was like they weren’t going to get out of my way at all. As I squeezed through the barely parted crowd, there was a loud thump against the side of the car, like the sound a basketball would make, accompanied by laughter. None of the usual, if disingenuous, apologies. (Such as: “sorry for leaving our drinks on your car,” i.e., “now that you saw that I left my drink on your car, I know that I’m required by vaguely apprehended rules of etiquette to apologize, which I will do in such a grinning, ingratiating manner that my friends can tell I don’t mean it and am just manipulating you.”) Just naked mockery and disrespect. These are the moments when I can’t wait to get out of this city.

Let’s just say I was glad to be home, then, which will suggest how frustrated I immediately felt upon realizing that I had forgotten to pick up the one item on my shopping list that wasn’t at all optional, cat food. Her Highness Miss Zuzu has recently gotten into the habit of turning up her nose at her food about halfway into each bag. These are medium sized, 50-ounce bags, and I pour the food into an airtight plastic container anyway, so it’s not like it’s sitting around forever in the open air to get stale. Last time she did this, about a month ago, I switched from Purina Naturals to Purina Natural Blends (Salmon and Brown Rice Formula, which sounds good even to me) and this seemed to fix the problem. But this week neither one seems to be good enough for her anymore. The temptation is just to let her starve, but then, it’s not like she asked to live indoors and be fed little processed pellets of sawdust and slaughterhouse floor-sweepings. I walked to the Giant. In the pet food aisle, I saw that there is a yet smaller bag of cat food, the resealable 16 ouncer. On the chance that the problem is staleness (hard to believe, what with that airtight container, but maybe the food smell just evaporates after a while) I decided to go with this smaller size, and on the chance that Zuzu will not like one of them, I got three different flavors. Still Purina, but now it’s Fancy Feast (crap, it’s not “natural,” which I just remembered we switched to in case the dyes in the “unnatural” varieties were responsible for a bad run of puking we were going through; oh, well). Bag copy: “Some say cats are finicky. We believe cats simply have high expectations for each meal to be spectacular. And why shouldn’t they?” Finicky. Yeah. These are the animals that drink the drainage from a can of tuna fish, or dig in a box of their own excrement before licking their paws and rubbing it all over their bodies. Then there’s the puking. Such clean animals. Such High Standards.

Although I will say they’re lucky they don’t ever have to buy pants.


At work, my current project involves a database with about 55,000 records in it. There are several qualities in each record of interest to us; depending on which qualities a record possesses, it gets classified into one of about a dozen subsets. For various reasons, there is more than one way to perform this classification for each subset, and, for other various reasons, the process can get pretty complicated. Essentially, each subset consists of the combined results (the union) of at least three different searches or filters of the data (i.e., all the records that have these qualities and all the records that have these other qualities and all the records that have these other other qualities); these results are then imported into separate mini-databases to make it easier to analyze each subgroup. The trick is thinking of each needed search before this importing happens, especially since, with 55,000 records, steps like importing or deleting unneeded records can take 10-15 minutes at a time. I thought I had it all sewed up on Friday and made about five of the mini-databases before leaving (four hours of making a few keystrokes, pressing a button, and then waiting as the software cycles through my orders), but as I was shuffling papers and stacking manuals preparatory to walking out the door, I thought of one additional filter that each subset should include. No big deal, as it was perfectly doable, though it would mean trashing and recreating those five subsets. I came in Monday morning with this task in mind and was just rewriting my protocol document, a document that explains how each subset was created, when an additional needed filter occurred to me. This one was not so simple.

A certain string of qualities in these data can be “yes,” “no,” or “blank,” with “blank” essentially meaning “no.” My filters had all been for the purpose of isolating records that had one or two of these qualities and no others, and, sipping my coffee on Monday morning, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t allowed for the possibility of a mixture of “nos” and “blanks” in performing this isolation. Say these qualities described sports the respondents like. One of my searches for people who love only basketball would have looked for a “yes” in basketball and either all “nos” or all “blanks” in the rest of the choices. What dawned on me Monday morning was the possibility that some basketball-lovers’ records might have “nos” and blanks for the non-basketball blanks, and, for reasons probably too complicated to get into here (I can almost hear you breathing a sigh of relief), these records would be immeasurably harder to locate reliably.

So it was that, on a Monday afternoon in May, I found myself commencing a program of self-study of the “scripting,” or custom programming, capabilities of Filemaker. What I needed to figure out was how to tell the program to search for “blanks” in certain fields and change them to “nos.” This is about as basic as it gets, if you know anything about Filemaker scripts. In other words, it was not easy for me. Scripts are this weird combination of programming gibberish and elements that are almost but not quite in plain English. As you look over the commands, the solution quivers just on the far side of intuition; you get a sense of how it might work, but which gibberish goes with which step, and what order do the steps go in? Punctuation and spaces matter a great deal, too, so you can get it essentially right but for a misplaced quotation mark and spend an hour poring through the “help” screens trying to figure out the problem. I try to approach something like this scientifically, only changing one thing at a time (my independent variable) and checking the result, but remember that “checking results” with 55,000 records takes 10-15 minutes at a time.

I eventually figured it out, but doing so shot the day, and of course all of this was only so that I can get back to making my subsets, and making my subsets is just a preliminary step to being able to write up the analysis of the subsets. Incredible the “back end” work that can go into a simple, 24-page report.

I usually follow a strange route to and from work, in the sense that I purposely walk further than I have to. This is because the shortest routes would have me walking on streets that do not have high pedestrian traffic. In the evenings, I consider sticking to the crowds a good safety practice, but, morning and evening, I mainly do it just because it’s interesting to see other people, especially when you lead the isolated existence I lead currently. (Wife in Arizona, office at the end of a long hall no one walks down if they don’t have to, no social life to speak of.) So instead of walking on Calvert, I head west to St. Paul, even though I’ll eventually have to walk east again.

In addition to the people, I can check out the gardens along St. Paul. Grand Charles Village gardens are characteristic of St. Paul and Charles Street (one block west of St. Paul) but not the neighboring streets. Some of them are quite ornate. I suppose that, on plants alone, some of these gardeners must spend hundreds if not a grand or so per season. Then there’s the time investment of tending everything. I don’t let on that I’m impressed if I see one of these gardeners out at work (I don’t want them to get big heads), but I am, and it’s a beautiful walk, almost like a tunnel of greenery for brief stretches, with wildflowers and exotics offering little pools of color. On Monday, three different gardeners were out, primping, clipping, sweeping, observed by some of their neighbors who had come out to sip drinks on front stoops. One woman was bent over a planter on her front steps as I walked by; she was pouring water onto the plant from a wine bottle.

One advantage of this route is that I pass within a block of the new Barnes and Noble. I know I’m supposed to hate the fact that it’s a Barnes and Noble instead of some independent mom and pop shop, but we have one of those, Normal’s, over on 32nd, and the damn place won’t stay open a minute past six p.m., which means I can essentially never go, unless I take time off from work. Normal’s serves a much different clientele than Barnes and Noble (or “Barnes and Noble’s,” as the Baltimore pronunciation has it), and I don’t think they’re hurting, but if I ever hear of them complaining of the competition, I’ll have a simple suggestion: since, in order to buy books, people must have jobs, perhaps you should consider opening your store when people with jobs might be able to stop by. Frankly, I’d rather use the library than buy books, for the most part, but the local branch’s hours are tighter than Normal’s (though, unlike Normal’s, at least they are open one evening a week). Plus, it being a small branch, I must request what I want in advance, which isn’t always possible or convenient. (And, as a good, patriotic American like yourself, I must have convenience, above all else!)

I stopped into the Barnes and Noble on my way home. With the upcoming flight to New Orleans, I wanted to make sure I had a few new books with me. (On my last trip, to Missoula, I read four.) The problem was that I’ve been on a bit of a dry spell lately with reading. I haven’t had a book going regularly since my trip to Missoula, in fact. When I’m on a roll, reading the right stuff at the right moment, my next book will often be suggested by the current one, and I’ll roll like clockwork from one to the next. But when I let it drop off, it’s difficult picking up a new thread. Certainly the next book I wanted to read in March is far, far from interesting to me now, and besides, the ideal books for reading on airplanes and for a few minutes here and there in hotels are different animals from what I often read. That is, when traveling, you want a book that’s actually enjoyable and fun; because I’m pretentious and intellectually insecure, my more customary reading material doesn’t really qualify. I browsed the shelves and lucked out: an Ian McEwan novel, the one about the hot-air balloon accident, which I’d actually heard the author read from in Miami, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Suitable heft, enough plot to make you want to keep reading. Going in with nothing in mind, I’d been worried that I was in for an experience like when I go to the video store and spend an hour staring at the shelves, nothing appealing in the slightest. But my eye went to these titles like a dowsing rod to an aquifer and I was walking home again within minutes.

At home, I was almost afraid to look out the back window to see whether the promised bulk-trash pickup of the old water heater had occurred. I had called to request the pickup almost a month ago and was not what you would call confident that it would happen. Plus I had taken the chance of leaving the water heater in the yard, rather than dragging it into the alley. Hifalutin of me, I know. Who did I think these guys were, concierges at a fancy hotel? But the water heater was indeed gone, I saw from the kitchen window. The gate, of course, was open, but what trash man ever puts anything back the way he found it?

For dinner, for some reason, I prepared my first ever experience of Tuna Helper. I won’t be doing that again anytime soon.

Sorry if you’re dying for a Bird Camp update. A. called last night as I was dropping off to sleep, and I completely forgot to interview her. I even have questions prepared for my “About Bird Camp” page. Oh, well, no doubt I’ll get a lot out of her in New Orleans.


DSC 0006

My brother and I both had a late night on Saturday but we still managed to get down to the I-83 farmer’s market by 10:30 a.m. or so. We’d agreed a few days earlier to try to get breakfast there on Sunday and I’m glad we stuck to it. For $7 apiece we enjoyed coffee, hash browns and omelettes to order at a table next to the vendor’s stand. We were outside, the air in the shade of the overpass was cool, the crowds flowed past. So much better than brunch in a restaurant, as my brother observed. We ran into Brin, an acquaintance of mine from Living Classrooms days. She is due to give birth in three weeks and told me she is expecting twins. “At any point in the next three weeks my life will change forever, so I figured I better get down here while I still can. I may never get to the farmer’s market again.”

I still wanted to get a laptop sleeve (I had failed in this on Saturday), so we drove up to the REI in Timonium where I had seen one once before. Then we headed over to Filene’s Basement, in the same shopping center as the Target I’d visited the day before. On Saturday, I hadn’t been sure whether A. had taken our large suitcase with her when she’d left for Montana, but I’d since looked around and had been unable to find it, which meant to me that I really should try a little harder to find a good garment bag. I’ll have to get a suit and A.’s dress to New Orleans on Wednesday, and I didn’t think I had anything else big enough for the purpose. My brother suggested that Filene’s Basement might be a good place for a cheap piece of luggage.

This Filene’s Basement is on the second story of the shopping center. To get to it, we rode an escalator built onto the front of the building, essentially outdoors except protected from the elements by a sheet of heavy plastic. It was a strange sensation to be carried aloft over an American mall parking lot like this, not a view you often get.

Inside Filene’s, we poked around in the luggage section but couldn’t find any garment bags. I found myself considering buying a large suitcase when it occurred to me that I had at least one in the basement, currently storing my old Coast Guard uniforms. With that problem solved, we wandered the clothing racks for a while. Filene’s is a discount store, the kind of place that gets rid of other stores’ overstocks and slightly defective items, which means that startling bargains are often to be found. The problem is that these bargains will often be for lone pieces rather than a complete line, which in turn means that the odds are against finding your size. After messing around in the hat section for a little while, I found myself trying on sport coats. My desire to look dapper has come late in life (relatively speaking). There was a time when I never would have considered wearing a sport coat unless required by the understood unspoken rules of certain ritually formal occasions, and then only reluctantly. Coats and ties were what you were supposed to be rebelling against, I thought as a kid. (That you were supposed to be rebelling in general was always a given.) Plus dressing this way costs money, big outlays at one time, bigger than for jeans and t-shirts, anyway. I not only needed to grow up a little before I could start wearing a sportcoat, I needed to grow a bigger wallet. It’s never become a frequent thing, but I like to dress up now and then. I had it in mind that a visit to New Orleans would be the perfect setting for slouching around in a linen jacket, or a jacket made of some other kind of rough and ready material that could take some crumpling and sweat stains with dignity. Lurch through the French Quarter, tugging my lapels straight and shooting my cuffs, looking for the last detectable traces of the civilized instinct as the empire crumbles around us.

But none of the jackets I liked fit me. They were deeply discounted, but even so, they were still expensive enough that I would have wanted them to look right when buttoned, and that kind of thing. Picky, I know. On the way home, we stopped at a music store so that my brother could pick up some new drumsticks; I sat in the parking lot listening to bluegrass while he ducked into the store.

From this point on, a note of inexactness, a sense of low pressure, crept into the day. For one thing, I didn’t have that much I was trying to get to. And maybe I was emotionally hung over from my reunion on Saturday night. But the relaxed tone of the afternoon was a blessing. My last few weekends have felt intensely scheduled, with so much I felt that I needed to get to. Or maybe with the sense that I needed to figure out how much I needed to get to. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m going to hire a property manager, maybe it’s the fact of the upcoming time off in New Orleans, but somehow I feel much more stable and in control of this whole house-renting business. Of course, when I get back from New Orleans, it will incontestably be “the summer,” with just over two months to go before the move. Movers to arrange, house in Missoula to find.

Wait, why was I so relaxed on Sunday?

DSC 0012


In the Target the people come and go, not fast enough for my taste. I was eventually due in D.C. for my 15-year high school reunion and decided to run a few errands on the way. Except they weren’t on the way, because they involved visiting Target, which is at the north end of the city, putting me even further from D.C. For the New Orleans trip, I wanted to get a garment-bag-style piece of luggage and a padded sleeve for the laptop so that I can carry it in another bag, and I figured that Target would have some inexpensive versions of each.

The parking lot was packed full and streams of shoppers poured in and out of the Loch Raven Target. On my way in, I found myself stuck behind two different family or tribal groups that seemed to have spread themselves out to block the main aisle as efficiently as possible. They lumbered slowly along, necks craning, as if struck simple by the variety of things to buy and the gorgeous flourescent lighting. I bounced back and forth behind them like a pinball, scuffing my shoe in hopes that the noise might inspire one of them to step aside. (This is what I do when I’m running and I don’t want to startle someone by just whipping past them.) Finally, back near the housewares, I squeezed through.

I wasn’t sure that Target even carried luggage but eventually found a modest display of Swiss Army brand bags. No sign of padded laptop sleeves. My resolve to buy evaporated when I remembered that doing so would involve actually spending money, and also I realized I didn’t want a bright red garment bag, which was the only choice. Just what my enemies would like, I thought: providing them with a bright red flag to follow as they track me through the airport crowds. (Wait. Did I type that? Or only think it? Can they hear me?) I headed back to the front of the store, inadvertently cutting through the bra section, which is always a little discomforting. You hope that no one thinks you actually planned this route, plus I was wearing a sportcoat and sunglasses and felt like I stuck out enough.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I saw a Staples and thought that they might have laptop sleeves. “Do you need assistance finding anything?” asked a disinterested employee who sounded like he was making a strong effort not to run screaming from the store. He showed me to the relevant aisle, but there were only actual briefcases for laptops, nothing like what I was looking for. (I’d rather not carry a bag that screams “computer inside!”) Since I don’t get to Staples very often, and since I can’t usually find Pilot G2 pens in .05 tips (the only civilized size) anywhere else, I thought I’d take the opportunity to stock up. While I was standing in the pen aisle, studying the wares, a manager showed a tall, chunky, older man to the white-out display. He was just turning away when the man asked, “now, are these all the same?”

“Yes, sir,” said the manager. “Well, I mean, you’ve got a choice between buff and white.”

The man nodded. “What’s the difference between these and these?” He indicated a traditional bottle of white-out and a package of pen-style white-out applicators.

“You use those like a pen,” answered the manager, turning to to go again.

“But I guess the tip isn’t as wide so you’d have to go back and forth over it a little more,” mused the man, weighing one of each type of white-out product in his hand like the scales of justice. The manager shrugged and kept sidling further away.

“What is this?” the man asked. “Some kind of tape?”

“Yes, sir,” said the manager. “That doesn’t go on in a liquid, it comes out like a little strip of tape.”

“What do you think of it?” asked the man.

“I don’t like it,” answered the manager. He turned his back firmly on the man and walked quickly away.

I selected some pens and managed to get into the only checkout line just as the superannuated clerk was being relieved for her lunch shift. Now it was my turn to make a strong effort not to run screaming from the store as she gathered her things out of her drawer and the next clerk painstakingly signed in. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” I said yes, though it was a lie. I just didn’t want to risk having to stand around and wait some more in the event that the clerk felt “helpful” and called a manager over to discuss the problem. I was just trying to think where I could go to withdraw some cash when the clerk pointed out that the credit-card machine was waiting for my input. “Cash back”? it asked. Don’t mind if I do.

You might think that a high school reunion would be ripe fodder for something like this diary, but I just don’t know what to say about it right now. It was a strange experience, especially considering that, for the most part, I walked away from my high school on graduation day and never looked back. (This was the first reunion I attended.) I didn’t stay particularly close to any of my classmates over the years, so this was the first time I had seen most of these people since that very graduation day. The overriding experience was one of surprise: oh, yes, these are real people, not just phantoms locked away in my memory. Also, fifteen years on, they aren’t kids anymore, which I guess is a fairly obvious statement, but what I mean is that they have histories now, and children, some of them, and a little more character in their faces. They are now so much more than they once were; like me, perhaps they look back at their high school self wondering what was I thinking? Why was this or that so important back then? Why didn’t I ever talk to so and so? What was my problem ?.

The reunion consisted of a dinner-party get-together at the house of one classmate’s parents, in the Spring Valley neighborhood of D.C., behind American University. The houses in Spring Valley are on the large side, shall we say, and this was no exception. Even with 30-40 people standing around with plates and drinks, the house didn’t feel in any way crowded or as if it were approaching capacity. In fact, it felt a little empty, I found myself thinking. It would be a disconcerting place to live in. I think I’d need to throw sheets over a lot of the furniture and close off some wings, just so I wouldn’t feel like a ball bearing rattling around in a milk jug.

So there was small talk, a lot of talk about what kind of work everyone does. And what do you do? The temptation is to slag off on this kind of talk, but this is misguided. If someone doesn’t care about what he or she does, that will become pretty evident and you can just let it go. But if people I’m talking to do care about their jobs, I want to hear about them. This is who they are, after all, what they spend most of their time doing. And I want to know how the story turned out. I know what you said in sophomore English class and how you behaved at that one party, now how has the rest of it turned out so far? Do you have what you want? Are you still looking? Did everything turn out like you hoped? It’s early to make these determinations, and it can all change in a heartbeat, of course. But these people were there at what felt like the beginning of something, they were the particles and attractors that helped shape my own trajectory, whether in emulation or avoidance. They turn out to matter in surprising ways, and I was glad for the chance to reconnect.

It was a poignant experience, though, especially for a nostalgist like myself. When the party broke up I found myself driving not toward the beltway and Baltimore, but south on Wisconsin Avenue toward my old school. For some reason, though I couldn’t bear the thought of walking around on the campus (and besides, I was guessing that security has gotten pretty good there and that my nighttime presence might not have been welcome), I needed to reconnect to some physical location from those days. My head was whirling and I felt unmoored from the chronology of my life, like I was simultaneously 32 and getting ready to move to Montana, and 17 and wondering if everyone can tell how cool I think I am. I parked on a side street south of campus and walked down to a soccer field that is attached to a neighboring school, in a bowl-like depression surrounded by grand old trees. That description should make clear why this was a frequent nighttime hangout spot for my friends back then, and I felt the need to stand on this field and look up past the inky trees at the stars. I was a prickly fellow in high school, and for some reason it was important to me to reject my high school experience as soon as it was over, and it is to my loss that I was not closer with more of these people and did not stay closer with them over the years. People you once knew can become such cartoons if you have only memory to rely on; what you remember is, of course, only a billionth of what they turned out to be. This was a good reminder to receive as A. and I get ready to move far away from anyone we’ve ever known.

Speaking of reminders: as I stood on the dark soccer field, staring up the stars, a stick snapped in the woods and I remembered that I was standing in a lonely field at night in a city. I walked back to my brother’s car and headed out of town, choosing a route that took me past my parents’ old house in Silver Spring, in other words the same route I drove from school and from friends’ houses hundreds of times. The nostalgia was so intense that it was as if I were plucking at some string attached directly to my heart, and it was something of a relief to pull on to I-95 and point the car toward Baltimore. Toward the future? Toward Montana, eventually.

Toward whatever it is life has waiting for me.


DSC 0005

“To the memory of an able physician and bacteriologist, a lover of art, music and poetry, who died a martyr to the cause of science, contracting psittacosis (parrot fever) in line of duty. Erected by fellow employees of the Baltimore City Health Department, 1930.”

My great-grandfather, a medical doctor, was the director of the Baltimore City Health Department’s Bureau of Bacteriology, 1920-30. No doubt he would have preferred to stay longer, but his career and life were cut short when, at the age of 59, he was infected with parrot fever (psittacosis) while researching a cure. (His young female lab assistant suffered the same fate.) He died three months before my father was born, victim of a disease that Wikipedia claims is fatal in only one percent of cases. (Perhaps his lab work exposed him to a higher “dose” of the bacterium.)

Last fall, a friend of mine who works for BCHD forwarded me an email that was circulating in the city government. An administrator in the Department of General Services was trying to locate information on a “tablet” that had been dedicated to my great-grandfather the year he died, a memorial to his sacrifice. This was once displayed in the city’s Municipal Building but had apparently been taken down at some point. The administrator was going to try to convince the health commissioner to rehang it; at the time he sent the email, the tablet was leaning behind his office door. (Actually, amusingly enough, the term the administrator had used for “hanging” was “locating,” i.e., he said he was looking for help “locating” the thing, making me worry at first that some junkie had unbolted it and brought it in a wheelbarrow to one of the scrap yards that pay by the pound for copper pipes and the like.)

I contacted the administrator and kept tabs on his efforts, but he changed jobs after the new mayor took office. His successor, apparently not the history buff that the first guy claimed to be, sent the tablet back to BCHD’s storage cage, to be filed on a shelf next to the Ark of the Covenant and forgotten. Knowing that my father would be visiting this week, I called BCHD’s facilities department and arranged a visit.

My father and I set out a little before eight a.m. on Friday. I picked a route that took us south on Greenmount, past some of the worst blocks in this city, fire-scorched and boarded up as if in the aftermath of a military operation. Still plenty of places to buy liquor and fried food, though. More significantly, the route took us past Greenmount Cemetery, where the good doctor himself lies buried in the family plot. As we got closer to downtown, the morning rush-hour traffic became progressively more hellish. I was circling a block, looking for a parking spot, when a bus prevented me from changing lanes out of what appeared to be simple meanness. I guess driving a bus in this city wouldn’t help you cultivate your charitable side, though. And what’s that you ask? Do I always let buses change lanes in front of me? Umm… let’s just move on to the next paragraph.

The health department security guard was clearly a little confused by the nature of our visit. Who is this tie-wearing outsider demanding entrance to the facilities department? But a call determined that we were expected. The guard took us out into the parking garage and pointed out a door. I gave her a donut. (On the way down, I had stopped for a mixed dozen at Dunkin Donuts, in the shadow of the I-83 overpass, so that I would not be arriving empty-handed. They were going out of their way for me, so I thought it was the least I could do, but was this patrician of me? I worried I was acting like some rich New Yorker, tipping everyone in sight to make it easier for him to believe that he is beloved by the common man. Speaking of the common man, at Dunkin Donuts a madman was panhandling outside the entrance, and I gave him a dollar because I wanted him to love me, too. It’s easy to get cynical about the able-bodied panhandlers in this city, but the crazy ones break my heart. He was doing all right: other customers had given him at least three cups of coffee – which, is that wise?- and several bags of food. The man seemed glad for the money, though, and giggled delightedly like a child.)

The facilities staff was gracious and helpful. Perhaps it was the donuts. When I walked in, John, the director of the department, made the standard “are those for me” joke and looked surprised and pleased when I said that they were. “Just put them right here,” he said, patting a small table in his office, in a tone of voice that made me wonder if his staff was going to get any. The storage cage was in a back hallway. Someone had brought the plaque out and propped it against a box. My father was surprised, he later said, by how big it was. We snapped some pictures and my father explained a little about the history of our ancestor. My father had prepared a letter and informational packet for the health commissioner, in hopes of convincing him to rehang the thing, and John said he would deliver it himself.

And that was that. Back out through the garage, down an alley, into the car, out through the still-mounting traffic. What would the good doctor make of this city today?

DSC 0012

I write these diary entries in the mornings, sitting at the dining-room table. I would have a view out of the dining room window, but it is usually blocked with a piece of wall-board that acts as a sort of “peace line,” separating Zuzu (the cat) from a stray that likes to sit on the back steps and stare at her when she is perched on the window sill there.

DSC 0104

Zuzu would prefer it if she were the only cat in the world and cannot stand to be reminded that she is not, and so the sight of this stray sets her to yowling and hissing so horribly that, when I heard her once from another room, I at first thought that some sort of car alarm was going off outside. Hence, the wall board. My brother had moved it on Thursday, perhaps to enjoy the view himself. When I slid it back into place before leaving for the health department, Zuzu pathetically followed the edge of it as it swept across the window, peering around it for as long as she could. When it was finally all the way across again, she hissed disgustedly and jumped down to the floor.

DSC 0003

At work these days, the procedural editing I was working on earlier in the week has been suspended in favor of a data analysis project with a tighter deadline. It’s strange to find myself elbows-deep in Filemaker, doing things like trying to figure out how to define records as valid in such a way as to get the largest possible “universe” for the analysis, and so on. It can be frustrating, too, since this kind of thing is new to me and I must essentially teach it to myself. Still, there are moments of breakthrough, when the feeling of satisfaction is comparable to what you’d feel after solving a particularly difficult logic problem, or reassembling one of those maddening metal puzzles that bars sometimes have lying around. Yesterday was one of those times, which was a relief, because let’s just say the week had had its low points up till then.

Casting my mind back to what little set theory I studied in high school (I was just wondering, do I want the union or the intersection of these two groups?), my concentration was suddenly shattered by a cacophony of honking outside my office window. I knew exactly what it was. There is a funeral home a block up, and a procession was setting out. In the city, tif they are to remain together, these processions must inevitably ignore stop lights and block traffic at intersections. Some of the honking is from the cars in the procession, to what end I am not sure, while the rest is from confused drivers waiting at the cross street, unable to understand why these cars keep pouring across the intersection even though they no longer have the green light. Several years back, I was riding in a friend’s car when we encountered a similar situation. We had the green light, and this stream of cars was blocking us. Finally, the stream came to a stop for some reason, but, since they wanted to remain together, they still blocked the intersection. Having no idea what was going on, my friend tried to nose her car out through a gap between two of the cars, only to have the driver aggressively close the gap while the passengers snarled curses at us. We thought everyone had lost their minds, but we finally understood when we spotted the “Funeral” placard in the car’s windshield, the same placard that I see in the windshields of the cars proceeding past my office. My question is, why not put these placards in the side windows? It’s the cross-street traffic that needs to know it’s a funeral, not the next car in the procession. How could this not have occurred to them? Maybe I’ll walk down and suggest it.

At Dizzy’s there was some confusion over who had rights to which empty seats at the bar, and so we moved to the little table by the window. The cares of the week quickly dissolved in the first stem glasses of Stella Artois, while the muted television provided the usual surreal subtext. Nexium is the best medication to take for erosive epiglottitis, which, whatever else you can say about it, is certainly a great choice of term from a marketing standpoint. They’ve found $500 million in gold and silver coins from a 17th century shipwreck. The headline for the Larry King Show asks “Hugh Hefner: How Does He Do It?” and someone named Judy has lost 23 pounds without hardly trying. A viewer writes in to Lou Dobbs to say how “proud” she is that he speaks up for “those of us who have no voice.” And then there’s the Barbie Bandit. Why did the girl next door rob a bank?

From the table I had a good view of Mohawk Man, a middle-aged regular who first came in with said haircut two weeks ago. Before he did, there had never been anything else about his appearance to foreshadow this: he dressed in untucked denim shirts, jeans, sneakers, had a nondescript short haircut. Then suddenly he appeared with all of his head shaved except for a narrow strip down the middle. It wasn’t spiked up or even particularly well groomed. My first thought was that he had lost a bet, but, while this could still be true, it seems less likely now that I can see that he is definitely maintaining this haircut, i.e., reshaving the sides. So now I’m thinking there must be another explanation, and I’m trying not to leave my back turned to the guy for too long at a time.

These posts will have proper titles now

So that I can use numbered sections and it won’t look as if the title and ellipsis are leading into all of them. Numbered sections seem to be all the rage these days, with Sven Lindqvist taking it to an extreme that might be a little too cute for its own good, but which I found intriguing. (Read about it here.) Plus they eliminate the need for transitions. Plus they fit the way my mind works.

Is that sort of like admitting my mind isn’t working very well these days at all?

The problem with needing proper titles is having to dream them up, though. The safe thing is just to list a couple of the things that the post is about. Safe, but boring. The dangerous thing is to try for something evocative, witty. There is a decided risk of grand overstatement, of suggesting that it all means something, like an NPR radio essay. (“I learned everything I need to know about world affairs by watching my three-year-old finger painting…”) Maybe I’ll just use the day of the week.

Work is a challenge these days. I just hope it is giving me character or hair on my chest or something.

Last night, I left work slightly early so that my brother, father and I could make a six p.m. dinner reservation at Pazo, a “mediterranean” tapas restaurant on Aliceanna, down in the former dead zone between the harbor and Fell’s Point. According to the restaurant’s web site, the building is a former warehouse and machine shop dating to the 1880s, with exposed brick and massive steel joists visible below the ceiling. A mezzanine, where we sat, overlooks the main floor, and the place has a massive feeling of open space. We shared a sea bass and each ordered a couple of tapas plates, and everyone seemed well pleased, once I stopped complaining about my day, that is.

After dinner, we walked down Caroline Street to the Living Classrooms Foundation’s new Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Maritime Park, which I’d never seen close up, as they were only just starting work on it the last time I was employed by LCF. (Although I was working there at just the right point in time to get to pick up syringes and toxic waste and massive pieces of drift wood that floated into the construction site due to Hurricane Isabelle.) You probably know a little about Frederick Douglass, but Isaac Myers is more obscure. He was a free black in Baltimore during the 1800s who was trained as a ship caulker, a very important skilled trade in the days of commercial wooden ships. After encountering prejudice in the caulking trades, he and some other caulkers and investors (black and white, although LCF’s web site prefers to mention only the blacks) started their own shipyard (after emancipation, for what it’s worth). I don’t know if the little brick complex was directly associated with him or not. It’s a nice set-up, although it’s strange that they won’t let you out on their little pier. But the more strollable, non-Inner Harbor waterfront the city has, the better, in my opinion.

And a note: while it’s inspiring to look back and feel good about how far we’ve come since the days when someone like Isaac Myers could be chased out of his first job by white caulkers, last night there was a broken-down-looking black homeless man huddled on the promenade by the building bearing Myers’s name. Considering that the years immediately following the Civil War saw amazing advances for African-Americans (advances that were quickly undone a few decades later as the country entered the Jim Crow era) someone from Myers’s day might be surprised by how little we’ve really managed to fix regarding race relations since his time. Our schools are still de facto segregated, and whether or not you get an actual education still depends on accidents of birth. Back in Myers’s day, there was a rule against educating blacks, free or not, but it’s hard to argue that today’s poor, black Baltimore residents get much of an education in the city schools. Or rather, they get an education, but it’s not in reading, writing and arithmetic, it’s in how a society like ours can talk a grand game of equal opportunity with its back firmly turned on little children condemned to ignorance and squalor.

The Office. What can I say? Not much. A. reads this, and I don’t want to give anything away. I think she’ll enjoy last night’s episode, though. Although the brilliance of the writers came through in that last little 30-second clip of Ryan. As my brother put it, if Karen had gotten the job, the show would have to be over, or it would turn into a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Now, as satisfying and heart-warming as certain developments were, it’s clear that there is still plenty of fodder for the emotional horror we all tune in for.

Once again, I…

…didn’t go to the gym this morning. Running, it seems, I can manage, but there is something about a gruesomely lit gym full of people (even an hour before dawn!) that just keeps me in bed these days. This is despite the fact that – speaking of gruesome – I would at least no longer have to look at Don Imus’s face – pinched and turd like under that ill-advised cowboy hat – on the televisions along one wall of the gym, but that doesn’t turn out to be incentive enough. I guess I’ve always just hated these places. The only gym I ever enjoyed going to was on the Coast Guard base in Miami Beach. Really, it was more of a weight room, and that might be the important difference: a dim room, cluttered with weight plates and dumbbells, the standing leg-press rack looming dark and ominous like a guillotine. Actually, there are two additional and probably more important qualities that contributed to my love of this room: hardly anyone was ever in it, at least when I went in, and I was allowed to go “on the clock,” whatever that term means during a multi-year stretch best described in a t-shirt I once saw in a store in Rehobeth: “This t-shirt belongs to me but my ass belongs to Uncle Sam.”

On my patrol boat, the command allowed the crew to spend the first hour of each work day on PT (physical training). In practice, this only applied to the two-man Operations Department, since everyone else had what you might call work to do. My supervisor, Fred, the senior quartermaster (navigator, in the naval services), was a fitness freak and highly encouraged me to be one too, although he spent his hour running. I did my running in the afternoons after I got home from work; mornings, I engaged in the closest I’ve ever come to a program of grotesque physical overdevelopment (not very close, but still, it was something). There was always a certain amount of resentment against the “bridge queens,” as quartermasters were sometimes fondly referred to by the crew members who had to actually get dirt under their fingernails, and our religious use of the PT hour when everyone else was already turning wrenches or chipping rust didn’t help. Our philosophy was that no one had forced these guys to become grease monkeys or deck apes. Fred and I had had a similar take on our early, entry-level experience as seamen and had chosen our specialty carefully. Call us bridge queens if you want, we thought, but at least the bridge has air conditioning.

Every weekday afternoon that the boat was in port, I ran about 4 miles along the streets near the pastel apartment complex where the Coast Guard had assigned me to live. I was running for my life. In Miami, I was very lonely and depressed, not having found anything like the camaraderie and social network I’d had at my previous station, a much larger ship based in the much friendlier city of Seattle. That ship had had a crew of 180, but the patrol boat had only 16, and the luck of the draw was against me. I got along with everyone on the patrol boat, and I respected them all, I just never felt like calling any of them up to go out on the town when we were in home port. (Obviously, it was a different story when we made foreign port calls on various Caribbean islands.) When I started actually considering having a few drinks before work to dull the pain, I knew I needed to try something different. Exercise became something I buried myself in, as a distraction from the numbness and emptiness of the rest of my existence. My program reached its apogee on the weekend. On Saturdays, I would go to a yoga class first thing in the morning, then hit the base weight room, then go for a run. But I would leave from the base, not from my apartment, meaning that within a half mile of starting out I was on the white, white sand of Miami Beach, running past sapphire blue water and topless super models walking leopards on leashes (OK, that only happened once, but it’s true: Miami Beach is a strange, strange place – and so easy to get to from the U.S.!). By the time I was getting around to the running portion of my Saturday program, it was usually noon or one p.m., which meant that it was hot, sometimes dangerously so. I even ran on code red days, the ozone punching holes in my lungs, my brain almost boiling in 104-degree heat. I was never the only one, but there were never very many of us pushing ourselves this way. The hotter it was, the crazier I felt and the more I wanted to do it.

The other thing that saved me was reading Thank You and Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan. I didn’t exactly become a Zen Buddhist, but it was something of a revelation to see the possibility of understanding physical, menial work as a meditative activity. As I thought about it some more, I realized that the often nonsensical orders given by my supervisors, especially the executive officer, could be seen as similar to the koans offered by Zen monks to their acolytes as a way of preparing their minds for enlightenment. A koan, according to Wikipedia, is “a story, dialogue, question, or statement… containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition.” The classic example is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” As an example of the kind of orders I’m talking about, the command at one point decided that our boat was not generally clean enough, so – in addition to the end-of-day cleanups we performed – we were ordered to spend the first part of every day cleaning as well. We weren’t cleaning our berthing areas, mind you, but our work spaces, meaning that – before, say, commencing a day of sanding and painting – we had to give the area where we would be working a really good sweeping and wipe down. I don’t know what in this was available to my “intuition,” but I certainly couldn’t bring any “rational understanding” to bear on such things. But keeping the Buddhists in mind, I was sometimes able to simply relinquish my need for any of this stuff to make sense and to lose myself in the physical pleasure of using my body and watching my paint brush turn great long expanses of the superstructure gleaming white under the fierce sub-tropical sun. (See, I got dirt under my fingernails, too, sometimes.)

Yesterday’s visits from the electrician and the prospective property manager went well. The porch light is now wired to code and the smoke detector is hard-wired, with battery backup. And I’ll probably hire the manager who stopped by, although I’m going to check her references first. Working on the porch light, the electrician observed that, though the previous installation had not been done the way a professional electrician would have done it, “for amateur, they were pretty good. Definitely, they were trying to do good work here. They caulked from above, use pretty good wire. Not code, but pretty good…” He laughed and observed that there seemed to have been two different amateurs at work on the wiring in the house, “the drunk monkey” and this one, who seemed to actually know the principles and safety steps, if not the exact gauge and style of wire that will satisfy the city safety inspector. So good, work: you know who you are.

The property manager was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting unpleasant, but she turned out to know so much about this type of house and, apparently, the rental business, that I could feel myself relaxing into the prospect of having someone take care of all this stuff as she talked. Another pleasant surprise was her guess that replacing the tub liner (including replacing the drywall behind it with green board) was only going to cost about $600, a job that I – knowing nothing about this stuff – was worried would be more in the several thousand dollar range. $600 makes my rental-accounting/startup-costs spreadsheets very happy, indeed. (She also seemed to think that we had guessed exactly right about what an appropriate rent for this place might be, which is nice.)

The other thing I liked about the property manager was that she didn’t try to make a hard sell. She explained her services and then left the contract with me, saying she wanted me to review it on my own and then get back to her in a few days. This is the way to do it, of course: there is something about someone who doesn’t seem desperate for your business that makes you want to give it to them. Of course, any good scam artist knows this, too, but I see this company’s signs all over the city now that I know the name, and, as I said, I’m going to be calling a few of her references before taking any further steps. I’d say that all indications point to “yes,” so far.

In the evening, my father and I were sitting around in the living room when A. called. I went upstairs to take the call. She was at the Rim and in a hurry to get back to camp, so we didn’t get a chance to talk long. I expect we’ll talk some more in the next couple of days, so I’ll gather up the details and do a Bird Camp dispatch later, but basically she has been really busy lately. The professor who runs the Bird Camp research project is visiting the camp, which means A. has to take the opportunity to get trained by him on some tasks that she hasn’t otherwise learned yet, in addition to attending evening meetings/classes he gives, in addition to planning schedules and constantly driving back and forth to Flagstaff on various errands. She says she doesn’t get a minute to herself until she lies down in her tent each night, and lord only knows what time that is. So, as easy as it is to fantasize about doing her job while I’m stuck behind my computer at work, it’s hard work and certainly no vacation in the woods. That said, she and I do fantasize, somewhat more realistically, about my joining the seasonal staff at Bird Camp next summer to take on the errand-driving job/managing the vehicles (they constantly need new tires and little repairs to the undercarriage) and a few other minor tasks, which I would love to do, and, in addition to the company, I think A. also likes the idea of my hanging around camp in a grease-stained t-shirt. I’d love to do it this season, right now, honestly, but we can’t afford the pay cut until someone else is paying the mortgage on this house.

I was upstairs on the phone with A. when my father shouted up to me that Kirk, the lawn guy, was at the door. Kirk recently realized that this house has cuttable grass in back as well as the front, and a few days back I gave him the go-ahead to cut that, too. He did it while I wasn’t at home and has been stopping by for a few nights in a row to collect his fee, but I haven’t yet been home when he has knocked and my father has had to tell him to come back later. I got off the phone with A. and came down to find Kirk swaying drunkenly on the door step in the dusk. What with his 25 percent increase over last year’s fee for the front yard (from $4 to $5), and the $3 he is apparently going to be charging for the back, this lawn care stuff is suddenly becoming a noticeable little chunk of change. It remains to be seen how often he’s going to be pestering me to do this work, now that I’m probably one of his better revenue streams on this block (having one of the only back yards, for one thing), but this is the kind of thing I was originally worried about and which inspired me to turn him away when we first moved in. I respect the guy’s work and the fact that he’s trying to make an honest go of it, but I don’t want to be his ATM every time he feels like buying a pint of rotgut. We’ll see how it goes.

And so will you.

I work for…


…the kind of guy who asks permission to take his blazer off in a hot, air-conditioned room full of people whose own dress ranges from suits (a very few) to the haphazard, semi-casual (but what does casual even mean anymore) standard modern work attire of people who are not required to wear, well, suits. He also knows a lot about typefaces and how to correctly deploy footnote abbreviations like “cf.” Those of you who know me well can immediately see how weirdly appropriate it is that I fell into working for someone like this…

But that’s about all I’m going to say, kids. That’s how it’s done on the internets. When writing about your job on a web site that is the second result in a Google search for your name, you want to walk up to the edge, maybe look over to see what’s down there, and then just turn away. But god the work can mount up sometimes, in a job like mine. A week that seemed manageable on Monday can turn into what feels like overload late on a Tuesday afternoon, with an evening meeting that will run until 10 p.m., new proposals to write, clients who sometimes seem to be trying to make it difficult to do the job they’ve hired the company for, and your wife off gallivanting around the wilds of Arizona. A.’s job is just a job, too, of course. I’m sure it has its frustrations and moments of overload. But in the view from my desk it looks damn appealing.

On two different occasions in the last week, the woman who is always working the counter at Sam’s Bagels has covered me when I’ve been short on cash. They only take cash, in one of those business decisions that probably looks like a good idea when the proprietor is considering only the cost of processing the transactions, but I wonder if he or she realizes how many people carry no cash these days. With other semi-comparable take-out places only a block away, I wonder how many people sort of want a bagel but not enough to go to a cash machine first. Anyway, yesterday I was running late and decided to get a bagel on my way in. After the woman rang me up, I told her to keep an additional three dollars of the change from the twenty I handed her, in an effort to settle up my unofficial tab. It was at first difficult to get my meaning across, as she speaks mainly bagel-ordering English. I’m not going to try to guess if she is Korean or Chinese, though I do think it’s one of those. She and a man her age – so maybe her husband, but let’s stick to what we know are facts – seem to run the shop (he is always in the back room, I guess making the bagels but maybe smoking opium, you never know), and younger woman about the right age to be their daughter is often to be found filling the orders. When the older woman finally grasped my meaning, she smiled a huge smile and turned to the younger woman, saying something relatively lengthy in her native tongue. (Or some tongue. Certainly not mine, at any rate.) The older woman acted impressed by my action, although the younger woman didn’t seem to care. What do you want from her? She had bagels to toast.

I waited at the counter by the window as they made my egg sandwich. Suddenly the older woman appeared at my elbow with my bag. Peeking from the top was a bag of Utz potato chips that I hadn’t ordered. (Obviously. Remember, this was breakfast time.) Couldn’t have cost her much but it was a nice touch. Come to think of it, they are often pushing free items on me, but usually to get me to sample some item off of the ethnic/lunch side of the menu. One time it was a small bowl of some kind of spicy soup brought out as a sort of appetizer while I waited for my eat-in breakfast order one weekend. On another Sunday, it was a small plate of some kind of shredded and very spicy meat. Very good stuff, although I’ve never been back for anything but a bagel. Maybe I should give the rest of the menu a try sometime.

Yes, so then: work. Enough said about that. Except my day also involved meeting with a computer programmer. That can be surreal. But I’m sworn to secrecy. By myself.

As I type this, my brother and my father are off at one of his appointments in Silver Spring. This will no doubt be a low point in his week, but there will be some better times on Friday, I hope. Last fall, through random chance, I happened to learn that a Baltimore city employee was looking for information about a brass tablet commemorating my great-grandfather, a Baltimore City Health Department public-health doctor who was infected and died in 1930 while investigating a parrot fever outbreak, of all things. The department dedicated this tablet soon after his death, and presumably it hung in some place of honor for a while. The email I received about the tablet was forwarded from a friend of mine who works at BCHD; apparently a general services administrator who had come into possession of the tablet (when I called, he told me it was in his office, behind his door) was actually trying to convince the health department to rehang the thing and was looking for information to support his case. My father, a family history enthusiast (to put it mildly – he’s more like a family history public relations spokesperson), supplied some photocopies from his extensive collection of newspaper clippings and relevant books. But the administrator changed departments, perhaps related to the new mayor taking office in the meantime, and I learned last Friday that the tablet now resides in the storage “cage” in the BCHD facilities department. I spoke to a very helpful and friendly woman in that department named Gwen, though, and she says it’s no problem for us to come take a look at the thing. We’re planning to go early Friday morning (early morning is when “the guys” are around the cage and will be able to carry it out for us, said Gwen). There will be pictures. For the heck of it, we’ll also bring a letter to the commissioner suggesting that he rehang this thing. It’s easy to imagine how this could end up being the opposite of a priority for him, but we’ll see. I’ll have done my part for good old great-granddad, at least.

Now I have to get the house ready for part three of the thrilling serial Electrician, Take All of My Money, Please, with a cameo appearance by a potential property manager who is stopping by to see if this is the kind of house her company cares to get involved with.

Details, of course, to follow, and maybe a Bird Camp dispatch soon.

DSC 0020

Oh, and I went running this morning. Go me.